I have noticed a recent tendency to reduce the effect of this amazing feat both in written history and video-media. Here is a well-researched and in CONTEXT analysis.
ON 1 JULY 1943, Edward Russell, of the Joint Liaison Committee in Washington, wrote to Flight Lieutenant William Teeling, an intelligence officer at the Air Ministry, quoting a comment from King Features, one of the biggest media syndicates in the United States. ‘No one accomplishment1 in the war,’ they claimed, ‘appears to have generated public enthusiasm to the extent of the mining of the Möhne and Eder dams by the RAF. There is a demand for every scrap of information about the feat and about Wing Commander Gibson and his men.’
They would be given it, not least in Gibson himself, who in August was sent to North America, first to attend the Anglo-US QUADRANT Conference in Quebec, and then on a publicity tour promoting British war efforts in the US.
What was missing, however, was any mention of the Sorpe Dam, although why would it be mentioned? It was not breached after all – merely badly damaged and its crust ‘crumbled’. This would, in time, mean that it had to be completely drained for essential repair work to be carried out, but the Germans did not have to do this at the same time as repair work was going on at the Eder and Möhne. Draining and repairing the Sorpe was a major and costly inconvenience, but it was not disastrous.
It is true that Upkeep had been developed for attack against gravity dams, yet Wallis always claimed that enough Upkeeps dropped in the right place could destroy the Sorpe Dam. Inasmuch as the key decision makers in the planning of Operation CHASTISE had recognized the importance of destroying the Sorpe in conjunction with the Möhne, the raid has to be seen as having been only a partial success. Nineteen crews took part in Operation CHASTISE, and ten were available to strike the Sorpe, but only two managed to reach it. Of those two, the strike rate was 100 per cent – in fact, of all the three priority targets attacked, the Sorpe had the greatest hit ratio. In other words, had those ten aircraft available actually reached it, then perhaps it could have been destroyed. Johnny Johnson swears blind that Barnes Wallis told him that six Upkeeps would be needed to destroy the Sorpe. Certainly, Wallis appears to have recognized that more than two would be necessary. Five aircraft were specifically directed to the Sorpe, which suggests that this was the number of Upkeeps he reckoned it would take to destroy it. Certainly, with every successful drop, the damage caused was likely to increase exponentially.
But could anything have been done differently? Little account appears to have been taken of the chances of valley mists, although the forecast weather conditions all pointed to this. The Reserve Wave took off two and a half hours after the first Lancasters had departed, but could easily have left at say, 11 p.m., rather than after midnight. This would have given them more time over the target area and a better chance of reaching the Sorpe before the worst of the valley mists developed. The time-lag was presumably to give the first two waves time to complete their attacks, and for Group to then make an assessment of the situation. Even so, a two-hour gap seems overly generous; it could easily have made all the difference to Cyril Anderson and his crew. Had Townsend then been sent to the Sorpe rather than a pointless ‘last resort’ target, that could have been two more Upkeeps on the Sorpe. Two more might have made all the difference.
Unfortunately, the Reserve Wave lacked the direction of the First, which was controlled at both the Möhne and Eder by Gibson personally. Back at Grantham, Group did not have a clear enough picture of what was going on, not least because each aircraft was told to maintain radio silence, except to send a signal once they had dropped their Upkeeps. Group had no real idea who was shot down and who had made it to the target. The situation had become hopelessly confused. A perhaps more sensible solution would have been to send both Second and Reserve Waves over together in much the same way as the First Wave, with the Sorpe as its primary target, since the dam was likely to be a tougher nut to crack. Dinghy Young, perhaps, could have been leader with the same role as Gibson with the First Wave. It would have meant attacking the Sorpe in controlled and concentrated waves, with successive attackers able to help and advise subsequent ones.
It is easy, however, to be wise after the event, although there is a sense of there being a degree of defeatism about the Sorpe; that Satterly had initially downgraded the target is telling. The truth is, the Upkeep was not really designed for a dam of the Sorpe’s construction. This may well have influenced the final structure of the plan and in so doing helped create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There was another area, however, where the planning seemed a little wanting, and that was the weather forecasting. The lack of forewarning about valley mists was consistent with inaccurate weather forecasting for the raid, which was almost certainly to cost Byers’s crew their lives and could very easily have accounted for Gibson and the first three too.
On 7 June, Air Vice-Marshal Cochrane distributed a report on Operation CHASTISE which included a number of appendices, including ‘Appendix E: Report of Navigation’. He reported that the weather forecast had been a north-westerly wind west of three degrees east of less than 6 mph, i.e. over the North Sea, and a north-easterly of as much as 35 mph over the target. However, this does not seem to have been the forecast given to the crews, because none of the navigators appear to have factored in a 6 mph north-westerly in their navigation logs. Flight Lieutenant Leggo, the Squadron Navigation Officer, who was flying with Mick Martin, recorded ‘calm’ west of three degrees east. It is also notable that not one of the navigators – or indeed any of the crews – who survived the raid ever mentioned the weather forecast given them by the Met Officer at the pre-raid briefing at Scampton, presumably because it was so unremarkable it was not considered worth recording. Most only refer to the fine weather that May Sunday.
At the time, the Meteorological Office produced an incredible array of forecasts, on a roughly three-hourly basis, which covered not only the British Isles, but continental Europe and out into the Atlantic. These changed little during the day, and both the morning and 1 p.m. charts for the British Isles showed that it was a warm and sunny day, just as the crews remembered. The forecasters clearly thought that, with high pressure over Britain, the temperature was likely to fall rapidly at night, which was typical of spring, and become very cold at surface level, all of which would suggest calm winds at that height. But, already, there were signs that the ridge of high pressure was just beginning to collapse.
Furthermore, the upper air chart showed clearly that there were already strong north-easterly winds at around 9,000 feet by early evening, while, across the North Sea, along the Dutch and Belgian coast and inland there were north-easterly surface winds already at 20 knots or more – that is, at the level the squadron would be flying. The combination of the high pressure over Britain and the strong winds across the sea suggested a northerly or north-easterly wind of perhaps 5–10 knots over the North Sea at the very least, and maybe stronger. For some reason, this was not forecast to the crews.
Interestingly, however, Cochrane in his Appendix E then listed the subsequent recorded weather forecast, which showed, as the maps had originally suggested at 1 p.m. on 16 May, that there had indeed been a northerly wind of ‘up to 10 mph’ and a north-pack easterly of some 14 mph over the Continent. ‘All navigators, except one,’2 noted Cochrane, ‘found winds.’ The report on the raid concluded quite categorically that the six lost off the planned route were because of tracking error, and yet the squadron does not appear to have been properly briefed. ‘As a whole,’ noted Cochrane, ‘the logs returned do not show as high a standard as they do on a normal high level night sortie.’ Certainly, Leggo’s nav log is particularly sparse on detail. On an operation of this importance, the Squadron Navigation Officer would have normally been expected to go through the route plan with every single other navigator, yet there are inconsistencies between Leggo’s nav log and that of Vivian Nicholson in Maltby’s crew, even though both flew the same course. There is no question that Leggo was a fine navigator – he would not have been made Squadron Navigation Officer unless he was – but the lack of information on his nav log and the inconsistencies are surprising, nonetheless.
Cochrane suggested a number of reasons for the slackness of the navigation log keeping, including crews feeling more ‘jumpy’ than normal because of the low-level operation they were flying, or navigators not being at their tables quite as much as normal because they were too busy map-reading. The last reason given, however, was the key one. ‘In conditions of light winds,’ suggested Cochrane, ‘wind finding is not so important as it is if the winds are strong and changeable. On the operation in question, there was not enough wind to necessitate continual W/V [wind variation] checks.’
This is a far more convincing reason than being ‘jumpy’. Drifts were used by some as they travelled across the North Sea – these were taken on flame floats that were dropped from the aircraft. Any deviation caused by wind could then be roughly worked out by looking at the position of the flaming float on the water behind them. These would obviously not be used as they approached the enemy coast for fear of being spotted, but since they had been told there would be calm winds in the North Sea and English Channel why would they need to carry out drift checks? The lack of navigational logging as the journey progressed certainly suggests they had carried out far fewer wind variation checks than they might otherwise have done.
They were able to use GEE for parts of the journey, although it involved climbing dangerously to use it, which meant most used it sparingly. They also repeatedly found that the GEE signals had been jammed by the enemy. At any rate, accurate weather forecasting might have made an important difference. Navigation was hard enough without being given the incorrect weather forecast.
Even so, despite the failure to destroy the Sorpe, there is no question that the raid was a phenomenal achievement. It was true that the squadron had accrued around 2,000 training hours, but, really, the preparation was decidedly patchy in parts. Only one, lone live Upkeep had been dropped before the raid; half the crews had never even dropped an inert one. That they should have been expected to head over enemy-occupied territory to drop a weapon that had been dropped once before by some and by many not at all is astonishing.
The standard of navigation was also incredible. That Anderson’s crew were the only ones not to find their target was another astounding achievement. Low-level cross-country navigation was incredibly difficult even in daylight, but at night time and over occupied territory it was even more so. When I first flew over the dams, I was travelling at around 2,000 feet on a bright, clear day with good visibility. Travelling from the Möhne, we did find the Eder, but it was not easy, even at that height. At just a hundred feet, at night, with mists forming, it is extraordinary that they ever found it at all. Every current pilot I have talked to about this has reiterated just how difficult low-level navigation is without any modern navigational aids.
When I first visited the Eder Dam, I was similarly amazed as to how hard it must have been for those Lancasters to accurately hit the dam. The topography is so unforgiving. It took no time to walk from the dam itself to the end of the spit that curled round in front of it. Looking back to the dam wall, it seemed every bit as close as it was. A few months later, I was there again with a Beech 18 flying over at around 500 feet. This was a period two-engine aircraft with a similar tail to that of the Lancaster, although, overall, very much smaller. It also similarly lacked modern controls, hydraulics and navigational aids. The pilot had not flown over the dams before, and even in his smaller, lighter aircraft, and flying at 500 feet, he was surprised by how tight the turn was at the spit. He could hardly imagine how a laden Lancaster could achieve it and at a mere sixty feet off the water. ‘It was wooded and rough3 land and scenically, it was rather beautiful,’ Dave Shannon commented some years later, ‘but not the sort of place to try and get into with a four-engined aircraft, and get out again and get down to sixty feet and do your run-up, get your speed at 232 miles an hour and then have a sheer rock face at the end of it to climb up over the top.’
The Sorpe was pretty difficult too, which is why both McCarthy and Brown repeatedly flew dummy runs over the length of the wall before finally dropping their mines. Much later, in the 1960s, Joe McCarthy visited the Sorpe with his son, Joe Jr, then a fast-jet pilot in the US Navy. Neither had been on the ground there before and suddenly, halfway across, Joe Sr stopped, his hands on his hips, and with a quizzical expression on his face looked back and forth along the length of the dam and at the rising wooded slopes one end and the village of Langscheid at the other. ‘You know,’ he said to his son, ‘if I’d seen this dam from this angle before the raid, I would have said it couldn’t be done.’ Joe Jr later flew in the Vietnam War and continued his flying career afterwards, so has a good appreciation of what his father went through. He is in awe of what his father and those in 617 Squadron achieved. ‘Especially that they were flying such a big, heavy aircraft, with flight controls that are just cables. It’s not hydraulically boosted like controls are today,’ he says. ‘You really had to lug the thing around. You’re dodging pylons, worried about flak, trying to stay on the route, you’re making turns and to try and accomplish all these different things at the same time would be physically, physically, tiring.’
For 617 Squadron, there had been little flying in the weeks that followed Operation CHASTISE, but one thing was certain: the squadron was now here to stay, and although Harris had an instinctive mistrust and dislike of specialist elite units, it was clear that from its personnel and now fame, this was what it had become, as he was fully aware. ‘It is my intention,’4 he announced on 3 June, ‘to keep this squadron for the performance of similar tasks in the future.’ Just how to use it had, however, not been quite resolved. The first operation after the Dams Raid was on two power stations in northern Italy on 15 July and included many of the originals, such as Les Munro, Joe McCarthy, Mick Martin and David Maltby.
Meanwhile, the Air Ministry and Bomber Command were considering using Upkeep mines again, although over land rather than water. The Dams Raid had demonstrated that there was a place for precision bombing and that attacks could be co-ordinated, rather as they were in land attacks, by a unit commander at the scene using VHF. This allowed for greater control at the target and increased flexibility to deal with an attack situation as it developed.
On 8 June, the Ad Hoc Committee had met once more following 617 Squadron trials in the New Forest using Upkeeps over land. The results had been encouraging and now Bufton, Bottomley and others began looking at fresh targets, not least the Rothensee Ship Lift, the Dortmund–Ems Canal and the Mittelland Canal. There were a number of issues, however, not least that more Type 464s would be needed. Upkeeps used on land would be more effective with forward spin, rather than backspin, which meant altering the rotors. Then there was the question of whether Highballs might be more effective on such targets than Upkeeps. Finally, there was the discovery that Norm Barlow’s Upkeep had survived the crash intact and had been captured – and presumably dissected – by the Germans. All these factors contributed to a gradual erosion of enthusiasm for the weapon. Upkeep mines were not entirely discarded, but they were never used again. Not until after the war were those remaining large mines finally dumped into the sea.
Highball was never used either. After the cancellation of SERVANT, plans continued for an attack on the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean but the issues that dogged the trials in Scotland in May had still not been resolved by the time Sicily was invaded. The Italians threw in the towel before an attack could be launched. Testing continued but 618 Squadron could not be kept back for ever, and in September they were released for other duties. Not until the following year were all the issues with Highball finally resolved, and although 618 Squadron was later sent out to Australia in preparation for the weapon’s use against Japanese shipping, it was never used operationally. Admiral Renouf, Highball’s biggest champion, was retired just a month after CHASTISE. Highball demonstrated just how fine the line was between creating a weapon that could be used operationally and one that never saw the light of day.
Barnes Wallis has often been portrayed as a lone voice desperately arguing his case in the face of a wall of po-faced bureaucracy, but this was hardly the case. That Operation CHASTISE ever happened at all is testimony to the many people from different services and from different ministries and departments who helped support his idea and who ensured it bore fruit. Of course, there were those who opposed it but their opposition was perfectly valid, and even despite the success of the Raid, the fact that so much time and effort was put into a weapon that was only ever used once rather supports men like Linnell who were so sceptical initially. And, as it happened, the Windsor never did go into production; just three prototypes were made, but by then the Lancaster was delivering greater payloads than had initially been expected and assembly lines were running smoothly. The Windsor was simply not considered necessary any more.
No, Wallis may have been the inventor of the weapon and the driving force behind its development, but Operation CHASTISE was truly a team effort, and underlined Britain’s willingness to harness science and innovation into winning the war. Far from being small-minded stick-in-the-muds, Britain’s war leaders developed a culture of inventiveness and experiment that led to a staggering array of brilliant technological development. The bouncing bomb is testimony to this, and the decision to greenlight the project was an unquestionably brave one by Portal, but one which, again, demonstrates that Britain’s war leaders were both modernists and risk-takers.
Although Upkeep would thus only ever be a one-operation weapon, Wallis quickly returned to his earlier ideas for a deep-penetration bomb. Just after the raid, he was approached by Sir Wilfrid Freeman, now Chief Executive at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, about his idea for the ten-ton bomb. ‘How soon could you let me have one?’5 Freeman asked him.
‘Five months,’ Wallis replied, ‘if I have all the labour available in Sheffield.’ Even at the 8 June meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee, ‘Item No. 10 – Deep Penetration Bomb’ was being discussed. With Wallis’s credibility now significantly higher, two such weapons would be developed: the six-ton Tallboy and the ten-ton Grand Slam, and both were to be used very effectively on a number of precision operations by none other than 617 Squadron, the Dam Busters.
Gibson left the squadron at the beginning of August and for a while 617 floundered. Squadron Leader George Holden took over, and although he had a hard act to follow, he was unpopular and his command was not a success. The next major operation by the squadron was an attack on the Dortmund–Ems Canal in September. The first time they tried, on the night of 14 September, they set off but were recalled due to bad weather and as they returned David Maltby and his crew were lost. Eight aircraft set out again the following night, once more in far from ideal weather conditions. Not only was the operation a failure, but five of the eight crews were lost, including those of Holden, Les Knight and Wilson and Divall. This was to be 617 Squadron’s darkest hour.
Holden was replaced as CO by Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire – a man who rivalled Gibson’s experience, and someone with vision, charisma, brains and charm. Les Munro reckoned Cheshire was the finest man he ever met; Johnny Johnson agrees. During the Cheshire era, 617 emerged from being the squadron who had performed one incredible mission to being the deserved elite squadron in Bomber Command. Men like Munro, McCarthy, Martin and Shannon became the core of this highly skilled, highly efficient precision-bombing unit. It was 617 Squadron that smashed the Saumur Tunnel, and the E-boat pens at Le Havre using Tallboys. On D-Day, with Munro and Cheshire sharing control, the squadron managed to execute a simulation of a cross-Channel invasion fleet to fool the Germans into thinking the main invasion force was heading for the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. It was an operation that required the highest flying skill imaginable. Later, after Cheshire, Munro and the last Dam Busters had left the Squadron, it was 617 who finally sank the Tirpitz – the German battleship that had triggered such interest in the bouncing bomb in the first place.
The Dams Raid was never forgotten, but after the war it returned to the forefront of public consciousness, first with the publication of Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters, and then, in 1955, with the film of the same name. It was a huge success and has remained one of the most popular war films of all time ever since. Post-war analysis of the raid has often been critical, however. ‘The effects of this brilliant6 achievement upon the German war machine,’ wrote the official historians of the Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, ‘were not, in themselves, of fundamental importance nor even seriously damaging.’ This was a line repeated by future historians. Goebbels’s diary entry from 20 May, in which he suggested the damage was not as bad as first feared, is also often quoted, as are Speer’s comments in his autobiography in which he criticized the RAF for attacking the Eder and not the Sorpe more heavily.
However, as I hope I have showed, the weight of German evidence (not consulted by the official historians) does not support this. It has been argued that the lasting effects of the Dams Raid were minimal because they were rebuilt so quickly. This, however, is to look at it the wrong way round: they would not have been rebuilt so quickly or at so much cost had they not been important targets. The tragedy is that the post-war downplaying of their importance affected the way those who flew on the raid viewed what they had done. The Dam Buster veterans were suddenly expected to defend what they had achieved. Ken Brown, for one, until his dying day, believed the losses had simply not been worth what he had come to understand had been limited achievements. It is time to put the record straight.
But what of the Dam Busters and those men who ensured this incredible raid took place? Barnes Wallis lived a long and celebrated life. After the war, he continued working for Vickers, developing, among other things, the Swallow supersonic jet aeroplane. The photograph of the breached Möhne Dam hung on his office wall at Brooklands for the rest of his working life.
Four years after the war, his old friend Sir Wilfrid Freeman suggested to him that he should apply to the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors for some financial recognition for his work on the destruction of the dams. Wallis refused; he felt very strongly that the credit for destroying the dams was not due to him but to the crews who carried out the mission. Always a man of deep faith, he later heard in the church at Effingham a reading from 2 Samuel. ‘Be it far from me, O Lord, that I should do this: is not this the blood of the men that went in jeopardy of their lives?’ It was a line that summed up his view precisely. He was, however, eventually knighted, deserved recognition not only of his extraordinary wartime achievements, but also of an astonishing and long career. He lived on in Effingham until finally passing away in 1979, aged ninety-two, but his deep regret over the loss of life suffered on the Dams Raid was something he took with him to his grave.
Sadly, many of the Dam Busters did not survive the war. Gibson’s crew were all lost flying with Holden on the Dortmund–Ems Canal operation. Geoff Rice later lost his crew on the raid on Liège in December 1943, although he survived, becoming a POW. Bob Hay was fatally wounded during an attack on a viaduct in southern France the following February. Mick Martin had made an unofficial pact with his crew that they would all finish together; Hay’s death was the trigger for him to call time on operational flying. Cyril Anderson was also killed with his crew, during an attack on Mannheim in September 1943. On his grave, his wife had the following words inscribed: ‘In my book of memory is marked the happy story of a love deep and true.’
Nor did Gibson survive the war. There would be no dream country cottage where he and Maggie – rather than his wife, Eve – could live out long, happy lives together. He went to America, as ordered, returning in December, thin, drawn and exhausted and assuming he would be returned to 617 Squadron. This was not to be. Instead, he wrote Enemy Coast Ahead, dabbled in politics, attended a staff course, and then pleaded with Harris to be allowed to return to operations. This did not happen, but he was posted to the staff of 55 Base at East Kirkby, the hub of three squadrons, where his duties were to be operational planning and liaison.
Almost immediately, Gibson found living and working at an operational base without actually flying a terrible kind of torture. Two weeks after arriving, he decided to get back in touch with Maggie, writing to her and then paying her a visit in Bognor Regis, where she was now based. He had not seen her in nearly a year, but the old feelings for one another were still very much alive. The war was finally drawing to an end and sometimes it occurred to him that he might survive it after all; perhaps he and Maggie did have a future. Perhaps Honeysuckle Cottage, their idealized fantasy home, might prove a reality. A couple of days after returning to East Kirkby, he wrote her a card. ‘The day was perfect.7 I love you now and for ever.’
Soon after, he flew again – unofficially taking the place of a Lancaster pilot from 630 Squadron in a raid on a V1 missile site. A couple of weeks after that, he was posted – this time to No. 54 Base HQ at Coningsby. It was here that he began flying – again unofficially – a Mosquito from 627 Squadron that was on loan to Coningsby Base staff from nearby Woodhall Spa, where both 617 and 627 Squadrons were based. Gibson had never been properly trained on a Mosquito, but on 19 September he appointed himself Master Bomber for an operation on Rheydt. It was a crazy decision and completely unnecessary, fuelled only by his urge to fly operationally once more. At any rate, he did not return from that mission. It may never be known what really happened, but Gibson’s Mosquito crashed near Steenbergen in Holland, killing both him and his navigator.
It was a tragic waste and yet Gibson was in many ways a rather tragic, although undeniably heroic, figure. Like all the greatest heroes, he was flawed. He could be arrogant, was something of a martinet and could be horribly opinionated. Some, like Hopgood and Shannon, thought the world of him, others that he was in-sufferable. What is undeniably the case is that during the training for CHASTISE, and throughout the raid itself, Gibson’s achievements were Herculean. Despite extreme mental and physical exhaustion, despite the immense responsibility, and despite being ill enough to be grounded, he moulded and formed the squadron and then, on the operation itself, led it with exceptional skill and bravery. His flaws only make his achievement even more remarkable.
There are now, at the time of writing, just four survivors of the 133 men who flew on the raid. Fred Sutherland, front gunner in Les Knight’s crew, lives in Canada. Johnny Johnson, bomb-aimer on Joe McCarthy’s crew, now lives in Bristol, having had a long career in the RAF, in which he rose to the rank of Squadron Leader before becoming a teacher. His marriage to Gwen, begun so hurriedly a few days after joining 617 Squadron, was a long and happy one. Grant McDonald, rear gunner on Ken Brown’s crew, lives in Vancouver. After the war, he left the Air Force and became a Customs officer, although he kept up with some of his old crew and to this day remains proud of being one of the original Dam Busters. ‘It was something pretty different,’ he says. ‘It stayed with you, that’s for sure.’
Les Munro was taken off operations in July 1944, after completing thirty-six operations with 617 Squadron and becoming ‘B’ Flight Commander. He was then appointed to command 1690 Bomber Defence Training Flight and flew Hurricanes for the next twelve months. Returning home after the war, he was employed by the State Advances Corporation, carrying out land valuation and the settlement of returned servicemen on farms. In 1961, he acquired his own farm, which he continued to run for the next fourteen years before downsizing to a smaller property. It was during this period that he became involved in local, regional and national Local Body Government. For this work, he was appointed a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order and, in 1997, made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. He married his wife, Betty, a few years after the war, and together they had five children. Sadly, Betty died some six months after their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Munro retired to Tauranga on the Bay of Plenty, where he still lives.
For all the survivors, the Dams Raid remained an unforgettable moment in their lives. Historians may still debate the effects of the raid, but its legacy affected many people in more personal ways too. In Germany, Karl Schäfer says his generation never forgot the horrors of that terrible night. ‘After that,’ he says, ‘we lost the will to carry on.’ Even to this day, the breaching of the dams is still referred to as the Katastrophe.
The raid also profoundly touched the lives of John Fraser’s family. After baling out of Hopgood’s plane, Fraser managed to evade capture for a while, making use of the survival skills he had learned growing up on Vancouver Island. He later recalled making his way some 200 miles before being picked up near the Rhine. He spent the rest of the war as a POW. It was while in camp that he drafted a letter to Hopgood’s mother, written in pencil in a small notebook. ‘Mrs Hopgood,’ he scrawled, ‘we can wait and hope and pray, not only for our own dear ones, but for those others in distress, and in our waiting, we may be able to learn some lessons God is trying to teach us.’ His time with Hopgood and the squadron was brief but had a profound effect on him. When he was finally reunited with his young wife and was able to take her to Canada and start a family, he called their daughter Shere – the name of the village where Hopgood had been raised. Tragically, John Fraser died in a flying accident in Canada in 1962, but later, through making a documentary about the raid, Shere Fraser Lowe met Joe McCarthy Jr and, in 2010, these two children of Dam Busters were married. They live not far from John’s widow, Doris.
And, of course, many lives took a quite different course because of those who did not return from the raid. For three long months, Gwen Parfitt – Charlie Williams’s Bobbie – desperately tried to find out what had happened to the man she loved, hoping and praying that he had somehow survived and been taken prisoner. Not until 14 August did she receive the terrible news that he had been killed on the night of the raid.
Gwen later married but had no children and certainly, by 1998, she was on her own and in need of funds for a place in a home. It appears to have been for this reason that she sold her letters from her beloved Charlie to the Queensland State Library in Brisbane, Australia. After all, she had no one to leave them to, while at a proper archive in Williams’s home state they might be properly looked after. A place where Charlie might not be forgotten.
She sent the bundle of letters and the scrapbook Charlie had been filling before the raid with a covering letter, in which, on two sides of foolscap, she twice mentioned that they had been due to be married the week after the raid. She then wrote about how, some years later, she had the chance of visiting the Möhne Dam. ‘It was a beautiful day,’8 she recalled, ‘the sun was shining, children were laughing with ice creams and cakes. I stood drawing breath for a moment – it was as if it had never been – and knowing the young man so well, that is the way he would have liked to see it. I know. Perhaps it wasn’t in vain.’
FROM James Holland…