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A Tribute to the Dambusters in Artwork
Part 2 - From the Coast to the Dams
Now in enemy territory, evading detection was the best chance of survival for the Lancasters, and to achieve this meant flying low - very low. The supreme skill of the Lancaster pilots was perhaps most wondrously demonstrated by the exploits of Flight Sergeant William Clifford Townsend in Lancaster ED886 AJ-O, whose Wireless Operator George Alexander Chalmers looked out of the aircraft to find they were flying through a forest firetrap, below the tops of the trees! All of the remaining Lancasters took the approach of flying at extremely low level, sometimes with deadly consequences as we will see later.
Figure 1 : Extreme Low Level Flying
Main Image : Undetected by Ivan Berryman
En route to the Ruhr Dams on the night of 16/17 May 1943, P/O W C Townsend, demonstrating great skill, flew his aircraft, ED886(G) 'O'- Orange below tree-top height through a forest firetrap on his way to the Ennepe Dam, a feat carried out by moonlight alone. AJ-O made it successfully to its target where the Upkeep bomb was observed to hit the dam, but with no effect, before returning safely to base the following morning.
Inset : A Wing and a Prayer by Ivan Berryman
The Dams raids on the night of 16/17 May 1943 were notable not least for the incredible ingenuity shown by the Lancaster crews in their efforts to avoid detection by the enemy en route to their targets. P/O W C Townsend elected to fly his aircraft, ED886(G) O for Orange below tree-top height through a forest firetrap on his way to the Ennepe Dam, a feat carried out by moonlight alone. AJ-O made it successfully to its target where the Upkeep bomb was observed to hit the dam, but with no effect. Townsend returned to base at this perilous altitude, the crew observing that flak shells were bouncing off the sea in the German gunners' efforts to prevent the Lancaster's escape across the North Sea. AJ-O was one of eleven aircraft to return safely out of a total of nineteen that took part in the heroic raids under the codename Operation Chastise.
Crew of ED886 AJ-O 'O for Orange' :
Sergeant Dennis John Dean Powell (Flight Engineer)
Pilot Officer Cecil Lancelot Howard (Navigator)
Flight Sergeant George Alexander Chalmers (Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Charles Ernest Franklin (Bomb Aimer)
Sergeant Douglas Edward Webb (Front Gunner)
Sergeant Raymond Wilkinson (Rear Gunner)
The Dutch Canals (1).
Traveling from the Dutch coast to the dams allowed the Lancasters to sometimes follow the canals of Holland. Flying as low as fifty feet, the thunderous bombers shook windmills as they passed along the canals. This part of the Dambusters raid story, the scene of the tranquil landscape shattered by the noise of the bombers has inevitably inspired a deal of superb artwork.
Figure 2 : Breaking the Silence
Main Image : Well on the Way to Make History - The Dambusters by David Pentland
The most famous raid of the second world war, the audacious Dambusters raid by Lancasters of No.617 Sqn was to wreak havoc in Germanys industrial heartland. Two dams will be destroyed on the raid - the Mohne and the Eder, flooding the valleys below and stopping production in their factories, providing an immeasurable morale boost for those back home. Here, two of the modified bombers pass windmills on the Dutch canals as they make their way to the first target, their almighty roar shattering the stillness and disturbing some of the local wildlife. As they approach Germany in the moonlight, the bombers are well on the way to make history.
Inset : En-Route by Anthony Saunders
Flying at altitudes as low as fifty feet, Lancasters of 617 Squadron follow the Dutch canals en-route to Germany - their target, the mighty Dams of the Ruhr - on the night of 16th / 17th May 1943. At such low level the pilots of many of the specially modified Lancasters found their flying skills tested to the extreme as they were forced to take violent evasive actions when they encountered flak, large electricity pylons and tall trees, but several of the gunners in the crews still managed to shoot up and damage a number of trains on the way.
Targets of Opportunity.
One significant story to come from this stage of the dams raid comes from Lancaster ED918 AJ-F 'F for Freddie', whose gunners shot up several trains before reaching their target. As part of the third wave of aircraft and significantly later than the other waves, the crew of ED918 were on the way to the Sorpe dam as they encountered a number of these targets of opportunity. A minor and often forgotten part of the raid, the gunners wreaked havoc against the locomotives they passed en route.
Figure 3 : Raining Fire
Main Image : Raining Fire by Ivan Berryman
Flying impossibly low en route to the Sorpe Dam on the night of 16th/17th May 1943 as part of Operation Chastise, Flight Sergeant Ken Brown's Lancaster ED918(G) encountered a number of German trains. On three occasions, AJ-F's nose and tail gunners (Sgt D Allaston, front and F/Sgt G S MacDonald, rear) opened fire, pouring shells and hot tracer rounds into the lumbering locomotive and its rolling stock, wreaking havoc along the way. ED918(G) eventually arrived at the Sorpe Dam at 3.00am where it successfully released its Upkeep bomb, but without breaching the dam. Brown and his crew returned safely, their aircraft riddled with holes, perhaps partially due to their route home taking them over the breached Mohne Dam, where they briefly exchanged gunfire with the German batteries there.
Inset : Unmissable Chance by Ivan Berryman
The nose and tail gunners of Ken Brown's Lancaster ED918(G) F for Freddie pour fire into a train as they pass overhead en route to the Sorpe Dam during the Dambusters raid.
Crew of ED918 AJF 'F for Freddie' :
Sergeant Kenneth William Brown (Pilot)
The Dutch Canals (2).
As the waves of bombers passed over Holland, the target of the dams was looming ever nearer. With the main known flak defences deliberately skirted, the aircraft would soon arrive at their first target, the Möhne dam. For now, it was up to the Pilot and Navigator to negotiate the Dutch terrain, and much of the time the option was taken to use the canals the country is famed for. Below we see more artwork of this stage of the raids.
Figure 4 : Thunderous Arrival
Main Image : Dambusters - The First Wave by Ivan Berryman
En route to the dams of the Ruhr Valley, the first wave of three specially adapted Avro Lancasters roar across the Dutch wetlands on the night of 16 -17th May 1943 led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, their mission to breach the Mohne and Eder dams, thus robbing the German war machine of valuable hydro-electric power and disrupting the water supply to the entire area. Carrying their unique, Barnes Wallis designed 'Bouncing Bomb' and flying at just 30m above the ground to avoid radar detection, 617 Squadron's Lancasters forged their way into the enemy territories, following the canals of the Netherlands and flying through forest fire traps below treetop height to their targets. Gibson's aircraft ('G'-George) is nearest with 'M'-Mother of Fl/Lt Hopgood off his port wing and 'P'-Peter (Popsie) of Fl/Lt Martin in the distance.
Crew of ED932 AJ-G 'G for George' :
Commander Guy Penrose Gibson (Pilot)
Inset : Inbound to Target - The Dambusters by Robert Taylor
The crews of 617 Squadron that took part in the epic Dambusters raid on the night of 16/17 May 1943 were among the finest in the RAF. They were the elite of Bomber Command, and when they left RAF Scampton that night, the skills of their pilots – some of the finest of the Second World War, would be tested to the limit. First, they must guide their aircraft across heavily defended enemy territory at altitudes often as low as fifty feet, dodging flak, trees, buildings and power lines. And then they must attack their targets with a precision unmatched in the annals of the RAF. Of all the pilots who took to the skies that night, no-one was more accomplished at low-level flying than Flight Lieutenant Mick Martin, and it is his aircraft, Lancaster AJ-P that is the subject of this artwork. In company with Flight Lieutenant John Hopgood in the distance, they follow one of the many canals of Holland, wingtips barely missing the sails of the windmills, en-route to the Mohne Dam.
Crew of ED909 AJ-P 'P for Popsie' :
Lieutenant Harold Brownlow Morgan 'Mick' Martin (Pilot)
The Perils of the Raid.
Almost inevitably, not all of the bombers successfully crossed the enemy stronghold to reach the dams. Flying at perilously low levels at night brought real danger, and this danger caught up with the crew of ED864 AJ-B when they collided with an electricity pylon and cables in the darkness. The result was inevitable : the aircraft crashed in flames by the pylon, and was completely destroyed shortly after as the Upkeep mine exploded. Another seven crew had been lost.
Figure 5 : The Inevitability of Audacity
Main Image : The Horror and the Glory by Ivan Berryman
The flight to the Ruhr dams on the night of 16th/17th May 1943 as part of Operation Chastise was fraught with peril as each wave of three aircraft hugged the ground across Holland and into Germany to avoid detection. Having flown particularly low to avoid the flak and searchlights near Dulmen, ED864 (AJ-B) piloted by Flt Lt W Astell sadly hit high tension wires and immediately burst into flames, the aircraft rearing into the air before hitting the ground, it's Upkeep mine exploding moments later, killing all the crew instantly. These were the first victims of the Dambuster raids, the first of eight aircraft that failed to return of the nineteen that took off on this heroic mission.
Crew of ED864 AJ-B 'B for Baker' :
Lieutenant William Astell (Pilot)
A Tragic Miracle.
Of course, the German defences were in operation where they could be against the intruders. Flak batteries that took so many aircraft from the sky in the war were aiming for these most audacious raiders as they flew over their territory. Hitting them would be difficult at such low level, but if a hit was scored, the aircraft would have almost no time to recover from any damage or indeed for the crew to escape. This was the case in the sky over Hamm for Lancaster ED910 AJ-C. Raked by ground fire in the starboard inner engine, the aircraft caught fire and lost hydraulics - it was unresponsive, and it was doomed. The aircraft crashed in a fiery wreck and six of the crew were killed. The loss of six crew can never be a positive story, but there was one miraculous silver lining to this tragedy. The tail of the aircraft sheared off from the main fuselage on impact, and sent the rear turret and the gunner some distance away from the fireball that was the wreckage of the main body of the aircraft. Although immediately taken prisoner, Sergeant Frank Tees had somehow survived the crash that had killed the rest of his crew. Amazingly he had opted to swap positions with the front gunner before take off - a decision that had saved his life.
Figure 6 : Silver Lining
Main Image : Tragedy Above Hamm by Ivan Berryman
Whilst en route to the Ruhr on the night of 16th/17th May 1943 as part of Operation Chastise, Lancaster AJ-C received 20mm hits to the starboard inner engine which immediately burst into flames. Pilot Officer Warner Ottley realised instantly that all hydraulic power was knocked out and the aircraft began a lurid descent toward the ground, Ottley's final words over the intercom being Sorry boys. They got us. When ED910(G) impacted with the ground, its tail sheared off and the rear turret, including Sgt Fred Tees survived the conflagration. Tees was quickly taken prisoner, no doubt mindful of the tragic fact that he had swapped his front turret for the rear with Sgt Harry Strange before take-off. All the other crew members sadly perished.
Crew of ED910 AJ-C 'C for Charlie' :
Officer Warner H T Ottley (Pilot)
These were not the only Lancasters to be lost on the way from the Dutch coast to the dams. Seven more crew were lost when ED927 AJ-E of the second wave also reportedly hit power cables whilst flying low, in a similar fashion to AJ-B. Sadly, another full crew of seven were lost when ED865 AJ-S was shot down by ground fire over Gilze-Rijen airfield in Holland. ED921 AJ-W of the second wave was forced to turn back after suffering complete electrical failure, damage sustained just after crossing the Dutch coast. In all, a further five Lancasters had failed to complete the journey from the Dutch coast to the dams. Just 12 of the 19 aircraft would make it to their targets. The difficulty of the mission was beginning to take its toll.
Crew of ED927 AJ-E 'E for Easy' :
Lieutenant Robert Norman George Barlow (Pilot)
Crew of ED865 AJ-S 'S for Sugar' :
Officer Lewis Johnstone Burpee (Pilot)
Crew of ED921 AJ-W 'W for Willie' :
Lieutenant John Leslie Munro (Pilot)
More information :
Full list of No.617 Sqn Artwork
No.617 Sqn in our Aviation Directory - here you will find links to many prints signed by the men who flew on the Dambusters raid.
See our aviation history timeline for all today's historical aviation events - air victories, aircraft losses and pilot details.
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