The youngest Dambuster

Jack_LiddellThe youngest airman to take part in the Dams Raid was Sgt Jack Liddell, rear gunner in the crew of AJ-E, piloted by Flt Lt Norman Barlow. He was 18 when he took part in the raid, and lost his life along with the rest of the crew when their aircraft crashed on the outward flight near Haldern in Holland. His remains were reburied after the war in Reichswald War Cemetery
Not a lot is known about Liddell other than the material on the Bombercrew.com website (from which I have taken this photo, credited to Eric Rundle). His parents lived in the well-known holiday resort of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset. 
Jack Liddell is thought to have joined the RAF when he was only 16 (he must have lied about his age) and had undertaken a number of operations with Barlow in 61 Squadron. 
BBC South West are now looking to put together a short film about Jack Liddell, and hoping to find some connections with his pre-war life in Somerset. If you can help, please contact the researcher, Charlotte Lewis.

On this day…

On this day 66 years ago nineteen Lancasters of 617 Squadron took off from a grass aerodrome in Lincolnshire on an operation which would change the lives of everyone who took part. Fifty-three of the aircrew died that night, and the destruction of the Möhne and Eder Dams led to the loss of 1341 other lives, many of them civilians or forced labourers. 
In contrast to last year, when various flypasts and other events marked the 65th anniversary, there will be no official ceremonies marking today’s date.
Let’s just remember all those who died that night, and the millions more who died during the Second World War, and hope that we never see destruction on this scale again.
In commemoration of those who died, here are some pictures of the plaques marking the crash site of the aircraft AJ-M, piloted by Flt Lt John Hopgood. His efforts to keep his plane aloft let three of his crew bale out. Two, John Fraser and Anthony Burcher survived. Those who died at the site were Charles Brennan, Kenneth Earnshaw, John Minchin, George Gregory and Hopgood himself. The site is about 6km from the Möhne Dam.
The pictures were taken last month by a reader of this blog, Steve Gough, who has kindly let me use them.

mohne2
mohne1 mohne3

David Shannon’s trousers…

… are in the Australian War Memorial collection in Canberra, as are his jacket, cap and medals. You can also read an entry about Shannon in the online exhibition, Fifty Australians: 

a cross-section of Australians – sometimes a leader, a hero, or even a rogue – who saw war and its effects. Some of these men and women gave their lives, others became renowned for their wartime courage or example, while others, affected for better or worse, emerged to face the peace where they would make their own particular mark. Each has a fascinating story.

Some of these people, such as the cricketer Keith Miller, may be familiar to non-Aussies. Many more are not, but their stories add to our wider knowledge of just how deeply the scars of war are etched on us all.

Les Knight’s crash site and memorial

Teunis Schuurman, a Dutch writer and designer, has a huge website, much of which is devoted to pictures of wartime memorials and crash sites. On this page (which is very large — scroll about three quarters of the way down) I found pictures of a plaque commemorating Les Knight, at Den Ham in the Netherlands. (Images courtesy Dick Breedijk.)

monument-den-ham-1monument-den-ham-2The inscription is in Dutch. Translated into English it reads:

Early in the morning of 16 Sep 1943 a Lancaster of the RAF crashed in this meadow. The Australian Pilot of the 4-engine bomber – Fl/Lt Leslie Gorden Knight, DSO – was killed after he ordered his seven crewmen to bail out first.
He was buried the same day at the “Old Cemetery” in Den Ham. The others landed safely nearby. The two left engines were out, but he pulled up to avoid the disaster of a crash on the village of Den Ham. That night the plane was on a raid targetting a dyke of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen. Les Knight and his crew belonged to 617 Squadron and in May 1943 were also one of the “Dambusters”, the famous attack on the Ruhr dams in Germany.

This raid took place in very bad weather conditions. The 617 Squadron detachment were using a new thin case 12,000lb bomb, dropped from a very low height. However they failed to damage the canal, and five aircraft were lost. Four complete crews and Les Knight, pilot of the fifth plane, were killed. All the remaining seven of Knight’s crew, including Fred Sutherland, still alive and well in Canada, baled out while Knight struggled to keep his damaged aircraft aloft. They owe their lives to him, as do people in the village of Den Ham which he managed to avoid when crashing.

Question time

For some time Ron Lapp from Winnipeg has been trying to find out the answer to a question of detail about the Dams Raid:

 When the Lancaster nose turret guns were fired, as they certainly were on the Dams raid, were the empty cases and links collected somehow, or did they just fall to the floor of the nose and get collected later?  I have seen a picture showing the expended cases and links on the bottom of the nose, but I am not sure if this was common practice.  I have also read that canvas bags or a flexible sleeve may have been used, but have not seen pictures of either of these possible collection methods.  In the case of the Dams raid, with a gunner in the nose turret and the bomb aimer at his position, I would not think that the bomb aimer would want to be distracted by having spent cases and links falling over him during the bomb run.

Fortunately, I knew someone who would have the answer: Fred Sutherland, the front gunner in Les Knight’s aircraft, AJ-N – the aircraft which dropped the mine which broke the Eder Dam. Fred obliged with an almost immediate definitive response: 

There were bags under each gun to catch the spent cases. There were several reasons for this. First, each gun fired 20 rounds a second and even with a short burst the empty cases soon built up a great pile.
Then there was at times, the violent evasive action where the empties could get air borne and foul up the works.
In the front turret which was designed for one person they would have showered down on the B/A. After a long burst [of fire] the cases became very hot.

So, there we have it. Another small mystery resolved!

John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson
John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson was the wireless operator in Vernon Byers’s aircraft, AJ-K, on the Dams Raid. This was the third aircraft to take off on the night of 16 May, and the first to be lost. Off course, it crossed the Dutch coast at Texel Island, a well known flak position, and was shot down.
This photograph was sent to me by John Cotterill, whose father was a good friend of John Wilkinson’s. It was given to him in 1993 by John Wilkinson’s brother, Tom, when the two met up for the first time in 43 years. I have also posted details on a new page on the Breaking the Dams website, which you can find here.

More Dambusters online

My 12 year old daughter, to whom these kind of things matter, tells me that girls nowadays have several categories of ‘best friend’, including such acronyms as BFF, Best Friend Forever, and the less permanent-sounding BFFN, Best Friend For Now. I’m pleased to say that this blog has a new BFFN, in the shape of Mike Whitaker, who has kindly sent me a long list of additions to my Operation Chastise complete crew list. These were mainly links to websites which describe the fate of the aircraft used on the Dams Raid. I have added a new page to the Breaking the Dams website which uses all this information.

I’ve also added more online information to the PDF list about several other Operation Chastise aircrew including Henry Maudslay, Richard Bolitho, Lawrence Nichols, Donald Hopkinson and Jack Liddell. Liddell was the youngest airman in the Dambusters: he was only 18 when he was killed, flying as the rear gunner in Norman Barlow’s aircraft. He must have lied about his age when he joined up in May 1941. 

Links to two of the online exhibits at the RAF Museum, Mick Martin and Charles Brennan’s logbooks have also been added. If you look carefully at the Brennan exhibit you can see that the signature of the acting OC of 617 Squadron is that of David Maltby, doing the grisly job of signing off the logbooks of dead aircrew while Guy Gibson was on leave. 

You can find everything in the new list on the Breaking the Dams website.

Last of the Dambusters, not

I managed to see a recording of the Channel Five documentary ‘Last of the Dambusters’ the other night. (As I live in Ireland, I can’t get Channel Five, even though we get all the other British channels on our cable service.) This has been quite extensively reviewed (see here and here) and discussed on various forums (see here and here) so I shan’t say too much more.

The programme featured George (Johnny) Johnson, who is fast becoming a national treasure. Although he is not the ‘last of the dambusters’ (I don’t know why the programme was given that confusing title when five or six men who took part in the Dams Raid are still alive) he is the only one based in the UK who regularly does media appearances. He treated the programme makers and everyone else in the film with his usual courtesy, and it was very interesting seeing his reactions to meeting people who lived near the Sorpe Dam which he had tried to destroy 65 years before.

The other inaccuracy in the programme concerned the Sorpe Dam itself. The impression was given that Joe McCarthy’s crew, in which Johnson was the bomb aimer, was the only crew to reach and attack the Sorpe. It is true to say that they were the only one of the five crews in the second wave to get that far (Munro and Rice had to turn back after their aircraft were damaged, Barlow and Byers crashed on the outward flight). But Ken Brown in AJ-F, from the reserve wave, made it all the way, dropped his mine successfully at 0314 and returned to Scampton safely.

Hindsight tells us that sufficient thought had not been given as to how to attack the Sorpe. With its earth core construction the dam could not be attacked head on like the concrete-built Möhne and Eder, so the ‘bouncing’ technique could not be used. Instead, both McCarthy and Brown flew along the length of the dam and dropped their mines in the centre, causing them to roll down into the water before the hydrostatic fuse exploded. Perhaps if five aircraft had got through the cumulative effect would have succeeded, but we will never know.

Looking over the interwebnet today for reviews of the programme, I came across this other oddity – a review by the romantic fiction writer Jessica Blair. It turns out that Ms Blair is not all she seems, being the nom de plume of a gentleman called Bill Spence, who flew 36 wartime operations as a Lancaster bomb aimer in 44 Squadron, and turned to writing in 1960. What an interesting life!

Dambuster obituaries

I have been scouring the interwebnet for online material about the aircrew who took part in the Dams Raid for a project I will be unveiling shortly, but in the meantime, I thought I would share the fruits of part of my research. So far, I have come across these online postwar obituaries:

Ken Brown
George Chalmers
Edward (Johnnie) Johnson
David Rodger
Danny Walker

Thanks to a helpful library subscription, I have also come across four other earlier obituaries which are not generally available in online sources, but can be turned up in newspaper archives. These are of:

Basil Feneron
Harold (Mick) Martin
David Shannon
Paul Brickhill

(I know the last of these did not take part in the Dams Raid himself, but I thought his obituary might be of interest.) I have posted these four obituaries on my other website, and you can see them here.

If you can add any further online or offline material to these links then I would be glad to hear from you.