Jaw dropping, emotional inflection now an option

If you are a Dam Busters fan and have a Blu-ray player, then you might want to invest in the new Blu-ray edition of our favourite film. The picture quality is much better, apparently:
The recent DVD from Anchor Bay was sharp enough but lacked a proper filmlike grayscale. That image, having very little in the way of midgray tones, appeared overly bright. All has been put right in Optimum’s new Blu-ray, which hardly seems struck form [sic] the same source – and, indeed, may not have been. Sharpness, resolution, and that most important aspect of black & white film, contrast control, are now nothing short of jaw dropping. Dimensionality is palpable, aided by a near absence of edge enhancement, which was somewhat evident on the DVD. There are many scenes against a bright, threatening sky where both foreground characters and sky that now appear in correct proportion and tonal balance. Interior shots have a reach out and touch it quality rare these days; clothing textures are equally realistic.
And the sound is better too:
The audio is LCPM (2.3 Mbps – 48kHz/24-bit), which offers a much appreciated crispness, clarity, nuance and weight to the proceedings. Take for example the first outdoor model test very early on. It takes place at an airstrip, out of the way. On the Blu-ray we can clearly make out background sounds of other airplanes taxiing about as well as other machinery and people out of the frame; also, the sound of walking on wood planks is correctly manifest, where on the DVD we assume the wood only because we can see the people walking on them. Of greatest importance is that the uncompressed audio track permits an emotional inflection of voices utterly absent on the DVD. How else are we able to make sense out of and empathize with Michael Redgrave’s hesitant enthusiasm as he tries to sell his idea for the destruction of the dams, or Richard Todd’s boyish matter of fact delivery of the mission to his men? On the DVD if you close your eyes and just listen to the dialogue, there is very little in their speaking that supports the drama. Next to these improvements, the extra slam we hear from explosives on the Blu-ray is just icing on the cake.
At £7.98 from some stockists, it sounds like a bargain.
Please don’t ask me what some of the techy stuff in this review means because I have no idea!

Three more 617 Squadron veterans die

There is a sadly dwindling band of Second World War veterans who served with 617 Squadron after the Dams Raid. Some of them (such as John Leavitt) received obituaries in the national press on their death, but others, perhaps less heralded in their lifetimes, get scant mention. Including Leavitt, three of these veterans died recently.
The second was Phil Martin who served as a pilot in 1944-45. Because he was also Australian he was sometimes confused with his more famous namesake. He took part in the first of the 1944 raids on the Tirpitz – the one in October which damaged but did not sink it – as well as a number of other operations. He was remembered in an obituary in the West Australian, which I can’t find online, so is reproduced in part below:
Martin… started his war service flying Avro Lancaster bombers with the Royal Air Force 61 Squadron, where he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross for completing 30 missions. The average life span for a bomber crew was just six missions.
Based on his great flying skills he and his crew were invited to join the famous 617 Dambusters Squadron. Martin won his second DFC destroying the Kembs Barrage dam on the Rhine River with 617 Squadron. On that raid Martin’s crew watched in horror as the Lancaster in front exploded in a fireball after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. Pressing on, Martin’s bomb aimer Donald Day dropped a 9980kg Grand Slam or earthquake bomb before Martin nursed his crippled Lancaster back to England.
Weeks later, Martin’s crew headed for Tromso in Norway to bomb the German battleship Tirpitz. Martin was also involved in the D-Day landings, bombing German beachhead gun installations.
Another airman who also took part in the first Tirpitz raid was Sgt Leonard Rooke, flight engineer in Mac Hamilton’s crew. He died recently in Cornwall, and an obituary appeared in the Cornish Guardian. It also doesn’t seem to be available online, so I have reproduced part of it here.
Sgt Rooke joined the crew of Flying Officer ‘Mac’ Hamilton in 1943 at 1654 Conversion Unit, Wigsley in Nottinghamshire. His logbook records postings to 617 Squadron – the Dambusters; involvement in Operation Taxable, a ploy to confuse German radar on the eve of the D-day invasion by dropping metal foil in the area; and the deployment of Barnes Wallis’ Tallboy ‘earthquake’ bombs.
Leonard came under enemy fire many times and behaved with steadfast courage. On one occasion, he tended a badly injured crew member as his damaged aircraft limped back across the Channel to make an emergency landing in Kent.
Thanks to his calm presence of mind, although the injuries were very serious, the crew member’s legs were saved.
They were obviously all remarkable men, and their lives deserve to be honoured.

Dambuster Sgt Lawrence Nichols

Some of the most interesting things I have found out since I started serious Dambuster research are the pieces of information about some of the less well known participants in the Dams Raid. It’s extraordinary how little is known about many of the 133 aircrew who took part. Fifty-three men died on the raid and another 32 later on in the war, so it’s perhaps understandable that not a lot is known about them. Many of the 48 who survived the war lived out quiet lives, with few people knowing that they had taken part in such an iconic event.
In this blog, I have posted material that I have come across on the internet about some of the less well known participants, and I want to keep on doing so. Here is the latest: an undated local newspaper clipping about Lawrence Nichols, the 33 year old Currys shop manager from Northwood, Middlesex who became the wireless operator in ‘Dinghy’ Young’s aircraft, AJ-A, and who died along with his colleagues when it was shot down on the way back from the Eder dam. Like David Maltby, the experienced pilot Young had been allocated a new and relatively untested crew, most of whom had only flown on one operation. All seven are now buried in the cemetery in Bergen in the Netherlands, along with about 250 other Allied aircrew. There is more about Lawrence Nichols here.

Snippets of oral history

Browsing recently through the People’s War section of the BBC website I came across this brief reminiscence about a gunner who took part in the Dams Raid. The writer, a Mrs Libby, is describing her cousin, who isn’t named but from the description sounds very like Douglas Webb, who flew in Bill Townsend’s crew on the Dams Raid. Just to illustrate the point that researchers should not rely on second hand oral history sources, it’s important to point out that he was, in fact, the front gunner. I wrote more about Webb here.
Another snippet in the BBC’s extensive oral history is about John Pulford, flight engineer in Gibson’s crew, contributed by an unnamed writer whose wife’s sister is married to Pulford’s brother. More about Pulford here.

Barnes Wallis, Bouncing Bomb Man

Happy New Year to all readers! Those of us based in Britain and Ireland are presently enduring a cold snap which will soon equal that of 1963, a year which I am almost afraid to say I remember quite well. Snow that lasted from Boxing Day to March, walking to school on frozen paths, pouring kettles of boiling water down frozen waste pipes, huddling around the kitchen radiator (the only one in the house). As we lived in suburban Buckinghamshire, it wasn’t quite Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen, but it was tough.
But here’s something to take your mind off the cold and enliven your Dambusters experience. Dr Iain Murray of the University of Dundee has long had an interest in Barnes Wallis and the science behind the Dams Raid, and has now published a book, Bouncing-Bomb Man, which I hope to read shortly. He’s also set up a very useful website, which you can find here.

Arise, Sir Peter

Peter Jackson is to receive the same accolade as that given to other great film directors such as Sir David Lean and Sir Alfred Hitchcock, with a knighthood. (Another report here.) Regular readers of this blog will know that amongst his future projects are a remake of The Dam Busters, the 1955 classic war film, which may start filming in late 2010 with a possible release in 2011. I’ve covered this story at length, and look forward to bringing you further news in the year to come.
In the meantime, a Happy New Year to all blog readers!

Christmas greetings 1942 style, from Dambuster Cyril Anderson

Card image © Dominic Howard
I don’t know if any Christmas cards signed by other Dams Raid participants survive from the latter part of the war, but this pre-Dams Raid ones does. It was sent by Sgt Cyril Anderson to his wife Rose in December 1942, when Cyril was still training as a pilot. He was then based at RAF Finningley.
In February 1943, Cyril went on to join 49 Squadron and had flown 7 operations before being transferred to 617 Squadron on 25 March, along with his crew. On the raid, his aircraft AJ-Y was part of the third wave, the mobile reserve, and was eventually dispatched to the Sorpe Dam. He encountered heavy flak en route and had a problem with a malfunctioning rear gun. So at 0310, with dawn approaching and the valleys filling with mist, he turned back still short of the target. He landed at Scampton at 0530, with his mine still on board.
Guy Gibson was not pleased with the fact that he had returned without dropping the mine and, taking no notice of the other extenuating circumstances, sent Cyril and his crew back to 49 Squadron. They completed another 15 operations before being shot down by a German fighter and killed on a raid on Mannheim on 23/24 September 1943.
One interesting feature on Cyril’s card is its atmospheric photograph. There are other cards featured in this posting on the Lancaster Archive.
On a personal note, I’d like to wish all readers of this blog a very happy Christmas and a good New Year. I know from my WordPress stats that there are now several thousand of you, and I hope you will continue to find the blog interesting and informative. Charles Foster

Jackson speaks: Dam Busters remake to start shooting in 2010

Here’s a great seasonal present for all Dambuster film fans. Speaking on Campbell Live, a New Zealand TV show, on Monday 14 December Peter Jackson confirmed that the remake is going ahead, and that shooting is likely to start sometime next year. He is a busy man, and the bulk of the TV interview was about his newest release, The Lovely Bones, which has just concluded a series of premieres around the globe. Also on his studio’s horizon is The Hobbit, with Ian MacKellen lined up to play a role. But towards the end of the interview he said “if all goes well we’ll be shooting Dambusters in 2010″, and confirmed that ten full size Lancaster models are currently in a warehouse in Wellington.
As the moderator of NZ’s foremost aviation forum, Dave Homewood, has pointed out this interview should dispel any doubts that the project has been put on permanent hold: “Maybe you guys aren’t getting the full gen up-over” are his exact words. Thanks, Dave!

Unseen stills from ‘The Dam Busters’ film

Over on the Classic British Flight Sim forum (yes, there is such a thing!) member Trevor Clark has posted a wonderful find:

Whilst installing an internet connection at a friend’s house this morning, she asked if I was interested in seeing ‘aircraft photos’ she came across in a box of old photos.
What she showed me, will all be scanned and put up on the internet!!!
Her uncle was Erwin Hillier, the director of photography on the 1954 Dambusters film (as well as many other famous films).
The photographs are wonderful 8×10 B/W production stills, about 20 odd of them… I am not sure if they have ever been in the public domain before??

Calypsos is right. He has now posted all the pictures and I don’t think some have been seen since the 1950s, as they don’t appear to be in the BFI’s collection.

The picture above is particularly fascinating to me, as it shows the ‘crew’ of aircraft AJ-J (played by unnamed extras, who may have been real life RAF servicemen) standing behind actor George Baker, in the role of Flt Lt David Maltby, my uncle. This scene doesn’t appear in the final cut of the film. It would be fascinating to know if any unseen sequences of film remain — no special extras kept for the DVD release in those days!

Erwin Hillier is a giant in 20th century British cinematography, although his name is largely unknown to the general public, and it was his skill, along with that of director Michael Anderson and writer R C Sherriff, which made The Dam Busters such an iconic piece of cinema. I will be writing more about him another time.

UPDATE November 2014: Link to pictures updated. Click here.