Dambuster of the Day No. 65: Leslie Whillis

Whillis © PH lores

[Pic: P Humphries]

Plt Off S L Whillis
Flight engineer

Lancaster serial number: ED927/G

Call sign: AJ-E

Second wave. Crashed on outward flight.

Samuel Leslie Whillis, known as Leslie to his family, was born in Newcastle on Tyne in 1912, the second son of Charles and Edith Whillis. He worked as a commercial traveller before joining the RAF shortly after the outbreak of war, and served as ground crew until 1942. He then he took the opportunity to train as a flight engineer at the No 4 School of Technical Training at St Athans in Wales. Having qualified, he was then posted to 16 OTU, where it would seem that he first came across both Norman Barlow and Alan Gillespie. The three moved on to 1654 Conversion Flight, and then in September 1942 to 61 Squadron. All three flew their first operation over the Alps to Turin in Italy on 20 November 1942.

In January 1943, Whillis missed a few operations – perhaps because of illness – so by the time Barlow was at the end of his tour, he had only completed 22 operations. When he was offered the chance to move to a new squadron with Barlow, he must have thought that it was a good opportunity to complete his tour with a pilot with whom he had worked well.

Two days before the raid, both Whillis and Gillespie received commissions, backdated to April 1943. At this stage of the war, commissioned flight engineers were rare, so Whillis had obviously impressed his superiors.

Leslie Whillis married Gladys Cooper in Newcastle in 1941. His wife Gladys kept his medals, the letter from Gibson concerning his loss and various other mementoes. They were later sold at auction and are now on display in the Bygones gallery in Torquay.

Not much more than two hours after take off, Whillis and the rest of his ex-61 Squadron comrades crossed the Rhine, and then hit a pylon and crashed, killing all on board. Their bodies were taken to Dusseldorf North Cemetery, and reburied after the war in Reichswald Commonwealth War Cemetery.

Whillis’s wife Gladys kept his medals, the letter from Gibson concerning his loss and various other mementoes. They were later sold at auction and are now on display in the Bygones gallery in Torquay.

Whillis Bygones

[Pic: Bygones]

More about Whillis online:
Entry at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Entry at Aircrew Remembered website
Auction of Whillis medals, 2000

KIA 16.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Eric Fry, An Airman Far Away, Kangaroo Press 1993

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, 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 Leslie Whillis 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.

Two Lancasters on show in UK this summer as Canada sends plane


Lancaster fans in Britain are in for a treat this summer as the Canadian ‘Mynarski’ Lancaster heads over to the UK in August. The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario revealed today that it plans to fly its vintage Avro Lancaster to England in August. Together with the Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster, it will be involved in a month-long flying tour in the UK before returning home in September.
The Lancaster is scheduled to leave Canada on 4 August. The five-day transatlantic trip to England is being done in four to five-hour hops, with refuelling and rest stops in Goose Bay, Labrador; Narsarsuaq, Greenland; and Keflavik, Iceland. It will land in Coningsby, home of the BBMF, on 8 August and start a schedule of display flights in the UK on 14 August, flying out of Humberside Airport. According to the Canadian broadcaster, CBC:

The last time Lancasters flew together was 50 years ago over Toronto, at RCAF Station Downsview. The RCAF flew a special formation of three of the bombers in April 1964 to mark their retirement from service. The sight of two Lancasters flying in formation once more is a “once in a lifetime opportunity, something that will never happen again,” said Al Mickeloff, spokesman for the museum in Hamilton, which owns the Canadian Lancaster. “We don’t expect to ever do another trip like this.”
Hamilton’s WWII bomber, known as the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, is an Avro Mk X built in 1945 at Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ont. Used to train air crews and later for coastal patrols and search-and-rescue work, it was retired in 1963. The museum bought it in 1977 for about $10,000 and a team of volunteers restored it and returned the plane to the air on Sept. 24, 1988.
Museum president and CEO David Rohrer said he and the RAF have talked about the possibility of bringing the planes together for more than a decade, but serious discussions started just a few months ago – partly because both groups wanted to do something to mark the 100th anniversary of WWI and 70th anniversary of D-Day this year.  The RAF wanted to arrange a formation flight before its own Lancaster is grounded next year for a planned overhaul. The Hamilton Lancaster was at a perfect point in its maintenance cycle to take on a trip like this, so the museum sent a planning team to the U.K. in January. “A window of opportunity was identified to bring the last two flying Lancasters in the world together in tribute to the crews who flew it, the people at Victory Aircraft who built it, and all the veterans of the war,” Rohrer told CBC News. “We always would have regretted it if we hadn’t tried our best to make this happen when the window presented itself.”
Mickeloff said big audiences are expected at appearances in the U.K., pointing out that the BBMF is a military plane and off-limits to the public, whereas the museum’s Lancaster is a flying exhibit that people can get up close to and even book a flight on. “We are going to give the general public that same access in the U.K. – access that they’ve never had to a Lancaster before. They’ll be able to get right up to it.” “It’s a real honour to be invited to fly with the Royal Air Force,” Rohrer added. “It’s a recognition of the confidence they have in the museum, and in the talent and dedication of the staff and volunteers, that they’re willing to be our host.”

The exact UK schedule will not be released for sometime, but you can bet the crowds will be enormous whenever the two aircraft make a joint appearance. Great news! [Hat tip: Paul Morley]

Dambuster of the Day No. 64: Norman Barlow

Barlow lores

Flt Lt R N G Barlow DFC

Lancaster serial number: ED927/G

Call sign: AJ-E

Second wave. Crashed on outward flight.

Robert Norman George Barlow was born on 22 April 1911 in Carlton, a suburb of the Australian city of Melbourne. He was always known by his middle name, Norman. The Barlows were a colourful family: Norman’s father Alec Barlow had built up a thriving motor business, Barlow Motors, which sponsored the adventurer Francis Birtles and Robert’s older brother Alec Jr in their record-breaking drive from Darwin to Melbourne in 1926. The pair covered the 5438km distance in 8 days and 13 hours. The car they drove, a Bean nicknamed ‘Sundowner’, is now in the National Museum of Australia.

The Argus, Saturday 23 October 1926, page 15

Barlow Motors newspaper advertisement, 1926. [Pic: Derham Groves]

The Barlow family houses, business premises and stables were all designed by the fashionable architect Arthur Purnell, with whom Alec Barlow Sr went into business. But many of his ventures were very close to the line and having defrauded a wealthy merchant of a large sum of money and forged Norman’s name on a loan document, Alec Sr committed suicide in 1937.

Norman Barlow had been working in the family business, but by the time he joined the RAAF he was running a garage. On his application form his occupation was given as ‘service station proprietor’. He had also qualified as a civilian pilot, so he had a head start in being chosen to carry on that role in the service.

Barlow married his second wife, Audrey, in 1940, shortly before joining up. He had an infant daughter named Adrienne born in 1938 from his first marriage, but she was living with his widowed mother. He left Australia for the last time in the autumn of 1941, sent to Canada for final training. He received his pilot’s flying badge in January 1942, and was also commissioned. By March he was in the UK, and posted to 16 Operational Training Unit for bomber training.

In September 1942, Barlow was posted as a Lancaster pilot to 61 Squadron, based at RAF Syerston and began a successful first tour of operations. His regular crew included flight engineer Leslie Whillis and bomb aimer Alan Gillespie, both of whom had been in his crew since they had met at 16 Operational Training Unit. Both would also later accompany him to 617 Squadron.

By March 1943, Barlow and his crew had completed a full tour, and he was recommended for the DFC. The citation read:

‘Throughout his many operational sorties, this officer has displayed the highest courage and devotion to duty. He has participated many attacks on Essen, Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne, and on two occasions he has flown his aircraft safely back to base on three engines. During periods of the most extensive operations Flt Lt Barlow has set a magnificent example of courage and determination.’ The award was confirmed in the London Gazette two days before the Dams Raid.

When the request for an experienced crew for the new squadron reached 61 Squadron, also based at RAF Syerston like Gibson’s 106 Squadron, there were a number of pilots and crews who would have fitted the request. It is not clear whether the Australian pilot Norman Barlow himself volunteered or was simply nominated by his CO, but he met all the criteria. He had just finished a full tour of operations and been recommended for a DFC. He was also apparently keen to move on to an immediate second tour, rather than taking the usual between-tours rest in an instructional role.

Barlow set about building a crew to accompany him. Two came from his own crew. His bomb aimer Alan Gillespie had also completed a full tour but he volunteered to carry on with his skipper. Flight engineer Leslie Whillis was near the end of his tour and must have thought that carrying on with Barlow gave him the chance to finish it with a pilot he trusted. The other four all had substantial experience. Charlie Williams and Philip Burgess had been flying with New Zealander Ian Woodward, who had also just finished his first tour. Williams, the wireless operator and another Australian, had also completed his tour. He wanted to go on with a second tour immediately, so he could go home to Queensland to be with his seriously ill father. Burgess, the navigator, had flown on eighteen operations, the majority with Woodward and Williams. The two gunners were the Canadian Harvey Glinz, who had flown on ten operations, and Jack Liddell, still a teenager but with a full tour under his belt.

Together, they were an unusual group. Three were in their 30s. Four were officers, with two more recommended for commissions which would come through before the Dams Raid. This left only the young Jack Liddell still a sergeant. They took the leave that was owing to them (probably without consulting their new CO) and didn’t arrive until the first week in April, so their training was delayed. Their first training flight was on Friday 9 April and the crew had the frightening experience of a bird strike, which resulted in a collision with the top of a tall tree. The flight engineer’s and bomb aimer’s canopies were smashed and two engines badly damaged. Barlow didn’t mention the incident when he wrote to his mother a few days later, but he did tell her about his crew:

‘I am now at a new Squadron that is just forming, hence we will not be operating for some weeks, you will be pleased to know, all we do is fly, fly and fly, getting plenty of training in. Today I flew for five hours with two other crews doing low level formation flying it was really good fun … I have practically a new crew now, you can hardly blame the boys for wanting a rest after all the trips we have done over there, so now I have four officers in my crew and two of the sergeants who have been with me all the time are getting their commissions so we will have six out of seven officers, I haven’t heard of that before. A chap doesn’t get a commission unless he knows his work, so you can guess we have a pretty good crew. I have an Australian in the crew, (Charlie Williams) a damn fine chap from the country, he is the W/Op. and we share a room together.’ [Letter to Frances Barlow, 13 April 1943, courtesy of Barlow family.]

Six weeks of intensive training followed, first by day and then later by night. Barlow’s last training flight was the day before the raid, on Saturday 15 May. With Vernon Byers as second pilot, they did another test bombing run over the range at Wainfleet.

Two days before the raid, Bill Astell had asked Barlow to witness his will. As a married man with a daughter, Barlow had written one already and left it behind in Australia.

The crew were probably nervous, but didn’t want to show it. In his last letter home, wireless operator Charlie Williams told his family that ‘[Barlow] is very thrilled today as he has just been awarded the D.F.C. [H]e is a very good pilot and I have every confidence that he will bring me through my second tour.’ In the same letter, Wiliams confirmed that both his and Barlow’s names had featured in a radio broadcast heard by his family at home. It is likely that this refers to something recorded during their time at 61 Squadron.

Barlow and his crew had been assigned to the Second Wave, detailed to attack the Sorpe Dam, and were due to take off one minute after Joe McCarthy. However McCarthy had a mechanical problem with one engine and had to decamp to the spare Lancaster, so Barlow’s AJ-E was the first Dams Raid aircraft in the air, leaving the ground at 2128.

Because they were under instruction to maintain radio silence, nothing more was heard from them. But we know that they reached the border between the Netherlands and Germany for it was near Haldern, 5km east of the Rhineside town of Rees, that they crashed, ten minutes before midnight. It appears that they hit one of the pylons which stretch across the fields in the locality, although it is possible that the aircraft had first been hit by flak. AJ-E came to rest in a small meadow on the edge of a copse. All on board were killed instantly, their bodies badly burned.

After the war, a witness, Johanna Effing, gave an account to the writer Herman Euler:

‘[We] saw the field in front of us blazing fiercely. An aircraft flying from the west had hit the top of a 100,000 volt electricity pylon and crashed into the field. A huge bomb had rolled out 50 metres from where the plane had crashed. Even before it got light we had a whole crowd of inquisitive people there despite the danger from exploding ammunition. It was not long before the Mayor of Haldern, Herr Lehmann, was on the scene and he climbed onto what was taken to be a large petrol canister. He said ‘I’ll tell the Chief Administrative Officer that he needn’t send us any more petrol coupons for the rest of the war. We’ve got enough fuel in this tank.’ When he found out later that he had been standing on dynamite he’s supposed to have felt quite sick. All the crew were killed and burnt beyond recognition. There were no flak batteries or searchlights here; the plane was just flying too low. The first guards from the scene of the crash came to the house and showed us the valuables which they had found: things like cases, gold rings, watches and a long cylindrical torch. Its owner had scratched all his missions on it – 32 of them. I still remember the name ‘Palermo’ and also the names of a lot of other towns.’
Herman Euler, The Dams Raid Through the Lens, After the Battle, 2001, p.93

The unexploded mine was defused by one of Germany’s leading bomb disposal officers, Hauptmann Heinz Schweizer and taken to Kalkum, near Dusseldorf, for examination. Detailed drawings of the whole construction were quickly made, and the fact that the bomb had been spun before release was deduced (although it is not certain whether they ever worked out that it had in fact been spun backwards).

Rollbombe 17051943 Absturz Haldern

Local dignitaries took turns to pose with what was at first thought to be a petrol tank.

Norman Barlow and his colleagues were all buried in the North Cemetery in Dusseldorf. But it took several months for news of their fate to reach the British authorities and then to be transmitted onto their counterparts in Australia. At this stage, Alec Barlow Jr was also a pilot serving in the RAAF, commanding a training school, and was quick to use his connections to see if he could find further information.

Barlow file

The bleak note made on Barlow’s personnel file concerning his death [National Archives of Australia]

After the war, Norman Barlow and his crew were reinterred in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery. Alec Barlow Jr had a long career with Qantas, and died in 1972.

The site near Haldern where AJ-E came down is now marked with a memorial erected by the local history society, co-ordinated by historian Volker Schürmann.

More about Barlow online:
Entry at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
RAAFDB website, use search engine for link to personnel file and casualty record
Entry at Aircrew Remembered website
University of Melbourne Collections, article about Barlow family

KIA 16.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Eric Fry, An Airman Far Away, Kangaroo Press 1993

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, 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 Norman Barlow 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. 63: Henry O’Brien

O'Brien IWM detail

Harry O’Brien in 617 Squadron, July 1943

Sgt H E O’Brien
Rear gunner

Lancaster serial number: ED912/G

Call sign: AJ-N

First wave. Third aircraft to attack Eder Dam. Mine dropped accurately causing final breach.

Henry Earl O’Brien, known as Harry, was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada on 15 August 1922. He volunteered for the RCAF soon after he turned 18, and was selected for gunnery training. On arriving in the UK and further training, he crewed up with Les Knight and the rest of his colleagues, and they were all posted to 50 Squadron at the same time. He flew on 23 operations with Knight between September 1942 and March 1943.
Like his colleagues, O’Brien hugely admired his pilot. Knight was ‘the coolest and quickest thinking person I have ever met. And, in my opinion, the most knowledgeable person on the squadron with respect to his job.’
O’Brien weighed about 210lb, and was too big for the harness to which his parachute should have been clipped while he was in his turret. According to Fred Sutherland, his fellow Canadian, the pair had a reputation for being the sloppiest guys on the squadron. In fact, they were actually very disciplined and never reported unfit for duty.
On the Dams Raid, jammed into his position in AJ-N’s rear turret, O’Brien noticed how bright the moonlight made the landscape, and could see farmhouses, rivers, canals and even individual people on the ground.
By the time they got to the Eder, the crews were aware of its extreme difficulty and the fact that the dawn was not too far away. O’Brien was one of those who heard Henry Maudslay’s final words on the radio to Gibson, and noted that his voice sounded faint, unnatural and almost dehumanised. This miade him quite nervous during the run in towards the dam that the mine, when dropped, might explode under the aircraft like it had done for Maudslay.
However it didn’t. It bounced perfectly, a testament to Knight’s skill at lining up the tricky approach. To his joy O’Brien had what he described as a ‘front centre’ view of the dam’s destruction: ‘our aircraft was standing on its tail for the climb out… Simultaneously the dam broke and a column of water rose vertically behind us.’ It was a feeling of exquisite pleasure that they had broken the dam, he recalled.
There was one almost fatal moment to come on the way home. As they crossed the Dutch wall defences, Knight came within a few feet of hitting a giant concrete block, but it was only O’Brien who saw just how close they got to it.
Four months later, on their final flight together, O’Brien was one of the two crew members who were captured after baling out over Holland. He spent the rest of the war as a PoW, and returned to Canada after his release.
Harry O’Brien and his wife Marlene had eight children, the first of whom was called Leslie in honour of his pilot, Les Knight. He died on 12 September 1985 in Edmonton, Alberta.

Survived war.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
John Sweetman, David Coward and Gary Johnstone, Dambusters, TimeWarner 2003

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