On the night of the legendary mission, “O for Orange" was the last of the Lancaster Bombers to take off from Scampton, captained by Bill Townsend. Airborne at exactly ten minutes past midnight the aircraft climbed from the runway, and, weighed down by Barnes-Wallis’ incredible invention, Chalmers reckoned she brushed through the airfield boundary hedge like a steeplechaser.
As the crew headed across Holland and Germany at extremely low level, Chalmers observed the Lancaster's progress from the dome on top of the fuselage. He was conscious that he stood ‘watching history from the astrodome, although everything happened so quickly at 100 feet that incidents came and went almost before the mind could appreciate them’. Les Munro’s “W for Willie” had already been forced to turn back for base after being severely damaged by flak and Rice’s “H for Harry” also returned after flying so low that it clipped the sea, losing the bouncing bomb into the water.
As “O for Orange” approached the Dutch coast, flak was seen far ahead on their port side, probably that which shot down Lewis Burpee and the crew of “S For Sugar”. Another Lancaster in their formation, “C for Charlie” was also shot down on the outbound flight. At 0145 hrs, another warning was received about flak at Dülmen and almost immediately they were caught in a searchlight. According to Navigator Lance Howard’s account Townsend ‘threw that heavily-laden Lancaster around like a Tiger Moth and we flew out of it.’ Nearing the target, Chalmers was astonished when Townsend flew below tree level and down a fire break in a forest; this was to escape a concentration of flak as they approached the Mohne Dam. Once at the bombsite at 0226 hrs, Chalmers received a message from base that The Mohne & Eder Dams had already been breached by the preceding Lancasters, and that "O for Orange" was to divert to attack the Ennepe Dam.
With a course plotted by Lance Howard, Townsend encountered thick mist rising from the valleys and had difficulty locating the reservoir that would lead to the target. When the dam was finally identified, Chalmers started up the rapid rotation of the Dr Barnes Wallis's brainchild, the six-ton bouncing bomb, codenamed ‘Upkeep’. Anxious moments followed as Townsend made four runs before the bomb aimer was satisfied. The bomb made a whirring so violent that ‘the whole aircraft shook and everyone was very relieved when it was released.’ AJ-O’s bomb was released at 0337 hrs. It skipped twice before exploding, sending a huge plume of water skywards. As Townsend lifted the Lancaster over first the dam and then a hill, it became apparent that the weapon had detonated correctly, but failed to destroy the target. Chalmers signalled this news to base, and Townsend turned for home.
On the return flight, again made at treetop level, two more Lancasters were lost. Maudslay’s famously stricken “Z For Zebra” was downed by flak near Netterden, and Young's "A for Apple" was also shot down north of Ijmuiden, crashing just off the coast and into the North Sea. All aircraft flew very low, often hopping to avoid the power lines that had downed two on the outbound flight. By sunrise they were near Texel, one of the Friesian Islands off the Dutch coast, and flying over water. In an extreme effort to shoot down the Lancasters, one enemy anti-aircraft crew aimed its gun so low that Chalmers noticed the shells bouncing off the surface of the sea and over the top of the aircraft, a tactic described by AJ-O’s Navigator Lance Howard as “hardly cricket”. Then, over the North Sea, Townsend decided that one of the bomber's four engines was misbehaving and shut it down. The plane finally landed at Scampton, on three engines, at 6.15 am, the last of the raid's surviving Lancasters to make it home.
As he came down the ladder, the captain was asked how it had gone. By now exhausted, Townsend failed to notice that his interrogator was Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the commander-in-chief, and brushed aside the great man with a brusque "wait until debriefing". Chalmers, meanwhile, astounded to be greeted on the airfield by a galaxy of top brass, shook hands heartily all round, and was delighted to be congratulated on the clarity of his Morse. He was awarded an immediate Distinguished Flying Medal. Townsend himself was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his role. Front gunner Doug Webb later recalled his piece of ‘superb flying’ which had brought them home. Six of the “O For Orange” crew were awarded gallantry medals, making them the second most decorated Dams Raid crew after Guy Gibson’s “G For George”. Of the 18 aircraft that had set out, only 8 had returned safely. Chalmers was subsequently commissioned at the end of June 1943, shortly after attending the investiture in London. There he was flattered when the Queen, who was conducting the investiture, identified him as coming from Peterhead. He recalls:
“The next thing we knew, the King and Queen were coming up to the camp and there was all this calling us the ‘glamour boys’. They came and went, and then the next thing we were going down for the investiture to collect the medals. It was one thing after another and you couldn’t really believe it. Even to this day. The British people lapped it up and thought it was marvellous.”
Subsequent myth surrounding “O For Orange” suggests that Townsend attacked the wrong dam. He had reported difficulty in finding his dam in the fog, and in his post-raid report he complained that the map of the Ennepe Dam was incorrect. The Bever Dam was located only about 5 miles southwest of the Ennepe Dam, and its reservoir had a similar topography. Bever was on the southern edge of the reservoir whilst Ennepe was situated on the northern edge. With the foggy mists filling the valleys during the early morning hours, Townsend was supposed to have mistaken the two lakes. The War Diary of the German Naval Staff reported that the Bever Dam had been attacked at nearly the same time as the Sorpe Dam. In addition, the Wupperverband authority responsible for the Bever Dam is said to have recovered the remains of a "mine". Paul Keiser, a 19-year-old soldier on leave at his home close to the Bever Dam, also reported a bomber making several approaches to the dam and then dropping a bomb that caused a large explosion and a great pillar of flame.
John Sweetman, author of the book The Dambusters' Raid, suggests Townsend's report of the moon's reflecting on the mist and water is consistent with an attack that was heading to the Bever Dam rather than to the Ennepe Dam, given the moon's azimuth and altitude during the bombing attacks. Sweetman also points out that the Ennepe-Wasserverband authority was adamant that only a single bomb was dropped near the Ennepe Dam during the entire war, and that this bomb fell into the woods by the side of the dam, not in the water, as in Townsend's report. Finally, members of Townsend's crew independently reported seeing a manor house and attacking an earthen dam, which is consistent with Bever rather than Ennepe. The main evidence supporting the hypothesis of an attack of the Ennepe Dam is Townsend's post-flight report that he attacked on a heading of 355 degrees magnetic, which again points toward an attack on the Bever Dam.
One of the squadron's photo-reconnaissance Spitfires, piloted by Flying Officer Frank "Jerry" Fray was sent out to assess the impact of the raid. He took off from RAF Benson at 0730 hours and arrived over the Ruhr River immediately after first light. Photos were taken of the breached dams and the huge floods. Fray later described the experience:
“When I was about 150 miles from the Möhne Dam, I could see the industrial haze over the Ruhr area and what appeared to be a cloud to the east. On flying closer, I saw that what had seemed to be cloud was actually the sun shining on the floodwaters. I looked down into the deep valley which had seemed so peaceful three days before, but now it was a wide torrent. The whole valley of the river was inundated with only patches of high ground and the tops of trees and church steeples showing above the flood. I was overcome by the immensity of it.”
Douglas Bader, who was a P.O.W. in Germany at the time of the raid recollects: “I well remember the destruction of the Mohne and Eder dams while I was in a prison camp. It had an enormous effect on the Germans and the opposite effect, of course, on us, the prisoners of war.”
George Alexander Chalmers was born on 12 Feb 1921 at Peterhead in Scotland. He was educated at Aberdeen Academy before working briefly at a local Crosse & Blackwell factory and joining the RAF as a boy entrant. After boy's service and qualifying as a wireless operator and air-gunner, Chalmers was posted to No. 10 Sqn., a two-engine Whitley bomber squadron at Dishforth, Yorkshire, from where he took part in leaflet-dropping operations over Germany after the outbreak of war.
In August 1940 Chalmers transferred to No. 7 Sqn., the RAF's first four-engine Stirling bomber squadron which was operating from Leeming. There followed a spell with No. 35 Sqn., a four-engine Halifax bomber squadron, with which Chalmers was fortunate to survive an attack on the battle cruiser Scharnhorst at La Rochelle - his captain managed to make base despite being severely wounded and piloting a badly-damaged aircraft.
After ‘resting’ in a couple of non-operational postings, Chalmers returned to operations after joining 617 Squadron in April 1943. He continued with 617 after the Dambusters' raid, and was commissioned as a pilot officer in June, then promoted flying officer in December. Chalmers flew first with the new squadron C.O., Leonard Cheshire, but then transferred to the crew of Plt. Off. Bernard “Bunny” Clayton, an experienced pilot who had been posted from 51 Squadron to 617 Squadron in July 1943 with a C.G.M. and D.F.C. to his name. He also flew with American pilot, Joseph Charles "Big Joe" McCarthy, and completed numerous further Special Ops armed with Tallboy bombs.
In 1944, after completing 66 operations, Chalmers was awarded the D.F.C. After paying tribute to his "skill and endurance", the citation concluded: "Throughout his long and arduous operational career, this officer has displayed outstanding courage and devotion to duty." In 1946 Chalmers was granted an extended service commission, completing “Operation Guzzle” to dispose of the Dambusters’ Bombs into the Atlantic. He served in No 617 and No 12 Squadrons until 1950, when he was posted to No 38, a Lancaster squadron in the Middle East.
He was released as a flight lieutenant in 1954, and served in the Reserve until 1961. Meanwhile, he had joined the civil service at Harrogate, where he worked for the Ministry of Defence dealing with the R.A.F.'s technical requirements. In this period his advice was much valued in the sphere of flight refuelling. On his retirement from the M.O.D. in 1984, the company Flight Refuelling hosted a farewell party for him at which he was hailed as an "expert in specialised spares procurement", especially in relation to a refuelling system of outstanding value used by the R.A.F. in the Falklands conflict.
Chalmers photographed for the 1993 Dambusters reunion (extreme right, as in the wartime photo above).
An interview with George Chalmers was undertaken for the acclaimed TV documentary ‘Dambusters’ directed by Ian Duncan and narrated by Geoffrey Palmer. This documentary was also aired in the US and can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0hSORuBAp8
The latest Dambusters book by Max Arthur, with foreward by Stephen Fry, has no less than 28 entries for George Chalmers, as his interviews form a large part of the first-hand accounts.