The first and the last

Len Sumpter, Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson, photographed together in July 1943 as part of the group picture of 617 Squadron aircrew. [Artwork © Dambusters Blog, from image courtesy of Sutherland family.]

We have just passed the 77th anniversary of the day on which nineteen Lancasters of RAF 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack the dams in the Ruhr and Eder valleys. Of the 133 aircrew who participated in what would come to be called the Dams Raid, just 80 survived. Thirty-two more died before the end of the war, leaving 48 men. Official records show that only two men flew on both the first and last operations mounted by 617 Squadron: the Dams Raid on 16 May 1943 and an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair at Berchtesgarten on 25 April 1945. These were Leonard Sumpter and Raymond Wilkinson. However, I believe that a third Dams Raid participant, Douglas Webb, also flew on the final raid even though he did not record it in his logbook. The full story is set out below.

Len Sumpter flew on the Dams Raid as the bomb aimer in David Shannon’s AJ-L. They dropped their Upkeep mine at the Eder Dam, resulting in some superficial damage to the wall. Shortly afterwards, the dam was finally breached by Les Knight and his crew in AJ-N. Later in the war, Sumpter switched to flying as Shannon’s observer in Mosquitoes before joining Ian Marshall’s Lancaster crew.

Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson took part in the Dams Raid as respectively the front and rear gunners in AJ-O, skippered by Bill Townsend. This crew was part of the mobile reserve and attacked the Ennepe Dam, but it failed to breach. Shortly after the Dams Raid the Townsend crew broke up as most of them had completed a tour. Webb and Wilkinson went together to a training unit as instructors, but by the end of 1944, they were both back in 617 Squadron, on their second tour. Wilkinson flew on the final Tirpitz attack on 12 November, in Arthur Kell’s crew. By the following spring, they were both regulars in Ian Marshall’s crew.

At this stage in the war, 617 Squadron was carrying out precision raids with 22,000lb Grand Slam and 12,000lb Tallboy bombs. The squadron had been supplied with 21 Lancasters, known as B.I Special models, which had been built specially for dropping these monster bombs. To reduce weight and because there was a reduced danger of German fighter attack, the mid-upper turret had been removed and the gunner who occupied this space and the wireless operator were not carried. Official records, such as the Operations Records Book, usually show blanks in these two positions, as can be seen in the entry below for the Marshall crew on 25 April 1945, who were flying in PD134.

The crew is shown here as Ian Marshall (pilot), Frank Cholerton (flight engineer), Kenneth Newby, (navigator), Len Sumpter (bomb aimer) and Ray Wilkinson (rear gunner).

The presence of both Sumpter and Wilkinson is confirmed by their logbooks, shown below:

Pic: Sumpter family

Pic: War & Son

However, the official listing may not be entirely correct. There may have been an extra passenger on board – something that is hinted at in a fascinating photograph contained in Len Sumpter’s family archive. According to Sumpter, this was taken just before take off:

 

Pic: Sumpter family

On the reverse, in Sumpter’s writing, the five aircrew are identified as (L-R) Flt Lt L Sumpter, Flg Off K Newby, Flt Lt I Marshall, Flg Off D Webb and Sgt K Tollerton. The caption seems to have been written some time after the war, which may be why he recorded the type of bomb incorrectly: PD134 was carrying a Tallboy rather than a Grand Slam bomb. There are also discrepancies in the names he recorded. He says that the man on the far right is Sgt K Tollerton. It’s possible that he wrote this a number of years later, thinking of Frank Cholerton. However the man bears a strong resemblance to Ray Wilkinson, who we know was on the raid. Update September 2020: Man on far right is not Ray Wilkinson, according to his granddaughter. See comment below.

Sumpter has also identified the fourth man from the left as Doug Webb. It certainly looks like him but, as we have seen, he is not listed in the ORB entry. Nor did Webb record the flight in his own logbook, as can be seen below. So if Webb was on this operation, he was there unofficially!

Pic: Yak El Droubie

It is known that at this stage of the war, the Lancaster B.I Specials sometimes carried an extra man, perhaps as an extra spotter for enemy aircraft. So this might explain Webb’s presence – or maybe he just wanted to get the chance to be there when the force attacked Hitler’s ‘bunker’, which it was rumoured would be the place where the Führer might make a last stand.

Wilkinson and Webb did not know, of course, that this would be the squadron’s last Second World War operation, but the pair had been friends since their days together in 49 Squadron. Here they are, photographed together outside Buckingham Palace on the day the Dams Raid crews received their decorations:

Left to right: Ray Wilkinson, Doug Webb, Charles Franklin, Bill Townsend, Jack Grain [not on Dams Raid], Lance Howard. [Pic: Yak El Droubie.]

Further enquiries are being made to confirm the identities of the men in Sumpter’s photograph, and this article will be updated when this information is received.

[My 2018 book, The Complete Dambusters, will be updated with this information in the next edition. Further information about the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in the book, published by History Press.]

David Shannon’s changing crew

Holmes1Plt Off Bernard Holmes, rear gunner in David Shannon’s crew in 106 Squadron. Holmes completed a full tour with Shannon, and was brought to 617 Squadron at Scampton in March 1943. Three weeks later, he was transferred out. Later in the war he joined 77 Squadron and flew on 13 further operations. [Pic: Robert Holmes]

At the end of February 1943, David Shannon finished his tour of operations in 106 Squadron with a trip to St Nazaire. This was the 36th sortie in a run which stretched back to June 1942, shortly after his 20th birthday. During his tour, he had generally flown with a core crew made up of Danny Walker, navigator, Wallace Herbert, bomb aimer, Arnold Pemberton, wireless operator, Douglas McCulloch, mid upper gunner and Bernard Holmes, rear gunner. Over the course of the tour Shannon flew with a number of different flight engineers and/or second pilots, but in the last few months Sgt Cyril Chamberlain became the regular flight engineer.
An enforced change happened in November 1942, when Danny Walker came to the end of his own tour. He was posted to No 22 OTU as an instructor and thereafter a number of different navigators filled in for him. These included the experienced Norman Scrivener and Winston Burnside, both of whom also navigated for Guy Gibson in this period.
Shannon’s last operation in 106 Squadron on 28 February appears to have coincided with the end of the tours of Herbert, Pemberton, McCulloch and Holmes. Under normal circumstances, the crew would have broken up and all would have been sent on instructional duties for a period of six months. Shannon, however, wanted to carry on flying and somehow arranged a transfer to 83 Squadron at RAF Wyton, a Pathfinder outfit. It was there that he got a telephone call from Gibson, asking him to join him at Scampton where he was forming a new squadron.
Chamberlain, Herbert, Pemberton, McCulloch and Holmes were apparently all still at Syerston, waiting for new postings. Consideration was obviously given to reconstituting Shannon’s 106 Squadron crew, since Chamberlain, Pemberton, McCulloch and Holmes were all transferred to the new 617 Squadron at Scampton on or about 25 March 1943. Herbert appears either not to have been asked or to have declined the offer. Also, Shannon’s old crew member Danny Walker was specifically sought out to fill the post of navigator, and was brought over to Scampton from No 22 OTU at Wellesbourne Mountford.
It is not clear exactly what happened next. Shannon undertook two testing flights on 28 and 31 March, but he only recorded the names of the other pilots with whom he flew (Flt Lt Dierkes on 28 March, Flt Lt John Hopgood on 31 March). His next flight wasn’t until 6 April, when he did a 5 hour cross country and bombing trip. This was repeated, over a different route, two days later on 8 April. On both of these flights, a five man crew is recorded. This consisted of Walker and McCulloch, both from his 106 Squadron days, two new names – bomb aimer Len Sumpter and flight engineer Robert Henderson, plus Larry Nichols, a wireless operator borrowed from Melvin Young’s crew.
After the war, Len Sumpter described how he and Henderson were recruited to the squadron. At that stage, he had completed 13 operations in 57 Squadron, based at Scampton. Then his pilot was grounded with ear trouble and the crew were broken up. He and his erstwhile crewmate Henderson knew that a new squadron was being formed in the next two hangars, and heard that Shannon was looking for a bomb aimer and a flight engineer, so they sought him out. “We looked him over and he looked us over – and that’s the way I got on to 617 Squadron.” (Max Arthur, Dambusters: A Landmark Oral History, Virgin 2008, p18.) No date is given for this “interview”, but it must have occurred sometime between 31 March and 6 April.
Sumpter goes on to say that the crew didn’t get their own wireless operator until the end of April. He didn’t know – or didn’t mention – that there were three members of Shannon’s old crew, including wireless operator Arnold Pemberton, kicking their heels on the ground.
On 11 April, Shannon’s logbook records the first flight of a new crew member, rear gunner Jack Buckley. He had been transferred from No 10 OTU, where he was working as an instructor. He was an experienced gunner and had been commissioned, having completed a full tour of operations with 75 (New Zealand) Squadron. Albert Garshowitz (misspelt as Gowshowitz) from Bill Astell’s crew was the borrowed wireless operator on this occasion.
Two days later, on 13 April, a complete squadron crew list was compiled, under the title “Order of Battle”. This is preserved in a file in the National Archives (AIR14/842). It shows Shannon’s crew as: Henderson, flight engineer, Walker, navigator, Sumpter, bomb aimer, McCulloch, mid upper gunner and Buckley, rear gunner. The position of wireless operator is left blank. Flg Off McCulloch is also listed as A Flight Gunnery Leader. Four names are listed as ‘spares’, amongst whom are the other three members of Shannon’s 106 Squadron crew: Pemberton, Holmes and Chamberlain.
Another two days later, on 15 April, Douglas McCulloch attended an Aircrew Selection Board. He must therefore have previously applied for remustering. However, he returned to the squadron and flew on more training flights with Shannon on 19 and 21 April. He was eventually posted to No 13 Initial Training Wing on 1 May.
On 17 April, Bernard Holmes and Arnold Pemberton’s time at 617 Squadron ended, with them both being recorded as being posted to No 19 OTU at Kinloss. There is no record of the destiny of Cyril Chamberlain. Holmes’s son Robert recalls that his father apparently told his wife at the time that he and Pemberton were bored and frustrated through not being kept busy, and asked for a transfer.
Eleven days later, on 24 April, another squadron crew list was published. The Shannon crew now shows two changes. The wireless operator position has been filled by Flg Off Goodale DFC and the mid upper gunner has the handwritten name of Sgt Jagger in a space which had been left blank by the typist. The A Flight gunnery leader is now shown as Flg Off Glinz (from Norman Barlow’s crew). There are no longer any names listed as spares (National Archives: AIR14/842). This date coincides with Goodale’s first appearance in Shannon’s logbook. It is notable that Brian Jagger’s name may appear here, but in fact he did not fly with Shannon until 4 May.
Both men came with a deal of experience. Brian Goodale had a completed full tour and was recruited from No 10 OTU, where Jack Buckley had also been an instructor. Brian Jagger came from 50 Squadron. He had previously flown with John Fraser and Ken Earnshaw, two Canadians in John Hopgood’s crew, and they may have been instrumental in getting him on board.
On this date, David Shannon’s Dams Raid crew was finally established, and they would fly together for the next few months. Quite why three members of his crew from 106 Squadron were earlier brought over to Scampton but never used remains a mystery.
Later in the war, after a spell as an instructor, Bernard Holmes returned to operations with 77 Squadron, and joined a crew skippered by Wg Cdr J D R Forbes, the squadron CO. He remained there until the end of hostilities. He had married his wife Margaret in 1940, and they had two sons, born after the war. The family emigrated to South Africa in 1952, and he died there in 1979.

Thanks to Robert Holmes, Clive Smith, Robert Owen and Nigel Favill for their help with this article.

Dambuster of the Day No. 40: Leonard Sumpter

 

Sumpter McCarthy screen

Dambusters Len Sumpter (left) and Joe McCarthy (right), outside the Petwood Hotel, Woodhall Spa. Probably taken early in 1944.  The Petwood was then in use as the Officers Mess for squadrons based at RAF Woodhall Spa. Pic: Leonard Cheshire Disability Archive

Flt Sgt L J Sumpter
Bomb aimer

Lancaster serial number: ED929/G
Call sign: AJ-L
First wave. First aircraft to attack Eder Dam. Mine dropped accurately but no breach caused. Aircraft returned safely.

Leonard Joseph Sumpter was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, on 20 September 1911, the son of Joseph and Mary Ann Sumpter. He had already served two stints in the Grenadier Guards before transferring to the RAF in 1941. He had joined the army as a boy soldier in 1928 and left again in 1931. He rejoined his old regiment at the outbreak of war but then in 1941 he persuaded his superiors to let him transfer to the RAF. After training in England and Canada, he was posted to 57 Squadron at Scampton in September 1942 and flew as the bomb aimer on thirteen operations with Flt Lt G.W. Curry. Curry was then grounded with ear trouble, and his crew were told they had to break up.

However, he and his colleague, flight engineer Bob Henderson, heard a rumour that a new squadron was being formed elsewhere at Scampton, and went looking for David Shannon, who was apparently on the lookout for a bomb aimer and an engineer. They both impressed the young pilot, and joined his crew.

After the Dams Raid, for which he received the DFM for his accurate attack on the Eder Dam, Sumpter continued flying in Shannon’s crew, as 617 Squadron undertook a series of operations. He was commissioned in June 1943.

In 1944 Mosquitoes were introduced into 617 Squadron to mark targets, and Sumpter became Shannon’s observer. He received the DFC in June 1944. Shannon was finally taken off operations, but Sumpter reverted to Lancasters for a short time as part of Flt Lt I.M. Marshall’s crew. Altogether, by the end of the war he had flown thirty-five operations. He flew on 617 Squadron’s last wartime operation, an attack on Berchtesgarten on 25 April 1943.

He was demobbed from the RAF after the war, but rejoined in 1946 in the Physical Fitness branch, and served until 1950. He had a son, Leonard, with his first wife Marjorie MacLean whom he had met in Prince Edward Island in Canada while training, and a daughter, Jacqueline, with his second wife Hilda Rose, who was from England.

After the war, Sumpter was a regular participant in 617 Squadron reunions and activities, and his audio recollections at the Imperial War Museum have been regularly trawled by historians. He was generous with his time to many people, as this extract from a letter sent to a schoolboy in the 1970s shown below demonstrates.

Sumpter letter

Pic: Bonhams

Len Sumpter died on 30 November 1993 in Luton, a few months after his skipper.

More about Sumpter online:
Several more pictures of Sumpter at the Leonard Cheshire Disability Archive
Sumpter’s medals, sold at auction in 2003 (also contains a biography)

Survived war. Deceased.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

Further information about Len Sumpter 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.