Act of Remembrance

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The Reichswald Forest War Cemetery lies in a wooded area in north west Germany, near the town of Kleve and not far from a massive road bridge across the Rhine. It is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in Germany – the last resting place for 7672 men who fought with the Allied services in the Second World War. Of these, 3915 flew with the various air forces.
Amongst these lie 32 Dambusters, making this quiet spot the place on earth where there are the most Dams Raid veterans buried. Twenty-seven of the 53 who died on the Dams Raid itself are now interred here (Bill Astell and his crew, Norman Barlow and his crew, Henry Maudslay and his crew, and Warner Ottley and the six of his crew who were killed). Five more men, all by then flying in the crew of Sqn Ldr George Holden and killed on the fateful Dortmund Ems Canal raid on 17 September 1943, also lie here.
The Dambuster graves are in groups in different parts of the cemetery. Seven of them lie together in one row, not far from the edge. This is the crew of AJ-E: Norman Barlow, pilot; Leslie Whillis, flight engineer; Philip Burgess, navigator; Charlie Williams, wireless operator; Alan Gillespie, bomb aimer; Harvey Glinz, front gunner and Jack Liddell, rear gunner. And on 18 May this year it was at their graves that we first paid our respects, coming as we had from the unveiling of a new memorial at their crash site near Haldern, about 30km away.
This was an experienced crew, all of whom had served together in 61 Squadron at RAF Syerston. Three were in their 30s, and six had been commissioned as officers. Unfortunately all this experience came to nought when their aircraft, targeted with an attack on the Sorpe Dam, collided with a high tension electric pylon on the edge of a small wood, and crashed in flames. They were all killed instantly and their bodies were then taken to Dusseldorf North cemetery for burial. After the war, like many other Allied aircrew from other parts of Germany, their remains were exhumed and reinterred in Reichswald Forest.
Although the gravestones were all produced to a standardised format, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission allowed each family to choose a quotation or dedication to appear at the foot of the stone. Not all took this opportunity but when they did, it’s their words which frequently produce the lump-in-throat moment as you walk between the lines of stones.
The AJ-E men each have something added.
Harvey Glinz’s stone has the simplest dedication: “Always remembered”. Leslie Whillis and Philip Burgess have similar quotations. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” is the usually quoted version which appears in the King James Bible version of St John’s Gospel. This appears on Burgess’s stone, while Whillis’s has the variation: “Greater love hath no man than this, he gave his life for his friends.” Charlie Williams’s grave bears words which seem to encapsulate the emotions his family must have felt by the death in a faraway cold land of a country boy from an Australian sheep farm: “He gallantly died renouncing all the things that he loved”. The age of the youngest man to take part in the Dams Raid, Jack Liddell, is alluded to by his family: “ In the prime of his youth he died that we might live”. Norman Barlow, the only one to be both a husband and a father, is remembered for the former achievement, if not the latter: “ In loving memory of my husband who gave all for his country”. And Alan Gillespie’s stone reads: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them”.
These last words are, of course, taken from Laurence Binyon’s famous poem, “For the Fallen”. Its fourth stanza will be read out many times this week:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

And every time the audience or congregation repeat the last four words, we should think not just of these seven men, nor just the 53 who died on the Dams Raid, nor even of the 55,000 men of Bomber Command who died in the Second World War, but of the countless millions who have died in conflict before and since. Each of these was someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother. “My subject is war and the pity of war.”
“We will remember them.”

Dambuster Memorial unveiled as many pay tribute

IMG_6611Pic: Wim Govaerts

Several hundred people gathered on Sunday 17 May 2015 on the edge of a small wood in Haldern, north western Germany, to pay tribute to the crew of Dams Raid Lancaster AJ-E, piloted by Flt Lt Norman Barlow DFC. This was the spot where the aircraft crashed shortly before midnight on the night of 16 May 1943, en route to attack the Sorpe Dam.
Some of Norman Barlow’s letters home to his mother in Australia were read out during the ceremony. In one, written on 3 May 1943, he told her about the new aircraft he had been assigned for the Dams Raid. “I have just got a brand new machine. “E” for Edward or Elsie or Elliott. I hope I am as lucky as I was with “G” for George”.
And then, just 12 days later and the night before died, he sent love to everyone back at home, including his daughter, then four years old: “I must close now and have a bath and get a little shut eye whilst I can.  So keep your chin up Mother dear it can’t last forever. Your loving son Norman xxxx.”
Sadly, E-Edward would not turn out to be not a lucky machine for Norman and his crew, and they were all killed instantly in the crash. For seventy years, the site was not marked in any way, but then in 2013 local historian Volker Schürmann began a campaign to have a permanent memorial established. He organised a public appeal which succeded in raising the funds, after many generous donations from supporters from around the world. There were further donations of materials from the local community, and the farmer on whose land the aircraft crashed was kind enough to make a space available.
Relatives and representatives of five of the crew travelled to Germany, and unveiled the memorial. Wreathes were also laid by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, by other organisations, and by the local community. A guard of honour was provided by the Haldern Fire Brigade, and musical tributes were played by the Haldern Brass Band.
Huge thanks go to all the people of Haldern who donated to and supported the memorial, and to all those who travelled to Germany to take part in the ceremony.

Pictures below by Wim Govaerts and Mitch Buiting.

IMG_6365 Banner depicting the crew of AJ-E. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6396Volker Schürmann being interviewed by British Forces Broadcasting Service reporter, Rob Olver.

IMG_6388Items from the wreckage of AJ-E, found locally by Marcel Hahn. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6462Welcome from Bernhard Uebbing, Chair of Heimatverein Haldern, the local history society. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6481Volker Schürmann outlined the background to the project. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6494Charles Foster gave a brief history of the Dams Raid and its historical significance. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6509Trish Murphy, a friend of Norman Barlow’s daughter Adrianne since their schooldays in Melbourne, read from Norman Barlow’s last letters home. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Rework_9274Rob Holliday, whose wife Sara is a cousin of bomb aimer Plt Off Alan Gillespie, gave an account of the lives of all the crew members of AJ-E. (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

IMG_6550The first wreath was laid by Group Captain Steve Richards of the RAF. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6553Lt Colonel David Sexstone and a colleague laid the second wreath on behalf of the Royal Canadian Air Force. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Rework_9289Wreath laid in memory of Norman Barlow by Trish Murphy, with assistance from Jacqui Kelly and Aisling Foster. (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

Rework_9293Wreathes laid in memory of Philip Burgess by Carole Marner, followed by Jenny Rowland. (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

Rework_9298Wreath laid in memory of Alan Gillespie by Sara and Rob Holliday (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

IMG_6558Wreath laid in memory of Charlie Williams by Helen Brown. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Rework_9306Wreath laid in memory of Jack Liddell by Patricia and Mike Gawtrey. (Pic: Mitch Buiting)

IMG_6471Music for the occasion was provided by the Haldern Brass Band. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6685A guard of honour was provided by the Haldern Fire Brigade. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6665The five sets of relatives and representatives, joined by Volker Schürmann and Charles Foster. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6678The full RAF and RCAF delegations, photographed after the ceremony. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

IMG_6583AJ-E, honoured and remembered, 17 May 2015. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)


Good news for Dambuster memorial appeal

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A piece of good news to cheer us all at this festive season. This blog’s good friend Volker Schürmann has recently informed us that the appeal for funds to erect a permanent memorial at the site where Norman Barlow and his crew crashed on the night of the Dams Raid has succeeded. The stone for the memorial is now being quarried and the plaque is being designed. The memorial will be officially unveiled at a ceremony at 11.00am on Sunday 17 May 2015, the 72nd anniversary of the Dams Raid, and the crash.
The crash occurred on farmland, a few kilometres from Haldern, a small community in Rees in the state of North Rhine Westphalia. Lancaster ED927, code name AJ-E, had been the first aircraft to take off on Operation Chastise, leaving RAF Scampton at 2128 on Sunday 16 May 1943. Just over two hours later, flying at about 100 feet, it struck a pylon. It may have been hit by flak a few moments before. The crew of seven were all killed, and are now interred in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery. They were:
Flt Lt Norman Barlow DFC (pilot)
Plt Off Leslie Whillis (flight engineer)
Flg Off Philip Burgess (navigator)
Flg Off Charles Williams DFC (wireless operator)
Plt Off Alan Gillespie DFM (bomb aimer)
Flg Off Harvey Glinz (front gunner)
Sgt Jack Liddell (rear gunner)
It is thought that members of the families of at least four of the crew will be attending the unveiling of the memorial.
More details will follow. Members of the public will be welcome to attend.
Many thanks are due to Volker Schürmann and his colleagues for organising the memorial.

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.

Appeal launched for AJ-E Dambuster memorial

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The crew of AJ-E. Left to right: Norman Barlow, Leslie Whillis, Philip Burgess, Charles Williams, Alan Gillespie, Harvey Glinz, Jack Liddell.

Eight crews from 617 Squadron were lost on the night of the Dams Raid, 16/17 May 1943. Of these two, AJ-A piloted by Sqn Ldr Melvin Young and AJ-K piloted by Plt Off Vernon Byers were lost over the sea, but the other six crashed on dry land in Germany or the Netherlands.
Three of the crash sites are commemorated with a plaque or other memorial:

AJ-B: Flt Lt William Astell
AJ-M: Flt Lt John Hopgood
AJ-C: Plt Off Warner Ottley

An appeal has now been launched to add another memorial to this list. Lancaster ED927, call sign AJ-E, piloted by Flt Lt Norman Barlow DFC, 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.
The plan, to erect a memorial stone and bronze plaque on this site, is being organised by Volker Schürmann, a local historian, who is looking to raise €750 (about £620) to cover the cost. We are therefore looking for 150 donations of €5.
By way of thank you, donors will receive a colour souvenir postcard featuring pictures of the finished stone in place and portraits of all the AJ-E crew. It is hoped that we can arrange for a descendant of one of the crew to be present when the stone is unveiled, and, of course, all donors will also be warmly welcomed.

You can donate to the appeal via Paypal here:
Make a Donation Button

If you would prefer to make a donation by cheque or bank transfer, contact me and I will give you details of how you can do this.
Below is a picture of the site where the memorial will be erected.
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Dambuster of the Day No. 64: Norman Barlow

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Flt Lt R N G Barlow DFC

Lancaster serial number: ED927/G

Call sign: AJ-E

Second wave. Crashed on outward flight.

Robert Norman George Barlow was born on 22 April 1911 in Carlton, a suburb of the Australian city of Melbourne. He was always known by his middle name, Norman. The Barlows were a colourful family: Norman’s father Alec Barlow had built up a thriving motor business, Barlow Motors, which sponsored the adventurer Francis Birtles and Robert’s older brother Alec Jr in their record-breaking drive from Darwin to Melbourne in 1926. The pair covered the 5438km distance in 8 days and 13 hours. The car they drove, a Bean nicknamed ‘Sundowner’, is now in the National Museum of Australia.

The Argus, Saturday 23 October 1926, page 15

Barlow Motors newspaper advertisement, 1926. [Pic: Derham Groves]

The Barlow family houses, business premises and stables were all designed by the fashionable architect Arthur Purnell, with whom Alec Barlow Sr went into business. But many of his ventures were very close to the line and having defrauded a wealthy merchant of a large sum of money and forged Norman’s name on a loan document, Alec Sr committed suicide in 1937.

Norman Barlow had been working in the family business, but by the time he joined the RAAF he was running a garage. On his application form his occupation was given as ‘service station proprietor’. He had also qualified as a civilian pilot, so he had a head start in being chosen to carry on that role in the service.

Barlow married his second wife, Audrey, in 1940, shortly before joining up. He had an infant daughter named Adrienne born in 1938 from his first marriage, but she was living with his widowed mother. He left Australia for the last time in the autumn of 1941, sent to Canada for final training. He received his pilot’s flying badge in January 1942, and was also commissioned. By March he was in the UK, and posted to 16 Operational Training Unit for bomber training.

In September 1942, Barlow was posted as a Lancaster pilot to 61 Squadron, based at RAF Syerston and began a successful first tour of operations. His regular crew included flight engineer Leslie Whillis and bomb aimer Alan Gillespie, both of whom had been in his crew since they had met at 16 Operational Training Unit. Both would also later accompany him to 617 Squadron.

By March 1943, Barlow and his crew had completed a full tour, and he was recommended for the DFC. The citation read:

‘Throughout his many operational sorties, this officer has displayed the highest courage and devotion to duty. He has participated many attacks on Essen, Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne, and on two occasions he has flown his aircraft safely back to base on three engines. During periods of the most extensive operations Flt Lt Barlow has set a magnificent example of courage and determination.’ The award was confirmed in the London Gazette two days before the Dams Raid.

When the request for an experienced crew for the new squadron reached 61 Squadron, also based at RAF Syerston like Gibson’s 106 Squadron, there were a number of pilots and crews who would have fitted the request. It is not clear whether the Australian pilot Norman Barlow himself volunteered or was simply nominated by his CO, but he met all the criteria. He had just finished a full tour of operations and been recommended for a DFC. He was also apparently keen to move on to an immediate second tour, rather than taking the usual between-tours rest in an instructional role.

Barlow set about building a crew to accompany him. Two came from his own crew. His bomb aimer Alan Gillespie had also completed a full tour but he volunteered to carry on with his skipper. Flight engineer Leslie Whillis was near the end of his tour and must have thought that carrying on with Barlow gave him the chance to finish it with a pilot he trusted. The other four all had substantial experience. Charlie Williams and Philip Burgess had been flying with New Zealander Ian Woodward, who had also just finished his first tour. Williams, the wireless operator and another Australian, had also completed his tour. He wanted to go on with a second tour immediately, so he could go home to Queensland to be with his seriously ill father. Burgess, the navigator, had flown on eighteen operations, the majority with Woodward and Williams. The two gunners were the Canadian Harvey Glinz, who had flown on ten operations, and Jack Liddell, still a teenager but with a full tour under his belt.

Together, they were an unusual group. Three were in their 30s. Four were officers, with two more recommended for commissions which would come through before the Dams Raid. This left only the young Jack Liddell still a sergeant. They took the leave that was owing to them (probably without consulting their new CO) and didn’t arrive until the first week in April, so their training was delayed. Their first training flight was on Friday 9 April and the crew had the frightening experience of a bird strike, which resulted in a collision with the top of a tall tree. The flight engineer’s and bomb aimer’s canopies were smashed and two engines badly damaged. Barlow didn’t mention the incident when he wrote to his mother a few days later, but he did tell her about his crew:

‘I am now at a new Squadron that is just forming, hence we will not be operating for some weeks, you will be pleased to know, all we do is fly, fly and fly, getting plenty of training in. Today I flew for five hours with two other crews doing low level formation flying it was really good fun … I have practically a new crew now, you can hardly blame the boys for wanting a rest after all the trips we have done over there, so now I have four officers in my crew and two of the sergeants who have been with me all the time are getting their commissions so we will have six out of seven officers, I haven’t heard of that before. A chap doesn’t get a commission unless he knows his work, so you can guess we have a pretty good crew. I have an Australian in the crew, (Charlie Williams) a damn fine chap from the country, he is the W/Op. and we share a room together.’ [Letter to Frances Barlow, 13 April 1943, courtesy of Barlow family.]

Six weeks of intensive training followed, first by day and then later by night. Barlow’s last training flight was the day before the raid, on Saturday 15 May. With Vernon Byers as second pilot, they did another test bombing run over the range at Wainfleet.

Two days before the raid, Bill Astell had asked Barlow to witness his will. As a married man with a daughter, Barlow had written one already and left it behind in Australia.

The crew were probably nervous, but didn’t want to show it. In his last letter home, wireless operator Charlie Williams told his family that ‘[Barlow] is very thrilled today as he has just been awarded the D.F.C. [H]e is a very good pilot and I have every confidence that he will bring me through my second tour.’ In the same letter, Wiliams confirmed that both his and Barlow’s names had featured in a radio broadcast heard by his family at home. It is likely that this refers to something recorded during their time at 61 Squadron.

Barlow and his crew had been assigned to the Second Wave, detailed to attack the Sorpe Dam, and were due to take off one minute after Joe McCarthy. However McCarthy had a mechanical problem with one engine and had to decamp to the spare Lancaster, so Barlow’s AJ-E was the first Dams Raid aircraft in the air, leaving the ground at 2128.

Because they were under instruction to maintain radio silence, nothing more was heard from them. But we know that they reached the border between the Netherlands and Germany for it was near Haldern, 5km east of the Rhineside town of Rees, that they crashed, ten minutes before midnight. It appears that they hit one of the pylons which stretch across the fields in the locality, although it is possible that the aircraft had first been hit by flak. AJ-E came to rest in a small meadow on the edge of a copse. All on board were killed instantly, their bodies badly burned.

After the war, a witness, Johanna Effing, gave an account to the writer Herman Euler:

‘[We] saw the field in front of us blazing fiercely. An aircraft flying from the west had hit the top of a 100,000 volt electricity pylon and crashed into the field. A huge bomb had rolled out 50 metres from where the plane had crashed. Even before it got light we had a whole crowd of inquisitive people there despite the danger from exploding ammunition. It was not long before the Mayor of Haldern, Herr Lehmann, was on the scene and he climbed onto what was taken to be a large petrol canister. He said ‘I’ll tell the Chief Administrative Officer that he needn’t send us any more petrol coupons for the rest of the war. We’ve got enough fuel in this tank.’ When he found out later that he had been standing on dynamite he’s supposed to have felt quite sick. All the crew were killed and burnt beyond recognition. There were no flak batteries or searchlights here; the plane was just flying too low. The first guards from the scene of the crash came to the house and showed us the valuables which they had found: things like cases, gold rings, watches and a long cylindrical torch. Its owner had scratched all his missions on it – 32 of them. I still remember the name ‘Palermo’ and also the names of a lot of other towns.’
Herman Euler, The Dams Raid Through the Lens, After the Battle, 2001, p.93

The unexploded mine was defused by one of Germany’s leading bomb disposal officers, Hauptmann Heinz Schweizer and taken to Kalkum, near Dusseldorf, for examination. Detailed drawings of the whole construction were quickly made, and the fact that the bomb had been spun before release was deduced (although it is not certain whether they ever worked out that it had in fact been spun backwards).

Rollbombe 17051943 Absturz Haldern

Local dignitaries took turns to pose with what was at first thought to be a petrol tank.

Norman Barlow and his colleagues were all buried in the North Cemetery in Dusseldorf. But it took several months for news of their fate to reach the British authorities and then to be transmitted onto their counterparts in Australia. At this stage, Alec Barlow Jr was also a pilot serving in the RAAF, commanding a training school, and was quick to use his connections to see if he could find further information.

Barlow file

The bleak note made on Barlow’s personnel file concerning his death [National Archives of Australia]

After the war, Norman Barlow and his crew were reinterred in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery. Alec Barlow Jr had a long career with Qantas, and died in 1972.

The site near Haldern where AJ-E came down is now marked with a memorial erected by the local history society, co-ordinated by historian Volker Schürmann.

More about Barlow online:
Entry at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
RAAFDB website, use search engine for link to personnel file and casualty record
Entry at Aircrew Remembered website
University of Melbourne Collections, article about Barlow family

KIA 16.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Eric Fry, An Airman Far Away, Kangaroo Press 1993

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 Norman Barlow 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.

Barlow crash site

AJ-E 2983

Today I was lucky enough to be shown the site where Norman Barlow’s AJ-E crashed on the Dams Raid, just outside Haldern in the Northern Rhineland area of Germany. My guide was Volker Schurmann, shown (above right) along with your humble scribe, who has been the first person to place a plaque on the site, and who is now campaigning to get a permanent memorial built.
More about this tomorrow!

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.

AJ-E crash site to be commemorated on anniversary


One of this blog’s growing number of German readers, Volker Schürmann, has contacted us to say that he plans to commemorate the Dams Raid crash of AJ-E on 16 May. He is writing a report for a local history club in Haldern, where he lives.
AJ-E, piloted by Norman Barlow, was the first of the five aircraft tasked with attacking the Sorpe Dam to leave Scampton (after Joe McCarthy was delayed by a fault in his designated Lancaster) but came down shortly before midnight. It is not clear whether it was shot down or crashed after hitting high tension electric wires. In any case, the top secret mine did not explode, so within a few days of the Dams Raid, the Germans were able to find out exactly the full details of what had been used.
Volker has also unearthed this brief biography of AJ-E’s flight engineer Leslie Whillis, for whom the Dams Raid was his 23rd operation, in a report of an auction held in 2001.
Any more information about events in Germany to mark the 70th anniversary of the raid would be gratefully received. Please contact me here.