The Dams raid of 16/17 May 1943 has been the subject of so many books, particularly in recent months with the increased attention shown due to the 70th anniversary of Operation Chastise, that it may seem superfluous to add yet another title to that long list. Dam Busters Failed to Return is, however, a little different from the rest.
Instead of merely repeating the story of the design, development and deployment of the bouncing bombs (though the book does open with a brief explanation of the build-up to Operation Chastise, as one would expect), the authors have concentrated on the crews of the eight Lancasters that crashed, either through accident or enemy action. To do this, they have delved, in detail, into the backgrounds and earlier service histories, as well as the final moments, of some of the fifty-six men who did not return (of whom, three were captured and became prisoners of war) – Pilot Officer Vernon Byers, Flight Lieutenant Bill Astell DFC, Pilot Officer Tony Burcher DFM (PoW), Flight Sergeant John Fraser (PoW), Pilot Officer Robert Urquhart DFC and Squadron Leader Melvin Young DFC & Bar.
Their complete life stories are examined from childhood through to joining the RAF and selection for 617 Squadron. With regards to the choice of subjects for 617 Squadron, it is interesting to read the memo from No.5 Group outlining the future recruitment policy for the new squadron: “As the work is not expected to be arduous full use should be made of crews who have completed two operational tours and who apply to take part in further operations ... the future policy should ensure that a high percentage of the aircrew personnel are time expired experienced crew that need a rest from normal operations.” Some rest!
Amongst the three airmen that survived the loss of their respective Lancasters, to be taken prisoner, was rear-gunner Tony Burcher. When his aircraft, ED925, was hit the hydraulics failed and he had to turn his turret round by hand and then clamber back into the fuselage to retrieve his parachute. As he was planning to leave the stricken bomber he saw the badly injured Wireless Operator, Sergeant John Minchin, edging down the fuselage. Burcher took the only decision he could and, hoping for the best, pushed Minchin out of the aircraft, pulling his D-ring at the same time.
As for Burcher, he also then pulled his ripcord whilst inside the Lancaster. At the very moment he had finished gathering his parachute up in his arms, the bomber exploded. Burcher was blasted out through the open doorway, colliding with the tailfin as he started his descent. Burcher would survive and eventually found himself being held in Stalag Luft III. Minchin was, sadly, one of the fifty-three who died.
Amazingly, as one of the authors, Sean Feast, describes, there was another survivor from ED925 – the bomb aimer, Flight Sergeant John Fraser. Having heard his skipper shouting at his crew to abandon their aircraft, Fraser immediately opened the escape hatch to see the tops of trees uncomfortably close. Having also released his parachute inside the Lancaster, Fraser let it billow out in front and take him with it.
The account in the book includes a discussion regarding the circumstances around Fraser’s capture; some surviving wartime records suggest that this was on 17 May itself, whilst his family state that he managed to make his escape from the immediate area and evaded for ten days, living off the land, before being captured, exhausted, near the Dutch border.
Tony Burcher damaged his back on landing and was in no condition to make a serious attempt at evasion. He did, however, manage to crawl into a culvert where he remained for almost three days before finally surrendering to a young member of the Hitler Youth.
To have helped John Minchin escape the Lancaster before saving himself showed Burcher’s courage and selflessness. Clearly a hero by anyone’s standards, his life after the war was not a happy one. A series of “dubious” business ventures and a period in jail for fraud tarnished his reputation.
This slightly different approach to the Dambusters story provides some interesting facts about many of the men that took part in one of the most famous bomber raids of the Second World War. It shows us how these ordinary men from all walks of life were thrust into the heat of war at what today would be considered a very young age. These ordinary men, with all their strengths and failings, achieved something remarkable. It is a shame that so many were killed on that night in May 1943 – all of whom are remembered in a Roll of Honour at the back of the book – and did not live to see the effects of the attack nor receive the accolades they so richly deserved.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.