The first and the last

Len Sumpter, Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson, photographed together in July 1943 as part of the group picture of 617 Squadron aircrew. [Artwork © Dambusters Blog, from image courtesy of Sutherland family.]

We have just passed the 77th anniversary of the day on which nineteen Lancasters of RAF 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack the dams in the Ruhr and Eder valleys. Of the 133 aircrew who participated in what would come to be called the Dams Raid, just 80 survived. Thirty-two more died before the end of the war, leaving 48 men. Official records show that only two men flew on both the first and last operations mounted by 617 Squadron: the Dams Raid on 16 May 1943 and an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair at Berchtesgarten on 25 April 1945. These were Leonard Sumpter and Raymond Wilkinson. However, I believe that a third Dams Raid participant, Douglas Webb, also flew on the final raid even though he did not record it in his logbook. The full story is set out below.

Len Sumpter flew on the Dams Raid as the bomb aimer in David Shannon’s AJ-L. They dropped their Upkeep mine at the Eder Dam, resulting in some superficial damage to the wall. Shortly afterwards, the dam was finally breached by Les Knight and his crew in AJ-N. Later in the war, Sumpter switched to flying as Shannon’s observer in Mosquitoes before joining Ian Marshall’s Lancaster crew.

Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson took part in the Dams Raid as respectively the front and rear gunners in AJ-O, skippered by Bill Townsend. This crew was part of the mobile reserve and attacked the Ennepe Dam, but it failed to breach. Shortly after the Dams Raid the Townsend crew broke up as most of them had completed a tour. Webb and Wilkinson went together to a training unit as instructors, but by the end of 1944, they were both back in 617 Squadron, on their second tour. Wilkinson flew on the final Tirpitz attack on 12 November, in Arthur Kell’s crew. By the following spring, they were both regulars in Ian Marshall’s crew.

At this stage in the war, 617 Squadron was carrying out precision raids with 22,000lb Grand Slam and 12,000lb Tallboy bombs. The squadron had been supplied with 21 Lancasters, known as B.I Special models, which had been built specially for dropping these monster bombs. To reduce weight and because there was a reduced danger of German fighter attack, the mid-upper turret had been removed and the gunner who occupied this space and the wireless operator were not carried. Official records, such as the Operations Records Book, usually show blanks in these two positions, as can be seen in the entry below for the Marshall crew on 25 April 1945, who were flying in PD134.

The crew is shown here as Ian Marshall (pilot), Frank Cholerton (flight engineer), Kenneth Newby, (navigator), Len Sumpter (bomb aimer) and Ray Wilkinson (rear gunner).

The presence of both Sumpter and Wilkinson is confirmed by their logbooks, shown below:

Pic: Sumpter family

Pic: War & Son

However, the official listing may not be entirely correct. There may have been an extra passenger on board – something that is hinted at in a fascinating photograph contained in Len Sumpter’s family archive. According to Sumpter, this was taken just before take off:

 

Pic: Sumpter family

On the reverse, in Sumpter’s writing, the five aircrew are identified as (L-R) Flt Lt L Sumpter, Flg Off K Newby, Flt Lt I Marshall, Flg Off D Webb and Sgt K Tollerton. The caption seems to have been written some time after the war, which may be why he recorded the type of bomb incorrectly: PD134 was carrying a Tallboy rather than a Grand Slam bomb. There are also discrepancies in the names he recorded. He says that the man on the far right is Sgt K Tollerton. It’s possible that he wrote this a number of years later, thinking of Frank Cholerton. However the man bears a strong resemblance to Ray Wilkinson, who we know was on the raid. Update September 2020: Man on far right is not Ray Wilkinson, according to his granddaughter. See comment below.

Sumpter has also identified the fourth man from the left as Doug Webb. It certainly looks like him but, as we have seen, he is not listed in the ORB entry. Nor did Webb record the flight in his own logbook, as can be seen below. So if Webb was on this operation, he was there unofficially!

Pic: Yak El Droubie

It is known that at this stage of the war, the Lancaster B.I Specials sometimes carried an extra man, perhaps as an extra spotter for enemy aircraft. So this might explain Webb’s presence – or maybe he just wanted to get the chance to be there when the force attacked Hitler’s ‘bunker’, which it was rumoured would be the place where the Führer might make a last stand.

Wilkinson and Webb did not know, of course, that this would be the squadron’s last Second World War operation, but the pair had been friends since their days together in 49 Squadron. Here they are, photographed together outside Buckingham Palace on the day the Dams Raid crews received their decorations:

Left to right: Ray Wilkinson, Doug Webb, Charles Franklin, Bill Townsend, Jack Grain [not on Dams Raid], Lance Howard. [Pic: Yak El Droubie.]

Further enquiries are being made to confirm the identities of the men in Sumpter’s photograph, and this article will be updated when this information is received.

[My 2018 book, The Complete Dambusters, will be updated with this information in the next edition. Further information about the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in the book, published by History Press.]

2 thoughts on “The first and the last

  1. Kate September 9, 2020 / 9:03 pm

    Definitely not Ray Wilkinson in the Sumpter photograph! I cannot see the resemblance you refer to (I’m one of Ray’s granddaughters).

    • charlesfoster September 10, 2020 / 1:22 am

      Dear Kate
      Thanks for this comment. I’ve updated the blog to say it isn’t Ray. Therefore, it must be Frank Cholerton. I wonder why Ray isn’t in the picture?
      CF

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