Dorothy Nutley, wartime WAAF in 617 Squadron

Dorothy Nutley

Among the many unsung members of 617 Squadron in wartime were the WAAFs, women who performed a number of important ground roles. One of these was Dorothy Nutley, who met and married her husband Tommy while serving with the squadron at RAF Coningsby, and who has died recently at her home in Devon.
Sgt Tommy Nutley was the flight engineer in a crew piloted by Plt Off John Sanders. They joined 617 Squadron from 49 Squadron in April 1944, and went on to complete a full tour of operations together before being posted out early in 1945.
After more than 60 years of marriage, Tommy Nutley died in August 2005, and was buried in Brendon churchyard in Devon. Dorothy was buried beside him more than ten years later.

Royal_Air_Force_1939-1945-_Bomber_Command_CH17863

Pic: IWM CH17863

A photograph of John Sanders and five of his crew is in the Imperial War Museum collection. The only person identified in the shot is Sanders, fourth from the left. The figure third from the left looks like Tommy Nutley, but this is yet to be confirmed.
Thanks to Christopher Priest.

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Sqn Ldr Les Munro DSO DFC

MUNRO CREW loresLes Munro and the 617 Squadron crew with whom he flew on the Dams Raid. Back row, L-R: Les Munro (pilot), Jimmy Clay (bomb aimer), Bill Howarth (front gunner), Harvey Weeks (rear gunner). Front, L-R: Grant Rumbles (navigator), Frank Appleby (flight engineer), Percy Pigeon (wireless operator).

Sad news arrived this morning of the death in hospital in New Zealand of Les Munro, the last pilot to take part in the Dams Raid.
John Leslie Munro was born in Gisborne on the North Island of New Zealand on 5 April 1919, the oldest of three children. His family had a sheep station a few miles outside town. It emerged in about 1999 that his mother had another child, a daughter born in 1913, in an earlier relationship but had given her up for adoption.
Munro was educated in local schools, but left at 14 to work in farming. When the war came he waited until 1940, when he was 21, to volunteer for the RNZAF. He wanted to be a pilot. but he was told that his educational qualifications were ‘insufficient for pilot training’ and that he would have to be a gunner. Not to be put off, he spent the next 12 months studying at home, doing a maths course before reapplying. This time he was successful and he was enlisted into the RNZAF in July 1941.
After initial training in New Zealand Munro was sent to Canada to complete bomber training and qualified as a pilot in February 1942, receiving a commission at the same time. After arriving in England, and the usual delays that followed, he was sent for further training.
The core of the crew who would fly with Munro throughout most of his career began to be assembled at their Operational Training Unit, when navigator Jock Rumbles and wireless operator Percy Pigeon first teamed up with him. While still at the OTU, in September 1942, they undertook two operations. The second of these, when they were scheduled to attack Bremen, nearly ended in disaster, when their Wellington’s engines lost power shortly after take off and they crashlanded in a nearby field.
Munro moved onto heavy bomber training at the end of September 1942, along with Rumbles and Pigeon, and they were joined by flight engineer Frank Appleby and gunner Bill Howarth. All five joined 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa in December 1942, to begin operational flying. Their first operation on 8 January 1943 was minelaying, followed on 13 January by an attack on Essen.
Some 17 further operations would follow in the next ten weeks, but in that time the crew flew with no fewer than eight different bomb aimers. Then, towards the end of March a new opportunity presented itself when a letter from 5 Group went up on the squadron noticeboard. Munro called his crew together and told them there had been a call for volunteers to form a new squadron.
Most of the crew decided that they would go to the new squadron, but they were still without a regular bomb aimer, and the rear gunner chose not to accompany them. So they were joined by bomb aimer Jimmy Clay and rear gunner Harvey Weeks, who had both almost completed their operational tours with another crew.
Two other 97 Squadron crews, captained by David Maltby and Joe McCarthy, had also been selected for the new squadron. Guy Gibson had telephoned McCarthy, whom he had met while McCarthy was training, and asked him to join the new squadron, but it seems that he did not previously know either Maltby and Munro. Munro is fairly sure that they were all transported from Woodhall Spa to Scampton on a crew bus, probably on Thursday 25 March 1943, and that there was a large gathering in the Officers Mess that evening.
With hardly any time to settle in, the crews were put to intensive low level flying training, flying on borrowed Lancasters while the special ones for the Dams Raid were being assembled. Munro’s training went smoothly enough, although he and his crew had a near miss when flying low over the North Sea they suddenly saw a naval convoy ahead and had to climb steeply to avoid it.
As the detailed plans for the raid were being put together, both Les Munro and Joe McCarthy were originally placed in the first wave, the nine crews tasked with attacking the Mohne and Eder Dams. However, about five days before the actual operation, Gibson and the other planners decided to beef up the second wave, who would attack the Sorpe Dam, and placed Munro and McCarthy there instead. This wave, with further to travel, were in fact scheduled to leave Scampton before the first wave and so Munro’s AJ-W was the second aircraft to take off on Operation Chastise, at 2129 on 16 May 1943.
All went well for the first 85 minutes, and on reaching the Dutch coast near Vlieland the mine was fused. But then the aircraft was hit by flak. Munro and front gunner Bill Howarth  say that this was fired from a land battery, but bomb aimer Jimmy Clay recorded that it was a flak ship which spotted them. Whichever it was, it did severe damage. The intercom was put out of action, the master unit for the compass was destroyed and the tail turret pipes damaged.
Munro kept on flying for a while but sent flight engineer Frank Appleby down to the nose to check with Clay. He passed him a note: “Intercom U/S – should we go on?” Clay remembered his reply: ‘I wrote: “We’ll be a menace to the rest.” Had it been a high-level operation there would have been time to make up some sort of signals between Bomb Aimer, Flight Engineer and Pilot which may have worked. But on a quick-moving low-level operation like this and with other aircaft in close proximity Les could neither give nor receive flying instructions from the navigator nor bombing instructions from the bomb aimer’ and the rear gunner, Harvey Weeks, was completely isolated.
Wireless operator Percy Pigeon was sent to check up on Weeks, but in doing so saw the gaping hole in the fuselage, with a host of broken wiring. He told Munro it would be impossible to fix this while airborne. So, reluctantly, Munro altered course and turned for home. When he got to Scampton he was unable to radio the control tower to tell them that he would be landing, so he went straight in. Unknown to him, another early return, Geoff Rice, was circling a severely damaged AJ-H above the runway getting his crew into crash positions. An embarrassing and dangerous incident was narrowly avoided.
Munro landed at 0036, the first crew to return from the operation. Some time later that morning, during the impromptu party that was going on in the Officers Mess, Gibson came up to him:
“Well, what happened, Les?” he asked him. Munro told him he had been hit by flak.
“Oh, you were too high,” Gibson replied.
Munro was about to protest and give his side of the story, but Gibson had already turned and walked away. It rankled with Munro, who felt that he had not been given a fair hearing. Nor did he feel that he could raise the matter again; it was the last time either of them ever mentioned it.
Although his role in the Dams Raid had come to a premature end, Munro still participated in the events that followed. He was presented to both the King and Queen during the royal visit on 27 May. Gp Capt Leonard Slee, the officer who was accompanying the Queen, didn’t seem to know his name, so Munro stepped in, not aware he was breaking some sort of protocol. ‘My name’s Munro,’ he told her. A few weeks later he was at the famous Hungaria Restaurant party in London given by Avro. Although he wasn’t decorated for the Dams Raid he had in fact just been awarded the DFC for his earlier operations in 97 Squadron.
617 Squadron went back on operations in July 1943, and Munro’s was one of the crews which took part in a raid on Italian power stations from where they flew on to Blida in North Africa. They flew a little too low and a flak hit resulted in a burst tyre and a flesh wound to bomb aimer Jimmy Clay’s nose.
These summer operations were probably not too dangerous, but the next one certainly was. This was the catastrophic raid on the Dortmund Ems Canal, which resulted in the loss of six crews out of the nine who participated on the two nights. Munro was not selected for this operation, which was extremely fortunate. However, he was back on duty straight afterwards in another abortive attack, this time on the Antheor Viaduct.
Another short gap followed, but then between November 1943 and July 1944 he undertook almost 30 more operations. He became Flight Commander of the Squadron’s B Flight and was temporarily CO of the whole squadron for some of February 1944 while Leonard Cheshire was on leave. In April 1944 he was awarded the DSO.
A month after D-Day, Munro was taken off operations, along with Cheshire, David Shannon and Joe McCarthy. AVM Ralph Cochrane, the CO of 5 Group, decided that all four were on ‘borrowed time’ and should cease immediately.
Munro spent the rest of the war in a training flight, and was finally demobilised in February 1946. He returned to New Zealand, and the business of running a sheep farm. He was active in politics for a while and became Mayor of Waitomo District, where there is now a street named after him.
In 2013 he flew to the UK for the last time, and took a full part in the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Dams Raid. He was accompanied by one of his sons and an official from the New Zealand High Commission. When I jokingly asked this official whether he was there as Les’s ‘minder’ he was quick to say that Les didn’t need any minding whatsoever. He was always forthright in his views and firm in his convictions.
Back home, Munro continued with many interviews and media appearances. Earlier this year, he made the very generous offer to sell his medals and memorabilia (which include a signed menu from the post raid dinner at the Hungaria Restaurant) to raise funds for the Bomber Command Memorial in London. He felt strongly that the sacrifice of the 55,000 aircrew who died in the war should continue to be honoured. However, the collection was saved for the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland by being purchased by the British peer and collector Lord Ashcroft, and will stay in New Zealand.
The collection will serve as a permanent reminder of the proud role played by the country’s aircrew in Bomber Command, and a tribute to this fine man.

Flt Sgt Grant McDonald

The Canadian aircrew who survived from the Dams Raid. Grant McDonald is on the far right of the back row. Pic: Bomber Command Museum, Canada 

I am sorry to have to report the death on 13 May 2012 of one of the last surviving Dambusters, Flt Sgt Grant McDonald, rear gunner in Lancaster AJ-F, piloted by Ken Brown.

Grant McDonald was born in Grand Forks, British Columbia in 1921. By the time he left school, the war had already started and he applied to join the RCAF. At that stage it was not accepting new recruits, so he went first into the Canadian army, but was able to transfer to the air force a few months later. After training in Canada as an air gunner, he crossed the Atlantic on a troopship in May 1942. After some more training in Bournemouth and at a gunnery school near Stranraer, he was posted to an Operational Training Unit at Kinloss, where he crewed up with fellow Canadian, Ken Brown and navigator Dudley Heal. Their first operations were a number of anti-submarine patrols from St Eval in Cornwall, but they were then transferred to a Heavy Conversion Unit for Lancaster training. Here a full crew of seven was formed. It was made up of three Canadians, Brown, McDonald and bomb aimer Steve Oancia, and four Britons, Heal, flight engineer Basil Feneron, wireless operator Harry Hewstone and gunner Don Buntaine.
They were posted to 44 Squadron in February 1943 and had only completed a handful of operations before being transferred to the newborn 617 Squadron at the end of March. (One of the persistent myths about the Dams Raid was that the crews were all highly experienced and hand picked by Guy Gibson. In the case of the Brown crew, this is wrong on both counts.)
Brown had a number of run-ins with his pugnacious commanding officer during training for the Dams Raid, but the crew survived and were detailed to fly as one of the five mobile reserve aircraft. They were directed to the Sorpe Dam, and attacked it at 0323. After flying across the width of the dam, they dropped their mine in the middle and it exploded satisfactorily, sending a waterspout many hundreds of feet into the air. The dam, however, remained intact. Before leaving the area, AJ-F took a detour to the rapidly-emptying Möhne Dam and were impressed by the damage that their comrades had done a couple of hours earlier. One of the anti-aircraft guns was still operating, however, and McDonald opened fire on it, ‘really giving him hell’ as Brown later recalled. As dawn broke during the return flight it was very dangerous, particularly as they recrossed the Dutch coast, but thanks to Brown’s skilful low flying they landed safely at Scampton at 0533.
Grant McDonald did another 22 operations with 617 Squadron, before being posted as an instructor to an OTU in the summer of 1944. On being demobbed at the end of the war, he joined the Canadian customs service in Vancouver.

Grant McDonald, left, pictured in October 2010.
As one of the last surviving Dambusters, Grant McDonald participated in a number of events in both Canada and Britain as the various anniversaries fell. He was always courteous with enquirers, although he must have told the same stories dozens of times over the years. A kind and good man, may he rest in peace.

Sources: Interview of Grant McDonald by James Holland, March 2011
Speech by Ken Brown, 1993

Bill Townsend obituary

Wartime portrait by Cuthbert Orde, published in The Tatler, September 1943

The last pilot to land his aircraft safely on the night of the Dams Raid was Bill Townsend, pilot of AJ-O. He had been detailed as one of the five mobile reserves, taking off from Scampton at 0014 on Sunday 17 May. He was sent to one of the raid’s secondary targets, the Ennepe Dam, which he and his crew attacked — after three attempts — at 0337. Although it bounced twice, the mine exploded short of the dam which remained intact. They hung around for a while waiting to see if others would arrive, but then set off for home. They passed over the Möhne, saw for themselves the extent of the devastation already wreaked and then set off as fast as they could.

With dawn breaking, AJ-O had a very hairy journey back to base. As they approached Texel on the Dutch coast the Germans depressed a heavy flak gun on them and deliberately bounced shells off the water, a tactic which navigator Lance Howard later described as ‘not cricket’. (You imagine that he was being ironic, given the weapon that they had bounced off the Ennepe lake a few hours previously!) They finally landed, with only three engines working, at 0615 and were met on the hardstanding by a group of Bomber Command’s most senior officers, including AOC ‘Bomber’ Harris, whom Townsend failed to recognise and pushed past. It was however, as his crew later recalled, a piece of ‘superb flying’ which had brought them home.

After the war, Townsend had a quiet life. At one point he and his wife owned a pub, but he later worked as a civil servant, including a spell in the Department of Employment in Bromsgrove. Although he died as recently as 1991, there doesn’t seem to have been any obituary published in the national press. However one from a local (unnamed) Bromsgrove newspaper has now been unearthed by members of the WW2Talk Forum. Poster ‘Spidge’ started a thread three or four years ago trying to identify all the final resting places of the 129 Dambusters who are no longer with us, and one of his colleagues, Geoff, put up this snap:

Like so many of his generation, Bill Townsend was a modest man who rarely spoke of his part in the RAF’s most famous ever bombing operation. He surely deserves to be more widely celebrated.

George Baker, 1931-2011

Photo: BBC

The actor George Baker, who died on Friday, had a long and distinguished career on the stage, in TV and films, most recently as Inspector Wexford in the long running series based on Ruth Rendell’s detective stories. Dambuster aficionados will, however, recall that one of his first important film roles was that of Flt Lt David Maltby in Michael Anderson’s 1955 film.

The new Daily Telegraph film critic, Robbie Collin, has written a long and perceptive obituary for the paper, which you can read online. He cites the story I told on this blog a couple of years ago, about how George Baker wrote to me when I was researching my book about David Maltby, saying that one of the reasons he was chosen for the part was his strong resemblance to his real life character.

The real David Maltby, photographed in 1942

George Baker as David Maltby, in The Dam Busters (1955), standing at the back of the group.

In truth, the part of David Maltby in the film is quite small, and much of the time he appears his face is hidden by a flying helmet and oxygen mask. But he does get a few memorable lines, one in the ‘rag’ in the mess when the 617 squadron aircrew are teased once too often by their 57 squadron colleagues about their endless training and lack of operational flying.

This results in a giant ‘debagging’ fight with both crews trying to remove each others’ trousers. Guy Gibson, played by Richard Todd, hears the row from his office, and then has to pick his way through the scrum outside on his way to a meeting with station CO Charles Whitworth. He pauses to rescue David Maltby from the melee and receives heartfelt thanks: ‘Thank you sir. Saved my life. Never forget it.’

It was always a source of pride to my family when we were growing up that the part of our uncle in such a great film had been played by so distinguished an actor, and we used to follow George Baker’s career with proprietoral interest. He was a modest, self deprecatory man, who will be much missed.

Flt Sgt Cyril Paley

Cyril Paley was never a member of 617 Squadron, but he had a connection to it, in that his sometime crewmate, Flt Sgt Victor Hill was a last minute recruit to David Maltby’s crew as front gunner. Hill and Paley had served together in 9 Squadron throughout the latter part of 1942 and early 1943.

Cyril Milner Paley was born on 25 October 1914 at Littleborough near Burnley. He was training to be a solicitor, but the war intervened. Although in a reserved occupation he volunteered for aircrew. Initially trained on Blenheims as a navigator, he later switched to bomb aimer. He joined 9 Squadron at RAF Waddington in the early summer of 1942. Along with most of the crew, but not Victor Hill, he moved to 83 Sqdn Pathfinders at Wyton in the early part of 1943.  His plane “F for Freddie” was crippled over Stettin by a Junkers 88 on 21 April 1943. The Canadian pilot, Chuck McDonald, nursed the blazing Lancaster over the Baltic to near Malmo in Sweden, where they ditched in the shallows. The crew of 7 were interned in Sweden until August 1943. On return to England he became a bombing instructor and never flew combat again. He did 36 combat flights in total, including the Le Creusot daylight raid, many over Berlin and several during the Battle of the Ruhr.

Cyril Paley died in his sleep on 20 March 2011 at a care home in Lytham, Lancashire. He was 96.

RIP

Picture shows Cyril Paley in his 9 Squadron crew, late 1942. Left to right: Sgt Frank Charlton, flight engineer; Flt Sgt Cyril Paley, bomb aimer; Flt Sgt Maxwell Coles, wireless operator; Sgt Victor Hill, mid-upper gunner; Flt Sgt Victor Nunn, navigator; Plt Off Charles McDonald, pilot; Flg Off John Crebbin, rear gunner; Picture: Joe Paley.

Flt Sgt Stanley Henderson DFM

I’ve only recently been informed about the death of another 617 Squadron veteran from the latter part of the Second World War, Stanley Henderson. He was the flight engineer in Plt Off Castagnola’s crew on a number of operations with 617 Squadron, including the successful attack on the Tirpitz in November 1944. His daughter Alison sent me this notice from the Canadian press:

HENDERSON, Stanley James. November 01, 1921-September 27, 2010. It is with great sadness that we, the family of Stanley (known as Chick to his family and friends), announce his passing on September 27, 2010 after a very long and courageous battle with cancer. Stan is survived by his loving wife of 58 years and best friend, Pearl; his son Peter Henderson (Monica); his two daughters Alison Zawada (Ron), and Janine Henderson; his two grandsons, Tyler and Colby Zawada; and other family members and friends. Born in England, Stan was a distinguished member of the famed RAF 617 Squadron (Dambusters) and a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Medal. After retiring from the RAF, and emigrating to Canada in 1963, he worked for many years for the Canadian Tire Corporation. Then, after his second retirement, and moving to British Columbia, Stan took on the role of the President of the British Columbia Aviation Museum. Stan loved his time spent there and the camaraderie that came with this role. Stan was an extremely devoted husband and father, who lived for his family, always putting them first in everything he did. They were his life, and he their rock. Stan will be greatly missed by all of his family, and all of those who came to know and love him. The family would like to thank everyone at Saanich Peninsula Hospital, the Cancer Clinic, Dr. Spencer and Dr. Cuthburt for helping him through the fight of his life. A service in remembrance of Stan will be held 2 p.m. Thursday, 07 October 2010 at the British Columbia Aviation Museum, Sydney, BC. The family would appreciate that donations in his memory, in lieu of flowers, be made to the Saanich Peninsula Hospital or the British Columbia Aviation Museum.