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.
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).
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.
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
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.