As most of the readers of this blog should know Douglas Webb was one of the Dambusters. May 16th is the 70th anniversary of the raid. It was a breathtaking display of daring, ingenuity and self-sacrifice that had a huge effect on the wartime generation and still inspires us today… and rightly so. I only met Doug a few times but it was incredibly humbling to meet a real hero from history. For a list of anniversary events I suggest you take a look Charles Foster’s Dambusters blog. For more information about Doug and the Dams raid check out the following posts of mine.
All about Douglas Webb.
As many of the readers of this blog know Douglas Webb was in the RAF. In fact he was a bona fide war hero. Living in Leyton, experiencing the full effect of the blitz, he joined the RAF on his 18th birthday. Having to take a pilot’s induction exam he deliberately “made a nonsense of it” as he wanted to be a gunner. If he was going to war he wanted a go at shooting the Bosche. He ended up a gunner in F/Sgt. Bill Townsend’s Lancaster in Squadron 49.
After finishing their tour the crew volunteered (minus the wireless operator who declined) for a secret mission. They joined what was to become Squadron 617 and their mission was Operation Chastise, now known as the legendary Dambuster’s Raid
They went to RAF Scampton to take part in ten weeks of intensive training, involving lots of cross-country low level flying. They were first asked to fly at 150ft, then 100ft and finally 60ft. Doug knew it was going to be bloody dangerous. For one thing the altimeter didn’t work that low. When Wing Commander Guy Gibson gave the pre-operational briefing the crews all saw where the red ribbons ended on the map: the most heavily defended area of Germany, mockingly nicked named the Happy Valley. Doug was convinced he wasn’t coming back. After watching the first two waves take off he returned to his quarters to take a bath. He wanted to die clean.
Taking off just after midnight F/Sgt. Townsend flew their plane AJ-Orange towards the heart of Germany. The flak was extremely heavy, as the enemy had been alerted by the first two waves of attack. Doug in the front turret hosed enemy positions with his machine guns. As he pumped away at their searchlights he was glad for the extra rounds he had “borrowed”. Lancaster AJ-Orange target was the Ennepe Dam, near Dortmund. With a thick mist rising from wooded valley they had difficultly in locating the target. Three times they overshot the dam. On the forth run at 3.37am the bouncing bomb was released at less than 100ft above the water
As the plane circled the lake discharged a huge spout of water in to the air followed by vast ripples spreading towards the Dam. It had fallen short but they were pretty confident that the shock waves would do some damage. As they turned for home the fast approaching dawn made the return trip extremely dangerous. They could clearly see the breached Möhne dam and the Germans could clearly see them. Flying dangerously low, hugging the contours of the landscape, avoiding unexpected landmarks and pylons they flew through a barrage of distinctly unfriendly anti-aircraft fire.
When they got to the Dutch coast the Germans turned the large coastal guns on to them. The plane was badly damaged and one of its engines was knocked out, but taking evasive action they made it out to the safety of the North Sea. They arrived back to base at 6.15am. Flying downwind and into the sun they had a rather bumpy landing as the last plane back. Casualties were shockingly high. Eight of the original 19 Lancaster bombers were damaged or shot down, and of the 133 aircrew, 53 were killed and three captured.
As King George VI was in Africa it was the Queen Mother, then Queen Elizabeth who presented the squadron with their medals at Buckingham Palace on June 22 1943. Doug was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.
After some time as a night vision instructor Doug wangled his way back to 617 Squadron and flew on its last mission against Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in Bavaria. Back on civvy street in 1946, he rejoined the London News Agency as a staff photographer, eventually going freelance and opening his own photography studio in Greek Street where he specialised in theatrical and film portraits as well as nudes. And that’s where he met Pamela Green.
Byron Rogers wrote a collection of articles on tracking down and meeting an array of quirky, whimsical and eccentric individuals, some of which were printed in the Sunday Telegraph a number of years ago. He did a piece on Doug and Pam called The Icon and Dambuster. He also wrote one on the photographer Jean Straker called Squire among the Pin-ups. Both articles are collected in the book On the Trail of the Last Human Cannonball and Other Small Journeys in Search of Great Men. The book is a wonderful read. Available from Wordery.
Here’s a bit of info on Douglas Webb — Pam’s partner. I will be expanding on Doug’s Dambuster days at a later point so keep a look out.
Douglas was born 12 September 1922 in Leytonstone, London. He worked for Ilford then the London News Agency in Fleet Street as a printer, after which he joined the RAF on his 18th birthday and served as an air gunner with 49 and 617 Squadrons. In 1943, Douglas took part in the famous Dambusters’ raid. The plane on which he was front gunner attacked the Ennepe dam. With no anti-aircraft firing at them they had time to do three trial runs before releasing the upkeep. The following explosion, however, failed to damage the dam. His plane was the last to return from that now legendary raid, for which he received the Distinguished Flying Medal. No photo is known to exist of the crew posing with their aircraft, for the pilot, Bill Townsend, considered it unlucky to do so.
Back on civie street in 1946, he rejoined the London News Agency as a staff photographer. He stayed with the LNA until he was offered a contract with the Rank Organisation at Denham Studios. After which he transferred to Gainsborough Pictures at Islington Studios. The first film he worked on was Miranda.
As the British film industry contracted, he opened his own studio in Greek Street, in the heart of London’s Soho, where he specialised in theatrical and film portraits.
In 1948, while Pam was at St Martins School of Art, she posed for a local amateur photographer who suggested that she could make a guinea an hour if she did the same for professionals. Being in the position of having to fund her own education she took his advice. She walked into a professional photographers’ studio on Greek Street and asked if he did nudes. He said yes, and that was how she met Douglas Webb. When she was putting on my school scarf after her first session, did Douglas realise Pam was underage. Thankfully, her father agreed to sign the necessary model release form. She could not have known at the time, what a great impact on her life that meeting with Douglas Webb was to have.
Douglas Webb had a prolific creative life in still photography, cinema and television. As his studio expanded, he moved to very much larger premises in Albany Street, near Regents Park. As a freelancer, he worked on numerous British TV shows, doing the front and back projections. His television work includes the title sequences for Special Branch and The Sweeney for Thames Television. For all you trivia buffs the fingerprints used on the title sequence in The Sweeney were none other than Pam’s. Doug was also responsible for the special photographic backing in The Killing of Sister George and the colour transparency shot in Italy for the film Krull in 1983. This was projected at 28×64 ft in Pinewood Studios. In 1986 Douglas Webb and Pam moved to the Isle of Wight.