How the Soviet Union reused a wartime 617 Squadron Lancaster

617 Squadron’s Lancaster ME559 photographed in early 1945 after being repaired and converted for Soviet Air Force use. [Pic: Alternative History.]

Frank Pleszak has uncovered and translated a Russian language article from an Estonian blog which gives more information about the fate of one of the 617 Squadron Lancasters used in the September 1944 attack on the Tirpitz battleship, codenamed Operation Paravane.

At this time, the Tirpitz was moored at a base in Kaafjord in the north of Norway. It was out of range for Lancasters flying from a UK base, so it was decided to use a Soviet airstrip in Yagodnik as a refuelling stop. The initial plan had been to land here after the force had conducted its bombing operation but at the last minute the order was changed so that the attack would be launched from Yagodnik. Two 511 Squadron Liberators, carrying several experienced ground crew, a medical officer and spare parts flew there to await the strike force’s arrival.

Thirty-eight Lancasters set off on the operation – 20 from 617 Squadron and 18 from 9 Squadron. Another Lancaster carried an RAF film unit and two journalists. Despite good weather forecasts, the force encountered thick clouds after entering Finnish airspace and this continued for the remainder of the flight. The conditions made navigation difficult, and forced the pilots to fly at a low altitude. Only 26 of the Lancasters were able to locate Yagodnik and land there; the remainder landed at other airfields or crash landed in open spaces. Amongst those that crash landed was ME559, piloted by Sqn Ldr Drew Wyness. The two photographs below show the damage which it incurred.

Two pictures of ME559 after it crash landed in Russia. [Top: IWM MH30798. Bottom: Alternative History.] 

After two days, enough of the force had been repaired and on 15 September the Tirpitz was attacked with a mixture of Tallboy bombs and ‘Johnny Walker’ mines. A large explosion was observed but it seemed as though the ship was still afloat. No Lancasters were lost over the target and they all returned to Yagodnik. They flew back to their UK bases over the next few days, although Plt Off Levy and his crew crashed in Norway en route, and all on board were killed.

Of the Lancasters left behind, two of the least damaged were delivered to Kegostrov, where the repaired in the workshops of the Air Force of the Belomorsky Flotilla, under the leadership of the chief engineer Kiryanov.

All weapons were removed and the rear turret was sewn up with duralumin sheets. The damaged nose was changed: the bomb aimer’s blister and front turret were replaced with a single Perspex construction. According to the Russian language blog: “The colour remained the same, English (brown-green top and black bottom), only the identification marks were painted over with our green paint (which differed in tone) and red stars in a black border were applied on top. Both aircraft were redone the same way.”

ME559 was given the number 01 and went to the 16th Transport Detachment (TRAO), where it operated from the end of January 1945. The commander of the aircraft was V. Evdokimov and the navigator V. Andreev. The 16th TRAO was the successor to the 2nd air group, I.T. Mazuruk, formed at the beginning of the war from polar pilots. Although this was described as a transport unit, it was used not so much for transporting people and goods, but for escorting convoys, ice reconnaissance, and on patrols. The only known photograph of Lancaster 01 (ME559) is shown at the top of this article and this illustration recreates its colour scheme:

Pic: Alternative History

The Russian/Estonian blog tells us what is known about the aircraft’s final days: “In August 1945, this machine was sent to the Pacific Ocean, but in Krasnoyarsk it got stuck due to lack of fuel. While waiting for gas, the war with Japan ended. In the summer of 1946 this “Lancaster” was transferred to Riga, to the aviation technical school, as a visual aid. Its further fate is unknown.”

[Thanks to Frank Pleszak for this story.]

Channel 4: Mission to confuse

Tirpitz_(AWM_SUK14095)

Channel 4 programming bods have come up with what sounds a very confusing documentary, The Dambusters Great Escape –Secret History, to be aired tonight at 8pm UK time.
Can’t imagine what the thinking is behind this, because the subject is about the operation which finally sank the German battleship the Tirpitz, in November 1943 1944, which had nothing to do with the Great Escape. On this raid, the Dambusters, in the shape of 617 Squadron, were accompanied by another Lancaster squadron, 9 Squadron, also armed with Tallboy bombs.
However, the programme is presented by the completely sane Patrick Bishop, the distinguished author of Bomber Boys and other great books, so we can only hope that the bonkers title won’t reflect what should be a lucid presentation of interesting content.

The wrong Dambusters

Patrick Bishop is a great author, and his books Bomber Boys and Fighter Boys are invaluable sources of reference for anyone wanting to find out more about life in the wartime RAF. But someone has taken their eyes off the ball in creating the artwork for the jacket of his latest work, Target Tirpitz.

In the breathless prose loved by publishers’ blurb writers (confession: my first ever job!) HarperCollins tell us:

The Tirpitz, Hitler’s greatest weapon, was reputed to be unsinkable and the battleship inflamed an Allied obsession: to destroy her at any cost.
More than thirty daring operations were launched against the 52,000 ton monster. Royal Navy midget submarines carried out an attack of extraordinary skill and courage against her when she lay deep in a Norwegian fjord in an operation that won VCs for two participants.
No permanent damage was done and the Fleet Air Arm was forced to launch full scale attacks through the summer of 1944 to try and finish her off. But still the Tirpitz remained a significant threat to Allied operations.
It was not until November 1944 that a brilliant operation by RAF Lancaster Bombers, under the command of one of Britain’s greatest but least-known war heroes finally killed off Hitler’s last battleship.

The writer is referring to the raid carried out by 617 and 9 Squadrons, who dropped Barnes Wallis-designed Tallboy bombs which blew the final massive holes in the Tirpitz’s hull. The 617 Squadron contingent was under the command of Group Capt Willie Tait, and a picture of him and a crew which was not his own, taken after the raid, appears in a recent Sunday Telegraph review. However, these are not the five airmen who appear on the cover. Instead, the designer has chosen to use figures from one of the most famous pictures of the war, the photograph taken of Guy Gibson and his crew as they set off on the Dams Raid, 18 months before the Tirpitz was sunk.

(Imperial War Museum, CH18005)

From the left, the figures are Richard Trevor-Roper (rear gunner), John Pulford (flight engineer), George Deering (front gunner), ‘Spam’ Spafford (bomb aimer) and Bob Hutchison (wireless operator). Guy Gibson, on the ladder, and ‘Terry’ Taerum, the navigator, have been cropped out of Harper Collins colour-tinted version.

All five men were of course Dambusters, so they fall into the category mentioned in the book’s subtitle, ‘X-craft, agents and Dambusters’. But it’s a disservice to the real men who were on the raid, and a bit of an insult to the five portrayed on the cover, who couldn’t have been there for one simple reason – they were all dead.

UPDATE: Alex Bateman has kindly pointed out another bit of artistic licence on this cover. The Lancaster shown in the background is in fact Guy Gibson’s usual aircraft from 106 Squadron, known colloquially as ‘Admiral Prune’.