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.

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