Oancia uniform jacket preserved for posterity

Steve Oancia, the bomb aimer in Ken Brown’s crew on the Dams Raid, came from a tiny farming community near Stonehenge in the south of Saskatchewan province, Canada. He crewed up with Ken Brown during training, and stayed with the crew until it disbanded in May 1944. Brown was also a “prairie boy”, born and brought up in the town of Moose Jaw, some 70 miles from Stonehenge. Oancia received the DFM for his role in dropping AJ-F’s Upkeep mine at the Sorpe Dam. The weapon did some damage to the dam but it failed to breach it.

Oancia returned to Canada after the war and became a civil engineer after studying at the University of Alberta. He died in 1999. A few years later, his cousin Clarence Oancia was clearing out the family farmhouse after it was sold and came across his RCAF uniform jacket, hanging in a closet in the attic. Fortunately for posterity, he retrieved it, and now the family have decided to donate it to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. The full story is told in a post on the blog of Canadian writer Ted Barris, author of Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid against Nazi Germany (HarperCollins 2018).

Bernie Wyatt, a cousin of Steve Oancia, presents Oancia’s wartime uniform jacket to Erin Napier of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. Pic: Bernie Wyatt

More information about Oancia on Bernie Wyatt’s blog. Part One. Part Two.

More Canadian Dambusters families meet in Ontario

Left to right: Jim MacLean (MacLean family), Hartley Garshowitz (Garshowitz family), Cathie Somers (Glinz family), Milton Lewis (Garshowitz family), Bernie Wyatt (Oancia family), Marilyn McDowell (McDowell family), Paul Morley (Garbas family). [Pic: Hartley Garshowitz]

More Canadian Dambuster families gathered together in Ontario at the weekend, for a second event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Dams Raid. This took place at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario, which is the home of Canada’s only flying Lancaster aircraft. Six families were represented, including those of Harvey Glinz, Stefan Oancia and Frank Garbas, who weren’t able to get to the gathering two weeks ago in Nanton, Alberta.

The picture above shows the attendees in front of the Lancaster, which is now carrying the code letters AJ-B, the same as that used on the Dams Raid by the crew captained by Flt Lt Bill Astell. This included two men from Hamilton, Ontario – Albert Garshowitz and Frank Garbas.

Dambuster of the Day No. 117: Stefan Oancia

Canadians+GibsonSome of the Canadians decorated for their role in the Dams Raid, filmed with Guy Gibson outside Buckingham Palace on 22 June 1943. Second from left is Ken Brown and fourth from left, just behind Gibson, is Steve Oancia. [Pic: University of South Carolina]

Sgt S Oancia
Bomb aimer

Lancaster serial number: ED918/G

Call sign: AJ-F

Third wave. Second aircraft to attack Sorpe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.

Stefan Oancia was born on 5 March 1923 in Stonehenge, Saskatchewan, Canada, one of the nine children of Demitru and Katie Oancia. The family had emigrated from Romania to Canada to take up grain farming. Stonehenge is a small community in the southern part of the province of Saskatchewan, near the American border and Oancia went to the local Twelve Mile Lake school.

He joined the RCAF in 1941 and qualified as an observer. On arriving in England, he undertook further training and was then posted to an Operational Training Unit, where he teamed up with fellow Canadians Ken Brown and Grant McDonald, and two Englishmen Dudley Heal and Harry Hewstone. They were posted as a crew to Coastal Command for a few weeks to undertake anti-submarine sweeps.

After final training on heavy bombers, Don Buntaine and Basil Feneron joined them, and the crew was posted to 44 Squadron. Just over a month later and after only six operations, they were sent to 617 Squadron. “I do not recall volunteering for this transfer,” he later remarked.

Each bomb aimer on Operation Chastise made their own decision on what aiming device suited them best. Oancia was planning to get the correct dropping point for his mine from a set of chinagraph marks which he had made on his window to align with the towers on the dam. These were made redundant when they received a signal while in flight to proceed to the Sorpe Dam, which they had to attack by flying along its length.

Like Johnny Johnson in AJ-T before him, Oancia had to call a number of dummy runs before Ken Brown hit on the idea of marking the approach to the dam with a line of flares. This succeeded, and at 0314 Oancia dropped the mine in the centre, and it rolled down the dam wall and exploded as planned. After what “seemed ages”, he recorded seeing a large waterspout silhouetted against the moon and falling slowly back into the lake. The crew noticed further crumbling to the surface of the dam wall, but no apparent breach.

For his successful part in the operation, Oancia was awarded the DFM and travelled to London on 22 June to receive it at Buckingham Palace. He continued in Ken Brown’s crew after the raid until it was disbanded in March 1944, and served the rest of the war training other crews. He was commissioned in 1944.

After the war, he returned to Canada and took a degree in civil engineering at the University of Alberta. One of the projects he worked on in later life was, ironically, a large dam in Quebec.

He married Ruth Griffith in 1953, but they had no children. Oancia died on 6 May 1999 in Carleton, Ontario.

Thanks to Marianne Oancia Wyatt and Daniel Wyatt for help with this article.

More about Oancia online:
Two 2014 blog posts by his cousin, Daniel Wyatt. Part One. Part Two.

Survived war. Died 6.5.1999.

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 Stefan Oancia 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.