A giant leap for a Dambuster grandson

Here’s a question for your next pub quiz: What is the link between that excellent film Billy Elliott (shown again on BBC TV last night) and the Dams Raid? The clue is in the picture above.

It shows a screenshot from the very end of the film, as the now-adult Billy makes a dramatic entrance in a performance of Swan Lake in London. The dancer who played the adult Billy in this scene is Adam Cooper, who had played the role of the lead Swan in the acclaimed Matthew Bourne production of Tchaikovsky’s famous work.

The connection with the Dams Raid is that Adam Cooper is the grandson of Flg Off Sydney Hobday DFC, the navigator in Les Knight’s aircraft AJ-N on Operation Chastise. A few months later, Hobday evaded capture and got back to England after baling out of another Lancaster on 617 Squadron’s ill-fated attack on the Dortmund Ems canal. You can read more about him in his Dambuster of the Day profile here.

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Dambuster of the Day No. 59: Sydney Hobday

IWM HU91948

A group of tired looking 617 Squadron officers and pilots gather outside their mess for an official photograph, the morning after the Dams Raid. Most had been drinking for a number of hours by this stage. Sydney Hobday is in the back row, fifth from the right hand side. Edward Johnson is also in the back row, third from the right, and Les Knight is in the front row, second from the right. [pic: IWM HU91948]

Flg Off H S Hobday
Navigator

Lancaster serial number: ED912/G

Call sign: AJ-N

First wave. Third aircraft to attack Eder Dam. Mine dropped accurately causing final breach.

Harold Sydney Hobday (known as Sydney by his family and friends) was born in Croydon, Surrey, on 28 January 1912, the younger of the two sons of Howard and Alice Hobday. After leaving school, he worked in the aviation department of Lloyd’s, the insurance business. After joining the RAF in 1940, he underwent part of his training in South Africa before qualifying as a navigator in early 1942, and then being commissioned. In the summer of 1942, he crewed up during training with Les Knight and the others who would form his Dams Raid crew and they joined 50 Squadron in September 1942.

Although some eight years older than his young Australian skipper (still then a sergeant pilot) they obviously bonded well and flew on some twenty-five operations together up until March 1943, when the whole crew volunteered to be transferred to the new squadron at Scampton for the secret mission.

One of the reasons the crew worked so well together may actually have been its disparate nature. There were the two slightly older Englishmen, Hobday and bomb aimer Edward Johnson, both married men. The flight engineer Ray Grayston was also English but Bob Kellow, the wireless operator, was Australian and both the gunners, Fred Sutherland and Harry O’Brien were Canadians. All of them shared the highest regard for their young Melbourne-born pilot.

On their return to Scampton after breaching the Eder Dam, Hobday took part in the celebrations with a fair degree of gusto. He was in the group photographed outside the Officers’ Mess around breakfast time on the morning after the raid, but fell asleep sometime later and regained consciousness at 1300, slumped in an armchair. Knight, Hobday and Johnson were all decorated for their role in the Dams Raid, Knight getting the DSO and Johnson and Hobday the DFC, and were photographed together outside Buckingham Palace on the day of the investiture.

On the night of 16 September 1943, when Knight ordered the crew to bale out after the aircraft was badly damaged approaching the Dortmund Ems canal, Hobday managed to evade capture. Within a few hours he had made contact with Dutch resistance supporters. He was taken to a woodland shack near Baarn and reunited with his colleague, Fred Sutherland. The pair were then fed into the escape network, and smuggled the whole way through France to the Pyrenees, then onward through Spain to Gibraltar, and then returned to the UK. As he had evaded capture, he was not allowed to fly again over enemy territory and so he spent the rest of the war in training roles.

When he was finally demobilised, Hobday returned to Lloyd’s and eventually became head of the aviation department. He married Ethel Simpson in 1938, and after the war they had four children. The Hobdays were a musical family and his grandson is the well-known dancer and choreographer Adam Cooper.

Sydney Hobday died in Hindolveston, Norfolk, on 24 February 2000.

Survived war.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
John Sweetman, David Coward and Gary Johnstone, The Dambusters, Time Warner 2003

Further information about Sydney Hobday 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.