Speech by Ken Brown

Title

Speech by Ken Brown

Description

Speech made by Ken Brown at the Bomber Command Museum.
Ken Brown, a Canadian pilot was serving with 44 Squadron when he was told he was being transferred to 617 Squadron at RAF Scampton. He undertook his training with the squadron in preparation for the Dams operation. On the morning of the operation a fellow flyer came to him, shook his hand and said, ‘Goodbye Ken.’ Because he knew he was not going to survive the operation. When Ken and his crew returned for the operation there was only one aeroplane in the dispersal point where there should have been ten.

Creator

Date

1993-07-17

Temporal Coverage

Language

Type

Format

00:42:19 audio recording

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Contributor

Identifier

ABrownK93XXXX

Transcription

Ladies and gentlemen please welcome our guest speaker Ken Brown, a Dambuster.
[applause]
After all those accolades I don’t know if this speech is going to stand up with it.
[laughter]
Before I start however, I wanted to comment on two things. The message from the designer of the Lancaster’s daughter. I was at Buckingham Palace when he received his award. A very gracious fellow. I was also, it was my roommate who was the pilot of the Tudor that crashed with Sir Chadwick on it at the time. It was a great loss to us believe me. David was one of the best pilots in our squadron, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar. But this happened shortly after the war down at Farnborough. May I commence by first of all saying Mr president, members of the Lancaster Society, ladies and gentlemen we turn back the pages of history and sometimes they cause a great deal of furore in your stomach. But getting to the time that I joined 617 Squadron I was flying with 44 Squadron. My CO was also a VC winner, and we were briefed to go to Berlin. After the briefing he said, ‘Brown, report to my office immediately after briefing.’ Which I did and he said, ‘You are transferred to a new squadron.’ I wasn’t too happy about that. I said, ‘Sir, I’d rather stay here and finish my tour with 44.’ He explained in his very curt manner that was impossible. It was a named transfer and he could do nothing about it. So we went to Berlin and on our return we got packed up and off we went to 617 but before we went the wing commander wished me well and said, ‘Do you realise Brown you’re going to be the backbone of this new squadron.’ Well, we arrived over at Scampton and we started to look around as to who was there. There were an awful lot of DFCs. Not so many DFMs. We realised that perhaps we weren’t really all what was set up to be. My wireless operator sauntered over to me and said, ‘Skip, if we’re the backbone of this squadron we must be damned close to the ass end.’
[laughter]
I began to wonder how I got there with all the [pause] When I was going through Manchester, training in Lancaster training there was a fellow by the name of Mick Martin who has perhaps become one of the RAF’s greatest. He was my instructor at that time. So was a fellow that we knew as Terry Taerum. Everybody in the outfit knew Terry. He was T Gee at the time. Gee was a navigation aid and it was new at the time so Terry was sort of our expert on it. I was speaking to Martin. He took me up on fighter affiliation. This is where you take off and you have a fighter aircraft attack you and he shows you how to evade a fighter attack. Well, he played around with the aircraft and showed me a few things and then he said, ‘Ok, young fellow. Let’s see what you can do.’ So in mid-air we changed seats and I said, ‘Anything you can do Buster I can do too.’ Where he said, mumbled something that he didn’t think my mother had been married when I was born.
[laughter]
We got on to the squadron. I’d never met Wing Commander Gibson before so this was a new experience. We were all sitting out on the lawn in front of the briefing room. Someone said, ‘Briefing’s ready. Come on in.’ So we marched into the briefing room which was right down on the flight line. I wasn’t last in but I did close the door. When I did so he said, ‘Brown, report to my office after briefing.’ Sounded familiar. However, I couldn’t believe it when I reported to his office. The adjutant met me, marched me in and he had me on charge for being late for a briefing. I thought he was kidding but he wasn’t. So he then read out the charge of being late for a briefing, an operational briefing and advised me whether I’d take a court martial or his punishment. I said, ‘I’ll take your punishment, sir.’ So he said, ‘Fine. You’ll wash all the windows on the outside of the briefing room and the inside of the briefing room. All after duty hours.’ As we were flying about eighteen hours a day that was really something.
[laughter]
I wasn’t going to let this really stump me so I did it and I did it night after night. It was one of those things. Wing Commander Gibson had a very high standard for everyone and you had to meet it and meet it on his terms. He was a really strong and staunch disciplinarian. He had been brought up in a boy’s school as a head prefect and I still think he handled things that way. At least I thought that after about the ninety ninth window.
[laughter]
About this time we started our low flying and you’ve heard various stories about we started at sixty feet. It really wasn’t so. We started our low flying cross countries over England at about two hundred feet. That lasted about three days and we were down to about a hundred and fifty feet. And I did a cross country one day and as I came across a new aerodrome that was being built, an awful lot of people around it there I was headed straight for the hangar and I thought well I’d better pull up. There’s no use trying to get through it. So I pulled over the top of the hangar. When I got back the next day at briefing and by the way let me explain that the Royal Observer Corps kept track of us all the time so Guy got our altitudes no matter where we were and had a report on them the next morning. So at briefing he said, ‘Brown, what were you doing going over the top of a hangar?’ I said, ‘Well, I thought it was a good idea.’ And he said, 'Two hundred feet? Hardly. You’ll do that one again.’ And it wasn’t a bad cross country anyhow so I did it the next day. When I came to the hangar the same thing. All these men working on top of the hangar, at the side of it and so forth. So I put it down on grass level and then came up over the top of the hangar and there was people sliding off the top of it and running in all directions. So next day at briefing he looked at my direction again and said, ‘Brown, I said low but not that low.’
[laughter]
We ran into problems. I want to really try and bring out the character of Guy Gibson more than anything so bear with me a bit. The next time I had a problem with him we were doing low-level night runs on the aerodrome and what they did was put a great sheet across the runway at one end and so many yards down the other another sheet. You had to start at the end of the runway at fifteen hundred feet and dive, cross the first sheet at seventy feet, cross the second sheet at seventy feet and at the end of the runway be at fifteen hundred feet. It was quite tricky. However, this particular night David Shannon and I were doing the exercise and he did his. David happens to be an Australian. So we changed seats and he got over the other side and I did mine and the rain started in dear old England, coming hell bent for leather so by the time I’d finished it was really a soak out. So on taxiing in I said, ‘Dave, keep your head out the window, and I’ll keep my head out my window so we can see.’ So, we were taxiing. We couldn’t see out the front the rain was that heavy. David got his face wet so he closed the window. I didn’t know this [laughs] head out the window like an idiot, getting wet. And low and behold we had a marshaller there and he was telling us to turn and we turned and the port outer, and the starboard outer on that side clipped what they call a totem pole, which was a pole with lights on it. Well, I knew Gibson wouldn’t take that very well. So next morning at briefing he said, ‘Brown, I’ll see you in my office.’ I knew damn well he wasn’t going to compliment me on my window washing.
[laughter]
However, we started out using the Derwent Dam amongst other targets and believe me we didn’t have a clue as to what was going to be the target. Nobody even mentioned dams. We thought the Tirpitz or some other thing. We went up to the Derwent Dam and there was a moonlight. It was moonlight but unfortunately there was a few clouds around and in the Derwent there’s a row of hills down the east side and a slight cut-off at the end and you’ve got to cut around this and come at the dam. Well, Guy Gibson decided he would make the first run, and his bomb aimer happened to be an Australian so he runs in on this dam and just as he was going in a cloud came across the moon so it was damn dark. We came down on the water without lights then rushing towards this thing. We were equipped with VHF radio, which was the fighter boy’s radio. It had a little toggle switch at the side. Transmit that way, receive this way. Guy left it open. Lo and behold we dashed in towards this, or he did and the bomb aimer says, ‘This is bloody dangerous!’
[laughter]
I think everybody in every aircraft was hollering just hearing those remarks. Then along comes the Dams raid. We really, it’s unbelievable now. The pilot, the navigator, and the bomb aimer were briefed on the 14th but we couldn’t tell our crew what the target was. So, on the 15th they found out what the target was. We were still shaking. We weren’t terribly impressed for the simple reason that at the dress rehearsal when they dropped the bomb itself two of the aircraft their tail was damaged to such an extent that they were lucky to get back. However, such was the case. We were going on the Dams raid. A padre friend of mine, I always remembers, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, stand before the wall.’ I think in everyone’s life that has to come up. Once you find out that this is something that you really hadn’t expected, how well you handle it I think everybody had to handle it his own way. That night, we were perched out on the grass. It was a beautiful night, clear sky, no cloud, waiting for the buses to take us out to the aircraft. John Burpee, a Canadian, Pilot Officer Burpee, came over to me. He thrust out his hand and said, ‘Goodbye, Ken.’ I said, ‘Goodbye, John. I didn’t expect he’d come back. You see some people feel that way. Then we got on board the bus, there were three crews on one bus and as the aircraft, or the bus stopped to let the first crew off then the second crew got off and my tail gunner, when the second crew got off and the bus moved on he was very quiet. Then it stopped for us. So we moved over towards the aircraft and my gunner stood there where he’d got off the bus. I said, ‘Come on Mac. Let’s go.’ He said, ‘Skip, you know those guys aren’t coming back, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ So, he said, ‘Well, damn it!’ So we got aboard the aircraft. You see, in most pictures today they show the Dambusters taking off from runways. That wasn’t so. We took off from grass. The bomb that I had on the aircraft was marked with eleven thousand-nine hundred and sixty pounds on the side of it. I only found out this year why that was so. Because when the bomb was made with a casing and a wooden cover the whole thing weighed that much but once it was removed then the real weight came off. We went out to the aircraft. The usual thing. We went all the areas around the dispersal, some more than others and then we tried to take off. Well, we knew that such a beautiful night, but no wind we needed that wind because we were on the short runway and the hedge on the short runway was a thousand feet tall. At least it looked that way when you were taking off.
[laughter]
We got the aircraft into the air and then discovered that we had to have, use climbing power, twenty six fifty at nine to keep the whole thing in the air. The next exercise was to get down to sixty feet and try out the guns, the lights and two lights that would focus down on the water to form a figure eight and also turn on the motor which rotated the bomb. Now, you’ve heard it said many times we flew at exactly sixty feet. Absolutely at sixty feet. When that bomb rotated believe me it was like driving a truck or anything else over the rails of a railway unbalanced as it was. And once we got that settled in then we came onto the coast, the Dutch coast. Immediately we were in the area of Gilze-Rijen which was a fighter drome which we all knew the Luftwaffe night-fighters were there at the time and Pilot Officer Burpee was about a mile and a half off to the north coast and they opened up on him and he blew up on the airport. So, we knew we had one less. We went on towards Hamm and I just couldn’t help but there was a train moving along a gentle slope and I said, ‘Ok gunners. Here’s where you can get your exercise now and your target practice.’ So we took on the train. We flew right alongside it. We were having trouble as everyone else was, with high-tension wires. It was, they were our greatest danger at any time. Without shooting a line if the wires in the moonlight would flutter up here you knew you’d have to go underneath them. So you’d hope they’d flutter down here because you had a chance to go over them. It was that quick we lost two aircraft to those wires. They merely slapped into them. Deadly stuff. We, as we came along to Hamm they were really waiting for us. Many of the other two waves had passed that way so they just poured it down. As a matter of fact, they were firing down at us. They were on a little bit of a lip as we went through the valley. However, Ottley was on my starboard side at about one o’clock and they hit him and he immediately blew up. His tanks went first and then his store. I have a piece of that aircraft that was presented to me on my recent trip to England. It’s no larger than your fist. However, when that happened the whole valley was just one orange ball. I didn’t have too much of an alternative. I don’t think there was any bravery connected with it. There was a road off to the port. Everything was trees and this road and I could just see it because of the fire from his aircraft. So I dove and I went down the road and they were shooting off the tops of the trees as we went along. Then much to my consternation that damn road led right into a castle and I’ll never forget that castle door.
[laughter]
We had to dip and the left wing went through two turrets as we went through the castle but we were pretty slow. We arrived at the Derwent, the Derwent Dam, pardon me the Mӧhne Dam. It had been breached at that time. The gunners were still fairly active. We thought we’d leave them alone to their own and we went over to the Sorpe Dam. The Sorpe was of a different construction altogether. It was an earth dam where you have a solid core and earth on either side. Very difficult to breach. One thing that they never really took a hard look at. Such a dam you have to have a spillage and the spillage in that particular dam which I visited twice after the war is natural. If we would have spun our bomb and gone to the wall which was the spill wall we could have taken it out as well but our tactics were to run parallel with the dam and drop our bomb in the middle so that it would explode, wash out the front of it and crack the wall and the water would do the rest. But we needed more than one. The only problem with it was the whole darned valley was full of fog. When we arrived there they told us that there would be a church up on top of the village. We found that all right. Just the spire of the church. So I tried to position myself from the spire. I didn’t do too well. I got behind the dam on my first run. When I found myself at ground level behind the dam I had to climb up roughly eighteen hundred feet. It wasn’t, it didn’t do my nerves any good at all because I was on top of the trees and I had to do a flat turn. I couldn’t move the wing down. I had to stand on the rudder to get around and then we were down in the valley again. Well, we did quite a number of runs on the dam before we were able to clear enough of the fog away which the propellers constantly going through did and I must say, according to the historians today it was a near perfect drop and I didn’t even write them about it.
[laughter]
However, we were pleased with it and as far as the explosion was concerned the waterspout went up to about a thousand feet and so did we. I think we ended up about eight hundred. There was one thing that sort of bugged me. When we went to the Mӧhne Dam, one of our aircraft had been shot down there and I felt we owed the fellow a visit. So I went back. And as soon, all the other aircraft had left but as soon as we came over the Mӧhne, mind you they were throwing 20mm at us and I think there was a few that were thirty seven millimetre and I figured that we owed that fellow a visit. So we came real low, below the towers, straight on at them and I heard this fellow’s story about three weeks ago in Germany, and he said, now I won’t try his German. Anyhow, we opened up at about five hundred yards and carried right in over the tower and the rear gunner depressed his guns and we raked the thing as we went through. Well, there was no firing coming from that tower when we left. We figured we’d done him in. However, the fellow got the Iron Cross so we weren’t that successful. The worst was really yet to come. It was then daylight was just breaking. We had to go across and up the Zuiderzee. There was no horizon. The mud from the Zuiderzee and the sky were all one. So I started across strictly on my altimeter with my head below the cockpit top at fifty feet and I hung onto it. I’d been told by a famous Wing Commander in the RAF, ‘Never ever pull up. If you’re low, never pull up.’ So I hoped he was right because all hell broke loose within a matter of fifteen minutes. Searchlights, even though it was light caught us from the starboard side and straight on. There was a lot of light flak immediately in front of us. The cannon shells started to go through the canopy. The side of the aircraft was pretty well blown out, and there was only one thing I could do and that was go lower. So I put her down to ten feet. We came across and actually their gun positions were on the sea wall so they were firing slightly down at us and I guess they couldn’t believe that we were lower than what they could fire. So in this turmoil with the front gunner blazing away at them I just got a glance for a moment and I could see the gunners either falling off because they were hit from our guns or rather they were jumping off to save their skin. I pulled up over top of them and we all gave a great sigh of relief. I think I’ve never had a bowel movement that ever gave me greater relief.
[laughter]
[recording interrupted]
And I was really surprised to find that no one had been hit. There was a great deal of damage. My wireless operator said, ‘Hey Skip. Come on back and crawl in and out the holes with me.’
[laughter]
I did go back. I wondered how badly and what damage had been done to our landing gears etcetera but by that time we were, it was broad daylight of course and I’m sure the Germans figured that we were a Kamikaze crew or something stupid enough to do what we did. We came back to base and we were quite elated that we’d all made it through. I called my squadron call sign and in my enthusiasm I said, ‘This is F for Freddie.’ And a little WAAF voice came back and said, ‘Hello F for Fox.’ That too had changed while we were away.
[laughter]
We didn’t really know of the losses however until we landed. Even then we were kind of naive because when I went into my dispersal point where ten aircraft should be there was one and we thought, ‘Wonder where the other fellows landed.’ But you see out of the nineteen one had hit the water on the Dutch Coast. As a matter of fact, the tail gunner was under water when the aircraft pulled out. He made it back. The other, another aircraft was hit by light flak and his intercom went. So consequently, of the nineteen you’re now looking at seventeen went beyond the Dutch Coast.
[recording interrupted]
We couldn’t quite believe that there were so many missing. When we got out of the aircraft the ground crew of all the aircraft were standing around long faced, tears running down their cheeks. We were the only ones that were sort of elated and saying, ‘Well, we made it back.’ But it was a sad thing to know how the ground crew felt. Some of them mentioned here tonight. How the ground crew worked on our aircraft and believe me they did. My aircraft was so badly damaged it had to go back to the factory. But the next aircraft I had was very badly shot up. My ground crew worked on it. When I came in at six o’clock in the morning they worked all day, all night, all the next day and the next night and I took it out the following morning. So I have a great deal of respect for the ground crew personnel. They did a tremendous job and it’s unfortunate at times we don’t really recognize what they did. They were really a God’s send to us all.
[applause]
Well, the big day came. My stock in trade with Guy Gibson improved tremendously after the Dams raid. I was commissioned and I was assigned a married quarter, which was really an officer’s married quarter which we had one room in and every room was filled with another officer. In this particular place I was on the ground floor and every night I came back or evening I came back there was a huge rabbit that was bounding around the field at the back and I figured that the rabbit would look better on my plate than in that field. So I borrowed a shotgun from the armament section and a few shells and I stashed them in my closet. I came home one night and sure enough there was that rabbit so I took off with the shotgun across the field. The old rabbit was well ahead of me avoiding my flak. He crossed the highway on the other side and went into a field. So I followed him in and he went down a hole by a big tree. I thought, ‘That’s fine. I’ll just wait him out.’ So with my shotgun at my side here I was waiting for this damn rabbit and what happens? Down the road comes a constable with a 2IC, in other words a training officer and he stops, and he hollers, ‘I say. Do you know you’re trespassing?’ And I said, ‘Go on. I’m waiting for a rabbit.’ Which didn’t go over very well.
[laughter]
So immediately the two of them dismounted and come over, and he said, ‘Do you know you’re on private property?’ And I said, ‘Well, the rabbit was over on our property, and he came down to this and I’m claiming it,’ I said. ‘I demand to see your identification.’ But then at that time I realized that I’d taken my ID out and put shotgun shells in. So I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t disclose my identification.’ That was as quick as I could think of being on a secret squadron. And he said, ‘In that case, you’ll have to come down to the station.’ So, I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I’ll have to decline your invitation.’ And he said, ‘I demand to know why.’ And I said, ‘Because I’ve got a double-barrelled loaded shotgun in my hand and you’ve got nothing.’ Boy did their faces change.
[laughter]
However, two days later I, we took a trip. We had to do a mission into North Italy. We did a bombing trip to Italy and then cut across to North Africa and landed so I was away for about seven days. But when I came back the Adj said to me, ‘You know, there was a couple of constables out here with a warrant. They were looking for a tall blonde Canadian and as you were the only one that fitted the description we gave them your name.’ I said, ‘How kind of you.’ Low and behold he said, ‘I think the C/O might want to see you too.’ Now, this is my point in my whole story. Guy Gibson took the warrant, went before the court, I don’t know what he said but he never ever mentioned that to me. That was his way of letting you know that you were accepted. It took a long time.
[laughter]
Guy Gibson came to Canada and visited his navigator’s family. He visited my family. He went and visited a number of Flying Schools and told them what a good friend he had in Ken Brown. He didn’t tell them of the three charges he had me on. However, my mother was very pleased with his visit and to see him. And it’s something today. Beryl and I have just been over to the UK. I introduced the survivors of the Dams raid to the Queen Mother, Beryl introduced the wives of the Dambusters to the Queen Mother and we were exposed to a great deal of the English hoopla about the great Dambusters. They do a great deal on it. We went to the Derwent Dam, which we practiced on. There was over one hundred thousand people there. I’d never seen a crowd like that. But they sell their Air Force this way. They sell their museums that way and they do a good job of it. I’m not criticizing them at all. It’s something that perhaps we can learn something about in supporting our Air Force and supporting our museums in Canada because Canadians were not as directly affected as the British and consequently many of them had no idea at all of what their uncles, their brothers, etcetera did during the war. It was a tremendous contribution. I’d like to just quote a couple. Do you know that twenty-five percent of all aircrew in the UK were Canadians? Did you know that per capita, I repeat per capita, Canada had more aircrew in operational outfits than what England had?’ ‘Do you know that sixty-two percent of all casualties in the Canadian armed forces, were aircrew?’ There’s an awful lot we can be thankful for of the ten thousand nine hundred and nineteen airmen killed in Bomber Command were Canadian. Today, I’ve even been asked, ‘Well, did Canada really get involved in the war?’ We don’t want to perpetuate the thought that war is something glorious and wonderful. But we do want to put the thought across. I’ve been through Germany, I’ve been through England, just recently and I was so damn glad to get back to Canada. It’s the most wonderful country in the world.
[applause]
The Nanton Lancaster Association provides that link between those who are not here to speak on their own behalf to let the younger generation realize that a tremendous contribution was made. Made because the young fellows were so concerned that we might lose our way of life here in Canada. That was their main concern. That this Canada of ours might suffer and at times, especially with our political situation today I think we can all give that a little bit of serious thought. I was proud to stand among, as they called themselves, “Guys.” I never heard that in the RAF. As I am sure they would be proud to have the Nanton Group expound their desire and their wishes for this country. I take off my hat to the people in Nanton and for the perpetuation that they have achieved here in their Society.
I thank you.

Citation

Ken Brown, “Speech by Ken Brown,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 25, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/46292.

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