There, But For The Grace Of God…
Ok, with apologies to everyone that this is a day late, but here is the blog post I planned to have up here yesterday but, well, my modern day life overtook me somewhat.
The 17th May marks the anniversary of Operation Chastise. This was, of course, the famous Dambusters raid where Lancasters of 617 Sqn led by Wg Cdr Guy Gibson (who earned a Victoria Cross for his leadership, bravery and valour in the face of the enemy) attacked three Nazi German dams – the Mohne, Eder and the Sorpe, with the even more famous ‘Bouncing Bombs’ designed by Barnes Wallis.
That story is legion now – almost legend – but if you want a good website that details the story and the facts behind that legend then you could do worse than have a look at this website (http://www.thedambusters.org.uk/index.html) and in particular have a look at the videos page.
But what I want to concentrate on is just one aircraft. Lancaster ED918, F-Freddy. Why am I interested in this particular aircraft – well Interestingly enough AJ was the code letter given to 617 Sqn, and they are my initials…well my full initials are AJF so naturally I looked at the aircraft involved I looked for AJ-F-Freddy.
This aircraft was part of the third wave of aircraft to take off – with the primary target being the Sorpe dam. Taking of just after midnight it flew across occupied Holland and then over Germany itself at sometimes just 50 foot. Just imagine an aircraft the size of a Lancaster flying over you at 50 foot…and then imagine being IN that aircraft…just the journey itself must have been a terrifying experience.
And in that aircraft AJ-F-Freddy was a crew of 7. But here is where I think this crew is a bit special. They were all non-commissioned aircrew. Either of the rank Sergeant or Flight Sergeant they had no officers on board their aircraft. The Pilot was Flt Sgt Kenneth Brown, Nav was Sgt Dudley Heal, Bomb Aimer – Sgt Stefan Oacia, Flight Eng – Sgt Harry Feneron, Wireless Op – Sgt Harry Hewstone, Front Gunner Sgt Daniel Allatson and Rear Gunner – Flt Sgt Grant MacDonald. Only one other crew on the raid flew without officers…but what makes F-Freddy special is that it is the only Non-Com’d crew to drop it’s bouncing bomb on target.
The Sorpe was probably the worst of the dams to try to target, indeed the other aircraft that managed to get a bomb on target took 10 attempts at doing to, making run after run to get it right. And what was worse was that the other targets had already been bombed meaning that the defenders knew they were coming – and that the air defences would be on standby. But this aside F-Freddy made it’s run and Flt Sgt Brown flew his aircraft in on target for Sgt Oacia to aim at…and they dropped their bomb for it to hit the target. Unfortunately it didn’t breach, and the dam remained intact. Brown then flew his crew home eventually landing back at RAF Scampton at about 5:30am.
So why do I think this is special. Well, as an SNCO myself – the same rack as five of that crew – it makes me very proud. And I wanted to bring this to the attention of readers of this blog. For despite what people think, the vast majority of the pilots and crews of Bomber Command during World War II were Senior Non-Commissioned Officers – SNCO’s, and weren’t Commissioned Officers. And I feel this fact often gets left out.
Like earlier in the war, during the Battle of Britain, many of the pilots were so called ‘Airman Aircrew’ but again this fact is lost in the glamour of the period. It is the idea of the dashing fighter pilot being an officer that is, to be honest, just plain wrong. (What is interesting is the fact that all SNCO aircrew who survived the Battle of Britain eventually were offered Commissions…) But that is not true of the airmen who flew and who also died in Bomber Command.
And in the week that we hear that Bomber Command is to finally get a memorial to the men who flew, fought and died during the Second World War, I would like you to take just moment and think about those men. For here is a fact – a sobering fact – that more men DIED as part of Bomber Command, 55,573 of them, than are currently active serving members of the RAF (some 42,000).
This staggers me. Towards the end of the war the attrition rate of casualties of Bomber Command was actually higher than that in the Trenches of the First World War – the very war that Bomber Commands leader – AVM ‘Bomber’ Harris had served in. He had seen the horror of trench warfare and had been keen that people should not have to fight and die in such circumstances again. Irony is a funny thing…
And this statistic is reflected in the casualties suffered by 617 Sqn on the raid itself. Of the 133 men that participated in the raid, 53 were killed – a staggering casualty rate of 40%.
Was the raid worth this loss? Was the effort of Bomber Command overall worth the sacrifice, of all these young men’s lives? I am not going to judge. And nor should any of us now. The whole war was a terrible, terrible time, where people of all sides did thing that would today be questionable – but what we can say without doubt is that men who did these things were doing their duty to their country in the way they knew how.
They were ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things. And to me they were all heroes. But like a few other names I could mention (like, say, Flt Sgt George ‘Grumpy’ Unwin of 19 Sqn) the crew of AJ-F-Freddy rank a little higher in my esteem, simply because, as I am now a Sergeant, there but for the grace of God go I…