Pic: Grantham Journal
I might be wrong, but I think this is the only original part of a Dambuster Lancaster on public display anywhere in the world. Eleven Lancasters got back from the original Operation Chastise but those that survived the rest of the war were all scrapped in the late 1940s. This bit of rusty twisted metal is the gunner’s mount and hatch from the rear of Lancaster ED825, which was flown by Joe McCarthy on the Dams Raid. Almost seven months later it was being piloted by Flt Lt George Weeden on an operation to send ammunition and supplies to the French resistance when it was shot down near Doulens in France.
The story of its excavation, by a team which included Dams Raid expert Alex Bateman, was told in the Channel Five documentary, misleadingly titled The Last of the Dambusters, shown on British screens last year. Sqn Ldr George (Johnny) Johnson, bomb-aimer in McCarthy’s crew, accompanied the team on their journey.
The hatch will join the other Dambuster exhibits – many of them from the collection of 617 Squadron adjutant Harry Humphries – on display at the Grantham Museum. Well worth a visit!
I posted about this interesting (although misleadingly titled) documentary last year, when it was shown on British terrestrial TV. It shows the journey made by Sqn Ldr George (Johnny) Johnson, bomb aimer in Joe McCarthy’s AJ-T, to visit the site in Germany at which his Dambuster Lancaster crashed six months after the Dams Raid. Here it is on Youtube, in five parts.
The youngest airman to take part in the Dams Raid was Sgt Jack Liddell, rear gunner in the crew of AJ-E, piloted by Flt Lt Norman Barlow. He was 18 when he took part in the raid, and lost his life along with the rest of the crew when their aircraft crashed on the outward flight near Haldern in Holland. His remains were reburied after the war in Reichswald War Cemetery.
Not a lot is known about Liddell other than the material on the Bombercrew.com website (from which I have taken this photo, credited to Eric Rundle). His parents lived in the well-known holiday resort of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset.
Jack Liddell is thought to have joined the RAF when he was only 16 (he must have lied about his age) and had undertaken a number of operations with Barlow in 61 Squadron.
BBC South West are now looking to put together a short film about Jack Liddell, and hoping to find some connections with his pre-war life in Somerset. If you can help, please contact the researcher, Charlotte Lewis.
It’s interesting how the documentary makers use clips from the 1955 film, without stating their source – what we would now call a dramatised reconstruction. These are mixed in with real wartime stills and film clips. Be that as it may, it is still a mainly accurate telling of the story, and well repays a repeat viewing.
I managed to see a recording of the Channel Five documentary ‘Last of the Dambusters’ the other night. (As I live in Ireland, I can’t get Channel Five, even though we get all the other British channels on our cable service.) This has been quite extensively reviewed (see here and here) and discussed on various forums (see here and here) so I shan’t say too much more.
The programme featured George (Johnny) Johnson, who is fast becoming a national treasure. Although he is not the ‘last of the dambusters’ (I don’t know why the programme was given that confusing title when five or six men who took part in the Dams Raid are still alive) he is the only one based in the UK who regularly does media appearances. He treated the programme makers and everyone else in the film with his usual courtesy, and it was very interesting seeing his reactions to meeting people who lived near the Sorpe Dam which he had tried to destroy 65 years before.
The other inaccuracy in the programme concerned the Sorpe Dam itself. The impression was given that Joe McCarthy’s crew, in which Johnson was the bomb aimer, was the only crew to reach and attack the Sorpe. It is true to say that they were the only one of the five crews in the second wave to get that far (Munro and Rice had to turn back after their aircraft were damaged, Barlow and Byers crashed on the outward flight). But Ken Brown in AJ-F, from the reserve wave, made it all the way, dropped his mine successfully at 0314 and returned to Scampton safely.
Hindsight tells us that sufficient thought had not been given as to how to attack the Sorpe. With its earth core construction the dam could not be attacked head on like the concrete-built Möhne and Eder, so the ‘bouncing’ technique could not be used. Instead, both McCarthy and Brown flew along the length of the dam and dropped their mines in the centre, causing them to roll down into the water before the hydrostatic fuse exploded. Perhaps if five aircraft had got through the cumulative effect would have succeeded, but we will never know.
Looking over the interwebnet today for reviews of the programme, I came across this other oddity – a review by the romantic fiction writer Jessica Blair. It turns out that Ms Blair is not all she seems, being the nom de plume of a gentleman called Bill Spence, who flew 36 wartime operations as a Lancaster bomb aimer in 44 Squadron, and turned to writing in 1960. What an interesting life!
This is not the crash site of one of the eight Lancasters lost on Operation Chastise (those have all been excavated years ago) but is where Lancaster AJ-T (ED825/G) crashed on the night of 10 December 1943 near Doullens in France. It was still being used by 617 Squadron, and that night was being flown by a crew captained by Flt Lt Gordon Weeden. All seven of the crew were killed.
AJ-T had been designated the ‘spare’ aircraft for Operation Chastise, and was hurriedly pressed into service when Flt Lt Joe McCarthy found a fault in his favourite AJ-Q (Q for Queenie). There is a lot of detail about McCarthy’s habit of calling all his aircraft Queenie, and his predilection for ‘nose art’ here.
Channel Five is screening a documentary about the search for AJ-T next Tuesday, 17 June at 2000 BST. More than ten years after its launch, Channel Five is still not available to everyone in the UK, so I’m sure in due course that the film will be made available on DVD.
The documentary features one of Britain’s last ‘active’ Dambusters, George (Johnny) Johnson, who, of course, was the bomb aimer in McCarthy’s crew, and therefore dropped a bomb from the aircraft on the Sorpe Dam during the Dams Raid. The latter part of the film shows his trip back to the Dams, and his memories of that night.
Here’s what Channel Five say about the film:
Last of The Dambusters.
Historical documentary focusing on the famous Second World War Dambusters raid. George Johnson – a bomb aimer in one of the raid’s Lancasters and one of only two British Dambusters alive today – sets off on a final mission to rediscover his past. He finds and digs up his old Dambuster bomber, before travelling back to the giant German dams that he once attacked.