Willie Tait and his double-navigator Tirpitz crew

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L-R: Flg Off Arthur J Ward (wireless operator), Flt Lt Jim Chapman (mid-upper gunner), Flg Off W A (“Danny”) Daniel (bomb aimer), Wrt Off Mike Vaughan (rear gunner), Wg Cdr J B (“Willie”) Tait (pilot), Flt Sgt A E (“Bill”) Gallagher (flight engineer), Flg Off Bruce Bayne (navigator) and Flg Off Harold Ellis (navigator). [Pic: IWM CH17864]

By Charles Foster and Robert Owen

Wg Cdr James Brian Tait, always known by the nickname “Willie”, succeeded Leonard Cheshire as commanding officer of 617 Squadron in July 1944. The squadron was then based at RAF Woodhall Spa. Although he was still only 27, he was one of the most experienced airmen in Bomber Command having commanded two other squadrons and a Conversion Unit and holding three separate decorations – the DSO and Bar and the DFC. (Other awards had already been recommended, a second Bar to the DSO and a Bar to the DFC.)  From the start, Tait led his new squadron from the front, first by marking targets in a Mustang or Mosquito, and then undertaking a further eight operations in his own Lancaster.

In early September Bomber Command’s attention turned again to the German battleship Tirpitz, based in Norway. A force of Lancasters carrying Tallboy bombs was drawn from both 617 and IX Squadrons, to be led by Tait, and using a base in the Soviet Union to refuel. In September and October 1944, Tait led two separate inconclusive attacks on the giant battleship before a third attempt on 12 November, Operation Catechism, was successful. The crews all landed at Lossiemouth, flying home to Woodhall Spa the following day. Some time in the period following, possibly on this day, Tait and the crew who had accompanied him are said to have posed for a picture, along with two more members of his regular crew, who hadn’t been on board for separate reasons. The aircraft is EE146 (KC-D), which Tait had piloted on the operation.

The picture shows, left to right: Flg Off Arthur J Ward (wireless operator), Flt Lt Jim Chapman (mid-upper gunner), Flg Off W A (“Danny”) Daniel (bomb aimer), Wrt Off Mike Vaughan (rear gunner), Wg Cdr J B (“Willie”) Tait (pilot), Flt Sgt A E (“Bill”) Gallagher (flight engineer), Flg Off Bruce Bayne (navigator) and Flg Off Harold Ellis (navigator).

Flg Off Arthur J Ward (160719), the wireless operator in this crew, had a namesake, Flt Sgt Arthur Ward (1578343), also a wireless operator, who flew in John Sanders’s crew (see below).

The picture does, however, throw up some questions. First, there are eight men in the group, whereas the Operations Record Book states that each aircraft carried a crew of just six. EE146 was a Mark III Lancaster built at the Avro plant at Chadderton and delivered to 617 Squadron in the summer of 1943.  Subsequently re-engined as a Mark I for Operation Paravane, its mid-upper turret had been removed to save weight (the different coloured patch can be seen over the code letters KC in the photograph) and so the operation had been undertaken with only one gunner on board. So Jim Chapman is unlikely to have been on the aircraft for the operation. (The word “unlikely” is used because it was not unknown for the spare gunner to fly on some occasions. If he was carried he would spend the flight in the astrodome, as a spotter looking for possible enemy fighters. Although there were long stretches where they would be out of range, they were a real concern on the Tirpitz ops especially on the second and third attacks which were within range of Luftwaffe fighters stationed at Bardufoss in Norway.)

Just why there are two navigators is more difficult to explain. Tait’s regular navigator was Bruce Bayne, but he was signed off as “non-effective” (which usually means sick) on 17 October. So he was replaced with Harold Ellis for both the 29 October and 12 November attacks on the Tirpitz, which turned out to be the only two operations Ellis ever flew with Tait. Bayne had flown as navigator for Tait on the first Tirpitz attack (Operation Paravane) and then with him on two more operations between that and 29 October.

It is possible that Tait, as the squadron CO as well as the captain of the aircraft, invited both Bayne and Chapman to be in the photograph as they were both regular members of his crew. A generous gesture which would be a morale-boost for his team, one might think.

The other picture is also well-known and would seem to have been taken at the same time. It shows pilot Flg Off John Sanders and his crew next to their aircraft ME562 (KC-K), and is captioned as being taken on their return from the 12 November operation.

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Pic: IWM CH17863

It shows, left to right: Flt Sgt Roy Machin (rear gunner), Flt Sgt Arthur Ward (wireless operator), Flt Sgt Tommy Nutley (flight engineer), Flg Off John Sanders (pilot), Flg Off Gordon Allen (bomb aimer) and Plt Off Jim Barron (navigator).

Again, the space on the fuselage for the missing mid-upper turret can be clearly seen. In this photograph no attempt has been made to include the other gunner from the Sanders crew.

Unlike the shot of the Tait crew, five of the six men in this picture are only wearing normal battledress, with Allen also sporting a belt and holster. Barron’s coat covers his uniform, but it is also probably just battledress. There are none of the flying jackets and suits, Mae Wests, flight bags and other paraphernalia which appear as props in the other photograph. The very youthful looking Machin has longer hair than is normally seen in shots from this period and has a cigarette in hand, as do several of the men in the Tait picture. Wartime regulations did ban the smoking of cigarettes in such close proximity to aircraft, but this was frequently flouted.

Both pictures show the different types of flying boot worn by crews. Some appear to be the “evasion” type with the laces in which the leg part could be cut off, to produce a civilian style shoe for evasion. Pilots favoured these as they had to operate foot pedals, as did the other trades who were in a warmer part of the aircraft. Others, often worn by gunners, are of the clumpier suede outer/fleece lined/front zip style, and were considerably warmer.

A final point of interest is that it can be seen how the entire centre perspex panel between the rear guns on EE146 has been removed to provide absolutely clear and direct vision for the gunner wedged into his turret. The potential sub-zero temperatures which the gunner would then experience made the sheepskin lined leather flying jacket an absolute must.


A final note of caution. We believe that this is the first ever article in almost eight decades to attempt to name the individual men who appear in this historic pair of photographs. It is possible that some names are incorrect, in which case further information would be welcomed. Please leave a comment below, or contact us by email.

Thanks to the Bayne family for help.