David and Ann Shannon’s headstones

Although David Shannon was an Australian, he stayed on in England after the war, joining Shell as an executive. He spent some time in both Colombia and Kenya before returning to the UK. He died on 8 April 1993, shortly before the planned 50th anniversary reunion of those who took part in the Dams Raid.
Shannon’s romance with Ann Fowler, a WAAF officer serving with 617 Squadron, and their subsequent marriage is a recurring theme in Paul Brickhill’s book, The Dam Busters. Ann Shannon died a couple of years before her husband and they are both commemorated with stones in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels in Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire. The size of the stones would indicate that they were both probably cremated.
Shannon’s obituary in The Times can be read here.
Pictures kindly sent to me by reader Paul Hilton.


On this day…

On this day 66 years ago nineteen Lancasters of 617 Squadron took off from a grass aerodrome in Lincolnshire on an operation which would change the lives of everyone who took part. Fifty-three of the aircrew died that night, and the destruction of the Möhne and Eder Dams led to the loss of 1341 other lives, many of them civilians or forced labourers. 
In contrast to last year, when various flypasts and other events marked the 65th anniversary, there will be no official ceremonies marking today’s date.
Let’s just remember all those who died that night, and the millions more who died during the Second World War, and hope that we never see destruction on this scale again.
In commemoration of those who died, here are some pictures of the plaques marking the crash site of the aircraft AJ-M, piloted by Flt Lt John Hopgood. His efforts to keep his plane aloft let three of his crew bale out. Two, John Fraser and Anthony Burcher survived. Those who died at the site were Charles Brennan, Kenneth Earnshaw, John Minchin, George Gregory and Hopgood himself. The site is about 6km from the Möhne Dam.
The pictures were taken last month by a reader of this blog, Steve Gough, who has kindly let me use them.

mohne1 mohne3

Local hero

Photo: Kevin Lancey

This story has only a tangential connection to 617 Squadron, as it concerns an RAF Wireless Operator/Air Gunner who died some nine months before the Squadron was even formed. The picture above, probably taken in January 1942, shows a crew in 97 Squadron at about the time they were about to fly their first operation as a newly formed unit. Most of them were newly qualified as aircrew but the pilot, Plt Off David Maltby, third from the right in the greatcoat, and next to him, second from the right, wireless operator Sgt Eric Grimwood had already flown four operations together in November/December 1941 when David Maltby was still flying as a 2nd pilot.

The others are, on the left, left to right, Sgt Max Smith (navigator), Sgt Lyle Humphrey (gunner) and Sgt Harold Rouse (bomb aimer). On the far right is Sgt Harvey Legace (gunner) and crouching in the hatch is Sgt George Lancey (2nd pilot).

The aircraft they are standing beside is an Avro Manchester, but these were soon to be phased out of front line service in favour of the more powerful, and safer, Lancaster. 97 Squadron was only the second squadron to be given Lancasters. This crew, Crew No 21, flew about another ten operations together between February and June 1942, and was then disbanded when David Maltby came to the end of his first ‘tour’, and was posted away from 97 Squadron.

Some of the crew carried on flying together as George Lancey had by then qualified as a first pilot, and took over his own aircraft. Eric Grimwood was however allocated to the crew of Flg Off WA McMurchy RCAF. Sometime on the night of 26/27 July 1942 they took off on an operation over Hamburg and were lost over the sea. This is the relevant entry in WR Chorley’s magisterial Bomber Command Losses:

Lancaster I R5487 OF-V Op: Hamburg. T/O 2303 from Woodhall Spa. Presumed lost over the sea. One body, that of Sgt Barraclough, was found and he was buried on 12 September 1942, in Klovdal Cemetery, Sweden. Since 1945 his remains have been taken to Kviberg Cemetery. His companions have no known graves. F/O W.A.McMurchy RCAF(+), F/S J.P.Doyle RCAF(+), P/O K.J.Williams(+), Sgt E.N.Grimwood(+), F/S J.G.Richardson(+), Sgt T.A.Grey(+), Sgt O.Barraclough(+).

A sad end, but not untypical of the fate of so many crews. Seven families in Canada and Britain received the dread knock of the telegram boy.

There is a further mystery about Eric (Grim) Grimwood – no one seems to know who his family was. His entry at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission doesn’t even name his parents, which would suggest that the RAF had no record of them. He is, however, commemorated on the Banstead war memorial so at some time he must have had family in this small community in Surrey, but no one now there knows who they were.


The final irony is that while five of the seven aircrew in the top picture survived the war, Maltby and Grimwood, who flew together before the rest of the crew were assembled, both died in the North Sea some 15 months and a few hundred miles apart.

If anyone has any information about Eric Grimwood or his family, please contact me.

Correction: Banstead Local History Group have contacted me to say that they now know that Eric Grimwood was the son of Frederick and Edith Mary (née Minton) Grimwood, and that his birth was registered in Southwark in 1922. They are still trying to track down other members of the family.

Recollecting Reculver

The Herne Bay Cultural Trail got off to a rocky start last autumn with controversy about a poorly-worded plaque describing the Dams Raid as ‘infamous’. The plaque had been placed on a new statue of Barnes Wallis, erected overlooking the Reculver area, where trials of the ‘Upkeep’ weapon were carried out in May 1943. The wording has now been amended, and the rest of the Cultural Trail is nearly complete. One of the items will be a large mural depicting the trials. This can’t yet be seen on the Trail’s own website, but the work in progress is shown on that of the artist, Penny Bearman. 
I mentioned this BBC Radio Kent programme back in May last year, but it seems a good place to link to it again. It’s a first hand account of the Reculver trials, as witnessed by two boys who sneaked up onto the sand dunes.

Les Knight’s crash site and memorial

Teunis Schuurman, a Dutch writer and designer, has a huge website, much of which is devoted to pictures of wartime memorials and crash sites. On this page (which is very large — scroll about three quarters of the way down) I found pictures of a plaque commemorating Les Knight, at Den Ham in the Netherlands. (Images courtesy Dick Breedijk.)

monument-den-ham-1monument-den-ham-2The inscription is in Dutch. Translated into English it reads:

Early in the morning of 16 Sep 1943 a Lancaster of the RAF crashed in this meadow. The Australian Pilot of the 4-engine bomber – Fl/Lt Leslie Gorden Knight, DSO – was killed after he ordered his seven crewmen to bail out first.
He was buried the same day at the “Old Cemetery” in Den Ham. The others landed safely nearby. The two left engines were out, but he pulled up to avoid the disaster of a crash on the village of Den Ham. That night the plane was on a raid targetting a dyke of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen. Les Knight and his crew belonged to 617 Squadron and in May 1943 were also one of the “Dambusters”, the famous attack on the Ruhr dams in Germany.

This raid took place in very bad weather conditions. The 617 Squadron detachment were using a new thin case 12,000lb bomb, dropped from a very low height. However they failed to damage the canal, and five aircraft were lost. Four complete crews and Les Knight, pilot of the fifth plane, were killed. All the remaining seven of Knight’s crew, including Fred Sutherland, still alive and well in Canada, baled out while Knight struggled to keep his damaged aircraft aloft. They owe their lives to him, as do people in the village of Den Ham which he managed to avoid when crashing.

Remembering Remembrance Days

The Remembrance Day poppies I was given as a child were the old type, stiff red paper with a wire stalk. Adults wore them in their button holes, twisting the wire behind the lapel to keep it secure. Children pushed them through the wool of itchy school jumpers. When I was a teenager, boarding at St Edward’s School in Oxford in the 1960s, someone would come round selling them the week before during evening prep. Then on the actual Remembrance Day itself we would wear them while our Sunday chapel service was moved outside, clustered round the school’s war memorial. We would shuffle uncomfortably in our charcoal grey Sunday suits, trying to stay warm, minds drifting. Sundays meant a revolting roast lunch, straight after chapel, which I used to make a pretence of eating, but the latter part of the day did bring greater pleasures: a free afternoon, iced buns at teatime and, best of all, the cymbal signature tune which marked the Light Programme’s Pick of the Pops.

The war memorial was a tall stone cross outside the chapel. However, the names of the boys killed in the two world wars were inside, on a series of plaques on its side walls. There were hundreds of names, and I whiled away many a sermon reading and rereading those nearest my pew. Most meant little to me, but it was easy to spot those who were likely to have been brothers: L Q T T de O P T Tollemache and L S D O F T T de O P Tollemache being obvious examples. The school’s only VC, G P Gibson was also listed, of course, and was further honoured with a stained glass window.

As eleven o’clock chimed on those cold November Sundays I would dutifully try and think about the uncle I never knew, killed in the war. But I don’t think I ever really appreciated the hurt that my mother and her parents must have felt for the rest of their lives, that dull pain that never went away. And the pain of those unknown other parents and siblings, the Tollemaches, the Gibsons, the other names I have forgotten.

Was their pain ever assuaged by the national rituals of Remembrance Sunday? A day which, in the words of Professor Anthony Smith, has institutionalised our ‘collective identity through the rites of death and commemoration’? (Chosen Peoples, OUP 2003, p.246.)

The way in which these national rituals have developed was explored in a recent Guardian article by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, who is much the same age as me. After a meeting with one of the few British veterans remaining from the First World War, Harry Patch, he wrote:

… it’s already abundantly clear there’s no danger of the war being suddenly forgotten, or made to seem irrelevant to our sense of what Europe and the world has to avoid repeating. In fact, during the last generation or so, and for reasons that have to do with much more than the survival of Harry and a few other veterans, the first world war has been identified by common consent as one of the great turning points in our history.

In the immediate aftermath, people did what they could to put it behind them – as they did again after the second world war. (My own father, in a way that was typical of his generation, said almost nothing to me about his life in the army, no matter how much I prodded him.) But in the long western European peace since 1945, the first world war has loomed larger and larger in our imaginations. It was once described as the war to end all wars. Over time, it has become the war by which most others are measured – in spite of all the obvious differences in weaponry, motive, duration, everything. In the process, it has also become more and more clearly the event which made us “modern” – both in the sense that it accelerated the growth of our democratic structures, and loosened old class strictures, and because it made the whole population familiar with barbarity, suffering and loss on a scale never seen before. Ninety years on from the Armistice, we look at the events of 1914-18 and think we are examining our national psychic wound.

That’s why Remembrance Day parades and ceremonies are given so much press and other kinds of attention these days (perhaps even more attention than previously, but these things are hard to measure). They exist to commemorate the dead of all wars, but they invariably revolve around images associated with the trenches – the heart-jolting pictures of people like Harry Patch floundering in the mud, or scrabbling over the lip of a trench and almost immediately being shot down. And throughout the rest of the year they are fed by other elements of national life. By the pathos and ubiquity of the large-scale memorials in our cities, and the smaller monuments in our villages – often recording the deaths of several members of the same family. By the way poetry of the first world war is drip-fed from the national curriculum into almost all our children as they become teenagers. (To the extent that even the best poets of other wars, such as Keith Douglas, are not studied at all, or made to seem somehow less good, because they don’t conform to the criteria of war poetry established by Owen, Sassoon, et al.)

All these are reasons for thinking that when Harry Patch is no longer with us, the Great War will keep its eagle-grasp on our imaginations. Unlike the Hundred Years War, or the Napoleonic wars, it’s feeling of closeness is continually refreshed by the monuments that stand at the heart of our communities, and by the fact that very many families cherish the memories of ancestors who were involved. Unlike more recent and contemporary wars, shocking as these are, it still feels on our doorstep, recollected in landscapes we recognise, and involving our neighbours as well as ourselves.

This year, as I have done in most recent years, I will watch Sunday’s Cenotaph service on TV. It’s a ceremony that has its own rituals. Impeccable timing, which sees the last main celebrants arriving just a few seconds before Big Ben strikes 11. The view through the falling autumn leaves down Whitehall. The grey-coated Guards band, coaxing beautiful music from their silver instruments (the swelling sound of Nimrod almost too emotional to bear). The medley of camera shots during the two minutes silence, which always ends with the gun salute in Hyde Park. The Last Post played on bugles. The dignity of an eighty-something monarch and her spouse, who both lived through the last war, as they lay their wreaths.

Then, after the official service, come the massed ranks of old men and women. These must have been waiting for hours in the cold, marching, marching, many still in step. The bowler hats. The berets. The British Warm overcoats. The sensible V-neck sweaters worn under regimental blazers. The wreaths which pile slowly against the Cenotaph.

With this march past, as Smith notes, the mood changes:

This part of the ceremony is more personal. It focuses on families, regiments and small groups of friends, their contributions, experiences, and memories. Here love for friends and family is felt to be part of the loyalty to the community of the nation, and, conversely, national devotion and loyalty are seen as extensions of the solidarity felt by family and friends. Family and nation are also linked by the bitterness at the senseless waste of war and, perhaps, at the excesses of state patriotism; the sense of personal bereavement becomes an expression of a wider national grief. (Smith, p.249.)

The survivors of the first Great War, the war to end all wars as it was laughingly called, are nearly all gone. In a few years time those who took part in the Second may all be too frail to participate. The rest of us will then, as Andrew Motion says, echoing Wilfred Owen, need to work harder to remember why we have had the good fortune to have lived in a largely peaceful Europe, and find our memories ‘in the stones, and statues, and archives, and, on Remembrance Day, in the notes of bugles calling from sad shires.’

I’m not as certain as Andrew Motion that we will succeed. These national rituals come easier to people like me, born in the 1950s, because we remember the war even though we didn’t live through it. We know instinctively that it was not all cheery Cockney banter and make do and mend. Neither was it ‘Take that, Nazi schweinehund’ and ‘Jolly good show, chaps’. It was dirty, and brutish, and many people died. We know that our parents’ brothers and sisters were lost, and we can just about comprehend what this meant to those who lived. But will it mean as much to our grandchildren, yet unborn?

Sherburn memorial pays tribute at last

Sherburn, a sometime colliery village in Co Durham, was the home of Flt Sgt Vivian Nicholson DFM, navigator of David Maltby’s aircraft AJ-J on the Dams Raid. Unlike most small communities in the UK it has never had a war memorial – for either World War. (Many of the dead from both wars, however, are commemorated on the wooden chancel screen in the village church, as I saw for myself last year when I was in the village researching Vivian Nicholson’s background.) 

This anomaly has now been rectified, and there is a handsome new memorial, surrounded by a small garden. It is largely the result of work by two local people, John Burrell and Kevin Stock – all respect to them for their dedication. It was unveiled on Remembrance Sunday last year, 2007.

As usual, it’s the sheer number of people commemorated that tells the main story. Forty-one men from this small community killed in the First World War, 20 more in the Second. In the First World War they came from my grandparents’ generation; in the Second, from that of my parents.

Some of the stories from those generations are heartbreaking. The Hellfire Corner website has dozens of accounts of men lost in “the war to end all wars”, including that of this ordinary Chatham woman who lost five of her sons. How lucky am I that my generation was not cut down in this way. And all I can do is hope that my children are as lucky too.