Dambuster of the Day No. 120: William Townsend

Townsend CrewbigBill Townsend and five of his crew, outside Buckingham Palace in June 1943. Left to right: Ray Wilkinson (rear gunner), Douglas Webb (front gunner), Charles Franklin (bomb aimer), Bill Townsend, Jack Grain (who had been the wireless operator in Townsend’s crew in 49 Squadron but did not transfer to 617 Squadron), Lance Howard (navigator). Note that Townsend is now wearing an officer’s uniform, having received a commission earlier in the month. [Pic: Yahya El Droubie]

Flt Sgt W C Townsend DFM

Lancaster serial number: ED886/G

Call sign: AJ-O

Third wave. Only aircraft to attack Ennepe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.

William Clifford Townsend was born on 12 January 1921 in Gloucestershire, the son of William and Kathleen Townsend. He went to Monmouth School. Shortly after the war started he joined the army, but then managed to transfer into the RAF in May 1941.

He was selected for pilot training, qualified as a pilot early in 1942 and in June of that year was posted to 49 Squadron. He undertook two “gardening” operations during September 1942, and his first bombing trip was to Wismar on 1 October.

By the end of March 1943, Townsend had completed 26 operations and been recommended for a DFM. His regular crew included five of the men who would fly with him on the Dams Raid: flight engineer Denis Powell, navigator Lance Howard, bomb aimer Charles Franklin, and air gunners Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson. The crew therefore fitted precisely into the category from which 617 Squadron’s crews were supposed to have been selected. Quite why 49 Squadron chose to add the far less experienced Cyril Anderson and his crew to the transfer is not known.

Townsend’s regular wireless operator Jack Grain declined the opportunity to transfer to 617 Squadron, as he was getting married, so when the crew arrived at Scampton they did not have anyone to fill this position. However, George Chalmers, a Scot who had already done a full tour in 35 Squadron, had arrived at the station without a crew, and was fitted in.

Training went ahead throughout April and early May, but dummy Upkeep weapons were in short supply, so Townsend never actually dropped one before the raid. Instead, he flew as second pilot with Les Munro on one test flight at Reculver. Munro flew so low that when the weapon was dropped the resultant splash damaged the rear turret.

So it was that Townsend took his place in the mobile reserve, taking off from Scampton at 0014. He had some difficulty getting the heavily-laden AJ-O into the air, just crawling over the boundary hedge. As they approached the Dutch coast, they saw flak far ahead on their port side, probably that which shot down Lewis Burpee and his crew. Turning correctly at the tip of Schouwen, they crossed the coast at 0131.

At 0145, they received another warning about flak at Dülmen and almost immediately were caught in a searchlight. According to Lance Howard’s account Townsend “threw that heavily-laden Lancaster around like a Tiger Moth and we flew out of it.” Several more incidents followed in the next few minutes and at one point they flew along a firebreak in a forest, below the level of the trees.

With all this activity, it is perhaps not surprising that AJ-O did not receive radio messages from Group HQ about the breaching of the Möhne and Eder. However, a message sent at 0226 was acknowledged. This ordered AJ-O to proceed to the Ennepe Dam. At about the same time, Ottley and Anderson were ordered to attack the Lister and Diemel Dams respectively.

With hindsight, it would seem to be a tactical error by Group HQ not to have concentrated attacks by the mobile reserve on the most important remaining target, the Sorpe Dam. Indeed, a second message was sent to Ottley to change to this target but he had already been shot down.

When AJ-O reached the Ennepe Dam, the crew found the target obscured by mist. Also, when they started spinning their Upkeep mine it made the aircraft judder alarmingly. However, after three attempts, they managed to drop it at 0337. Although it bounced twice, it exploded short of the dam which remained intact. Townsend hung around for a while waiting to see if others would arrive, but then set off for home. On the way they passed over the Möhne and saw for themselves the extent of the devastation already wreaked.

In his authoritative account of the Dams Raid, John Sweetman discusses the theory that Townsend and his crew actually attacked the Bever Dam, which has a similar shape to the Ennepe, and is nearby. It was not on the list of Operation Chastise targets. The Bever has an earth core, similar to the Sorpe, and was therefore not suitable for a head-on attack. (John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, pp 221-224.)

With dawn breaking, AJ-O had an eventful journey back to base. As they approached Texel on the Dutch coast the Germans depressed a heavy flak gun on them and deliberately bounced shells off the water, a tactic which Lance Howard later described as ‘hardly cricket’. Townsend and George Chalmers later both recalled seeing the shells actually bouncing over them.

Townsend turned to starboard and flew back towards Germany, before turning to port once more and finding a new track through the danger. On the way back across the North Sea an oil gauge showed that one engine was faulty and it was shut down. They finally landed at 0615, the last crew to return from Operation Chastise. They were met on the hardstanding by a group of Bomber Command’s most senior officers, including AOC ‘Bomber’ Harris, whom the exhausted Townsend failed to recognise and pushed past. It was however, as front gunner Doug Webb later recalled, a piece of ‘superb flying’ which had brought them home.

Townsend was awarded the CGM for his role in the Dams Raid. Five of his crew were also given medals, making them the second most decorated Dams Raid crew after Gibson’s. He flew on just two further operations in 617 Squadron, both in July 1943 when the squadron was sent on raids on Italian targets with a stopover in Blida, Algeria. He had by then completed a full tour, and in September he was posted to a training role. He remained in the RAF until 1946.

Bill Townsend married his wife Eileen in 1947 and they had three children. At one point he and his wife owned a pub in Oxford, but he later worked as a civil servant, including a spell in the Department of Employment in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire.

Bill Townsend died in Bromsgrove on 9 April 1991. His funeral took place in Lickey Church, Bromsgrove, on 15 April and he was then cremated at Redditch crematorium.

More about Townsend online:
Copy of logbook held in RAF Museum
Page on 49 Squadron website

Survived war. Died 9 April 1991.

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 Bill Townsend 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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