Dambuster of the Day No. 15: Harold Martin

Martin AWM UK0235

Pic: Australian War Memorial

Flt Lt H B Martin DFC
Pilot
Lancaster serial number: ED909/G
Call sign: AJ-P
First wave. Third aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Mine veered left after dropping and exploded at side of dam.

Harold Brownlow Martin was universally known throughout his long RAF career by his nickname ‘Mick’. He was born in the Sydney suburb of Edgecliff, Australia on 27 February 1918, the son of Dr Joseph Martin and his wife Colina. He went to Randwick High School, Sydney Grammar School and Lyndfield College. Before the war, Martin seemed destined for the medical profession like his father. In 1939 he had accepted a place at a medical school in Edinburgh, but shortly after he arrived in Britain his intentions were overtaken by the outbreak of war. He first joined the Australian army, but then in 1940, he transferred to the RAF, and began pilot training. He qualified as a pilot in June 1941, and his first operational posting came in October, when he was sent to 455 (Australia) Squadron, an RAAF outfit flying Hampdens. Two of his regular crew came to include fellow Australians Jack Leggo as navigator and Toby Foxlee as wireless operator/gunner.

On 18 February 1942, another Australian gunner, Tom Simpson, arrived on the squadron and was immediately assimilated into the crew. They flew on a trip to Cologne that night, thereby becoming the first all-Australian crew to fly on operations over Germany. When Simpson reported for duty to the gunnery section the following day, the officer in charge said that he would get him crewed up. Simpson replied:

‘I am crewed up. I flew last night.’ He looked at me in quite blank amazement and said ‘Well, who did you fly with? I wasn’t told anything about it.’
I said: ‘I flew with a Pilot Officer who told me his name was Martin … a Sergeant Foxlee told me that I was in his crew.’ The Flight Lieutenant then said ‘Well, there’s not much hope for you if that’s the case because Martin is as mad as a grasshopper; he likes flying his own style.’(Tom Simpson, Lower than Low, Libra Books, 1995, p40.

The crew went on a further dozen operations together until, in April 1942, 455 Squadron were transferred to Coastal Command. Martin, Leggo, Foxlee and Simpson then moved to 50 Squadron in order to continue their tour in Bomber Command. 50 Squadron was flying Manchesters at the time, but was in the process of moving over to the more powerful Lancasters. Three more Australians (Plt Off Burton, Sgt Paton and Sgt Smith) joined the Martin crew on their first 50 Squadron sortie, the Thousand Bomber raid which attacked Cologne on 30 May 1942. They thereby became the first ever all-Australian crew to fly a Manchester operationally.

By October 1942, Martin had completed his tour, with thirty-six operations, and was awarded the DFC. He had acquired a reputation both as a low flying specialist but also as someone who prepared meticulously for an operation, personally polishing the Perspex on his cockpit canopy, since a smear could easily obscure an approaching fighter. He demanded the same high standards from those who flew with him. According to Max Hastings, he and his crew ‘achieved an almost telepathic mutual understanding and instinct for danger.’ (Bomber Command, 1979, p165.)

It must have been at the investiture ceremony for this DFC that Martin first met Guy Gibson. It is recorded that it was there that they had a conversation about low flying methods. A few months later, Martin was just coming to the end of a spell as an instructor in 1654 Conversion Unit at Wigsley. Gibson recalled the earlier conversation and was quick to recruit him for the new project.

Martin set about bringing back together a crew mainly based on old 50 Squadron comrades, with a New Zealander from 75 Squadron, Len Chambers, as wireless operator. He also seems to have been instrumental in bringing in other men to the new squadron, often other comrades from 50 Squadron.

On the Dams Raid, Martin lined up to attack the Möhne Dam just minutes after disaster had overtaken Hopgood. Gibson joined his attack, flying slightly ahead on his starboard side. This tactic seemed to distract the dam’s gunners and Martin was able to drop his mine correctly. However, something must have gone wrong as the mine veered off to the left and exploded some 20 yards short. Later, as both Young and Maltby attacked, Martin joined Gibson in diversionary tactics, putting himself at further risk. Luckily, although one of his fuel tanks was damaged it had already been emptied, and he was able to fly back to Scampton when the Möhne was breached.

After the Dams Raid, Martin was a key figure in many of the celebrations and at the investiture in London, where he received the DSO. The Australian press and broadcasters were very keen to have pictures of their boys shown back at home, and with his distinctive moustache Martin was often recognised.

In September 1943, Martin was acting CO of 617 Squadron in the unhappy circumstances following the catastrophic attack on the Dortmund Ems canal when six pilots and most of their crews were lost in two days. Strangely, this was the only period during the war when he took command of a squadron.

Later, when Leonard Cheshire arrived, Martin participated in attacks on targets in France, Italy and Germany. In February 1944, during an abortive attack on the Antheor Viaduct in the French Riviera, Martin’s Lancaster was hit by ground fire, killing the bomb aimer Bob Hay, and causing Martin to force land his crippled aircraft in Sardinia. This was Martin’s forty-ninth (and last) heavy bomber operation. However he flew another thirty-four operations in Mosquitos in 515 Squadron.

Martin stayed on in the RAF after the war, and had a distinguished career. He broke the speed record for flying from England to Cape Town in a Mosquito, and then went on to a succession of staff jobs including being an ADC to the Queen, C-in-C RAF Germany and the Air Member for Personnel. He was knighted and rose to the rank of Air Marshal before retiring in 1974. Martin was described by Ralph Cochrane as being the greatest pilot the RAF produced during the war. (Paul Brickhill, The Dam Busters, Evans 1951, p163.) There would be few who would dispute this view.

Martin married his wife Wendy Lawrence in 1944, and they had two daughters. He died in London on 3 November 1988 after complications following a road accident. He is buried in Gunnersbury Cemetery in London.

More about Martin online:
Entry on Wikipedia
Entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Survived war. Died 3 November 1988.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources: Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Chris Ward, Andy Lee, Andreas Wachtel, Dambusters: Definitive History, Red Kite 2003

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Mick Martin and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

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Dambuster of the Day No. 14: Anthony Burcher

Tony Burcher

Plt Off A F Burcher DFM
Rear gunner
Lancaster serial number: ED925/G
Call sign: AJ-M
First wave. Second aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Aircraft hit by flak. Mine dropped late and bounced over dam. Aircraft crashed on far side of dam

Anthony Fisher Burcher was born in Vaucluse in Sydney, Australia on 15 March 1922, the fifth of the twelve children of Harvey and Estelle Burcher. He worked as a wool sorter before volunteering for the RAAF. He arrived in England in September 1941 and after further training was posted to 106 Squadron. His first operation was the Thousand Bomber raid on 1 June 1942 when he attacked Essen in the crew of Wrt Off Peter Merrals. He went on to join Sgt James Cassels’s crew where he completed a full tour in November.

Burcher was a complicated character and although he was at one point put onto a ‘dry’ stint by his CO Guy Gibson for scrapping in the mess, Gibson obviously respected his gunnery skills as he was then transferred to the Gunnery Leaders Course at Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, with a commission. He also received the DFM for his tour of operations, with the citation particularly noting his part in a skirmish on a trip to Saarbrucken when five enemy fighters were attacked and driven off.

After completing the Gunnery Leaders Course, Burcher was sent to 1654 Conversion Unit at Wigsley as an instructor. One of the pilots there was Mick Martin and according to Burcher’s account when Gibson telephoned Martin to ask him to join the new squadron he was told to bring Burcher along as well. As he knew Hopgood from 106 Squadron, he was placed in his crew.

On the Dams Raid itself, Burcher, in the rear turret, could only hear what was going on in the front of the aircraft via the intercom. It would seem that when AJ-M was hit by flak some twenty minutes before the dam was reached, Burcher received superficial wounds to the leg and stomach.

When Hopgood gave the order to bale out after the aircraft was hit again on the final attack, the wounded John Minchin managed to drag himself towards the rear escape hatch, with one leg almost severed. Burcher pushed his colleague out of the hatch first, pulling his parachute ripcord as he did so, and then followed him. Sadly, Minchin did not survive the drop, but Burcher did and he and John Fraser, who had escaped from the front of the aircraft, were captured separately and taken prisoner.

On release from PoW camp in 1945, Burcher married Joan Barnes, a WAAF who had also served in 106 Squadron. They moved to Australia where Burcher continued service with the RAAF, and they had two daughters. At some point in the late 1940s his conduct became unsatisfactory and he suffered a number of health problems. His superiors speculated that some of this behaviour might have been caused by the effects of his wartime experiences. He was transferred to RAAF Overseas Headquarters in London in 1950, and was eventually discharged there in 1952, at the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He was repatriated to Australia at his own expense later that year.

He eventually returned to the UK and worked in various businesses. In 1961 he was found guilty of being involved in a criminal fraud case, and was given a prison sentence. He then returned to Australia, and died in Hobart, Tasmania, on 9 August 1995.

More about Burcher online:
Burcher’s account of AJ-M’s final flight (scroll down)

Survived war. Died 9 August 1995.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources: Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Tony Burcher and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dambuster of the Day No. 13: George Gregory

Gregory photo

Plt Off G H F G Gregory DFM
Front gunner
Lancaster serial number: ED925/G
Call sign: AJ-M
First wave. Second aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Aircraft hit by flak. Mine dropped late and bounced over dam. Aircraft crashed on far side of dam.

George Henry Ford Goodwin Gregory was born in Govan, Glasgow on 24 June 1917, one of the seven children of Edwin and Agnes Gregory. He worked as a printer before joining the RAF at the outset of the war. He had completed a full tour of operations as a gunner in 44 Squadron by the autumn of 1942, and received the DFM. He then moved on to a training unit and was commissioned. He went back onto operations in March 1943, and was posted to 617 Squadron where he joined John Hopgood’s crew.

Gregory was married, but his wife Margaret had remained in Scotland. In the run up to the Dams Raid he was living at RAF Scampton, and sharing quarters with squadron adjutant Harry Humphries.In his memoirs, Humphries recalled the night before the raid:

Old Greg was a tough proposition, tall, handsome and like most Scots, very independent. If he liked you, all well and good, If he disliked you, well at least you knew… [His] wife had been in Lincoln a few days previously and I really think he needed her in his strung up state. He did not know what he wanted to do. First he wanted to go out in his car and find a drink, then he wanted to play snooker, and then he would talk about bed… I said ‘Come on old lad, let’s go for a walk around the mess. It’s getting damned hot in here.’ … Just as we were leaving the anteroom John Hopgood, Gregory’s pilot, spotted us and aimed an almost playful kick at his rear gunner’s backside, which I am sure would have crippled him if it had landed. When I eventually separated them, with Greg, needless to say, on top by sheer brute force, Hopgood or ‘Hoppy’ as we knew him, dragged himself painfully to his feet. ‘Just as I said,’ he complained loudly, ‘air gunners are all bloody brawn and no brains.’

They then walked back to their quarters, and had a cup of tea with their batman in his kitchen.

Greg was the first to move. ‘I think I will go to bed,’ he said, ‘may be working tomorrow.’ With that he had gone and little did I know that for Greg it was probably his last cup of tea in that kitchen. In fact it was his last night on earth. (Harry Humphries, Living with Heroes, 2003, pp. 1-3)

From Tony Burcher’s account, we now know that it is likely that Gregory was severely wounded some twenty minutes before Hopgood’s aircraft reached the Möhne Dam, as he wasn’t answering his intercom. In the same flak attack Hopgood, Minchin and Brennan himself were also wounded. However they pressed on, the mine was dropped, and moments afterwards Hopgood told the crew to bale out. According to John Fraser’s post-war debriefing after his release from PoW camp, it would seem that Gregory attempted to get back to the rest area to retrieve his parachute but never escaped.

Hopgood, Brennan, Earnshaw, Minchin and Gregory are buried together in Rheinberg War Cemetery, Germany.

More about Gregory online:
Commonwealth War Graves Commission listing

KIA 17 May 1943
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources: Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about George Gregory and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dambuster of the Day No. 12: John Fraser

p_fraser1

Pic: Bomber Command Museum of Canada

Flt Sgt J W Fraser
Bomb aimer
Lancaster serial number: ED925/G
Call sign: AJ-M
First wave. Second aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Aircraft hit by flak. Mine dropped late and bounced over dam. Aircraft crashed on far side of dam.

John William Fraser was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada on 22 September 1922 and joined the RCAF soon after the war started. After qualifying as a bomb aimer he arrived in England in April 1942, and shortly after was posted to 50 Squadron. There he flew a full tour of thirty operations, mostly with Canadian pilot Norman Schofield, whose crew also included two more people who would become Dambusters: another Canadian, the navigator Ken Earnshaw, and gunner Brian Jagger.

By mid April 1943, Fraser and Earnshaw were both scheduled to go to a training unit for the normal inter-tour rest period. However a call came from the new 617 Squadron being set up at Scampton. Pilot John Hopgood needed an experienced navigator and bomb aimer. His first navigator had fallen ill and his bomb aimer had not come up to scratch. Earnshaw and Fraser were recommended, and arrived at Scampton at the end of April, some time after training for the Dams Raid had begun. However, as Fraser had already arranged his wedding for 29 April, he was given special permission to have a day off.

On the Dams Raid itself, Hopgood’s aircraft AJ-M was hit by flak well before they reached the Möhne Dam. One engine was damaged, Hopgood himself was wounded, as was George Gregory in the front turret.

Fraser released the mine and it bounced over the dam, blowing up the power station on the other side. But his Lancaster was doomed.

After the war he wrote: ‘We flew on and the pilot gave the order to abandon the aircraft within about 25 seconds after we passed over the dam. I knelt facing forward over the escape hatch and I saw that the trees looked awful close. I thought there was only one thing to do and that was to pull the rip cord and let the pilot chute go out first and then let it pull the chute out and me after it, and that’s what I did.’

He landed almost a mile away from where the aircraft crashed, but was soon captured by the Germans. After interrogation, where he was forced to give some details of the mission, he was sent to a PoW camp.
Released at the end of the war, he saw his wife Doris again in May 1945 for the first time since the day after their wedding. They made their home in Canada. Fraser never forgot the sacrifice made by John Hopgood which saved the lives of two of his crew. The names of all of his children were chosen as a tribute to Hopgood and 617 Squadron. His first son has the given names John Hopgood; his daughter was called Shere, after Hopgood’s home village; and his second son was called Guy, after the squadron CO.

Fraser worked in the forestry service, and fulfilled his lifetime ambition to qualify as a pilot. Unfortunately, he was killed in a flying accident, at Saltery Bay in British Columbia on 2 June 1962.

More about Fraser online:
Articles at Bomber Command Museum of Canada 1 2

Survived war. Died 2 June 1962.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.

Sources: Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about John Fraser and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dambuster of the Day No. 11: John Minchin

MINCHIN (Custom)

Press cutting about John Minchin from unnamed newspaper. [49 Sqn Association]

Sgt J W Minchin
Wireless operator
Lancaster serial number: ED925/G
Call sign: AJ-M
First wave. Second aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Aircraft hit by flak. Mine dropped late and bounced over dam. Aircraft crashed on far side of dam.

John William Minchin was born on 29 November 1915 in the picturesque Gloucestershire village of Bourton-on-the-Water (‘The Venice of the Cotswolds’). He was the third of the six sons of Bertram and Eliza Minchin. His father was a baker. He joined the RAF soon after the onset of war, and after training as a wireless operator/air gunner was posted to 49 Squadron at Scampton in October 1941.

He married Jessie Irving in London on 28 May 1942 but only got three days honeymoon before being recalled to his base to take part in the first Thousand Bomber raid.

In August 1942, he completed a full tour in both Hampdens and Manchesters, and was posted to a training unit. From there he went straight to join John Hopgood’s crew in the new 617 Squadron. What happened to Minchin on the Dams Raid is told in an online extract from John Ward’s book Beware A Dog at War on the 49 Squadron Association website:

Minchin was badly wounded in the leg when M-Mother was hit by flak en-route to the Möhne Dam. Sgt Minchin sat for almost an hour at his radio set nursing this terrible injury before the target was reached.
M-Mother, the second aircraft to attack, was severely hit by ack-ack on the run-in and set on fire. The bomb was released but hit the parapet wall and exploded. F/Lt Hopgood struggled valiantly to keep his blazing aircraft airborne in order for the crew to bale out.
Tony Burcher evacuated his rear turret and made for the crew door. There he was confronted by the pained face of John Minchin, who had dragged himself the length of the fuselage, his leg almost severed.
All Burcher could do to help his comrade was to clip on Minchin’s parachute and push him out into the darkness, pulling his D-ring in the process. The Lancaster crashed 3 miles to the north-west of the dam and exploded in flames.

The aircraft crashed in a field near Ostönnen. Hopgood, Brennan, Earnshaw and Gregory’s bodies were found in the wreckage. Minchin’s body was found about 2km from the crash site.

Tragically, just six weeks after the Dams Raid on 27 June 1943, the family lost another son, Ronald Buckland Minchin, aged 23, who served with 295 Squadron. Both are commemorated on the Bourton-on-the-Water War Memorial.

The Minchins were one of the three families who lost a son who took part in the Dams Raid and another son serving elsewhere in Bomber Command during the war.

Hopgood, Brennan, Earnshaw, Minchin and Gregory are buried together in Rheinberg War Cemetery, Germany.

More about Minchin online:
49 Squadron Association article
Bourton-on-the-Water memorial
Commonwealth War Graves Commission listing

KIA 17 May 1943
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.

Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Research by Andy Bailey
The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about John Minchin and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dambuster of the Day No. 10: Kenneth Earnshaw

50 sqn Schofield crew

Ken Earnshaw, back row, third from left, in his 50 Squadron crew.
Back, L-R: W Mooney, J W Fraser, K Earnshaw, N L Schofield, B Jagger.
Front, L-R: J O Christie, R A Baker.

Flg Off K Earnshaw
Navigator
Lancaster serial number: ED925/G
Call sign: AJ-M

First wave. Second aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Aircraft hit by flak. Mine dropped late and bounced over dam. Aircraft crashed on far side of dam.

Kenneth Earnshaw was born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, on 23 June 1918, the son of Joseph and Janet Earnshaw. His family emigrated to Canada a year later and took up farming in rural Alberta. He was educated at Camrose High School. He qualified as a teacher at Alberta Normal School in Edmonton, and then taught at Whitebush School in Bashaw, Alberta, before leaving to enlist in the RCAF. He married Mary Heather in November 1941, and they lived in Bashaw.

After training in Canada, at the end of which he was commissioned, he travelled over to England, and was posted to 50 Squadron in November 1942. He was part of a Lancaster crew which flew with pilot Norman Schofield; the crew’s bomb aimer, fellow Canadian John Fraser, became a close friend. Together they flew on 30 operations in under six months. Gunner Brian Jagger, who would fly on the Dams Raid with David Shannon in AJ-L, was also in this crew.

By mid April 1943, they were scheduled to go to a training unit for the normal inter-tour rest period. However both Earnshaw and Fraser were recommended when a call came from the new 617 Squadron being set up at Scampton. Pilot John Hopgood needed two new crew members. His first navigator had fallen ill and his bomb aimer had not come up to scratch. Earnshaw and Fraser were recommended and arrived at Scampton at the end of April, some time after training for the Dams Raid had begun.

As navigator, Ken Earnshaw sat immediately behind John Hopgood and Charles Brennan in the cockpit. He must have seen the trouble Hopgood was in, hit by flak before they even reached the Möhne Dam. He had little chance of reaching the escape hatch when Hopgood ordered the crew to bale out, and he died when AJ-M crashed in a field near Ostönnen, 6km from the dam. Hopgood, Brennan, Earnshaw and Gregory’s bodies were found in the wreckage.

Kenneth Earnshaw is buried in Rheinberg War Cemetery.

More about Earnshaw online:
Canadian Virtual War Memorial entry
Bomber Command Museum of Canada article
Commonwealth War Graves Commission listing

KIA 17 May 1943
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.

Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Ken Earnshaw and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Script issues still holding up Dambusters remake

Rivers LOR

Maybe it’s a mark of how far this subject has dropped off the radar, but I have only just caught up with a four-month-old snippet of news from Down Under. New Zealand Herald film critic Dominic Corry met Christian Rivers at the premiere of The Hobbit last December (yes really!), and asked him what was the situation with the remake of everyone’s favourite 1955 war film.

In 2008, it was announced that Jackson would produce a remake of 1955 World War II classic The Dam Busters, which was to be directed by Weta staple Christian Rivers (who won a special effects Oscar for his work on King Kong). The project seemed a natural fit for a war plane-obsessed ‘wingnut’ like Peter Jackson, but nothing has come to pass as yet, despite a bunch of replica planes having apparently already been built for the project.

I spoke to Rivers briefly on the red carpet at the Wellington premiere of The Hobbit, and he told me they are still planning to make the film but that it’s on hold at the moment due to script issues. I hope it happens eventually – there’s such a wealth of creativity at Weta, it seems crazy that we haven’t seen a film come out of that talent pool yet.

‘Script issues’ eh? To me, the problem is time. Jackson and his cohorts are getting a whole lot of moolah for spinning out The Hobbit over three films. Then there’s the small matter of a sequel to Tintin, and various other fantasy film projects. A remake of The Dam Busters, however much it might appeal to readers of this blog and a few million other war film buffs, would never make as much money as these high profile movies. That’s the way the economics of the film industry works.
On the other hand, we can’t discount the fact that Jackson is a self-confessed aero nut, and is probably still personally committed to the project. And so is Christian Rivers, despite the rumour a year or so ago that he was off doing something else.
Jackson’s involvement in the Dambusters remake was originally announced in 2006. Will we see it completed by the tenth anniversary of this historic day? I wouldn’t bet on it.

[Hat tip: Wings over New Zealand Forum.]