Dambusters 80th anniversary: My father's role in the Dambusters Raid and how the Fund has supported me
Robert 'Bob' Henderson joined 617 Squadron when it was established in 1943, recruited as a Flight Engineer, to become part of the historic Dams Raid. We spoke with his son, Chris Henderson, now 78 years old, about the Dambusters 80th Anniversary, his father’s legacy, and how the Fund has been a huge support to him and his family.
"My father was born in 1920 in Tarbrax, a Scottish oil shale mining village. Although he was an able student, he left school at 14 and worked as a miner until he was able to join the RAF in 1937,” said Chris. “Dad initially worked as ground crew until he was selected to train as a Flight Engineer in 1942. After he qualified, he was posted to 57 Squadron at RAF Scampton, and flew on sixteen operations with Flt Lt G.W. Curry’s crew’
Chris continued : "In early April 1943, with his plane grounded because his pilot had an ear infection and on hearing that a new squadron was being formed in a near-by hanger, Dad and Bomb Aimer Len Sumpter wandered across to have a look. They heard that a young Australian pilot, David Shannon, was looking for a Flight Engineer and a Bomb Aimer, and as their own crew was due to be broken up they sought him out. The story is that they and David Shannon looked each other up and down, liked what they saw and joined their new aircrew. So that’s how my Dad became a member of Squadron X which was soon to become 617 Squadron, the Dambusters."
617 Squadron was assembled specifically to bomb the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams, the three great dams in Germany’s industrial heartland, critical to the development of power and steel in the Ruhr Valley.
This year marks 80 years since the iconic raid, Operation Chastise, on the night of 16th/17th May 1943 in which Barnes Wallis’ revolutionary bouncing bombs were dropped at low level, to skip across the reservoirs and strike the face of the dams before sinking and exploding. The mission was a success, the Mohne and Eder dams were breached and the Sorpe dam badly damaged, but the cost was high; of the 19 Lancasters which took off from Scampton with 133 aircrew, 8 were lost resulting in 53 airmen killed and three becoming prisoners of war. The loss of life affected Barnes Wallis badly.
After the Raid, Shannon’s crew remained together for the best part of a year flying a further 17 operations, many hazardous and at low level, including the fateful Dortmund Elms Canal raid in September 1943 where five of the eight Lancasters deployed failed to return. This was to be the last of the low level raids carried out by the squadron for some time.
In April 1944, Bob was commissioned and recommended for the award of the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM). He flew one further mission with Shannon, Operation Taxable, 617’s D-Day Spoof operation over the Channel dropping ‘window’ as a subterfuge to cover the actual D-Day landings further along the Normandy coast.
Bob flew a further six missions with F/Lt R S D Kearns during June 1944 before transferring to a Conversion Unit as an Instructor for the remainder of the war. Further promotions took him to the rank Flight Lieutenant until he was discharged in early May 1948, only to be reenlisted as a Sergeant a few weeks later, a rank he retained for the duration of his life in the RAF. Of the 133 men who took part in the Dams Raid, only 48 survived the War.
Bob served at stations all over the UK and in Rhodesia, Malta and Cyprus. Sadly, despite surviving the Dambusters Raid and the War, Bob died of Sudden Death Syndrome, aged 40, in the town of Limassol in Cyprus on 18 February 1961 while based at RAF Akrotiri. He is buried in the British Military Cemetery at Dhekelia, in the Eastern Sovereign Base Area of the island.
According to Chris, his father talked very little about his wartime experience and it was not until the 1956 film, the Dambusters, was released that Chris really knew anything about the Dambusters Raid. Chris was just 15 when his father died, he was at school in South Devon as his parents wanted him to have a more settled education rather than further disruption by going with them to another overseas posting.
As Chris said: "When you are younger your Dad is just your Dad, that’s all you need to know, that’s all you really want to know. By the time I was of an age to want to know about Dad’s service career and what he did in the War he was no longer there to tell me."
However, as he grew older and with children of his own, Chris became more and more interested in his father’s RAF career and began his own research, particularly into the Dams Raid. He learned how integral his father’s role as a Flight Engineer was in ensuring his plane kept flying during the momentous raid and he discovered more about him as a member of 617 Squadron.
Chris said: "In 1994 I was teaching at a Service Children's School in Northern Germany and the previous year my wife and I had visited the Mohne and Eder dams which had rekindled an interest in Dams raid and my father's role in it. We bought a Frank Wootten print, 'A Tribute to David Shannon', and learned there was to be a signing by Dambuster veterans at The Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa at a time when we would be in England, so we attended.
"There we met Dambuster veterans such as Ray Grayson, George Chalmers, Jim Clay and Dudley Heel who remembered my father. That led to invitations to attend the annual Dams Dinners where we grew to know other veterans like John Bell, 'Johnny' Johnson, ‘Benny’ Goodman and Barnes Wallis’ daughter Mary Stopes-Roe, as well as Squadron historians Robert Owen and Charles Foster. More stories, more anecdotes and a picture of my father began to emerge. Sadly, almost all the veterans have now passed away, but their memories live on.
"Also attending the Dinners would be relatives of Dambusters not only from the UK but also from Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand. We would gather together to reminiscence about our families and the roles our fathers' played in 617 Squadron and in the war. This helps to keep the memory of the Dambusters still very much alive for us all."
Chris added: "Dad died in 1961 and for several years while growing up I wanted to believe he was really just on a secret mission somewhere. It was not until Easter 1996, following a successful OFSTED inspection at my school in Germany, that with my wife and two young sons we travelled to Cyprus and I was first able to visit his grave in Dhekelia. Little was I to know then that within a few months I would become Deputy Head at King Richard’s School, a Service Children’s School not a mile from the Cemetery.
"History shapes what we know and do today – the cutting edge technology developed at that time and used during the War, including Barnes Willis' revolutionary bouncing bombs of the Dambusters Raid, was extraordinary. The can-do attitude, the morale of the aircrews and their stupendous bravery has inspired the next generations of RAF personnel. It's important for us to reflect on the actions of all those involved in the Dambusters Raid and to acknowledge the strength and courage of the crews, the skills they developed to achieve what they achieved, and above all how very young they all were in doing so."
The RAF Benevolent Fund was there to support Chris when his father died by funding his education as a teenager. He said: "The Grammar School I attended in Totnes had a boarding house where youngsters like myself, with parents in the services or abroad, lived. After Dad died the Fund continued to support me at school to ensure I had a settled education. They also paid for sports kit when I was training to become a PE teacher, helping to support me through college. I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of that at the time but looking back, without the help I received from the Fund I would not have been able to achieve what I have today. For that I'm ever grateful.
Chis concluded: "Being a member of the 617 Squadron Association has brought me closer to the Benevolent Fund and I’m very proud to be a member of the Bomber Command Memorial Upkeep Club, helping to remember the 55,573 airmen who lost their lives serving with Bomber Command during the War. The RAF Benevolent Fund does a fantastic job supporting RAF personnel and their families and, having been helped by the fund, I now look to return that support where ever I can."
Read more about the Dambusters Raid here.