Filming “The Dam Busters”: a navigator’s logbook

William Hill was serving as a Navigator in 83/150 Squadron after the war when he was called on to be part of the crews put together to fly the three working Lancasters used in making the 1955 film. With only three operational aircraft left, various subterfuges were used so that they looked like more, including painting different squadron call signs on each side.
William’s son Stephen has kindly sent me a cutting from an unknown newspaper published some 20 years later, which recalls the writer’s memories of the film shoot, and also the relevant pages from his father’s logbook.

The Dam Busters – Heffer’s view

If you watched The Dam Busters earlier today on ITV4, and are now paying your first visit to this blog, welcome.

You may be searching for more information about the remake of the film, which is in the hands of Peter Jackson, in which case I can tell you quite categorically, there is no news. There are rumours aplenty, but all we can currently say is that it seems unlikely that he will make much progress on the project until he has got his Hobbit blockbuster out of the way – and that will last well into next year.

But in the meantime we can report that in the more rarefied atmosphere of the BBC Radio 3 studios, there will be a radio talk this week on the original film by the well known pundit, Simon Heffer. This is one of a series he is doing on British war films of the 1950s. You can catch it on Wednesday 11 January at 10.45pm.

BFI shows off Dam Buster stills

The British Film Institute has revamped its stills website, so that it now displays many more items from its collection. The first thing I searched for was, of course, The Dam Busters, where there are 24 items including most of the well known film stills and posters.

What is still missing, however, are those extra unused stills from cinematographer Erwin Hillier’s personal collection which turned up a couple of years ago, on which I reported at the time.


Dambuster mothers in 1955

I mentioned in an earlier post the Pathé newsreel shot at the premiere of The Dam Busters in 1955. Four middle-aged women are shown being presented to Princess Margaret, and are identified only as the mothers of four aircrew who died on the Dams Raid. I’ve now done a screengrab of each of these, in the hope that someone out there may be able to identify a grandmother or great aunt.

Please get in touch if you recognise any of these.

Pathe News coverage of Dam Busters premiere

The British Pathe archive site now has an eight minute film clip about the Dam Busters. The first section shows 1943  newsreel of the King and Queen’s visit to Scampton after the Dams Raid and the later investiture at Buckingham Palace. This has been around for a while and can be found on Youtube and other sites. Less well known is the second part of the film, a long sequence showing scenes from the premiere of The Dam Busters in 1955. Princess Margaret, “a radiant figure in the bright lights of Leicester Square”, is seen meeting a long queue of dignitaries amongst whom, most poignantly, are some mothers of aircrew who were killed on the Dams Raid. One of these is shown above. If anyone can identify her or any of the others, I would be glad to know.

I don’t seem to be able to embed the clip, but you can follow the link above.

George Baker, 1931-2011

Photo: BBC

The actor George Baker, who died on Friday, had a long and distinguished career on the stage, in TV and films, most recently as Inspector Wexford in the long running series based on Ruth Rendell’s detective stories. Dambuster aficionados will, however, recall that one of his first important film roles was that of Flt Lt David Maltby in Michael Anderson’s 1955 film.

The new Daily Telegraph film critic, Robbie Collin, has written a long and perceptive obituary for the paper, which you can read online. He cites the story I told on this blog a couple of years ago, about how George Baker wrote to me when I was researching my book about David Maltby, saying that one of the reasons he was chosen for the part was his strong resemblance to his real life character.

The real David Maltby, photographed in 1942

George Baker as David Maltby, in The Dam Busters (1955), standing at the back of the group.

In truth, the part of David Maltby in the film is quite small, and much of the time he appears his face is hidden by a flying helmet and oxygen mask. But he does get a few memorable lines, one in the ‘rag’ in the mess when the 617 squadron aircrew are teased once too often by their 57 squadron colleagues about their endless training and lack of operational flying.

This results in a giant ‘debagging’ fight with both crews trying to remove each others’ trousers. Guy Gibson, played by Richard Todd, hears the row from his office, and then has to pick his way through the scrum outside on his way to a meeting with station CO Charles Whitworth. He pauses to rescue David Maltby from the melee and receives heartfelt thanks: ‘Thank you sir. Saved my life. Never forget it.’

It was always a source of pride to my family when we were growing up that the part of our uncle in such a great film had been played by so distinguished an actor, and we used to follow George Baker’s career with proprietoral interest. He was a modest, self deprecatory man, who will be much missed.

New life for Scampton?

For a number of years the only flying unit based at RAF Scampton has been the elite demonstration flight, the Red Arrows. Now they are on the move to Waddington, the airfield will lie largely empty. Many of the buildings are of historic significance, and some are even listed by English Heritage, so could they be used for a Dambusters ‘international visitor attraction’? Some local people think so, according to the Lincolnshire Echo.
My picture above shows the Officers Mess – it hasn’t been altered much since it was used by 617 Squadron between March and August 1943. It also featured in the 1955 film.

Filming The Dam Busters – Richard Thorp remembers

In 1954, Richard Thorp was a young actor at the start of a career which would take him to the dizzy heights of playing the pub landlord in Emmerdale when he was offered the role of one of the pilots in The Dam Busters. Like many of the cast he bore a strong resemblance to the character he played, Sqn Ldr Henry Maudslay.
Mr Thorp  has recently been involved in a campaign for a permanent memorial to the real life men of 617 Squadron at one of the dams they used for training – the Nant-y-Gro dam in mid Wales.
He told the Western Mail:

I loved filming Dam Busters. I was very proud to be in it. It made me realise how incredibly brave these young men were…
The Lancaster bombers used to shake like jellies. I’ve been up in one and they are freezing cold with the wind rushing right through them…
When we were making the film, three batty Polish pilots were the only ones brave enough to fly them.
Actually, he’s wrong about the last bit. Some Lancasters and their successors the Avro Lincoln aircraft were still in service with the RAF at the time, so there were a number of pilots available who were qualified to fly them. What they weren’t prepared for was the extremely low height at which they had to operate – very siimilar to that faced by their wartime colleagues. And in fact only two of the pilots were Polish – Joe Kmiecik and Ted Szuwalski. For the record, there were five in all and the others were Ken Souter, Dickie Lambert and Ted Quinney. (Information from Filming the Dam Busters, by Jonathan Falconer.)

A wizard show: RC Sherriff and The Dam Busters

Say the name RC Sherriff to most people and their instant reaction is likely to be ‘the man who wrote Journey’s End.’ He is certainly best known for this, and the popular identification with his first widely produced play will surely grow all the while it remains on the GCSE set text list. The First World War classic was based on his own experiences serving in the trenches as a captain in the East Surrey Regiment.
It could also be argued, however, that Robert Cedric Sherriff deserves to be widely remembered for another reason, as the man who provided Hollywood with the first British ‘stiff upper lip’ characters – archetypes which persist today in the kind of roles given to actors like Colin Firth, Ralph Fiennes and Jeremy Irons.
Journey’s End was a huge success. First produced in late 1928, it then ran for two years in the West End, and went onto Broadway and other parts of the world. It enabled Sherriff to quit his job in insurance, first to go to study at Oxford and then to become a full time writer. He was lured to Hollywood by the legendary producer Sam Goldwyn (‘A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’, ‘Include me out’, etc, etc) where he worked both as a writer of original screenplays and a script ‘doctor’. His original work included The Invisible Man and Goodbye Mr Chips, and his rewrites such wartime classics as Mrs Miniver.
In his BFI monograph, John Ramsden noticed the importance of the timing of his arrival in Hollywood, in the early 1930s.
At exactly the moment when sound films were about to sweep all before them, in 1928, Sherriff captured in Journey’s End the way in which a certain type of British officer and gentleman spoke and behaved. He then carried these manners and forms of expression into his screenplays, was much imitated in doing so, and saw them develop into clichés of cinematic Englishness.
(John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris, 2003, p.38.)
It’s worth noting that although Sherrif developed this style, he wasn’t himself from an upper middle class background. His father worked in insurance, and the young ‘Bob’ went to a grammar school, Kingston Grammar, not a public school. But his love of rowing and his service in the war as an officer would have brought him in touch with the kinds of people he is famous for depicting.
His understated style of writing is an important characteristic in what could be argued is Sherriff’s second most important work, the screenplay he wrote for The Dam Busters in 1954. There are many examples throughout this script where a character says just a word or two, but this is more than enough to drive the film’s narrative forward:
Gibson: ‘I wanted you for this. You’re the low-flying expert.’
Martin: ‘Low flying? Fine.’
WAAF: ‘Are you flying tonight?’
Pilot: ‘That’s the general idea.’
Wallace: ‘Why don’t you turn in, Gibby?’
Gibson: ‘I have to write some letters first.’
This last exchange is the final piece of dialogue in the film. As the music swells to a great climax, Wallis moves away and Gibson turns and walks back to his office, acknowledging the salute of a passing sergeant. We know that he is about to undertake the commanding officer’s most terrible duty.
Sherriff was nominated for a BAFTA for his script, one of the two nominations he got for this award in 1955. The other was for the lesser known The Night My Number Came Up, which also featured Dam Busters actors Michael Redgrave, Ursula Jeans, Nigel Stock and Bill Kerr. However both were beaten by the classic comedy, The Ladykillers.
By the time The Dam Busters was made, Sherriff was living more or less permanently back home in England, in a large house, Rosebriars, in Esher. Although he was described as a shy and retiring man (see this reference, scroll almost to the bottom of the page) he was still actively involved in rowing, and was a member of several clubs until he died.
This passion for rowing explains a number of references in The Dam Busters – Melvin (‘Dinghy’) Young’s Blue for rowing at Oxford and Henry Maudslay’s feat of being captain of rowing at Eton are both mentioned. Young’s actual Boat Race oar was even used as a prop on the set, A prop made to look like Young’s Boat Race oar features in the sequence after the raid, when the camera zooms in on various reminders of the aircrew who have failed to return. [Updated, January 2013]
Sherriff never married, and died in 1975 without leaving an heir. A trust was established with the money from his estate, and is used still to support arts activities in the borough of Elmbridge. And the boat club at his old school still uses his name for its fundraising and support activities.