Joe McCarthy talks to the King, Scampton, 27 May 1943. Note McCarthy’s dual “Canada USA” shoulder flash. [Pic: IWM CH9925]
Flt Lt J C McCarthy DFC
Lancaster serial number: ED825/G
Call sign: AJ-T
Second wave. First aircraft to attack Sorpe Dam. Mine dropped successfully but failed to breach dam. Returned to base.
Joseph Charles McCarthy was born on 31 August 1919 in St James on Long Island, New York, USA, the older of the two sons of Cornelius and Eve McCarthy. His father worked as a clerk. Shortly after Joe was born, the family moved to the Bronx in New York City, where Cornelius worked as a book-keeper in a shipyard. Later he became a firefighter.
Joe’s mother died when he was eleven and his grandmother took over the running of the household. Although they lived in the Bronx, they had a summer home on Long Island and it was there he became a champion swimmer and baseball player, and worked as a life guard at various beaches including Coney Island. In his late teens, he and his friend Don Curtin became interested in flying and took lessons at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, then the busiest airfield in the USA.
When the war started, Joe made several attempts to join the US Air Corps but was rebuffed because he didn’t have a college degree. By May 1941, he was getting frustrated and so he and Don decided to take an overnight bus up to Ottawa in Canada. Having located the RCAF recruiting office, they were first told to come back in six weeks.
‘Don and I responded that we didn’t have the money to return again so if the airforce wanted us they had better decide that day.’ With that the officer in charge looked the two young, strong, healthy Americans over, realised that they were ideal prospects, and said ‘Okay.’ Enlistment papers were filled out, medical examinations were passed, and Joe and Don were enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force Special Reserve.’
Dave Birrell, Big Joe McCarthy, Wingleader 2013, p19.
The pair became two of the almost 9,000 American citizens who eventually joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. By the end of 1941, they were both qualified pilots and, with new wings stitched proudly on their uniforms, were on board a ship bound for Liverpool.
More training was to follow in a variety of different establishments. By 31 July 1942, both Curtin and McCarthy were at 14 Operational Training Unit, training on Hampdens, when they were both called on to participate in one of the large raids which followed the series of Thousand Bomber Raids. 630 aircraft were mobilised from many different squadrons and OTUs for a raid on Dusseldorf.
McCarthy’s operational debut passed off without incident, but Curtin had a more eventful trip, evading two separate fighter attacks and then hit by anti-aircraft fire. He landed in a field in Devon and dragged his wounded crew from the aircraft. For this action, he received an immediate DFC, a very rare occurrence of such an award being made for a first operation.
In September 1942, both were posted to 97 Squadron’s conversion flight for their training on Lancasters. Flight engineer Bill Radcliffe, a Canadian, wireless operator Len Eaton and air gunner Ron Batson, both British, all joined the squadron at about the same time and became regular members of Joe McCarthy’s crew. These four would stay together for the next 21 months, coming off operations at the same time in July 1944.
The conversion course finished, and McCarthy and his crew were initially posted to 106 Squadron at Coningsby, along with Don Curtin and his crew. At the last minute, McCarthy was sent instead to 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa, as one of the replacements for a series of heavy losses it had undergone. The other three members of McCarthy’s crew at this time were navigator Flt Sgt W Brayford, bomb aimer Sgt Alan Westwell and rear gunner Sgt Ralph Muskett.
McCarthy made the usual “Second Dickey” trip on an operation to Krefeld on 2 October 1942, flying as co-pilot with Flg Off C D Keir. Three days later, the crew undertook their first full operation together, in an attack by 257 aircraft on the town of Aachen. Weather conditions were very poor, and McCarthy and his crew suffered severe problems with icing which left the cockpit side windows with large holes.
McCarthy went on to complete several more operations by early December. At that point, there was a change in his crew. The navigator, Sgt Brayford, left and Sgt Westwell, the bomb aimer who was also a trained navigator, moved into his job. The replacement bomb aimer was Sgt George “Johnny” Johnson, who had been on the squadron for a few months but had no regular crew. He had flown on a number of operations as a gunner. His first trip with McCarthy was on a raid on Munich on 22 December 1942.
In January, the crew flew on an operation to Duisburg using Lancaster ED340 for the first time. They would use this aircraft for most of the rest of their tour, and named it “Uncle Chuck Chuck” after a small toy panda which Bill Radcliffe always carried. They had the name and a picture of the panda painted on its nose, and would have similar pictures painted on most of the aircraft they used regularly during the rest of the war.
Later in January, rear gunner Sgt Muskett left the crew, after suffering bad reactions during corkscrews and other necessary evasive actions. His replacement was Flg Off Dave Rodger, another Canadian.
On 25 February, McCarthy set off on his 24th operation, an attack by 337 aircraft on Nuremberg. Also on this raid was Don Curtin, in a detachment from 106 Squadron, but unfortunately he was shot down near Furth. When word reached 97 Squadron, someone in authority decided not to tell McCarthy until he had completed his tour. Less than three weeks later, on 12 March, navigator Sgt Westwell finished his tour after a trip to Essen and was replaced by the crew’s third Canadian, Flt Sgt Don MacLean.
By 22 March 1943 McCarthy had completed a tour of 33 operations. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, and recommended for a DFC. By then, he had also been told about Don Curtin. The pair had discussed their future, possibly thinking of joining the USAAF. But without his friend, McCarthy was considering his position. Then he had a phone call from Guy Gibson to ask him personally to join the new squadron he was setting up for a special secret operation. Gibson had known McCarthy from his time at 97 Squadron conversion flight the previous September and had also been Don Curtin’s CO in 106 Squadron. McCarthy recounted later:
He asked me if I’d like to join a special squadron for one mission. He also asked if I could bring my own crew along… He couldn’t tell me what we were going to do, where we were going to go, or anything… He said “If you can’t bring the whole crew take as many as you can. We’ll probably find some for you, but we would prefer your own.”
I explained it to my crew and I got a lot of flak back, quick, “Why? What are we going to do?” Same thing I asked and I just had to tell them I didn’t know but it was going to be just one trip. I don’t know whether I, at that moment, had any decision from them that they would accompany me. But in two days, I arrived at the Officers Mess and I was looking around and I found all my crew there with a brief but proud little grin, and they were all ready and waiting to go again. So I had the original crew all the way through.
The next thing we knew we were at Scampton. Gibby didn’t fool around.
Dave Birrell, Big Joe McCarthy, 2013, p87
When the crew arrived at Scampton, they hit a problem. Orders had been issued that since training for the special operation was to begin straightaway, all leave was cancelled. McCarthy and his crew had been due to go on a week’s leave, and bomb aimer Johnny Johnson had arranged to get married during this time, on Saturday 3 April. When he told McCarthy he reacted quickly, gathering the entire crew together and marching them into Gibson’s office. Johnson recalled:
Joe laid it on the line.
“The thing is, sir,” he said, very forcibly, “we’ve all just finished our tour and we are all entitled to a week’s leave. My bomb aimer is due to be married on the third of April and let me tell you he is going to get married on the third of April!”
There was a short pause while the others, no doubt, wished they were anywhere else except standing in the office of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson DSO, DFC and Bar, who had a fearsome reputation as a strict disciplinarian and had been known by the crews of 106 Squadron as “The Arch-Bastard”.
He looked us up and down and said, “Very well. You can have four days. Dismissed.”
Thank you Joe!I left for Torquay immediately, before our new CO could change his mind.
George “Johnny” Johnson, The Last British Dambuster, Ebury Press 2013, p133
In fact, Gibson was probably relieved. He would have known at this stage that he didn’t yet have enough aircraft for his new squadron to train on, so a crew going on leave for four days was hardly going to upset the schedule too much.
On their return, the training began in earnest. It involved low flying for days at a time, something they all found exhilarating. At one point McCarthy was flying at about 100 feet above the ground when another Lancaster flew below him. He was livid, as he wasn’t prepared for this and could only think of what might have happened. Everyone he asked denied responsibility, although later Les Munro confessed it was him. (Johnson, p146)
Five days before the raid, Gibson wrote up a provisional order of battle on an early draft of the operational order. Nine aircraft were listed in the First Wave, scheduled to attack the Möhne and Eder Dams, and they included both Joe McCarthy and Les Munro. Then, during the long meeting which took place the day before the operation, the pair were moved to the Second Wave, attacking the Sorpe Dam. This was not a reflection of the bombing abilities of either crew but rather a late acknowledgement that the Sorpe should be seen as a higher priority.
With hindsight, the lack of a detailed strategy for attacking the Sorpe can be seen as a major failure by Barnes Wallis and the operation’s planners. Tests had shown that the ‘bouncing bomb’ had a good chance of working when delivered at right angles to a concrete walled dam, like the Möhne and Eder. But no one had been able to think of an effective way of delivering the same exploding depth charge against an embankment type dam with its sloping wall, built of earth and concrete.
So it was that, on the day of the raid, the five crews of the Second Wave were suddenly told that the type of attack they had been training for would not be used. Instead, they were to fly along the dam wall at low height and release the mine in such a way that it would roll down the wall and explode when it reached the correct depth.
Joe McCarthy was given the responsibility of leading the Second Wave, controlling it using the newly installed VHF radios. The five aircraft would not fly in formation but would take off at one minute intervals, starting at 2127, and ahead of the Second Wave. Because they were to take a longer route, this would mean that they would cross the Dutch coast at the same time as the First Wave, but further north.
The crew headed out to their designated aircraft, ED923 code name AJ-Q, which they had nicknamed “Queenie Chuck Chuck”. Unfortunately, while the engines were being run up one on the starboard side developed a coolant leak and it was obvious that it could not be used. Determined not to miss the action, McCarthy ordered his crew out and set off for the spare Lancaster AJ-T, which had only arrived on the base six hours previously. A series of mishaps then occurred. As they threw all the essential equipment out of the windows, McCarthy’s parachute caught on a hook and blossomed all over him on the ground. They reached AJ-T, only to find it didn’t have its important compass deviation card on board. McCarthy charged off himself in a truck to the flight office to get the card. His approach resembled a “runaway tank”, recalled adjutant Harry Humphries later. A search for the card followed, while Humphries did his best to calm the big American down. It was found quite quickly and McCarthy headed back to AJ-T, where Dave Rodger had spent several minutes getting ground crew to remove the Perspex sliding panel in his rear turret.
AJ-T eventually took to the air some 33 minutes later than their scheduled departure time, after the nine aircraft in the First Wave had departed. Bill Radcliffe’s engineering skills were tested as AJ-T flew as fast as possible to make up time, and they had made up 16 minutes by the time they reached the Dutch coast.
The Second Wave was already in severe trouble, a fact unknown to their designated leader flying behind them. Byers had been shot down and Munro and Rice had been forced to abandon the operation. Barlow had got through, but would crash in flames less than an hour later. McCarthy ploughed on, although by the time he was in ememy territory, he had lost radio contact with base, the GEE navigation system had failed and a light had come on in the nose compartment, which made them a much easier target for the night fighters they could see above them. The light problem was easily fixed with a blow from Radcliffe’s crash axe, and later Len Eaton managed to reestablish radio contact.
When they reached the Sorpe, they realised that none of the other crews had made it. Surveying the scene, McCarthy realised how difficult the attack was going to be, even though there were no flak batteries present to defend the dam. The approach involved flying over the small town of Langscheid, which had a prominent church steeple, and then dropping very low so that the mine could be dropped in the exact centre of the dam. After several attempts, McCarthy realised that he could use the steeple as a marker and eventually, on the tenth approach, he managed to make a near perfect run, getting down to about 30 feet. Johnson released the weapon, and shouted “Bomb gone”. “Thank God” came the reply from Dave Rodger in the rear turret, pretty fed up with the continuous buffeting he was getting from the steep climb necessary at the end of the run.
McCarthy set course for home, but went via the Möhne, having heard over the radio that it had been breached. They saw a clear breach in the wall and noted that the level was already well down. On the return flight they went badly off course and flew over the heavily defended town of Hamm, a place they had been warned to avoid. Realising that the compass was not reading accurately they managed to navigate by sight across the reast of enemy territory, narrowly avoiding being shot down on several occasions. As they came in to land at Scampton, they realised that one of the undercarriage tyres had been shot through, but McCarthy still landed safely.
McCarthy and some of his crew participated in the party which followed their debrief, although it was tinged with sadness as it became clear how many crews had been lost. One of the highlights of the weeks that followed was the royal visit on 27 May, with McCarthy photographed as he talked to the Queen, towering over her and with his “Canada USA” shoulder flash clearly visible. He met her again at Buckingham Palace on 21 June when he received his DSO. He is supposed to “have turned pink and stammered out answers” as she questioned him about his home life in New York. (Brickhill, The Dam Busters, p.111)
McCarthy stayed on in 617 Squadron without a break for another 13 months after the investiture, flying on 34 more operations altogether. His Dams Raid crew stayed with him all this time, with the exception of Johnny Johnson, who left in April 1944 shortly before his first child was born. McCarthy insisted he move on, knowing that he had done a full second tour, and telling him his duties were to his burgeoning family.
After the war, McCarthy went back to Canada and in 1946 married Alice, the American girlfriend he had met while training in 1941. They went on to have two children. In order to stay in the RCAF he took Canadian nationality, but when he finally retired from the service in 1968, he moved back to the USA. He lived in Virginia and worked in real estate.
Over his career he flew nearly seventy different types of aircraft. McCarthy died in Virginia Beach, VA, on 6 September 1998.
Joe McCarthy died on 6 September 1998.
More about McCarthy online:
Obituary in The Independent
Obituary in the New York Times
Survived war. Died 06.09.1998
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Dave Birrell, Big Joe McCarthy, Wingleader Publishing, 2012
George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, The Last British Dambuster, Ebury Press, 2014
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 Joe McCarthy 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.