Record number of Canadian Dambuster families gathered in Alberta

Dambuster families gather in Nanton, Alberta. Back row, left to right:  Larry Heather (Earnshaw family), Dianne Young (Fraser family), Peter Brosinsky (Earnshaw family),  Charlene Brosinsky (Earnshaw family), Shere Fraser (Fraser family), Kerry O’Brien-Larsen (O’Brien family), Jim Heather (Earnshaw family), Doris Fraser (Fraser family), Tamara Sutherland (Sutherland Family), Hartley Garshowitz (Garshowitz family), Joan Norris, Tom and Cathy Sutherland (Sutherland family), Marilyn McDowell (McDowell family), Bryce Ramlo, Erin Ramlo and Karen Ramlo (McDonald family)
Front row, left to right: crouching/sitting:  Joe McCarthy (McCarthy family), Emily, Kathy and Rob Taerum (Taerum family), Ted Barris, author. [Pic: Hartley Garshowitz]

A record number of Canadian Dambuster families gathered at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta last weekend. They came from all parts of Canada and Washington State, USA, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Dams Raid in which their relatives took part. Many of them died on the raid.

Most later gathered under the wing of the museum’s Lancaster aircraft, which has been specially reconfigured and painted in 617 Squadron’s colours as a further tribute. Not all the families are present in the photograph above, so for completeness they are listed below.

Charles Brennan, flight engineer in AJ-M. Granddaughter, Andrea Davids from Calgary, and her son Mark.

 

Harlo Taerum, navigator in AJ-G. Nephew, Rob Taerum, Rob’s wife Kathy, and their daughter Emily Taerum from Calgary.

 

Lewis Burpee, pilot of AJ-S. Son, Lewis Burpee from Ottawa.

 

 

Don MacLean, navigator in AJ-T. Son, Jim MacLean from Toronto.

 

 

Ken Earnshaw, navigator in AJ-M. Nephews and nieces, Jim Heather of Vulcan, Alberta; Margaret Danielson from Edmonton with her daughter Clarissa Danielson Hall and son-in-law Scott Hall; Larry Heather from Calgary; Charlene Brosinsky and Peter Brosinsky from Bashaw, Alberta.

Abram Garshowitz, wireless operator in AJ-B. Nephew, Hartley Garshowitz from Hamilton, Ontario.

 

Floyd Wile, navigator in AJ-B. Nephew, Don Lightbody and his wife Carolee Lightbody from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

 

Percy Pigeon, wireless operator in AJ-W. Son Greg and Greg’s wife Louise from Williams Lake, British Columbia.

 

Grant McDonald, rear gunner in AJ-F. Nephew, Bryce Ramlo, his wife Karen and their daughter Erin Ramlo from Mayne Island and Vancouver, British Columbia.

 

John Fraser, bomb aimer in AJ-M. Widow, Doris Fraser from Langley, BC, daughter Shere Fraser from Blaine, Washington, and niece Dianne Young from Calgary.

 

James McDowell, rear gunner in AJ-K. Daughter, Marilyn McDowell from Burlington, Ontario.

 

Revie Walker, navigator in AJ-L. Son, John Walker, John’s wife Amy and their daughter Kenzie from Calgary.

 

Gordon Brady, rear gunner in AJ-S. Niece, Sheila Robbins and her husband Graham from Beaumont, Alberta.

 

Joe McCarthy, pilot of AJ-T. Son, Joe McCarthy jr. from Blaine, Washington.

 

 

Harry O’Brien, rear-gunner in AJ-N. Daughter, Kerry O’Brien-Larsen from St. Albert, Alberta.

 

Fred Sutherland, front gunner in AJ-N. Son, Tom Sutherland, his wife Cathy, from Fort McMurray, Alberta, and their daughter Tamara Sutherland from Edmonton, Alberta; daughter, Joan Norris and her husband Hugh of Calgary. Fred Sutherland still lives in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, but chose not to attend this event himself.

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Charlie Brennan’s trip to Berlin

PIC: Humphries collection, Lincolnshire Libraries

A recent research trip to the National Archives in Kew has highlighted a previously unreported incident in the RAF career of Sgt Charles Brennan, the Canadian flight engineer who flew alongside John Hopgood in AJ-M on the night of the Dams Raid.
Brennan was born in Canada on 22 February 1916 and emigrated to the UK in 1928. He joined the RAF in England at the outset of the war, and after training worked as ground crew. When the opportunity came for skilled ground crew to qualify as flight engineers for the heavy bombers he took the chance, like many other enthusiastic young men who were keen to fly. His course at No 4 School of Technical Training at RAF St Athan finished in June 1942, and he was then posted to 106 Squadron. He joined John Hopgood’s crew, and flew on his first operation with him on 15 August, on a trip to Dusseldorf. Another 15 operations followed over the next two months, the last being the attack on the Le Creusot factory on 17 October, the last operation of Hopgood’s tour.
At this point, for some reason, Brennan was not allocated to another crew to finish his tour. Instead, he was posted to 1660 Conversion Unit at Swinderby on 25 November, to train other crews, even though he was only halfway through his own tour of operations.
In the middle of January 1943, 1660 Conversion Unit was told that it would be required to provide two crews for two special maximum strength force attacks on Berlin on successive nights. These would be crewed by a mixture of instructors and students in the final stages of training. Brennan was allocated to a Lancaster crew headed by Plt Off Stanley Harrison, a pilot who had finished one full tour and one period of instructing. He was halfway through a second in 97 Squadron when, for some reason, he had been given another instructional role.
The crew that night was made up of:

Plt Off S Harrison DFM, pilot
Sgt C Brennan, flight engineer
Flg Off J Henderson, navigator
Plt Off P Robins, wireless operator
Sgt T Beesley, bomb aimer
Plt Off K J Knight, mid upper gunner
Flt Sgt R G Cross, rear gunner

The text that follows is taken from Harrison’s 1992 memoirs.

[In January 1943] there occurred an incident in which I take no pride. …
[O]n the morning of the 17th, I was told that I would be detailed together with a composite crew for that night. We carried out a night flying test and found that the aircraft, although it had been hammered on ‘circuits and bumps’ over many months, appeared to be in good order. At briefing it was confirmed that Berlin would be the target and that we would be following the same route as on the previous evening.
After briefing, I called the crew together to talk through what was obviously going to be a long and arduous sortie. I found the three students in good heart but the instructors, all of whom had completed one tour, were very, very reluctant to undertake a Berlin operation while they were officially ‘on rest’. I made it clear that we had absolutely no option but to carry out our orders to the best of our ability; but we went out to the dispersal with the instructors still in a very sullen mood.
I started the engines and we went through the various pre-flight checks with the three instructors offering excuse after excuse, trying to persuade me to find some reason for declaring the aircraft to be unfit for the operation.
To add to the discord, I found that, because I had been flying Manchesters for the previous two or three months, I had forgotten that Lancasters had been modified to operate the send/receive changeover switch for the radiotelephone set in the reverse sense to what I was accustomed to, and that we had been transmitting all our chat to the outside world! I transmitted a quick apology, and then told the crew that I would ask for takeoff clearance straight away, and then we would be off to Berlin.
We took off and started the slow climb to the English and Dutch coasts and to our operating height of 20,000ft. When we reached 10,000ft and had been some 30 to 40 minutes on our way, I gave the usual order to turn the oxygen on (the aircraft was not pressurised and it was necessary for the crew to breathe oxygen enriched air the whole time we were over 10,000ft.)
It was then that the instructor manning the mid upper turret announced that his oxygen bottle was less than half full and he would therefore be able to stay at 10,000ft plus for only a short time. The other two instructors joined in the chorus of demands for me to abort the mission and return to base.
Obviously, in the pre-takeoff confusion, I had forgotten to ask each crew member to check his individual oxygen supply. I was now in a terrible dilemma. There was no necessity to abort a mission because one crew member was short of oxygen. On the other hand, we would clearly be handicapped if we were able to reach our operating height for only a short time while in the Berlin area. We would for the greater part of the long trip be 10,000ft below the main bomber stream and liable to be picked off by a night fighter.
Thus it was that I caved in and returned, tail between legs, back to base. I explained why I had aborted to the station commander, who made no comment. I felt sure that he would have heard the chat on the intercom which I had inadvertently broadcast prior to takeoff, and so would have understood my dilemma.
I should add that never before or later did I experience anything remotely like the ‘lack of moral fibre’ exhibited by the three instructors. A final postscript; my concern about falling victim to a night fighter had I pressed on, was given weight by the news we received later, that on that night, of the 170 Lancasters and 17 Halifaxes on the mission, 19 Lancasters and three Halifaxes were shot down; while on the previous night of 201 aircraft, one Lancaster only was lost.
(Stanley E Harrison, A Bomber Command Survivor, Sage Pages Australia, 1992, pp107-9.)

This text, and the crew list printed above, makes it easy to identify that one of the three instructors was mid upper gunner Plt Off K J Knight. It is also clear that the bomb aimer, Sgt Beesley, was one of the three students referred to: he would go on to transfer to 57 Squadron as one of the crew of Sqn Ldr Melvin Young (although he was replaced as Young’s bomb aimer before the Dams Raid.) It is likely, given that both were commissioned officers, that the other two instructors referred to by Harrison were the navigator, Flg Off Henderson, and the wireless operator, Plt Off Robins. Although Charles Brennan was an instructor in the unit, Harrison does say that the instructors had all completed a full tour, and Brennan was only halfway through his first. At this stage in the war, the trade of flight engineer had only been in existence for a few months and very few would have completed a full tour of operations. Harrison may therefore have mistaken him for a student, and so the students in the crew were Beesley, Brennan and the rear gunner, Flt Sgt Cross.
In a sad postscript for all concerned, it seems that Flg Off Knight did return to operations. An officer with the same initials and surname was lost on a raid on 3 September 1943. He had been recommended for the DFC shortly before this, and the citation was published in the London Gazette eleven days later.

 

 

Dambuster of the Day No. 9: Charles Brennan

brennan b3085

Charles Brennan’s logbook and wedding photo are in the RAF Museum in Hendon. He married his wife, Freda Pemberton, in 1940. [Pic: RAF Museum]

Sgt C Brennan
Flight engineer
Lancaster serial number: ED925/G
Call sign: AJ-M
First wave. Second aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Aircraft hit by flak. Mine dropped late and bounced over dam. Aircraft crashed on far side of dam.

Canadian Charles Brennan had been John Hopgood’s regular flight engineer in the latter part of his tour of operations on 106 Squadron, and the pair obviously got on well together.  So when Hopgood was putting together a new crew at 617 Squadron he brought Brennan in.

Charles Christopher Brennan was born on 22 February 1916 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and emigrated to the UK in 1928. He was one of the two Canadian-born flight engineers on the Dams Raid, along with Gordon Radcliffe in Joe McCarthy’s crew.

He joined the RAF at the outset of the war. After training he worked as ground crew. When the opportunity came for skilled ground crew to qualify as flight engineers for the heavy bombers, he took the chance, like many other enthusiastic young men who were keen to fly. His course at No 4 School of Technical Training at RAF St Athan finished in the early summer of 1942, and he joined 106 Squadron in June. He joined Hopgood’s crew, and flew with him for the first time on 14 August. The following day was his first operation, with a trip to Dusseldorf. He carried on with this crew until Hopgood’s tour ended, the last operation being the attack on the Schneider factory at Le Creusot on 17 October 1942.

For some reason, Brennan was not allocated to another crew to finish his tour. Instead, he was posted to 1660 Conversion Unit at Swinderby on 25 November, to train other crews He flew on many training flights between 25 November 1942 and 26 March 1943, usually with Flt Lt R J Churcher DFC as his pilot.

When Hopgood was called up by Gibson, he must have contacted Brennan and asked him to rejoin him. As Brennan was only halfway through a tour, he probably thought it a good opportunity to finish it with a pilot he knew and trusted. He was posted to Scampton, and undertook his first training flight with Hopgood on 11 April 1943.

One can only wonder as to what conversation passed between Brennan and Hopgood when the young pilot was injured on the fateful journey to the dams. He would have needed all his flight engineering skill to help the pilot keep the aircraft aloft, as one of the engines was damaged and running on reduced revs. Tony Burcher recalls that he was a ‘calm chap’, so also having to hold a handkerchief over Hopgood’s head wound may not have completely fazed him.

When they were hit again, as they attacked the Möhne Dam, the pair must have realised that they would never get off the flight deck themselves, and that all they could do was to give as many of their colleagues as possible the chance to escape. They were both remarkable men.

Brennan married Freda Pemberton in Leeds in 1940. He was one of the four men who took part in the Dams Raid when their wives were pregnant. His daughter was born in Otley in October 1943.

Hopgood, Brennan, Earnshaw, Minchin and Gregory are buried together in Rheinberg War Cemetery, Germany.

More about Brennan online:
Canadian Virtual War Memorial entry
Second World War Book of Remembrance
Logbook details
Commonwealth War Graves Commission listing

KIA 17 May 1943
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 Charles Brennan 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.