Dam Busters film pilot meets Queen

Ken Souter is in the flying helmet on the left of this shot from his own collection. Picture taken during the shooting of flying sequences for The Dam Busters. Pic: The Sun

Dom Howard tipped me off about this recent story in The Sun.

Flt Lt Ken Souter was one of the RAF pilots who flew the Lancasters used in the 1955 film The Dam Busters. He had served in North Africa during the war and in the Malaya Emergency afterwards before being selected to fly the aircraft, which were taken out of storage and hired out to the film company at the princely cost of £130 each per hour.

Now 100 years old, Ken and his wife Brigitta live in a Haig Housing veterans’ retirement home in south London, which was recently visited by the Queen. According to The Sun they met, and then chatted about the card she sent him for his 100th birthday. But then Ken forgot to mention his place in cinema history to the monarch!

The flying re-created for the film was almost as dangerous as that undertaken on the raid itself, Ken later told the newspaper:

“The director wanted two aeroplanes to fly very low over the water and then climb up the side of a mountain. As we flew up the mountain, we were getting lower and lower to the ground. There was nothing we could do about it. We were on maximum power and maximum climb and the ground was coming up fast. We couldn’t climb any more and I thought, ‘This is it’.
How we managed to scrape over the top of that mountain I’ll never know. It was very dodgy but we ­survived. We were flying lower than we had ever flown before, even ­during wartime, and I had arguments with the film company about it.
I kept telling them we were going to be killed, but they insisted.”

Despite the danger, Ken Souter and his colleagues didn’t get any extra money for their work on the film, having to rely only on their normal RAF pay. However, they can be assured that they have their own special place in cinema history, even if Ken forgot to tell the Queen about it.

Thanks to Dom Howard.

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Update on “Gibson letter” to Liddell family

10.45pm UK time: Big result!

Blog reader Arthur Rayner has been in touch, informing me that the “letter from Guy Gibson” about which I blogged this afternoon has now been removed from eBay. Arthur has been in touch with the vendor, who told him that he had “no idea” that the letter might be a fake, and that he had purchased it earlier this year from Alexander Autographs in the USA. He sent the link to this company’s auction site, which you can see here. As you can see, the purchaser paid the sum of $2813 (£2259 according to today’s exchange rate) for the fake letter.

Alexander Auctions has been trading in Maryland, USA, since 1991 and prides itself on its reputation. According to its website it is “a leading auctioneer of fine historic autographs, documents, militaria from all conflicts, and relics.” It has “a renowned reputation as being one of the premier auctioneers of historic autographs and collectibles in Northeast [USA], with our customer base extending across the country and around the world. Our goal is to deliver history into the hands of collectors – it’s how we’ve built our reputation. Thorough research and careful cataloging of items by a professional staff, the utilization of the latest technologies and a priority on customer service, Alexander Historical Auctions can stand behind every piece we sell.”

A badly-executed fake letter concerning the RAF’s most famous Second World War bombing operation must somehow have got through Alexanders’ “thorough research”. I like to think that it wouldn’t have got into a sale from a similar UK-based operation, but past experience suggests that this confidence may be misplaced.

Alexander Auctions have actually had six other Dambusters-related items for sale in the last year, although only one has been sold. The items that came up are:

Correspondence (mainly collected by Alan Cooper)
Estimate $750. Did not sell.

Wooden Lancaster model made for Sgt Stephen Burns
Estimated $600-$700. Did not sell.

Various photographs and signed first day covers
Sold for $50

Letter from Sgt Stephen Burns to family
Estimate $300-$400. Did not sell.

Letter from Flg Off Geoff Rice from Stalag Luft III to family
Estimate $200-$300. Did not sell.

Gauntlets owned by Sgt Stephen Burns
Sold for $1169

Some of these items have been on sale at UK auction houses in the last couple of years. See these items (lot number 1021) sold by DNW for £7000 in May 2016.) It’s not clear whether they were all placed with Alexanders by one particular vendor. Whoever it was that sold the “Liddell” letter probably made a tidy profit. But this would have been eclipsed by the eBay vendor if he had achieved the asked-for price of £14,995 – a cool 575% on the price he paid!

 

“Gibson letter” to Liddell family is fake

A really poor item, purporting to be a letter from Guy Gibson to the family of Jack Liddell, has recently gone on sale on eBay at the preposterous price of £14,995.

It is being offered for sale by a dealer from Sudbury called rcmlez, who seems to have been a dealer only since July 2019, specialising mainly in football-related items.

Even though my observations are based solely on examining the photograph of the item, I have no hesitation in saying that it is a fake. There are a number of reasons behind my decision.

1. Stationery
There are a number of examples of the 56 letters sent from Guy Gibson to members of 617 Squadron who went missing on the Dams Raid still in existence. Four are shown above. In all cases, the letters were typed on a sheet of plain paper, approx 9 × 7 inches, with a royal crest blind-stamped at the top. The fake letter would seem to be on a smaller sheet, probably the traditional writing pad size of approx 5 12 × 7 inches, with an RAF crest printed in blue at the top. This stationery was widely available at RAF stations, particularly in officers’s messes, and was commonly used for personal letters.

2. Layout
The genuine letters were typed by several different typists on a number of machines. However, they all follow a standard layout: each paragraph is indented by the same number of tabs  and there is a line space between them. (The number of tabs seems to vary, which indicates that several different typists were responsible.) In the fake letter, the paragraphs are not separated and the indents differ throughout. This may well be because the paper is a smaller size and therefore the faker had to save space in order to get the text onto one page. This is further exemplified by the very small margins, with the typing extending to the very edge of the paper.

3. Text
In all the genuine letters to non-pilot aircrew there is a reference to the skills and ability of the pilot, with Gibson assuring the recipient that the pilot would have done everything possible to ensure the safety of his crew (the wording varies). This is missing in the fake letter, presumably because of the space issue mentioned above.

4. Closing salutation and signature
In the genuine letters, these all follow the same format. The word “Yours” is typed. Gibson has handwritten “Very Sincerely” and followed this with a signature. In some examples he has added a further message. Underneath the typing reads

Wing Commander
Commanding, 617 Squadron, RAF
_______________________

The fake has the typed words “Very Sincerely”. There follows a poorly-executed fake signature, the typed words “Wing Commander,” and the impression from a rubber stamp “O/C 617 Sqdn.” This rubber stamp has never been seen on any genuine wartime correspondence from any commanding officer of 617 Squadron.

5. Name and address of recipient
This is the clincher!  The fake letter has the wrong name and address for the recipient. Jack Liddell’s father had died in the 1920s, leaving his mother with two small children. By the time Jack joined the RAF she had remarried and used a different surname, and she was known by this surname in 1943 at the time of Jack’s death. Moreover, she and the rest of her family were living at a different address in Weston-super-Mare at this time. (The correct surname and address are known to me, but I have decided not to release them publicly. Similarly, I have chosen not to show large resolution versions of the genuine letters, in the hope that this will make it slightly harder for anyone wanting to produce a better-faked version in the future. It is sad that I have to do this, but such is the nature of the world.)

If this letter was genuine, it would be very valuable but I doubt that it would be worth as much as £14,950. In my view, the item now on sale is completely worthless and I would advise anyone thinking of buying it to back off.

[Thanks to Stephen Murray for the tip]

Rice logbook and medals a hit on Antiques Roadshow

Geoff Rice’s Dambuster story makes its second appearance in this blog in 24 hours after his daughter, Pam Quick, turned up on last Sunday’s BBCTV Antiques Roadshow. She had brought along her father’s logbook and medals, and told his story to expert Mark Smith.

Smith was mightily impressed with her account and described the logbook as the ‘”Holy Grail” of Bomber Command logbooks. He then valued the collection (which is not for sale, by the way!) at £20,000.

UK viewers can watch the whole show again on iPlayer. The Rice item is right at the end, about 53 minutes in.

AJ-H “Damage Report Form” sold on eBay is not genuine

My attention was recently drawn to an item which came up for sale recently on eBay, shown above. This purports to be a wartime form recording the damage suffered by the Lancaster ED936 AJ-H flown by Plt Off Geoff Rice on the Dams Raid. As most regular readers of this blog will know, this aircraft made an early return to base after flying too low over the sea near the Dutch coast and colliding with the water. The impact was severe enough to damage the aircraft quite badly and tear off the bomb it was carrying.

This is the description which appeared on the eBay website. The item was offered for sale by a dealer called 230ocu, who lives in Kent and has been an eBay dealer since 2003. After five bids it was sold for £425.53.

The only other information on the eBay listing was a series of seven photographs of the item. I must emphasise that the commentary which follows is based on an examination of these photographs, and not of the item itself. Here are the two photographs which show the whole item, front and back.

The eBay item is said to be a form entitled “Report on Flying Accident or Forced Landing attributable to Enemy Action”, with the reference number 765(C). However this immediately flags up a problem since there is no evidence that any such form with this exact title and number existed in the second world war period.

As is well known, several of the aircraft used on the Dams Raid suffered damage before returning to base. However, there are no examples of a similar form being used for any of the other aircraft on this operation.

I posted a query about this form on the RAF Commands Forum and none of the experts who read the post could recall seeing a form of this name. There are samples of many of the RAF’s WW2 forms on this site, and those in the 765 series are as follows:

Form 765(A): “Operational Statistical Summary”
Form 765(B): “Operational Statistical Summary, (Non-Operational Flying Units)”
Form 765(C): “Report on Flying Accident or Forced Landing not attributable to Enemy Action”
Form 765(D): “Return of Ammunition Expended” (for fighter squadrons)
Form 765(E): “Weekly Summary of Squadron Expenditure”

It will be noted from the above that there is a genuine Form 765(C), which is the same number as displayed on the eBay item. However, there is absolutely no evidence that there was ever a variation of the genuine form, let alone one with the same reference number. Indeed, if there was such a thing, one would expect it to have been given a new number.

This is an example of the genuine Form 765(C), taken from RAF Commands:

Pics: RAF Commands

Close examination of the genuine form revealed some interesting similarities to the eBay version, and suggested how it might have been put together. The top one-third of the eBay form appears to be identical in typographical arrangement and spacing to the top half of page 1 of the genuine form, sections 1 and 2 (with two important differences which we will come to next). The middle third of the eBay form is identical to section 5 on page 2 of the genuine form. And the bottom third of the eBay form is identical to section 12 on page 4 of the genuine form.

The two important differences are: (1) In removing the word “NOT” from the second line of the heading the line has not been re-centred on the page. (2) All the lines of dots (known in the printing trade as ‘dot leaders’) which appeared in the original form to show the typist or writer which sections have to be filled in have been removed.

I can demonstrate the similarities between the two forms by using my own computer software to make up a replica of the eBay form using the four separate pages of the genuine form. I used Photoshop to erase the typing and dot leaders and InDesign to assemble the relevant sections into a single page. I’ve deliberately left the differences in colour in the erasures and background so that you can see how the different sections are slotted together.


It is noticeable that I was able to re-create the eBay form entirely from the genuine form, with no new typesetting required. I believe that this cannot be a coincidence, and therefore that the eBay form was created in a similar manner.

The fact that the dot leaders are missing in the eBay version suggests that the person who assembled its artwork had to delete them because they were typed over.

Now let us now look at the eBay form in more detail. The next illustration contains my comments both on the typographic anomalies of the form itself (which I have dealt with above) and the text which has been typed onto it, which I will discuss below.

In the section entitled “All Occupants of Aircraft”, which should be numbered as section 4 but is not numbered at all, the names and initials are correctly listed. However, the heading says “Nationality to be quoted if not British”, and there is no mention of the fact that two of the crew (Gowrie and Thrasher) were Canadian.

The fourth section, where service numbers should be listed, has been left blank. I cannot recall ever seeing a service document where a request for service numbers has not been completed.

Turning to the section where the damage is recorded, there are a number of things to note. First, this section has no heading, something which is very unusual for an official form. One would expect it to say something like “Summary of Damage”. The text itself begins with a description of the operation (information that would be recorded on other official documents, rather than here) but there is no mention of the actual damage incurred by the aircraft both at the time of impact with the water and subsequently when landing without a tailwheel. It is known that there was substantial damage to the bomb bay and fairings, but this is not mentioned, let alone recorded in detail.

There is also no reference to the official Category of Damage. This was the normal phrase used in assessing an aircraft which had been in an accident, and would have been self-evident from even a cursory inspection of the aircraft on 17 May. Since the aircraft was on an operational flight and the incident occurred over enemy occupied territory it can be certain that the damage would have been ascribed as F (B) (i.e. a Flying Incident/Battle Damage).

The errors and misspellings in the typing of the text are noted by the vendor, who says that this was common in documents from this era. However, there are many more in this item than one would expect in a document which is likely to have been typed by someone with proficiency as a typist.

As I said at the outset of this article, I have only been able to examine the photographs which appeared on the eBay auction site. If it were possible to look at the actual document, I would expect to see evidence that it was printed by letterpress on paper of a type that was manufactured in the 1940s. I suspect that there would be no such evidence. My research suggests that it has been printed by offset litho, or even by a digital method, by creating artwork from a genuine Form 765(C) constructed in a similar method to the one I have demonstrated above.

In conclusion, I will say that I am quite satisfied that the form which was sold on eBay on 27 September 2019 is not a genuine wartime artifact.

Thanks to Mark Peoples, Dennis Burke, Nigel Favill, Susan Paxton and Dr Robert Owen for help with this article.

New generation at Gibson anniversary tribute

Ivan de Groot, Guy Gibson’s great-great nephew, at the graveside of his ancestor on the 75th anniversary of his death. [Pic: Melvin Chambers]

Wg Cdr Guy Gibson and his navigator Sqn Ldr James Warwick both died on 19 September 1944 when the Mosquito in which they were flying crashed on the outskirts of the small Dutch town of Steenbergen, after taking part in an operation attacking the German towns of Rheydt and Mönchengladbach. They are buried in a joint grave in the Catholic cemetery in Steenbergen, where a ceremony marking the 75th anniversaries of their deaths took place on 19 September 2019.

Pic: Sander van der Hall

About 150 people were present and there were two flypasts: the first by the Wings to Victory organisation and the second by the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight. The ceremony was led by Mr Martien van Dijk.

Wreaths were laid by the following:

  • Mrs Baartmans, Deputy Mayor of Steenbergen
  • Sub Lt Pannell RN, UK Embassy
  • Mr Ivan Tamborero de Groot, great-great nephew of Guy Gibson, on behalf of the Gibson family
  • Mr Aart Walraven, Wings to Victory
  • Mr Glyn Hepworth, 617 Squadron Association
  • Mr Russ Kitely, Group 617 UK
  • Dr R Heinrichs, Royal Netherlands Air Force
  • Representative of RAF Aircrew Association

Ivan de Groot is the great-great nephew of Guy Gibson, and this was his first ever visit to his great-great uncle’s grave. He is 23 and a student at Eindhoven University.

Pic: Sander van der Hall

Thanks to Sander van der Hall and Melvin Chambers.