617 – After the Dams

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The original crew of 617 Squadron who carried drum-shaped bombs that bounced on water and exploded against dam walls. The crew is pictured at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire, after the Dambuster raid in May 1943.

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Enemy Coast head – The Dambusteby Philip E. West 

Lancasters of 617 Squadron, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson begin their low level cross channel dash towards the enemy coast on the way to the heart of the Ruhr. The aircraft were arranged in three waves. The first wave comprised three groups of three aircraft at 10 minute intervals and headed towards the Mohne, Sorpe and Eder dams. The second wave of five Lancasters headed direct to the Sorpe whilst the third wave of five, would act as backup. Eight Lancasters failed to return from the raids, a high cost indeed, but the courage and determination displayed by the crews were in  the best tradition of the RAF.

This oil painting is signed on the reverse of the canvas in permanent ink by  former Dambusters: Flying Officer Raymond E. Grayston (Flight Engineer of AJ-N, Les Knights Lancaster.) and Squadron Leader George L. Johnson DFM (Bomb Aimer on AJ-T, American Joe McCarthy’s Lancaster.

The squadron had been formed under the leadership of Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson, DSO & bar, DFC & bar. When given the task he had just completed a third tour of operations, two on bombers and one on night fighters. The Dams Raid had been his 74th bombing mission since the war began.

Following the euphoria of their successful attack, 617 Squadron were stood down from operations and Guy Gibson informed that he had done enough. The award of the Victoria Cross was his reward for his superb leadership and heroism during the raid itself. He was still only twenty-four years old and now the most highly decorated operational pilot in the Royal Air Force.

The squadron had been manned by a number of men who had just completed or had nearly completed bomber tours or recently begun second tours, plus a few who had, on average, almost a third of a tour under their belt. It was obvious that with such a nucleus of experienced men with success just behind them, 617 would not be immediately disbanded and its men returned to their former units, or go off to begin instructing at Operational Training Units. The majority stayed. However Flight Sergeant Cyril Anderson and his crew decided to return to 49 Squadron on 3rd June. They did not locate their target – the Sorpe Dam – and had flown home with their Special Bomb. They were replaced by Flying Officer W.H. Kellaway, DSO, in from 149 Squadron at the end of the month.

The survivors of the Dams Raid who stayed on with 617 were an experienced bunch, Micky Martin, at twenty-five, held the DSO and DFC and had flown a total of 36 bombing operations since late 1941, with both 455 and 50 Squadrons. David Maltby, DSO, DFC, aged twenty-three, he and his crew had completed a tour with 106 and 97 Squadrons. Les Knight, an Australian like Martin, had a DSO and a tour with 50 Squadron behind him. He was twenty-two Another Australian was Dave Shannon, whose youthful looks belied his twenty-one years of age, (he had been only twenty on the Dams Raid, his 21st birthday occurring on 27th May, ten days later) his DSO and DFC, with a tour with Guy Gibson’s 106 Squadron – a tour of 36 ops.

Joe McCarthy, a member of the RCAF was in fact an American, from New York, was twenty-three, and also held the DSO and DFC. He had flown on the first 1,000 Bomber raids while still at OTU, then gone on to complete a tour with 106 Squadron, then started a second tour with 97 Squadron before being picked to fly with 617. Geoff Rice, DFC, twenty-six, had flown his tour with 57 Squadron but on the Dams Raid had had the misfortune to lose his bomb when he hit the sea on his way out to the enemy coast and had to abort. Les Munro, DSO, DFC was a New Zealander aged twenty-four. A member of the RNZAF he flew his tour with 97 Squadron. Bill Townsend, aged twenty-two, from Gloucester, had won the DFM with 49 Squadron, and been awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for the Dams attack, and had recently been commissioned. Ken Brown, a Canadian, had also won the CGM for the Dams Raid. He was twenty-two and had only just begun a tour with 44 Squadron before coming to 617. Two pilots who had missed the actual raid, had been Harold Wilson, who had joined the squadron from 57 Squadron and who was twenty-eight, and 23-year-old Bill Divall, also in from 57 Squadron.

Early in July two more crews arrived to fill the vacancies. One was that of Squadron Leader G. Holden, DSO, DFC and bar, who was the squadron’s new Commanding Officer designate, and Pilot Officer B.W. Clayton, DFC, CGM. George Holden, twenty-nine years old, came from 57 Squadron, and had previously flown with 78 and 102 Squadrons. Bunny Clayton had previously flown with 44 Squadron.

Although grounded, Guy Gibson remained with the squadron for several days, during which time the crews continued to train while the fate of their squadron was decided upon by Headquarters Bomber Command. They also exchanged their specially modified Lancasters, used for the Dams Raid, for the basic models as used by other Main Force bomber squadrons.

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It was quickly established that 617 should undertake attacks on special targets – targets where the experienced men would hopefully achieve decisive results. The first such targets were not in Germany but Italy. The first attack was scheduled for 15th July. Twelve Lancasters would attempt to knock out an electric power plant at Aquata Scriva (Ciseago), fifteen miles north-west of Milan, and a transformer station at San Polo D’Enza (Brugherio), eight miles nearer Milan.

The first six were led by acting Wing Commander Holden, with the crews of Flight Lieutenant Harold Wilson, Pilot Officer Bill Townsend, Pilot Officer Ken Brown, Flight Lieutenant R.A. Allsebrook, DSO, DFC, another new arrival, and finally Bunny Clayton. Allsebrook had flown over fifty trips with 49 Squadron.

The second formation, led by Squadron Leader David Maltby, consisted of Flight Lieutenant Mick Martin, Pilot Officer Geoff Rice (who had lost his bomb when he hit the sea on the Dams Raid), Flight Lieutenant Les Munro (who had been forced to abandon his part in the raid when his intercom was knocked out), Squadron Leader Joe McCarthy and Sergeant Bill Divall, who had like Wilson missed the famous raid. Gibson had wanted to lead the 15th July raid himself but permission was refused. Instead, all he could do was to wave them off from the edge of the runway.

The targets were important. With the battle for Sicily well advanced, a landing upon the mainland of Italy was expected. With Mussolini’s dictatorship looking decidedly shaky, a crippling blow against the power which supplied Italy’s electric railway system would be nicely timed. However, it was a long trip with no hope of getting back to England. Instead, the force would fly south to land at Blida, twenty miles from Algiers in North Africa.

The trip was unopposed. The first wave took off between 10 and 10.25 p.m., arriving over the target at 3.24 a.m. They found it obscured by haze and had to bomb blind. Bill Townsend made three bombing runs in an attempt to positively identify the target, then let his fourteen-pound 500 bombs go from 800 feet. They fell south of the plant but did hit an armoured train which caused smoke to rise high into the night sky. Another train was hit by Ralph Allsebrook in the same area although his Lancaster was slightly damaged by flak. Flight Lieutenant Wilson’s bomber was also hit as he and the others all made runs by guesswork. Ken Brown decided to bomb the secondary target, putting his bombs onto a military barracks near Genoa.

Meanwhile, the second group also found difficulty locating their target through the haze. Despite this, several bombs were believed to have straddled and hit the transformer station as blue electric flashes were seen. David Maltby put most of his bombs into the target but one 500-pounder and an incendiary bomb failed to release. His bomb-aimer later got rid of them on the Genoa – Spezia railway at Sestri Levante.

Flak hit the Lancaster of Les Munro which punctured a tyre, hit the bomb-aimer’s panel and inflicted cuts to the man’s face. Another aircraft was damaged but this was from bomb splinters – McCarthy and crew, bombing from 800 feet.

All twelve bombers landed at Blida, a pre-war French base, shortly after 7 a.m., Les Munro making a one-wheeled landing at 8.20.

It was something of an anti-climax, for although they felt the bombs had hit the targets, the results were far from positive. If only flares or some kind of illumination had been possible, then they felt they could really have achieved impressive results, especially in view of the light flak they had encountered. As it turned out, these were prophetic thoughts that were later to bear fruit. Bomber Command itself was beginning to perfect target marking and target illumination – the Pathfinder Force having already been created. It was still improving its techniques.

Part of the payload taken to Blida for the men stationed there were kegs of beer. In the evening, the 617 crews went into the town for a drink and a meal at a French restaurant. The waiter was named Louis who had been taught a little English by the Eighth Army soldiers. As the evening wore on so did the crews’ high spirits. Dougie Warwick, Divall’s Canadian navigator, played a very good ‘Boogie Woogie’ on the piano. They also managed to buy some champagne to bring to England, but only after showing their ‘Le Canadien’ shoulder flashes. The three-mile journey back to the airfield seemed more like six and Dougie found the greatest difficulty navigating into his mosquito netting!

The twelve aircraft left Blida on the 24th, bombing the harbour at Leghorn on the way. Cloud over this Italian port was quite heavy with haze below but the docks were identified and bombed. Joe McCarthy claimed a direct hit on what he thought was an oil storage depot. Allsebrook also hit an oil dump, but over the target his starboard outer engine failed and he could not maintain height; he. finally arrived back at Scampton on three engines.

Another experienced crew arrived on the 26th, captained by Flight Lieutenant E.E.G. Youseman, DFC, aged twenty-one. Ted Youseman had flown forty-three ops with 214 Squadron and, of his crew, four had been decorated.

It was back to Italy on the 29th, but not to drop bombs but leaflets. These were intended to help persuade the Italians to end their war. Nine aircraft went to the towns of Bologna, Milan, Genoa and Turin, and again they continued south to Blida. With the exception of McCarthy, delayed through engine trouble (he returned on 5th August), the Lancasters returned to England on the first day of August loaded with fresh fruit and wine.

The squadron’s first casualty since May occurred on the afternoon of 5th August, when Flight Lieutenant Kellaway, in Lancaster ED765 (letter M), crashed at Ashley Walk bombing range whilst taking part in a tactical exercise. During a low level flight his bomber was caught in the slipstream of another aircraft, struck the ground and caught fire. They were experimenting with a spinning bomb to be used against shipping. In the event, however, the bomb was never used. The wireless operator, Pilot Officer S. Harris, recorded:

We approached the Ashley Walk range at low-level, our target a simulated viaduct. We dropped our dummy spinning bomb (Wallis) in an attempt to roll it against the arches of the viaduct, all previous high level bombing attacks (against such targets) being ineffective. The weather was bad, and flying at 60 feet we were suddenly hit by a gust of wind2 which caused us to drop suddenly and fly into the ground.

Kellaway, Harris, Pilot Officer R. Drury (the bomb-aimer) and one of the gunners, Flight Sergeant H. Temple, were all injured. Harris had to undergo plastic surgery and never flew on operations again. Temple returned to 617 in November 1944, crewed with Flight Lieutenant Pryor, and became a prisoner of war when they were shot down in January 1945.

Guy Gibson left England for Canada on a lecture tour at the beginning of August, and George Holden officially took command of 617. Gibson had flown on just one operation since the Dams Raid, and had now been totally grounded. Returning from Canada Gibson held various ground positions until he moved to HQ 54 Base at Coningsby in August 1944. He managed to fly on a couple of missions but was not given an operational command. Having been allowed to fly just one more op on 19th September, he was shot down and killed in a Mosquito as Master Bomber. He and his navigator were buried at Steenbergen, Holland.

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