Willie Tait and his double-navigator Tirpitz crew

Royal_Air_Force_Bomber_Command,_1942-1945._CH17864 960px
L-R: Flg Off Arthur J Ward (wireless operator), Flt Lt Jim Chapman (mid-upper gunner), Flg Off W A (“Danny”) Daniel (bomb aimer), Wrt Off Mike Vaughan (rear gunner), Wg Cdr J B (“Willie”) Tait (pilot), Flt Sgt A E (“Bill”) Gallagher (flight engineer), Flg Off Bruce Bayne (navigator) and Flg Off Harold Ellis (navigator). [Pic: IWM CH17864]

By Charles Foster and Robert Owen

Wg Cdr James Brian Tait, always known by the nickname “Willie”, succeeded Leonard Cheshire as commanding officer of 617 Squadron in July 1944. The squadron was then based at RAF Woodhall Spa. Although he was still only 27, he was one of the most experienced airmen in Bomber Command having commanded two other squadrons and a Conversion Unit and holding three separate decorations – the DSO and Bar and the DFC. (Other awards had already been recommended, a second Bar to the DSO and a Bar to the DFC.)  From the start, Tait led his new squadron from the front, first by marking targets in a Mustang or Mosquito, and then undertaking a further eight operations in his own Lancaster.

In early September Bomber Command’s attention turned again to the German battleship Tirpitz, based in Norway. A force of Lancasters carrying Tallboy bombs was drawn from both 617 and IX Squadrons, to be led by Tait, and using a base in the Soviet Union to refuel. In September and October 1944, Tait led two separate inconclusive attacks on the giant battleship before a third attempt on 12 November, Operation Catechism, was successful. The crews all landed at Lossiemouth, flying home to Woodhall Spa the following day. Some time in the period following, possibly on this day, Tait and the crew who had accompanied him are said to have posed for a picture, along with two more members of his regular crew, who hadn’t been on board for separate reasons. The aircraft is EE146 (KC-D), which Tait had piloted on the operation.

The picture shows, left to right: Flg Off Arthur J Ward (wireless operator), Flt Lt Jim Chapman (mid-upper gunner), Flg Off W A (“Danny”) Daniel (bomb aimer), Wrt Off Mike Vaughan (rear gunner), Wg Cdr J B (“Willie”) Tait (pilot), Flt Sgt A E (“Bill”) Gallagher (flight engineer), Flg Off Bruce Bayne (navigator) and Flg Off Harold Ellis (navigator).

Flg Off Arthur J Ward (160719), the wireless operator in this crew, had a namesake, Flt Sgt Arthur Ward (1578343), also a wireless operator, who flew in John Sanders’s crew (see below).

The picture does, however, throw up some questions. First, there are eight men in the group, whereas the Operations Record Book states that each aircraft carried a crew of just six. EE146 was a Mark III Lancaster built at the Avro plant at Chadderton and delivered to 617 Squadron in the summer of 1943.  Subsequently re-engined as a Mark I for Operation Paravane, its mid-upper turret had been removed to save weight (the different coloured patch can be seen over the code letters KC in the photograph) and so the operation had been undertaken with only one gunner on board. So Jim Chapman is unlikely to have been on the aircraft for the operation. (The word “unlikely” is used because it was not unknown for the spare gunner to fly on some occasions. If he was carried he would spend the flight in the astrodome, as a spotter looking for possible enemy fighters. Although there were long stretches where they would be out of range, they were a real concern on the Tirpitz ops especially on the second and third attacks which were within range of Luftwaffe fighters stationed at Bardufoss in Norway.)

Just why there are two navigators is more difficult to explain. Tait’s regular navigator was Bruce Bayne, but he was signed off as “non-effective” (which usually means sick) on 17 October. So he was replaced with Harold Ellis for both the 29 October and 12 November attacks on the Tirpitz, which turned out to be the only two operations Ellis ever flew with Tait. Bayne had flown as navigator for Tait on the first Tirpitz attack (Operation Paravane) and then with him on two more operations between that and 29 October.

It is possible that Tait, as the squadron CO as well as the captain of the aircraft, invited both Bayne and Chapman to be in the photograph as they were both regular members of his crew. A generous gesture which would be a morale-boost for his team, one might think.

The other picture is also well-known and would seem to have been taken at the same time. It shows pilot Flg Off John Sanders and his crew next to their aircraft ME562 (KC-K), and is captioned as being taken on their return from the 12 November operation.

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Pic: IWM CH17863

It shows, left to right: Flt Sgt Roy Machin (rear gunner), Flt Sgt Arthur Ward (wireless operator), Flt Sgt Tommy Nutley (flight engineer), Flg Off John Sanders (pilot), Flg Off Gordon Allen (bomb aimer) and Plt Off Jim Barron (navigator).

Again, the space on the fuselage for the missing mid-upper turret can be clearly seen. In this photograph no attempt has been made to include the other gunner from the Sanders crew.

Unlike the shot of the Tait crew, five of the six men in this picture are only wearing normal battledress, with Allen also sporting a belt and holster. Barron’s coat covers his uniform, but it is also probably just battledress. There are none of the flying jackets and suits, Mae Wests, flight bags and other paraphernalia which appear as props in the other photograph. The very youthful looking Machin has longer hair than is normally seen in shots from this period and has a cigarette in hand, as do several of the men in the Tait picture. Wartime regulations did ban the smoking of cigarettes in such close proximity to aircraft, but this was frequently flouted.

Both pictures show the different types of flying boot worn by crews. Some appear to be the “evasion” type with the laces in which the leg part could be cut off, to produce a civilian style shoe for evasion. Pilots favoured these as they had to operate foot pedals, as did the other trades who were in a warmer part of the aircraft. Others, often worn by gunners, are of the clumpier suede outer/fleece lined/front zip style, and were considerably warmer.

A final point of interest is that it can be seen how the entire centre perspex panel between the rear guns on EE146 has been removed to provide absolutely clear and direct vision for the gunner wedged into his turret. The potential sub-zero temperatures which the gunner would then experience made the sheepskin lined leather flying jacket an absolute must.


A final note of caution. We believe that this is the first ever article in almost eight decades to attempt to name the individual men who appear in this historic pair of photographs. It is possible that some names are incorrect, in which case further information would be welcomed. Please leave a comment below, or contact us by email.

Thanks to the Bayne family for help.

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


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’.