It was a moonlit evening on May 16, 1943. Nineteen specially modified Avro Lancaster bombers of the Royal Air Force took off from RAF Base Scampton, and flew into history. Their targets were the great dams of the Ruhr Valley, Germany. This operation became a part of the folklore of aviation history.
It became the most celebrated RAF attack of the Second World War, and the survivors of the mission became instant heroes in war-torn Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill used its success to encourage President Franklin Roosevelt to make a quantum leap in the preparations for D-Day. A 1954 movie would later document it. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, loved the movie and modernized the attack on the Dams to an attack on the Death Star in Star Wars. These brave young flyers were immortalized in a golden name "The Dam Busters."
Despite breaching two of the dams there was a dark side to this event. In a BBC broadcast the morning after the attack, the newscast closed with this sombre note: "Eight of the Lancasters are missing." This is the story of one of the Dambuster Lancasters, and of my search to discover what happened to my uncle, Frank Garbas of Hamilton, Ontario and his boyhood friend, Albert Garshowitz.
AJ-B took off at 9:59 p.m. that night. Before leaving, Albert chalked on their Lanc's barrel-like bomb, "Never has so much been expected of so few." Uncle Frank laughed with the rest of the crew and climbed on board. Frank knew Albert's wit very well as they had played football together at Eastwood Park in Hamilton. Pilot Bill Astell and his crew had been handpicked for this suicidal endeavour. This hardened, experienced crew had survived 30 missions in RAF 57 Squadron. Eight weeks of low-level night flying in a new top-secret squadron had prepared them for the danger to come. The flight to and from Germany was to be done at zero feet at night during a full moon. Normally no bombers flew in moonlight for they were too easily seen. Barnes Wallis, a British engineer, had designed the bomb despite bureaucratic scepticism from on high in the RAF and the governmental community.
AJ-B was one of nine aircraft in first Flight. They were following by twenty minutes their famous Squadron Commander Guy Gibson who was to win the Victoria Cross for his leadership. AJ-B was to attack the flak-defended Mohne Dam by approaching it at 60 feet over dark water, releasing their bomb at 600 yards at exactly 220 miles per hour. The back-spinning bomb would bounce three times over the water and, after hitting the dam wall, sink to 30 feet where a pistol would detonate the bomb. The shockwave and the water pressure would crack the gigantic dam.
AJ-B's flight across Holland and Germany with two other Lancs was successful, though dangerous. But near Dorsten the crew were unsure of a turning point, and Astell gained height to get his bearings. Their partner crews reported seeing AJ-B caught in a crossfire of anti-aircraft fire. In a flash, the plane was gone and never seen again. In the 1950's, this was all that was recorded in the books of the day.
This scant information led me to dream about what really happened. I became aware of the terms Dambuster and Lancaster at an early age. Ironically my paternal grandparents lived on Lancaster Street in Brightside, an ethnic community in the shadows of the great steel mills of Hamilton. It intersected with Burlington Street where Frank and his parents and eight other children lived. My mother Catharine was the oldest girl. It was here that my interest in the uncle I never met was nurtured. In the dining room of my grandparents' home there was a colour portrait of Uncle Frank in his blue RCAF uniform. The 8x10 picture was in a stand-up frame and stood proudly on the bureau. I can still clearly see his blue uniform, blond hair, boyish smile and his everlasting gaze. It was as if he was watching over all of us. This picture was sacred and kept in a place of honour. In a sense, it paralleled the other revered objects in this Polish Catholic home - the Crucifix, the Rosary and a picture of the Black Madonna. It was unfortunate that I was too young to ask my grandparents the questions that would pour out of me today. What I remember most was how much my grandmother missed her young son. She could not accept his death. She did not have any sense of closure since there was no body, no funeral. There were only bureaucratic telegrams and letters attesting to his disappearance. As time went on she prayed the Rosary, attended novenas and even sought out answers from fortune tellers. She shared her tears and concerns with Albert Garshowitz's mother.
I must have been 10 or 11 when I first saw the movie, The Dam Busters. I watched it with my mother. What I most remember were the tears of sadness and loss that my mother could not hold back. I had never met my uncle, but as I was to emotionally write later, I felt him through the tears of my mother. A bond was forged that would later take me to far off places in search of the truth about Uncle Frank. It was on such an afternoon that I made a promise to her. I vowed that if she never made it to the Reichswald Forest Cemetery in Kleve, Germany, I would. I further promised that I would lay flowers on his grave in her name. This promise lay dormant for many years of high school, university, marriage, child raising and my career teaching high school history.
In the late 1980s, Hamilton became the home of a flying Lancaster. The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum introduced me to many facts about the RCAF and the RAF. But it was hearing and seeing the Lancaster fly and the death of my mother that rekindled in me the urgency of my promise, and the need to find out more about the Dambusters.
With the early 1990s and the dawn of the Internet, I started a more intense search. I was able to attend a 50th anniversary reunion in 1993 at the Royal York Hotel. After watching a commemorative flight of the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, I met a British Dambuster researcher and lecturer named Jim Shortland. He introduced me to an ex-Canadian 617 Squadron pilot named Don Cheney. Don had joined the squadron after the Dams Raid. This chance meeting was going to open doors I could not have imagined. The Royal York's ballroom was a sea of blue jackets and medals. I was introduced to three original Canadian Dambusters. All of them remembered Frank and Albert, but old age and the passage of time since the raids made any details sketchy. I was told that one of the crew remembered that there was a lady across the hall who had worked in the map room. When I introduced myself to Muriel Leach, she started to cry. Not only had she known Frank, they had been dating up until his last flight. She told me she thought she might meet someone from his family as she flew to Canada for the first time, but 50 years was a long time. During the weekend, she laughed and cried as she told members of our family what it was like to live on a Bomber Command base during the war.
Her recollections were especially sweet for Frank's younger sisters, Angela and Mary. In 1998 I received an unexpected phone call from Amanda Barkhouse, the grand niece of AJ-B's navigator Floyd Wile. We exchanged letters and memorabilia, and she provided me with the name and phone number of Albert's nephew, Hartley. This led to Hartley visiting me with a boxful of Dambuster memorabilia. To my amazement, Albert had taken pictures of the crew and was a prolific writer. Hartley had never read any of the 100 letters in the box.
He opened one of them at random, and then handed it to me. I was shocked. In it, Albert was writing to his brother, Dovie, but then stated he was going to give his friend from Hamilton a chance to write. Then Frank in his own handwriting explained his job as a gunner, and told Dovie he would see him when the two returned to Hamilton after the war. I was beginning to learn more and more about Uncle Frank.
In February 1999, I was hospitalized and unable to work for six months. During my convalescence, I began watching a BBC docudrama named Colditz. It was a story of Allied prisoners' escape attempts in the most secure PoW camp in Germany. Once again the Internet helped me discover that the Royal Research Society offered a historical tour, entitled Dambusters Raid and Colditz Castle. When my wife, Christine, heard this, her first reaction was, "You have to go." I contacted the other Canadian families of the AJ-B crew, and we all planned to take the tour in August 2000.
Before the trip, the Internet surprised me three more times. I had sent an email to the town of Raesfeld in Westphalia, Germany, asking for information about the crash of a Lancaster on May 17, 1943. A few months later I received a letter from a museum that not only knew about the crash, but had a huge picture of the crashed AJ-B on a wall. Unexpectedly, I had found a photograph of Uncle Frank's plane. The museum also sent me a newspaper in German, which showed three Englishmen at the museum whose express purpose was to catalogue information about the crash. One of the men was Robert Owen, the official historian of 617 Squadron Association. I wrote to him and received the directions to the crash site. I emailed Ian Alexander of the War Research Society, who promised to make a detour on our scheduled trip. We would be going to Raesfeld and to the crash site. I could not have forseen what was going to happen in so short a space of time.
My next Internet surprise led me to another AJ-B family. A nephew of Donald Hopkinson, the bomb aimer, identified himself in the Guest Book of a major web site: www.dambusters.org.uk. I quickly emailed him. He at once told me that his uncle, Ron Tither, from Wadebridge, Cornwall, had been waiting for years to have contact with other relatives of AJ-B. Don Hopkinson was Ron's cousin, but had been raised as a brother after the death of Don's mother. Ron had adored Don who had primed him in cricket. Ron was 12 years old when Don went missing. Quickly plans were made to meet before my trip to Germany. Our planned meeting place was in Cheltenham Spa, near where Muriel Leach lived. What else could happen?
Two weeks before our trip I received a phone call one afternoon that shook me. Bernie Siehling from Grand Rapids, Michigan, had been told about me by his brother, who volunteered at the Raesfeld museum. As a 12 year old, Bernie saw AJ-B flying at treetop height over his farm house near Marbeck, Westphalia. The plane was on fire and as it flew away somewhere in the distance it exploded.
In the morning he bicycled to the crash site. He saw the wreckage of the plane and what appeared to be five chunks of two-foot charcoal bundles. It seemed to him that the flyers escaped the crash, but had succumbed to the flames. About 135 metres yards away was a huge crater. Windows in the vicinity had been broken by the blast of the bomb. But near the crater still stood a statue of St. Joseph holding the baby Jesus, miraculously untouched by the blast. Once again irony had filled my story. Barnes Wallis, the bomb inventor, entreated a special prayer to St. Joseph daily. Bernie later saw that AJ-B had struck a hydro transmission pylon, sheared the tops off five poplar trees and, then from this low-level, crashed in a farmers field. Before my trip I videotaped Bernie telling the story of that special night.
In August 2000, I flew to London. Ron Tither had set up a meeting at a beautiful English pub in the Cotswolds. I was met first at the train station by Muriel Leach, who was dressed in her RAF uniform. Ron and I bonded instantly. We both knew that our loved ones shared a common place in the nose of AJ-B, and that they shared a common grave with Albert Garshowitz.
Amanda Barkhouse joined us, as well as other members of Ron's family. Before we left, Muriel gave each of us a 617 Squadron plaque. Muriel asked me to visit her later as she had some personal mementos to give me. Ron drove me to her home in a tiny village, and we rang her doorbell for 30 minutes. There was no answer, so Ron drove me back to my hotel. Once there, I received an apologetic call from Muriel. She urged me to return to her house, but as it was late and quite a distance, she offered to mail me the items. Muriel, the young girl who danced with my uncle, died two weeks later. If only I had known.
My next stop was Lincolnshire and a visit to Jim Shortland, the Dams lecturer, researcher and as I was to find out - the best tour guide around. In Woodhall Spa I pencil traced Frank's name which was engraved in the granite of the Dambuster Memorial monument. We ate our supper in a war converted mansion -The Petwood Hotel. After the raid it became the Officer's Mess. In it there was a pub room whose walls were filled with pictures, paintings and memorabilia. A few miles north of Lincoln and its famous 1000 year old Cathedral was Scampton, the airbase where the raid originated. I stood on the ground where Uncle Frank had walked and where he spent his last hours. After Scampton I was off to Birmingham and the tour.
On the tour I was accompanied by five members of the Garshowitz family and Amanda. We visited the Mohne and Eder dams, which the boys of 617 Squadron had breached. Next we were off of Colditz prison in eastern Germany. The historical castle which housed the prison was awe inspiring. It proved to me the adage that escape was the greatest sport. Then we began the epic journey to Raesfeld and the crash site in Marbeck.
Bernie Siehling's brother, Richard, was there to greet us. We toured the beautiful museum, which was a truthful depiction of the war in Germany. Nothing was hidden. On the wall was a huge picture of AJ-B broken up and burned on the ground. In the foreground a flyer's body was visible. Needless to say it was very emotional.
We journeyed next to the farm where AJ-B met its end. To be standing upon the ground where Uncle Frank had died was one of the most spiritual moments of my life. I had come a long way from reading the two small references to AJ-B in the first books I read when I was a young boy. My journey had been a long one, but it bore fruit. The climax of the trip was about to take place. However, first I asked Richard to bring me to the Borken City Cemetery where the boys of AJ-B were first buried.
From there we drove to the Reichswald Forest Cemetery where the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission had moved them. My promise to my mother was ever present in my mind as we parked in front of the cemetery gates. When I walked in, I looked left and walked directly to Frank's grave. I needed no map. My Aunt Angela had taken pictures in 1958, and I knew the general direction by reference to a maintenance building. There they were - the seven graves of the crew of AJ-B. Six were in one row in a line. A seventh was the first grave in the next row. I had finally made it. I was sad that I had missed the Jewish prayer of mourning- the Kaddish that the Garshowitzs had invoked at Albert's grave. They had placed little pebbles on the top of the gravestones.
Albert and Frank had played sports together in Hamilton. They had flown 31 missions with each other. They died together, and now they lay in a common grave with their simple gravestones beside each other. Richard asked me to stay overnight at his home. The tour continued on to Arnhem. Richard kindly disappeared for a half hour, which allowed me to fulfill the promise that I had made to my mom so long ago. I placed a small silver crucifix inside the engraved cross of the gravestone. My sister Joan had asked me to do this.
She was a little blonde girl who sat on Uncle Frank's knee for a snapshot the day he left Hamilton. I videotaped all of the graves. I stood for five minutes praying to Uncle Frank, my mom and my grandparents. It had been a long day. I was exhausted. The flower wreath I had ordered from the War Research Society had a plain card. In the emotion of the moment, I printed on it: "To a dear uncle: I never met you, but I felt you in the tears of my mother. God bless you, Paul. Remembered by sisters Angela & Mary (My brothers and sisters) Joan, Ken, Frank & Cathy. You will never be forgotten.
What had inspired me? The words just flowed out of me. In this beautiful wooded part of Germany, I had completed what I had promised my mother so long before. Richard, my new German friend, who was so kind and respectful, walked me out of the cemetery as a light rain began to fall.