LANCASTER - By Frank Wootton
William Reid (VC)
Flt Sgt Bill Townsend DFM
As part of 617 Squadron, Bill Townsend flew Lancaster ED-886 codenamed AJ – O for Orange in the famous Dambusters raid of May 1944. Flight Sergeant Townsend flew his bomber and crew in the third wave of the famous raid. After the first two dams (Mohne and Eder) were breached, O for Orange was tasked to attack the Ennepe dam.
With no anti-aircraft firing at them, they had time to do three trial runs before they released their bomb, but it failed to damage the dam. Forced to fly back at treetop level by enemy action, his Lancaster was the last to return. It limped home short of one engine. He was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his courageous actions in the raid. Bill Townsend was later promoted to Flight Lieutenant.
He had been a pupil at Monmouth and after the war studied at Lincoln College, Oxford. He became a businessman and a civil servant after his studies. Flt/Lt Townsend passed away in April 1991, there with a flypast by 617 Tornadoes at his cremation on the 15th April 1991
Captain J B Tait
On the night before D-Day Tait was the 5 Group Master Bomber directing from the air the massed attack by Lancasters on the German defenses in the Cherbourg peninsula. By then Tait had already flown more than 100 bomber sorties with 51, 35, 10, and 78 Squadrons.
A Cranwell-trained regular officer, he was very much in the Cheshire mold: quiet, bordering on the introspective. He was to go on to command the legendary 617 Dambusters Squadron and lead it on one of its most famous raids which finally destroyed the German battleship, Tirpitz.
In July 1944 when Leonard Cheshire was replaced by Wing Commander J B Willie Tait, 617 Squadron discovered that it had acquired a Commanding Officer very much in the Cheshire mold. Quiet, bordering on introspection, Tait, who was a Cranwell-trained regular officer, had already flown over 100 bombing operations with 51, 35, 10, and 78 Squadrons before joining 617. Tait had also received a DSO and bar and the DFC.
He was 26. In the best traditions of 617 Squadron, Tait wasted no time in adapting to the Mustang and Mosquito for low-level marking.
He appointed two new Flight Commanders including Squadron Leader Tony Iveson DFC. Although involved in many of the 617 Squadrons' spectacular operations, Taits' name is always associated with the destruction of the Tirpitz. An earlier attack on the ship by the squadron on 15th September 1944 had caused severe damage but Tirpitz was still afloat. On 29th October the Squadron was frustrated on the second attack by cloud over the target.
The final attack was launched in daylight on 12th November 1944. Leading a mixed force of 617 and 9 Squadron Lancasters, Tait achieved complete surprise and had the satisfaction of seeing the Tirpitz destroyed at last.
He had led all three attacks. On 28th December 1944, Tait received the third bar to his DSO, becoming one of only two RAF men to achieve this distinction. It coincided with his leaving 617 Squadron. Tait served in the post-war RAF, retiring as a Group Captain in 1966. He died on 31st May 2007.
In November 1940, he was awarded the DSO for getting his badly damaged aircraft back to base. He completed his first tour in January 1941, but immediately volunteered for a second tour, this time flying Halifaxes with 35 Squadron. He became Squadron Leader in 1942 and was appointed commanding officer of 76 Squadron later that year.
Leonard Cheshire ordered that non-essential weight be removed from the Halifax bombers in a bid to increase speed and altitude, hoping to reduce the high casualty rates for this squadron. Mid-upper and nose turrets were removed, and exhaust covers taken off, successfully reducing the loss rate. In July 1943 he took command of 617 Squadron. During this time he led the squadron personally on every occasion.
In September he was awarded the Victoria Cross for four and a half years of sustained bravery during a total of 102 operations, leading his crews with careful planning, brilliant execution, and contempt for danger, which gained him a reputation second to none in Bomber Command.
Sadly, Leonard Cheshire died of motor neuron disease on 31st July 1992, aged 74.
While climbing out of the target area over Schweinfurt, his Lancaster was hit by an enemy night-fighter and the inner starboard engine set on fire.
Although injured by shrapnel he jettisoned the pilots' escape hatch and climbed out on to the wing clutching a fire extinguisher, his parachute spilling out as he went.
He succeeded in putting out the fire just as the night-fighter made a second attack, this time forcing the crew to bale out. Norman swept away with his parachute starting to burn but somehow survived the fall to spend 10 months as a POW in a German hospital. Sadly, Norman Jackson died on 26th March 1994.