The first and the last

Len Sumpter, Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson, photographed together in July 1943 as part of the group picture of 617 Squadron aircrew. [Artwork © Dambusters Blog, from image courtesy of Sutherland family.]

We have just passed the 77th anniversary of the day on which nineteen Lancasters of RAF 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack the dams in the Ruhr and Eder valleys. Of the 133 aircrew who participated in what would come to be called the Dams Raid, just 80 survived. Thirty-two more died before the end of the war, leaving 48 men. Official records show that only two men flew on both the first and last operations mounted by 617 Squadron: the Dams Raid on 16 May 1943 and an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair at Berchtesgarten on 25 April 1945. These were Leonard Sumpter and Raymond Wilkinson. However, I believe that a third Dams Raid participant, Douglas Webb, also flew on the final raid even though he did not record it in his logbook. The full story is set out below.

Len Sumpter flew on the Dams Raid as the bomb aimer in David Shannon’s AJ-L. They dropped their Upkeep mine at the Eder Dam, resulting in some superficial damage to the wall. Shortly afterwards, the dam was finally breached by Les Knight and his crew in AJ-N. Later in the war, Sumpter switched to flying as Shannon’s observer in Mosquitoes before joining Ian Marshall’s Lancaster crew.

Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson took part in the Dams Raid as respectively the front and rear gunners in AJ-O, skippered by Bill Townsend. This crew was part of the mobile reserve and attacked the Ennepe Dam, but it failed to breach. Shortly after the Dams Raid the Townsend crew broke up as most of them had completed a tour. Webb and Wilkinson went together to a training unit as instructors, but by the end of 1944, they were both back in 617 Squadron, on their second tour. Wilkinson flew on the final Tirpitz attack on 12 November, in Arthur Kell’s crew. By the following spring, they were both regulars in Ian Marshall’s crew.

At this stage in the war, 617 Squadron was carrying out precision raids with 22,000lb Grand Slam and 12,000lb Tallboy bombs. The squadron had been supplied with 21 Lancasters, known as B.I Special models, which had been built specially for dropping these monster bombs. To reduce weight and because there was a reduced danger of German fighter attack, the mid-upper turret had been removed and the gunner who occupied this space and the wireless operator were not carried. Official records, such as the Operations Records Book, usually show blanks in these two positions, as can be seen in the entry below for the Marshall crew on 25 April 1945, who were flying in PD134.

The crew is shown here as Ian Marshall (pilot), Frank Cholerton (flight engineer), Kenneth Newby, (navigator), Len Sumpter (bomb aimer) and Ray Wilkinson (rear gunner).

The presence of both Sumpter and Wilkinson is confirmed by their logbooks, shown below:

Pic: Sumpter family

Pic: War & Son

However, the official listing may not be entirely correct. There may have been an extra passenger on board – something that is hinted at in a fascinating photograph contained in Len Sumpter’s family archive. According to Sumpter, this was taken just before take off:


Pic: Sumpter family

On the reverse, in Sumpter’s writing, the five aircrew are identified as (L-R) Flt Lt L Sumpter, Flg Off K Newby, Flt Lt I Marshall, Flg Off D Webb and Sgt K Tollerton. The caption seems to have been written some time after the war, which may be why he recorded the type of bomb incorrectly: PD134 was carrying a Tallboy rather than a Grand Slam bomb. There are also discrepancies in the names he recorded. He says that the man on the far right is Sgt K Tollerton. It’s possible that he wrote this a number of years later, thinking of Frank Cholerton. However the man bears a strong resemblance to Ray Wilkinson, who we know was on the raid. Update September 2020: Man on far right is not Ray Wilkinson, according to his granddaughter. Update January 2021: Man on far right is definitely Frank Cholerton. See comments below.

Sumpter has also identified the fourth man from the left as Doug Webb. It certainly looks like him but, as we have seen, he is not listed in the ORB entry. Nor did Webb record the flight in his own logbook, as can be seen below. So if Webb was on this operation, he was there unofficially!

Pic: Yak El Droubie

It is known that at this stage of the war, the Lancaster B.I Specials sometimes carried an extra man, perhaps as an extra spotter for enemy aircraft. So this might explain Webb’s presence – or maybe he just wanted to get the chance to be there when the force attacked Hitler’s ‘bunker’, which it was rumoured would be the place where the Führer might make a last stand.

Wilkinson and Webb did not know, of course, that this would be the squadron’s last Second World War operation, but the pair had been friends since their days together in 49 Squadron. Here they are, photographed together outside Buckingham Palace on the day the Dams Raid crews received their decorations:

Left to right: Ray Wilkinson, Doug Webb, Charles Franklin, Bill Townsend, Jack Grain [not on Dams Raid], Lance Howard. [Pic: Yak El Droubie.]

Further enquiries are being made to confirm the identities of the men in Sumpter’s photograph, and this article will be updated when this information is received.

[My 2018 book, The Complete Dambusters, will be updated with this information in the next edition. Further information about the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in the book, published by History Press.]

Ray Wilkinson logbook and medals to be auctioned for charity in Australia

Update Thurs 22 November: The collection was sold for AU$24,000.

Ray Wilkinson occupies a unique place in history. He was the only man to took part in both the Dams Raid, Operation Chastise in May 1943, and the final attack on the Tirpitz, Operation Catechism in November 1944. On the Dams Raid, he was the rear gunner in Bill Townsend’s aircraft ED886 AJ-O, which attacked the Ennepe Dam but failed to breach it. He occupied the same position in Flg Off Arthur Kell’s NG181 on the Tirpitz attack. On this, the crew’s Tallboy bomb was recorded as registering ‘a hit or a very near miss’ as it ‘fell in the centre of the smoke coming up from just in front of the superstructure.’

Wilkinson won the DFM for his part in the Dams Raid, and this is the star item in his medal collection which is being presented for auction in Sydney, Australia, on Thursday 21 November. The auction will also include his logbook (shown above), invitation to the premiere of The Dam Busters film and other memorabilia.

An interesting extra to the logbook is the small photograph which seems to have been pasted on the page shown above. This shows his Dams Raid Lancaster in flight, in a snap which may have been taken during a training exercise by a member of Les Munro’s crew.

Ray Wilkinson, his wife Iris, and their family moved to Melbourne in 1968 to start a new life in Australia. Ray died in 1980 but Iris lived until last December. In her will she specified that her husband’s medals, log book, invitation to the film premiere and other Dambusters memorabilia should all be auctioned to raise funds for two charities of her choosing.

More information in this article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

[Thanks to Graeme Jensen for the tip.]

Dambuster of the Day No. 126: Raymond Wilkinson

Wilkinson R

Sgt R Wilkinson
Rear gunner

Lancaster serial number: ED886/G

Call sign: AJ-O

Third wave. Only aircraft to attack Ennepe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.

Raymond Wilkinson was the only child of Christopher and Margaret Wilkinson and was born on 1 September 1922 in South Shields on Tyneside. His father was a miner. Wilkinson worked briefly as a joiner’s apprentice before joining the RAF in 1941. He qualified as an air gunner in the summer of 1942 and was posted to 49 Squadron where he became one of Bill Townsend’s core crew, along with Dennis Powell, Lance Howard and fellow gunner Doug Webb. He flew on more than twenty operations before the crew were transferred to the new 617 Squadron in March 1943.

As AJ-O flew low across the Dutch and German countryside on the way to its target, Wilkinson was credited with shooting out some searchlights near Ahlen and he was awarded the DFM for his role on the raid.

In July 1943, he flew with Bill Townsend on two of the raids on Italian targets, and then in September he was posted as tour expired. He was sent to a conversion unit for a spell as an instructor, along with his mid-upper gunner colleague Doug Webb. The pair moved on to other training roles but just over a year later, in October 1944, they both came back on operations with 617 Squadron. By then Wilkinson had been commissioned.

At this stage in the war, 617 Squadron was carrying out precision raids with 12,000lb Tallboy bombs. Wilkinson joined the crew of the Australian pilot Flt Lt Arthur Kell, and his first operation of this new tour was an unsuccessful attack on the Tirpitz, moored in a Norwegian fiord, which took place on 28 October. Both 617 and 9 Squadrons were armed with Tallboys and set off from Lossiemouth in Scotland on a trip which took more than twelve hours. In very bad weather, the ship was hit by several bombs but was not sunk. After the war it emerged that it had in fact been badly damaged and was no longer seaworthy, but this was not apparent to the Allies. So a similar force set off from Lossiemouth on 12 November to attack it again and once more Wilkinson was in the Kell crew. They dropped one of the four Tallboys which landed directly on the ship. The combined effect was spectacular, although it was not confirmed until the following day when reconnaissance showed the Tirpitz had capsized, with the bottom of the hull visible above the water.

Wilkinson therefore has the unique honour of being the only person to have taken part in both the Dams Raid and the final successful attack on the Tirpitz.

By the New Year Wilkinson and Webb were both in Ian Marshall’s crew. To save weight and because there was a reduced danger of German fighter attack, the mid-upper gunner was often not carried and it seems that they decided to take turns flying in the rear turret.

In March 1945 the even bigger 22,000lb Grand Slam came into service. By then the squadron had been supplied with 21 Lancasters, known as the B.I Special model, which had been built specifically for dropping these monster bombs. There is however some evidence that some aircrew carried on flying unofficially, perhaps to act as spotters.

Altogether in his second spell at 617 Squadron Wilkinson flew on about sixteen operations, including the raids on the U Boat pens at Ijmuiden and the Bielefeld viaduct, before 617 Squadron’s last wartime operation, an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair on 25 April 1945. His colleague Len Sumpter, another Dams Raid participant, also flew on this sortie, making them the only two people to take part in 617 Squadron’s first and last wartime operations.

Wilkinson had met his future wife, Iris Riordan, a WAAF who worked as a telephonist shortly before the Dams Raid. They married in 1944 and they attended the Royal Premiere of The Dam Busters in 1955. They moved to Australia some time later, and he died in Noble Park, Victoria on 27 July 1980.

Survived war. Died 27 July 1980.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

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 Ray Wilkinson 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.