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Bill Astell: Failed to Return

Flight Lieutenant William Astell was the pilot of Lancaster AJ-B for Baker that was heading for the Möhne Dam on the night of May 16, 1943, when the plane hit an electrical pylon and crashed, killing all on board.

William Astell had a boyhood love of adventure that he indulged thanks to his relatively prosperous upbringing as the son of a northern industrialist. In 1935, when he was 15, he travelled from Manchester to London by tramp steamer – a freight boat – and the following summer he went to Canada on a cargo boat. He left school at 17 and took another sea voyage – to Germany this time – where he worked at a glove manufacturing company to gain experience for working in his father’s business. Learning German would prove important later.

He enlisted in July 1939 and headed to southern Africa for training, where it was decided he should be a bomber pilot. "So I am pretty certain to be put onto bombers," he wrote, "which is what I always wanted."

Lancaster bomber

He contracted typhoid when he was with 148 Squadron in Malta and then, after the squadron had moved to Egypt, in April 1941, he fractured his skull in an accident, and he needed 32 stitches.

Even greater drama followed, though, when his Wellington was attacked by a night-fighter in Libya. Most of his crew managed to bail out but Astell and his navigator Arthur Dodds remained in the aircraft as Astell crash-landed in the desert.

Stealing rations from enemy camps and travelling by night, the two made their way back to friendly lines. Challenged once, Astell replied in perfect German that they were signalers and were allowed to proceed. Dodds got captured, but Astell made it back.

Astell came to 57 Squadron at Scampton in January 1943, and in March was transferred across to the new 617 Squadron. As part of the wave of nine aircraft heading for the Möhne Dam, Astell was flying over farmland just north of the industrial heartlands of the Ruhr when his low-flying Lancaster hit a pylon, immediately burst into flame, and crashed in a field.

The Upkeep fell off the aircraft and exploded and the aircraft burned uncontrollably for more than half an hour, exploding ammunition in the heart and making any hope of survival unthinkable. All crew were lost.

The blog is in memory of Flight Lieutenant William Astell.

We have used information from Fighting High Publishing's book Dam Busters: Failed to Return, by Robert Owen, Steve Darlow, Sean Fest and Arthur Thorning, to help us write this blog. To find out more about the 53 men who died on the Dam Busters raid. You can buy a copy of the book on the Amazon website.

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