New generation at Gibson anniversary tribute

Ivan de Groot, Guy Gibson’s great-great nephew, at the graveside of his ancestor on the 75th anniversary of his death. [Pic: Melvin Chambers]

Wg Cdr Guy Gibson and his navigator Sqn Ldr James Warwick both died on 19 September 1944 when the Mosquito in which they were flying crashed on the outskirts of the small Dutch town of Steenbergen, after taking part in an operation attacking the German towns of Rheydt and Mönchengladbach. They are buried in a joint grave in the Catholic cemetery in Steenbergen, where a ceremony marking the 75th anniversaries of their deaths took place on 19 September 2019.

Pic: Sander van der Hall

About 150 people were present and there were two flypasts: the first by the Wings to Victory organisation and the second by the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight. The ceremony was led by Mr Martien van Dijk.

Wreaths were laid by the following:

  • Mrs Baartmans, Deputy Mayor of Steenbergen
  • Sub Lt Pannell RN, UK Embassy
  • Mr Ivan Tamborero de Groot, great-great nephew of Guy Gibson, on behalf of the Gibson family
  • Mr Aart Walraven, Wings to Victory
  • Mr Glyn Hepworth, 617 Squadron Association
  • Mr Russ Kitely, Group 617 UK
  • Dr R Heinrichs, Royal Netherlands Air Force
  • Representative of RAF Aircrew Association

Ivan de Groot is the great-great nephew of Guy Gibson, and this was his first ever visit to his great-great uncle’s grave. He is 23 and a student at Eindhoven University.

Pic: Sander van der Hall

Thanks to Sander van der Hall and Melvin Chambers.

Free for a day: Enemy Coast Ahead download to mark Gibson 75th anniversary

First edition of Enemy Coast Ahead, published 1946. Pic: Stella Books

At 19.51 on 19 September 1944, the most decorated pilot then serving in the RAF’s Bomber Command, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, took off from Woodhall Spa in Mosquito KB267 of 627 Squadron. His mission was to be the controller, in charge of other Mosquitoes marking the target for the main bomber force, who were attacking Mönchengladbach and Rheydt.

What happened that night is the subject of much speculation. The aircraft crashed near Steenbergen in Holland at about 22.30, killing both Gibson and his navigator Sqn Ldr James Warwick. The most likely cause is that the Mosquito ran out of fuel because neither Gibson nor Warwick were very familiar with it, and didn’t know how to switch to the reserve fuel tank. It is also possible that they were shot down, either by ground-based anti-aircraft fire or a German night fighter. The aircraft disintegrated and caught fire on impact, leaving just body parts and a few clues as to the identity of the two men on board. They were buried together in a joint grave the following day in Steenbergen’s Catholic cemetery in a brief ceremony conducted jointly by a Catholic priest and a Lutheran pastor.

Earlier in the year, Gibson had been employed in an RAF desk job in Whitehall, but his real task was to write a draft of a book about his RAF service. It would be called Enemy Coast Ahead. It is difficult to be certain how much of the text about 617 Squadron was pulled together by Gibson from material ghostwritten for him, although the earlier sections are probably Gibson’s own work. He had finished the final draft shortly before he went back on operational flying, but it wasn’t actually published until 1946. The book was an immediate success, and was reprinted several times in the next few years.

Enemy Coast Ahead has been in print ever since. However, despite going through the hands of several editors before hitting the shops, the original book has many flaws. Names are misspelt, events are wrongly dated, wartime censorship means many details are omitted. Sadly, this has not prevented many people citing it as an accurate account of events and this in its turn has helped to perpetuate many of the incorrect myths which surround the Dams Raid.

So it is with great pleasure that I now bring the important news that a new edition of Enemy Coast Ahead is to be published shortly by Greenhill Books in association with the RAF Museum (where the final manuscript is lodged). It contains a new foreword by James Holland, which gives an overview of Gibson’s brief life. But, most importantly, at the end of the book there is an extended section, nearly 50 pages long, which contains more than 200 notes on the text. These have been compiled by Dr Robert Owen, the 617 Squadron Association official historian, and can only be described as a tour de force. His knowledge and scholarship are evident throughout as he corrects and explains Gibson’s errors and omissions. With the addition of these extras, Gibson’s text can at last be relied on as an important contemporary account.

As a salute to Gibson on the 75th anniversary of his death, which is tomorrow, the publishers have decided to offer the Kindle/ebook version as a free download on the Amazon.co.uk site for 24 hours only from midnight tonight. You can access the download from this link. For north American readers, there will be a similar download available on the Amazon.com site from midnight US EDT.

The paperback edition of the book will be published next month, and is available for pre-order on the Greenhill Books/Pen and Sword website here.

Lewis Burpee’s childhood home

Pic: Dave O’Malley

The Canadian writer Dave O’Malley lives in the Glebe area of the country’s capital city, Ottawa. Nearby is the fine house in which Lewis Burpee, who skippered AJ-S on the Dams Raid, was brought up. Last year, O’Malley wrote this interesting article about Burpee and his family, and took the photograph above. O’Malley writes:

I paid a short walk-by visit to the former home of another young man from the Glebe whose life held great promise before the war took everything from him and his family. The young man’s family has long since moved away, but the memory of their loss will forever dwell in this house, recognized or not. The house is on a wide shady avenue in the most well-to-do area of the Glebe. The family was one of means. The young man’s life was one of privilege and opportunity. His name was Lewis Johnstone Burpee.

When details of the raid became public, the local newspaper carried the story on its front page. And, by tragic coincidence, in the same edition there was a further mention of the Ottawa man:

The Ottawa Evening Journal carried a front page story about the raids. In a tragic coincidence, it also carried a story about Burpee’s award of a DFM and his marriage to an English girl. The piece on Burpee began with “The Air Ministry in London today announced the award of the Distinguished Flying Medal to Pilot Officer Lewis J. Burpee, 25, son of Lewis A. Burpee, general manager and vice-president of Charles Ogilvy Limited, and Mrs. Burpee, 111 Powell. “That’s certainly good news” said Mr. Burpee when informed of his son’s decoration by the Journal.” For a day or so, the Burpee family felt comforted with the knowledge that Lewis was safe in England, happily married and highly experienced. Given the secrecy of the raid, it is doubtful that they had any idea their son was part of the historic event. That would change the next day.

In September 1942, Lewis Burpee had married Lilian Westwood, and at the time of the Dams Raid she was pregnant with their child. When Lewis was killed Mrs Burpee was given permission to travel to Canada to meet her in-laws for the first time, and to have her baby in Canada. Their son, Lewis Johnstone Burpee Jr was born in Ottawa on Christmas Eve 1943.

In May 2018, 75 years after his father was killed, Lewis Burpee Jr made his first ever visit to the site at which AJ-S crashed, shortly after being hit by flak. It is on the edge of Gilze Rijen airfield in the Netherlands, and a new memorial was unveiled there to honour Plt Off Burpee and his crew.

James McDowell: new photographs

Top: James McDowell, dressed in flying suit. Bottom: course members. McDowell is on the far left of the row sitting on chairs. Raymond Robinson is 2nd from left in the row behind him, wearing a lopsided hat.
Photographs: Mark Robinson. [Son of Raymond E. Robinson, 460 Squadron, RAAF]

Mark Robinson has kindly sent me some unpublished pictures of Sgt James McDowell, the rear gunner in Vernon Byers’s Lancaster, AJ-K, on the Dams Raid. His father Raymond, an Australian, served as an air gunner in 460 Squadron, but previously was on the same air gunnery course as McDowell in April 1942. This was Air Gunners Course No. 30 held at the No. 5 Bombing and Gunnery School in Dafoe, Saskatchewan, Canada.

James McDowell was born in Glasgow on 13 August 1910, the son of John and Agnes McDowell. His father was killed in the First World War, so in 1924 his mother, grandmother and the five McDowell children emigrated to Canada, and took up residence in Port Arthur, Ontario.

McDowell worked first for the Coca Cola company in Port Arthur. He married Dorothea Edna Craig in 1932, and they had two daughters, Darleen and Marilyn. They then moved north of Port Arthur where he found work as a gold miner, ending up at the MacLeod Cockshutt mine in Geraldton between 1935 and 1941.

Jimmy McDowell joined the RCAF in 1941. After training as an air gunner in Saskatchewan, he was sent to England. He crewed up with fellow Canadian Vernon Byers, before they were posted to 467 Squadron in February 1943. The crew had only undertaken three operations before transferring to 617 Squadron on 24 March.

On the Dams Raid, they had just flown over Texel island on the way to the Sorpe Dam when a shot from behind brought down their aircraft, and it crashed into the Waddenzee, 18 miles west of Harlingen. The wreckage has never been located but James McDowell’s body was eventually released by the elements from its rear turret and was found floating in the Vliestrom channel south of Terschelling near buoy No. 2 on 22 June 1943. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery, and remains there today. His comrades are all commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

Paul Brickhill’s revisions to The Dam Busters, 1972

Pic: http://www.tikit.net

In the mid 1950s, Paul Brickhill was one of the best-known authors in the world. He was also one of the most successful, with three huge bestsellers to his name: The Great Escape, The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky. All three had also been made into films, which had netted him even more money.

By the end of the next decade, however, his personal circumstances had changed. He had been hit by large tax demands and had ended up leaving his native Australia for years at a time. His marriage had broken up, with his wife citing physical assault during the divorce proceedings. He had also suffered several periods of mental ill-health, not helped by periods of heavy drinking.

He eventually returned to Australia in December 1969, where he told a journalist from The Australian newspaper that he was ‘heading for a little pad in Sydney’ where he would ‘settle down to write three books’. Two would have a war theme, he said, and the third would be non-fiction. [Stephen Dando-Collins, The Hero Maker, Vintage Books Australia, 2016, pp.356-7.]

The non-fiction book he mentioned was in fact a revised edition of the Pan Books paperback of The Dam Busters. During his travels, he had spent some time in London going through some of the official records about the raid which had been declassified. The information he gleaned from this principally referred to the fact that the Barnes Wallis-designed weapon used to attack the dams ‘bounced’ and then skipped when it hit the surface of the lake. This was hardly a secret anymore, since it had played a central role in the 1955 film, but until Brickhill sat down to write a revised edition, anyone reading the account in his book would have found vague references to the bomb ‘working’, without any clarification of exactly what this meant.

Brickhill’s biographer, Stephen Dando-Collins describes the painful way in which the work proceeded:

No longer could he dash off a manuscript in a few months. For a year and a half following his 1969 return to Sydney, Brickhill laboured over his rewrite of The Dam Busters. Still hooked on booze and sleeping draughts, he found it a monumental struggle, but he rated himself the kind of person who never gave up. By the time he completed the task, he’d deftly inserted another 12,000 words into The Dam Busters. In early 1971, he completed correcting proofs of the new edition.
[The Hero Maker, p.360.]

Unfortunately, the Pan Book archives don’t have either a list of changes or a copy of the revised manuscript, so the only way of working out what revisions were made is by comparing the two published editions.

Here is Brickhill’s account of one of the earliest test drops of the weapon, on 12 December 1942.

Left, 1954 edition, p.35. Right, 1972 edition, p.42

The revised paragraph is a good reminder of what a fine descriptive writer Brickhill could be:
‘… then, oh the thrill, out of the spray the black barrel came soaring a hundred yards across the water, hit with another flashing feather of spray and soared out again, hit again, and again, the distances shortening every time until at last, after nearly half-a-mile, it slithered to a foaming stop and sank.’

Here is a later section, where the newly formed squadron is undertaking test drops of the weapon at Reculver.

Left, 1954 edition, p.63. Right, 1972 edition, p.78

Although Dando-Collins refers to Brickhill importing the new material from the declassified files, it is likely that a lot of the additions were in fact from Brickhill’s own notes compiled for the original edition. He would have been given a lot of information for this off the record, particularly by Barnes Wallis. His re-creation of the scene in the Wellington cockpit in the first example above, for instance, reads as though it is a story told to him by Wallis – one he would have recorded on disk at the time and then had transcribed. He is likely to have kept all his transcripts from the early 1950s and worked through them at the same time as he was incorporating the classified material.

That there are substantial differences between the two editions of The Dam Busters is not widely appreciated today. Some historians have only looked at the earlier version before using it as a source, and it would be wise to check up on what Brickhill added to the 1972 edition before quoting it.

As for the rest of the projects which Brickhill had said in 1969 were now his priority, none saw the light of day. The nearest to being finished was the biography of an American prisoner of war, Major Johnny Dodge, who he had met in Stalag Luft 3. He had done eighty per cent of the work on this, he told the Sydney Sunday Telegraph in 1981. It was however still incomplete at the time of his death ten years later, on 23 April 1991.

If there is a criticism to be made of Brickhill’s work is that it never shows any of the flaws which his principal characters displayed. Roger Bushell (the mastermind behind the Great Escape), Guy Gibson and Douglas Bader were only human; each of them could be said to be single-minded and not to suffer fools gladly. By being uncritical of their flaws, Brickhill made them heroes. The truth is a little more complicated than that, and it has been the work of later scholars to reveal this. Brickhill was, however, a writer of gripping narrative history and it is this which is still remembered today.

Source: Stephen Dando-Collins, The Hero Maker, Vintage Books Australia, 2016.

Thanks to Tim at tikit.net for the use of his cover picture of the 1972 edition. There is a selection of different covers on this page

Flt Sgt Charles Avey

I am sorry to have to report the sad news that another of the small band of remaining veterans who served in 617 Squadron during the Second World War has died. Flt Sgt Charles (“Chas”) Avey joined 617 Squadron in December 1944 as the mid-upper gunner in a crew skippered by the Canadian pilot Flt Lt G R Price. The crew’s first operation was a long trip to the U-Boat pens in Bergen, Norway in only the second trip made by the squadron under the command of its new CO, Wg Cdr Johnny Fauquier. As it happened, Price’s Lancaster, laden with a Tallboy bomb, was unable to bomb because of dense haze in the target area, but it seems as though some damage was done to the pens and the U-Boats therein. Avey went on to make another ten trips in Price’s crew before the end of the war.

Chas Avey died on 11 July, and his funeral service will take place on Monday 29 July at 3.20pm at Worthing Crematorium, Horsham Road, Findon, Sussex BN14 0RG.

Chas’s death leaves only about half a dozen men who served in 617 Squadron between its formation in 1943 and the end of the war. The link to the original members of what has been called the “greatest generation” may soon be broken, but their names and their dedication will never be forgotten.

Douglas Bickle’s wedding

This lovely little church, a few miles from Plymouth and overlooking a beach and the English Channel, is St Werburgh’s in Wembury, Devon. Parts of the church go back to the 11th century, although it was extensively renovated in Victorian times. It was here on 9 August 1943 that William Douglas Bickle, aged just 21, and Violet May Bickford, 20, were married. The groom was described as a Sergeant in the RAF but no occupation was given for the bride.

Neither of them came from Wembury, although they were both West Country natives. Douglas Bickle was born on 6 March 1922 in St Ann’s Chapel, a small hamlet near Calstock on the Cornwall side of the Tamar river. Violet Bickford was born just seven months later, on 15 October, in Lamerton which is a few miles away, but over the county border in Devon. So it is likely that they knew each other before Douglas enlisted in the RAF in October 1940.

By 1943, Violet Bickford was living with her family in Wembury, where her father, Edgar Bickford, kept bees and was also employed as a NAAFI canteen manager. The Bickle family meanwhile had stayed in the Calstock area, where Douglas’s father Percy worked as a coach builder and carpenter.

Douglas was the only child of Percy and Alma Bickle. He joined the RAF in 1940, soon after his 18th birthday, and was selected for training as a wireless operator/air gunner. After qualifying he was posted to 25 Operational Training Unit, where he crewed up with pilot Cyril Anderson. They moved on to 1654 Conversion Unit, where the whole crew was formed up.

The crew’s first operation together was an attack on Essen on 12 March 1943. After a successful bomb drop, they lost power in one engine on the way home. Their second trip was to St Nazaire on 22 March.

At this point, it seems that the request from Group HQ to send a crew to a new squadron being formed at Scampton to train for the Dams Raid was received by 49 Squadron. The CO nominated Bill Townsend and his crew, who had mostly nearly finished their tour, and therefore fell precisely into the category of “experienced crews” which had been demanded. He then chose to add the Anderson crew to the posting, for reasons that have never been explained.

Anderson, with just two operations under his belt, did not demur from the request, but asked to gain some further experience in 49 Squadron before moving. He and his crew were therefore sent on three operations in the next five days, flying to Duisburg on 26 March and Berlin on both 27 and 29 March.

They were posted to 49 Squadron in February 1943, and did their first operation together as a crew on 12 March. After their second trip, they were posted to 617 Squadron but in fact stayed on 49 Squadron to do three more operations, including two to Berlin.

On the Dams Raid Anderson and his crew were the last to take off, leaving the ground at Scampton at 0015. Having crossed the coast AJ-Y encountered heavy flak north of the Ruhr, and was forced off track. By then the rear turret began to malfunction, which meant that it was difficult to deal with searchlights. These caused it to divert off track again five minutes before it reached Dülmen. At 0228, Bickle received the signal “Dinghy” which directed the aircraft towards the Sorpe Dam. By now, mist was rising in the valleys which made the identification of landmarks almost impossible.

So it was that at 0310, after consulting his crew, Anderson decided that with dawn approaching and a rear turret not working he should turn for home. Rather than risk following the briefed return routes, he decided to go back the way he had come, crossing the coast at the Schelde estuary. AJ-Y landed at Scampton at 0530, its mine unused.

Cyril Anderson and five of his crew, photographed after an operation in 49 Squadron, in the summer of 1943. Left to right: John Nugent, Gilbert “Jimmy’ Green, Douglas Bickle, Arthur Buck, Cyril Anderson, Robert Paterson. Pic: Dominic Howard.

Gibson was not happy with Anderson’s explanation, and sent the crew back to 49 Squadron. Hindsight suggests that this was harsh treatment by Gibson, with him failing to take account of the conditions under which the later crew had flown. Anderson and his crew resumed their operational career with an attack on Krefeld on 21 June. They flew on 14 more operations, but on 23 September they failed to return from a successful attack on Mannheim. As they headed home, their aircraft was shot down by a night fighter near Offenbach.

Bickle was buried along with his comrades in the local Offenbach cemetery. After the war, their remains were exhumed and reburied in Rheinberg War Cemetery.

Douglas and Violet Bickle stood at this altar in Wembury church some 76 years ago, wed by the vicar Rev Kenneth Tagg. By the time of Douglas’s death, they had been married for less than seven weeks. They were far from the only couple to have such a fleeting time together.

[Thanks to Peter Lugar for help with this article.]