…to the UK’s Channel 5 at 9pm, to watch a documentary presented by John Nichol called “What the Dambusters did next”. 77 men returned from the Dams Raid and all continued to serve in 617 Squadron or other parts of Bomber Command for the remainder of the war. Such were the dangers they faced, that a staggering 31 more would die in active service before peace arrived.
This film, directed by Matthew Wortman, looks at what the squadron did between June 1943 and May 1945 when they took on some of the war’s toughest targets, such as the Antheor and Belfield viaducts and the Tirpitz, and became the first squadron to drop the giant new bombs devised by Barnes Wallis.
Several of the squadron’s wartime veterans took part in this documentary, and there are also contributions from German combatants, and modern day historians amongst whom, I might modestly add, is myself.
It should be available online afterwards, and I will post a link later.
Shortly before half past nine in the evening, on this day 71 years ago, Lancaster ED927, call sign AJ-E and piloted by the Australian Flt Lt Norman Barlow DFC, took off from the grass runway at RAF Scampton. It was the first of the nineteen Lancasters to set off on what would be come known as the Dams Raid.
Flying with Barlow were his crew, Leslie Whillis, Philip Burgess, Charlie Williams, Alan Gillespie, Harvey Glinz and Jack Liddell. As they were under orders to maintain radio silence, nothing more was heard from them but it emerged later that they had crashed into a electricity pylon on some farmland near Haldern, at about 2350 on 16 May 1943, killing all on board. Haldern is a community in the district of Cleves, in the lower Rhine area, not far from the Dutch border.
This site is currently not marked by any permanent memorial so if you would like to mark the anniversary of the Dams Raid, please think about making a donation to the proposed memorial stone and bronze plaque. This is being organised by Volker Schürmann, a local historian. He is looking to raise €750 (about £620) to cover the cost. We are therefore looking for 150 donations of €5. We are now more than halfway to reaching this target.
You can donate to the appeal via Paypal here:
We should not forget that the same night 1341 people died as a result of the successful breach of the Möhne and Eder Dams, as well as another 46 aircrew.
We remember them all today.
Lancaster serial number: ED927/G
Call sign: AJ-E
Second wave. Crashed on outward flight.
Jack Robert George Liddell was the youngest man to take part in the Dams Raid. He was born on 22 June 1924 in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, the son of Robert and Winifred Liddell. His father died when Jack was a young boy and his mother remarried, so he had one sister and two further half-sisters. He was educated at Weston’s Walliscote Road School, and then took up work in the butchery trade. Meanwhile his stepfather was killed at Dunkirk. One day in May 1941, his sister, Sheila Fenwick, recalls him dressing in a suit, saying he was going to Bristol for the day. When he returned, he told his family that he had volunteered for the RAF. She was not surprised as, like so many other young men of his age, he was ‘flying mad’. He must have lied about his age, since he was still only 16.
Liddell was selected for air gunner training, which he completed in May 1942. In September, he was posted to 61 Squadron as the rear gunner in a crew captained by Flt Sgt John Cockshott. This crew completed a full tour of 30 operations together, and as a gesture of thanks to their pilot, they bought him a silver tankard. They weren’t able to get it engraved, but they gave him specific instructions to do this at the end of the war and the wording that should be used.
Cockshott rose to the rank of Squadron Leader and in July 1944 he started a second tour, with 617 Squadron. He was the pilot who dropped the second ever Grand Slam, and was involved in the attacks on the Tirpitz and other big targets. He received a bar to his DFC for this second tour. He moved to the USA after the war, and died in 2010. According to his daughter, the tankard was one of his most prized possessions.
After completing his tour with Cockshott, Liddell was posted to a training flight as an instructor, but within a week he was called back to fly in the crew being put together by Norman Barlow, which would transfer to 617 Squadron. He was, of course, a much more experienced gunner than his crewmate, Harvey Glinz, but it was the officer Glinz who was chosen to be the A Flight gunnery leader.
Jack Liddell had still not reached his nineteenth birthday when he climbed into the rear turret of AJ-E in the early evening of 16 May 1943. On a night when many young aircrew died, he has the dubious distinction of being the youngest of all. Like his comrades, he was first buried by the Germans in Dusseldorf Cemetery, but now lies in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Reichswald Forest.
Footnote: All the crew of AJ-E came from 61 Squadron, but only Leslie Whillis and Alan Gillespie had previously flown with Norman Barlow. The rest had mainly flown with three other 61 Squadron pilots, Ian Woodward, William Dierkes and John Cockshott. All of these would survive the war, and if their crews had stayed with them their chances of survival would have been higher. Such was the sad lottery by which so many casualties were chosen.
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 Jack Liddell 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.
I’ve never been happy with the idea of people digging up bits of crashed wartime aircraft, and then selling them for personal profit. How can you tell that a small piece of rusty metal came from a particular model, and that it was actually found in a specific location – a site that is actually the place where someone usually died? Even if the bodies of the men who perished were eventually recovered and buried, there is something ghoulish about trawling the ground in the hope that a personal artifact – maybe, a watch, a torch or an ID tag– will turn up.
But turn up they do, and then, inevitably, they emerge for sale on eBay or in the hands of specialist relics dealers. There’s obviously a good living to be made from this, as is proved by the emergence of large trading companies with substantial inventories and impressive websites.
One of these companies goes by the name of Historic Aviation, based in Minneapolis, in the state of Minnesota, USA. A reader of this blog, Steve Dulson, commenting on my recent article about the proposed memorial at the site where Flt Lt Norman Barlow and his crew crashed on the night of the Dams Raid, alerted me to an item for sale on this company’s website.
It is described as: ‘A rare opportunity to own a piece of World War II history! This display includes an authentic fragment from the Avro Lancaster bomber piloted by Robert Barlow of Squadron No. 617, the “Dambusters,” RAF, that was lost on May 17, 1943, during Operation Chastise, as well as a beautiful print depicting that fine machine soaring low in the night sky.’
At this point, the alarm on my Dambuster bullshit-meter began to sound. The picture quite clearly shows a Lancaster aircraft, coded AJ-E, flying over a dam but, as any Dambuster student knows, Barlow never reached the Ruhr area, colliding with a pylon shortly after crossing the Rhine. AJ-E, however, was the correct call sign for Barlow’s aircraft.
Kudos to another regular reader, Philip Knight, for pointing this out. He says that the picture shows Barlow at the Möhne Dam, but looking at it more carefully it seemed to me to be more like the Eder, which has arches in the dam wall and angled roofs on its towers.
The picture was painted by an artist called Ron Cole, so I went on a search for further information and found his website.
Well, what a surprise. The same picture, but with one important difference. The code painted on the aircraft side is AJ-N, which was borne on the Lancaster flown by Les Knight, the pilot whose weapon finally breached the Eder Dam.
It looks as though Ron Cole himself can tell his AJ-N from his AJ-E, but someone at Historic Aviation has decided that any old Lancaster picture will do as a mount for what looks like a small piece of metal plate. And it costs $24.95 more than you would pay for the print on its own on Mr Cole’s site, numbered and signed by the artist.
So what other treasures might be lurking in the Historic Aviation shop? A search through all the aviation art prints turned up another oddity. Here is a print of a picture by the British artist, Anthony Saunders, signed by the artist and Corporal Maureen Stevens, and retailing at $130.
The same image can be found on Mr Saunders’ own website, back in Blighty. So we can be fairly sure that he is responsible for this picture.
But on another page in the Historic Aviation shop, here is the same picture, but with a different title, scribed to a completely different artist, Richard Taylor, and allegedly signed by Les Munro and Johnny Johnson:
The text shown in the above screengrab seems to describe a completely different picture, which of course it is. The real “On Course for the Möhne Dam” by Richard Taylor can be found on the website of many art dealers:
So what do Messrs Cole, Saunders and Taylor make of the different ways in which their work has been misrepresented by the guys from Historic Aviation? And what does this say about the provenance of items which purport to be ‘authentic’ Dambuster relics.
I think we should be told. And, in the meantime, buyer beware.
POSTSCRIPT: Ron Cole has now contacted this blog, as can be seen in the comments below. He says that it was he himself who altered the original code on the side of the aircraft. He has also explained how it came about in an email to me:
I obtained a rather beat up panel from AJ-E about two years ago that hailed from the roof of a farm outbuilding, where it had been incorporated since the war. Since I make a business of combining such relics with my artwork, and had an earlier watercolor that portrayed a Lanc, I combined the two for a limited series of displays with the idea that one day I’d actually paint AJ-E and put together a more specific and historically accurate presentation. Then about six months ago I was commissioned to paint the cover for Guy Gibson’s ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ on audio book, depicting AJ-N. Not long after, Historic Aviation contacted me about the possibility of carrying a ‘Dambuster’ relic display, and since I still hadn’t gotten around to painting AJ-E, I did the next best thing by altering the book cover painting. It was at least better than the old watercolor Lanc, and looked nice. So that’s the story behind the otherwise odd combination, such as it is; an imperfect compromise.
Well at least we have an explanation! And also we now know where the panel from AJ-E now resides. As Mr Cole says, it is quite well known that during the war a local farmer had used it in some building work. However, I can’t help feeling that it would be a better idea to use an accurate portrayal of AJ-E, and its brave crew who often only appear as a footnote in the Dambuster story. They were in fact the first crew to take off from Scampton on that night, and were killed some two and a half hours later.
This official RAF picture, taken on the night, is the only picture of a Dams Raid Lancaster in flight and is thought to be of AJ-E taking off from Scampton. [IWM CH18006]