Dambuster of the Day No. 50: William Astell

Grantham Astell crop

Pic: Lincolnshire CC/Grantham Museum

Flt Lt W Astell DFC

Lancaster serial number: ED864/G
Call sign: AJ-B

First wave. Crashed on outward flight.

In his book Enemy Coast Ahead Guy Gibson gives a couple of cursory mentions to pilot Bill Astell, describing him each time as an ‘Englishman from Derbyshire’. As their paths only crossed for a few weeks in the spring and early summer of 1943, that may be all that impacted on Gibson but in fact Astell had had one of the most eventful careers of any of the Dams Raid pilots. He had flown on a number of operations and been awarded the DFC, but all his active service had been in the Middle East and Malta.

Born in Knutsford, Cheshire on 1 April 1920, Bill Astell was brought up in Derbyshire’s Peak District. From his schooldays at Bradfield College, he had been an adventurous spirit, crossing the Atlantic by cargo boat, climbing in the Dolomites and spending three months at Leipzig University. With war imminent, he first enlisted in the navy, but then transferred to the RAFVR in July 1939. By April 1940 he had been selected for pilot training and was shipped off to Rhodesia.

After qualifying as a pilot, he had hoped to get back to the UK but found himself sent to another training unit before being posted to a Wellington squadron in Malta. There he contracted typhoid, so he didn’t actually fly on active service until September 1941, when the squadron had been posted on to Egypt.

On 1 December 1941 he was involved in a horrendous flying accident: another aircraft cut in ahead of him while he was landing, and he fractured his skull and suffered severe burns to his back. Back on operations the next summer, he was shot down over the Western Desert and crash landed behind enemy lines. He managed to evade capture and got back to his base some five days later. For this operation he was awarded the DFC.

He eventually returned to England in September 1942 and was destined to become a flying instructor, but managed to get himself trained to fly Lancasters and was then posted to 57 Squadron at RAF Scampton, arriving in January 1943. His rather unusual career meant that at this point he had no crew, but he was allocated an operationally-ready crew which had formed under pilot Max Stephenson. Stephenson had been killed shortly beforehand in a raid on Duisberg with another crew.

Their first raid was on Lorient in France on 13 February 1943 and they would fly on a number of other operations until 25 March when the news came that the whole of 57 Squadron’s C Flight was to be transferred to a new squadron for a special operation. As they were already at Scampton, this didn’t involve too much disruption, but there must have been much speculation as to what the actual target was to be.

Several weeks of intense training was to follow. Astell and his crew were tasked with the new squadron’s first flights, taking photographs of all the major lakes in England, Scotland and Wales, and they were also the first to fly the specially modified Lancaster. On 14 May, those captains who had never made a will were instructed to do so, and Astell made his. It was witnessed by Robert Barlow and Henry Maudslay. None of them would return from the raid.

On the night of the raid, Astell took off in the final trio of the first wave, led by Maudslay, with Les Knight as the third member. Everything seemed to go well until they crossed the Rhine. Astell was lagging slightly behind Maudslay and Knight, seeming to hesitate as though not sure of a turning point. Shortly afterwards, near Dorsten, they ran into unexpected light flak, from the same position that had damaged Hopgood’s aircraft about 20 minutes earlier. Looking back from the astrodome of Knight’s AJ-N, its wireless operator Bob Kellow: ‘saw two lines of tracer intersecting in a brilliant criss-cross. Through this Astell flew at 0015, and although his gunners vigorously returned fire he did not survive the ordeal. When eight miles north-west of Dorsten, Kellow watched the aircraft become swiftly engulfed in flames about two miles astern, and shortly afterwards he and Hobday reported an explosion on the ground.’ (Sweetman, Dambusters Raid, p.161.)

Astell had hit an electrical pylon near Marbeck, where a line of HT cables lay in the path of the attacking force. Gibson and Young’s trios, a few minutes ahead, had noticed them and flown over them. The Upkeep mine Astell’s aircraft was carrying exploded about ninety seconds later, shattering windows for a distance around, although a roadside shrine to St Joseph somehow survived without damage. The next day the bodies of the crew were taken to Borken and buried in the City Cemetery. After the war, they were all reinterred together in the Reichswald Forest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

More about Astell online:
Commonwealth War Grave Commission entry
Aircrew Remembered page on Astell crew

KIA 17.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Robert Owen, Steve Darlow, Sean Feast & Arthur Thorning, Dam Busters: Failed to Return, Fighting High, 2013
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

Further information about Bill Astell 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.

Dams Raid peaks interest

DAM_7267 lores

BBMF Lancaster over the Derwent Dam, 16 May 2013 [Pic: Andy Chubb]

An interesting insight into why the recent Dambuster anniversary flyover at the Derwent Dam was a rather low key affair has appeared in this recent blog post written by Jim Dixon. He is the Chief Executive of Peak District National Park Authority and was therefore involved in the complicated discussions which took place between his authority, the two local councils, Severn Trent Water, the RAF, the police and everyone else who seemd to express an interest.
The RAF explained to him the significance of the events around this anniversary and that the main commemorative events would be in Lincolnshire. This was partly to accommodate considerable media interest but mainly because the last Dams Raid survivors were now too frail to travel extensively on the days around the celebration.

A plan was then put in place led by Severn Trent Water with support from Derbyshire Police, Derbyshire County and High Peak Borough Councils, Mountain Rescue and the National Park rangers. Contrary to some unworthy reports in the media, there was no attempt to stop the flyover and the plans to restrict access were only a sensible precaution to prevent mayhem and allow visitors safe access. At no time were the RAF’s plans restricted.

He was right to be cautious. Having arrived early himself on the day, he found that:

The first visitors to the valley had camped overnight and our rangers had been on site at 4.00 am when more people began to arrive. All car parks and lay-bys in the valley were full by 10.00 and there was a huge amount of traffic in the Bamford and A57 areas. Our careful and cautious approach had proved to be right.

Just before it arrived in the Derwent valley itself, the BBMF Lancaster had paid another important, very personal tribute nearby to two men who died on the night of the Dams Raid. It had flown over the Peak District town of Chapel en le Frith, whose war memorial commemorates two local men – Flt Lt Bill Astell, pilot of AJ-B, and Sgt Jack Marriott, flight engineer in Henry Maudslay’s AJ-Z.
There must be something in the High Peak air (or perhaps it’s that local Buxton water). It seems to encourage some very interesting local blog writers, who have written about these two local Dams Raid participants, and also taken many photographs.
As well as the local Chapel News, there is Cllr Anthony McKeown (who has an extensive Flickr portflio of pictures), writer Uphilldowndale (‘Watching nature take its course, from the top of a hill in northern England’) and, most remarkably, self-confessed ex-southern softie Carah Boden who actually lives in Bill Astell’s old house. She writes:

I feel both extraordinarily privileged and very moved. It was to this house, in this quiet Derbyshire village, that he returned having been awarded his DFC for fortitude in Libya, to rest and recuperate prior to his involvement in the Dambusters’ Raid. It was a place he loved, as confirmed to me by his sister Betty in a brief correspondence we enjoyed before her own death a few years ago. She said how happy they had all been living here and that, indeed, the only sadness was that their beloved brother died in action while they still lived here.
Edmund Bradbury, member of the British Legion and long-term resident of Chapel-en-le-Frith, worked tirelessly to bring together today’s commemoration of Bill Astell who died just 53 days after Edmund was born. The sun shone on Chapel’s market place – site, too, of the War Memorial where William Astell’s name is etched in the stone like too many other fallen comrades of the First and Second World Wars. A message was read out from Her Majesty the Queen; flags were raised and lowered; a lone trumpet played The Last Post; a minute’s silence was held and its end marked by the Revalle; hymns were sung, prayers were said and readings given; wreaths were laid and the Chapel Male Voice Choir sang the famous Dambusters’ March. BBC and ITV news were both there filming and interviewing and military and local dignitaries were joined by a good crowd of invitees and passers by.

‘We are simply guardians of stone and mortar for a moment in time, before we too have to move on,’ she concludes. ‘But in the meantime it is a privilege to be able to inhabit this place which he, too, called home.’
How true, how true.