Dambuster of the Day No. 2: John Pulford

IWM CH18005

In this famous photograph, taken as Gibson’s crew was about to take off on the Dams Raid on 16 May 1943, John Pulford is second from the left.  [Pic: IWM CH18005]

Sgt John Pulford
Flight engineer
Lancaster serial number: ED932/G
Call sign: AJ-G
First wave: First aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Mine exploded short of the dam.

Only one of Guy Gibson’s previous crew from 106 Squadron came with him when he set up the new 617 Squadron in March 1943. This was wireless operator Robert Hutchison. Mick Martin is thought to have recommended navigator Harlo Taerum, who in turn recommended bomb aimer Fred (Spam) Spafford. These three, along with rear gunner Richard Trevor Roper, were all in 50 Squadron when the call came.
John Pulford was born on 24 December 1919 in Sculcoates, a district of Hull, the second of the four children of George and Ada Pulford. He went to St Paul’s school, a local elementary school. He became a motor mechanic and joined the RAF a month before the outbreak of war as ground crew. Like many other ground crew, he volunteered for retraining as a flight engineer in 1942, when the senior authorities in Bomber Command decided to create this new category for heavy bomber aircrew, rather than use a qualified second pilot. His brother Thomas was also a flight engineer.
By December 1942, Pulford had joined 97 Squadron, based at Coningsby. He flew on 13 operations with Sqn Ldr E F Nind between December 1942 and March 1943. On 4 April, he was posted to Scampton, and assigned to Gibson’s crew.
Pulford’s father George died on 7 May 1943, and the funeral was fixed for Sunday 16 May. Pulford was given special permission to attend the funeral, but he was escorted throughout by two RAF policemen in order to ensure he didn’t let something slip about the planned operation. It is not clear whether he returned to Scampton in time for the all-crew briefing which took place at 1800 that day.
Despite the fact that they sat side by side throughout their Dams Raid training and on the operation itself, Gibson seems never to have noticed much about Pulford. In Enemy Coast Ahead he describes him as a Londoner, obviously unable to spot his Yorkshire accent. But he relied on the Hull man to operate the throttles as they hurtled towards the Möhne Dam at 240 mph, calling out the famous words ‘Stand by to pull me out of the seat if I get hit.’
All of Gibson’s crew were decorated for their collective actions on the Dams Raid, and John Pulford was awarded the DFM. However, he was sick at the time of the original investiture at Buckingham Palace on 22 June 1943, and collected his medal later in the year. Earlier, he had been home on leave and one night went out for a drink with his brother Thomas, also serving in the RAF. Both men were in civilian clothes and at some point in the evening someone put white feathers in their pockets.
In the run up to Gibson leaving 617 Squadron in the summer, five of his crew – including Pulford – were allocated to the new CO, George Holden. Pulford flew with Holden on his first operation with the squadron, a trip to bomb the Italian power station at Acqua Scrivia on 15 July. The detachment flew on to RAF Blida in Algeria. On the return trip nine days later, where bombs were dropped on Livorno, he had swapped to the crew of Ken Brown. The reason why isn’t clear. Pulford didn’t fly with Holden again, and the CO then recruited the flight engineer from Bill Townsend’s crew, Dennis Powell. Holden, Powell and the remaining four members of the Gibson crew were all killed in the disastrous Dortmund Ems canal operation on 16 September 1943.
By December, Pulford was in another crew, piloted by Sqn Ldr Bill Suggitt, and completed several more operations. On 12 February 1944, Suggitt’s crew bombed the Antheor viaduct in southern France. They had used Ford airfield in Sussex as a staging post and successfully landed there in the early hours of the next day. Then in the short hop home from Ford to Woodhall Spa, they crashed into a hill on the Sussex Downs, near the village of Upwaltham. In 2009, a memorial to this crew and another who died in the area during the war was opened in the local church.
John Pulford is buried in Hull, in a plot next to his father.

More about Pulford online:
Hull Daily Mail article
Daily Telegraph article about final flight
Commonwealth War Graves Commission listing

Decoration awarded for Operation Chastise: DFM
KIA 13 February 1944
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.

Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassel 2002
Alan Cooper, The Men who Breached the Dams, Airlife, 2002
The information above has been taken from the books listed and a number of online sources. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further material in the comments section below.

Thanks to Malcolm Bellamy for help with this article.

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.

BFI page on The Dam Busters

The British Film Institute is a treasure trove of material for anyone interested in the history of cinema, and much of it is now online. Check out, for instance, its page on Michael Anderson’s classic film, and you will find links to stills, other stuff about the cast and crew, and a wonderful, slightly sniffy, contemporary review from the BFI’s own Monthly Film Bulletin, which ends:

The film is over-long (the flying sequences include some repetition) and the music score is, regrettably, very blatant; but despite these drawbacks, a mood of sober respect is maintained.

Little did the reviewer know how popular the ‘blatant’ musical score would become.

My favourite piece of Dam Busters trivia derives from the scene shown above, showing on the left the great Robert Shaw, later to star in no less a movie than Jaws, where he ends up meeting a spectacularly gory end. Here he plays flight engineer Sergeant John Pulford, which means he gets to sit alongside Richard Todd, playing Guy Gibson, for a large section of the film but has very few words to say. Their on-screen interaction is thought to be a pretty accurate reflection of the real life relationship between Pulford and Gibson.

Dambuster John Pulford’s crash site remembered

Guy Gibson’s relationship with the crew who flew with him on the Dams Raid is one of the interesting sub-plots of the whole Dambusters story. In contrast to the scene in the 1955 film where his old crew discuss his posting to a new squadron on his own and then unanimously decide to go with him, only one, wireless operator Robert Hutchison, had actually flown with Gibson in 106 Squadron. Hutchison is thought to have recommended navigator Harlo Taerum, who in turn recommended bomb aimer Fred (Spam) Spafford. Both of these had been in 50 Squadron, as had rear gunner Richard Trevor-Roper. These four were all officers, which meant that Gibson would see something of them socially at Scampton, but the final pair, front gunner George Deering and flight engineer John Pulford were both NCOs.
This may be why Gibson had a rather low opinion of both. In his biography of Gibson, Richard Morris writes how in the first draft of Enemy Coast Ahead he described Deering as:

‘pretty dumb’ (tactfully changed to ‘pretty green’ in the published version) ‘and not too good at his guns and it was a bit of a risk taking him’. This was rubbish, as Deering had flown thirty-five operations.

Morris goes on to cite Gibson’s opinion of Pulford, who he described as a ‘sincere and plodding’ Londoner:

Gibson had a low opinion of Pulford, thinking him dull and incapable of independent thought. This may say more about Gibson than Pulford, for Gibson never listened to him long enough to notice that he came from Yorkshire rather than London. In the cockpit of Gibson’s Lancaster there was a distinct air of master and servant. In the fuselage as a whole his crew represented Britain’s class structure in microcosm and the pattern of the Empire beyond. (Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin, 1995, p.152.)

Whatever their relationship, the crew were not together for very long, flying just the one operation as a complete crew, the Dams Raid itself. Hutchison, Taerum, Spafford and Deering transferred to George Holden’s crew when he took over command of 617 Squadron, and died with him on the Dortmund Ems Raid on 16 September 1943.

None of the other three survived the war. Trevor-Roper and Gibson died later in 1944, both on operations with other squadrons, but Pulford was still in 617 Squadron when he flew on the operation to bomb the Antheor viaduct in southern France in February 1944. His pilot, Bill Suggitt, landed the aircraft successfully at Ford in Sussex, which they had used as a staging post, but in the short hop home from Ford to Woodhall Spa, they crashed into a hill on the Sussex Downs, near the village of Upwaltham.

For some years local people have been collecting for a proper memorial to Suggitt’s crew, and it was unveiled on 22 August:

Today, 65 years on, the crew of DV382 KC J-Jug will be honoured in a tiny parish church just below the crash site at Upwaltham, West Sussex, after the hamlet of 25 inhabitants raised £10,500 for a memorial.
Relatives of the British, Canadian and Australian victims will attend, along with air attaches from all three nations and 617 Squadron’s current commanding officer.
The white Italian stone ‘Four Nations Memorial’ also remembers seven Americans whose Dakota aircraft crashed across the valley a year later in February 1945.
A Lancaster from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight will complete three circuits overhead at the ceremony, which will also be attended by relatives of the farm workers who were honoured by King George VI for braving flames and exploding ammunition to try to rescue the Lancaster crew.

Today, 65 years on, the crew of DV382 KC J-Jug will be honoured in a tiny parish church just below the crash site at Upwaltham, West Sussex, after the hamlet of 25 inhabitants raised £10,500 for a memorial.
Relatives of the British, Canadian and Australian victims will attend, along with air attaches from all three nations and 617 Squadron’s current commanding officer.
The white Italian stone ‘Four Nations Memorial’ also remembers seven Americans whose Dakota aircraft crashed across the valley a year later in February 1945.
A Lancaster from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight will complete three circuits overhead at the ceremony, which will also be attended by relatives of the farm workers who were honoured by King George VI for braving flames and exploding ammunition to try to rescue the Lancaster crew.

There is a nice tribute page to the crew on the Roll of Honour website. John Pulford’s body was recovered and he was buried in Hull.