Dambusters: Battle to celebrate engineers

An artist's impression of Lancaster bombers from the RAF's No 617 Squadron attacking the Moehne dam. Picture: PA
An artist's impression of Lancaster bombers from the RAF's No 617 Squadron attacking the Moehne dam. Picture: PA
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It was just before 9pm at the end of a sweltering day, and the sun had not yet set on the airfield as Henry “Harry” Taylor cast one final professional glance over the Lancaster bomber.

“Everything in order, Jock?”

Harry Taylor, aged 24

Harry Taylor, aged 24

Ground Engineer Taylor turned to the pilot standing before him, a man of just 24 and yet already a veteran of more than 170 bombing missions who was about to lead one of WWII’s most legendary raids.

“Yes, Sir. Ready to go,” Harry replied in the Edinburgh accent which provoked his nickname.

Years later, back home in Edinburgh, Harry liked to joke that Wing Commander Guy Gibson, hero of one of WWII’s most legendary air missions, could not fly without his 

But that night the ground crew in RAF Scampton near Lincoln were not in joking mood as the men of 617 Squadron, who would forever be remembered as the Dambusters, prepared for the flight from which many would not return.

Members of 617 Squadron photographed at Scampton after the Dams raid in May 1943. Picture: PA

Members of 617 Squadron photographed at Scampton after the Dams raid in May 1943. Picture: PA

Those pilots who did survive the daring raid on the Mohne and Eder dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, recalled that, despite the mission’s top secret status, it seemed as if the “whole station was there to see them off”. Everyone realised it was going to be “a death or glory job”.

But while glory was indeed attained by those who flew that fateful night, history has largely forgotten the ground crew: men and women including Harry, who worked solidly without sleep for days in a row, regularly coming under attack from Luftwaffe assaults on their airbase to make the mission possible.

A campaign is now under way to gain official recognition for their efforts and Harry’s daughter, Avril Garrad, has written to Prime Minister David Cameron asking for his support.

Life for the ground crew at RAF was notoriously demanding but what was particularly impressive was the intense pressure the personnel worked under.

Harry would later describe to his family a particularly gruelling stint of three days and three nights without sleep after which he and his fellow engineers had finally collapsed exhausted only to be berated by an officer who entered the room just minutes after they sat down. The officer then apologised to them each in turn after being informed by a Canadian officer of the task they’d just completed.

Barnes Wallis’ new “bouncing bomb”, the Upkeep, which inspired the mission, did not fit well on the Lancasters and constant maintenance and repairs were needed as test-flight after test-flight were carried out.

Flight crew, ground personnel, and the aircraft were all tested to the limits of endurance.

And while the risk faced by RAF pilots was enormous, life was far from safe for those working on the ground. RAF bases came under frequent assaults from low-flying German planes, gunning down everything in their path.

In later life, Harry was reluctant to share such details with his daughter, but he described to his son-in-law Vic Garrad how pits were dug round the base so they could leap into them for safety during such attacks. Despite the pressures Harry was meticulous in his care of Gibson’s aircraft.

“I never imagined when I got my call-up papers and went along to the Assembly Rooms to register that I’d end up involved in anything like that,” he told his daughter years later.

“I went in and an RAF Recruiting Sergeant asked me ‘what does your father do?’. When I told him he was an engineer he said, ‘You’ll do son, come with me’.”

It would be almost another four years before Harry stood next to Gibson on the night of May 16, 1943 and said what both men knew could be a final goodbye.

At 21.39 as the sun was finally starting to set Gibson’s Lancaster AJ-G rolled off across the grass for take-off. It struggled for a moment before it left the ground, weighed down “like a pregnant duck”, as the pilot described it, by the bomb beneath. But Harry had done his job well. Three of the 19 planes that took off that night were forced to return to base because of technical problems, but Gibson’s made it to Germany. As the Dambusters’ daring mission reached its climax, those back home in Scampton could only wait in a caffeine fuelled vigil for those over enemy territory.

It was around half past three the next morning when Gibson returned, the only damage to the Lancaster Harry had tended so carefully were three bullet holes in the tail. But others were not so fortunate – 56 didn’t make it back.

When Harry and the other ground crew arrived to review the planes just after 8am, they found it hard to comprehend the empty spaces where the now-lost Lancasters had sat the night before. Recalling emotions that day, Harry would say it was a mixture of elation and a dreadful sense of loss for those who had not returned home. On May 19 he and the rest of the ground crew were given three days of holiday.

At the end of the war, he was offered a commission to stay on with the RAF and tour America, but he felt, as he later told his family, “he’d had enough”.

He just wanted to be with his wife Jean, a young office worker from Kirknewton whom he’d bumped into in Princes Street while home on leave in 1940 and married, and their young daughter Avril.

Harry had suffered a lucky escape when fitting a bomb to a plane which had fallen and landed on him. While he was, remarkably, left only with a broken leg, the potentially disastrous consequences 
continued to play on his mind.

Instead he returned to the Lothians where he took a job as a janitor at East Calder school, and lived a happy and active life until passing away peacefully in 
October 2005, just six months before his 90th birthday.

Last week, after learning of a campaign to secure the awarding of an official clasp in recognition of the efforts of ground crew including her father, Mrs Garrad, 69, wrote to the prime minister, asking for his support.

Speaking to the Evening News yesterday, she said: “Of course the pilots risked so much and suffered terrible loss of life, but the ground crew also faced a lot of danger and worked extremely hard. It doesn’t seem fair that’s not been recognised.”


Invention of the bouncing bomb sparked daring raid

SEVENTY years ago, a daring World War Two raid would win the RAF’s 617 Squadron a place in military history.

The Dambusters, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, managed to breach two dams in Germany in a legendary ­aerial ­attack.

Codnamed Operation Chastise, the attack caused major flooding in the Ruhr ­valley and disrupted ­industry.

Hailed as a huge success at the time, it came at a heavy cost.

Out of 19 bombers, who set out from England on the night of May 16 1943, eight were shot down and 53 of the 133 aircrew were killed, with three taken prisoner.

The operation was the result of the ­invention, by engineer Barnes Wallis, above, of the “Upkeep” bouncing bomb.

The dimensions and weight of the full-size Upkeep were such that it could only be carried by the Avro Lancaster, which was the largest British bomber available at the time.

Even so the aircraft had to undergo considerable modification in order to carry it.

Each plane could only carry one bouncing bomb, and had one chance to hit the target.

To ensure the dams would be destroyed, the bombs had to be released at right angles to the dam wall from an altitude of 60ft at a speed of 220 miles per hour, 425 yards from the target.

Throughout the attack the allied bombers were being ­targeted by enemy guns.

Gibson led the attack of the Mohn dam, which was ­considered the most tactically significant. His own bomb missed, and another plane was shot down. Gibson stayed with the remaining aircraft acting as a decoy and eventually the fifth bomb hit its target and the Mohne dam wall was breached.

The remaining bombers also broke through the Eder dam. A third target, the Sorpe, withstood the bombers’ assault.

The floods destroyed power plants, factories, homes and transport infrastructure and spread for 50 miles along the Ruhr valley killing more than 1,300 people.

While the raid was viewed as a military success at the time, more recently some historians have argued the long- term effects were not as great as believed and German industry quickly recovered.

After leading Operation Chastise, Guy Gibson, was awarded the Victoria Cross. He died when his plane crashed in the Netherlands on September 1944 while on a mission to attack Bremen.