At the Petwood

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Pic: Petwood Hotel

If you are in the Lincolnshire area on Sunday 15 May, the day before the 79th anniversary of the Dams Raid, you are welcome to attend a talk I will be giving at 3pm at the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa. I will be speaking about the 133 men who flew on the RAF’s most famous Second World War bombing operation, telling some of their stories and dispelling some of the myths which have grown up in the years since. 

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Tickets cost £5 and can be booked here.

Willie Tait and his double-navigator Tirpitz crew

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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.

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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.

Allsebrook crew memorial to be unveiled in June

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Ralph Allsebrook and his crew were the first to join 617 Squadron after the Dams Raid. They were all present when the famous squadron photograph was taken at Scampton on 9 July 1943, and are shown highlighted above. [Pic: Sutherland family/Artwork: Dambusters Blog. © Copyright 2022.]

Chris Ward has been in touch to say that a memorial to Flt Lt Ralph Allsebrook DSO DFC and his crew is to be erected on the quayside of the Wet Triangle at Bergeshovede in Germany, very close to the site where they crashed after bombing the Dortmund-Ems canal on 16 September 1943. The memorial will be unveiled at 5pm on Friday 17 June 2022. The general public are invited to attend.

Allsebrook and his crew were the first new crew to join 617 Squadron after the Dams Raid, arriving at Scampton on 20 May 1943. Allsebrook was a close friend of Henry Maudslay, 617 Squadron’s B Flight Commander, who had died just three days before after bombing the Eder Dam. Allsebrook had himself clocked up 50 operations in 49 Squadron, mostly flying with the same crew who all transferred with him. On the night of the Dortmund-Ems operation, four months later, they were in Lancaster EE130, and carried an extra gunner. 

The crew list read Flt Lt RAP Allsebrook DSO DFC (pilot), Flt Sgt P Moore (flight engineer), Plt Off NA Botting (navigator), Flg Off JM Grant DFC (wireless operator), Flt Sgt RBS Lulham (bomb aimer), Sgt IG Jones (mid-upper gunner), Flt Sgt S Hitchen (rear gunner) plus Flt Sgt WE Walker (extra air gunner).

Further details can be obtained from Chris, who you can contact by email here

Goodman medals, logbook and other material to go to RAF Museum

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Benny Goodman’s medal group. [Pic: Dix Noonan Webb]

Good news in this article from the Antiques Trade Gazette.

The Goodman family and the RAF Museum have agreed that Sqn Ldr Lawrence “Benny” Goodman’s medals, logbook, flying jacket and other artefacts are to be purchased by the RAF Museum, and will go on display there in due course.

Tom Derbyshire of the Antiques Trade Gazette reports:

Squadron Leader Goodman’s son, Robert, said: “I’m very pleased that my father’s medals and artefacts will be purchased by the RAF Museum with the proceeds of the sale benefiting the Royal Air Force No 617 Squadron Association. I’m sure that he would have been thrilled that his legacy will be kept alive for the nation and shared with the world at the RAF Museum while giving back to No 617 Squadron, with which he fought so valiantly during the Second World War.”
Dr Peter Johnston, head of collections and research, the RAF Museum, said: “The museum is delighted to have acquired this wonderful piece of history which enables us to tell a unique part of the RAF story.
“‘Benny’ Goodman had a fantastic relationship with the museum and was featured in the Jewish ‘Hidden Heroes’ project that was launched in 2018. We are planning that his medals and log book will go on display in the Bomber Command Hall as part of its redevelopment in 2023.”

Good news for everyone concerned!

Thanks to Ray Hepner for the tip.

Benny Goodman’s memorial service in St Clement Danes

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Sqn Ldr Lawrence “Benny” Goodman was the last British wartime 617 Squadron pilot when he died last July at the ripe old age of 100. He was honoured yesterday with a memorial service at the RAF church, St Clement Danes in Strand, London. There is a report on the services TV station, Forces.net, which you can find here, with contributions from various attendees and his son, Robert Goodman. The good news conveyed by Robert in the film is that Benny’s medals and logbook will shortly go on display at the RAF Museum in Hendon.

Goodman memorial reading

Wg Cdr Andrew Walters, chair of the 617 Squadron Association, conducting a reading during the service

Blue plaque on Marriott family house in Chinley

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Middleton House, New Smithy: the family home of the Marriott family in the Peak District. [Pic: Frank Pleszak.]

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[Pic: Frank Pleszak.]

I am much looking forward to seeing Frank Pleszak’s new biography of Jack Marriott, the flight engineer in Henry Maudslay’s crew on the Dams Raid. Before joining Maudslay, Marriott had flown on 23 operations with 50 Squadron, in Flg Off Drew Wyness’s crew, and had been awarded the DFM. At this stage of the war, it was rare for flight engineers to be awarded this honour. He flew another three operations with Maudslay before the crew were transferred to 617 Squadron in March 1943.

While researching Marriott’s story, Frank spent some time uncovering the background to how a plaque came to be erected at Middleton House in the village of New Smithy.  It had been lived in by the Marriott family.

Frank takes up the story: “It seems that after Jack’s father had died Middleton House continued to be occupied by Jack’s sister May Hawkesley. By the 1950s the house had become unsuitable and she wanted to be nearer to the centre of Chinley and its services. She arranged for a house swap with Chinley resident Graham Hadfield who once in occupation modernised the house, including removing the rear staircase and replacing it with an upstairs bathroom.  Graham eventually sold the house to the present owner Raymond Ball in 1978. Sometime after moving in Raymond was in discussion with his neighbours and the topic of the previous occupants of Middleton House and of Jack’s involvement in the Dambusters was raised. Realizing the significance of the house Raymond felt that a fitting memorial should commemorate the short life of the Dambuster that had spent his early life there. So in 2012, at his own expense, he had a local blacksmith create the plaque which he duly erected by his front door.”

9781399097468 smallFrank Pleszak’s book, The High Peak Dambuster, is to be published by Airworld in March. See here for details.

Season’s greetings as we say goodbye to all that

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Pic: Charles Foster

The sun sets at its earliest time as the old year draws to a close.

Things have been quiet for a while but there will be plenty more to write about in the New Year, so check the Dambusters Blog regularly. In the meantime, all best wishes for Christmas and the holiday season. Please stay safe, be respectful to our fellow human beings and the earth itself, and hope that we will all be able to meet again in 2022.

Special badge for Johnny’s centenary to benefit RAFBF

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Guest post by Josh Rowles

Today is a very special day for my dear friend Johnny. He has turned 100 years old! He is living his best life and has insisted that for triple figures, he didn’t want a big gift. For his 98th birthday, I presented Johnny with a picture book full of events we had hosted together, which he treasures. For his 100th, I felt I couldn’t top that!

Whilst chatting to Johnny’s daughter Jenny, we established he had enough booze for another 100 years so an alternative idea would be to raise some money for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund (RAFBF) through the production of some special badges, designed for his birthday.

I have personally designed and, with the approval of Jenny and the RAFBF, I have had 100 limited edition large patches made but also a batch of smaller badges. All of the profits will go to the RAFBF.

For the large badge, it will come boxed with a ‘certificate’ I designed, signed by the RAFBF and myself stating the patch number. This is priced at £25 minimum donation (+P&P). The smaller standalone unboxed badge is £10 minimum donation (+P&P). Donations beyond these prices are of course welcomed.

I will be looking to put these badges on eBay soon, but wanted to offer these out to friends and readers of the Dambusters Blog beforehand in case anyone would like some. If you would, please drop me an email on johnny100years@gmail.com with what you’d like and I will send you payment details. (First come first served! These are limited editions.)

Pictured below: Johnny Johnson and Josh Rowles.

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Johnny hits one hundred!

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Pic: RAFBF

Sqn Ldr George Leonard ‘Johnny’ Johnson MBE DFM turns 100 this week, on Thursday 25 November 2021. Although he is best known to the public for his role in the Dams Raid in May 1943, he has led a long and interesting life both before and after that historic couple of months.

He was born on 25 November 1921 in Hameringham, Lincolnshire, the sixth and youngest child of Charles and Ellen Johnson. Although his first name was George he was known as Leonard to his family, but when he joined the RAF he was nicknamed ‘Johnny’, and this is the name by which he has been mostly known for the rest of his life. His father was a farm foreman, living in a tied cottage, and the family grew up in very poor conditions. His mother died when Johnny was three, and after this his family life was very disrupted, due to his father’s abusive nature. However, when his older sister Lena moved back home for a while the situation improved and he went to a local primary school in Winthorpe.

At the age of 11 he was sent as a boarder to the Lord Wandsworth Agricultural College in Long Sutton, Hampshire. At the time, this was run by a charity catering for the children of agricultural families who had lost one or both parents. He did reasonably well at school and passed the School Certificate as well as playing cricket and football to a good standard, and winning several athletics events. When he left school in December 1939, he started work as a park keeper in Basingstoke.

Johnny volunteered to join the RAF in June 1940 and eventually joined up in November that year. He was posted to various training establishments but there was some compensation for all the moving around – at one in Torquay, he met Gwyn Morgan, the woman who would later become his wife.

Finally qualified as an air gunner, in July 1942 Johnny was posted to 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa. He was designated as a spare gunner, without a regular crew, and so he flew with various skippers if one of their own gunners went sick. His first operation was on 27 August 1942, flying with Sqn Ldr Elmer Coton on a trip to Gdynia in Poland. However, an engine failure en route led to an early return, so the first time he saw action was the following day, on an operation to Nuremberg.

Johnny flew on a few more operations but then the opportunity came up to train as a specialist bomb aimer. He took up the chance and completed the course in late November 1942. Within a month, a vacancy for a bomb aimer came up in Joe McCarthy’s crew. McCarthy was an American who had crossed the border to enrol in the Royal Canadian Air Force in order to join the war while the USA was still at peace. At first Johnson wasn’t keen on flying with an American captain, but a conversation with McCarthy changed his mind, and he was introduced to his future crewmates. What united them, he wrote later, was the fact that they all had inbuilt confidence in McCarthy, whom they regarded as the best pilot on the squadron.

Johnson went on nineteen operations with McCarthy, which brought him to the end of a full tour with 97 Squadron. Knowing that he would then be entitled to some leave followed by six months working in a non-combat training role, he and Gwyn arranged their wedding for 3 April 1943. However, the ceremony was nearly called off when the whole crew were transferred to 617 Squadron for a new secret mission and all leave was cancelled.

Their new CO, Guy Gibson, however granted them four days leave when McCarthy insisted. Several other crews had been told by their previous COs that they could take leave before their new posting, but this strategy had not been suggested to the boys from 97 Squadron.

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Johnny and Gwyn on their wedding day, 3 April 1943. [Pic Johnson family]

As he has described on a number of occasions, Johnson and his crew dropped their mine as instructed on the Sorpe Dam but failed to breach it. McCarthy, Johnson and their navigator Don MacLean were all decorated for their part in the raid. Johnson received the DFM and travelled up to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. At that point in his life he was a non-drinker, so he didn’t participate in the festivities that followed.

Johnson was commissioned in November 1943 and went on to fly with McCarthy on all his next eighteen operations with 617 Squadron, up until April 1944. At that point, knowing that Gwyn Johnson was shortly to have their first child, McCarthy insisted that he stand down.

Reluctantly, Johnson agreed and was sent back to RAF Scampton as a bombing instructor and served out the rest of the war in various training jobs. After the war, he was told that if he qualified as a navigator, he would get a permanent commission. He accepted this offer, and stayed in the RAF until 1962, retiring with the rank of Squadron Leader.

Now in his forties, Johnson was without a job. So he retrained again, this time as a teacher. He worked first of all in primary schools and then later in adult education, including a period teaching psychiatric patients at Rampton Hospital.

When he retired, he and Gwyn moved to Torquay, where Gwyn had been brought up. Although she came from a Welsh mining family brought up in the Labour tradition, she was a keen Conservative, a strong admirer of Margaret Thatcher. ‘The lady’s not for turning’ became Gwyn’s own catchphrase, used to settle any minor family disputes. The pair had been active in local Conservative Party politics for a while, but after the move to Torquay Johnny was elected as a councillor, and became chair of the constituency party, having to deal with the wayward activities of their local MP when he plotted against Prime Minister John Major. Johnny also took part in reunions and other activities relating both to 617 Squadron and the wider world of Bomber Command, and the pair were very happy with frequent visits from their growing numbers of grandchildren.

However, this came to an end when Gwyn was diagnosed with cancer and spent the last eighteen months of her life in declining health.

Gwyn Johnson died in August 2005 and for a while Johnny withdrew from public life. I first spoke to him a year or two later, while researching my book about the life of David Maltby and his crew, and he told me then what a terrible blow it had been. Shortly afterwards, he started accepting invitations from the media for interviews and documentary appearances. As the number of Bomber Command veterans have inevitably dwindled over the last fifteen years he has become one of its most familiar faces. Johnny is still a compelling speaker and a willing interviewee, although these activities have necessarily been restricted in recent times.

He has always worked hard for charity, particularly campaigning for improved resources for mental health, and this was recognised in 2018 with the award of an MBE, an honorary doctorate at the University of Lincoln (back in his home county) and a flight over the Derwent Dam in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster. His public appearances during this period always resulted in a steady stream of people wanting to shake his hand and take a selfie.

Like many of the generation which came of age during the war years, Johnny has always said that he was simply doing his job. The fact that by doing this he was risking his life, defending liberty against those who sought to bring tyranny to these shores, is immaterial. The qualities by which he has lived his first one hundred years are those of honesty, discipline, respect and loyalty. As he enters his second century let us all wish him the best, and hope that he has many more years to devote to his service to the nation.

Playing an ace: the RAF’s wartime publishing success

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All pics: © Ray Hepner

Even before the war started, the RAF’s Public Relations Directorate had run a sophisticated programme of promotion of the country’s youngest service. To put it in context, remember that flying was very much a novelty at the time, with most people never even being in an aeroplane. Within months, what would later became informally known as ‘Writer Command’ would be established, based in the Air Ministry in London. It would eventually recruit well-known authors such as H E Bates, John Putney and R F Delderfield.

Ray Hepner has kindly sent me some pictures of one of the by-products of the work of this department. Air Aces is a book of studio portraits taken by the society photographer Gordon Anthony, published by Home & van Thal in 1944. Gordon Anthony was well known before the war mainly for his portraits of opera and ballet stars. His publisher in this instance was a company set up by Margaret Douglas-Home, daughter of Earl Spencer and sister-in-law of the future Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, and Herbert van Thal, probably most famous after the war for editing umpteen volumes of the Pan Book of Horror Stories

The text was written by John Macadam, then a young poet and art critic, but who later became famous as the chief sports columnist of the Daily Express. He contributed 32 pen portraits to accompany the photographs, all written in the chatty but sophisticated style common at the time. Here is his brief biography of Guy Gibson.

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The text is interesting because it illustrates how the ‘myth’ of the Dam Busters (as they were then called) was being built within a year of the raid. Hastily written, it contains one glaring error: Gibson never shot down a Dornier while ‘chasing it down a valley near Lorient’.

It isn’t clear when in 1944 Air Aces was published, but in September of that year, Gibson was killed, crashing in a Mosquito near Steenbergen in Holland. He left behind the manuscript of his own book, published after the war as Enemy Coast Ahead. Another best seller, and another by-product of the fertile brains of Writer Command.