– by Dave Birrell ( Originally published in the Spring 2003 Edition of Airforce Magazine )
In early 1943 the Allies needed a hero and something to celebrate. Britain, Canada, and other members of the Commonwealth had been at war for three and a half long years and although the tide seemed to be slowly turning, Bomber Command was still the only offensive punch that was capable of making itself felt within Hitler’s European fortress.
The story of the raid on the dams of the Ruhr Valley is well known. The creation of the specialized bouncing bomb by the brilliant Barnes Wallis, the special squadron, hand picked by Guy Gibson to deliver it, and the successful low level attack by nineteen specially modified Lancasters that breached the dams has been thoroughly documented in books and the highly acclaimed 1950’s movie. It is an enduring tale and sixty years later few stories of the Second World War stand out so prominently as that of the Dambusters.
Guy Gibson -his name has a flair to it, the ring of a hero’s name. He has been described as dashing, tenacious, and a born leader. Awarded the Victoria Cross following the raid, the accompanying citation stated that his, “personal courage knew no bounds” and that, “He has shown leadership, determination and valour of the highest order.” Arthur Harris, the commanding officer of Bomber Command, wrote that, “His personal contribution towards victory was beyond doubt unsurpassed.” The Calgary Herald referred to him as “a mixture or brains, ability, spunk, and modesty and went on to say that, ‘Those are the qualities that make a hero, World War II style, if Churchill’s “Dambuster” is a fair example.'” Guy Gibson became one of the war’s most recognized individuals, a hero whose name was known to virtually everyone on the Allied side.
Guy Gibson’s navigator, the lead navigator on the Dams Raid, was a farm boy from southern Alberta. Gibson described his, “great pal,” as having, “a soft Canadian accent” and “probably the most efficient navigator in the squadron.” Harlo Taerum’s mother, like millions of other wartime mothers, kept an album and it provides poignant insights into the connections between herself, her son, Guy Gibson, and the Dams Raid.
The album is dark green, with an embossed pattern on the cover and “Scrap Book” in large gold letters. The somewhat yellowed pages are held together with green cord. It’s an ordinary looking album until the first page is turned and one sees that it is signed, “Guy Gibson, September, 1943.”
Harlo’s father, Guttorm Torger Taerum had immigrated from Norway and established a farm near Milo, Alberta 90 km southeast of Calgary. Tragically, he drowned in nearby Lake McGregor while attempting to save the lives of two boys who had fallen from their raft. Harlo was only ten years old at the time. Despite having to play a major role on the family farm and in the raising of his two younger brothers and sister, he excelled at school in Milo, the newspaper reporting that he, “obtained the highest number of passes during a single term since the school’s inception.” After Harlo completed high school the family moved to Calgary where, according to the Calgary Herald, he was a, “track, baseball, and rugby football star.”
Harlo had never visited Norway but his father had often spoken to him about his beautiful homeland. His mother recalled that, “When Norway was invaded by the Germans and reports began to filter through of the manner in which his father’s people were being treated, Harlo enlisted in the RCAF.”
After commencing training at No. 1 Air Observers Training School at Malton, Ontario during February, 1941, Taerum went on to train at No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School at Jarvis, Ontario, and completed the Advanced Air Navigation course at Rivers, Manitoba. Like many young aircrew, he was honoured to have his wing presented by Air Marshal Billy Bishop VC upon the conclusion of his training.
Hilda Taerum’s album includes photos of Harlo as a baby, a child, and as a young man. His high school marks are carefully filed and various photos taken during his air force training are there as well. Mother’s day cards, telegrams with birthday greetings, and thank you cards for gifts are included and finally a telegram that reads,
“LEAVING MONDAY NO ADDRESS NOT PHONING LETTER FOLLOWING LOVE -HARLO.”
Her son was on his way across the Atlantic and to war.
The vast majority of novice aircrew crossed the Atlantic by sea but Harlo Taerum made the trip as the navigator of a Lockheed Hudson. Capt. H.C. Moody was the pilot and the non-stop flight was completed in a record-breaking time of 10 hours and 44 minutes from Gander, Newfoundland to Prestwick, Scotland.
Taerum commenced his operational training aboard Ansons and Hampdens at No. 16 OTU in Upper Heyford, Oxon during August, 1941 and flew his first operation against the enemy in a No. 50 Squadron Hampden on January 2, 1942. His brief logbook entries record being, “caught in searchlights,” “severely hit by flak,” and on March 25th, “crashing at Rose Vedne.” During March the squadron began flying Manchesters. Taerums’ first flight in a Lancaster was on May 14th, an instructional sortie, but he continued his operations against the enemy in the Manchester until June 25, 1942.
Assigned to the squadron’s conversion unit, Taerum spent time as a navigation instructor and continued to fly operations but now in Lancasters, the last two to Berlin with F/Lt H.B. “Mick” Martin, an Australian who was said to be a magnificent pilot and who had gained a considerable reputation for his skill at low flying at night.
Guy Gibson began selecting the members of his special squadron even though he had not been told the exact nature of the role that the newly formed No. 617 Squadron was to play. However he had been ordered to concentrate exclusively on low-level night flying training so Mick Martin was a natural choice. It was likely because of the impression he made on Martin that Taerum was also posted to No. 617 where he made his first flight as the C/O’s navigator on April 4,1943. To have been hand-picked to be W/C Guy Gibson’s navigator is likely the greatest compliment that could have been paid to a Bomber Command navigator at that point in the war.
As the squadron prepared for the attack on the Ruhr Valley dams the, “great problem,” according to Gibson, “was the height.” The solution was to place two spotlights on the aircraft that converged at the required sixty feet. According to Gibson’s book, “Enemy Coast Ahead,” when this was announced to the squadron his bomb aimer, P/O F.M. “Spam” Spafford interrupted, “I could have told you that. Last night Terry (by this time Harlo had come to be known as Terry Taerum) and I went to see the show at Theatre Royal, and when the girl there was doing her strip-tease act there were two spotlights shining on her. The idea crossed my mind then.” Some versions of the story claim that Spam and Terry came to the squadron with the idea after the show but the idea of using spotlights was nothing new. After some experimentation lights were placed so that the beams would form a figure eight just forward of the starboard wing. This allowed the navigator to see them through the perspex blister on the starboard side of the cockpit.
Hilda Taerum received a telegram on May 9th, just one week before the raid. There was no indication of the impending action. Although he would not be told of the exact target until May 15th, there had been extensive low-level training at night and Harlo knew that he would soon be participating in a very dangerous operation.
The message was simply,
“BEST WISHES FROM YOUR LOVING SON EVERYTHING FINE -HARLO.”
The telegram was carefully placed in the album.
As darkness approached on May 16th, Gibson prepared to lead the first group of three Lancasters to the Dams. Taerum recorded the take off at 9:40. Mick Martin, his former pilot, and F/L “Hoppy” Hopgood were the other pilots in the trio. The winds were stronger than anticipated as the Lancasters roared over the North Sea at the lowest possible altitude in order to avoid detection by enemy radar and Taerum found himself off of the planned route when the coast was reached. Gibson wrote, “We pulled up high to about 300 feet to have a look and find out where we were, then scrammed down on the deck again as Terry said, ‘O.K. -there’s the windmill and those wireless masts. We must have drifted to starboard. Steer new course -095 degrees magnetic, and be careful of a little town that is coming up straight ahead.'” From this point the navigation was partly in the hands of P/O Spafford who was using a special roller to identify important features such as railway lines and canals and to avoid high-tension lines. Taerum and Spafford lost their way at one point and according to Martin’s rear gunner, F. Sgt. T.D. Simpson, his aircraft arrived over the Mohne Reservoir first and then, “Hoppy and Wingco turned up.”
When all was ready Gibson maneuvered into position and announced, “I am going in to attack.” Taerum’s duty as the aircraft approached the dam was to make sure the aircraft was at the required sixty feet and he took his position at the perspex blister on the starboard side of the cockpit. As they approached the dam he switched on the spotlights at 00:25 and began giving directions to Gibson, “Down -down -down,” and then after the lights converged on the water, “Steady – steady”. As the Lancaster hurtled towards the dam at 230 miles per hour, the lights made the huge aircraft an easy target and it came under fire from enemy guns in the sluice towers on the sides of the dam. Gibson’s bouncing bomb was delivered slightly short of the target, Hopgood’s Lancaster was shot down, and Martin’s weapon veered off course. However the Lancasters piloted by S/L H.M. Young and F/L David Maltby placed their bouncing bombs perfectly and the dam crumbled. Taerum then led the remaining aircraft to the Eder Dam that was breached as well before Gibson returned to Scampton.
The daring gamble had been successful and the British made the most of it in the press. In a letter to his mother Harlo said very little about the raid itself, “because you’ve probably heard more about it in the papers than I can say.” He did write that, “It was by far the most thrilling trip I have ever been on and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. We all got back in the mess about 5:30 in the morning and then we really did relax. . .”
Shocked by his sudden notoriety, Taerum wrote that, “A couple of days later five of us went to the factory where they made Lancasters and gave the workers a pep-talk. Can you imagine me giving a speech? We were just about mobbed or autographs afterward. The next thing was five days of leave in London, and all the boys were down there, so we really had a time. At the end of five days, we were ordered back to our station to meet the King and Queen. They had lunch with us in the Officers’ Mess and afterwards came out and inspected us. I was very lucky because I was introduced to both of them. The Queen is most charming and gracious. It really was quite a day.”
A telegram reading,
“AWARDED DFC AS W/CDR GIBSON’S NAVIGATOR EVERYTHING FINE LOVE -HARLO”
was placed in the album and Mrs. Taerum received a letter stating, “One morning, they woke me up and told me that I had been awarded the DFC. Later I had the ribbon sewn on my tunic. Can you imagine me strutting around town with it afterward.”
On June 22nd the Queen presented the Victoria Cross to W/C Gibson and numerous other medals to those who had distinguished themselves on the raid. She pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on Harlo Taerum’s tunic. At the dinner following the presentation the words, ‘Dam Busters’ appeared on the menu and the term that would be forever associated with the attack was born.
In a letter that described his visit to Buckingham Palace, Taerum wrote, “The next day Sir Archibald Sinclair, secretary of state for air, came to see us. Wing Commander Gibson was away from the station so I had to reconstruct the details of the raid for him. I then got two weeks leave. When I told the C.O. I was going to South Wales, he hooked me for a Wings For Victory speech at Bridgeend and I’m getting good at speeches now.”
By this time Hilda Taerum had added numerous photos and clippings related to the Dams Raid to her album. The attack, together with her son’s participation, had been front-page news in the Calgary newspapers with headlines such as, “Alberta Fliers helped blast German Dams.” The album includes a front page photo from The Montreal Standard that features Harlo examining documents and photos related to the raid with Sir Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command and Air Vice-Marshall the Hon. R.A. Cochrane, and other high level officers.
The medal presentations were big news in Calgary as well. The Calgary Herald’s front page article was headlined “Calgary Flier Receives DFC from the Queen -P/O H.T. Taerum Honoured for Raid on Dams.” The paper also reported that Mrs. Taerum was invited to watch her son being presented with his medal on the “moving picture screen” in a newsreel and that, “Mrs. Taerum, accompanied by her younger son and daughter, was a guest of the Capitol Theatre.”
Harlo’s invitation to the investiture had been sent home and this special letter was placed in the album. Photos taken following the presentation of the medals to the Dambusters, including one of Gibson with Taerum and the other six members of the RCAF who were on the raid, were carefully placed in the album.
As well there is an un-dated telegram,
“CHIN UP MOTHER AND STOP WORRYING EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE
YOUR LOVING SON HARLO.”
W/C Guy Gibson, now VC DSO and Bar DFC and Bar had certainly earned his status as the Commonwealth’s premier war hero. But he continued to fly and, “resisted or avoided all efforts to rest.” This concerned Arthur Harris who, “had to make a personal appeal to another warrior of similar character -Winston Churchill- who then and there ordered Gibson down to Chequers and took him with him on a highly publicized visit to North America.” On his 25’th birthday Guy Gibson arrived at Quebec City aboard the Queen Mary as a member of Churchill’s delegation to the Quebec Conference with U.S. President Roosevelt. Upon his arrival Gibson was asked by newsmen if the prime minister called him by his first name. With his reply, “He calls me Dambuster” the term was introduced to Canadians and further entrenched in World War II lore.
During the news conference, Air Minister Power said that Guy Gibson had been “loaned” to the Royal Canadian Air Force for a time in order to visit British Commonwealth Air Training Plan facilities in the country, “so the men in the camps may be inspired to follow his example.” As he crossed Canada he very likely did inspire the young airmen with words such as, “We are all damn good. That’s why we’re winning this war.” As the headquarters of No. 4 Training Command, Calgary was a natural stop on Gibson’s tour, but of course he had a personal duty to fulfill there. Terry Taerum’s mother was looking forward to meeting her son’s pilot and getting some up-to-date information on how Harlo was doing.
The RCAF was planning to make as much as they could of Guy Gibson’s visit to Calgary and the public was very interested as well. By this time it was well known that his navigator was an Albertan and Hilda Taerum had been invited to be an important part of the visit. As the big day approached she was both excited and likely very nervous about meeting the great Wing Commander Gibson VC DSO and Bar DFC and Bar.
Her album contains a paper with five type written lines on it. She was obviously rehearsing what she would say to Gibson,
“I am really very thrilled Wing Commander Gibson. I have been looking forward to meeting you.”
“I feel as though I had known you for some time. Harlo has said so much about you in letters.”
“How was Harlo when you last saw him?”
“When you go back to England, Wing Commander Gibson, tell Harlo that we are all well at home.”
“This has been a real privilege, and one I will never forget.”
The plans for the day were front-page news in the September 11th Calgary Herald. The headline read, “V.C. Dam Buster Arrives Here Today.” Gibson was to land in Calgary at 6:00 pm September 11th. Calgarians were to be admitted to No. 3 SFTS, Currie, “So that the public can ‘Hail the air hero.'” Gibson was to be welcomed by AVM G.R. Howsam, air officer commanding No. 4 Training Command, and Mayor Andrew Davison. The ceremony was to include a march past by station personnel to the band from No. 2 Wireless School. Then Gibson was to give a radio interview over CFAC. The route by which W/C Gibson would travel from Currie to the Palliser Hotel was outlined in great detail to provide the public, “another opportunity to see him.” At 8:30 there was to be a second interview over CFAC, “during which he is expected to tell in detail how the famous raid was organized and carried out.”
Upon being introduced to Mrs. Taerum, Gibson was quoted as saying, “I’m awfully glad to meet you. You are the living image of him, you know -or should I say he is the living image of you? Terry is a great boy and a great navigator. He got the whole squadron to the dam.”
The Herald’s headline the following day was, “Terry Got Dam Busters to the Job W/C Gibson Tells His Mother Here” and “Modest Dam Buster Hero Gets Enthusiastic Welcome.” Much was made of the presence of Hilda Taerum at Gibson’s arrival, saying that, “Calgary has a special and ‘hometown’ interest in W/C Gibson’s visit, for it was a young Calgarian who navigated his aircraft on the history-making raid.” Gibson’s modesty was noted as he, “spoke little of the escapades which won for him the VC, DSO and Bar, and DFC and Bar. Rather, this young airman, probably the most famous hero yet to emerge from the present war, led the conversation to the splendid job Canadian fliers are doing and to his, ‘great pal,’ Flying Officer Harlo ‘Terry’ Taerum DFC, of Calgary.”
Gibson spent the next day in Banff and upon his return to Calgary spent several hours at the Taerum residence during the evening. It was likely at that time that Mrs. Taerum showed him her treasured album and had it autographed. As well, a newspaper photo of the two of them was signed by Gibson. The next morning he left for Vancouver by train. Hilda Taerum summed up her experience by saying that it was, “one of the proudest and happiest times of her life” and the numerous photos and newspaper clippings were placed in the album.
Four days later the telegram arrived,
“REGRET TO ADVISE THAT YOUR SON FLYING OFFICER TORGER HARLO TAERUM DFC J
ONE SIX SIX EIGHT EIGHT IS REPORTED MISSING
AFTER AIR OPERATIONS OVERSEAS SEPTEMBER FIFTEENTH STOP
LETTER FOLLOWS -RCAF CASUALTIES OFFICER.”
617 Squadron Lancaster AJ-S had taken off from RAF Coningsby at 23:56 on September 15th to bomb the Dortmun-Ems Canal near Ladbergen. It was to be the first time that a 12,000 pound (high capacity) bomb was to be used against the enemy. AJ-S had a most distinguished crew. Its pilot was the recently appointed c/o, S/L G.W. Holden and included four who had flown with W/C Gibson on the Dams Raid. The decorations of those aboard totaled a DSO, two DFM’s, and six DFC’s, including F/Lt Taerum’s. The aircraft was believed to have been shot down by light flak as they made their run-in on the target at an altitude of only 300 feet. All aboard were killed. Terry Taerum was buried at Reichswold Forest War Cemetery, Kleve, Germany beside the other Canadian aboard, F/O G.A. Deering DFC.
Again, Harlo Taerum was front-page news in his hometown newspapers, the headlines reading, “Calgary’s Dam Buster is Reported Missing.” Guy Gibson, who was in Montreal at the time, sent a message to Mrs. Taerum, referring to his navigator as, “a first class man.” Hilda Taerum dutifully placed the telegrams, clippings, and letters in the album.
Harlo Taerum’s logbook, which opened with details of a map reading flight in an Anson on February 10, 1941 was closed by his friend Mick Martin who, upon the death of S/L Holden, became the officer commanding 617 Squadron. As one looks at the signature in the logbook, the emotion with which it was placed can only be imagined.
A year later on September 19, 1944, Gibson himself was lost. He had become a staff officer but managed to fly on some operations. His last was aboard a Mosquito as Master Bomber on a raid to Rheydt and Munchen Gadbach. After completing his duties he was heard to say, “Okay, that’s fine, now home.” 45 minutes later his Mosquito crashed near Steenbergen. Gibson and his navigator were killed.
And then on February 11, 1945, another devastating telegram was delivered to the already battered Hilda Taerum,
“DEEPLY REGRET TO ADVISE YOUR SON FLIGHT SERGEANT LORNE CLIFFORD TAERUM PREVIOUSLY REPORTED MISSING IS NOW REPORTED TO HAVE LOST HIS LIFE ON ACTIVE SERVICE OVERSEAS FEBRUARY THIRD STOP PLEASE ACCEPT MY PROFOUND SYMPATHY STOP
LETTER FOLLOWS -RCAF CASUALTIES OFFICER.”
Terry’s younger brother, only eighteen years old, had been killed during his sixth operation when his Lancaster was shot down during an operation against the benzol fuel plant in Bottrop, Germany. After completing their bombing run, Lancaster PD221 was returning via now-liberated eastern Holland. Shortly after 8 pm, they were hit by gunfire from a German night-fighter and crashed near the village Westerbeek, Holland. All were killed and are buried in the cemetery of the local church.
The telegrams, letters, and news clippings were placed in the album. The war, for Hilda Taerum, was over. The tragedy was complete.
According to Terry and Lorne’s nephew, “Lorne enlisted upon learning of his big brother’s death. Harlo meant so much to his younger siblings.”