World War 2 Bomb Aimer and Dambuster: 455 SQN (RAAF), 50 SQN (RAF), 617 SQN (RAF)
Spafford was born Frederick Michael Burke in Adelaide, South Australia, on 16 June 1918, the only son of James Michael Burke (known as Dan), a tannery foreman, and Vida Muriel Spafford. Little is known about his childhood and schooling. He initially lived with his parents in Archer Street North Adelaide. However, his childhood was marked with tragedy with the passing of his father in 1923 aged only 45 and his mother passed away in June 1929 aged only 36. Several years later, he was formerly adopted in 1929 by his maternal grandfather Frederick Blaker Spafford, A 70-year-old iron worker, in 1929 from which he took his surname Spafford. Fred Spafford gained employment as a Fitter after school.
Spafford enlisted in the RAAF at No 5 Recruiting Centre, Adelaide, on 14 September 1940. He listed his uncle, Walter James Spafford, as his next of kin as his grandfather had died in March 1940. He completed basic training at No 1 Initial Training School, Somers, Victoria, from mid-September to mid-October 1940 before proceeding a month later to No 1 Wireless and Gunnery School at RAAF Ballarat, Victoria, where he completed No 6 Wireless Operator Course. He then was attached to No 1 Bombing and Gunnery School at Evans Head, NSW, where he completed No 6 Air Gunners Course during April 1941 graduating as a Sergeant Air Gunner.
He embarked for England on 27 May 1941 arriving in August. He was initially posted to No 25 Operational Training Unit which had only been established in March at RAF Finningley in South Yorkshire. Part of No 6 Group, Bomber Command, 25OTU was a night bomber conversion unit flying Handley Page Hampdens. He was posted to several units including 83SQN (RAF) from mid-January to February 1942 which was flying Hampdens and 455SQN (RAAF) from February to April 1942 where he met Robert Hay and Mick Martin– fellow South Australian aircrew. His time at 455SQN was short-lived however with the transfer of the unit to Coastal Command and re-tasking of role to maritime strike. The units move required the transfer out of the unit of a number of aircrew as the establishment of a Coastal Command unit was smaller than that of a Bomber Command flying unit.
Accordingly, in late May 1942, Spafford was posted to No 50 Squadron (RAF) along with FLTLT Mick Martin and FLGOFF Robert Hay. Originally a Hampden bomber squadron, 50 SQN had just converted to the Avro Manchester heavy bomber, based at RAF Swinderby, Lincolnshire. Encountering limitations with the two-engine Manchester in terms of power, ceiling and engine reliability, the squadron converted to the new Avro Lancaster within month. At 50 SQN, Spafford largely flew as the navigator for SQNLDR Gordon Hugh Everitt (Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve), one of the squadron’s best, most respected and decorated pilots, and FLGOFF Robert Hay as the observer/navigator.
Spafford completed a full Bomber Command tour of thirty missions with 50SQN flying Manchesters and Lancasters. He transitioned to Air Bomber in July 1942 at the unit and quickly established himself as an adept bomb aimer. On one mission in late October, he scored a direct hit on the Milan Central Railway Station with a 1,000lb bomb. In October he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal after only completing 15 sorties.
The Citation recommendation stated:
“Sergeant Spafford was posted to No 50 Squadron with effect from 24th April 1942. This Air Gunner re-mustered on the Squadron to Air Bomber, and he has consistently justified his selection for the position. He has now completed 15 operational sorties and on all these operations, this Sergeant has by his keenness, efficiency and enthusiasm, has materially assisted in the successful conclusion of their task. He has directed his pilot onto the target so successfully that at Saarbrucken, Bremen, Frankfurt and Munich, his photographs have proved the success of the attacks. Sergt Spafford is always cheerfully efficient and has set a very fine example to all the other Air Bombers in the Squadron and it is considered that he is well worthy of immediate recognition. I strongly recommend that he is granted an immediate award of the DFM. “
The Station Commander reaffirmed the recommending statement stressing: “This recommendation is strongly recommended. As the outstanding results achieved by Flying Officer Calvert’s crew, of which he is a member, are undoubtedly largely due to the skill and determination of Sergeant Spafford as Bomb Aimer.” The final Citation read: “This NCO is an air bomber of high merit. Has taken part in many sorties and by skill has played a great part in the success obtained. Has set a praiseworthy example.”
Completing his tour with 50 SQN, he was commissioned on 15 January 1943 and proceeded to No 1660 Heavy Conversion Unit. However, given his bomb aimer expertise, he was specifically identified to join the new No 617 Squadron that was being formed to train for and conduct a precision strike operation. It is believed he was identified by WGCDR Guy Gibson, the units Commanding Officer, by recommendation from Canadian PLTOFF Torger Taerum who flew as a Navigator at 50SQN with Mick Martin.
Spafford arrived at 617 SQN based at RAF Scrampton in Lincolnshire on 27 March 1943. He seems to have quickly gained the confidence and respect of Guy Gibson who selected him for his own crew flying Lancaster ED932 AJ-G. Gibson is quoted referring to Spafford as “the best bomb-aimer there is.” In his account of the operation Enemy Coast Ahead, Gibson describes Spafford as “a grand guy and many were the parties we had together; in his bombing he held the squadron record.” Spafford was the sole Australian on Gibson’s crew.
On the 1 April, only four days after arriving at the unit, Spafford had his first flight with Gibson and his crew. Their next training sortie was conducted on 4 April. Training quickly ramped up with the Lancaster crews tasked with low altitude over water night missions still unaware of the target or nature of their classified mission. On one such training sortie over the Lakelands district Gibson was almost touching the water flying at speed at an extremely low level across water one night, when the usually indomitable Fred Spafford shouted from his bomb aimer post at the front of the Lancaster “Christ – this is bloody dangerous.” Even the training was exceptionally risky and beyond anything experienced Bomber Command aircrew like Spafford had seen.
The role of the bomb aimer for the mission was particularly important. Through training and trials, a special bomb aiming device was developed to allow the bomb aimer to identify the best time to drop the bouncing bomb at a low altitude to allow it to bounce up to a dam wall and then settle down to the base of the wall before detonation. In this respect, the capacity of the crew to operate together as one with the pilot flying the aircraft at low level, the navigator navigating to the target, the air gunners in warding off enemy counter fire and the bomb aimer in ensuring the bomb was dropped at the ideal moment was crucial to mission success.
At 10am on 16 May (the day of the raid), Spafford joined his crew and the more than 130 other aircrew for a detailed five-hour mission briefing for Operation CHASTISE including the Ruhr Valley dam targets of the Mohne Dam, Eder Dam and Scorpe Dam. Later in the day, the crews were given another briefing where AVM Ralph Cochrane, Commander 5th Group, addressed the crews before the crews returned to barracks for some rest before the mission. Thereafter, crews rested, ate dinner or quietly prepared for the mission.
Late in the evening, the nineteen Lancaster’s including AJ-G George flown by Wing Commander Guy Gibson with Freddie Spafford as bomb aimer, took off for the audacious raid in three attack waves. As he was the bomb aimer for Gibson, Spafford was in the lead aircraft in the first wave and was to drop the first bomb on the Mohne Dam. About three hours later, the aircraft of the first wave designated for the Mohne Dam arrived over the target and commenced their attacks. Flying on a clear moonlit night, Spafford reported vision was excellent despite the significant anti-aircraft fire they encountered and quickly identified the dam and dropped the bomb about 400 feet from the dam wall. The bouncing bomb skipped several times but stalled and settled short of the dam wall and exploded sending a mountain of water into the sky. However, no immediate breach of the dam was identified.
Disappointed with the evident failure of their strike, Gibson maneuvered into position to watch and direct the other aircraft attacks. Following the loss of the second aircraft to flak while attacking, Gibson proceeded to join the other aircraft on their approaches to the target to draw fire away from the attacking aircraft. After the fifth attack, the dam wall eventually gave way causing a cascade of water to break through and flood the valley.
The raid was a success resulting in the breaching of the Mohne and Eder Dams. The Mohne Dam attack caused about 330 million tons of water to sweep into the western Ruhr region in a 10m high torrent flooding mines, destroying two power stations, many factories and houses, washing away road, railway and bridges and a 50km flood downstream of the dams. From a strategic perspective, the attack resulted in a 75% decrease in steel production in the Ruhr Valley and a decrease of 4000,000 tons in coal production.
After the war, Albert Speer wrote “That night, employing just a few bombers, the British came close to a success which would have been greater than anything they had achieved hitherto with a commitment of thousands of bombers.” The successful also significantly boosted British morale receiving wide and sustained press reporting as well as being immortalised in the feature film The Dambusters. The attack is still regarded as one of the most brilliant bombing feats ever achieved and best demonstrations of precision strike by air power.
At approximately 0415 hours, Gibson’s touched down at RAF Scampton completing a more than five-hour perilous mission. As per normal procedures, Spafford as a bomber aimer participated in the mission debrief. However, the mission debrief for this mission had a distinctly different angle to it with RAF senior leadership including ACM Harris attending.
Spafford participated in the post raid public relations campaign and spoke to the press about the units training for low-level flying training, the detailed briefings, and the attack which was carried out in bright moonlight against enemy fire.
Of the survivors, 34 received awards in recognition of their actions in the planning and conduct of the mission. Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross in recognition of his courage in repeatedly flying alongside other aircraft on their attack runs to draw flak away from the attacking aircraft. There were five Distinguished Service Orders, 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses and four bars, two Conspicuous Gallantry Medals, eleven Distinguished Flying Medals and one bar also awarded. The awards were presented on 22 June 1943 at Buckingham Palace by the Queen.
For his actions on the mission, Spafford was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross along with other members of the operation. The Citation read: “On the night of 16th May 1943, a force of Lancaster bombers was detailed to attack the Moehne, Eder and Scorpe dams in Germany. The operation was one of great difficulty and hazard, demanding a great degree of skill and courage and close cooperation between the crews of the aircraft engaged. Nevertheless a telling blow was struck at the enemy by the successful breaching of the Moehne and Eder dams. This outstanding success reflects the greatest credit on the efforts of the following personnel who participated in the operation in various capacities as members of aircraft crews.”
Following the mission, 617 SQN was rested from duties for several months with Bomber Command establishing what the squadron should be used for next. The squadron was augmented with additional crew following the losses experienced in the Dambusters Raid. WGCDR Guy Gibson, awarded with a Victoria Cross for the Dambusters Raid, was retired from flying duties and posted out of the unit replaced as Commanding Officer by WGCDR George Holden DSO DFC and Bar. Accordingly, Spafford had a new pilot / Commanding officer to fly with. The unit was tasked for an operation to strike key transformer yards in north Italy in July and then a several leaflet dropping missions in August.
However, noting the potential for precision strike bombing with more powerful bombs such as the new 12,000 lb bomb, 617 SQN was tasked to further develop precision bombing techniques and conduct precision strike missions. In September 617SQN was tasked with a dangerous and difficult strike on the Dortmund-Elms Canal, a key transport node connecting the inland port of Dortmund with the Emden seaport located in northwestern Germany. Codenamed Operation GARLIC, the mission was 617SQN’s first real precision strike operation since the Dambusters Raid. The targeting staff assessed if the new 12,000lb bomb was dropped with sufficient accuracy, the strike could breach the canal walls causing the canal to lose water and be unusable for transport. The 12,000lb bomb was inaccurate at altitude and thus, targeteers recommend the bombs be fused with delayed fusing allowing them to be dropped at low altitude and for the aircraft to egress without being damaged by the explosions. It was a specialist mission tailor made for 617SQNs low altitude precision flying but the target area was heavily defended by anti-aircraft artillery.
The operation involved a combined force of eight 617 SQN Lancasters escorted by six Mosquitos from 418 SQN (RAF) and 605 SQN (RAF). WGCDR Holden, as CO led the operation, and flew with four of Gibson’s original crew including PLTOFF Taerum (Navigator), FLTLT Hutchinson (Wireless Operator), FSGT Deering (Air gunner) and Spafford as the bomb aimer in Lancaster EE144/ AJ-S. A false start on the 14 September ended in tragedy when the aircraft were recalled mid-flight due to poor weather over the target area. However, the aircraft flown by the operations deputy mission leader, SQNLDR Maltby, a Dambuster veteran, failed to return crashing into the ocean.
Eight aircraft launched the following night with FLTLT Martin from the original Dambusters strike augmenting the mission as replacement for Maltby’s aircraft. Visibility over the target was very poor with a thick haze restricting locating the target. Holden’s aircraft with Spafford on board, was hit by flak at low altitude on the ingress to the target. It caught fire and crashed exploding on impact killing all on board. Four other Lancasters failed to return from the mission meaning six of the nine Lancaster that flew in OP GARLIC were lost. The canal would not be successfully struck until 12 months later when 617 SQN again dropped 12,000lb Tallboy bomb on the canal finally causing it to breach.
His grave is now one of almost 7,600 Commonwealth War Graves in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, located near Kleve in the west of Germany close to the Dutch border, approximately 25kms southeast of Nijmegen. The cemetery was created after the Second World War when burials were brought in from all over western Germany and is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the country.