Sgt W G Radcliffe
Lancaster serial number: ED825/G
Call sign: AJ-T
Second wave. First aircraft to attack Sorpe Dam. Mine dropped successfully but failed to breach dam. Returned to base.
William Gordon Radcliffe was born in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada on 24 September 1919, and was educated at New Westminster Central School and I J Fopp Technical High School.
In March 1939, suspecting that war was on its way, Radcliffe travelled to England with his friend Howard Godfrey, and volunteered to join the RAF as a ground crew mechanic. Over the next three years he developed the skills which Joe McCarthy would come to rely on later in the war.
In 1942 the RAF decided to dispense with the second pilot and institute the new position of flight engineer in its heavy bomber squadrons. Many ground crew saw this as their chance to fly, and amongst these was the young Canadian. Radcliffe was sent to the No 4 School of Technical Training at St Athans in Wales, and qualified as a flight engineer in July 1942. He was posted to 97 Squadron and flew on his first operation on 10 September 1942. A few days later, he had teamed up with Joe McCarthy and together with Ron Batson and Len Eaton became the nucleus of a crew which would stay together for almost two years.
Radcliffe was also the owner of the crew’s mascot, a small stuffed Panda Bear which he would tuck into his boot on every flight. Its features were also copied onto the nose art on several of the crew’s regular aircraft.
Their first operation as a crew was on 5 October on a trip to Aachen. Most crews were given what was thought to be a relatively easy assignment on their first operation. The McCarthy crew’s first outing most certainly was not. In a letter home, Radcliffe wrote:
You usually get a nice easy trip for the first time and we were told this one was going to be fairly easy. But it didn’t turn out that way. … [W]hen we got up to 10,000 feet we ran into an electrical storm. It sure was pretty at first seeing sparks and flashes all over the windscreen and flashes all over the wings and fuselage and the tips of the props were glowing. But then it started to ice up and then the trouble started.
We climbed right up to 15 or 16 thousand and we were still in it. We’d pass through a cloud with a negative charge and then hit one with a positive and the result was a big blinding flash that scared the daylight out of me. We weren’t much troubled by Jerry and we made the target O.K. and just managed to bomb through a gap in the clouds but couldn’t see the results.
Coming back it got worse and we ran into a lot more ice. We must have dropped over 14,000 feet in less than nothing and the rapid change in temperature or the ice cracked the perspex windows on each side of the cabin and blew a two foot hole out of each side. Believe me then I was scared. I thought for sure we had been hit, my log and the navigator’s log, pencil and instruments etc just vanished outside. As soon as I realised what happened, I looked out and saw that we were skimming the tree tops of France. You could see the roads and houses plainly and we passed over a large town that didn’t seem to be blacked out at all.
We got everything under control again and made some height to cross the coast. When we got back to the aerodrome we couldn’t get any answer from our radio and after half an hour of circling we had to land by signals. When we got down we found the aerial inside the kite instead of outside. It must have broken off in the storm and come through the window. Believe me I was relieved to find some of the other crews were scared as much as we were. Mac is a wizard at handling the machine. If it hadn’t of [sic] been for him … I think if I had to go through these storms on every trip I’d be grey before I’m 24.
[Dave Birrell, Big Joe McCarthy, p.55]
Fortunately not every operation was as eventful as this, and Radcliffe went on to complete his full tour with McCarthy by March 1943. The whole crew was then transferred to the new 617 Squadron for “just one more trip”.
After all the training came the raid itself. Because of the late change of aircraft, the McCarthy crew were more than half an hour late leaving the ground. Radcliffe’s skills as a flight engineer were put to the test as they pulled out all the stops to make up time, something McCarthy would later acknowledge, and they were only nine minutes late reaching the Sorpe Dam. On their return journey, Radcliffe’s experience told again:
We decided that we’d map-read through the Zieder Zee and go home the way we came in. We scooted up the Zieder Zee. My engineer had flown with me on many, many trips. He and I always used to argue about speed and he’d say “No we’ve got to save gas, we’ve got to save gas.” He’d never give me my speed. But this night, coming out I was saying “Cut those motors back, you’re going to burn them out.” He had them set right up to the max and we were really tooting along. He had it all set like that until we got out into the middle of the North Sea.
[Dave Birrell, Big Joe McCarthy, p.123]
Radcliffe went on to fly with McCarthy throughout the rest of their second tour. He was commissioned in November 1943, and awarded the DFC in June 1944. After coming off operations, he served in training units for the remainder of the war, returning to Canada in February 1945.
After the war he became a Customs and Excise Officer, and was also attached to the recruiting branch of the RCAF Reserve. Bill Radcliffe died on 5 July 1952 when his car failed to go round a bend in the road and went into the Fraser River, where he drowned. It was thought he had had a blackout. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered by his colleagues in the RCAF Reserve over his favourite mountain, Burnaby Mountain in Canada (also known as Eagle Mountain).
He had married Joyce Palfreyman, an English WAAF, and they had three children. Following his death, Joyce returned to the UK with the children to be nearer her own family.
Footnote: It is interesting to note that there were two Canadian-born flight engineers on the Dams Raid. Both joined the RAF as ground staff before the war, and became flight engineers when the positions became available in 1942. The other was Sgt Charles Brennan in John Hopgood’s crew who was born in Calgary, Alberta in 1916. His family emigrated back to the UK in 1928.
Thanks to Dorothy Bailey for help with this article.
Survived war. Died 5 July 1952.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Dave Birrell, Big Joe McCarthy, Wingleader Publishing, 2012
George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, The Last British Dambuster, Ebury Press, 2014
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 Bill Radcliffe 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.