It’s a funny thing modesty isn’t it?
My ‘Big Boy’s Book of Big Words’ defines it as “not overrating one’s own merit; unassuming”.
And if ever there was a hero of mine that deserves the word modest being applied to them, then it is this man.
He is Group Captain James “Willie” “Tirpitz” Tait, DSO and three Bars, DFC and Bar.
Which says enough really. It was Tait’s “Tallboy” bomb, dropped from his Lancaster of 617 Sqn (the famous Dambusters), on September 15 1944, that fatally wounded the Nazi warship the Tirpitz. The Tirpitz itself, had only fired it’s massive guns in anger only once, but had threatened the Atlantic Convoys for much of the war, and so had become a bit of a talisman between the RAF and the Navy – who was going to get to sink it first!
And of course it was the RAF. The RAF, and particularly 617 and 9 Sqns carried out several raids on the ship whilst hidden in a fjord in Norway, several of which were flown as part of two trips, flying from the UK (Lossiemouth where 617 is now based) to a Russia air base near to Archangel where they overnighted and refuelled before making the attack and returning to base.
The Russian base itself was a bit…rustic…and was plagued by Red Fleas which spent the night biting most of the crews, however Tait himself received no bites, earning a comment from another of the RAF guys saying that “Even Communist bugs have a respect for rank”.
All through his career he was a model of courage and leadership. He received his (first) DFC for leading bombing raids on Berlin when the navigation to get there can be described as…simplistic. He gained his (first) DSO for leading the flying of a parachute landing of troops in southern Italy, and gained his second DSO (a “Bar” to be worn on the medal ribbon) for his role in a very dangerous day-time raid on Kiel harbour in Germany.
He gained his third DSO (a second Bar) for bombardment operations prior to D-Day, where he operated as the “master bomber”, literally leading 200 Lancasters onto the target.
He became commander of 617 Sqn and gained his second DFC (another Bar) for leading 6 Lancasters in a dramatic low level raid – at 600 feet – on a dam just north of the Swiss border – each aircraft carrying a single 12,000lb “Tallboy” bomb, which were using time delay fuses. Normally Tallboys needed to be dropped from a very high altitude often freefalling for 30 seconds before impacting, so the use of such a weapon at such low level was a dangerous and scary thing. The bomb was so big that it didn’t fit inside even the Lancasters cavernous bomb bay.
Later, whilst taking a “rest” from bombing operations, and commanding a training unit, he took part in all three 1,000-bomber raids on Germany, and then he moved onto leading raids in a Mustang fighter.
In one particular raid the target he had marked had become obscured by haze he flew UNDER the bombing aircraft and told them to “Aim at me” over the radio and then went on to waggle his aircrafts wings so the sunlight would glint off them and act as a marker for the target.
He went on to fly 101 missions – and had flown in the front line of some of the RAF’s most dangerous missions, he earned Four Distinguished Service Orders (DSO’s) and two Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC’s) – a tally that is unparalleled.
He was however turned down for a Victoria Cross, even though he had been recommended by his Air Officer Commanding, instead he gained his fourth DSO. Some would say that a VC is for one event…but a DSO is for “conspicuous bravery and extreme devotion to duty in the face of the enemy, constantly exemplified over a long period of operational flying”. To gain FOUR such medals…well I think that it is something else.
But what has all this to do with modesty. All this doesn’t say anything about that.
No, it’s a very little know event that occurred after the war. He was posted to Singapore, and often had to leave the RAF base outside the city and travel into town to attend meetings and events.
Back then, it was the form that officers had to wear their Number 1 dress uniform to travel into the city and Tait never did. Indeed he had to be ordered by his boss to do so.
And the reason for this was simple. He didn’t like to talk about his wartime exploits – indeed his family weren’t aware of some of the thing he did – and if he wore his Number 1’s, well, this would show his medal ribbons off. Show off his FOUR DSO’s and TWO DFC’s. When he did wear the uniform, he caused consternation and amazement that one man had so many…
He spent his time in the Mess bar slightly aside from the main groups, puffing on his pipe and drinking from his own tankard. He was a shy man who as I say hated publicity, and preferred to spend his retirement at his allotment with his dog.
And it is this modesty that makes him a hero to me. This fact that he did so much, but said so little that makes him a hero to me. He didn’t need to shout, or even talk about what he did. He let his actions do his talking.
You can be a leader and you can do fantastic things, and yet, you don’t have to tell everyone. Those people that matter will know. There’s a link to todays operations. People are out – right now – fighting and doing amazing things that we will very rarely find out about. But that doesn’t lessen what they do. In fact, I think it makes them more and greater. We all need heroes, and we need to know who they are, but in the end, do we actually need one man to symbolise what went on. I am sure Tait himself wouldn’t describe himself as a hero, and he’d be a bit grumpy at me for thinking that he is…
And there’s a nice link in Tait, and his story, to me and to where I am based right now. RAF Benson’s Latin Motto “Spectemur Agendo” translates as ‘Let us be known by our actions’.
And in these days of media and celebrity, that’s a good bit of advice for all of us isn’t it?