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.


Remembrance Day in Sardinia: commemorating Bob Hay

flr-lt-r-c-hay-dfc-wg-cdr-baz-pottsWg Cdr Baz Potts places a poppy on the grave of Flt Lt Bob Hay. [Pic: Sgt Jamie Johnson, RAF]

Not all the Dams Raid aircrew who died during the war are buried in the large war cemeteries in Germany. One who lies on his own is Flt Lt Bob Hay DFC and Bar, the bomb aimer in Mick Martin’s crew in AJ-P. He is buried in Cagliari in Sardinia, which is where Martin landed his damaged aircraft after an operation targetting the Antheor viaduct in southern France in February 1944. Hay had been killed when a cannon shell exploded in the bomb aimer’s compartment during the attack. His body was removed, and he was buried on the island the next day.
This year, Remembrance Day coincided with a NATO exercise in Sardinia, and a contingent of Commonwealth troops held their ceremony in the war cemetery in Cagliari.

dsc_5456Wreaths were laid at the central war memorial, and individual tributes were made to a number of men who are buried in the cemetery, and a poppy placed on their graves. Amongst these was Bob Hay, 617 Squadron’s Bombing Leader, who received a Bar to the DFC for his work on the Dams Raid.
Thanks to Captain Ray Leggatt RAN and Sqn Ldr Paddy Currie RAF for sending this information. Pictures by Sgt Jamie Johnson RAF.

Dambuster of the Day No. 19: Robert Hay

Hay colour small

Picture: Hay family

Flt Lt R C Hay DFC
Bomb aimer
Lancaster serial number: ED909/G
Call sign: AJ-P
First wave. Third aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Mine veered left after dropping and exploded at side of dam.

Aged 30, with a wife and daughter back in Australia, Bob Hay was slightly older than the rest of Mick Martin’s crew. Born in Renmark, South Australia on 4 November 1913, Robert Claude Hay was the son of John and Margaret Hay. He attended Renmark High School and graduated from Roseworthy Agricultural College in 1935, where he also excelled in sports. The college swimming pool is now named in his honour.

He joined the RAAF in the summer of 1940, trained in Australia and Canada and arrived in England a year later. His first posting was to 455 (Australia) Squadron, where his time coincided with future colleagues Mick Martin and his crew. Like them, in April 1942 he was posted to 50 Squadron to fly on heavy bombers when 455 Squadron moved to Coastal Command.

He served a full tour of operations, flying mainly as navigator with one of the squadron’s best known pilots, Sqn Ldr Hugh Everitt, in a crew which also contained fellow Aussie and future 617 Squadron colleague, Fred ‘Spam’ Stafford.

By the time 617 Squadron was formed, Hay had been commissioned and been awarded the DFC. As an Australian from 50 Squadron he slotted easily into the crack Martin crew, and his slight age advantage and extensive experience made him the obvious choice for the important role as the squadron’s Bombing Leader.

This new job meant that within days of his arrival, he flew to Manston with Gibson to watch a test drop of the new Upkeep weapon at Reculver. The first, dropped by a Wellington, was successful, but the second, dropped by a Lancaster, broke up. Flying back in a small Magister, he and Gibson had a lucky escape when its single engine failed. Gibson managed to crashland in a field full of devices designed to stop enemy gliders landing.

Hay was one of the four who were told the target on the night before the raid, along with Melvin Young, Henry Maudslay and John Hopgood. Although the rest of the squadron didn’t know for certain when the operation would take place news that they had been summoned to a meeting in Charles Whitworth’s house led to fevered speculation on the base.

Earlier that day, Hay and most of the rest of Martin’s crew had been on board AJ-P after it had been loaded with its mine. Intelligence officer Fay Gillon was also inside the aircraft, being given a tour. Suddenly, with a crash, the mine dropped onto the ground and everyone on board and outside beat a hasty retreat in case it exploded. The weapon hadn’t been fused, so it did not explode but its delicate mechanism may have been damaged, as when it was finally dropped at the Möhne Dam, it veered to the left and exploded at the side.

Hay received a bar to his DFC for his role on the raid, and played his part in the celebrations that followed. He can be seen in the raucous photo taken at the Hungaria Restaurant, wedged between Tom Simpson and Toby Foxlee, with a glass in his hand.

After the raid, Martin’s crew eventually went back on operations, although Leggo and Chambers eventually left to train as pilots. A new CO, Leonard Cheshire, arrived and Hay spent a lot of time working on training his bomb aimers to use a new device, the Stabilised Automatic Bomb Sight (SABS).

Several months passed until February 1944 when, under Cheshire’s leadership, a detachment set off to bomb the Antheor Viaduct in southern France, an important rail link to Italy. 
Paul Brickhill devotes a whole chapter of The Dam Busters to what happened to Martin’s crew on this operation describing in vivid detail his bombing run and the way the aircraft rocked as it was hit by a cannon shell which exploded in the ammunition tray under the front turret.

Martin was calling the roll round his crew. The tough little Foxlee was all right. Bob Hay did not answer. Whittaker gave him a twisted grin, swearing and hunched, holding his legs. The rest were all right. He called Hay twice more but there was only silence, so he said ‘Toby, see if Bob’s all right. His intercom must be busted.’ Foxlee swung out of his turret and wormed towards the nose. He lifted his head towards Martin. ‘He’s lying on the floor. Not moving.’ (The Dam Busters, pp154-5.)

Eventually Martin managed to land his battered Lancaster in Sardinia, on a small airfield run by the Americans. Hay’s body was removed from the aircraft and he was buried the next day in a cemetery in Cagliari. He was the only one of Martin’s Dams Raid crew who did not survive the war. Martin was himself quite shaken by the episode, and did not fly again on operations with 617 Squadron. A few months later, however, he had recovered his poise and was back in a Mosquito squadron.

After Hay’s death, the Principal of Roseworthy Agricultural College wrote:

We were shocked with the news of the loss of Flt Lt Robert Claude Hay, DFC and Bar and African Star, a much respected and loved member of the College staff and the Gold Medalist in 1935. Before his enlistment in 1940 he was assistant horticulturist at the college. Both as a member of the staff and as a student Bob Hay, with his happy, carefree disposition, more nearly symbolised the life of an agricultural college student than anyone I’ve known.

Hay had married Honoria (Edna) Thomson in 1938. They had one daughter.

More about Hay online:
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Roseworthy Agricultural College Newsletter

KIA: 13 February 1944
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources: Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Bob Hay 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.

Hay spells it out

[Picture from The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill, Evans Brothers, 1951 edition]

Anyone who has read the later chapters of Paul Brickhill’s book The Dam Busters may recall the chapter devoted to a gadget called the Stabilising Automatic Bomb Sight (SABS). This had been invented in 1941 to enable aircrew drop big bombs more accurately, but for it to work an aircraft had to run straight and level for ten miles in the period immediately before the bomb was dropped. It was claimed that if the sight was used properly a bomb could be dropped from 20,000 feet with an accuracy of under a hundred yards.

617 Squadron’s “Bombing Leader” was Flt Lt Bob Hay, bomb aimer in Mick Martin’s crew. Each squadron had a “Leader” for each of the specialist jobs in an aircrew – Bombing, Signals, Navigation, Engineering and Gunnery. Their job was to co-ordinate specialist training and other matters across the squadron, sorting out problems and schedules, liaising with the Flight Commanders and so on.

Hay therefore had to deal with the man Brickhill calls “Talking Bomb”, a Sqn Ldr Richardson who arrived at Coningsby to train the crews in the use of the SABS. It was hard work and required intense practise, but eventually the crews got quite good at its use, with Hay himself setting the standard with an average deviation of just 64 yards.

Hay was therefore called upon to write an article for the 5 Group’s internal newsletter, 5 Group News, in order to spread the word amongst other squadrons in the group. This article has recently come to light, and the text has been reproduced  on the Stirling Aircraft Forum website. You can read the full article there, but here is a short extract:

The Secret of 617 Squadron’s High Standard of Practise Bombing – the S.A.B.S. Pilot/Navigator/Air Bomber Team (By Flt Lt Hay)

The excellent results gained by crews of 617 Squadron using the S.A.B.S. have only been achieved by the fullest, most practical use of the ‘bombing team’. Before any bombs are dropped, some 4 hours training on the specially adapted A.M.B.T. are carried out by the pilot and air bomber to give manipulation practise to the latter and to familiarise the pilot with the B.D.I. (Bombing Direction Indicator).

The SABS was used successfully on a number of raids but sadly Bob Hay was not around long enough to share in any glory. He was killed in February 1944, when Martin’s aircraft was badly damaged by anti-aircraft guns on an attack on the Antheor viaduct in Italy France [Thanks Tim, see comment below], and is buried in Sardinia. He was the only member of Martin’s Dams Raid crew who did not survive the war.

[Hat tip: PAFG, SAS Forum]