Dambuster of the Day No. 99: Warner Ottley

Grantham Ottley lores

Pic: Lincolnshire Library Services

Plt Off W Ottley DFC

Lancaster serial number: ED910/G

Call sign: AJ-C

Third wave. Crashed on outward flight.

Warner Ottley was born in Battersea, London on 4 March 1922, the oldest of the three sons of Warner Herbert Taylor Ottley and his wife Hilda, née Edwards. Although given his father’s first name, he was always known by the nickname of Bill. His father was a civil servant, working in the War Office, and had been awarded the French Legion d’honneur for his work with that country during the First World War.

Ottley was educated at Hurstpierpoint College, and was still at school when the war broke out. He joined the RAF in 1941, and was selected for pilot training. He went to Canada for training, qualified as a pilot in August 1941 and returned to the UK three months later.

After further training he was sent to his first operational squadron, 50 Squadron, in June 1942, but then immediately reposted to 83 Squadron, then based at Scampton. Between 29 July and 6 August 1942 he flew on four ‘second dickey’ operations with Flt Sgt L.T. Jackson as pilot.

Ottley was then transferred to 207 Squadron and flew on several more operations before being transferred to the squadron’s conversion flight. There he was teamed up with the bulk of the men who would make up his Dams Raid crew: Ronald Marsden, flight engineer; Thomas Johnston, bomb aimer; Jack Guterman, wireless operator; Fred Tees, air gunner; and Jack Barrett, navigator. The crew transferred back to the main squadron and undertook their first operation together on a ‘gardening’ trip to Biarritz on 23 November 1942.

Ottley made close friendships with most of his crew, particularly Guterman and Barrett, with whom he shared an interest in music and art. Guterman provides a vivid description of his skipper in a letter written in late 1942:

I now occupy the bed next to Ottley (the fellow in between left today and we are glad as he was deadly dull) so now I am entertained all night by his long and endless store of anecdotes (some of which are remarkably funny but could hardly be accepted with any degree of morality in the drawing room) so it is impossible to relapse into status melancholis.
I have just read the former paragraph out to Ottley himself whose sole remark was ‘Oh Christ’ – but he’s really quite respectable. We were listening to the news just now and his remark on an announcement concerning the calling up of women (of a certain age) was: ‘Oh Yes! My mother gets great sport out of this calling up business. It’s the only way of finding out her best friends real ages: “You know Bill, Mrs X once told me she was 35 but she registered today so she must really be 41!”’ That’s the sort of thing I have to put up with.

Jack Guterman, letter to Babs Guterman, dated “Friday”, probably October 1942, courtesy Guterman family

Ottley went on to fly on twenty further operations with this crew between December 1942 and April 1943, although there were the occasional minor changes in personnel. Guterman reached the end of his tour on 8 March 1943 and so the last three operations for the crew each had a different person as wireless operator. The crew’s final operation in 207 Squadron was on 4 April 1943, with a trip to bomb Kiel.

Ottley and his crew were then transferred to 617 Squadron, one of the last crews to arrive. Ottley had been commissioned and then recommended for a DFC by this point, although the decoration wouldn’t be confirmed until after the Dams Raid and was backdated to 16 May 1943.

The Ottley crew undertook their first training flight in the new squadron on 8 April 1943. About five weeks later, they were designated to be the first crew in Operation Chastise’s Wave Three, the mobile reserve. Their duty was to be in the air over Germany after the earlier two waves had done their work, and then be diverted by 5 Group headquarters to attack whatever target it deemed necessary.

Ottley led off the wave, and AJ-C was airborne at 0009 on Monday 17 May. It crossed the Dutch coast at about 0130 and proceeded on the same route taken earlier by the First Wave towards Ahlen. At 0231, Group sent the code word “Gilbert” to AJ-C, and the signal was acknowledged. This meant proceed to the Lister Dam. A minute later a change of plan occurred, and the code word “Dinghy” was sent, instructing AJ-C: “Eder destroyed, attack Sorpe”.

The second signal was not acknowledged, indicating that AJ-C had met its fate at about 0231. Ken Brown, flying AJ-F a few minutes behind, reported seeing him hit the ground at 0235. He recalled later: “Ottley, on my right, was hit and pulled up, his tanks exploded then his bomb – the whole valley was lit up in a bright orange.” Bill Townsend and Lance Howard in AJ-O also saw AJ-C’s final demise.

Sitting in AJ-C’s rear turret, Fred Tees later recalled the sequence of events:
… Tees heard the wireless operator say over the intercom “Möhne gone,” and almost immediately Ottley began “We go to…,” when “a hell of a commotion” occurred to interrupt him. The aircraft was suddenly bathed in searchlight and a tremendous barrage of flak struck it, mainky from the port side. … Distinctly he heard Ottley say, “I’m sorry boys we’ve had it,” and thereafter Tees’ memory of events became blank.
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, p.189

AJ-C hit the ground at Heessen, five miles north-east of Hamm, which suggests that it was probably hit by flak west of Hamm itself. Tees’ turret was blown clear of the rest of the aircraft and he regained consciousness on the ground, very badly burnt, and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner.

Bill Ottley and the rest of the crew died instantly. They were originally buried in by the Germans in Hamm, but were reinterred after the war in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.

As further proof of Ottley’s interest in arts and culture, in March 1945 the Hurst Johnian school magazine reported that his record collection had been donated to the school’s Gramophone Society. Bill’s father, Warner Ottley, worked in the War Office throughout the Second World War, and received the award of a CB in the New Year’s Honours List in 1945. He died in 1980.

Thanks to Alan Wells and the Guterman family for help with this article.

More about Ottley online:
Entry at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Details of Warner H T Ottley’s awards

KIA 17.05.43

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 Warner Ottley 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.

Take the weight off your feet

Bench all three

If you fancy a walk along part of the Oyster Bay Trail, on the North Kent coast, why not relax for a moment or too on the new portrait bench just outside Reculver? It’s the brainchild of Canterbury City Council, who allowed the public to choose the three images who would represent the area’s culture and history. The winners were (from left to right) a woman in Roman dress, an oyster fisherman, and Dambuster pilot Warner (“Bill”) Ottley, who flew AJ-C on the Dams Raid and was shot down near Hamm. Bill Ottley’s family lived in Herne Bay, which is the local connection to the portrait bench. Although he was only 20, he had already completed a tour of operations in 207 Squadron, and been recommended for a DFC.
The picture of Ottley on which this bench portrait is based was supplied to the council by Alex Bateman, long time friend of this blog.
If you are quick, you can enter a draw to win £250 simply by taking a photo of someone on the bench and sending it to Canterbury City Council. Closing date 31 March!