Sgt D P Heal
Lancaster serial number: ED918/G
Call sign: AJ-F
Third wave. Second aircraft to attack Sorpe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.
Dudley Percy Heal was born on 5 August 1916 in Portsmouth, one of the three sons of Edward and Ellen Heal. He went to Weymouth Grammar School. In 1936 he started working for HM Customs and Excise, and at the time of the outbreak of war was working in the Waterguard branch in Southampton Docks.
Customs officers were exempt from conscription, but Heal was determined to serve in the RAF as aircrew and therefore volunteered. He was worried that as an asthmatic he might not pass the medical, but in the event he got through it and was finally enlisted in May 1940.
He was selected for pilot training, but it wasn’t until the following year that this actually began. He was sent first to Canada and then on to Pensacola, Florida. Despite undertaking some solo flying he was eventually ‘washed out’ and returned to Canada. When he remustered as a navigator he was then sent back to Pensacola. He discovered an aptitude for this, and passed out in the top six of his class. This earned him the privilege of flying back from Canada to the UK in an RAF-bound Lockheed Ventura with a ferry pilot.
More training in an Advanced Flying Unit took place, and Heal did even better this time, coming top of the class. This was noted when he was then posted to 19 OTU in Kinloss, where he was expected to crew up. Shortly after arriving, he met a group of three Canadians who seemed to know who he was:
“Your name Heal?” asked the pilot, a tall, well-built chap. “Yes,” I said. “Then you’re going to be our navigator,” he said. I looked questioningly at him. “Who says so?” I asked. “I’ve just been to the Navigation Office,” he said. “You were top of your course at AFU so we want you to be our navigator.” I looked at the other two who were obviously in complete agreement with him. I liked the look of all of them and if I considered it all my reaction would have been that here was someone who was interested in survival, which couldn’t be bad. I agreed to join them without further ado. His name was Ken Brown. We shook hands; he introduced the bomb-aimer, Steve Oancia, and the rear gunner, Grant McDonald, and off we went to the NAAFI for a cup of tea. I can honestly say that I never regretted that decision. We then acquired a wireless operator, Hewie Hewstone and from that time on, our being together as a crew was everything.
Dudley Heal, Dudley’s War, unpublished manuscript, c.1993
Instead of being posted to Bomber Command the five man crew were sent to 434 Squadron in St Eval, Cornwall, for two months. Their task was to conduct anti-submarine sweeps in Armstrong Whitley aircraft. In early 1943, this posting came to an end and they went to a conversion unit for the final stage of heavy bomber training. At this point, gunner Don Buntaine and engineer Basil Feneron joined the crew. They were finally posted to an operational squadron in February 1943, joining 44 Squadron in Waddington.
To give him operational experience, Heal was given a first trip with a seasoned pilot, Sgt Forman, on 18 February to Wilhelmshaven. This passed without incident, and on 9 March the Brown crew set off on their first operation together, to Munich. Somehow, they went off course and arrived at the target 45 minutes late and were even later by the time they got home safely. A rather frosty interview with the Navigation Leader followed, but he escaped any retribution.
Less than three weeks later, however, the crew were shocked to be told that they were being posted to a new squadron to take part in a secret operation. Heal’s logbook reveals that he flew on 18 training flights over the next six weeks, all except one with Ken Brown as pilot.
On the Dams Raid itself, Heal found that AJ-F was tending to drift off track, so he had to adjust the courses he was giving to his pilot. But they found no real difficulty in finding their eventual target, the Sorpe Dam. Failing to breach it was a disappointment, but this was mitigated when their return journey took them past the Möhne, and they saw the damage their comrades had caused.
AJ-F’s flight back was eventful, but safely carried out. Even though his compartment was curtained off, Heal could plainly see how dazzling the searchlights were as they faced their final hurdle on the Dutch coast. And later, when he and Brown examined the damage they saw how the fuselage had been extensively holed, just above head height. If Brown hadn’t flown so low, they would have been dead.
Heal received the DFM for his role on the Dams Raid and travelled to Buckingham Palace to receive it. Afterwards he flew on all of the Brown crew’s subsequent operations until it broke up in February 1944. Brown himself had developed hearing problems, and was being sent for medical tests. Heal opted to go to a training post rather than switch to another pilot and crew.
This lasted for a few months, but then early in 1945, he was offered the chance to join 214 Squadron, flying American Fortresses specially equipped for radio counter measures, mainly the “jamming” of German radio signals. All went well for seven operations but then on the eighth, their aircraft suffered engine problems, dropped to 8000 feet and was hit by flak. The crew baled out. Heal and a few others survived and were captured. They were dealt with correctly but some of their crewmates were captured and taken to the village of Huchenfeld, near the town of Pforzheim, which had been severely bombed shortly before. Local civilians, members of the Hitler Youth, broke into the cellar where they were being held, dragged them to a cemetery and shot them.
Heal was held as a prisoner for about two months, and was in a group who were forcibly marched away from the approaching American forces. They were eventually rescued, and made their way to an airbase which was flying PoWs home.
After the war, Heal went back to work for the Customs and Excise service and retired in 1978. He married Thelma Davies and had two daughters. They lived in Southampton.
Dudley Heal died on 7 February 1999, and was cremated at Southampton Crematorium on 16 February 1999.
Thanks to the Heal family for help with this article, and for use of the unpublished manuscript.
More about Heal online:
Dudley Heal – the Hampshire Dambuster, tribute on Waterguard site
214 Squadron site, article about the Huchenfeld incident (scroll down)
214 Squadron site, further information about the Huchenfeld incident
Survived war. Died 7 February 1999.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Dudley Heal, Dudley’s War, unpublished manuscript, c.1993
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 Dudley Heal 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.