The first and the last

Len Sumpter, Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson, photographed together in July 1943 as part of the group picture of 617 Squadron aircrew. [Artwork © Dambusters Blog, from image courtesy of Sutherland family.]

We have just passed the 77th anniversary of the day on which nineteen Lancasters of RAF 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack the dams in the Ruhr and Eder valleys. Of the 133 aircrew who participated in what would come to be called the Dams Raid, just 80 survived. Thirty-two more died before the end of the war, leaving 48 men. Official records show that only two men flew on both the first and last operations mounted by 617 Squadron: the Dams Raid on 16 May 1943 and an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair at Berchtesgarten on 25 April 1945. These were Leonard Sumpter and Raymond Wilkinson. However, I believe that a third Dams Raid participant, Douglas Webb, also flew on the final raid even though he did not record it in his logbook. The full story is set out below.

Len Sumpter flew on the Dams Raid as the bomb aimer in David Shannon’s AJ-L. They dropped their Upkeep mine at the Eder Dam, resulting in some superficial damage to the wall. Shortly afterwards, the dam was finally breached by Les Knight and his crew in AJ-N. Later in the war, Sumpter switched to flying as Shannon’s observer in Mosquitoes before joining Ian Marshall’s Lancaster crew.

Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson took part in the Dams Raid as respectively the front and rear gunners in AJ-O, skippered by Bill Townsend. This crew was part of the mobile reserve and attacked the Ennepe Dam, but it failed to breach. Shortly after the Dams Raid the Townsend crew broke up as most of them had completed a tour. Webb and Wilkinson went together to a training unit as instructors, but by the end of 1944, they were both back in 617 Squadron, on their second tour. Wilkinson flew on the final Tirpitz attack on 12 November, in Arthur Kell’s crew. By the following spring, they were both regulars in Ian Marshall’s crew.

At this stage in the war, 617 Squadron was carrying out precision raids with 22,000lb Grand Slam and 12,000lb Tallboy bombs. The squadron had been supplied with 21 Lancasters, known as B.I Special models, which had been built specially for dropping these monster bombs. To reduce weight and because there was a reduced danger of German fighter attack, the mid-upper turret had been removed and the gunner who occupied this space and the wireless operator were not carried. Official records, such as the Operations Records Book, usually show blanks in these two positions, as can be seen in the entry below for the Marshall crew on 25 April 1945, who were flying in PD134.

The crew is shown here as Ian Marshall (pilot), Frank Cholerton (flight engineer), Kenneth Newby, (navigator), Len Sumpter (bomb aimer) and Ray Wilkinson (rear gunner).

The presence of both Sumpter and Wilkinson is confirmed by their logbooks, shown below:

Pic: Sumpter family

Pic: War & Son

However, the official listing may not be entirely correct. There may have been an extra passenger on board – something that is hinted at in a fascinating photograph contained in Len Sumpter’s family archive. According to Sumpter, this was taken just before take off:


Pic: Sumpter family

On the reverse, in Sumpter’s writing, the five aircrew are identified as (L-R) Flt Lt L Sumpter, Flg Off K Newby, Flt Lt I Marshall, Flg Off D Webb and Sgt K Tollerton. The caption seems to have been written some time after the war, which may be why he recorded the type of bomb incorrectly: PD134 was carrying a Tallboy rather than a Grand Slam bomb. There are also discrepancies in the names he recorded. He says that the man on the far right is Sgt K Tollerton. It’s possible that he wrote this a number of years later, thinking of Frank Cholerton. However the man bears a strong resemblance to Ray Wilkinson, who we know was on the raid. Update September 2020: Man on far right is not Ray Wilkinson, according to his granddaughter. See comment below.

Sumpter has also identified the fourth man from the left as Doug Webb. It certainly looks like him but, as we have seen, he is not listed in the ORB entry. Nor did Webb record the flight in his own logbook, as can be seen below. So if Webb was on this operation, he was there unofficially!

Pic: Yak El Droubie

It is known that at this stage of the war, the Lancaster B.I Specials sometimes carried an extra man, perhaps as an extra spotter for enemy aircraft. So this might explain Webb’s presence – or maybe he just wanted to get the chance to be there when the force attacked Hitler’s ‘bunker’, which it was rumoured would be the place where the Führer might make a last stand.

Wilkinson and Webb did not know, of course, that this would be the squadron’s last Second World War operation, but the pair had been friends since their days together in 49 Squadron. Here they are, photographed together outside Buckingham Palace on the day the Dams Raid crews received their decorations:

Left to right: Ray Wilkinson, Doug Webb, Charles Franklin, Bill Townsend, Jack Grain [not on Dams Raid], Lance Howard. [Pic: Yak El Droubie.]

Further enquiries are being made to confirm the identities of the men in Sumpter’s photograph, and this article will be updated when this information is received.

[My 2018 book, The Complete Dambusters, will be updated with this information in the next edition. Further information about the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in the book, published by History Press.]

Johnny Johnson remembering old comrade Les Knight

Johnny Johnson’s tribute to fellow Dambuster Les Knight. [Pic: Melvin Chambers]

Guest post by Melvin Chambers

On Monday 4 May, the Dutch Remembrance Day, the last surviving Dambuster Johnny Johnson sent an RAF-themed Roundel wreath to the Netherlands to be placed on fellow Dambuster Les Knight’s grave in the village of Den Ham.

Johnny sent the wreath as honorary president of a veteran’s self-help group called Group 617, a self-help group in the UK. Set up and run by military veterans, its chairman Russ Taff Kitely said Johnny cares deeply about the comrades he lost during the war. He also cares deeply about today’s veterans who suffer traumas. The group currently helps more than 60 veterans in need.

As sunset approached four vintage aircraft from the Egmond Vintage Wings group (based at Hoogeveen Airport) paid a personal tribute to Les Knight with a fly-past and Missing Man tribute. The formation flew above Den Ham where Knight sacrificed his life to save the village from disaster and to save his crew, who all survived the war.

Lead pilot Tom Wilps said : “It was too good an opportunity not to bring out this personal tribute from us pilots to an extraordinary pilot. We know of Les Knight’s great sacrifice and took into account the position of his monument in our flight plan to honour him.”

The sky was absolutely clear and the four aircraft performed their tribute as villagers came out of their homes and watched in surprise.

Johnny Johnson’s handwritten inscription reads: “Sincere thanks for your contribution to 617 Squadron and particularly your care for your crew. ‘The Lucky One.’ Johnny Johnson MBE DFM”

The wreath being laid by Les Knight Charity committee member Hans Dekker on behalf of Johnny Johnson. [Pic: Melvin Chambers]

At the going down of the sun… four vintage warbirds make a personal fly-past salute to Les Knight [Pic: Egmond Vintage Wings]

Nine things you may not know about the Dams Raid

The only photograph taken of a Lancaster in the air on the day of the Dams Raid. [IWM CH18006]

Tomorrow, Saturday 16 May, will be the 77th anniversary of the day in 1943 when nineteen Lancasters of RAF 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack the dams in the Ruhr and Eder valleys. Of the 133 aircrew who participated in what would come to be called the Dams Raid, just 80 survived. Thirty-two more died before the end of the war, leaving 48 men.

Here are nine things that you may not know about the men who took part.

1. Neither of the flight commanders (Melvin ‘Dinghy’ Young and Henry Maudslay) had met Guy Gibson before 617 Squadron was formed. Both were shot down on their return flights.

2. Of the 19 flight engineers who flew on the raid, four were Scottish.

3. Five of the six men who made up Guy Gibson’s Dams Raid crew flew on just one operation with him in their whole careers. These were John Pulford, Harlo Taerum, Fred Spafford, George Deering and Richard Trevor-Roper.

4. Ray Wilkinson, rear gunner in Bill Townsend’s crew, was the only man to take part in both the Dams Raid and the final successful attack on the Tirpitz on 12 November 1944.

5. The front gunner in David Shannon’s crew, Brian Jagger, was the son of the portrait painter David Jagger and the nephew of the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger, designer of the Royal Artillery war memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London. A David Jagger self-portrait was recently sold for £221,000 at auction.

6. Four men who flew on the raid had pregnant wives waiting at home. Two were killed (Lewis Burpee and Charles Brennan). The two others, David Maltby and Richard Trevor-Roper would both die soon after their own sons were born (Maltby on 15 September 1943, Trevor-Roper on 31 March 1944).

7. Two members of the crew of Lancaster AJ-P were knighted later on in their lives: pilot Mick Martin and navigator Jack Leggo.

8. The pilot of AJ-C, Warner ‘Bill’ Ottley, and his wireless operator Jack Guterman were good friends from their time in 207 Squadron and both had extensive classical music record collections which they played in the room they shared. Both died when AJ-C was shot down, and Ottley’s record collection was donated to his school, Hurstpierpoint College.

9. Canadians Albert Garshowitz and Frank Garbas grew up in the same town of Hamilton, Ontario, and had played schoolboy rugby in the same league. They met by chance again in the UK while training and joined the same crew. They both died when AJ-B, piloted by Bill Astell, crashed into a pylon near Marbeck in Germany. [There is a theory that the game they played together was Canadian or American football, but both men put down ‘rugby’ as a sporting interest on their RCAF application forms.]

Further information about all the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

AJ-K memorial ceremony postponed

The grave of Flt Sgt James McDowell in Harlingen Cemetery in the Netherlands. His was the only body recovered after AJ-K was shot down on the Dams Raid, and the memorial to the whole crew will be placed near his grave. [Pic: 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation]

News from Jan van Dalen in the Netherlands:
“Due to the current situation, we have made the difficult decision to postpone the unveiling of the memorial plaque to the crew of Avro Lancaster AJ-K, on June 23 in Harlingen. For some time organisational and practical preparations have been unable to take place in a responsible manner within the measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and it is unclear how long this situation will last.

However, we have been able to finance the stone from the donations received, which has now been delivered to the stonemason and is ready for further finishing. The order and delivery of the bronze plaque is still uncertain due to the measures.

As soon as we have news about a new date, we will let you know as soon as possible.”

This is not a surprising development, and has obviously been taken in the best interests of everyone involved. Someday, as in the words used by a recent notable broadcaster, “we will meet again”, and we will all be able to commemorate the lives of the seven brave men who lost their lives late in the evening of 16 May 1943.

As Jan said above, enough funds have now been raised to order the stone block for the memorial. However, further money is needed to pay for a bronze plaque and other material, so if you would like to contribute please go to the 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation GoFundMe page.

Flg Off Kenneth Sumner

Pic: Shepherd family/Newcastle Chronicle

Flg Off Kenneth Law Sumner DFM died in Newcastle on Tyne on 2 April of complications arising from COVID-19. He had already distinguished himself with a first tour of operations as a bomb aimer in 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, starting in June 1943, before joining 617 Squadron in December 1944. His first tour included seven trips to Berlin. While still a Flight Sergeant, he received an immediate DFM for his actions on one particular operation in April 1944, an attack on Schweinfurt, in a crew piloted by the New Zealander Plt Off Owen Taylor. His commanding officer recommended him for an award, writing:

Flight Sergeant Sumner is employed as an Air Bomber with this squadron since June 1943. During this time he has taken part in 26 operational sorties against many heavily defended enemy targets including Berlin (7), Frankfurt (2) and Nuremburg (2). On 26th/27th April 1944, he was bomb aimer in a Lancaster aircraft detailed to attack Schweinfurt. When about 250 miles from the target, in the vicinity of Strasbourg, the aircraft was hit by flak. This caused considerable damage to the aircraft including several hits on bomb bay and Bomb Aimer’s compartment. Flight Sergeant Sumner informed his captain that he had been hit but stated that it was not serious and insisted on carrying on with his duties. He continued dropping Window until the target area was reached and then successfully directed his pilot over the target on a good bombing run. Then when the target was in his sights, he dropped his load and operated the camera in spite of damage to the bomb release wiring and the fact that the bombing release itself was shot away. On the return journey he remained at his post dropping Window and assisted his pilot and navigator with pin-points and it was not until the aircraft had crossed the enemy coast that he would allow his injuries to be dressed. Afterwards, he returned to his compartment and carried on for the remainder of the trip. On landing, it was found that he was wounded in the hand and arm including one finger broken and it was necessary to remove him immediately to hospital where he is now under treatment. His conduct in the incident described above came as no surprise to his crew and squadron colleagues to whom his devotion to duty, efficiency and high personal courage have invariably been an inspiration. I strongly recommend Flight Sergeant Sumner for an immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Medal.

Sumner was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1923 but his family returned to the UK while he was still a young boy. He went to Durham School and then joined the RAF in 1941. After completing a first tour, he returned to operational duties as a bomb aimer, joining 617 Squadron in December 1944. He flew on six further trips, in the crews of Flt Lt Ian Marshall and Sqn Ldr John Brookes DFC, before the war came to a close in May 1945. His last sortie was also the squadron’s final action of the war, a daylight attack on the SS barracks at Hitler’s Eagles Nest retreat in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria. John Brookes led this operation, so Sumner was flying in the lead aircraft, Lancaster PD131. In the event, they were unable to identify the aiming point in time so didn’t drop their Tallboy bomb.

Following his demobilisation, Sumner married Phyllis (“Rennie”) Reynolds, who died in 2015. They lived first in North Yorkshire, farming with Sumner’s parents, before moving to Gosforth on Tyneside in the 1950s. Later, Sumner set up a successful coach business. He was a big supporter of local sports teams, particularly Newcastle United FC, and his daughter Lorelle went on to marry its sometime owner, the controversial Freddy Shepherd.

Ken Sumner kept very active in his later life. According to the Newcastle Chronicle, he regularly competed in the Great North Run, and walked along the Great Wall of China aged 80.

London Gazette entry with Ken Sumner’s DFM citation

Original Shannon and Burpee negatives found in Times archive

Pic: William Field/Kemsley Newspapers/Times Newspapers

Back in January, Malcolm Peel kindly sent me a link to an interesting article in The Times which for a while was not behind a paywall. Sadly, it has now been removed from free-to-view, but if you have a subscription then you will still be able to see it.

The writer, Mark Barnes, has unearthed four original glass negatives and several prints in Times Newspapers photographic archives. These were some of a set of images taken by the photographer William “Billy” Field of several 106 Squadron crews on their return from a raid on Berlin. This was the operation in which Richard Dimbleby of the BBC flew in the squadron commanding officer Guy Gibson’s aircraft. They took off in the late afternoon of Saturday 16 January 1943, returning in the small hours of the Sunday. Some of the airmen are not wearing their flying gear in the photographs and it is daylight, which suggests that the shots were taken later the same day

I have written about these images before, because they appeared in the Daily Express on Tuesday 19 January 1943. However, it would seem that photographer Billy Field must have been actually working for the Sunday Times, as the glass negatives are marked as belonging to “Kemsley Newspapers”, the names of the wartime owners of this newspaper. Quite why the pictures appeared first in another newspaper remains a mystery. Indeed, Barnes doesn’t say whether they ever appeared in the Sunday Times.

According to Barnes, three of the negatives are in good or reasonable condition but the fourth, of Shannon and his crew and shown at the top of this article, was badly damaged. Barnes has digitally repaired the image.

In his article, Barnes correctly identifies the first five correctly: (L-R) Sgt Wallace Herbert (bomb aimer), Sgt Cyril “Joe” Chamberlain (flight engineer), Sgt Arnold Pemberton (wireless operator), Flg Off David Shannon (pilot) and Flg Off Douglas McCulloch (mid-upper gunner). However it is now believed that the sixth man is Sgt John William Donald (“Don”) Robin DFM RAAF, the rear gunner in “Jock” Cassels’ crew, and that the seventh man is Flg Off Frank (not Dave) Whalley, the navigator.

Here is the restored photograph of Lewis Burpee and his crew:

Pic: William Field/Kemsley Newspapers/Times Newspapers

Barnes correctly identifies these men who are (L-R): Sgt Gordon Brady (rear gunner), Sgt William (“Ginger”) Long (mid-upper gunner), Sgt Guy (“Johnny”) Pegler (flight engineer), Flt Sgt Lewis Burpee (pilot), Flt Sgt Edward Leavesley (wireless operator), and Sgt George Goodings (bomb aimer). Leavesley and Goodings both left the Burpee crew before it moved to 617 Squadron. This crew have simulated the “just finished an operation” look by wearing their flying boots and carrying various bits of kit. However, they aren’t in either the flying jackets or one piece suits in which they would probably have been dressed for a high level attack on Berlin on a cold January night.

Although the images have been seen before, I don’t believe that both the name of the photographer and the fact that the negatives still exist are well known, so we have Mark Barnes and his colleagues to thank for another small contribution to Dams Raid history.

Thanks to Malcolm Peel

Flg Off Basil Fish

Flt Sgt Basil Fish (top left) was the navigator in the crew of Arthur Joplin.
Back row (L-R): Fish, Flt Sgt Loftus Hebbard (bomb aimer), Sgt Frank Tilley (flight engineer), Flg Off Bob Yates (mid-upper gunner). Front row (L-R): Sgt Gordon Cooke (wireless operator), Flg Off Arthur Joplin (pilot), Sgt Norman Lambell (rear gunner). On 21 December 1944, the night the crew crashed after a raid on Politz, Hebbard and Lambell were replaced by Flt Lt Arthur Walker and Flt Sgt Jim Thompson. [Pic: 617 Squadron Association.]

I’m sorry to have to report the death on 26 February 2020 of Flg Off Basil Fish, one of the few remaining wartime members of 617 Squadron.

Charles Basil Renshaw Fish was born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1922. He went to Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn and then on to Manchester University to study engineering. He joined the university air squadron in 1941 and then decided to put his studies on hold for the war and volunteered for the RAF. He undertook part of his training in South Africa and qualified as a navigator in 1943. He then crewed up with a young pilot from New Zealand called Arthur Joplin.

The crew were trained first on the Short Stirling heavy bomber, but then moved across to the more versatile Lancaster. They were then astonished to find that their first operational posting was to 617 Squadron, based at Woodhall Spa. This was a special duties squadron and normally only took on experienced crews who had already survived a tour of 30 operations. However, as an experiment, some new crews who had demonstrated above average ability were posted directly to the Squadron.

They arrived on the Squadron in mid-August 1944, at first feeling rather overwhelmed. Their concern was unfounded since they were soon absorbed into the routine of extensive practice and training in order to achieve the precision for which the Squadron was renowned. It was a steep learning curve, but they found support and encouragement. The crew’s first operation came on 27 August 1944, no easy “milk run” but a daylight attack against shipping in the heavily defended port at Brest.

Two more operations followed and then on 29 October the crew found itself on an operation to attack the Tirpitz, flying from Lossiemouth in Scotland. Although the battleship was damaged, it seemed from photo reconnaissance to be still afloat, and so a second operation was launched a fortnight later. On this occasion, Joplin’s crew dropped their own bomb into the smoke and observed one direct hit and two near misses. The Tirpitz was seen to capsize later, before the force left the area.

Several more operations followed and then on 21 December 1944, the squadron mounted an attack on an oil refinery at Politz, near Stettin (Szczecin) in Poland. The outward flight was uneventful and the crew reached the designated area, but found that the target marking appeared haphazard. After releasing their Tallboy they headed for home, setting course for their designated diversionary base in Scotland, which would have not only the advantage of clear weather, but would also shorten the length of the flight. However, they were then ordered to return to Lincolnshire. As they crossed the coast it became apparent that Lincolnshire was still shrouded in fog and a further instruction was received for all aircraft to land at the first available airfield.

It seemed that Joplin, Fish and their colleagues were in luck, for very soon they saw a glow through the murk which was identified as Ludford Magna airfield. This was one of a small number of airfields equipped with FIDO – burning petrol to disperse fog on the runway approach to enable aircraft to land in such conditions. Joplin homed in on the glow and circled, calling up and asking permission to land. There was no reply. The crew were now in a perilous position as they were running out of fuel.

They needed to land as soon as possible and were also aware of the rising ground beneath. A few minutes later, the port wing brushed a hillside and they crashed. Joplin was trapped in his seat while Frank Tilley, the flight engineer, had broken a leg but managed to drag himself to safety.

Fish had been knocked unconscious but coming round he managed to rescue Joplin, who had broken both legs. The rear gunner, Jim Thompson, had survived but had fractured his spine and the wireless operator, Gordon Cooke, had a fractured skull. The other two – mid-upper gunner Bob Yates and bomb aimer Arthur Walker – were both dead.

Realising that he was the least injured and the only one of five survivors with any degree of mobility Fish set off across the fields in search of assistance, having briefed Tilley to listen out for a series of whistle blasts that would signal his return. It took nearly three hours for him to locate help and bring it to the crash site, but luckily the four others were able to recover.

Fish recovered well enough from his own injuries to be back flying by February 1945. Altogether he had flown on 24 operations by the end of the war, and had been commissioned. In early 1946 he applied for early release in order to complete his degree, and went back to Manchester University. He qualified as an engineer in 1947, and worked in industry until his retirement.

For many years, Basil Fish was an active member of the 617 Squadron Association but recently he had been living in a care home near Harrogate. In 2018, to mark the 74th anniversary of the sinking of the Tirpitz, members of the current 617 Squadron presented him with a commemorative photograph of their current aircraft.

The funeral will take place at 1340 on Monday 16 March at Harrogate Crematorium, Wetherby Road Harrogate HG3 1DE

[Thanks to Dr Robert Owen.]

Mystery tankard with 617 Squadron crest

Kevin Watts has sent me pictures of a interesting beer tankard which he has recently acquired. One one side is a large 617 Squadron crest, on the other the words:

I’m not an expert on engraving, but the crest in particular looks to have been done with some skill, using only a simple nail punch and hammer. Kevin has been told that it came from the Blue Bell pub in Tattershall Thorpe at the time it was refurbished in the 1950s, when the many signatures left on the ceiling by wartime aircrew were painted over.

There were only two Kens/Kenneths on the Dams Raid. One of these, Ken Earnshaw, was killed so it can’t be his. It’s possible that someone made it up for the other, Ken Brown, or it could have been done for someone who served in the squadron’s ground crew.

Any further information would be welcome, so if you have any, please add it in the comments box below.

AJ-K crew to get new Dutch memorial

The crew of AJ-K, shot down on the Dams Raid. L-R: Vernon Byers, Alastair Taylor, James Warner, John Wilkinson, Neville Whitaker, Charles Jarvie, James McDowell. 

Vernon Byers and his crew took off on the Dams Raid from Scampton in AJ-K at 2130 on 16 May 1943, as part of the second wave tasked with attacking the Sorpe Dam. Everything seems to have gone smoothly at first but then, as the official record says, nothing more was heard from him. However, crew members in both Les Munro’s aircraft, a minute ahead of Byers, and in Geoff Rice’s, a minute behind, appear to have witnessed Byers’s last moments. Munro’s bomb aimer Jimmy Clay saw an aircraft on his starboard side, heading towards Texel island, rather than Vlieland, the prescribed route. Rice’s crew saw an aircraft shot down by flak at 300ft ‘off Texel’ at 2257. A post-war Dutch report also stated that an aircraft was seen climbing to about 450ft, having crossed the island.

Despite the fact that he was off course, and had crossed Texel which had more anti-aircraft defences than its neighbour Vlieland, it seems that Byers was very unlucky. The German guns could not depress low enough in order to hit an approaching aircraft flying at just 100ft but because AJ-K had risen a little in height it must have been a speculative shot from behind which hit it and sent it down into the Waddenzee, 18 miles west of Harlingen. Two German units stationed on Texel were credited with the kill. This point is disputed by author Andreas Wachtel, who thinks that it was more likely that 3/Marine Flak 246 unit on the western end of Vlieland was responsible.

Byers and his crew were thus the first to be lost on the Dams Raid and died before midnight on 16 May 1943. Six bodies have never been found, but that of rear gunner Flt Sgt James McDowell must have been detached from the wreckage some time later as on 22 June 1943 it was found floating in the Waddenzee, in the Vliestrom channel, south of Terschelling near buoy No 2. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery. McDowell’s six comrades are all listed on the Runnymede Memorial. They are the only ones of the 53 men lost on the Dams Raid who do not have their own graves and, because AJ-K went down over the sea, there is no land-based plaque to commemorate them.

The 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation would like to rectify this by unveiling a memorial plaque in Harlingen General Cemetery on 23 June 2020. This will be placed near the grave of James McDowell and unveiled on the 77th anniversary of his funeral, as a tribute to all seven crew members of Avro Lancaster AJ-K. It will be a stone with bronze plaque, similar to the AJ-A memorial in nearby Castricum-aan-Zee, which was also erected by the Foundation . For more information about the AJ-A memorial visit the Foundation website.

The goal is to raise €6,000, to include the memorial stone, a bronze plaque, a bronze 617 Squadron badge, placement of the memorial, foundation and stones around the memorial.

A Go Fund Me page has been set up to make it easy for readers to support this very worthwhile cause. This can be found here.

Pic: 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation

Gibson in command: rare magazine pictures show his 106 Squadron days

Plt Off James ‘Jimmy’ Cooper at the controls of Lancaster W4118, the famous ‘Admiral Prune’ of 106 Squadron, shown on the front cover of Illustrated magazine, 12 December 1942. [Pic: Clive Smith]

Clive Smith has kindly sent me a three page article from the 12 December 1942 edition of Illustrated magazine which tells the story of a minelaying operation in the autumn of 1942. It was carried out by aircraft from 106 Squadron, then under the command of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson.

The article doesn’t mention Gibson in the text, but he is shown in a photograph on page 5, alongside Gp Capt ‘Gus’ Walker, the commanding officer of the RAF Syerston base. After the article was written, but four days before it appeared in print, Walker was badly injured in an accident on the airfield and lost his arm. (See this post from May 2019.)

Pics: Clive Smith

The magazine notes that the squadron used a number of jokey ‘Admiral’ names and corresponding nose art on its aircraft. This practice had started in 1940 in one of Gibson’s earlier postings, 83 Squadron, invented by a member of this squadron’s ground crew, Douglas Garton (Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995, p61). Gibson liked the nicknames and flew a number of aircraft with nautical names in his later career.

Clive Smith has also provided the evidence that Admiral Prune (W4118) was not, as some people have claimed, Gibson’s personal Lancaster. Although he liked flying it there are several examples of operations where it was flown by other pilots while he flew a different Lancaster. Altogether, Gibson only flew it on six operations – a similar number of times to the occasions when it was captained by Sqn Ldr John Wooldridge and Sqn Ldr John Searby (six and seven respectively). Future Dams Raid pilots Flt Lt John Hopgood and Flt Lt David Shannon also each flew it once on a 106 Squadron operation. It was finally lost on 5 February 1943 when it crashed near Lyon in France on an operation targeting Turin. Both port engines had failed. The pilot, Sgt D L Thompson survived and became a PoW, as did one of the two bomb aimers on board, Sgt Peter Ward, and the mid-upper and rear gunners, respectively Sgt Richard Sutton and Sgt J Picken. The rest of the crew, flight engineer Sgt Norman Johnstone, navigator Sgt Frank Darlington, bomb aimer Plt Off George Powell and wireless operator Sgt Wilfred Baker were all killed.