Ken Brown liked the Bomber Command Museum (formerly the Nanton Lancaster Air Museum). He had visited the museum and our Lancaster on a number of occasions prior to our requesting if he might be the guest speaker at our Fiftieth Anniversary of the Dambusters Raid. And there was no hesitation when the invitation was issued.
Ken and his wife Beryl visited the museum numerous times after 1993. He was the classic gentleman, modest and unassuming, and it was always a pleasure to see him in the museum.
The following speech was presented by Ken Brown CGM at the Fiftieth Commemoration of the Dambusters Raid held at the museum. It gives insight into the training for the raid, the raid itself, and the character of W/C Guy Gibson VC. Ken was a frequent visitor to our museum and a great supporter. Sadly, Ken passed away on December 23, 2002. This transcript of his speech is presented as a tribute to Ken.
Bomber Command Museum Dambusters Dinner: July 17th, 1993
Guest Speaker: Ken Brown
Introduction by Mr. Keith Shepard
Bomber Command Association of Canada Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls -I see there are some of the younger generation here.
On the night of 16/17th May, 1943, nineteen Lancasters of the newly formed 617 Squadron, roared into the sky on the famous Dams Raid. At the controls of F for Freddie was Flight Sergeant Ken Brown. His home was in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and he was twenty-two years old. A Bomber Command veteran, he had completed fifteen operations with 44 Squadron. But on this night his efforts were to win him the award of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM).
But of afterwards? Ken stayed with 617 Squadron for a year. But I shall leave it up to him to give further details of the period and the time since.
Ken and his wife Beryl now live in Whiterock, B.C. and we are indeed fortunate to have with us one of the original members of 617 Squadron.
Ladies and Gentlemen please welcome our guest speaker: Ken Brown, the Dambuster.
After all those accolades I’m not sure this speech is going to stand up or not.
Before I start however, I wanted to comment on two things. The message from the designer of the Lancaster (Roy Chadwick’s) daughter. I was at Buckingham Palace when he received his award, a very gracious fellow. It was my roommate who was the pilot of the Tudor that crashed with Chadwick on it at the time. It was a great loss to us. David was one of the best pilots in our Squadron, DSO and Bar (Distinguished Service Order), DFC and Bar (Distinguished Flying Cross). This happened shortly after the war down at Farnborough.
May I commence by first of all saying, Mr. President, members of the Nanton Lancaster Society, Ladies and Gentlemen. We turn back the pages of history and sometimes they cause a great deal of furor in your stomach.
But getting to the time I joined 617 Squadron. I was flying with 44 Squadron. My C/O was a VC (Victoria Cross) winner and we were briefed to go to Berlin.
After the briefing he said, “Brown, report to my office immediately after the briefing.” Which I did and he said, “You are transferred to a new squadron.”
I wasn’t too happy about that. I said, “Sir, I’d rather stay here and finish my tour with Forty-four.”
He explained in his very curt manner, “This was impossible. It was a name transfer and he could do nothing about it.”
So we went to Berlin and on our return we got packed up and off we went to No. 617. But before we went, the Wing Commander wished me well and said, “Do you realize Brown, youre going to be the backbone of this new squadron.”
Well, we arrived over at Scampton and we started to look around as to who was there. There were an awful lot of DFC’s, not so many DFM’s. We realized that perhaps we weren’t really all what we were set up to be.
My wireless Operator sauntered up to me and said, “Skip, if we’re the backbone of this squadron. We must be damn close to the ass end.” I began to wonder how I’d got there.
When I was going through Manchester training and Lancaster training there was fellow by the name of “Mick” Martin who perhaps was to become one of the RAF’s greatest. He was my instructor at that time. So was a fellow that we knew as “Terry” Taerum (Taerum was to become Guy Gibson’s Navigator on the Dams Raid). Everyone in the outfit knew Terry. He was teaching GEE at the time. GEE was a navigation aid it was new at the time, so Terry was sort of our expert.
I was speaking to Martin. He took me up on a Fighter Affiliation. This is where you take-off and you have a fighter aircraft attack you and he shows you how to evade a fighter attack. Well he played around with the aircraft and showed me a few things. And then he said. “Okay young fellow, let’s see what you can do.” So in mid air we changed seats and I said, “Anything you can do Buster, I can do too.”
To which he said or mumbled something suggesting that he didn’t think my mother was married when I was born.
We got to the squadron. I’d never meet Wing Commander Gibson before. So this was a new experience.
We were all sitting out on the lawn in front of the briefing room when someone said, “Briefing’s ready, come on in.”
So we marched into the briefing room which was right down on the flight line. I wasn’t last in, but I did close the door. When I did so, he (Gibson) said, “Brown, report to me office after briefing.” Sounded familiar.
However, I couldn’t believe it when I reported to his office. The adjutant met me, marched me in, and he (Gibson) had me on charge for being late for a briefing. I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. So he then read out the charge for being late for an operational briefing, and he asked me, “Whether I’d take a court marshal or his punishment.”
I said, “I’ll take your punishment, sir.”
So he said, “Fine. You’ll wash all the windows on the outside of the briefing room and the inside of the briefing room. All after duty hours.”
As we were flying about eighteen hours a day, that was really something. I wasn’t going to let this really stump me. So I did it. And I did it night after night. It was one of those things.
Wing Commander Gibson had a very high standard for everyone and you had to meet it, and meet it on his terms. He was really a strong and staunch disciplinarian. He had been brought up in a boy’s school as a head prefect. And I still think he handled things in that way. At least I thought that way after then ninety-ninth window.
At this time we started our low-flying and you’ve heard various stories about how we started at sixty feet. It really wasn’t so. We started our low-flying cross-countrys over England at about two hundred feet. That lasted about three days. Then we were down to one hundred and fifty feet.
I did a cross-country one day and I came across a new aerodrome that was being built with an awful lot of people around it. There I was headed straight for the hangar and I thought, “Well, I’d better pull-up. There’s no point in trying to go through it.” So I pulled up and over the hanger.
Let me explain that the Royal Observer Corps kept track of us all the time so Guy got our altitudes no matter where we were and had a report on them the next morning.
So at briefing the next day he said, “Brown, what were you doing going over the hangar?”
I said, “I thought it was a good idea.” And he said, “Two hundred feet! Hardly, you’ll do that one again.”
It wasn’t a bad cross-country anyhow so I did it the next day.
When I came to the hangar -same thing, all these men were working on top of the hangar and this side of it and so forth. So I put it (the aircraft) down on grass level and then came over the top of the hanger and there were people sliding off it and running in all directions. So next day at briefing, he (Gibson) looked in my direction and said, “Brown, I said low, but not that low.”
We ran into problems. I want to really try to bring out the character of Guy Gibson more than anything. So bear with me a bit. The next time I had a problem with him, we were doing low-level night runs on the aerodrome. And what they did was put a great sheet across the runway at one end and so many yards down another sheet. You had to start at the beginning of the runway at fifteen hundred feet and dive, cross the first sheet at seventy feet, cross the second sheet at seventy feet and at the end of the runway be at fifteen hundred feet. It was quite tricky.
However this particular night David Shannon and I were doing the exercise and he did his. David happens to be an Australian. So we changed seats, he got over the other side and I did mine. And the rain started in dear old England, coming down hell bent for leather. So by the time I’d finished it was really a soak out. So as were taxiing in. I said, “Dave, keep your head out the window, and I’ll keep my head out the window so we can see.”
So we were taxing. We couldn’t see out the front, the rain was that heavy. David got his face wet, so he closed his window. I didn’t know this, head out the window like an idiot, getting wet. Low and behold we had a marshal there and he was telling us to turn and we turned. And the port outer -I mean the starboard outer on that side clipped what they call a totem pole, which was a pole with lights on it. Well, I knew Gibson wouldn’t take that very well. So next morning at briefing he said, “Brown, I’ll see you in my office.”
I knew damn well he wasn’t going to compliment me on my window washing.
However, we started out using the Derwent Dam among other targets. And believe me we didn’t have a clue as to what was going to be the target. Nobody even mentioned dams -we thought the Tirpitz (battleship) or some other thing.
We went up to the Derwent Dam and there was moonlight, but unfortunately there were a few clouds around. And in the Derwent there’s a row of hills down the east side and a slight cut-off at the end. And you’ve got to cut around this to come at the dam.
Guy Gibson decided he would make the first run, and his bomb aimer happened to be an Australian. So he runs in on this dam and just as he was going in a cloud came across the moon. So it was damn dark. He came down on the water, without lights, then rushing towards this thing. We were equipped with VHP radio, which was the fighter boys radio and there was a toggle switch at the side. Transmit was (motions with hand) this way; receive this way (motions hand the opposite direction). Guy left it open (on transmit). Low and behold he dashed in towards this, and the bombaimer says, “This is bloody dangerous!”
I think everybody in every aircraft was hollering those same thoughts or remarks.
Then along comes the Dams Raid. Really it is unbelievable now. The pilot, the navigator, and the bomb aimer -we briefed on the 14th (two days before the actual raid). But we couldn’t tell our crew what the target was. So on the 15th they found out what the target was. We were still shaking. We weren’t terribly impressed for the simply reason that at the dress rehearsal, when they dropped the bomb itself, two of the aircraft had their tails damaged to such an extent that they were lucky to get back.
However, such was the case. We were going on the Dams Raid.
A friend of mine always remembers “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, stand before the wall.” I think in everyone’s life that has to come up. Once you find out that this is something you hadn’t really expected, how well you handle it. I think everyone had to handle it his own way.
That night, we were perched out on the grass. It was a beautiful night, clear sky, no cloud, waiting for the buses to take us out to the aircraft. John Burpee, a Canadian, -Pilot Officer Burpee, came over to me and thrust out his hand and said, “Goodbye, Ken.”
I said, “Goodbye, John.” I didn’t expect he’d come back. You see some people feel that way.
Then we got on board the bus; there were three crews to one bus. The bus stopped to let the first crew off. Then the second crew got off and my tail gunner, when the second crew got off and the bus moved on, was very quiet. Then it stopped for us, so we moved over towards the aircraft. And my gunner stood there, where he’d got off the bus.
I said, “Come on Mac (F/Sgt. Grant MacDonald). Let’s go.”
He said, “Skip, you know those guys aren’t coming back, don’t you?”
I said, “Yeah, I know.”
So he said, “Well, damn it!”
So we got aboard the aircraft. In most pictures today, they show the Dambusters taking off from runways. That wasn’t so. We took off from grass. The bomb that I had on the aircraft was marked eleven thousand-nine hundred and sixty pounds on the side of it. I only found out this year why that was so. Because when the bomb was made with a casing and wooden cover; the whole thing weighed that much. But once it was removed then the real weight came off.
We went out to our aircraft. The usual thing -we wet all the areas around the dispersal, some more than others. And then we tried to take off. Well it was a beautiful night, but no wind. We needed that wind because we were on the short runway and the hedge on the short runway was a thousand feet tall. At least it looked that was when you are taking off.
We got the aircraft in the air and then discovered that we had to use climbing power, 2650 (RPM) at 9 (boost), to keep the whole thing in the air. The next exercise was to get down to sixty feet and try out the guns and the lights. The two lights were focused down on the water, to form a figure eight. We also turned on the motor which rotated the bomb. Now you’ve heard it said many times that we flew at exactly sixty feet, absolutely, at sixty feet. When that bomb rotated, believe me it was like driving a truck or anything else over the rails of a railway, unbalanced as it was. Then we came onto the coast, the Dutch coast.
Immediately we were in the area of Glize-Reijen which was a fighter-drome. We all knew that the Luftwaffe night-fighters were there at the time. Pilot Officer (P/O) Burpee, was about a mile and a half off the north coast and they opened up on him; and he blew up on the airport. So I knew we had one less.
We went on towards Hamm and I just couldn’t help it -there was a train moving along a gentle slope. And I said, “Okay gunners. Here’s where you can get your exercise now and your target practice.”
So we took on the train as we flew right along side it.
We were having trouble as was everyone else, with high-tension wires. They were our greatest danger at anytime. If the wires in the moonlight were to flutter up here (motions above his head), we knew we’d have to go under them. If they were to flutter down there (motions below his head) we knew we’d go over them. It was that quick. We lost two aircrafts to those wires. They merely slapped into them. Deadly stuff.
As we came along to Hamm they were really waiting for us. We and the other two waves had passed that way. So they poured it (flak) down. As a matter of fact, they were firing down at us. They were on a little bit of a lip as we went through the valley. Ottley was on my starboard side at about one o’clock and they hit him. He immediately blew up. His tanks went first and then his store (his bomb).
I have a piece of that aircraft that was presented to me on my recent trip to England. It’s no larger than your fist.
When that happened the whole valley was just one orange ball. I didn’t have too much of an alternative: I don’t think there was any bravery connected with it. There was a road off the port side. Everything was trees and this road, I couldn’t see because of the fire from his aircraft. So I dove and went along the road. Then much to my consternation that damn road led right into a castle, and I’ll never forget that castle door. We had to dip and the left wing went between two turrets as we went through the castle.
We arrived at the Mohne Dam. It had been breached by that time. The gunners were still fairly active. We thought we’d leave them alone and we went over to the Sorpe Dam.
The Sorpe was of a different construction altogether. It was an earthen dam, where you have a solid core and earth on either side -very difficult to breach. This was one thing that they never really took a hard look at with such a dam. But our tactics were to run parallel with the dam and drop our bomb in the middle so that it would explode, wash out the front of it, crack the wall and the water would do the rest. But we needed more than one.
The only problem was the whole damn valley was full of fog. When we arrived there, they told us that there would be a church up on top of the village. We found that all right -but just the spire of the church.
So I tried to position myself from the spire. I didn’t do too well. I got behind the dam on the first run. When I found myself at ground level, behind the dam. I had to climb up roughly eighteen hundred feet. It didn’t do my nerves any good at all. Because I was on top of the trees, I had to do a flat turn. I couldn’t move the wing down to get around. I had to stand on the rudder to get around and then we were down in the valley again.
Well we did quite a number of runs on the dam, before we were able to clear enough of the fog away with the propellers constantly going through did. And I must say, according to the historians today, it was a near perfect drop. And I didn’t even write them about it. However, we were pleased with it and as far as the explosion was concerned, the waterspout went up to about a thousand feet and so did we. I think we ended up about eight hundred.
There was on thing that sort of bugged me. When we went to the Mohne Dam, one of our aircraft (flown by Flight Lieutenant John Hopgood) had been shot down there. And I felt we owed the fellow a visit. So I went back.
All the other aircraft had left. But as soon as we came over the Mohne, they were throwing 20mm at us. I think there was some that was 37mm. But I figured that we owed that fellow a visit. So we came real low, below the towers, straight on at them. And I heard this fellow’s story about three weeks ago in Germany, and he said -No I won’t try his German.
Anyhow, we opened up at about five hundred yards and carried in over the tower and the rear gunner depressed his guns and we raked the thing as we went through. Well, there was no firing coming from that tower when we left. We figured we’d done him in, however the fellow got the Iron Cross. So we weren’t that successful.
The worst was really yet to come. It was then daylight or just breaking. We had to go across and up the Zeider Zee. There was no horizon -the mud from the Zeider Zee and the sky were all one. So I started across, strictly on my altimeter with my head below the cockpit top at fifty feet and I hung onto it. I’d been told by a famous Wing Commander in the RAF, “Never, ever pull up. If you’re low, never pull up.”
So I hoped he was right -because all hell broke loose within a matter of fifteen minutes.
Searchlights, even through it was light, caught us from the starboard side and straight on. There was a lot of light flak immediately in front of us. The cannon shells started to go through the canopy, the side of the aircraft was pretty well blown out, and there was only one thing to do. That was go lower, so I put her down ten feet. We came across and actually their gun positions were on the sea wall. So they were firing slightly down at us and I guess they couldn’t believe we were lower than what they could fire. So in this turmoil with the front gunner blazing away at them, I just got a glance, for a moment, and I could see the gunners either falling off because they were hit from our guns or rather they were jumping off to save their skin.
I pulled up over top of them and we all gave a great sigh of relief. I think I’ve never had a bowel movement that ever gave me greater relief. We figured we had it made at this stage of the game.
I called each of the crewmembers and I was really surprised to find that no one had been hit. There was a great deal of damage.
My wireless operator said, “Hey Skip. Come on back and crawl in and out of the holes.”
I did go back. I wondered how badly and what damage had been done to our landing gear etc. But by that time we were in broad daylight of course. I’m sure that the Germans figured that we were a Kamikaze crew or something to do what we did.
We came back to base and we were quite elated that we’d all made it through. I called my squadron call sign and in my enthusiasm. I said, “This is F for Freddie.”
And a little WAAF voice came back, “Hello F for Fox.” That too had changed while we’d been away.
We didn’t really know of the losses however, until we’d landed. Even then we were kind of naive because when we went into my dispersal point where ten aircraft should be -there was one. And we thought, “Wonder where the other fellows landed.”
But you see, out of the nineteen. One (flown by officer Rice) had hit the water on the Dutch Coast. As a matter of fact the tail gunner was under the water when the aircraft pulled out. He made it back. Another aircraft (flown by Flight Lieutenant Munro) was hit by flak and his intercom went. So consequently, of the nineteen you’re now looking at seventeen that went beyond the Dutch Coast.
We couldn’t quite believe that there were so many missing. When we got out of the aircraft, the ground crews of all the aircraft were standing around long faced, tears running down their cheeks. We were the only ones that were sort of elated in saying “Well, we made it back.”
But it was a sad thing to know how the ground crew felt, some of them mentioned here tonight.
How the ground crew worked on our aircraft and believe me they did. My aircraft was so badly damaged it had to go back to the factory. But the next aircraft I had was very badly shot-up. My ground crew worked on it. When I came in at six o’clock in the morning they worked all day, all night, all the next day and next night. I took it out the following morning. So I have a great deal of respect for the ground crew personnel. They did a tremendous job and it’s unfortunate at times we don’t really recognize what they did. They were really a God’s send to us all.
Well, the big day came. My stock in trade with Guy Gibson improved tremendously after the Dams Raid. I was commissioned and I was assigned a married quarter, which was really an officer’s married quarters. We had one room and every room was filled with another officer. In this particular place, I was on the ground floor and every night or evening when I came back there was a huge rabbit that was bounding around out the field at the back. And I figured that the rabbit would look better on my plate than in that field. So I borrowed a shotgun from the armory and a few shells and stashed them in my closet.
I came home one night and sure enough there was that rabbit. So I took off with the shotgun across the field. The old rabbit was well ahead of me avoiding my flak. He crossed the highway on the other side and went into a field. So I followed him in and went down a hole by a big tree. I thought, “That’s fine, I’ll just wait him out.”
So with my shotgun at my side, here I was waiting for this damn rabbit. And what happens? Down the road came a constable with a training officer. And he stops and he hollers, “I say. Do you know your trespassing?” And I said, “Go on, I’m waiting for a rabbit,” which didn’t go over very well.
So immediately the two dismounted and come over, and he said, “Do you know you’re on private property?” And I said, “Well, the rabbit was over on our property and he ran over to this side and I’m claiming him.”
“I demand to see your identification,” he said.
And at that I realized that I’d taken my ID out (of my pocket) and put shotgun shells in. So I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t disclose my identification.” That was as quick as I could think of, being on a secret squadron.
And he said, “In that case, you’ll have to come down to the station.”
So I said, “Well I’m sorry, I’ll have to decline your invitation.”
And he said, “I demand to know why.”
And I said, “Because I’ve got a double barreled loaded shotgun in my hand and you’ve got nothing.”
Boy did their faces change.
However, two days later we took a trip. We had to do a mission into Italy. We did a bombing trip to Italy and then cut across to North Africa and landed. So I was away for about seven days.
When I came back the Adj. (Adjutant) said to me, “You know, there were a couple of constables out here with a warrant. They were looking for a tall blonde Canadian and as you were the only one who fitted the description we gave them your name.”
“How kind of you,” I said.
Low and behold he said, “I think the C/O might like to see you too.”
Now this is the point in the whole story. Guy Gibson took that warrant and went before the court. I don’t know what he said but he never mentioned that to me. That was his way of letting you know you were accepted. It took a long time.
Guy Gibson came to Canada and visited his navigator’s (Terry Taerum) family. He visited my family. He went and visited a number of flying schools and told them what a good friend he had in Ken Brown. He didn’t tell them about the three charges he had me on. However, my mother was very pleased with his visit and to see him.
And it’s something today. Beryl and I have just been over to the U.K. I introduced the survivors of the Dams Raid to the Queen Mother. Beryl introduced the wives of the Dambusters to the Queen Mother. And we were exposed to a great deal of the English hoopla about the great Dambusters. They do a great deal on it. We went to the Derwent Dam, which we practiced on. There were over one hundred thousand people there. I’d never seen a crowd like that.
But they (the English) sell their air force that way. They sell their museums that way and they do a good job of it. I’m not criticizing them at all. It’s something that perhaps we can learn something about in supporting our air force and supporting our museums in Canada.
Because Canadians were not as directly affected as the British, and consequently many have no idea at all of what their uncles, their brothers, etcetera did during the war. It was a tremendous contribution.
I’d just like to quote a couple:
- “Did you know that twenty-five percent of all aircrew in the UK were Canadians?”
- “Did you know that per capita, I repeat per capita, Canada had more aircrew in operational outfits, than England had?”
- “Do you know that sixty-two percent of all casualties in the Canadian armed forces, were aircrew?”
There’s an awful lot we can be thankful for. Of the airmen killed in Bomber Command, nine thousand-nine hundred and nineteen, were Canadian.
Today, I’ve even been asked, “Well, did Canada really get involved in the war?”
We don’t want to perpetuate the thought that war is something glorious and wonderful. But we do want to put the thought across.
I’ve been through Germany. I’ve been through England, just recently, and I was so damn glad to get back to Canada. It’s the most wonderful country in the world.
The Nanton Lancaster Association provides that link between those who are not here to speak on their own behalf -to let the younger generation realize that a tremendous contribution was made because the young fellows were so concerned that we might lose our way of life here in Canada. That was their main concern. That this Canada of ours might suffer. And at times, especially with our political situation today, I think we can give that a little bit of serious thought.
I was proud to stand among, as they called themselves, “Guys.” I never heard that in the RAF. As I am sure they would be proud to have the Nanton group expound their desire and their wishes for this country. I take off my hat to the people in Nanton and for the perpetuations that they have achieved here in their Society.
I thank you.