Wing Commander John Bell hits his century

Wg Cdr John Bell. [Pic: 617 Squadron Association.]

Guest post by Dr Robert Owen, official historian, 617 Squadron Association.

Wing Commander John Bell MBE, DFC, L d’H, the last British wartime aircrew member of No. 617 Squadron, will be 100 on Saturday 25 March 2023. As a bomb aimer, serving initially with No. 619 Sqn and then No. 617 Sqn, John is a veteran of 50 operations over enemy territory. 

Though born in Essex, John’s family moved to rural Surrey for “better air”. He left school in the summer of 1939, aged 16, just before war was declared and went to work for a firm of chartered accountants in the City of London. Soon, his evenings and weekends were occupied as a member of the local Home Guard platoon. Seeing the Battle of Britain being fought overhead during work visits to Kent, he determined to join the Royal Air Force as soon as he was able, and like many saw himself as a dashing young pilot. 

Rather than wait to be called up, in June 1941 he presented himself as a volunteer at the recruiting office in Worcester Park. Sent to a medical board in Oxford he found his hopes of becoming a pilot dashed. At 6 ft 4 ins, he was too tall. Instead, he was offered an alternative which to him “sounded interesting” of being trained as an observer and air gunner. Accepting this, he was called up in September 1941. 

After the usual spell at the Aircrew Reception Centre, Regents Park (Lord’s cricket ground) and several months in Torquay with No. 13 Initial Training Wing, he was sent to Eastbourne to learn the basics of navigation. The next stage of his training would take him farther afield.  

In May 1942 he boarded a troopship bound for South Africa, to continue his navigation and bomb aiming training as an observer at No 45 Air School, Oudstshoorn, followed by a gunnery course in Airspeed Oxfords. In early 1943 he returned to the UK via New York.  

Destined for Bomber Command, his next stage was with No. 14 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Cottesmore where he was to first meet members of his future crew, captained by Bob Knights. Crewing up was a seemingly haphazard affair, sufficient trainee aircrew of the relevant trades were assembled in a hangar and told to sort themselves into crews. 

John recalls: ‘I remember standing there with a Canadian navigator, probably looking a bit lost, both of us thinking, “How do we find a good pilot?” Then a rear gunner came up and said to us, “I’ve got a pilot, come with me.”’

Although flying training at the OTU was conducted using Vickers Wellingtons, by this stage Bomber Command was building up its might with the new four engined Lancaster and had introduced the “pilot, bomb aimer, navigator (PNB) scheme”. Observers now had to choose between the latter two trades. Since his bomb aiming was better than his navigation, the decision was made for him, which meant additional training, since the Mark IX on which John had trained was now being replaced by the Mark XIV sight which was not only easier to set but also allowed greater tactical freedom.  

From OTU the crew transferred to No. 1660 Conversion Unit at Swinderby, in June 1943, converting initially to the twin engine Avro Manchester, before transferring to the superlative Lancaster. Here they also acquired the final member of their crew, flight engineer Ernie Twells. After a month’s conversion they were declared operational and on 30 June posted to the recently formed No. 619 Squadron, based at Woodhall Spa.  

After three weeks further training, during which Bob Knights flew his initial “dicky mission” with another crew, on 24 July they were detailed to attack Hamburg. The next night saw them out again, against Essen and then on 27 July it was back to Hamburg to continue Bomber Command’s major onslaught against this German port. On this occasion the port inner engine burst into flames on the outward journey. Knights extinguished the fire, but the aircraft would not maintain height. Undeterred, they pressed on to the target, bombing from 10,000 feet, with the main force twice that height above. Two nights later they were back over Hamburg again, such was the pace of operations. 

Between August 1943 and January 1944, the period of the Battle of Berlin, the crew flew to the ‘Big City’ no fewer than eight times. On 20 October, during a trip to Leipzig their two inboard engines cut owing to icing.  

“We were plunging down towards the earth with a full bomb load. We had to release the bombs to release the weight on the aircraft and the flight engineer managed to get the engines working at a height of 10,000ft so we were down pretty low. 

Now, with no bomb load and the rear turret unserviceable they had no option but to turn for home. 

Other targets during this period included Munich, Kassel, Hannover, and a trip to Frankfurt when they also carried Army War Correspondent Anthony Cotterell.   

By January 1944, Knights had completed his tour although the others needed to fly on more trips to complete. Rather than remain with No. 619 Sqn and fly with a different captain, they decided that it was better to stay together, and opted to volunteer to join No. 617 Sqn. It would mean going straight into a second tour of 20 operations without the usual respite of a period instructing at an OTU, but it seemed the best thing to do. 

After an interview with Leonard Cheshire, the crew were accepted and after a brief leave arrived at Coningsby on 29 January 1944. Within a fortnight they found themselves back at Woodhall Spa, as 617 and 619 swapped airfields to give the former more security and more dispersals. 

At this time 617 were using the 12,000lb HC blast bomb (not to be confused with the later ‘Tallboy’) and were about to embark on precision attacks against factory targets in occupied France and Belgium. The attacks required extreme accuracy in order to prevent unacceptable casualties to civilians. To achieve this, 617 were equipped with the Stabilised Automatic Bomb Sight (SABS) and Leonard Cheshire and Mick Martin would pioneer a low level marking technique to provide bomb aimers like John with a small and precise aiming point. The SABS could produce remarkable results, but it required very precise flying and close-knit teamwork amongst the crew.  

After a week of practice, the crew were ready for their first operation with 617, an attack on the Gnome-Rhone aero engine factory at Limoges, on 8/9 February, which was a spectacular success. At the end of the month John was commissioned. 

Further factory targets followed. Inevitably there were a few failures, mainly due to weather and visibility, but the technique was proven, and Leonard Cheshire and three other selected pilots were given Mosquitoes with which to place the markers. The Squadron began to lead other No. 5 Group attacks against targets such as the Paris rail yards at La Chapelle and Juvisy, and even heavily defended German targets such as Munich. 

Then suddenly, at the beginning of May 1944, the Squadron was stood down for a month to practice for a special operation to be conducted on the eve of D-Day. Operation “Taxable” involved precise flying and navigation carefully calculated tracks over the Channel between Newhaven and Cap d’Antifer, while other crew members, including John, despatched bundles of “Window” (strips of aluminium foil) at exactly timed intervals. The purpose of the operation was to create the impression on German coast-watching radar, of an invasion force of ships approaching the coast, while the real invasion force, employing counter-measures to mask its presence, approached the landing beaches of Normandy.  

The operation was a success, but within two nights, the Squadron was called upon to make a precision attack against a railway tunnel at Saumur. The operation would also be the baptism of fire for the Squadron’s latest weapon, Barnes Wallis’s 12,000 lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bomb. Given that the Squadron had done no bombing practice for over a month the results achieved by John and his colleagues were remarkable. One Tallboy was a direct hit on the hillside directly above the entrance, bringing down tons of earth and rock into the tunnel, others severed the rail tracks and blocked the cutting leading to the entrance. By doing so, they severely restricted the movement of reinforcements to the Normandy battlefront. 

Wallis’s intention had been for his bomb to be dropped alongside structures such as the massive concrete blockhouses constructed by the Germans as part of their V-weapon campaign. Damage would be caused by the shockwaves transmitted through the earth. This was achieved to great effect by a Tallboy released by John on 17 July 1944, against the potential V-2 launch site at Wizernes in the Pas de Calais. The target was a large concrete dome on the top of a quarry face, protecting underground workings. John’s Tallboy struck the edge of the dome, causing part of the quarry to fall away, undermining the structure. 

Although ‘Tallboy’ had not been developed to penetrate concrete, it was the only weapon in the RAF’s armoury capable of damaging the substantial E- and U-boat pens that were bases for naval forces which could disrupt the Allied convoys supplying the invasion forces. By August 1944 the Squadron’s attention was focused on these structures. But by this time John had completed 50 operations, (for which he would be awarded the DFC) and it was again time to consider coming off operations. Knights wanted to continue, but John was engaged to be married and felt it was time to go. 

On 24 August John said farewell to the crew he had known for nearly 18 months and was posted as an instructor at No. 12 OTU, Chipping Campden. It was a different world to that of operations and heralded the start of a period of readjustment. After a spell at the Officer’s School, Hereford, John was sent to Catterick for redeployment. There his pre-war experience in accounting caught up with him  and he was sent on an Accounting Officers course.  

After the end of the war, in 1947 he applied for, and was granted, a short service commission and transferred to the Secretarial Branch. Posted to Fighter Command at Tangmere he was sent to Gatow, Berlin, to assist with airlift. On his return to Britain in 1951 he was sent to Shepherd’s Grove in Suffolk to reactivate a former airfield for use by the USAF. While there he learned of openings to train as a photographic interpreter and then, after completion of a PI course, he entered the world of Intelligence. For the next twenty-five years he served at Nuneham Park, in Singapore and Washington, with a period working with the USAF at Kimpo Air Base, Seoul during the Korean War when the Americans were short of specialist personnel. 

Awarded the MBE in the 1970 New Year Honours List, he finally retired from the RAF in March 1977 holding the rank of Wing Commander. In March 2016 he received the Legion d’Honneur from the French Consul. 

In retirement John has worked hard for charity, being a stalwart campaigner for the RAF Benevolent Fund. As a member of the Committee of the 617 Squadron Association, and latterly its President, he has played a significant role in championing the commemoration of wartime Bomber Command, raising funds for the Bomber Command Memorial in Hyde Park and working to ensure that the story of Bomber Command is passed on to future generations.

Salisbury Journal post about John Bell from 2021

Apologies for the delay

You may have noticed that there has been a delay since the last post on this blog. My apologies, but I have a good reason for it. Some seven weeks ago, I had what in medicine is called a hemorrhagic stroke. I am very lucky in several respects: the stroke happened in my house in Dublin at about 9.45 pm on the evening of Thursday 12 January 2023, so my wife Jacqui was sitting with me while we watched TV together; Jacqui had the foresight to call for an ambulance immediately; my house is less than ten minutes drive away from one of Dublin’s finest hospitals, St James’s; and a skilled medical ambulance crew arrived within about 20 minutes. I remember the two crewmen asking questions and that I was able to speak to them. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot after that, except that I was taken to James’s and, after initial treatment, on to Beaumont Hospital, and then a few days later back to James’s.

I have been in hospital for almost seven weeks altogether, and have received what can only be described as top-class treatment by the Irish medical service. Last weekend, I was allowed home for three nights for the first time, and hope to be allowed home permanently before the end of this week. I will be writing more about this in due course on my personal blog, and will add a link here when it’s complete.

However, I would now like to announce here the project I had been working on since last summer, my new book, Guy Gibson and his Dambuster Crew, to be published later this year by The History Press. Because of all the new information that emerged during my research, I didn’t finish the final draft until the middle of December 2022 (some two months after the original date agreed!) and my editor Amy Rigg and I then agreed that publication would take place in September 2023. Here is the publisher’s page. 

I will write more about this new book next week, so please keep an eye on this blog. (Go to the Follow Blog By Email link opposite to get an automatic notice whenever there is a new post on this blog.)

May your days be happy and bright

Poster by James Fitton from the IWM Collection (PST 2814).

Clicking around the interwebnet in search of a seasonal image I came across this lovely wartime anti-waste poster whose message is just as pertinent today. Even though it is right for us to want to celebrate the festive season, in these straitened times we shouldn’t overconsume our precious resources. So, with that in mind, I’d like to wish all Dambusters Blog readers a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year. See you on the other side!

More about James Fitton on his Wikipedia page.

Johnny Johnson funeral service and memorial arrangements

The funeral service for Sqn Ldr G L (Johnny) Johnson MBE DFM took place yesterday, Monday 19 December, in Holy Trinity Church, Westbury-on-Trym. It was a private family service. Later this week, Johnny will be buried next to his late wife Gwyn in Torquay, where they had lived together for many years.

Wg Cdr Neill Atkins, station commander of RAF Scampton, lays a wreath outside the Second World War hangar at the station on Monday 19 December. [Pic: RAF]

The RAF marked the day of his funeral by laying wreathes at two separate locations, RAF Scampton, the airfield from which the Dams Raid took place in May 1943, and the Bomber Command memorial in Green Park, London, which commemorates the 55,000 men who lost their lives serving with the command between 1939 and 1945.

Air Vice Marshal Simon Edwards, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Strategy), lays a wreath at the Bomber Command Memorial in London on Monday 19 December. [Pic: RAF]

A date for a public memorial service will be announced in the New Year.

Report from

‘Johnny’ Johnson, 1921-2022

Johnson GL

Pic: Johnson family

I am sorry to have to report that the last Dambuster, George Leonard (‘Johnny’) Johnson died yesterday, 7 December 2022, at the age of 101. As Sgt G L Johnson he flew on the RAF’s most famous Second World War bombing operation, the attack by 617 Squadron on the dams of the Ruhr and Weser valleys. He was the bomb aimer in the seven-man crew of a Lancaster aircraft, piloted by Flt Lt Joe McCarthy.

George Leonard Johnson was born on 25 November 1921 in Hameringham, Lincolnshire, the sixth and last child of Charles and Ellen Johnson. Although his first name was George and he was known as Len or Leonard to his family, when he joined the RAF he was nicknamed ‘Johnny’, and this is the name by which he was mostly known for the rest of his life. His father was a farm foreman, living in a tied cottage, and the family grew up in very poor conditions. His mother died when Johnny was three, and his family life was then very disrupted, due to his father’s abusive nature. His older sister Lena was living away from home, in service as a maid and it wasn’t until she moved home that the situation improved and he went to a local primary school in Winthorpe.

At the age of 11 he was sent as a boarder to the Lord Wandsworth Agricultural College in Long Sutton, Hampshire. At the time, this was run by a charity catering for the children of agricultural families who had lost one or both parents. He did reasonably well at school and passed the School Certificate as well as playing cricket and football to a good standard, and winning several athletics events. When he left school in December 1939, he started work as a park keeper in Basingstoke.

Johnson volunteered to join the RAF in June 1940, applying to become a navigator. He was, however, selected for pilot training and eventually joined up in November 1940. He was posted to various training establishments but there was some compensation for all the moving around – at one in Torquay, he met Gwyn Morgan, the woman who would later become his wife.

In June 1941, Johnson was eventually sent for pilot training in Florida. More than one-third of those selected for pilot training were eventually ‘washed out’, which was what happened to him. As he always doubted he had the necessary skills he was not surprised, and he opted for air gunner training instead, arriving back in the UK in January 1942.

In July 1942, Johnson was posted to 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa. He was designated as a spare gunner, without a regular crew, and so he flew with various skippers if one of their own gunners went sick. His first operation was on 27 August 1942, flying with Sqn Ldr Elmer Coton on a trip to Gdynia in Poland. However, an engine failure en route led to an early return, so the first time he saw action was the following day, on an operation to Nuremberg.

Johnson flew on a few more operations but then the opportunity came up to train as a specialist bomb aimer, and he completed the course in late November 1942. Within a month, a vacancy for a bomb aimer came up in Flt Lt Joe McCarthy’s crew. McCarthy was one of the several thousand Americans who had joined the Canadian air force before Pearl Harbour, and had gained a reputation as an excellent pilot. There were three Canadians in his crew of seven and at first Johnson wasn’t keen on flying as part of a British minority with an American captain, but a conversation with McCarthy changed his mind, and he was introduced to his future crewmates. What united them, he wrote later, was the fact that they all had inbuilt confidence in McCarthy.

Johnson’s first trip with McCarthy was an operation to attack Munich on 21 December 1942. It was packed with incident. In appalling weather, they were attacked by fighters and on the return trip lost all power in one engine and suffered problems in another. They were forced to land at Bottesford.

Johnson soon gained the confidence of his crewmates and flew on eighteen more operations with McCarthy in the spring of 1943, which brought him to the end of a full tour of thirty operations with 97 Squadron. Knowing that he would then be entitled to some leave followed by six months working in a non-combat training role, he and Gwyn arranged their wedding for 3 April 1943. However, the ceremony was nearly called off when the whole crew were transferred to 617 Squadron at RAF Scampton, under the command of Wg Cdr Guy Gisbon, for a new secret mission and all leave was cancelled.

Determined that Johnson would keep the date, McCarthy assembled his entire crew and marched all six of them into Gibson’s office. Johnson described what happened next in his 2015 autobiography.

“‘The thing is, sir,’ [McCarthy] said, very forcibly, ‘we’ve all just finished our tour and we are all entitled to a week’s leave. My bomb aimer is due to be married on the third of April and let me tell you he is going to get married on the third of April!’
There was a short pause while the others, no doubt, wished they were anywhere else except standing in the office of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson DSO, DFC and Bar, who had a fearsome reputation as a strict disciplinarian and had been known by the crews of 106 Squadron as ‘The Arch-Bastard’.
He looked us up and down and said, ‘Very well. You can have four days. Dismissed.’
Thank you Joe! I left for Torquay immediately, before our new CO could change his mind.”

In fact, McCarthy and his crew didn’t know that several other crews had been told by their previous COs that they could take leave before their new posting, and therefore would not arrive at Scampton for several more days. Although he didn’t say so, Gibson was probably relieved not to have all his new men arriving at once. He would have known at this stage that he didn’t yet have enough aircraft for his new squadron to train on, so a crew going on leave for four days was hardly going to upset the schedule too much.

Johnny returned from his wedding and honeymoon to start the training. At first all they knew was that they would be flying at very low level – below 100 feet – and would need to be able to drop their spinning ‘mine’ with great accuracy. They didn’t know that the weapon had been designed by the scientist Barnes Wallis to ‘bounce’ on the waters of a lake where its momentum would carry it up to a target, where it would sink below the water level and then explode. The target was the German dams in the powerhouse of the Ruhr valley, but they didn’t find this out until the day of the raid, Sunday 16 May 1943.

In his training for the Dams Raid Johnson practised dropping the mine as his aircraft flew straight towards the target at low level. However, on the Sunday afternoon, McCarthy, Johnson and their colleagues were told that they would be one of the five crews detailed to attack the Sorpe dam, an earth embankment-type dam with a concrete core. This meant they had to fly along the dam wall and drop their mine at its centre. It would roll down the wall on the water side and explode when it reached the correct depth.

McCarthy’s Lancaster was supposed to lead off the wave which was detailed to attack the Sorpe Dam but when a technical problem was discovered on their favoured aircraft they had to transfer to the spare. They realised when they got to the Sorpe Dam that they were the only crew of the five which had got that far. Having to line up a completely different approach, over land and along the dam wall, took them a while to get correct but eventually, on the tenth try, McCarthy managed to make a near-perfect run, getting down to about 30ft, and Johnson released the weapon. However, the dam failed to breach, and the crew had to make their lonely way home.

Although AJ-T had failed to breach the dam, Johnson, McCarthy and navigator Don MacLean were all decorated for their part in the raid. Johnson received the DFM and travelled up to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. At that point in his life he was a non-drinker, so he didn’t participate in the festivities that followed. Johnson was commissioned in November 1943 and went on to fly with McCarthy on eighteen more operations with 617 Squadron, up until April 1944. At that point, knowing that Gwyn Johnson was shortly to have their first child, McCarthy insisted that he stand down.

Reluctantly, Johnson agreed and was sent back to Scampton as a bombing instructor and served out the rest of the war in various training jobs. After the war, he was told that if he qualified as a navigator, he would get a permanent commission. He accepted this offer, and stayed in the RAF until 1962, retiring with the rank of Squadron Leader.

Now in his forties, Johnson was without a job. So he retrained again, this time as a teacher. He worked first of all in primary schools and then later in adult education, including a period teaching psychiatric patients at Rampton Hospital.

When he retired, he and Gwyn moved to Torquay, the town where Gwyn had been brought up. Although she came from a Labour-supporting Welsh mining family, she was a keen Conservative, a strong admirer of Margaret Thatcher. ‘The lady’s not for turning’ became Gwyn’s own catchphrase, used to settle any minor family disputes. The pair had been active in local Conservative Party politics for a while, but after the move to Torquay Johnson was elected as a councillor, and became chair of the constituency party, amongst other things having to deal with the wayward activities of Rupert Allason, the local MP.  Allason was a Maastricht rebel and a plotter against the Prime Minister John Major, who Johnson admired. Johnson also took part in reunions and other activities relating both to 617 Squadron and the wider world of Bomber Command, and the pair were very happy with frequent visits from their growing numbers of grandchildren.

Gwyn Johnson died in August 2005 and for a while Johnson withdrew from public life. But then he started accepting invitations from the media for interviews and documentary appearances, and as the number of those who had served in Bomber Command during wartime inevitably dwindled he became one of the most familiar veterans. Even in his late nineties he was a compelling speaker and a willing interviewee. Any public appearance would result in a steady stream of people wanting to shake his hand and have a selfie taken.

He had always worked hard for charity, particularly campaigning for improved resources for mental health, and this was recognised on three separate occasions at the time of the 75th anniversary of the Dams Raid in 2018: a visit to Buckingham Palace to be invested with an MBE by the Queen, an honorary doctorate at the University of Lincoln (back in his home county) and a flight over the Derwent Dam in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster.

As a centenarian and ‘the last Dambuster’, Johnson occupied an important place in what sometimes seems an insatiable public interest in the Dams Raid. But, as his son Morgan points out in the last chapter of Johnson’s autobiography:

“[H]e is the first to recognise that all this attention is not purely about him personally, but is directed at what he represents. The Dambusters became a wartime legend that captured the public imagination and, as the last British survivor of that night, he represents all of them and what they achieved. There are many, many other stories of individual and collective achievements during World War II. Stories of extraordinary courage, of battles won in impossible situations, of acts of heroism against overwhelming odds. But the Dambusters remain high on the list of public affection. And that is what he will be remembered for, by the public at large.”

Like many of the generation which came of age during the war years, Johnny Johnson always said that he was simply doing his job. The fact that by doing this job he was risking his life, defending liberty against those who sought to bring tyranny to these shores, is immaterial. The qualities by which he lived his life were those of honesty, discipline, respect and loyalty.

Johnny Johnson is survived by his son Morgan, his two daughters Susan and Jenny, and his grandchildren.

Sqn Ldr George Leonard (‘Johnny’) Johnson MBE DFM, born 25 November 1921, died 7 December 2022.


Portrait of a legend by a legend

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Pic: BBC

It was Johnny Johnson’s 101st birthday last week, and many happy returns to him. And what better way for a man of such maturity, a legend in his own right, to mark his big day than by posing for his portrait to be painted by another legend, cricketer turned artist Jack Russell.

The BBC local news covered the story. See here.

Thanks to Graeme Stevenson for the tip.

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New photo shows Trevor-Roper in 50 Squadron

TR 50 Sqn 20220816_13000650 960px

Pic: Trevor-Roper family 

The family of Flt Lt Richard Trevor-Roper DFM, who was the rear gunner in Guy Gibson’s crew on the Dams Raid, have kindly sent me a photograph taken when he was flying in the crew of Sqn Ldr Peter Birch in 50 Squadron in the winter and early spring of 1942-43. After doing some research, and consulting with colleagues, I believe that the seven men in the picture are (from left to right):

1. Flt Sgt S Allen (wireless operator)
2. Flg Off E C Wood (bomb aimer)
3. Flt Lt W T Gray (navigator)
4. Sqn Ldr P C Birch (pilot)
5. Flt Lt R D Trevor-Roper (mid-upper gunner)
6. Sgt J M Hartman (rear gunner)
7. Flt Sgt A Branch (flight engineer)

Trevor-Roper’s first operation with Birch was on 22 November 1942, a trip to Turin, and the last was on 22 March 1943, a trip to St Nazaire. He was transferred to Scampton to join 617 Squadron shortly afterwards. The aircraft is probably ED482, painted with Peter Birch’s favourite nose art, which he liked to call ‘Sammy the Moke’.

A similar photo, which includes several ground crew, was posted on the Rootschat genealogy forum in 2009. I’m not including a link to that post because I think some of the information is wrong (although I believe the dog is called Nipper!) But of course, it’s perfectly possible that some of my identifications are still incorrect, in which case I’d welcome more information. Please get in touch either by leaving a comment below or by sending an email to charlesjfoster [AT]

Dambuster Crash Sites: revised driver’s guide

best mohne dam photo 2022

Revised version September 2022
Text and pictures by Malcolm Peel

On the evening of 16th May 1943, 133 aircrew in 19 Lancasters took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack the German dams east of the Ruhr. Eight aircraft and 53 men did not return. Three men survived their crashes and became Prisoners of War.

The following guide to these sites was initially compiled in August 2018 and has been revised in September 2022. They serve as as an update to the excellent book written by Chris Ward and Andreas Wachtel, Dambuster Crash Sites, published in 2007 by Pen & Sword. Reference to this book is highly recommended for its historical content and descriptions of the discovery of the sites.

However, due to the ravages of time over the years, the construction or demolition of buildings, the changes in road layouts and other key landmarks, some of the Tour Guides in the book have become awkward to follow. Also, the book was published before the era of sat nav and Google Maps. For ease of navigation, the co-ordinates for all the sites (or the nearest vehicular access point) are given below, as well as some for key points on some routes.

If you are travelling from the UK, it is suggested that you travel to the dams first, joining the Corridor at the Möhne. To simplify its compilation, the following guide has been presented in that order as this route can also avoid using the very busy motorway network through the Ruhr around Essen, Duisburg and Dortmund.

Many users of this Guide will have a mobile navigation device of some description and therefore may only be using the co-ordinates given to each location. This might mean that you may be approaching the memorial from a different direction, which renders the detailed routes irrelevant.

However, if you are using them, they have been described from either the nearest town/city or from a major location, i.e. road junctions, castle, dam, etc., as one never knows when your sat nav is going to let one down! Plus, it’s always good to have some indication that you are on the right road so, sometimes, landmarks are identified along the way.

Of the many books written about the raid, one of the best is James Holland’s Dambusters: The Race To Smash The Dams, Transworld Publishers 2012, which explains in a very readable format the reasons for the raid, the development of the bouncing bomb, the formation of 617 Squadron and the raid itself. There are also some excellent maps, diagrams and a complete Timeline of Operation Chastise.

Mention must also be made of Charles Foster’s very informative work, The Complete Dambusters: The 133 Men Who Flew on the Dams Raid, History Press 2018, which gives the story of each of the airmen who took part in the raid. A photo of each man is included as well as much information on the raid itself.

The Crash Corridor

crash corridor map

Ward/Watchel describe in great detail how and why each aircraft crashed.

Hopgood at Soest was the only one to be shot down while attacking a dam – all the others were the victims of flak or a crash on the flight either to or from the dams. The only two not in the Corridor are shown with a cross on the above map – Byers in the sea off Texel, north of Den Helder and Burpee who crashed on the air base at Gilze-Rijen, between Breda and Tilburg.

The Dams
The co-ordinates for the three main dams are as follows:



The Cemeteries
The casualties are buried in five cemeteries in Germany and Holland.

cemetery map 1 2022212 900px

Rheinberg War Cemetery:
Hopgood and crew

Reichswald Forest War Cemetery:
Maudslay and crew
Astell and crew
Barlow and crew
Ottley and crew

Bergen-op-Zoom War Cemetery:
Burpee and crew

Bergen General Cemetery:
Young and crew

The grave of James McDowell, Byers’ rear gunner, is in Harlingen General Cemetery (see below) – the bodies of the rest of Byers’ crew were never recovered and they are remembered on the RAF Memorial at Runnymede. There is now a memorial to them in Harlingen General Cemetery.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website gives full details of all those killed and includes maps and co-ordinates for the cemeteries.


Flt Lt J.V. Hopgood DFC & Bar
ED925 AJ-M
Near Soest, NW of Möhnesee

The most logical route to this site is from the dam. Turn right out of the car park and proceed towards Möhnesee, passing the Hotel Haus Delecke on your right.

At the roundabout, turn left onto the 229 and after about 2.0 miles, left onto the 516 towards Ense … it’s one of those weird junctions that takes you under the 516, turns left then right.

After 3.5 miles, turn right onto the L745 An Der Lanner towards Volbringen.

After passing through the village, you will come to a crossroads with a stone tower on the right … go straight on.

In less than a mile, look for some low, dark green farm buildings on the left and just before a bridge under the motorway, turn right onto the track on the right (above co-ordinates refer). This track is initially tarmac but that soon becomes stony.

The track drops down with a wood coming up your left but before the road rises again, look left … about 100 yards across some open ground, you will see a tall yellow pole and just beyond and to the right, the wooden post with a brass plaque adjacent to a wooden bench.

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It is strongly advised that you do NOT attempt to cross the open ground to the memorial by car as the ground is very uneven and probably water-logged in bad weather.

Park on the right and walk up the rise – at the top, a further track on the left will take you down to the memorial.


This is the closest accessible point to the crash site which is probably in the field off to the right where the motorway runs now.


Plt Off W Ottley DFC
ED910 AJ-C
North of Hamm
Co-ordinates (nearest vehicular access):

This is one where you’ll need hiking boots or wellies!

Take the B63 north out of Hamm towards Munster, crossing over the river Lippe, and after about 1.5 miles, look out for the KAUFLAND superstore on your left.

Straight on at the next roundabout … the one with the pink elephant wearing headphones (I kid you not!)

Through the traffic lights with MANSFELDERSTR and the SENIORENZENTRUM ST JOSEPH on your right.

After about one mile, a small signpost for GEINEGGE comes up on your left … which is both a street name and a village … and on your right is a red-brick house.


On the right and immediately after the house is a field with an electricity pylon.


The track to the crash site is at the far end of this field just before a line of trees and runs at right-angles to the main road.

It is suggested that you reverse into this track but do NOT attempt to drive further unless you have a 4X4 or similar vehicle.

Walk down the track passing the pylon on your right … it has a black and yellow sign carrying the number 1614. If it doesn’t, you are in the wrong field!

Carry on to the corner of the wood in front of you.


The track bends left and right around the corner of the wood – amongst the trunks of two trees on the left, there are the remains of a wooden structure of some description.

Follow the line of the wood on your right for about 200 yards and the wooden cross is on your right in front of the crater created when the Upkeep exploded on impact.

Depending on the season, the ground leading up to the memorial could be very overgrown so great care should be taken.

The original memorial was situated in the crater which frequently becomes water-logged and the cross became rotten.


The bronze plaque (now barely legible) which was attached to the first cross is now fixed to the rear.

In the Spring of 2022, the area around the memorial was cleared by a local community group and consideration is being given to relocate it to a more accessible site. However, negotiations are still in the early stages and nothing is likely to occur for some time.


Flt Lt W Astell DFC
ED864 AJ-B
North of Raesfeld
Co-ordinates (memorial site):

From the Castle in Raesfeld, turn right at the roundabout and follow the road through the town. Following the B70, turn left at the roundabout north towards Borken with the Ford dealer, Autohaus Jacobs, on the left.


Across a second roundabout and after about 1.5 miles, straight on at the lights. About 100 yards further on, look for SIEPENWEG, a narrow tarmac road on the right.


After 200 yards, fork left – following Siepenweg.
After about ½ mile, fork right onto HESSEBREE.
Straight on at a crossroads and over a small bridge with a 9-ton weight limit.


1.8 miles later, turn right onto HUNGERWEG and the memorial is on your left.

If you stand with your back to the memorial, at 2 o’clock, you will see an electricity pylon – it is conceivable that the 1943 version of this finally brought down the Lancaster which crashed in the field behind the memorial.


Flt Lt R N G Barlow DFC RAAF
ED927 AJ-E
Haldern, near Rees
Co-ordinates (blue RAF sign):
Co-ordinates (larger parking area):
Co-ordinates (memorial site):

Major road/rail construction work is taking place near the railway station in Haldern, and it is reported that the work will continue into 2024.

Although not the shortest route, but certainly the easiest, is to take the A3 autobahn, leaving at Junction 4 and joining the 67 southbound towards REES.

In about 1.5 miles, turn left onto L549 HALDERNER STR and then after about one mile, take the narrow tarmac road to your left … an Air Force blue signpost with the RAF roundel is pointing your way! (Co-ordinates above)


About 500 yards along this road, you see a cycle path on the left with a barrier blocking vehicular access – this marks the start of the field in which Barlow’s Lancaster crashed.


The memorial is near the wind turbine to the right of the trees in the photo but for now, carry straight on to another turbine. The area in front of the turbine is/was partially fenced off but parking is still possible.

The plane crashed somewhere between the base of this turbine and the small, stagnant pond in the little field on the other side of the wire fence.

Walk or drive back to the cycle path – parking is possible – JUST!
Go down the path until you reach a rectangular field with the above turbine at 3 o’clock.
Either walk diagonally across or around the field to the memorial at the foot of a tree in the corner.



Sqn Ldr H E Maudslay DFC
ED937 AJ-Z
North east of Emmerich
Co-ordinates (memorial site):

From the A3 motorway, take Exit 3 A220 south towards Emmerich and Kleve.

The above co-ordinates may now instruct you to turn left at the KUSTER OIL filling station on the left – this route will still take you to the memorial but over some narrow tracks and blind corners/junctions. You are advised to carry on and …

… at traffic lights, with another KUSTER OIL/SPIEL STATION at 2 o’clock, turn left onto L16 WESELER STR

After about a mile, look out for the big orange OBI superstore and turn left at the roundabout.

Drive past the INTEROVO Egg Group and just before the CONVENT warehouse, turn left onto BUDBERGER STR

Fork left onto FLASSERTWEG and follow this road until you come to a left-and-right bend in the road with a red and white barrier ahead.

The Lancaster crashed somewhere in the field behind the memorial.


Plt Off L J Burpee DFM RCAF
ED865 AJ-S
On the former Luftwaffe night fighter station at Gilze-Rijen
Co-ordinates (entrance to airbase):

This memorial was dedicated in early 2018 and is situated on an active airbase operated by the Royal Netherlands Air Force.


There are, as one can imagine, very tight security implications in gaining access to the base and the best way to arrange a tour is to contact Ton Van Den Hoof at the museum, giving at least two months’ notice of an intended visit. Email It is also recommended that you email Sander van der Hall, a local supporter of the project:

However, be advised that entry permission may be withdrawn or postponed (perhaps at very short notice) should an emergency situation arise.

A tour will also include a visit to the museum which, although concentrating on the very interesting history of the airbase, has an excellent section containing Dambusters memorabilia.

Sqn Ldr H M “Dinghy” Young DFC & Bar
ED887 AJ-A
In the sea off Castricum-aan-Zee, Strand
Co-ordinates (nearest vehicular access):

Castricum-aan-Zee is on the coast approx. 25 miles north west of Amsterdam.

Take the A9 north from Haarlem and at Junction 10, turn left onto N203.

After approx. 3.5 miles, turn left onto N513 SEEWEG

This road only goes to the Strand, a very popular beach with two huge car parks.

P1040157 (2)

This was taken on a Friday afternoon in June 2018 and the other car park was almost full. GO EARLY OR OFF-SEASON. Parking charges apply but there’s no alternative unless you have a Disabled Badge.

Walk past the cafes; the memorial is on the left at the start of the slope down towards the beach.



Plt Off V W Byers RCAF
ED934 AJ-K
In the sea, off Texel/Vlieland
Co-ordinates (nearest vehicular access)

The memorial is in Harlingen General Cemetery is located in the north of the town on BEGRAAFPLAATLAAN and parking is possible nearby on MIDLUMERLAAN.

P1060590 900px

P1060592 900px

On entering the cemetery and after approx. 50m, turn left and follow the path to the CWGC graves – the memorial to the whole crew is just beyond, adjacent to the boundary.

Only one body was recovered, that of JAMES McDOWELL, the rear gunner. He was presumably thrown clear and the strong current took his body north. It was found floating in the Vliestrom Channel on 22 June 1943. It was brought ashore and he is buried in Plot E Row 4 Grave 11. The remaining bodies were never found and they are officially listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’.

As previously mentioned, the above guides were compiled in July 2018 and updated in September 2022 and while every care has been taken to provide accurate information, responsibility cannot be accepted for changes in buildings or other structures, road layouts and signage, natural and other landmarks, or any other factors used to describe routes.

AJ-N crew photographed 40 years on

Paint+merge+two+pix+obrien+fam-960w crew only

Left to right: Harry O’Brien, Fred Sutherland, Bob Kellow, Sydney Hobday, Ray Grayston and Edward “Johnnie” Johnson. [Pic: O’Brien family].

Melvin Chambers has kindly allowed me to share these pictures which he was sent recently. The first was taken in May 1983 in the course of the 40th anniversary commemorations of the Dams Raid. It shows the crew of AJ-N, piloted by Les Knight, which dropped the weapon which breached the Eder Dam. Sadly, Les was killed on 16 September 1943 on the Dortmund Ems canal operation, when his aircraft crashed having struck trees flying at 100 feet in fog. He managed to bring it up to an altitude from which his crew could escape by parachute, which they all did. They never forgot the skill and bravery Les showed that night, saving their lives while sacrificing himself.

The crew members stayed in touch with the Knight family back in Australia, and when Les’s mother Nellie Knight heard that the O’Briens had had their first child she sent them Les’s own christening robe, which is shown below.

Paint+merge+two+pix+obrien+fam-960w robe only

More information from Melvin’s fine tribute site, Remembering Les Knight DSO.