Dambusters: 'Lost' faces of the squadron revealed

Dambusters photowall RAF files are incomplete but collectors, museums and families have kept pictures of the Dambuster crews

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Photographs of all the men who took part in the Dambusters raid have been published for the first time.

The operation, on 16 May 1943, saw RAF bombers break two large dams in Germany using experimental "bouncing" bombs.

A 1955 film cemented its place as one of the most famous episodes of World War II.

Started as part of the 70th anniversary of the attack in May, the online gallery has been put together by the BBC, helped by Dambusters enthusiasts.

George 'Johnny' Johnson DFM

George 'Johnny' Johnson

"My first reaction on seeing the Dambusters photo montage was one of both amazement and the realization I was looking at faces of colleagues I last saw previously at RAF Scampton at 'All Crews' briefing on the afternoon of 16 May 1943.

"Having viewed numerous publications on the Dambusters down the years, I must record this [is] the first time I have actually seen photos of all 133 crew who took part in 'Operation Chastise', including 53 brave colleagues who sadly perished on the raid."

The dams of the Ruhr Valley were selected for attack as it was hoped the resulting flood would swamp the numerous factories downstream.

Flying from Lincolnshire across occupied Europe at tree-top height, 19 planes of the newly formed 617 Squadron, with seven-man crews, braved anti-aircraft fire, power cables and mountainous terrain to drop the extraordinary four-tonne skipping depth charge.

But eight planes were lost, 53 men died and three were captured. Another 32 died in later operations.

True story

George 'Johnny' Johnson, one of three surviving Dambusters, thanked the BBC for its work on the online gallery but said any account of the raid would not be complete without the names of Roy Chadwick, who designed the Lancaster bomber used in the attack, and Sir Barnes Wallis, the engineer behind the bouncing bomb.


The original idea was to show the human face of a story which is now close to mythology.

It is easy to talk about the cost of the raids and the youth of the crews but to see the faces, to almost look into their eyes, really brings home their sacrifice and bravery.

My thanks goes out to all the families and organisations across the globe who have allowed us to publish this lasting tribute to those who took part in one of the most famous and fascinating events of World War II.

Mr Johnson added: "It is a great privilege for me to add these words of appreciation and thanks, for in bringing together again all 133 men of the Dambusters, 70 years on from the raid, this photo montage and site is a fitting dedication to all who took part in Operation Chastise on 16/17 May 1943, particularly those who gave their lives and failed to return."

David Robertson, chairman of the 617 Squadron Association, said: " We believe this is the first time that there has been such a record of the crews who flew on Operation Chastise.

"It is a most fitting commemoration of the men whose skill, courage, determination and airmanship has gone down in the annals of air warfare as one of the most remarkable operations of World War II."

John Sweetman, author of The Dambusters Raid and The Official Dambusters Experience, said wartime secrecy and the "simplified" story told in the film had led to many myths springing up about the operation.

"But research has made some of the story clearer," he explained. "The inexperience of some crews, the group effort to make the bombs work, the impact on the German war industry.

"Even now, there is lots we don't know, particularly in the frantic last days and hours leading up to the raids, when crucial decisions were made.

"The story, hopefully, will continue to be discovered."

The image of Sgt John Marriot was among the last to be found, as Andy Moore reports

Among the surprises, and challenges, encountered by the project were the large gaps in the official photographic archives.

Curator of photographs at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) Ian Carter explained that 125,000 men flew with the RAF and many lasted just a matter of weeks.

"All this meant that very few individuals were actually recorded by the official RAF photographers," he said.

"Of course, some men took unofficial snaps on their own cameras, and we have examples within IWM's collection, but many more remain in private hands.

"Researching their whereabouts is a far more difficult and lengthy process, as the BBC researchers have found out."

'Terrible danger'

Peter Elliott, head of archives at the Royal Air Force Museum, added that even when photographs were taken, many were lost.

"At the end of the war bases were closing and men were leaving or dead and a lot must have seemed pointless to store.

'So exciting'

When I was asked to help with the gallery I thought it was a great idea.

It was a chance to collect the pictures we knew were out there and perhaps find those which were missing.

I knew we could get about 90% of the pictures but the rest were likely to be tricky. So when the last of the photos were located I was just so pleased, it was so exciting.

Having read the names of these men so often, suddenly they had faces.

"It's always good to be able to put a face to a name, especially if it's something notable like the Dambusters and people ought to be able to commemorate those involved properly.

"But it happens the other way too - many museums have countless pictures with no names to go with them. I've see many, many images of young men, standing next to their aircraft and we have no idea who they were, which is rather sad."

Douglas Radcliffe, secretary of the Bomber Command Association, recalled Dambuster pilot David Shannon was keen to put the raid in context.

"He would talk about the dams but would then slide the conversation towards all the other raids he took part in, some immensely costly.

"And it is important to remember all those other crews, who took part in less famous raids, who also served and also deserve our respect."

Mike Gibson, the nephew of Guy Gibson, who won the Victoria Cross for leading the dams raid, felt the public attitude towards bomber crews had seesawed from admiration to cynicism and back again.

He added: "People have come to appreciate what these men went through, living on bases knowing they would have to fly into terrible danger again and again and again, that the odds were against them. Who could sustain that today?

"To some extent I think the Dambusters have come to represent all of the men who flew. It's hard to envisage the thousands who went out in hundreds of planes but the men of the dams raid can be related to.

"And now we can see them all."

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