Mick Martin speaking at RI 1981 Christmas Lecture

Mick Martin speaking about the Dams Raid at the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1981. 

The Christmas Lectures at London’s Royal Institution have been a seasonal staple in the BBC TV schedule for years – perhaps more popular with adults than children. This enchantingly low tech example comes from the 1981 series, given by Professor R V Jones of the University of Aberdeen. At the beginning of the war, Jones had moved from his job at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough to the Air Ministry where he became Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science).

Jones’s series of lectures were on the subject of navigation and entitled “From Magna Carta to Microchip”. The fifth lecture, which can be seen here in full, discussed navigation techniques during the second world war. One of the guest demonstrators during the lecture was none other than the recently retired Air Marshal Sir Harold Martin, who was of course much better known to the public as “Mick” Martin, the pilot of AJ-P on the Dams Raid.

It is good to see Mick looking hale and hearty. Professor Jones’s lecturing technique may not be of the highest order, but the whole reminds us that we don’t always need more modern presentational gimmicks to get a message across.

[Thanks to Norman Wells and PPRuNe for the tip.]

Your Christmas film: The Dam Busters on Channel 4 today

Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters is being shown again on Channel 4 today at 1.35pm UK time. It now seems to be a regular feature on both the main channel and Film Four.

Experience shows that this will result in a number of first time visitors reading this blog, so if this is you, welcome aboard. This is the one-stop shop for all Dambuster-related news and information, coming to you regularly for twelve years. I try to publish several items every month so please check back regularly. You can ensure you see every post by clicking the “Follow blog by email” button in the right hand column.

If you are searching today for information on when Peter Jackson’s new version of the 1955 film will appear, the news is simply that there is no news. Jackson bought the rights to remake the film back in 2006. At various times he has announced that a director has been appointed, that a script has been commissioned and that a number of life size model Lancasters have been built. However, in the fourteen years since the remake was announced he has been busy making three Hobbit films and a number of other projects and the Dambusters remake no longer appears in his IMDB listing. Make of that what you will.

If you want to see a list of the 133 men who took part in the Dams Raid, you can find it here. My recent book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018, contains a full biography and a photograph of each man and can be ordered direct from the publishers, the usual online booksellers or your local bookshop.


Christmas during a crisis

Christmas 1942: A group of young children at Fen Ditton Junior School in Cambridgeshire design and make their own seasonal decorations. [Pic: IWM 23619]

Safe to say, this has been a year like no other in modern memory. However, there are brighter prospects ahead so, whatever happens during the next twelve months, many greetings from the Dambusters Blog in the hope that all our readers everywhere have a safe and happy future.


New picture of Canadian pilot Gordon Price and crew

Canadian pilot Gordon Price and five of his crew, photographed in 617 Squadron sometime in early 1945. Left to right: Flg Off Joseph Merchant (bomb aimer), Wrt Off G E Hartley (flight engineer), Sgt D V Sargison (rear gunner), Flt Lt Gordon Price (pilot), Sgt Charles Avey (mid-upper gunner), Sgt K Pocock (wireless operator). Absent: Flt Sgt H Kohl (navigator).
[Pic: Merchant family]

A second wartime picture of the late Charles Avey has emerged, 24 hours after the first. One of his crewmates was bomb aimer Joe Merchant, whose son Peter has kindly sent me a rarely seen photograph of the crew skippered by the Canadian pilot, Flt Lt Gordon Price. The crew came straight to 617 Squadron from Lancaster Finishing School on 9 December 1944, and flew on some eleven operations before the end of the war, including the bombing of the Lutzow, which they hit with the decisive Tallboy.

Addendum, 16 December 2020: Sgt Gordon Richard Price was born in 1922 and joined the RCAF in Montreal in April 1941. He flew a first tour of operations with 106 Squadron at RAF Syerston between November 1942 and April 1943 and was then posted to 1661 Conversion Unit as an instructor. He received the DFM in May 1943, and was then commissioned. He was posted to 617 Squadron in December 1944 to start a second tour of operations.
The aircraft in the picture is PD112 – YZ-S. This was the first Lancaster to drop a Grand Slam, which it did on 14 March 1945 at the Bielefeld Viaduct. On this occasion it was piloted by Sqn Ldr Charles (“Jock”) Calder.
[Hat tips to Clive Smith and Robert Owen for this information.]

Snow drops a clanger in hangar

Dan Snow, on the wrong spot. 

Last week’s three-part documentary series, broadcast on Channel 5, had a number of errors. A major one is discussed here.

This concerns the near catastrophe caused when the Upkeep mine was dropped accidentally onto the ground from Mick Martin’s aircraft AJ-P soon after it had been loaded by the squadron’s armourers. This did not take place inside a hangar, as so energetically described by Dan Snow in the programme, but several hundred yards away in the open air on each aircraft’s concrete hardstanding. Wartime bombing-up, as the process was called, never took place in the confined space of a hangar. It was simply too dangerous.

It is true that Martin and some of his crew, including bomb aimer Bob Hay, were inside AJ-P checking that things had been loaded correctly when the incident occurred. What followed was memorably described by Paul Brickhill in his 1951 book:

“… a fault developed in the bomb release circuit, the release snapped back and there was a crunch as the giant black thing fell and crashed through the concrete hardstanding, embedding itself 4 inches into the earth below. …
‘Release wiring must be faulty,’ Hay said professionally, and then it dawned on him and he said in a shocked voice, ‘it might have fused itself.’ He ran, yelling madly out of the nose, ‘Get out of here. She’ll go off in less than a minute.’ Bodies came tumbling out of the escape hatches, saw the tails of the armourers vanishing into the distance and set off after them. Martin jumped into the flight van near by and, with a grinding of gears, roared off to get Doc Watson. He had his foot hard down on the accelerator and swears that a terrified armourer passed him on a push-bike. He ran into Watson’s office and panted out the news and Watson said philosophically, ‘Well, if she was going off she’d have gone off by this.’ ”
Paul Brickhill, The Dam Busters, Evans 1951, pp71-72

It’s not mentioned by Brickhill, but it seems that WAAF officer Fay Gillon was also on board AJ-P at the time of the accident. She was a friend of Martin and his crew, and was being given a tour.

Plt Off Henry (“Doc”) Watson MBE was the squadron’s Armaments Officer.

For the record, two other smaller errors:
Episode 2: Only two models of the targets were shown to the crews at the briefing (and earlier to Gibson). These were of the Möhne and Sorpe Dams. The Eder Dam model wasn’t completed until after the raid.
Episode 3:
Martin was not the first to touch down at Scampton after dropping his mine. He arrived at 0319. Maltby arrived eight minutes earlier, at 0311.


Charles Avey: a wartime picture

Pic: Avey family

Wartime 617 Squadron member Flt Sgt Charles Avey died in July this year, as I reported at the time.

I was unable to source a wartime picture of him, but am happy to say that I can now publish one, courtesy of his niece Lisa Ingham.

Avey joined 617 Squadron in December 1944 as the mid-upper gunner in a crew skippered by the Canadian pilot Flt Lt G R Price. He flew on some eleven operations in Price’s crew before the end of the war.

I’m sorry to say that there are only a handful of 617 Squadron wartime veterans still with us. We salute them one and all.

Why buy a fake?

This is very odd.

Back in 2015 I wrote about an item which was advertised for sale at a respectable Stourbridge auction house. This was said to be a telegram sent in 1944 to 617 Squadron by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris about the death on operations of Guy Gibson and his navigator Sqn Ldr James Warwick. Even without seeing the item, I listed five separate reasons why I considered that the telegram was a worthless modern fake and I’m glad to say that the auctioneers agreed and removed it from sale.

But now, a photograph of the same item has emerged for sale on eBay. Yours for the princely sum of £3.50. (Don’t all rush at once.)

It’s being sold by someone with the catchy vendor name of 4256970mnr, who seems to specialise in making photographs of other photographs, chiefly of Dams Raid artefacts. The most expensive item he has for sale is going for £9, so it’s not a highly lucrative business.

But what is most puzzling is Mr Mnr’s description of the Harris “telegram”:

“The original telegram is doubted to be genuine – but is of interest.” There’s no doubt about it. It’s a fake, pure and simple. I wouldn’t spend even £3.50 on it.

One-and-a-half million hits today

Around about 1.20 this afternoon this blog clicked up its one and a half millionth visitor, so a hearty welcome to whoever it was!

The blog was set up in May 2008, and the first half million views took place over the next 62 months, with the number being reached in June 2013. The millionth visitor arrived in May 2017, 46 months later. And today’s target was hit 42 months after this. You could therefore say that the pace is hotting up.

You might also be interested to know that there have been 658 posts over the 150 months that the blog has been operating, which works out at 4.38 posts per month. And, as you can see from the screen shot at the top of the page, there have been 2870 comments, most of them being complimentary and/or helpful. So keep them coming, and here’s to the next half-million hits!

The Dambusters Derry Boy

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Sgt Richard Bolitho on left, with two other air gunners, Sgt Adams (centre) and Sgt Julian Bracegirdle (right). Photograph probably taken while at Air Gunnery School, summer of 1942. [Pic: Bate family]

Richard Bolitho was born on 19 January 1920 in 38 Clarendon Street, Derry/Londonderry in what is now Northern Ireland. His birth predates the partition of Ireland in 1921 into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Bolitho was the only man to take part in the Dams Raid to be born on the island of Ireland.

It is thought that the property was a maternity home at the time, but it is now offices and can be seen on a local estate agent’s website. It is occupied by a counselling service.

Clarendon Street is described by the agent as “the city’s best known ‘professional’ street – home to many professional businesses of long standing. It would be considered as a ‘prestigious’ address within the city.

Historically, it has been an area where wealthy merchants and professionals chose to live. Today, the street is dominated by accountancy, legal and medically related practices, but a number of properties have recently reverted to a residential function, restoring the striking Georgian facades to their former glory.”

Richard’s father William Bolitho was a commercial traveller in the seed business, originally from Cornwall. He had stayed on in Ireland after meeting and marrying a local woman, Jane Cuthbertson, the daughter of a land steward. They were married in Derry’s Church of Ireland cathedral on 14 November 1916, when William was 37 and Jane was 40. Richard was an only child.

In 1927 the family moved to England, first to Roose in Cumberland, where Richard attended the local school. The family then bought a hotel in Kimberley, Nottinghamshire. Richard moved in with his aunt Emily, who owned a fruit and vegetable shop in the town. He was educated at the local Church Hill School and then won a scholarship to the nearby Heanor Secondary School (later Heanor Grammar School) in 1931. He joined the RAF in 1940, but wasn’t selected for aircrew training until early in 1942

After qualifying as an air gunner, he was posted to an operational training unit, where he crewed up with Max Stephenson, Floyd Wile, Don Hopkinson and Albert Garshowitz. The five were then selected for heavy bomber training and John Kinnear and Frank Garbas were added to the crew.

Their first posting to 9 Squadron was cut short when Stephenson was killed while flying with another crew. The remaining six were sent on to 57 Squadron at Scampton, and assigned to Bill Astell. They first flew together on 13 February 1942, on an operation to Lorient. Seven further operations followed until some six weeks later when they were all posted to the new 617 Squadron, based at the same station.

After several more weeks of training Bolitho spent his last leave before the Dams Raid in early May 1943 at his home in Kimberley. He brought two of his Canadian colleagues, Floyd Wile and Albert Garshowitz, and the Scot John Kinnear along as his guests.

All would die together near Marbeck in Germany just a few days later, in the early hours of Monday 17 May 1943, and they are buried together in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, having been reinterred after the war from their original graves in Borken.

In 1946, three years after his death, his parents returned to Northern Ireland where they lived in the coastal resort of Portrush, and spent the rest of their lives there. The fact that they retired to Portrush has led a number of sources to claim that Richard was born in Portrush. However, this is not the case – he was a Derry Boy.

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Richard Bolitho remembered on the war memorial from Heanor Grammar School, now relocated to Marpool Church, Nottinghamshire. [Pic: Heanor & District History Local History Society.]

More about Bolitho online:
Commonwealth War Grave Commission entry
Kimberley War Memorial
Bolitho family history website
Aircrew Remembered webpage about Astell crew

Further information about Richard Bolitho 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.

Channel 5’s Dambusters pipedream

Presenter Dan Snow uses a pipe to channel the spirit of Guy Gibson while sitting in his Scampton office.

Filmed and put together in the summer and autumn of 2020, the first part of Channel 5’s new three-episode documentary The Dambusters Story was shown on UK television tonight. All in all, it was a competent and well-organised retelling of Operation Chastise, and introduced a few new faces into the normal cast of talking heads.

As it was shot during lockdown, the producers only got limited access to the operation’s real life locations. Fortunately these included RAF Bomber Command’s 5 Group headquarters in Grantham, now a private house, so presenter Dan Snow could describe how Guy Gibson had to wait outside his CO’s office by sitting down himself on a chair in the actual hallway. Much of the rest of the action took place at RAF Scampton, both inside and outside (a Red Arrow could be glimpsed in the distance in some external scenes) and at East Kirkby airfield where a genuine wartime Lancaster is preserved. This gave many different shots for Snow to exploit. He used the aircraft both as a prop – a pat on the fuselage, a push on the propellor – and as a stage from which to address the camera, sitting in the cockpit and the front and rear turrets. The German dams themselves were too far to travel for the rest of the exterior shots, so Snow was reduced to delivering many of his lines from the much smaller British dam in the Peak District which had been used for target practice, and while standing on a beach which frankly could have been anywhere.

There was also plenty of reliance on CGI, especially for the raid itself, and those slow motion reconstructed shots much loved by modern directors of actors doing things – smoking, chatting, lying on the grass, climbing in and out of aircraft, and talking on the intercom while in flight. These were added to with heavily repeated use of the few bits of archive newsreel footage featuring Gibson, and also with stock wartime film of Lancasters in flight and RAF chaps going about their business.

The script stuck heavily to the familiar narrative. Barnes Wallis, a ‘maverick inventor’ (neither word being one which I suspect Wallis himself would be happy with), designed a literally revolutionary weapon which could be used to attack Germany’s great dams. Sceptical civil servants and RAF chiefs were eventually persuaded to back his project, but gave him only about two months in which to get the work finished. A special bomber squadron was set up, given the number 617, and commanded by the young Wing Commander Gibson, who was widely respected even though he could be a tyrannical leader. Almost 150 men were posted to the squadron (the solecism that they were all ‘hand-picked’ by Gibson was fortunately not repeated). The raid was largely successful, but 53 of the 133 men who took part were killed. There was tremendous loss of life on the ground, with hundreds of captured women forced into a labour camp being the most egregious. Wallis was desolated at the loss of life.

There were some things that jarred. We were told about Cyril Anderson and his crew who returned with their bomb and were then sent back to their original squadron, “in disgrace”. No mention, however, of how they had a jammed rear turret and couldn’t see the target because of fog. Or that Anderson’s crew were devoted to him – all six of them never flew with another pilot. The whole crew went on to undertake 14 more operations and they died together when they were shot down by a German night fighter four months later.

There were also some errors, the most obvious being that “bombing-up” took place inside the hangars. Some sort of accident did cause Martin’s mine to fall off his aircraft accidentally during this procedure, but it happened on the hardstanding.

This repetition of the same old narrative of the Dams Raid makes one hanker for the producer who one day will go for its many untold stories, and explore them in a TV documentary.

Some of these were hinted at here, but others were passed over. There were at least four men who had pregnant wives, and two of these died. A number had only flown on a handful of operations – one, on his first, won the DFM for his meticulous navigation. There was also a wireless operator due to get married the following week and a navigator who had been asked by a doctor whether a recent case of VD had been acquired from an ‘amateur’ or a prostitute. The only child of Anderson, mentioned above, and his wife died aged four months just three weeks before he was sent to 617 Squadron. These are the personal stories, but there are questions about the tactics as well. Why wasn’t sufficient thought given to the method of attacking the Sorpe Dam? And why weren’t the post-operation repair works targeted later in the year? The latter was mentioned by Max Hastings in one of his contributions, but the subject deserves a lot more research and the answer may well be buried in files at the National Archives.

A three pipe problem, indeed, for today’s band of TV historians to get stuck into.

There are two more episodes, to be transmitted on Wednesday and Thursday. This review has been compiled after watching all three.

Review on The Arts Desk.
Review on iNews