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.
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.