Oancia uniform jacket preserved for posterity

Steve Oancia, the bomb aimer in Ken Brown’s crew on the Dams Raid, came from a tiny farming community near Stonehenge in the south of Saskatchewan province, Canada. He crewed up with Ken Brown during training, and stayed with the crew until it disbanded in May 1944. Brown was also a “prairie boy”, born and brought up in the town of Moose Jaw, some 70 miles from Stonehenge. Oancia received the DFM for his role in dropping AJ-F’s Upkeep mine at the Sorpe Dam. The weapon did some damage to the dam but it failed to breach it.

Oancia returned to Canada after the war and became a civil engineer after studying at the University of Alberta. He died in 1999. A few years later, his cousin Clarence Oancia was clearing out the family farmhouse after it was sold and came across his RCAF uniform jacket, hanging in a closet in the attic. Fortunately for posterity, he retrieved it, and now the family have decided to donate it to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. The full story is told in a post on the blog of Canadian writer Ted Barris, author of Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid against Nazi Germany (HarperCollins 2018).

Bernie Wyatt, a cousin of Steve Oancia, presents Oancia’s wartime uniform jacket to Erin Napier of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. Pic: Bernie Wyatt

More information about Oancia on Bernie Wyatt’s blog. Part One. Part Two.

Dambuster of the Day No. 113: Kenneth Brown

Brown+KingKen Brown meeting the King on the royal visit to Scampton on 27 May 1943. [Pic: IWM]

Flt Sgt K W Brown

Lancaster serial number: ED918/G

Call sign: AJ-F

Third wave. Second aircraft to attack Sorpe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.

Kenneth William Brown was born on 20 August 1920 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. He enlisted in the RCAF in 1941 and was selected for pilot training. He was recommended for fighters but after arriving in England, he was posted to a bomber training unit in Kinloss. There he crewed up with navigator Dudley Heal, bomb aimer Stefan Oancia, wireless operator Herbert Hewstone and gunner Grant McDonald, all of whom would stay with him for much of the rest of his career. Their first active posting was however to Coastal Command, flying Whitleys out of RAF St Eval on Channel patrols.

Brown was then selected for heavy bomber training at 1654 Conversion Unit, where one of his instructors was Mick Martin. The low flying specialist was reportedly impressed by his pupil’s abilities in this challenging activity. Brown also formed a complete crew at this unit when engineer Basil Feneron and gunner Don Buntaine joined him. The seven were then posted to 44 Squadron to begin operations on 5 February 1943.

On 11 February, Brown flew as second pilot on a raid to Wilhelmshaven in an aircraft captained by Sqn Ldr R G Whitehead DFC. He then had to wait for nearly a month until 9 March to fly his own crew on their first operation, to the tough target of Munich. The trip was a fierce baptism, with their aircraft coned by searchlights which meant Brown had to perform a corkscrew in order to escape.

Four more operations followed and then on 27 March they were briefed for their first trip to Berlin. Before they left, Brown was pulled aside for a meeting with the squadron CO, Wg Cdr John Nettleton VC.

He said, “You are transferred to a new squadron.”
I wasn’t too happy about that. I said, “Sir, I’d rather stay here and finish my tour with Forty-four.”
He explained in his very curt manner. This was impossible. It was a name transfer and he could do nothing about it.
So we went to Berlin and on our return we got packed up and off we went to No. 617. But before we went, the Wing Commander wished me well and said, “Do you realize Brown, you’re going to be the backbone of this new squadron.”
Well, we arrived over at Scampton and we started to look around as to who was there. There were an awful lot of DFCs, not so many DFMs. We realized that perhaps we weren’t really all what we were set up to be.
My wireless operator sauntered up to me and said, “Skip, if we’re the backbone of this squadron. We must be damn close to the ass end.” I began to wonder how I’d got there.
[Source: Speech at Bomber Command Museum of Canada]

Because the new squadron had been formed so quickly, there was a shortage of aircraft on which the crews could train. Brown and his crew, however, were relatively lucky and did a low level cross country flight on 31 March, two days after their arrival. Training went on apace for six more weeks and during it the pugnacious Brown had some run-ins with his new CO, Guy Gibson, who he regarded as a staunch disciplinarian. Once, after Brown was accused with being late for a briefing, Gibson made him wash all the windows of the briefing room. But the CO recognised his skills as a pilot, especially at low flying, and demonstrated his playful side by one day pushing him into the water when they met by chance in the public swimming pool in Lincoln.

Brown and his crew were allocated to the mobile reserve. Some time the day before, his regular gunner Don Buntaine had reported sick. Divall’s crew had been taken off the flying schedule as someone else was ill, so Daniel Allatson was hastily reallocated to the front turret of AJ-F.

Brown was due to take off third. At dispersal, he smoked his usual two cigarettes and then was shaken when Lewis Burpee came up to him and took his hand. “Goodbye Ken,” was all he said.

Grant McDonald saw this and said to Brown: “Skip, you know those guys aren’t coming back, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I know,” Brown replied. All McDonald could say then was “Well, damn it!”

Two hours later, Brown and his crew witnessed Burpee’s fate, as he strayed too close to Gilze-Rijen airfield, and was shot down.

AJ-F pressed on, keeping so low that at times they were below treetop level. They shot up a train which travelled across their path and just avoided crashing into a castle. Having received the signal that both the Möhne and Eder Dams had been destroyed, they diverted towards the Sorpe.

On their arrival, they found that the mist which had hampered the only previous attack, by McCarthy two and a half hours previously, had thickened considerably. Working out a line of attack was difficult, and they made several abortive attacks. One of these nearly ended in disaster when they flew into a valley, but quick thinking by Brown and a stall turn got AJ-F out of trouble. Eventually they hit on a plan of marking a circuit with flares, and they dropped their mine successfully at 0314. They had cleared the hill beyond the dam and turned to port when the explosion occurred. Steve Oancia noted a large waterspout, and the crew observed crumbling of the crown of the dam. But no breach had occurred.

Flying back over the Möhne, they saw the extensive damage but were themselves fired on by the one gun emplacement still active. McDonald returned fire with gusto, and was pleased to see that the flak went silent. 
With dawn approaching, Brown got down as low as possible and in Basil Feneron’s words “opened up the taps”. AJ-F came through intensive fire at Hamm and at the last danger point, the Helder peninsula on the Dutch coast. The cockpit was flooded with light from searchlights and flak crashd through the perspex. Feneron crouched as low as possible, and could see Brown above him to his left, hunched over the instruments.

Somehow, they had all survived, and landed at Scampton at 0533 in an aircraft full of holes. Debriefing followed, with Arthur Harris sitting in. Although there was an impromptu party going on in the Officers Mess, the all-NCO crew in AJ-F seem to have had a quieter celebration. But they were up and about early enough in the morning for a series of photographs. The pilots were all pictured outside the Officers Mess, and then Brown, Oancia and McDonald took their place in the shot of the Canadian survivors.

When the decorations were announced, all the officer pilots who dropped their mines successfully were awarded DSOs. Ken Brown and Bill Townsend, both Flight Sergeants at the time, were given the rarely-awarded Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Stefan Oancia and Dudley Heal both got DFMs.

Brown was commissioned in June 1943 and went on to fly on another nine operations in 617 Squadron before being posted out in May 1944. He spent the rest of the war in instructional roles. After the war he stayed on in the RCAF, rising to the rank of Squadron Leader. He retired from the service in 1968, but carried on flying in the Canadian Department of Transport.

He had married an Englishwoman, Beryl Blackband, in 1944 and she accompanied him to Canada, where they had five children.

Ken Brown died in White Rock, British Columbia on 23 December 2002.

Awarded CGM for his part in the Dams Raid.

More about Brown online:
Interview with Ken Brown in 2000. This is hosted on his son Brock’s company website. The same page has a number of links to other material about Brown, including an obituary in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Speech made by Brown on 50th anniversary of Dams Raid at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada.
Obituary in Daily Telegraph.

Survived war. Died 23 December 2002.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Kevin Wilson, Bomber Boys, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005
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 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 Ken Brown 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.

Five Fly to London

RCAF Premiere lores

Pic: Greg Pigeon

Greg Pigeon, son of Percy, has kindly sent me some material from his late father’s collection. It includes this interesting press cutting from an unnamed Canadian newspaper, undated but obviously published in May 1955.
The five Dams Raid participants still serving in the RCAF were all flown to London to attend the Royal Premiere of The Dam Busters. They were Ken Brown, Joe McCarthy, Donald MacLean, Percy Pigeon and Revie (Danny) Walker.
The text of the article contains a number of mistakes, perhaps reflecting the fact that the raid was not so well recalled by Canadians 12 years after it took place. It states that “13 Lancasters” were directed to attack the “Moehne, Eder and Serpex Dams” and implies that all were breached. It also underestimates the casualties – “five of the 13 Lancasters did not return to base”.

Flt Sgt Grant McDonald

The Canadian aircrew who survived from the Dams Raid. Grant McDonald is on the far right of the back row. Pic: Bomber Command Museum, Canada 

I am sorry to have to report the death on 13 May 2012 of one of the last surviving Dambusters, Flt Sgt Grant McDonald, rear gunner in Lancaster AJ-F, piloted by Ken Brown.

Grant McDonald was born in Grand Forks, British Columbia in 1921. By the time he left school, the war had already started and he applied to join the RCAF. At that stage it was not accepting new recruits, so he went first into the Canadian army, but was able to transfer to the air force a few months later. After training in Canada as an air gunner, he crossed the Atlantic on a troopship in May 1942. After some more training in Bournemouth and at a gunnery school near Stranraer, he was posted to an Operational Training Unit at Kinloss, where he crewed up with fellow Canadian, Ken Brown and navigator Dudley Heal. Their first operations were a number of anti-submarine patrols from St Eval in Cornwall, but they were then transferred to a Heavy Conversion Unit for Lancaster training. Here a full crew of seven was formed. It was made up of three Canadians, Brown, McDonald and bomb aimer Steve Oancia, and four Britons, Heal, flight engineer Basil Feneron, wireless operator Harry Hewstone and gunner Don Buntaine.
They were posted to 44 Squadron in February 1943 and had only completed a handful of operations before being transferred to the newborn 617 Squadron at the end of March. (One of the persistent myths about the Dams Raid was that the crews were all highly experienced and hand picked by Guy Gibson. In the case of the Brown crew, this is wrong on both counts.)
Brown had a number of run-ins with his pugnacious commanding officer during training for the Dams Raid, but the crew survived and were detailed to fly as one of the five mobile reserve aircraft. They were directed to the Sorpe Dam, and attacked it at 0323. After flying across the width of the dam, they dropped their mine in the middle and it exploded satisfactorily, sending a waterspout many hundreds of feet into the air. The dam, however, remained intact. Before leaving the area, AJ-F took a detour to the rapidly-emptying Möhne Dam and were impressed by the damage that their comrades had done a couple of hours earlier. One of the anti-aircraft guns was still operating, however, and McDonald opened fire on it, ‘really giving him hell’ as Brown later recalled. As dawn broke during the return flight it was very dangerous, particularly as they recrossed the Dutch coast, but thanks to Brown’s skilful low flying they landed safely at Scampton at 0533.
Grant McDonald did another 22 operations with 617 Squadron, before being posted as an instructor to an OTU in the summer of 1944. On being demobbed at the end of the war, he joined the Canadian customs service in Vancouver.

Grant McDonald, left, pictured in October 2010.
As one of the last surviving Dambusters, Grant McDonald participated in a number of events in both Canada and Britain as the various anniversaries fell. He was always courteous with enquirers, although he must have told the same stories dozens of times over the years. A kind and good man, may he rest in peace.

Sources: Interview of Grant McDonald by James Holland, March 2011
Speech by Ken Brown, 1993

Ken Brown’s boots – and other memorabilia – stolen

Important Canadian air force memorabilia was stolen in a break-in at Calgary’s Aero Space Museum last week. The thieves raided the petty cash and charity collection boxes, as well as taking items used by various RCAF personnel in both the first and second world wars. Perhaps the most valuable were the swagger stick, flying hat and log book which were once owned by a First World war pilot, Lt Tim Thompson. Of most interest to Dambuster enthusiasts were the loss of a pair of flying boots given to the museum by Ken Brown, the pilot of AJ-F on the Dams Raid. (Whether he wore them on the raid itself is not recorded.)
There is a limited market for this sort of stuff — so if any readers see anything suspicious on EB*y or other sites, they should get in touch with the authorities immediately.

UPDATE:  Someone obviously had a change of heart, as all the items have been returned anonymously! Latest report from the Calgary Sun.

Dambuster obituaries

I have been scouring the interwebnet for online material about the aircrew who took part in the Dams Raid for a project I will be unveiling shortly, but in the meantime, I thought I would share the fruits of part of my research. So far, I have come across these online postwar obituaries:

Ken Brown
George Chalmers
Edward (Johnnie) Johnson
David Rodger
Danny Walker

Thanks to a helpful library subscription, I have also come across four other earlier obituaries which are not generally available in online sources, but can be turned up in newspaper archives. These are of:

Basil Feneron
Harold (Mick) Martin
David Shannon
Paul Brickhill

(I know the last of these did not take part in the Dams Raid himself, but I thought his obituary might be of interest.) I have posted these four obituaries on my other website, and you can see them here.

If you can add any further online or offline material to these links then I would be glad to hear from you.