Sgt R Wilkinson
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.
Raymond Wilkinson was the only child of Christopher and Margaret Wilkinson and was born on 1 September 1922 in South Shields on Tyneside. His father was a miner. Wilkinson worked briefly as a joiner’s apprentice before joining the RAF in 1941. He qualified as an air gunner in the summer of 1942 and was posted to 49 Squadron where he became one of Bill Townsend’s core crew, along with Dennis Powell, Lance Howard and fellow gunner Doug Webb. He flew on more than twenty operations before the crew were transferred to the new 617 Squadron in March 1943.
As AJ-O flew low across the Dutch and German countryside on the way to its target, Wilkinson was credited with shooting out some searchlights near Ahlen and he was awarded the DFM for his role on the raid.
In July 1943, he flew with Bill Townsend on two of the raids on Italian targets, and then in September he was posted as tour expired. He was sent to a conversion unit for a spell as an instructor, along with his mid-upper gunner colleague Doug Webb. The pair moved on to other training roles but just over a year later, in October 1944, they both came back on operations with 617 Squadron. By then Wilkinson had been commissioned.
At this stage in the war, 617 Squadron was carrying out precision raids with 12,000lb Tallboy bombs. Wilkinson joined the crew of the Australian pilot Flt Lt Arthur Kell, and his first operation of this new tour was an unsuccessful attack on the Tirpitz, moored in a Norwegian fiord, which took place on 28 October. Both 617 and 9 Squadrons were armed with Tallboys and set off from Lossiemouth in Scotland on a trip which took more than twelve hours. In very bad weather, the ship was hit by several bombs but was not sunk. After the war it emerged that it had in fact been badly damaged and was no longer seaworthy, but this was not apparent to the Allies. So a similar force set off from Lossiemouth on 12 November to attack it again and once more Wilkinson was in the Kell crew. They dropped one of the four Tallboys which landed directly on the ship. The combined effect was spectacular, although it was not confirmed until the following day when reconnaissance showed the Tirpitz had capsized, with the bottom of the hull visible above the water.
Wilkinson therefore has the unique honour of being the only person to have taken part in both the Dams Raid and the final successful attack on the Tirpitz.
By the New Year Wilkinson and Webb were both in Ian Marshall’s crew. To save weight and because there was a reduced danger of German fighter attack, the mid-upper gunner was often not carried and it seems that they decided to take turns flying in the rear turret.
In March 1945 the even bigger 22,000lb Grand Slam came into service. By then the squadron had been supplied with 21 Lancasters, known as the B.I Special model, which had been built specifically for dropping these monster bombs. There is however some evidence that some aircrew carried on flying unofficially, perhaps to act as spotters.
Altogether in his second spell at 617 Squadron Wilkinson flew on about sixteen operations, including the raids on the U Boat pens at Ijmuiden and the Bielefeld viaduct, before 617 Squadron’s last wartime operation, an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair on 25 April 1945. His colleague Len Sumpter, another Dams Raid participant, also flew on this sortie, making them the only two people to take part in 617 Squadron’s first and last wartime operations.
Wilkinson had met his future wife, Iris Riordan, a WAAF who worked as a telephonist shortly before the Dams Raid. They married in 1944 and they attended the Royal Premiere of The Dam Busters in 1955. They moved to Australia some time later, and he died in Noble Park, Victoria on 27 July 1980.
Survived war. Died 27 July 1980.
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 Ray Wilkinson 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.