Barnes Wallis at Reculver, 33 years on

RH10 Wallis Reculver 07.07.76 loresPic: © Ray Hepner Collection

Barnes Wallis had never been back to Reculver in Kent, the place where the final test drops of his “bouncing bomb” took place in May 1943, until he was taken there by Ray Hepner in 1976. Above, in this previously unpublished photograph taken by Ray and kindly given to me by him, he surveys the scene. Below is a still from the film sequcnce shot of the tests, now in the Imperial War Museum. Wallis is the bareheaded figure on the far left of the group. In the film, he is seen to be waving his arms as if to urge the bomb onwards.

Update: Mark Welch kindly pointed out the error in the title of my original post, “Barnes Wallis at Reculver, 43 years on”. My maths was badly wrong!

Wallis Reculver IWMPic: IWM FLM2343

Dambuster of the Day No. 107: Guy Pegler

Burpee 106sqn

Guy (“Johnny”) Pegler pictured on the far right, standing next to Gordon Brady. Their skipper, Lew Burpee is on the far left. Picture taken in 106 Squadron, probably late 1942. [Pic: Burpee family]

Sgt G Pegler
Flight engineer

Lancaster serial number: ED865/G

Call sign: AJ-S

Third wave. Crashed on outward flight.

Guy Pegler was born on 27 September 1921 in Ringwood, Hampshire, the older of the two sons of Claud and Charlotte Pegler. The family would later move to Letchworth in Hertfordshire, where he went to Letchworth Grammar School. Pegler was known by the nickname “Johnny” during his time in the RAF, which he joined in 1938 as an apprentice at No 1 Training School, RAF Halton.

He served in ground crew in the early part of the war, mainly servicing aircraft in Fighter Command, before taking the opportunity in 1942 to train as a flight engineer in Bomber Command.

After qualifying, he was posted to 106 Squadron’s Conversion Flight where he joined up with Lewis Burpee and gunner Gordon Brady for the final stages of Lancaster training. The trio were posted to 106 Squadron in October 1942.

On 24 October 1942, the day Burpee flew on his final operation as second pilot (with David Shannon), Pegler had the dubious privilege of making his operational debut, accompanying the Squadron CO, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson on a trip to Milan. At that stage in his career, Gibson had a different flight engineer or second pilot on nearly every one of his operations. Whether they volunteered or instead were chosen by him is not recorded. Pegler survived the experience, and was able to rejoin Burpee and his crew for their first trip together as a crew, on a “Gardening” operation to the Silverthorn area on 16 November 1942.

Thereafter, Pegler flew with Burpee on all his 25 operations in 106 Squadron and went with him to 617 Squadron. On the Dams Raid, he would have been in his usual seat, alongside his skipper, as they flew too close to the heavily defended Gilze-Rijen airfield and crashed in a ball of flame.

The Germans could not individually identify the bodies of Guy Pegler, Bill Long, Tom Jaye and James Arthur, so they were buried in a communal grave in Zuylen Cemetery, Prinsenhage. After the war the bodies of all seven of the crew of AJ-S were exhumed and reburied in Bergen-op-Zoom War Cemetery.

More about Pegler online:
Entry at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Aircrew Remembered page about Burpee crew

KIA 17.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
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 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 Guy Pegler 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. 106: Lewis Burpee

Burpee sqd106 smalPhoto of Lewis Burpee and his crew in 106 Squadron, taken on 18 January 1943, after a trip to Berlin. Left to right: Gordon Brady (Rear Gunner), Bill Long (Mid Upper Gunner), Guy Pegler (Flight Engineer), Lewis Burpee (Pilot), Edward Leavesley (Wireless Operator), George Goodings (Bomb Aimer). (Pic: Burpee family)

Plt Off L J Burpee DFM

Lancaster serial number: ED865/G

Call sign: AJ-S

Third wave. Crashed on outward flight.

Lewis Johnstone Burpee was born on 5 March 1918 in Ottawa, one of the three children of Lewis Arthur and Lilian Agnes Burpee. His father was the manager of Charles Ogilvy, a large department store in the city. He went to Elgin Street Public School and Lisgar Collegiate School in Ottawa, and then on to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where he got a degree in English, History and Politics. He was also a member of the college’s Officer Training Corps. When war came, he joined the RCAF, enlisting in December 1940.

Burpee qualified as a pilot in September 1941 and embarked for the UK shortly afterwards. It took about a year for him to start operations, since after training on Wellingtons, he was then sent for heavy bomber training. While training he crewed up first with fellow Canadian, air gunner Gordon Brady, and then with flight engineer, Guy Pegler. The three were finally posted to 106 Squadron in October 1942. Air gunner William Long joined his crew in December 1942. These four would fly together throughout their time in 106 Squadron and then transfer to 617 Squadron. The CO of 106 Squadron at this time was of course Guy Gibson.

After three trips as a “second dickey” Burpee undertook his first trip as a captain on 7 November 1942 on a mission to bomb Genoa. This was abandoned, but his first successful operation was later that month. He went on to complete some 25 further operations and was recommended for the DFM. The citation stated:

He has consistently displayed the greatest determination in the execution of whatever tasks were allotted him. Berlin, Nuremburg, Stuttgart, Genoa and Turin are some of the many objectives he has attacked with satisfactory results and in recent weeks he has taken part in the highly successful raids on Lorient (aiming point photograph), St Nazaire and both of the Essen attacks. He also flew on the daylight attack against Milan in October 1942. Flight Sergeant Burpee has shown coolness and courage throughout his operational tour and has performed his duties conscientiously and efficiently.

Gibson obviously knew Burpee as a pilot from his old squadron and rated his abilities positively. He was happy to have him in 617 Squadron as one of the three pilots from his previous assignment. Burpee was in fact the only one of the three who transferred directly – by the end of March 1943, both David Shannon and John Hopgood had already been posted out to other duties. However much Gibson rated Burpee as a pilot, a few weeks previously he had thought that he wasn’t yet ready for a commission, writing on his application: “This Canadian is an excellent type of N.C.O. but should be given more experience of service life before being given a commission.” But Gibson was then overruled by his station commander, Gp Capt E L Bussell, who wrote that Burpee was “Possessed of the attributes of an officer… Strongly recommended for commissioning.” (National Archives of Canada). The commission duly came through shortly after he joined 617 Squadron, and was backdated to the beginning of March.

Burpee had other things besides flying on his mind, since he had got married in September 1942 and his wife was now expecting their first child. In Enemy Coast Ahead, Gibson wrote that he had spoken to Burpee on his arrival in 617 Squadron: “He had just married a young English girl and was busy trying to find her a house not too far away. He was telling me that he had found it a very difficult job.” (p.241).

After six weeks training, Burpee and his crew were assigned a place in Operation Chastise’s final wave of five crews, the mobile reserve. They were due to be assigned a target when the outcome of the first two rounds of attacks was known. Before they left the ground, however, Burpee went over to his fellow Canadian, Ken Brown, piloting AJ-F and due to take off a minute after him. “Goodbye, Ken,” was all he said, Brown later recalled. (Account at Bomber Command Museum of Canada website.)

AJ-S left the ground at 0011 on the morning of Monday 17 May, and never made it as far as the German border. While still over Holland, and approaching the gap between the heavily defended airfields at Gilze-Rijen and Eindhoven, AJ-S strayed off course. It climbed slightly, probably in an effort to determine its exact position, but was then caught in searchlights and hit by flak. It crashed on the edge of Gilze Rijen airfield, six miles south west of Tilburg. Its mine exploded on impact, demolishing a large number of buildings and doing damage estimated at 1.5 million guilders. 
The demise of the Burpee crew was seen by Stefan Oancia, bomb aimer in AJ-F, and Douglas Webb, a minute or so further back in AJ-O’s front turret. Its last minutes were also seen by a German witness, a Luftwaffe airman based at Gilze Rijen called Herbert Scholl, interviewed by Helmuth Euler. He was of the opinion that AJ-F was in fact not hit by flak at all, but was dazzled by a searchlight beam hitting it horizontally. The pilot tried to fly even lower, and then hit some trees.

The next morning, Scholl went to the crash site and saw that it was a total wreck. Only the rear turret and tail unit were intact, and he saw rear gunner Gordon Brady’s body, which didn’t appear to have any sign of injury. He noticed that Brady was scantily dressed, wearing thin uniform trousers and lace up shoes with holes in the soles. (Helmuth Euler, The Dams Raid through the Lens, After the Battle, 2001, p.106.)

After the crash, only the bodies of Burpee, Brady and Weller were positively identified. The other four were buried in a communal grave. They were first interred by the Germans at Zuylen Cemetery, Prinsenhage, but after the war all seven bodies were exhumed and reburied in Bergen-op-Zoom War Cemetery.

Lewis Burpee was one of the four aircrew who flew on the raid knowing that their wives were pregnant. Richard Trevor-Roper and David Maltby would live to see their children being born. Burpee and Charles Brennan would not. After her husband died, Mrs Lillian Burpee travelled across the Atlantic in order to meet her in-laws for the first time, and have her baby in Canada. Their son, also called Lewis Johnstone Burpee, was born on Christmas Eve 1943.

More about Burpee online:
Entry at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Aircrew Remembered page about Burpee crew
Entry at Canadian Virtual War Memorial (includes picture gallery)

KIA 17.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
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 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 Lewis Burpee 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 Memorial unveiled as many pay tribute

IMG_6611Pic: Wim Govaerts

Several hundred people gathered on Sunday 17 May 2015 on the edge of a small wood in Haldern, north western Germany, to pay tribute to the crew of Dams Raid Lancaster AJ-E, piloted by Flt Lt Norman Barlow DFC. This was the spot where the aircraft crashed shortly before midnight on the night of 16 May 1943, en route to attack the Sorpe Dam.
Some of Norman Barlow’s letters home to his mother in Australia were read out during the ceremony. In one, written on 3 May 1943, he told her about the new aircraft he had been assigned for the Dams Raid. “I have just got a brand new machine. “E” for Edward or Elsie or Elliott. I hope I am as lucky as I was with “G” for George”.
And then, just 12 days later and the night before died, he sent love to everyone back at home, including his daughter, then four years old: “I must close now and have a bath and get a little shut eye whilst I can.  So keep your chin up Mother dear it can’t last forever. Your loving son Norman xxxx.”
Sadly, E-Edward would not turn out to be not a lucky machine for Norman and his crew, and they were all killed instantly in the crash. For seventy years, the site was not marked in any way, but then in 2013 local historian Volker Schürmann began a campaign to have a permanent memorial established. He organised a public appeal which succeded in raising the funds, after many generous donations from supporters from around the world. There were further donations of materials from the local community, and the farmer on whose land the aircraft crashed was kind enough to make a space available.
Relatives and representatives of five of the crew travelled to Germany, and unveiled the memorial. Wreathes were also laid by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, by other organisations, and by the local community. A guard of honour was provided by the Haldern Fire Brigade, and musical tributes were played by the Haldern Brass Band.
Huge thanks go to all the people of Haldern who donated to and supported the memorial, and to all those who travelled to Germany to take part in the ceremony.

Pictures below by Wim Govaerts and Mitch Buiting.

IMG_6365 Banner depicting the crew of AJ-E. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6396Volker Schürmann being interviewed by British Forces Broadcasting Service reporter, Rob Olver.

IMG_6388Items from the wreckage of AJ-E, found locally by Marcel Hahn. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6462Welcome from Bernhard Uebbing, Chair of Heimatverein Haldern, the local history society. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6481Volker Schürmann outlined the background to the project. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6494Charles Foster gave a brief history of the Dams Raid and its historical significance. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6509Trish Murphy, a friend of Norman Barlow’s daughter Adrianne since their schooldays in Melbourne, read from Norman Barlow’s last letters home. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Rework_9274Rob Holliday, whose wife Sara is a cousin of bomb aimer Plt Off Alan Gillespie, gave an account of the lives of all the crew members of AJ-E. (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

IMG_6550The first wreath was laid by Group Captain Steve Richards of the RAF. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6553Lt Colonel David Sexstone and a colleague laid the second wreath on behalf of the Royal Canadian Air Force. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Rework_9289Wreath laid in memory of Norman Barlow by Trish Murphy, with assistance from Jacqui Kelly and Aisling Foster. (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

Rework_9293Wreathes laid in memory of Philip Burgess by Carole Marner, followed by Jenny Rowland. (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

Rework_9298Wreath laid in memory of Alan Gillespie by Sara and Rob Holliday (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

IMG_6558Wreath laid in memory of Charlie Williams by Helen Brown. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Rework_9306Wreath laid in memory of Jack Liddell by Patricia and Mike Gawtrey. (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

IMG_6471Music for the occasion was provided by the Haldern Brass Band. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6685A guard of honour was provided by the Haldern Fire Brigade. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6665The five sets of relatives and representatives, joined by Volker Schürmann and Charles Foster. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6678The full RAF and RCAF delegations, photographed after the ceremony. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6583AJ-E, honoured and remembered, 17 May 2015. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)


All set fair for memorial unveiling

AJ-E stone installation

Several hundred people are now expected to attend the unveiling of the memorial to the Dams Raid crew of Lancaster AJ-E, scheduled for 1100 local time on Sunday 17 May at Haldern, near Rees in Germany.
Above, you can see the memorial stone and foundation being installed. It is an impressive piece of work, and we are all much indebted to the local people and traders who have worked so hard to bring the project to fruition.
The good news is that the weather is expected to remain dry, although with a maximum temperature of 16ºC a jacket is probably advisable.

Screen shot weather

Please also note that there will be no parking at the site itself, except for those needing disabled access. Parking will be available approximately 500m away, so be prepared to walk.
If you are visiting the area for the first time, you might also like to know that Reichswald Forest War Cemetery is about 40km away. This is the last resting place of the crew of AJ-E, captained by Norman Barlow, and three other Dams Raid crews – those captained by Henry Maudslay (AJ-Z), Bill Astell (AJ-B) and Bill Ottley (AJ-C).
Finally, if you are there on Sunday and are a reader of Dambusters Blog, come over and say hello. And spread the word to your friends and acquaintances!


Fake “Gibson” telegram withdrawn from auction


A telegram confirming the 1944 death of Guy Gibson, described as being from Sir Arthur Harris, has now been withdrawn from auction after doubts about its authenticity. It was due to be sold by Fieldings Auctioneers in Stourbridge on Saturday 16 May, with an estimated price of £600.
The sale was trumpeted in articles in the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and other newspapers, with typical over-excitement. None of these publications thought to contact any historian or serious collector who might be able to throw some light on the telegram. “Dambusters hero’s death kept secret for MONTHS to protect morale during WW2,” said the Express. The Mirror also went along with the morale idea, saying: “RAF hushed up death of Dambusters hero Guy Gibson to preserve morale, wartime telegram reveals”.
The telegram, we were told in both papers, had been found by a dealer inside a book during a house clearance sale, apparently being used as a bookmark.
Having seen the newspapers, I contacted the auctioneers. I pointed out some of the reasons I had to doubt the telegram’s authenticity, and they decided to seek the opinion of professional curators. I am glad to say that they agreed with me, and the item was then removed from the sale.

I am now quite convinced that the telegram is a fake. I have commented in this blog before how Fleet Street editorial standards have slipped over the years. In this case, the newspapers seem to have stoked up the hype and not questioned the item’s provenance. Anyone with any knowledge of the RAF’s wartime communication systems would surely have smelt a rat. And there are several other features, visible even in the small photograph on the auctioneers’ website, which were very suspicious indeed.

Use of a telegram
In November 1944, Sir Arthur Harris held the rank of Air Chief Marshal and the job title of Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command. The job was normally abbreviated to AOC-in-C HQBC in official communications. Messages, instructions and orders between him and other sections of the RAF were normally communicated via official message forms or by telex. On both of these, his official job title or its recognised abbreviation would be used. The use of a normal Post Office telegram for any important service purpose seems most unlikely, as would the signature being abbreviated to “Harris Air Marsh”. And finally, if by any chance a normal telegram form was used, the sender’s address would be shown as “HQ Bomber Command”, not “Air Ministry”.

Overall look
Many examples of wartime telegrams survive, and some general observations can be made when they are compared with the “Gibson” telegram. Here is a genuine wartime telegram, found on the 206 Squadron website:

Bendix - MIA TelegramLet us start with the form itself. Even though it is possible to get genuine blank wartime forms, the “Gibson” telegram would appear to be composed on a fake form. There are several different designs of wartime Post Office telegram forms, but they all have one thing in common – the font used is Gill Sans, as seen above. The form had been redesigned in Gill Sans by the famous typographer Stanley Morison in 1935. The “Gibson” telegram uses a different font, another sans serif, but not Gill Sans.
Furthermore, in “real” telegrams, the message itself was cut from the output of a telegraph machine and then pasted onto the form. The message would have been printed with a fabric ribbon, which led to a rather grey colour. The individual words themselves are usually spaced well apart, the gap between each word being almost two characters wide. And the individual characters which make up each word are themselves spaced quite widely.
In the “Gibson” telegram, the lettering looks as though it was produced by modern computerised typesetting. The letters and the words are more closely spaced than their wartime equivalent.

Wrong ranks
Harris had been promoted from Air Marshal to (Temporary) Air Chief Marshal [(T) ACM] on 16 August 1944. He would have signed any communication after this date as either (T) ACM or ACM.
Below the official print is a handwritten note: “Read out to the Mess but did not inform men. J B Tait GC”. However, in November 1944, the Officer Commanding 617 Squadron, J B (“Willie”) Tait was still a Wing Commander. He was not promoted to Group Captain until after he left 617 Squadron at the end of 1944. Any note written by him at this time would therefore would have been signed as “J B Tait WC”.

Address and rubber stamps
It seems most unlikely that a telegram would be sent to the Officers Mess of any squadron. In any case, in November 1944 the arrangements for officers stationed at Woodhall Spa was quite complicated and there was no single Officers Mess as such. 617 Squadron’s officers were billeted at the Petwood Hotel in the town of Woodhall Spa, as were some other officers serving on the station, such as some intelligence officers and the station commander, Gp Capt “Monty” Philpott. The actual RAF station was a few miles away in Tattersall Thorpe, and other officers on the station, such as those in 627 Squadron, were housed there in a series of temporary concrete or brick huts.
The correct mode of address for a communication to the squadron would be to its officer commanding. Any rubber stamp used would say “617 Squadron/RAF Station Woodhall Spa/Received/date”, without mention of the Officers Mess.

Unlikely wording
The wording of the text does not sound as though it was composed by a wartime writer, used to writing succinct messages where excess words and pronouns are removed. A genuine text would be more likely to read “Prime Minister and NOK informed”, not “I have informed the Prime Minister and NOK”.

Caveat Emptor
The estimated price of £600 for this item was very conservative, given the huge sums reached recently for genuine Dambuster memorabilia. According to the auctioneers there had already been “substantial interest” in it. My guess is that it would have reached at least £5000, and possibly nearer £10,000.
The amount of profit available means that there may well be other attempts to deceive the market with further fake material. One collector recently went public after a bad experience with a well-known unscrupulous trader. My advice to anyone who sees anything offered for sale is to get good advice from a reputable independent source.

Thanks to the various researchers who have helped with this article.