First to take off

Shortly before half past nine in the evening, on this day 71 years ago, Lancaster ED927, call sign AJ-E and piloted by the Australian Flt Lt Norman Barlow DFC, took off from the grass runway at RAF Scampton. It was the first of the nineteen Lancasters to set off on what would be come known as the Dams Raid.
Flying with Barlow were his crew, Leslie Whillis, Philip Burgess, Charlie Williams, Alan Gillespie, Harvey Glinz and Jack Liddell. As they were under orders to maintain radio silence, nothing more was heard from them but it emerged later that they had crashed into a electricity pylon on some farmland near Haldern, at about 2350 on 16 May 1943, killing all on board. Haldern is a community in the district of Cleves, in the lower Rhine area, not far from the Dutch border.
This site is currently not marked by any permanent memorial so if you would like to mark the anniversary of the Dams Raid, please think about making a donation to the proposed memorial stone and bronze plaque. This is being organised by Volker Schürmann, a local historian. He is looking to raise €750 (about £620) to cover the cost. We are therefore looking for 150 donations of €5. We are now more than halfway to reaching this target.
You can donate to the appeal via Paypal here: Make a Donation Button
We should not forget that the same night 1341 people died as a result of the successful breach of the Möhne and Eder Dams, as well as another 46 aircrew.
We remember them all today.

Telegraph story on AJ-E crash site plaque

IWM Barlow mine

Norman Barlow’s unexploded mine, photographed by the Germans soon after the raid. [Pic: IWM]

In a nice follow up to a plea first publicised on this blog, the Sunday Telegraph has reported on the plaque installed at the spot where AJ-E crashed on the night of the Dams Raid. Local historian Volker Schürmann discovered that there was no recognition of the site, near where he lives in the small town of Haldern on the Dutch-German border.
After pinpointing the exact location where Norman Barlow’s aircraft crashed, after colliding with electricity pylons shortly before midnight on 16 May 1943, he decided to erect his own temporary plaque, and has started a campaign to install a permanent memorial.
Volker told the Telegraph:

The Dambusters are not well known in Germany. Growing up in Haldern, I did not know about his crash. I don’t think many people from this area know the story. Perhaps just a few old people who lived near the crash site – but there are now many of them left now.
It is just a small field with a lake in the background and there is nothing there to tell anyone what happened there.
I’m from two generations after the war. It was a dirty time, but why not remember these people? It is good for people to know what happened. In Germany, it is difficult to celebrate or commemorate the war, but it is a little easier for those like me from the second generation after it happened.

After all the secrecy surrounding the raid, the irony was that Barlow’s mine did not explode. It was defused by one of Germany’s top explosives experts, and the secrets of its revolving mechanism quickly uncovered.

617 Squadron’s last wartime casualties

The last wartime loss from 617 Squadron happened on 16 April 1945, when 18 Lancasters set off to attack the German cruiser Lutzow in the Kiel Canal. This was the third mission against the ship. The previous two, in the preceding days had been unsuccessful, due to poor weather conditions. Most of the aircraft attacked the ship and successfully bombed the target. (See this post from December 2009, with an account by the son of Flg Off Joe Merchant).

Even though the war was obviously nearing its end, there was strong German flak near the target. Lancaster NG228 was hit, and crashed in Karsibor woods near Swinemunde (Swinoujscie). There were no survivors.

The aircraft was piloted by Sqn Ldr John Powell, an experienced pilot, who had completed 16 operations on his second tour after joining 617 Squadron on 5 December 1944. Some of his regular crew were not available, so some spare men were added. The crew comprised:
Pilot: Sqn Ldr John Leonard Powell DFC, age 29 from Glamorgan. Joined 617 Sqn 5.12.44. Completed 16 ops of 2nd tour.
Flight engineer: Flt Sgt Henry William Felton DFM, from Teddington. Joined 617 Sqn 19.10.44; Completed 18 ops with sqn.
Navigator: Flt Lt Michael Terence Clarke DFC, age 22 from Farnham. Joined 617 Sqn 3.4.45 (2nd time). 1st op on this tour.
Bomb aimer: Flg Off Alfred Lawrence Heath, from Folkestone. Joined 617 Sqn 8.12.44. Believed to have flown on 8 ops with sqn.
Wireless operator: Plt Off Kenneth Arthur John Hewitt, from Hemel Hempstead. Joined 617 Sqn 28.1.45. Completed 7 ops with sqn.
Mid-upper gunner: Flt Sgt William Knight, from Croydon. Joined 617 Sqn 10.3.45. Completed a tour with 227 Sqn, on 1st op with 617 Sqn.
Rear gunner: Flg Off James Watson, from Peebleshire. Joined 617 Sqn 19.10.44. Completed 20 ops with sqn.

Sandra Foster (no relation of mine) is William Knight’s niece and has been researching his career over a number of years. She recently posted a number of pictures in a thread on the Lancaster Archive forum, and has kindly allowed me to reproduce them here.

Sandra told me in an email:

Will did not come from a privileged background, like many of his generation, he left school at 14. At 16 he tried his luck in Canada but could not find the opportunities and eventually got home by trying to cross into America and got deported. Apparently he was in a very sorry state when he arrived back, just the clothes he stood up in. When the war started he tried several time to join the RAF and was turned down. By this time he worked in engineering and was classed as in a reserved occupation. Eventually he succeeded. When he was lost, his wife, my Aunt Phyl, was first told he was MIA, then that he was safe and was on his way home. On the day he was expected home, she got the telegram saying it was a mistake and he had been killed.

Will had completed his missions and did not expect to fly again, he even returned his lucky rabbit’s foot to Phyl. My mum told me that on the day he was due home, the house was decked with flags and ‘Welcome Home’ banners… From what I remember from my mum, he knew he was to be made up to Pilot Officer but hadn’t told his wife as he intended surprising her when next home.

In this picture of his crew in 227 Squadron, Will is seated on the left, in the front row.

The crew was initially buried in Swinemunde, then still in Germany. It came under Polish control after the war and is now called Świnoujście. In 1949, the bodies were all disinterred and reburied in an official war cemetery in Poznan.

The local people marked the crash site with a tail fin and in the 1990s the aircraft was excavated with the assistance of the Polish Air Force who erected a more formal memorial.

Sandra and her family visited the crash site/memorial a few years ago, and also Will’s grave at Poznan. Here is her picture of the memorial in Świnoujście:

New 617 Squadron memorial at Woodhall Spa

The 617 Squadron Aircrew Association has asked for the following press release to be posted on this blog:

NEW MEMORIAL FOR DAMBUSTERS SQUADRON
In the centre of Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, wartime home of No. 617 Squadron, Royal Air Force, “The Dambusters”, stands a memorial in the form of a breached dam, commemorating the names of those members of the Squadron who gave their lives during the Second World War
Since the end of that conflict over 30 additional members of the Squadron have died serving their country either with the Squadron or other units.
To commemorate these post-WW II servicemen, the No. 617 Squadron Aircrew Association will erect a second memorial on a site adjacent to their wartime memorial.
The memorial will take the form of a 3 metre high black granite pyramid, its form echoing the wing form of two of the aircraft flown post-war by the Squadron – the Vulcan and Tornado.
A projecting triangular pediment will carry the Squadron badge and the inscription “In Memory of all members of No. 617 Sqn RAF who gave their lives since 1945 in the service of their country.  We will remember them”
The polished side faces of the pyramid will contain inset red glass lightning flashes, the symbol carried today on the Squadron’s Tornado aircraft, and will be inscribed with the Squadron’s post-war Battle Honours of  “Gulf 1991” and  “Iraq 2003”
The Memorial has been created by Sylvia Waugh, a local Lincolnshire designer, winner of a competition organised for final year students by the University of Lincoln and will be constructed by a Lincolnshire-based monumental mason.
Planning permission has been obtained and the No. 617 Squadron Aircrew Association is now launching a public appeal to raise the £25,000 required to bring this project to completion.
Donations may be made to ‘No. 617 Squadron Aircrew Association’ and sent to Group Captain D G Robertson, Chairman, 617 Sqn Aircrew Association,8 Thorold Way, Harmston, Lincoln LN5 9GJ

The Dams Raid dams today

Great account and brilliant photos by Damien Burke of a trip to all three dams involved in Operation Chastise, as well as the Rheinberg and Reichwald War Cemeteries.
These war cemeteries are an incredible sight, with long rows of identical headstones, each one beautifully carved with a name, a rank and a number – a testament to the individual buried below. As Damien says they really bring home the real sacrifices which are often forgotten when the huge numbers of people killed are mentioned.

David Maltby tribute at Wickhambreaux, 14 September 2009

The annual tribute to Sqn Ldr David Maltby DSO DFC and his crew took place at David Maltby’s graveside in St Andrew’s Church, Wickhambreaux, Kent, on Monday 14 September. The largest turnout for several years brought together the East Kent branch of the Aircrew Association, who organise the event, the Maltby family, members of the public and, for the first time, the Littlebourne branch of the British Legion.

D Maltby grave 14.9.09

Wickhambreaux tribute, Monday 14 September

All members of the public are welcome to join members of the East Kent RAF Aircrew Association and the Maltby family at David Maltby’s grave in St Andrew’s Church, Wickhambreaux, Kent, at 11.30am on Monday 14 September 2009.
This annual event, commemorating the lives of all of David’s crew, takes place on the anniversary of their last operational flight. Weather permitting, local flyers led by David Maltby’s nephew George Foster will be conducting a flypast and poppy drop.

All members of the public are welcome to join members of the East Kent RAF Aircrew Association and the Maltby family at David Maltby’s grave in St Andrew’s Church, Wickhambreaux, Kent, at 11.30am on Monday 14 September 2009.

This annual event, commemorating the lives of all of David’s crew, takes place on the anniversary of their last flight. Weather permitting, local flyers led by David Maltby’s nephew George Foster, will be conducting a flypast and poppy drop.

The crew who flew on that last flight, in Lancaster JA981, was the same as that which had flown on the Dams Raid, almost exactly four months previously:

Sqn Ldr David Maltby DSO DFC (pilot) Baldslow, Sussex
Flt Sgt Vivian Nicholson DFM (navigator) Sherburn, Co Durham
Plt Off John Fort DFC (bomb aimer) Colne, Lancashire
Flt Sgt Antony Stone (wireless operator) Winchester, Hampshire
Sgt William Hatton (flight engineer) Wakefield, Yorkshire
Flt Sgt Victor Hill (front gunner) Berkeley, Gloucestershire
Sgt Harold Simmonds (rear gunner) Burgess Hill, Sussex

Warrant Officer John Welch (mid upper gunner) Chesham, Buckinghamshire, seconded from 218 Squadron, flew as an extra gunner.

DSCN2217(Picture shows the Aircrew Association’s 2007 tribute.)