John Fraser, Dam Busters actor

John Fraser as Flt Lt John Hopgood in The Dam Busters

The actor John Fraser, who died on 6 November, is one of the last people who had a credited part in the Michael Anderson 1955 film The Dam Busters. Many of the online obituaries described him as having a “starring role”, but that is a bit of an overstatement, given that he only has a few lines. In his hilarious 2004 autobiography, Close Up, he mentions it just once as one of a string of four films he made in the mid 1950s in quick succession.

In The Dam Busters John Fraser played Flt Lt John Hopgood, the pilot of AJ-M on the Dams Raid. What is rarely noticed is that AJ-M’s bomb aimer was also called John Fraser, and that he was one of the three men who survived being shot down on the attack and spent the rest of the war in a PoW camp. (Readers of this blog will also know of the long running saga about his stolen logbook, and the efforts of his daughter Shere to recover it.)

John Fraser (the actor) is of interest to social historians in that he was a gay man taking his first steps in the acting trade when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. A number of other closeted gay men from that period, such as Laurence Harvey and Dirk Bogarde appear in the cast of thousands in Close Up. It also includes louche individuals such as Stephen Ward, who sent him to a London brothel in an attempt to change his sexuality.

In a distinguished career Fraser made many more films, with starring roles in El Cid, Tunes of Glory and The Trials of Oscar Wilde, where he played the playwright’s young lover, Bosie, and was nominated for a BAFTA. He also appeared in a number of stage roles which led to a brief career as a pop singer, with a hit called “Why don’t they understand?”. This resulted in appearances on Six Five Special and a concert with Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele at the Albert Hall. (You can hear him sing the song here on YouTube.)

Publicity photograph of John Fraser – once dubbed “the handsomest man in Britain” – at the height of his 1950s popularity.

Obituary in the Daily Mail
Obituary in the Guardian
John Fraser Scottish lad fan site

Anniversary events at the RAF Museum

The RAF Museum’s Lancaster. Events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Dams Raid will be held beneath its wings. [Pic: Geograph/Carlisle Kid]

The RAF Museum in Hendon, North London, has four free events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Dams Raid. The first two need prebooking.

The Legend of the Dambusters Raid
Wednesday 16 May, 2pm

Under the wings of the Lancaster in the main exhibition hall.
Free to attend
Billed as an insightful look at the Dambusters Raid from 1943 and the story of the most famous raid by Bomber Command in the Second World War.
Tickets can be reserved here.

A Legacy of a Dambuster
Thursday 17 May, 2pm

Under the wings of the Lancaster in the main exhibition hall.
Free to attend
The legacy of one Dambuster, John Hopgood, and how his family are building dams in Africa. This talk is in partnership with the WaterAid charity. The speaker is Jenny Elmes, niece of John Hopgood, and author of his biography, M-Mother.
Tickets can be reserved here.

Dambuilding and Dambusting!
Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 May, 11am – 3pm

Free activity, just drop in
Families can come and be inspired by the legacy of the Dambuster John Hopgood and build sand dams. Artists Silvia Krupinska and Danny Saul are making an interactive art installation that visitors will be able to build and engage with. There will be multiple layers, textures and sounds for families to experience. This activity has been commissioned by the WaterAid charity, in partnership with the RAF Museum.

Lancaster Flypast
Saturday 19 May, 5.30pm
The BBMF Lancaster will fly over the Museum. This will be one of the few opportunities in the London area to see it, so arrive early and have your cameras at the ready. Please be aware that flypasts are subject to suitable weather conditions both at the museum and at its take-off site.

Hopgood’s Schoolboy Diary

If you are looking for a Christmas present for the Dambusters aficionado (or Old Marlburian) in your life, then you might be interested in this limited edition of Flt Lt John Hopgood’s schoolboy diary, written in 1938-39 while he was at Marlborough College. It has been published by Jenny Elmes, Hopgood’s niece and also his biographer (see M-Mother, History Press, 2015).
Only 20 copies have been published, cloth bound in Marlborough’s colours and individually numbered. The price is £50.
Contact Jenny Elmes for more details.

Dambuster John Hopgood’s last Christmas, 1942


Flt Lt John Hopgood DFC & Bar. [Pic: Lincolnshire County Libraries]

As Christmas 1942 approached, the 21 year old Flt Lt John Hopgood was officially on rest from operational duties. He had completed a first tour of 47 operations at the end of November, and had been recommended for a Bar to his DFC. At this time he was still attached to 106 Squadron, testing new equipment and doing some instruction. On 22 December he wrote to his mother, Mrs Grace Hopgood:

Christmas here promises to be a gay affair. I am all set for 2 Christmas dinners, one in the mess at luncheon and one with some very charming people who have a lovely house near the ‘drome in the evening and shall have to starve on the 23rd [sic]!!

Two days later, on Christmas Eve, he took five of his crew up in a Lancaster. They paid a Christmas greeting flight to the homes of all six men on board in the traditional RAF way, ‘beating them up’ at very low altitude. In her house in Shere, Surrey, Grace Hopgood heard the approaching noise and was able to run into the garden in time to see the Lancaster pass overhead.
On New Year’s Day, Hopgood wrote again:

Yes, that was me flying around on Christmas Eve about lunchtime. I saw several people in the garden – but there’s not more than few split seconds to pick out faces at that speed! I had great fun flying around to each member of my crew’s home and sort of sending Christmas wishes to all. …
Christmas here was of course a very gay affair. As is the age old custom we (the officers and NCO’s) all served the airmen’s lunch – and a jolly good one it was too. Then we had our own lunch (not quite so good) and settled down to a very gay party in our mess in the evening. Next day the weather was again very bad and so we were able to have another Christmas dinner with those local people I spoke about in my last letter. It really was a grand meal – champagne and lovely old port and then lovely hot rum punches. They really are extraordinarily kind to we RAF. They threw another enormous party last night (New Years Eve) and we all really had a grand time.

Fate would decree that this was in fact Hopgood’s last ever Christmas. He would die in the early hours of 17 May 1943, making the second bombing run at the Möhne Dam. AJ-M, already damaged by flak from earlier in the night was hit again, and it crashed on the far side of the dam. Hopgood’s heroic efforts to gain height meant that two of his crew were able to bale out. They never forgot the young pilot who saved their lives. The remaining five are buried together in the Rheinberg War Cemetery.

Letter extracts quoted above from Jenny Elmes’s excellent book, M-Mother, the biography of her uncle, John Hopgood (History Press, 2015).

Season’s greetings from the Dambusters Blog to all our readers!

Hopgood medals auction to aid dam build

Auction 77.qxp

The family of Dams Raid pilot John Hopgood has decided to sell his medals and some other memorabilia to help Water Aid, a charity building a dam in Uganda which will bring clean drinking water to 100,000 people. This very generous gesture is in honour of a young pilot who was, according to his family, an idealistic and deep-thinking man with a big conscience.
Hopgood was only 21, but had completed 47 operations by the time of the Dams Raid. He had become a close friend of Guy Gibson during his time under Gibson’s command in 106 Squadron and Gibson asked him personally to join him in 617 Squadron. By this time Hopgood had already been awarded a Bar to his first DFC, and it is this rare medal (seen above) which is the prize lot in the auction.
There are also a number of other fascinating objects which on their own would have been the star items in many a lesser sale. These include an original telegram from “Wingco and the boys” dated 28 October 1942, the time of his first DFC (see below); an original Buckingham Palace Investiture Ticket; an original letter of condolence from Guy Gibson and a programme for the repeat Royal Premiere of the 1955 “Dam Busters” film.

Auction 77.qxp
The auctioneers are estimating that the collection will reach £30,000–£40,000. My prediction is that it will go for a lot more than this, and we can only hope that whoever purchases such important material makes it available to the public.
The auction is being conducted in London on 15 December 2015 by Morton and Eden. The full catalogue is here. Scroll to page 95 to see the Hopgood collection.

[Hat tip: Dave Bradley]

Dambuster of the Day No. 8: John Hopgood


Pic: Bomber Command Museum of Canada

Flt Lt J V Hopgood DFC and Bar
Lancaster serial number: ED925/G
Call sign: AJ-M
First wave. Second aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Aircraft hit by flak. Mine dropped late and bounced over dam. Aircraft crashed on far side of dam.

John Vere Hopgood was born in Hurst, Berkshire on 29 August 1921, the son of Harold and Grace Hopgood. Harold Hopgood was a solicitor, and had two sons with his first wife Beatrice who died, leaving him a widower. Harold and Grace had three children of whom John was the second, and the only boy. He was educated at Marlborough College, and would have gone on to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, but the war intervened.
He joined the RAF in 1940, and qualified as a pilot in February 1941, and was then commissioned. He spent his first tour of operations flying with 50 Squadron and was then posted to a training unit. In February 1942, he went back onto operations with 106 Squadron, based at Coningsby, which was flying the unreliable two engined Avro Manchesters. In April, a new Squadron CO, Guy Gibson arrived. He described his first impression of Hopgood in Enemy Coast Ahead:

‘He was a fair-haired chap about medium height, rather good-looking, except for one prominent tooth. The boys seemed to be always taking him off about this, but he took it very good-naturedly. He was a serious fellow at heart, though, even though he spent most of his time with the boys. As soon as I saw him I thought, “What an ideal squadron type. I like that chap.”’

The squadron was moving over to Lancasters, and Hopgood was one of the first to retrain on this much more powerful aircraft. He was one of the pilots who then had to pass on their new skills to Gibson, something he evidently did with quiet authority, another trait admired by the Squadron CO.
In October 1942, after flying 32 operations, he was awarded the DFC, and commended for his ‘magnificent dash and courage when pressing home his attacks whatever the opposition’. This was followed just four months later by a Bar to the DFC for completing a number more successful operations since the first award.
There are many myths about how the pilots and crews were chosen for the fledgling 617 Squadron. By no means were they all personally known or recruited by Gibson. However John Hopgood and David Shannon, former 106 Squadron colleagues, were both definitely encouraged to join him. Hopgood brought two members of his regular crew, flight engineer Charles Brennan and rear gunner Tony Burcher. However, his bomb aimer wasn’t deemed suitable and his navigator fell ill, so two Canadians from 50 Squadron, John Fraser and Ken Earnshaw, were recruited in their stead.
Although Hopgood wasn’t one of the flight commanders, Gibson wanted him by his side, and so he was made deputy leader of the attack on the Möhne Dam. As such, he was one of the four who were briefed about the target the night before the raid. Hopgood suggested an important change to the already planned route, pointing out that it went near Hüls, which had heavy defences not marked on the map.
On the raid itself, Gibson, Hopgood and Mick Martin were the first trio from Wave One to take off. From Tony Burcher’s account it would seem that Hopgood’s AJ-M was hit by flak some 20 minutes before the dam was reached. Hopgood himself received a head wound, and in the front turret below him, Gregory had been badly injured and wasn’t answering his intercom. Burcher recalls Hopgood saying: ‘Right, well what do you think? Should we go on? I intend to go on because we have only got a few minutes left. We’ve come this far.There’s no good taking this thing back with us. The aircraft is completely manageable. I can handle it OK. Any objections?’ And on he pressed, with Brennan beside him holding a handkerchief on his head to stem the bleeding.
They got to the dam. Gibson attacked first, unsuccessfully. He was lucky. The dam’s gunners were uncertain of the direction from which he would come, so didn’t start firing until he was very close and did not damage him.
But, ten minutes later, when Hopgood approached, they were ready. His already damaged Lancaster was hit again. An engine caught fire, he strugged to keep the aircraft level, and the mine was released too late, bouncing over the dam and into the power station below, where it exploded.
Now Hopgood tried desperately to gain height, in an effort to give his crew a chance to bale out. He gained about 500 feet and somehow, Fraser, Minchin and Burcher escaped, but Minchin, badly injured, didn’t survive the parachute drop. Fraser and Burcher did, but both were captured and taken prisoner.
Neither ever forgot the heroic gesture by Hopgood which saved their lives. Fraser went back to Canada after the war and gave his son the forenames John Hopgood. His daughter was named Shere, after the Surrey village where Hopgood grew up.
Hopgood, Brennan, Earnshaw, Minchin and Gregory are buried together in Rheinberg War Cemetery, Germany.

More about Hopgood online:
Bomber Command Museum of Canada
Tribute to AJ-M site (includes details of crash site)
Online obituary
Commonwealth War Graves Commission listing

KIA 17 May 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 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 John Hopgood 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.