Dortmund-Ems Canal

This canal, in war-time, was vitally important as it carried smelting coke to the steel works in the Ruhr. At that time it was so busy that it was doubled in this area; a road is now where the second canal was to the west. ( It should be noted that the canal is built up from the surrounding countryside and flows over the River Glane in a viaduct) Because of it’s importance the canal was targetted by Bomber Command for a raid on the night of September 23-24, 1944. Among other aircraft 9 Sqdn. attacked with 12 Lancaster bombers; 617 (Dambusters) went in with 11 Lancasters. The former used 1000 lb. bombs, the latter employed ‘Tallboys’. This bomb, weighing 11,800 lbs. (5352 kg.) reached a terminal velocity of over 4000 fps (1243 meters per second) and buried itself at depths of 30-50 feet (9-18 meters) in the ground before exploding. This resulted in a localized earthquake, shaking down nearby structures. ( A perfect example of problem solving using kinetic energy!) In the event, the canal was breached in at least two places (see markers) and over 18 miles (29 km) of the canal was drained, stranding over 100 barges. On the same night the secondary target, a Luftwaffe night fighter base at Handorf was also heavily bombed with conventional weapons; it appears that craters are still visible at this location. The canal was re-opened in 1956 but the western branch was abandoned.


A warning order to move to RAF Coningsby, 7 miles south-west of Horncastle in Lincolnshire, came on 11th August 1943. Coningsby’s daytime land-marks for aircrews were a 100 foot windmill in the local village, Tattershall Castle and Boston Stump, some 250 feet high, 10 miles away. An advanced party left Scampton on the 25th, the main move coming five days later. 617 was to share the new base with 619 Squadron and would fly several operations with them over the next year or so.

Training took up the squadron’s time over the next couple of weeks, much of it low level practice at Wainfleet bombing range in cooperation with Mosquito aircraft of 418 and 605 Squadrons. Low level flying had been greatly improved by the production of radio altimeters which could be set at a desired height – usually 75 to 100 feet – which then gave the pilot an immediate visual indication if he flew below that height. Unbeknown to the crews was that this was in preparation for an attack upon one of Bomber Command’s old targets – the Dortmund-Ems Canal.

This canal ran to the north of Münster near Ladbergen and consisted of a shallow waterway approximately 12 feet deep and 100 feet wide at water level. This canal was just one part of Germany’s system of inland waterways, yet it was the only link by water between the Ruhr and Eastern Germany or the North Sea and Baltic. Its barges carried millions of tons of freight to and from the factories of the Ruhr, especially valuable iron ore from Sweden.

It had been attacked on numerous occasions since 1940 but although it was vulnerable from air attack at several points where there were either viaducts or embankments over low lying ground, it could be repaired almost as quickly as it was damaged. In August 1940, Squadron Leader R.A.B. Learoyd, flying a Hampden of 49 Squadron, had received the VC for an attack upon it, in the face of heavy AA fire.

The point chosen for 617’s attack was at Greven where the canal divided into two branches. It was planned to mount the raid on the first suitable date after 11th September, the 14th being the night finally set. To cause the maximum damage, the Lancasters would carry a 12,000 lb HC bomb. Eight Lancasters would take part, supported by six Mosquitos of Fighter Command plus two reserve Lancasters.

The operation called for particularly careful planning as the more vulnerable parts of the canal were heavily defended, many of which came within artillery zones of important industrial towns. As the bombing called for a hit within forty feet of the canal bank, it necessitated a low level approach with good visibility, i.e.: moonlight! The force was divided into two, each with three Mosquitos as escort who would deal with flak and searchlights.

The force set off on the evening of the 14th but a Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft that flew out ahead of them reported that the weather was too bad over the target area, so the force was recalled. Squadron Leader Maltby (in JA981 ‘N’) turned his aircraft at 0.45 a.m. but in doing so he hit the sea with a wingtip and went in. Whether he was caught in a slipstream, had an aircraft malfunction or simply misjudged his height we will never know. Flight Lieutenant Dave Shannon saw the crash and circled the area for 2 hours until an air-sea rescue craft arrived, but only the body of David Maltby was ever found.

He and his crew were sadly missed, not least by his ground crew. To have survived so much only to die in this way seemed so tragic. He and his crew were the first of the Dam Buster survivors to be lost.

The next night 617 tried again. The operation had to be done and they now owed it to Maltby and his crew to finish it. The force crossed the enemy coast in two groups and flew by different routes to reach the canal where it ran from north to south for a number of miles. Leading the first group was George Holden, with Martin, Knight and Wilson. Allsebrook followed with Shannon, Rice and Divall. Visibility was excellent which made navigation easy. Some twenty miles from the target, light flak opened up on the first group which hit Holden’s Lancaster in a petrol tank. The bomber hit the ground at Nordhorn-Altendorf, crashing into a farm house in the Hesperweg, where it and the 12,000 lb bomb blew up. The farmer’s wife and the Lancaster crew all died in the explosion. It was George Holden’s thirtieth birthday.

The formation broke up to skirt Nordhorn and became separated owing to a thick ground haze. The crews remained in radio communication with each other, however, and reached the canal without further incident, although it was only possible to make out the canal when vertically over it. As planned, Allsebrook – the Deputy Leader – dropped a parachute beacon, followed by a second one, a ‘safeguard’ beacon, two miles to the east, but owing to the haze they were not seen. Incendiary bombs carried in reserve for marking were also dropped but they could only be seen when directly over them.

In the terrible visibility around the target, at times in the order of only 500 yards, a prolonged and determined search was carried out by the seven crews. In these conditions it was easy to fly a wider orbit than intended, which allowed local flak positions to engage the Lancasters overhead. The Mosquitos engaged some of the guns but they too had difficulty in making out details on the ground.

Only two Lancasters were able to locate and bomb the target, one bomb falling into the canal, its explosion throwing up a water spout to around 1,500 feet. This Lancaster was flown by Mick Martin, the second by Shannon, whose bomb exploded on the towpath. Neither saw any material damage. Meanwhile four of the other Lancasters were hit and shot down in the general area.

Les Knight had been detailed as sixth to bomb and had been instructed to fly a square course of one minute legs while waiting his turn to bomb. As they were flying the first leg, another aircraft was seen ahead, Knight, therefore, flew longer on the first and third legs and less on the second and fourth so as to avoid the other aeroplane. After completing one circuit in this manner the canal had not been observed, so they held their course a few seconds longer.

Suddenly the bomb aimer yelled, ‘Look out, high ground ahead!’

Les Knight pulled back the control column instantly but too late. They hit the tops of some trees which jarred the Lancaster and punctured both radiators of the port engines. It is possible that the fins and rudder were also damaged as Knight had difficulty in controlling the machine. Being unable to climb, he requested permission from Martin to jettison his bomb.

Having got rid of the bomb he set course for home and was able to reach 1,500 feet. Almost immediately, however, the port inner engine started to leave a trail of white smoke and the flight engineer feathered it. He had no sooner done so when the port outer engine began to show similar symptoms and was also feathered. Knight was able to maintain a height of 1,200 feet at 140 mph but with both port engines out of action he was finding it difficult to fly on a straight course.

With the rear turret unserviceable as a result of the port engine being feathered (which controlled the turret’s hydraulics), the gunner, Sergeant Harry O’Brien, came forward to the bomb aimer’s compartment where he sat facing his pilot and pulled hard on the port rudder bar with all his strength, while Knight pushed with his left foot. They continued like this for twenty minutes, and as long as they kept up this pressure it was possible to maintain a fairly straight course but when they relaxed for a moment the aircraft veered off course.

Soon the two starboard engines began to show signs of overheating, so the port inner engine was restarted. It ran normally for about 30 seconds before starting to smoke. It was feathered again and the outer engine tried but with the same result. Knight said he thought he could hold the aircraft long enough for them to reach the North Sea but it would be necessary for them to bale out over Holland. The navigator, Sidney Hobday, told Knight when they had reached a point about thirty miles inside the Dutch frontier and he gave the order to bale out. Bob Kellow, the wireless operator, had been continuously reporting their progress back to base. He now reported that they were abandoning the aircraft.

Flying Officer Johnson, the bomb aimer and O’Brien were first out. They left through the forward escape hatch, followed by Sergeant Ray Grayston, the engineer, Hobday and then Kellow. As Kellow passed Knight, the latter signified that all was as well as could be expected. When coming down in his parachute, Kellow saw the Lancaster pass overhead still flying level, and later saw it burning on the ground. The front and mid-upper gunners, Sergeants Fred Sutherland and Woollard, both left by the side door. Woollard was not a regular member of the crew. He landed safely, evaded capture and later got himself back to England.

Flying Officer Johnson was jammed in the nose of the aircraft for a short while but finally pulled himself free. He landed in a field of sugar beet about six miles from Almelo. He had just landed when the Lancaster came back over his head, only about fifty feet up, then crashed into the next field and burst into flames. It was 3.46 a.m., 16th September, near Den Ham, about sixteen miles south-east of Zwolle.

The aircraft had come down after clipping some trees which still bear signs of the crash, while others still show signs from the fire. The field had a small wire fence across it which gave Les Knight no chance for any kind of belly landing. Baron Van Pallandte, with a friend, went immediately to the burning Lancaster but they were unable to help Knight who must have died immediately. He related that the pilot had tried very hard to land, hopping over trees in an attempt to get down. He also stated at the time, ‘I know and can say that he was a very brave fellow.’ Knight had kept the bomber flying long enough for his crew to jump, but in doing so had paid the price so many bomber captains had to pay for their final brave acts. Les Knight3 was given a wonderful funeral and was buried in Den Ham by the local Dutch people. So yet another pilot from the Dams Raid was lost.

Sidney Hobday landed in a tree. With his parachute caught in the branches he managed to free himself and get down. When he revisited the area after the war he was given part of his parachute harness; it still had his name on it.

Before baling out he had told the others to head for the south-west, and had also shouted to Knight, ‘Come on, Les!’

Knight’s reponse was, ‘Jump, God bless you.’

Once on the ground, Hobday saw in the distance a grey German patrol car. The occupants did not see him but a farmhand saw him, asking, ‘Tommy?’

Hobday said, ‘No, RAF.’

The farmhand did not quite understand so Hobday picked up a piece of wood and wrote in the dirt, ‘RAF’. With this the man said, ‘Oh, Air-ah-eff.’ He shook his hand and bade him farewell and continued on his way.

He later met a couple who spoke English who told him they had met another Englishman. Their description was of Bob Kellow. They took Hobday to a wood, gave him some apples and told him to wait. After a while a man came with a package containing some civilian clothes. He changed and gave the man his uniform. He was eventually passed along an escape line, via Paris, across the Pyrenees into Spain to reach Gibraltar. He flew back to the UK in time for Christmas. The Dutch had asked him to arrange for radio equipment to be dropped should he get home, and this was duly done.

Flight Lieutenant Harold Wilson crashed between 3 and 4 a.m. at Recke-Obersteinbeck, near Ladbergen. He had flown low over the target when his aircraft was hit by a 2 cm flak gun. Wilson made a belly landing and after about fifteen minutes his machine exploded. A local farmer heard cries for help and on his way to help, was blown over by the explosion and severely injured. A large proportion of the Lancaster was on the southern side of the Mittelland Canal; the rear turret with the body of the dead gunner was found on the northern side. All eight men died and their bodies were taken away for burial by the Germans.

Flight Lieutenant Ralph Allsebrook, who had taken over when Holden was brought down, crashed at Bergeshovede in the German district of Recklenberg. He had dropped his own bomb and then directed two others onto the target before he was seen hit and on fire.

After making his run, he had called Mick Martin on the W/T, ‘Hold on a minute until I get out of this,’ (he meant the light flak), and was then heard to say, ‘I am returning to base.’ Martin then took over as leader.

Allsebrook and his crew were buried in an Evangelical Cemetery at Horsteb.

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