The first and the last

Len Sumpter, Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson, photographed together in July 1943 as part of the group picture of 617 Squadron aircrew. [Artwork © Dambusters Blog, from image courtesy of Sutherland family.]

We have just passed the 77th anniversary of the day on which nineteen Lancasters of RAF 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack the dams in the Ruhr and Eder valleys. Of the 133 aircrew who participated in what would come to be called the Dams Raid, just 80 survived. Thirty-two more died before the end of the war, leaving 48 men. Official records show that only two men flew on both the first and last operations mounted by 617 Squadron: the Dams Raid on 16 May 1943 and an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair at Berchtesgarten on 25 April 1945. These were Leonard Sumpter and Raymond Wilkinson. However, I believe that a third Dams Raid participant, Douglas Webb, also flew on the final raid even though he did not record it in his logbook. The full story is set out below.

Len Sumpter flew on the Dams Raid as the bomb aimer in David Shannon’s AJ-L. They dropped their Upkeep mine at the Eder Dam, resulting in some superficial damage to the wall. Shortly afterwards, the dam was finally breached by Les Knight and his crew in AJ-N. Later in the war, Sumpter switched to flying as Shannon’s observer in Mosquitoes before joining Ian Marshall’s Lancaster crew.

Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson took part in the Dams Raid as respectively the front and rear gunners in AJ-O, skippered by Bill Townsend. This crew was part of the mobile reserve and attacked the Ennepe Dam, but it failed to breach. Shortly after the Dams Raid the Townsend crew broke up as most of them had completed a tour. Webb and Wilkinson went together to a training unit as instructors, but by the end of 1944, they were both back in 617 Squadron, on their second tour. Wilkinson flew on the final Tirpitz attack on 12 November, in Arthur Kell’s crew. By the following spring, they were both regulars in Ian Marshall’s crew.

At this stage in the war, 617 Squadron was carrying out precision raids with 22,000lb Grand Slam and 12,000lb Tallboy bombs. The squadron had been supplied with 21 Lancasters, known as B.I Special models, which had been built specially for dropping these monster bombs. To reduce weight and because there was a reduced danger of German fighter attack, the mid-upper turret had been removed and the gunner who occupied this space and the wireless operator were not carried. Official records, such as the Operations Records Book, usually show blanks in these two positions, as can be seen in the entry below for the Marshall crew on 25 April 1945, who were flying in PD134.

The crew is shown here as Ian Marshall (pilot), Frank Cholerton (flight engineer), Kenneth Newby, (navigator), Len Sumpter (bomb aimer) and Ray Wilkinson (rear gunner).

The presence of both Sumpter and Wilkinson is confirmed by their logbooks, shown below:

Pic: Sumpter family

Pic: War & Son

However, the official listing may not be entirely correct. There may have been an extra passenger on board – something that is hinted at in a fascinating photograph contained in Len Sumpter’s family archive. According to Sumpter, this was taken just before take off:


Pic: Sumpter family

On the reverse, in Sumpter’s writing, the five aircrew are identified as (L-R) Flt Lt L Sumpter, Flg Off K Newby, Flt Lt I Marshall, Flg Off D Webb and Sgt K Tollerton. The caption seems to have been written some time after the war, which may be why he recorded the type of bomb incorrectly: PD134 was carrying a Tallboy rather than a Grand Slam bomb. There are also discrepancies in the names he recorded. He says that the man on the far right is Sgt K Tollerton. It’s possible that he wrote this a number of years later, thinking of Frank Cholerton. However the man bears a strong resemblance to Ray Wilkinson, who we know was on the raid. Update September 2020: Man on far right is not Ray Wilkinson, according to his granddaughter. Update January 2021: Man on far right is definitely Frank Cholerton. See comments below.

Sumpter has also identified the fourth man from the left as Doug Webb. It certainly looks like him but, as we have seen, he is not listed in the ORB entry. Nor did Webb record the flight in his own logbook, as can be seen below. So if Webb was on this operation, he was there unofficially!

Pic: Yak El Droubie

It is known that at this stage of the war, the Lancaster B.I Specials sometimes carried an extra man, perhaps as an extra spotter for enemy aircraft. So this might explain Webb’s presence – or maybe he just wanted to get the chance to be there when the force attacked Hitler’s ‘bunker’, which it was rumoured would be the place where the Führer might make a last stand.

Wilkinson and Webb did not know, of course, that this would be the squadron’s last Second World War operation, but the pair had been friends since their days together in 49 Squadron. Here they are, photographed together outside Buckingham Palace on the day the Dams Raid crews received their decorations:

Left to right: Ray Wilkinson, Doug Webb, Charles Franklin, Bill Townsend, Jack Grain [not on Dams Raid], Lance Howard. [Pic: Yak El Droubie.]

Further enquiries are being made to confirm the identities of the men in Sumpter’s photograph, and this article will be updated when this information is received.

[My 2018 book, The Complete Dambusters, will be updated with this information in the next edition. Further information about the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in the book, published by History Press.]

Plaques for three Dambusters unveiled

The BBMF Lancaster PA474 flew over Bill Townsend’s childhood home in Chepstow. [Pic: George Foster]

Crowds turned out in three separate parts of the UK last week as the childhood homes of three men who flew on the Dams Raid were honoured with plaques to mark the 75th anniversary of the raid.

Chepstow, Gwent: Flt Sgt Bill Townsend DFM (Pilot: AJ-O)

Pics: George Foster

Hildenborough, Kent: Flg Off Brian Goodale DFC (Wireless operator, AJ-L)

Centre of picture, Mrs Vera Goodale, widow of Brian Goodale. She is flanked by Howard and Joy Dowling of Hildenborough History Society. [Pic: Simon Goodale]

Leytonstone, London E11: Sgt Douglas Webb (Front gunner, AJ-O)

Pic: Yahya El-Droubie

Dambuster of the Day No. 125: Douglas Webb

Dougles-Webb-Dambuster-617-Douglas Webb with his parents, Edward and Daisy Webb, and (left) his then fiancée, Anne Jones, photographed outside Buckingham Palace on 22 June 1943. [Pic: Yahya El Droubie]

Sgt D E Webb
Front gunner

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.

Douglas Edward Webb was born in Leytonstone, London on 12 September 1922, one of the two children of Edward and Daisy Webb. After leaving school, he worked briefly for Ilford and then for the London News Agency in Fleet Street, as a photographic printer. He joined the RAF in 1940, as soon as he had turned 18, as he wanted to be an air gunner.

After a substantial delay, he began training in 1942 and qualified as a gunner later that year. He was posted to 49 Squadron where he became one of Bill Townsend’s core crew, along with Dennis Powell, Lance Howard and fellow gunner Ray Wilkinson. He flew on some 25 operations before the crew were transferred to the new 617 Squadron in March 1943.

As with all the front gunners on the Dams Raid, Webb was normally stationed in the mid-upper turret, but that had been removed in the modified Lancasters. He thought that he was going to be busy in this unaccustomed role, so he scrounged an extra 1000 rounds of ammunition for each gun from the squadron armoury.

The third wave was scheduled for take off more than two hours after the second, so Webb filled some of the time having a bath. He recalled later that he was convinced that he wasn’t going to come back, and that he wanted to “die clean”.

Fortunately, his premonition didn’t come true. From his seat in the front turret, he was able to see how dangerous the German defences were (he saw the shooting down of Burpee in “a bloody great ball of fire”), and also appreciate the airmanship of his skipper as Townsend flew as low as he dared. And his decision to bring extra ammunition proved vital, since without it he would have run out during the trip.

Webb was awarded the DFM for his role on the raid. He didn’t believe this at first, suspecting he was being set up as part of some elaborate joke. Having checked, he then found a shop where he could buy the appropriate medal ribbons. Due to an administrative error, his actual medal was engraved “E Webb”, missing out his first name.

In July 1943, he flew with Bill Townsend on two of the raids on Italian targets and was then loaned to George Holden’s crew for another. In another stroke of fortune, he did not remain on the Holden crew, as in September they were all killed on the disastrous attack on the Dortmund Ems canal.

Webb was now tour expired, and he was posted to a conversion unit for a spell as an instructor, along with his rear gunner colleague Ray Wilkinson. The pair moved on to other training roles but in October 1944, they both came back on operations with 617 Squadron. He flew his first operation of this new tour in December, in Arthur Kell’s crew, and went on to fly on about another ten before the end of the war.

By the New Year Webb and Wilkinson were both in Ian Marshall’s crew. At this stage in the war, 617 Squadron was carrying out precision raids with 12,000lb Tallboy bombs. To save weight and because there was a reduced danger of German fighter attack, the mid-upper gunner was often not carried.

In March 1945 the even bigger 22,000lb Grand Slam came into service. By then the squadron had been supplied with 21 Lancasters, known as the B.I Special model, which had been built specifically for dropping these monster bombs. There is however some evidence that some aircrew carried on flying unofficially, perhaps to act as spotters.

It seems that Webb and Wilkinson therefore decided to take turns flying in the rear turret, and Webb recorded four operations in this position in March and April 1945 in his logbook. It is also likely that Webb was actually present on 617 Squadron’s last wartime operation, an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair on 25 April 1945. His colleague Ray Wilkinson and Len Sumpter, another Dams Raid participant, both flew on this sortie, making them the only two people to take part in 617 Squadron’s first and last wartime operations.

After demobilisation in 1946, Webb rejoined the London News Agency as a staff photographer. He went on to work in the film industry as a stills photographer and then opened his own studio in Soho, where he specialised in theatrical and film portraits. In 1948, he took some of the first professional nude pictures of the model and actress Pamela Green, thereby beginning an association which would last almost 50 years.

Webb had a prolific life in stills photography, cinema and television. His television work included the title sequences for Special Branch and The Sweeney for Thames Television. In the latter, the famous enlarged fingerprints were those of Pamela Green.

Although they were never married, Webb and Pamela Green became life partners and in 1986 when Webb retired, they moved to the Isle of Wight together.

Douglas Webb died on 8 December 1996 in Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight. Pamela Green stayed in the area, appearing in various TV documentaries and giving talks to the local WI, in which she was an active member. She died on 7 May 2010.

More about Webb online:
Entry on Wikipedia
Article on Pamela Green tribute site (warning – contains nudity!)

Survived war. Died 8 December 1996.

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 Doug Webb 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.

New Doug Webb pictures of Pamela Green and Just Jane

01_Douglas_Webb lores
Yahya El-Droubie has kindly sent me some more pictures from the Douglas Webb collection. These were taken at Biggin Hill, probably in 1967, and show Lancaster NX611 sometime after it arrived back from Australia. This is the aircraft which is now known as Just Jane, the centrepiece of the Panton family collection at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire.
NX611 was built at the Longbridge works in Birmingham by Austin Motors in April 1945, and was scheduled to join the RAF Tiger Force in the Far East against the Japanese. However, these operations were cancelled and after several years in storage it was one of 54 Lancasters sold to the French government in 1952 for maritime reconnaissance. After ten years of flying over the Atlantic it was then flown out to the Far East and based in the French colony of New Caledonia.
In the mid 1960s, it was purchased by the UK Historic Aircraft Preservation Society (HAPS) and brought back to Britain, landing at Biggin Hill on 13 May 1965. Some of the stages on this 12,000 mile journey were painted onto its side, under the cockpit.
At this point it was repainted and rebadged, and given the code letters HA-P – an authentic Second World War code used by 218 Squadron, which also represented the owners, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society. The Lancaster was subsequently named ‘Guy Gibson’ and after two years of hard work her first post re-certification flight took place on 6 May 1967.
It must have been some time shortly after this date that these photographs were taken because by the following March it was relocated to the former USAAF airfield at Lavenham in Suffolk.
Doug Webb was the front gunner in Bill Townsend’s AJ-O on the Dams Raid, and received the DFM for his part in the operation. He became a successful photographer after the war, working mainly in the film and glamour industries. One of his most famous models was Pamela Green. They later became partners, although they never married, and they retired together to the Isle of Wight in the 1990s.
These pictures are from a series of transparencies taken on a visit to Biggin Hill, probably in the summer of 1967. The brilliant colours are very typical of the Kodachrome process which was probably used to develop the slides. Some of the shots show Pamela Green as well as Douglas’s mother:
09_Douglas_Webb lores
The HA-P code can be seen on this side view. Note that the lettering is rather thinner than that used in wartime.
02_Douglas_Webb lores
These names are probably of organisations who helped in the aircraft’s restoration:
05_Douglas_Webb lores
This close up of the front shows quite clearly that the barrels of the guns have been removed, and possibly the whole guns. It is interesting that the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre say that the guns weren’t completely removed until NX611 was at Blackpool, in October 1971. This obviously needs to be checked.
08_Douglas_Webb lores
All in all, a fascinating set of photos. All pictures © Douglas Webb collection, about which there is more information on the Pamela Green tribute website. (Warning: contains nudity!). Many thanks to Yahya.
Information about NX611 from On Target Aviation. Thanks guys!

New photo of royal visit to Scampton, 27 May 1943

I’ve written before about the post-war career of Douglas Webb DFM, front gunner in Bill Townsend’s crew on the Dams Raid. He went back to work as a photographer in the film and ‘glamour’ industry, where one of his subjects was the well-known model and film actress, Pamela Green. They had a long term relationship and eventually retired together to the Isle of Wight. Doug died in 1996, but Pamela survived him until 2010.
Her friend Yahya El Droubie now runs a tribute blog about Pamela. (Please be warned, as they say in the best TV voiceovers, that this contains ‘scenes of nudity’.)
Amongst the tasteful poses, there are some hidden gems of great interest to the Dambuster obsessive. This includes a picture that I have never seen before, which must have been taken, presumably by Doug, on the day that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Scampton after the Dams Raid, on 27 May 1943. They are walking off the airfield, probably en route to lunch in the Officers’ Mess. In the front row is the Queen, alongside a senior RAF officer. Behind them are a group of three, which I think includes Guy Gibson on the left, and the King in the centre. The third group of five has the unmistakeable figure of Barnes Wallis on the far right. I would hazard a guess that Charles Whitworth is on the far left of this quintet. Note also, the official RAF photographer on the far right.
Any suggestions as to the rest would be very welcome.

Another post in Yahya’s blog contains this picture of Doug Webb, Bill Townsend and the four other members of their crew who were decorated after the Dams Raid. This was taken outside Buckingham Palace on the day they received their medals, Tuesday 22 June 1943.

Left to right: Ray Wilkinson, Rear Gunner; Douglas Webb, Front Gunner; Charles Franklin, Bomb Aimer; Bill Townsend, Pilot; Jack Grain, Wireless Operator; Lance Howard, Navigator. (Note that, for some reason, flight engineer Sgt D Powell was not decorated.)

Snippets of oral history

Browsing recently through the People’s War section of the BBC website I came across this brief reminiscence about a gunner who took part in the Dams Raid. The writer, a Mrs Libby, is describing her cousin, who isn’t named but from the description sounds very like Douglas Webb, who flew in Bill Townsend’s crew on the Dams Raid. Just to illustrate the point that researchers should not rely on second hand oral history sources, it’s important to point out that he was, in fact, the front gunner. I wrote more about Webb here.
Another snippet in the BBC’s extensive oral history is about John Pulford, flight engineer in Gibson’s crew, contributed by an unnamed writer whose wife’s sister is married to Pulford’s brother. More about Pulford here.

The glamour of the Dambusters

What is the connection between the Dambusters and the 1960 Michael Powell cult film, Peeping Tom (being shown in the UK on ITV in the early hours of Friday 27 February)? The answer is Pamela Green, the celebrated 1950s glamour model and actress, who made her ‘straight’ acting debut in this film. While Ms Green was still a student, her first nude photographs were taken by Dams Raid survivor Sgt Douglas Webb DFM, the front gunner in Bill Townsend’s aircraft, AJ-O.  After the war, Webb had returned to a job in Fleet Street as a photographer and then branched out into film stills and ‘glamour’ work. He is probably the only Dams Raid participant with an entry on IMDb. In the 1950s and 60s Ms Green made a career out of glamour work, culminating in the naturist picture Naked as Nature Intended. When Peeping Tom emerged, in those still-censorious times, the moderately explicit shots of her which were included got local watch committees in a fuss. Doug Webb and Pamela Green married in 1967, and later retired to the Isle of Wight. Sadly he died in 1996, but Ms Green is still flourishing, and can be seen from time to time on nostalgia TV shows.