Extract of Letter sent to Family AF Tony Burcher one of 3 POWs from the 56 Aircrew Missing during Operation Chastise on 16/17 May 1943 while operating with the Aircrew of JV (John Hopgood) descrbing the loss of his Lancaster and the attck on the Mohne Dam after W/C Gibsson had made his first Attack.
" As we crossed the coast of Holland, we had a bit of light flak, as usual. Usually when we crossed the coast going into Germany we were picked up by searchlights and had a fair amount of heavy AA but on this occasion we had no worries at that height. Heavy flak bursts about between 15-20 000 ft, so that was the least of our worries. When your flying at zero feet then you can only hear the aircraft when they are on top of you. So they didn't have much time to get their sights on us. Their searchlights had to go at a very very low trajectory and they found it difficult to pick us up. So really the fact that we were flying on the deck meant we were well protected. We were flying at the heighest 100ft but usually a lot lower more like 50 and less.
I knew John from when I was with 106. He was a very popular man. He was really a very nice chap, very likeable and very quite, very reserved. I found that he was an excellent pilot, so I had the greatest confidence in him. We were always told that we had to keep chatter to a minium. It only had to be informative chatter. There was very little talk. As a gunner, the only commentary I could give, of course, was if we were attacked by a night fighter which we weren't that night.
We didn't see any night fighters at all. I was looking out more for guns to shoot up. I shot some searchlights out just before we got to the target. I think that was some help to us.
We were number 2 to Guy' s aircraft. He was to go in and we were to go in next then Mickey would come after us. I didn't personally see the first bomb dropped or its result because I was in the rear turret. I could not see anything ahead of the Lancaster. I could only see from 90 degrees on either side. But the rest of the aircrew all saw it.
It was discussed that who ever went in first might get them by surprise, but they would be certainly waiting for the next bloke and as a crew we all knew it. We knew that once Guy went through, the Germans would know where we were coming from, what direction and what height. So we were in a pretty dicey situation.
We had to get down to the actual bombing height, which was between 60-80ft, that was done by co ordinatiing the two lights. The bomb aimer (JW Fraser) had to set his sights up, but before then we had to start the motor up,which started revolving the bomb. The flight engineer (Charlie Brennan) operated that on a little two stroke engine.
We came under heavy flak from the guns. They were very accurate and set a pattern between the two towers on the dam. We had to fly between the two towers. When they realised where we were coming from, they put a wall of fire in front of us which we then had to fly through. That's what got us.
We were actually hit before we got to the target. I think we were about 20 mins flight time away. It was at about the same time I shot out that searchlight I told you about earlier. I sometimes wonder edited
Anyway regardless of what may or may not have happened had I fired or not, John was hit some time around this point. He was hit by a shell that burst in the area of the cockpit and the front air gunner I believe was killed at this point due to the same burst of fire. At the very least he had been wounded mortally as nothing more was heard ever from his position before we went in. (George Gregory).
I got some pieces of shrapnel in my stomach and lower leg but they were only scratches really, they just drew blood. John (w/op John Minchin) might have been hit then or later on when we actually made the bombing run. But George never was heard to reply to repeated requests to do so and due to other injuries within the crew no one was able to check on his status. At least I heard of no one doing it. This may not be the case but I had my own worries by this time due to my own wounds and shooting at the AA defences and searchlights. All I can tell you is that he never answered on the r/t prior to the Abandon order being given.
Then John said -
"Right well what do you think? " Should we go on? I intend to go on because we have only got a few minutes left. We've come this far. There's no good taking this thing back with us. The aircraft is completely manageable. I can handle it ok. Any objections?"
(I would compare this to when Ron Middleton was shot up over the alps during a raid to Italy, and yet despite wounds to his crew and himself and his a/c damaged badly he went on to bomb the target accurately before loosing his life in a failed ditching at sea - with him went some of his crew too. Ron was later awarded the VC Tony told me as did Bob Kellow that they both believed their skippers should have also won the VC. Bobs skipper was Les Knight and I have heard rumours that both were up for the VC posthumously post war but at least in Les's case this was changed to a MID for unknown reasons.)
We wouldn't have actually said -
"ok just go on".
I remember hearing Charlie (who as F/E would have been standing right beside John at this time) interrupt him by saying "Well what about your face? Its bleeding like.."
John interrupting him mid word by saying "just hold a handkerchief over it".
So I imagine for the remainder of the raids time Charlie would have been standing next to John in an attempt to try and stem the bleeding and keep his eye sight clear. I have no idea as to the nature of the wound and can only assume it to have been a head wound of some nature. (Ron Middleton had the right side of his head pulverised and his eye on that side has been reported as being almost totally removed from its socket. John' s wound may not have been as bad or it may have been worse).
Based on Charlies reactions, and he was normally a calm chap, I can only assume Johns wounds to have been severe in nature. I think anyone else would have probably turned around at that point and headed for home but not John. That was the type of man he was.
To be quite frank I was not feeling that scared. I know that sounds stupid. I was scared, but at the time I was unable to feel it. I was scared all the time in the aircraft. I knew that we were taking a certain amount of risk but my main worry was someone finding out that I was scared so I never felt it or showed it. Besides there were too many distractions going on around me at the time.
We had a glycol leak and lost a lot of power due to that hit but somehow John kept it going. (the engine). It was not actually feathered as some people have stated but was working on reduced revs. When the bomb was released I felt a terrific shuddering throughout the aircraft. I saw these flames shooting past my turret. I could see this flak shooting past us, so I had the turret on the beam waiting til the guns came within my range. I could only go to 90 degrees of the aircraft's axis.
Suddenly with all the flak going around us and all these flames my turret stopped moving. One of the port engines actually drove the turret via its hydraulics mechanism and within seconds of this happening I heard some one either John or Charlie I'm not sure who say
"Christ! The engines on fire".
Then I remember John saying -
" Feather it. Press the extinguisher"
calm like its a exercise I remember that very clearly no panic no rush. After a matter of seconds I remember seeing the flames get even stronger then minutes after that I heard John say -
"Right prepare to abandon aircraft".
At most 5 minutes after that he ordered
" right everybody get out".
Again with no panic fear or any other emotion showing he sounded like he had every time id flown with him. Totally calm and at ease like nothing was wrong at all.
I hand cranked the turret back. Normally that would take a few minutes but I got it back very edited quickly. It was the fastest wound turret you would have ever seen.
I got out and went back into the aircraft's fuselage and put on my parachute. That's how we had been trained. We were always drilled that normally a pilot would say prepare to abandon aircraft and then before jumping you would plug into the intercom and say you were ready where upon you would be given the final order to bail out. This was done to make sure you did not jump when the aircraft may have been saved after all.
I remember vividly getting out of my turret. You were always told when you bail out, take your helmet off because the cord that comes underneath your intercom could choke you when evacuating the turret. Instead of taking my helmet off and leaving it in the turret I thought to myself "no, I have got to plug in again and say I am going so I need it to actually say that I am abandoning the aircraft. So I kept it then re plugged in and said -
" I am abandoning aircraft"
and John said in reply
" For Christ's sake get edited out.
That was the last time I heard of John, he stayed with the Lancaster to the end joining a long list of pilots who refuse to bail out so that "his" crew could make it out.
I was about to jump out when I saw John (Minchin) crawling along the floor his leg dragging uselessly behind him. God knows how he got over the main spar of the aircraft that in itself was a feat of courage. He was on his hands and knees. He was in a hell of a state his edited don't know how he made it this far he was missing edited.
I didn't know what to do. Then I saw he was dragging his parachute with him in one hand. It was a detachable parachute and I took it from him and put it on him. By this time I was on the rear step and had opened the jump door on the side of the aircraft. He was no longer moving so I thought to myself there was only one thing I could do. \ I grabbed his D ring on his parachute, threw him out and hung onto the ring and the result was I broke his parachute open. I don't know to this day whether I did the right thing or not. I still agonise about it and have night mares over edited
But what does one do?
I don't know weather John realised it or not, but by now he was in a steep climbing turn to starboard, going to the west of the target. By this time we only had the two starboard engines working and the port wing was just a mass of flames. You can't climb in a Lancaster when its lost two engines let alone with all the other damage we had suffered. I can only assume John was trying to gain height so we could all get out even at the expanse of his own life. I have heard rumours that Charlie was found in the area of the cockpit not far from John and I think that would have been right. I can't see Charlie leaving John til he was ready to go too.
By now the two port engines were totally shot out. So John was actually turning into the two good engines. Although we were pretty light, John just could not get any more height. The other aircrews when I spoke to them later all reckon it happened at 300ft when the Lancaster's fuel tanks finally went up and the aircraft distengrated mid air. That was around the time I helped John (Minchin) to jump. I was squatting on the step, by the door. Suddenly there was a great rush of air and the next thing I felt was a hell of belt across my back. I had hit the top of the Lancaster's tail fin.
Normally you would go out underneath the tail fin but I actually hit it, so I assume I was going up into the air rather then falling down. That was one of the things that saved me that night, because my parachute must have been dragged out after me.
I had pulled the D ring before I left the Lancaster. Normally that was a stupid thing to do. The Lancaster was in a banking turn to starboard - I suppose that's why I hit her fin.
The next thing I knew was I was being jerked in the air and I just literally hit the ground at the same time the jerk happened.
A combination of things saved my life that night. The fact that I got that little bit of extra time by throwing out John (Minchin), and the fact that the parachute jerked when it opened. A parachute jump is the equalivent of a 12 foot fall (ask your Dad about his jumps with SAS Stephen....). As it turned out, I had a broken back, and according to the doctors, if I had that impact of a 12 ft jump it would have snapped my spine completely. I didn't know til later how lucky I was and I cant help but wonder why edited
I had a broken knee cap as well.
Landing in the middle of a newly ploughed field also helped to save me as it cushioned my fall rather well. And where I landed was in a little bit of a valley, so that must have given me a bit of extra height.
If John had flown the Lancaster straight ahead I would have landed in the path of the flood waters, and would have almost definitely drowned in them. Everything was on my side that night. I just wish it had been on the side of all of my crew edited
John Hopgood and Charlie Brennan had to know they were never going to escape from the aircraft in that kind of a situation and still give the aircrew a chance to get out. So they stayed to the end and I am alive because of that edited.
Aircrew Details Avro Lancaster MK III (Special) AJ-J for Johnny
David Maltby - Pilot Vivian Nicholson - Nav Anthony Stone - WOP/AG John Fort - B/A Harrold Simmonds - AG (Rear) Willaim Hatton - F/E Victor Hill - AG (Nose usually MUAG)
Attacked flying AJ-J ED906/G Mohne Dam immeaditley after Dinghy Young who had already caused a small crack in dam, David Maltby's Bomb deystroyed the dam completley. Pilot David Maltby was a very very Close Friend with the RAAF Pilot David Shannon from Australia and was to be his best man at Davids Wedding to Anne Fowler from England. Sadly David Maltby and his Aircrew were all Killed in September 1943, days before David Shannons Wedding was due to take place.
Further Deatils in the Highly Recomended Title Breaking the Dams - The Story of David Maltby RAFVR and his Aircrew by Charles Foster (who is a relation to David Maltby).
ED 906/G was delivered to 617 RAF Sqd on 23 April 1943 and survived the War only to be scrapped on 29 July 1947. It was always marked as either AJ-J or KC-J.
Fate of David Maltby and His Aircrew
On 14/15 September 1943 David Maltby, David Shannon and other members of 617 RAF Sqd now commanded by S/L George Holden DSO DFC Bar MID was ordered to attack one of the most heavily attacked areas of all of Germany the Dortmund-Ems Canal with the AP a location called Ladbergen. The Operation was cancelled and the aircrews by this time over the Channel were recalled. At low altitude and in the process of turning around the Aircraft was seen to cartwheel into the water with no survivors at 0040. His friend Davis Shannon remained over the location and circled the aera while air sea rescue was contacted until his fuel state forced him to leave the aera (over 2 hours).
The Operation still went ahead on the night of 15/16 September 1943 with almost the entire force shot down by FLAK including George Holden who was Killed and several others like Les Knight RAAF who had 'cracked' the Eder Dam who were also Killed.
Out of a force of 8 Lancasters armed with a single 12000lb HC Bomb only 3 returned and all with serious FLAK Damage.
Killed on 14/15 September 1943 flying Lancaster MK III JA981 KC-J after becoming Airborne at 2350 from RAF Conningsby and then crashing into the sea approx 8 Miles N/E of Cromer off the coast of Norfolk were -
S/L DJH Maltby DSO DFC RAF Sgt W Hatton RAF F/Sgt V Nicholson DFM RAF F/O J Fort DFC RAF F/Sgt AJ Stone RAF F/Sgt V Hill RAF W/O JL Welch DFM RAF (extra AG Nose Turret) Sgt HT Simmonds RAF.
All have no known resting place apart from S/L Maltby whose body was later washed ashore and now rests in Kent, the remainder being recorded on the memorial to Aircrew with no know resting place at Runnymede in the UK. David and Anne Shannon attended his funeral service shortly after being themselves married. David Maltbys Wife was herself pregnant at the time of her death and he never met his son, also she was told the news by George Holden as they lived near to the airbase, 24 hours later the Sqd Adjunt Harry Humphries was himself telling Mrs Holden that her Husband was Himself now Missing.