The Last Dambuster:
An Interview by Jack Meadows

Of the 133 aircrew who set off on the Dams Raid in May 1943, only six survive today. Of the 19 pilots, only two survive: one had returned early; the other, Flight Sergeant Kenneth William Brown RCAF, was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. WG CDR Jack Meadows DFC AFC AE interviewed him for the May 2000 issue of Aeroplane magazine.

In 1943 the development of Barnes Wallis's bouncing bomb, to be used by 617 Sqn RAF in the Dams Raid, entailed a number of trial drops in the Thames Estuary. In 1998 a couple of these test weapons were recovered. Scenting a story, a BBC Radio Leeds reporter found that there were few remaining survivors from the raid. He made contact with a Mr Chambers, a former wireless operator/air gunner (WOp/AG), who told him of Sqn Ldr Ken Brown CGM, CD, RCAF (retired), of White Rock, British Columbia, Canada.

Ignorant of the eight-hour time difference, in 1999 the reporter telephoned at what was 0300hr in Ken Brown's time zone. With similar ignorance he then asked when Ken Brown had emigrated from England. Somewhat cynically a sleepy Ken said his family had come to Canada in 1841. Completely missing the point, or perhaps hearing 1941 and trying to work out how Ken Brown could then have flown on the Dams Raid, the BBC man next asked how an ex-RAF man liked living in the States. The justifiable reaction of a proud Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) man living in the country of his birth must have been explosive. He has no doubt that the interview was never broadcast.

In some ways it had been a bad half-year for Ken. A recent book was said to list all winners of the CGM, which predates the Victoria Cross, to which it is a close runner-up in importance. Only some 40 air force men won it, Ken Brown being the second of 12 Canadians to do so in the Second World War. For Christmas his wife gave him a copy of the book. His name was missing. Eventually he found his citation under W, as Kenneth William. Then a UK friend called Ken to ask if he knew he was dead. An obituary in a Slough newspaper had reported the death of popular scoutmaster Ken Brown, winner of the CGM on the Dams Raid.

For a man suffering from Hepatitis C, picked up from a blood transfusion in hospital, Ken Brown weathered it all cheerfully. He has known much worse. Long recognised as famous, he has always had to deal with questions, calls and interviews, and has done so meticulously and politely. Nowadays, "perhaps because there are so few of us left", he is even busier. The day before our last talk (I have known him for some years) he was visited by an American reporter and cameraman for a series on the Discovery television channel. The following day he was going with a Calgary friend to unveil a picture at Abbotsford Airport.

Ken must always have been determined, not easily upset, even pugnacious. Those qualities, among others, were just what Wg Cdr Guy Gibson was seeking when looking for aircrew for the newly-formed 617 Sqn, of which he was the commanding officer.

Ken Brown was born in 1920 at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He joined the RCAF in 1940, and was trained on de Havilland Tiger Moths at Prince Albert and Cessna Cranes at Saskatoon. Because of his skeet shooting prowess (his country background coming through), he was the only one of the course recommended for fighters. He was disappointed when, instead, he went to an A.W. Whitley Operational Training Unit at Kinloss, and then to 10 Sqn at St Eval, flying them on Biscay patrols in Coastal Command. Soon came a Heavy Conversion Course to Avro Lancasters and a posting to 44 Sqn. At the Heavy Conversion Unit he had tried to outdo his instructor, the famous Mickey Martin, in evasion tactics on fighter affiliation exercises. Martin was impressed, and Ken reckons that it was because of this that, when Martin went to 617, he recommended Ken to Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, and in early 1943 got him transferred to Scampton.

All Ken knew was that he and his crew had been specially selected for a new squadron then being formed. They were astonished to find that almost everyone else seemed to be covered in DSOs, DFCs and DFMs. His cockney WOp/AG, Hughie Hewston, an "old man" of 32 and, like Ken, still a flight sergeant, said: "If we're the backbone of this outfit, I reckon we're close to the arsehole".

It is impossible to ignore the interreaction with Gibson and his effect on Ken Brown, who quickly recognised his CO's charm, lack of consciousness of rank, and great leadership. But Brown, the Canadian from a level society, also immediately recognised the class distinction Gibson exuded. "He hardly knew the names of even his own NCO crew; and 78 per cent of 617 aircrew at that time were NCOs. The Anglo-Indian, public school, Oxford University background stood out", almost as a caricature of what North Americans expected from the English. A leader by right, and a strict disciplinarian, Gibson exuded self-assurance and superiority, and belief in automatic acceptance of his position in the squadron as much as in the world. All this was somewhat strange to the more easy-going Dominion members of 617. It took them some time to adjust to it.

A clash of personalities as well as cultures was inevitable, and a cocky Flt Sgt Ken Brown was soon in trouble and learnt the measure of his CO. Last in to a briefing, he was told he was late, and in due course was up before Gibson, who asked: "Do you want a court martial or will you accept my punishment?" Naturally he accepted the latter, and spent a week washing all the hangar windows.

On a cross-country practice for the (so far undisclosed) Dams Raid, a height of 125ft above ground level (agl) was specified, monitored by the Observer Corps. At one point Ken climbed to 250ft to avoid men on a hangar roof. Put on the mat for flying too high, he was made to repeat the exercise. The rebellious streak meant that, this time, the men on the roof had to fling themselves in every direction to avoid being hit. Ken was on the mat again: "I didn't mean THAT low". Such episodes reveal as much about Brown as about Gibson.

Later, after the Dams Raid and after he had been commissioned, Ken Brown took a shotgun, normally used for clay-pigeon shooting, to pursue a hare seen outside his quarters. He drifted out from the Scampton boundaries and, seemingly a suspicious character, was soon approached by a pair of local policemen. His papers were back in his room, and he could not identify himself. On declining the resultant polite invitation to accompany them to the police station there was a somewhat tense standoff, which ended only when he reminded them that he had a gun and they did not. They did not insist, and the parting was not friendly. Of course he was soon identified, and the adjutant warned him to expect a summons. It never came. Only later did he learn that Gibson had attended court on his behalf and got the charges dropped. His point today is that he was by then both an officer and a fully accepted member of the team. Loyalty is a two-way attribute. Gibson was honest and sincere. The episode also demonstrates again Ken Brown's determined and somewhat rebellious nature.

Ken has little doubt of the reasons for Gibson's much later death. Officially on rest, he borrowed a Mosquito from Woodhall Spa to lead their low-level pathfinding for a Rheydt raid. He had only had one short familiarisation trip on a Mosquito, followed by a quick briefing from a flight sergeant. His experienced navigator had never flown in one before. Gibson had not brought himself properly up to date, and his return route, once flak free, was now far from it. In the middle of it, while he was taking evasive action, his engines cut, Ken believes - Gibson had failed to change fuel tanks. The fuel cocks on a Mosquito are behind the pilot's seat. Some pilots always reached behind to select them, largely by feel, which was not difficult. Others relied on the navigator beside them to do it. As they were also taking violent evasive action, two people inexperienced on Mosquitoes must have been frantically and ineffectively scrambling in the dark to find the cocks and turn them. Meanwhile, they were sitting ducks.

Long before this came the Dams Raid. Ken Brown piloted one of the two Lancasters detailed for the Lister Dam. His compatriot was delayed, and Ken thought he was on his own. Flying very low on the way in he saw one aircraft (Burpee) shot down over the Luftwaffe fighter base at Gilze Rijen, and another (Ottley) near Hamm. Then he suddenly saw, right ahead in bright moonlight, the wide doors of a church and, above it, twin spires. Too close for any other evasive action, he yanked the Lancaster on to one wingtip to pass between the spires. Then via W/T they were told to bomb the Sorpe Dam instead of the Lister. En route they reconnoitred the Möhne Dam, confirming two large holes in the dam and what seemed to be a smaller hole between the two towers.

The area of the Sorpe Dam was covered in fog, the only identifiable landmark being the church tower on top of the hill. It took three runs at 90° to the Sorpe to confirm that they were there. The next runs were parallel to the dam. On letting down through the fog, Ken found he was behind the dam. As he tried to climb out from the hills in front he realised he was about to stall and had to make a flat stall turn into the valley again; all while fully loaded. After two more tries he told the WOp/AG to drop incendiaries from the flare chute when instructed, on a timed circuit at the four corners of the rectangle. Using the resulting fires he was able to judge a line-up on the dam, but it took five more runs before the bomb was dropped. "The explosion provided a clear view of the dam and the lake and, although knowing it would take time for the already leaking water to penetrate the soil, we hoped the dam would soon break."

He then felt that they owed a visit to the gun crew on the Möhne's left tower, which earlier had shot down a Lancaster. They approached at about 30ft, and flak started when they were 400yd away. Ken saw it passing over the top of his canopy as his front gunner poured fire back, and the flak eased, stopping by the time they were over the tower. After the war it was learnt that some of the gun's crew had survived.

"The worst was yet to come. Dawn had broken and we were an easy target. With altimeter set at 60ft by use of the spotlight, we made for the Dutch coast. Suddenly searchlights snapped on; the cockpit was filled with blinding light. We were at 40ft and being shot at from front and sides". Flying on instruments, Ken looked up briefly to see flak going over his head and men jumping down from their guns, at which the aircraft was flying directly and returning fire. He lifted the Lancaster over the guns and down again on the other side, then called up his crew, all of whom answered. The WOp/AG then suggested that Ken came back and climbed through the holes with him! "The starboard roundel was missing and most of that side of the fuselage severely damaged. It was time to go home."

The exceptional determination and bravery of so many men on the Dams Raid is shown by the awards. Gibson was awarded the VC, Ken Brown (non-commissioned then) the CGM, and many DSOs, DFCs and DFMs were won by others for what was perhaps the most famous exploit of the war.

It was said afterwards that the Sorpe Dam, which was vital for industrial power generation, should have had priority as a target over the others, which only fed agricultural areas. It was also said that the bouncing bomb, designed for the concrete Möhne and Eder dams, was the wrong weapon for the Sorpe, which was made of earth and simply absorbed the shock. Despite that, Ken is convinced that another accurate bomb would have burst the dam. On a post-war visit he learnt that an enormous crack had been made, and 20,000 men had had to be brought in to shore it up. That alone justified the effort.

Ken also learnt that, next day, both Goering and Goebbels had arrived at the town hall and arranged for the anti-aircraft defences all round the dam to be enormously reinforced before nightfall. "It is just as well no-one was foolish enough to tell us to go back next night for another try. We would have been slaughtered." He was also told that local schoolchildren were given the day off to collect the dead fish for food, and remarks: "If I had known that I would have dropped them some wine".

Subsequently, 617 Sqn was assigned mainly to special targets. Ken should have been on the successful Dortmund-Ems Canal raid, but instead was detached briefly to Tempsford. The two very secret special agent and supply dropping units there, 138 and 161 Sqns, had suffered such heavy losses that they needed help. Perhaps 617's low-level experience made it the natural choice. On the first night they sent three Lancasters and lost two. The next night, when Ken was involved, they all returned safely.

He remembers a suggestion from on high that instead of jettisoning, and therefore wasting, expensive 12,000lb bombs not dropped on the target, it might be possible to land back with them, despite the gross overweight. He was asked to test the idea. Admittedly not with a full fuel load as well, he found it quite practicable, provided throttle was used at flare-out to prevent the enormous "sink" that otherwise developed.

He had been lucky to survive earlier Berlin raids. "That was a battle we certainly lost. It was a disaster; we lost 1,070 aircraft." He had his full share of other operations as well. He is also in agreement with John Terraine, who in The Right of the Line (published in America as A Time for Courage) is highly critical of our early Bomber Command leadership.

Essen was, he says, the worst target. It was necessary to approach it from the north-west, and there was a bevy of 20-plus searchlights ready, as soon as the blue master light had locked on, to cone the aircraft. The only escape, which crews had to discover for themselves, was to dive vertically.

After a year Ken was sent on rest to the Lancaster finishing school at Syerston. It is surprising that he never received a DSO, let alone a DFC, for compared with others his efforts outside the Dams Raid fully merited some such recognition. It may have been felt that, after a CGM, any les-ser award would seem almost insulting.

On returning to Canada in 1945 Ken's first job was with the Winter Experimental Unit, with detachments in the frozen north at Watson Lake and Churchill, and he was one of the first pilots to fly jets in Canada. Here mainly British and American aircraft, Spitfires, Meteors, Vampires, Hornets, Mosquitoes, Hastings, Lincolns, Lancasters, North Stars, Dakotas and Mustangs, were tested in sub-zero temperatures. Generally they failed. After Officers School, Selection Centre and desk jobs ("flying mahogany bombers"), he became CO of the Search and Rescue flight at Trenton. Expecting then to go to an Avro Canada CF-100 fighter squadron, instead he spent four long years with 408 Sqn on the Shoran development programme, flying a range of aircraft including Lancasters, Dakotas, Beavers and Otters and learning how vast his country is.

In 1956, now a squadron leader, he went to Air Materiel Command, where his job included administrative support of test pilots, all of whom had been through the Empire Test Pilots School. He considered them under-ranked and underpaid, but could do little about it. At this time he managed a trip in a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, in the usual four stages, across the North Atlantic to the UK. An attack of athlete's foot then prevented a Vietnam posting. Instead he went to the wilderness again, as station commander at Knob Lake in northern Labrador, in charge of a wide sector of the mid-Canada radar line. He volunteered to his AOC that if only married quarters were available, he would stay for two years; one was shipped up immediately and he enjoyed his time there.

By now family education had become a priority, and Ken was glad in 1962 to be posted in charge of West Coast Search and Rescue at Vancouver, then at Comox on Vancouver Island.

Upon retiring from the RCAF in 1968 he immediately joined the Department of Transport (Air) and spent much time flying all over Canada until his final retirement in 1980. The highlight of his post-war career was a trip in a Lockheed CF-104 Starfighter during a visit to the RCAF at Zweibr&uumul;cken, Germany.

Ken Brown is one of a fortunate few whose old squadron is still active. Over the years he has attended a number of ceremonies with them. At one in Hol-land, commemorating Gibson's death, a man, quite unknown to anybody, appeared wearing a DFM, saying he had been in Gibson's crew. To save embarrassment to the hosts and unwelcome publicity for 617 Sqn, nothing was done about the impostor.

One highlight was the 60th anniversary of the formation of 617 Sqn. Ken was invited to take the march-past salute, and later to be guest of honour and speaker at the dinner, attended by over 400 people. To a service that long since had had only commissioned aircrew, he was delighted to be introduced as Flight Sergeant Brown, his Dams Raid rank.

Ken has always felt that too little credit has been given to Roy Chadwick, designer of the beloved and eternally famous Lancaster. He says it is not generally realised that it was entirely at his own initiative (and risk to career and reputation) that Chadwick modified the unsuccessful Manchester into the incredible Lancaster. Not only did it then play a large part in winning the war, but many men, like Ken, owed their lives to it.

So in 1998 Ken personally commissioned Kelowna BC artist John Rutherford to paint his Lancaster, AJ-F, at dawn low over the Dutch coast, returning from the Dams Raid on May 17, 1943. (Rutherford also painted another; Ken's Lancaster heavily banked to slip between those church spires). All artists know that it is comparatively difficult to paint half-light or night scenes, but Rutherford has captured this one magnificently, and it deserves a place on many walls. Although prints are available from Ken via Aeroplane (C$150.00; C$200.00 including p&p, depending on the number of signatures), he never expects to recover more than a fraction of the cost of the painting and reproductions. That is his own personal tribute to Roy Chadwick. One great man acknowledges another.

We discussed a recent biography o" William Barker VC, one of Canada's greatest First World war fighter aces and another former "farm boy". We both felt so sad that Barker seems to have found it impossible to adjust to normal life after his glorious wartime career and the resulting adulation. He drank too much, ignored his family and within a few years killed himself in a silly flying accident. While Ken Brown never experienced quite the same adulation, he too must have experienced difficulties in adjusting. "In varying degrees, war stains the character of all who participate. None escape, all are affected at some time", he says. Happily it was a different story with him. One proof of this, nearly 60 years later, is his family: wife Beryl, a British trainee nurse he married in 1945; four sons and a daughter with their spouses; and twelve grandchildren. He is immensely proud of them all.