50 Squadron photograph shows 16 Dambusters together

Pic: Frank Pleszak

Of the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid in May 1943, some 26 had previously flown in one of the RAF’s crack bomber squadrons, 50 Squadron based at RAF Skellingthorpe. Of these, Flt Lt Mick Martin DFC and his mainly Australian crew had finished a tour in October 1942, and had gone on to instructional duties. In February 1943 most of the rest were still based at Skellingthorpe, when the photograph seen above was taken. So this represents the largest single group of Dams Raid participants pictured together before the raid.

A recent post on a Friends of Skellingthorpe Facebook page led to the identification of a number of men in the group photograph. Thanks are due to the people who participated in this, and to Christina Spencer who originally posted the picture.

As of 7 October 2020, the following 16 men have been identified [Ranks and decorations as of 16 May 1943]:

Maudslay crew (AJ-Z on Dams Raid)
Sqn Ldr Henry Maudslay DFC (pilot)
Sgt Jack Marriott DFM (flight engineer)
Flg Off Robert Urquhart DFC (navigator)
Flg Off William Tytherleigh DFC (front gunner)

Knight crew (AJ-N)
Plt Off Les Knight (pilot)
Sgt Ray Grayston (flight engineer)
Flg Off Sydney Hobday (navigator)
Flt Sgt Robert Kellow (wireless operator)
Flg Off Edward Johnson (bomb aimer)
Sgt Fred Sutherland (front gunner)
Sgt Harry O’Brien (rear gunner)

Gibson crew (AJ-G)
Plt Off Harlo Taerum (navigator)
Flt Lt Richard Trevor-Roper DFM (rear gunner)

Hopgood crew (AJ-M)
Flg Off Kenneth Earnshaw (navigator)
Flt Sgt John Fraser (bomb aimer)

Shannon crew (AJ-L)
Sgt Brian Jagger (front gunner)

It is believed that the following were still at Skellingthorpe at the time, but they are yet to be identified in the picture:
Sgt Norman Burrows (rear gunner, AJ-Z)
Wrt Off Alden Cottam (wireless operator, AJ-Z)
Plt Off John Fuller (bomb aimer, AJ-Z)
Plt Off Frederick Spafford (bomb aimer, AJ-G)

Please get in touch if you can spot any of these.

[Thanks to Frank Pleszak, Shere Fraser McCarthy, Tamara Sutherland and Jim Heather for help with this.]

AJ-Z memorial to be unveiled in May

The crew of AJ-Z, killed returning from the attack on the Eder Dam, 17 May 1943. L-R: Henry Maudslay, Jack Marriott, Robert Urquhart, Alden Cottam, John Fuller, William Tytherleigh, Norman Burrows. [Collage of pics: © Dambusters Blog]

The memorial to the Dams Raid crew skippered by Henry Maudslay will be unveiled on 17 May 2019, near where they were shot down in the early morning of 17 May 1943, seventy-six years ago. The event has been organised by local researcher Marcel Hahn.

On the Dams Raid, Henry Maudslay and his crew in Lancaster AJ-Z, had been spectators at the Möhne Dam when it was breached. The three Lancasters still with bombs on board were directed to go to the Eder dam. The attacking force quickly realised that the dam presented a much more difficult target. The lake is smaller and set in a deep valley, meaning that there is a much shorter approach which starts with a very tricky steep dive from over the Waldeck Castle. This is followed by a sharp turn to port. Given the geography, the Germans had obviously discounted the idea of an aerial attack, since there were no gun batteries in the vicinity.

David Shannon in AJ-L was the first to try an attack, and made three or four passes without releasing his mine. It was very difficult to get down to the right height after the dive, and then turn. Then Gibson told Maudslay to try, and he found it just as hard, so Shannon had another go. Two more dummy runs followed until, at last, he got the angle and speed right and dropped his mine. It bounced twice, hit the dam wall and exploded sending up a huge waterspout. At the later debriefing his effort is reported as ‘no result was seen’ but Shannon in fact felt that he had made a small breach.

Maudslay had another attempt but then something went wrong. His mine was released too late, hit the parapet and exploded. Although his aircraft was beyond the dam by the time this occurred, it may have been damaged, since his later progress home was slower than would be expected. Some reports say that something was seen hanging down below the aircraft, perhaps caused by hitting trees on the run in.

Gibson saw that AJ-Z had fired a red Very light signal after passing over the dam wall and called Maudslay on the radio: ‘Henry – Henry. Z-Zebra – Z-Zebra. Are you OK?’ Nothing was heard, so he repeated the call. This time Maudslay’s voice could be heard, although the signal was faint: ‘I think so. Stand by …’ This signal – confirmed by members of Shannon’s and Knight’s crews – was the last voice contact anyone made with AJ-Z.

In fact they would stay airborne for a further fifty minutes. At 0157, some twenty minutes after they had dropped their mine, wireless operator Alden Cottam sent a ‘Goner 28B’ message back to base, which indicates that they were making progress. At about 0230, they had reached the Rhine. The turning point on the return route was supposed to be at the town of Rees, but Maudslay headed 20 miles north of this towards Emmerich, which was defended by several Heimat light flak anti-aircraft batteries, largely manned by non-military personnel. Some of the outbound force had in fact passed over the town a few hours earlier so the batteries were on alert for the opportunity to fire on any returning crews. When AJ-Z was heard approaching Emmerich it came within range of the batteries on the south and east edges. They fired on the aircraft, and although it turned to the right to try and avoid the flak, either an engine or a fuel tank was hit, as there was a burst of flame. The aircraft lost height and crashed in a field at 0236 close to the hamlet of Osterholt, between the German town of Klein Netterden and the Dutch town of ’s Heerenberg. The following morning, German officials recovered seven bodies from the wreckage. Two were identified as Alden Cottam and Jack Marriott, but the rest were recorded as unidentified. All seven were buried in the Northern Military Cemetery at Düsseldorf, and were reburied after the war in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Reichswald Forest.

Members of the Maudslay and Marriott families are expected to attend the unveiling of the memorial, which will take place at 1430 on Friday 17 May. Other families and distinguished guests will be confirmed nearer the time. Members of the public are welcome to attend. The location is shown in the map below. Refreshments will be served afterwards in the MU-Cafe, also shown on the map.

Marcel Hahn can be reached by email here and also on the event’s Facebook page.

Dambuster of the Day No. 45: Robert Urquhart


Pic: Bomber Command Museum of Canada

Flg Off R A Urquhart DFC

Lancaster serial number: ED937/G
Call sign: AJ-Z

First wave. Second aircraft to attack Eder Dam. Mine overshot. Aircraft damaged, and shot down on return flight.

Robert Alexander Urquhart was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada on 2 August 1919, one of the four children of Alexander and Susie Urquhart. His father worked as a clerk. Urquhart himself was educated at local schools and then worked as an apprentice jeweller and a stock manager before the war. He applied to the RCAF in May 1940 and joined up in January 1941. He was initially selected for pilot training and finally qualified as a navigator with a commission in January 1942.

He arrived in England in March 1942, and underwent further training. At one point he flew with Joe McCarthy, later a 617 Squadron colleague. He joined 50 Squadron in August 1942 and undertook fifteen operations with Sqn Ldr Moore as pilot. On 17 December 1942 he joined another crew, piloted by Sqn Ldr Birch, in a raid on Soltau. Richard Trevor-Roper was Birch’s regular rear gunner and flew on this operation.

In the New Year, he teamed up with Henry Maudslay almost immediately after Maudslay resumed operational flying in 50 Squadron in January 1943. Maudslay and Uquhart’s first operation together was to Essen on 21 January 1943, and they flew another eleven operations together until the whole crew was posted into 617 Squadron on 25 March 1943.

On 4 April Maudslay, Urquhart and three others flew to Farnborough and stayed there several days while two Aldis lamps were fitted to enable the pilot to maintain the correct height for the attack on the dams. The navigator was given the important task of looking through the blister and checking that their beams were touching. On their return to Scampton, Maudslay and Urquhart made test runs across the airfield and then later the same evening at Skegness and in the Wash, demonstrating they could successfully keep to the required height.

By the time of the Dams Raid, Urquhart had amassed twenty-eight operations and had been cited for a DFC for his operational flying in 50 Squadron. The citation read:

Since joining this squadron, Flying Officer Urquhart has flown on many operations. At all times his navigation has been of the highest order and the successes he achieved are due in no small measure to his skill. This officer took part in the daylight raids on Le Creusot and Milan and at other times on many heavily defended German targets. On one occasion during a low level raid on a target in North West Germany he was wounded by anti-aircraft fire but continued to navigate with accuracy. By his skill and determination Flying Officer Urquhart has set a high standard among his fellow navigators.

In fact the recommendation had been made originally on 20 March 1943 by the Commanding Officer of 50 Squadron, and endorsed by Air Vice Marshal Cochrane on 4 May 1943. Unfortunately the paperwork got ‘lost’ in the corridors of officialdom until the closing stages of the war. The Canadian Minister of National Defence for Air wrote to the Urquhart family on 30 July 1945, apologising for the delay in the award and enclosing his ‘Operational Tour Wings’ and certificate. His DFC was eventually sent by registered mail on 7 November 1949, along with the Canadian War Memorial Cross.

When they got to AJ-Z’s crash site, the Germans could not identify the individual remains of Urquhart, Tytherleigh and Fuller, and they were buried together in a collective grave in Düsseldorf North Cemetery. After the war, the whole crew was reinterred in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.

[Thanks to Simon Muggleton for help with this post.]

More about Urquhart online:
Commonwealth War Grave Commission entry
Canadian Virtual War Memorial
Bomber Command Museum of Canada
Entry at airforce.ca website, including DFC citation (scroll down)
Auction details of his medals and logbook (includes short biography)

KIA 17.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Robert Owen, Steve Darlow, Sean Feast and Arthur Thorning, Dam Busters: Failed to Return, Fighting High 2013
Robert Owen, Henry Maudslay, Fighting High 2014
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

Further information about Robert Urquhart 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.

Flg Off Robert Urquhart’s Logbook

pic: Bomber Command Museum of Canada

Over on the Key Publishing Aviation Forum member Simon Spitfire has posted images of Flg Off Robert Urquhart’s logbook, which I reproduce below. (If I have infringed anyone’s copyright, please inform me.)

Urquhart was the navigator in Henry Maudslay’s AJ-Z, which was shot down on the way home, after being damaged in the attack on the Eder Dam. He was Canadian, and had a DFC for completing a tour of operations in 50 Squadron.