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 probably been killed, as he 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)
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.