Dambuster of the Day No. 121: Dennis Powell

Powell lores

Sgt D J D Powell
Flight engineer

Lancaster serial number: ED886/G

Call sign: AJ-O

Third wave. Only aircraft to attack Ennepe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.

Dennis John Dean Powell was born in Birmingham on 21 January 1922, although his family later moved to London. His father, Easton Powell, was Canadian but his mother Ada (née Dean) was from Birmingham.

Powell joined the RAF as a boy entrant before the outbreak of the war and served in ground crew. In 1942, he took the opportunity to train as a flight engineer. He joined 49 Squadron in October 1942, but wasn’t immediately allocated a crew. He teamed up with Bill Townsend at the end of the year and then flew with him on 15 operations before their transfer to 617 Squadron in March 1943.

Like all the flight engineers on Operation Chastise, Powell had a very busy trip. Low level flying required both pilot and engineer to have sharp eyes and speedy reactions. The two young men in the cockpit of AJ-O certainly displayed both over the course of the raid. After the raid, however, Powell was the only one of the entire crew of AJ-O not to be decorated – a decision which today looks very unfair, but probably reflects the thinking in the RAF of the time.

Powell flew with Townsend and most of the rest of his Dams Raid crew on the two trips to attack Italian targets in July 1943. However, unlike the rest of his crewmates he was only about halfway through a tour, so he then transferred to the crew of the newly appointed CO of 617 Sqn, George Holden.

Holden’s first two operations with 617 Squadron had been the Italian trips in July, which he undertook with all of Guy Gibson’s Dams Raid crew: John Pulford, Harlo Taerum, Robert Hutchison, Fred Spafford, George Deering and Richard Trevor Roper. By September 1943, both John Pulford and Richard Trevor Roper had left the crew, so Dennis Powell moved into the flight engineer’s seat. He must have regarded flying with the squadron CO as a significant step upwards.

Unfortunately, his first operation with Holden would be his last. On 16 September, Holden led a detachment of eight aircraft on a low level attack to bomb the Dortmund Ems Canal with a new 12000lb “thin case” bomb. This was to be a catastrophic night for the squadron, and Holden’s was the first of five aircraft to be lost. Approaching the small town of Nordhorn, Holden rose to about 300 feet in order to fly above its church. A more cautious pilot – perhaps someone who had flown on the Dams Raid – would probably have changed course to go around the spire. Holden’s Lancaster became a simple target for the town’s only flak battery and it was shot down, crashing in flames in a farmyard nearby. The bomb inside exploded a few minutes later, devastating the area and killing a woman on the ground. The crew had all been killed in the crash. Of the eight on board, only George Holden and George Deering were positively identified by the Germans. All the bodies were buried in the nearby cemetery at Lingen, but after the war they were all exhumed and reinterred in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.

The aircraft loss was witnessed by Les Knight and his crew, flying in formation with Holden. His navigator, Sydney Hobday, wrote to Dennis Powell’s mother in 1961 saying: “We were flying a matter of yards from the machine which carried Guy Gibson’s crew – piloted by Sq Ldr Holden – which must have been the one which your son was in. We were very low and they were shot down by light flak.”

Along with the four other Dams Raid veterans who flew in Holden’s aircraft, Dennis Powell is buried in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery. The cemetery also holds the remains of four crews killed on the Dams Raid itself – those piloted by Bill Astell, Norman Barlow, Henry Maudslay and Warner Ottley.

More about Powell online:
Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry
Details of 2006 auction sale of logbook and other effects

KIA 16.09.1943

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
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 above, 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 Dennis Powell 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.