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Dambusters pilot buried in Kent remembered 75 years after historic raid

By Ian Read

It was an attack that destroyed the industrial and domestic centres of Germany at the height of the Second World War.

On the 75th anniversary of the audacious Dambusters raids, Ian Read delves into what happened on that fateful night - and what became of the Kent pilot at its centre.

A pilot who dropped the bouncing bomb which broke the Mohne Dam 75 years ago this week rests in a country churchyard in the county.

Tragically, Squadron Leader David Maltby DSO, DFC died four months later when his Lancaster bomber crashed into the North Sea, killing the crew of eight.

Mr Maltby’s body was recovered from the water but the other seven men were never seen again. He was buried in Wickhambreaux churchyard near Canterbury - where he had been married the year previously.

The breached Möhne Dam after the bombing
The breached Möhne Dam after the bombing

The Dambusters raid has an iconic place in British history.

The bouncing bombs that smashed the Mohne and Eder Dams on the night of May 16 and 17, 1943, were tested under great secrecy at Reculver weeks before the raid.

Aeronautical genius Dr Barnes Wallis invented the cylindrical Upkeep bomb.

He had to overcome official scepticism - especially from the Commander of Bomber Command Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris.

The planned attack, named Operation Chastise, was in the balance as prototype bombs failed to work, but on May 7, 1943, Mr Maltby and his crew successfully dropped a dummy Upkeep at Reculver.

Days later, they would drop the real thing over Germany.

Mr Maltby had already survived a tour of 30 missions with Bomber Command and was into his second when he was transferred to 617 Squadron. He was 23 and the father of a baby son.

Squadron Leader David Maltby. Picture: The Maltby family
Squadron Leader David Maltby. Picture: The Maltby family

The 19 crews due to take part in the raid had no idea what the target was.

Only the Commanding Officer Wing Commander Guy Gibson was let into the secret.

Based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, the Lancasters had been flying at low level across the country - sometimes as low as 30 feet.

The Mohne, Eder and Sorpe Dams controlled water supplies to the Ruhr industrial complex where a huge percentage of Germany’s armaments were based.

A huge release of water would not only damage factories but would hit road, rail and canal communications as well.

The Lancaster bombers were specially adapted to carry the dustbin-like bombs, and spotlights were installed so the crews could gauge their height as they sped across the water surrounding the dams.

It was a risky business.

Lancaster bomber flying over Reculver
Lancaster bomber flying over Reculver

Mr Maltby’s crew was made up of men who had only flown a few raids. Indeed, the navigator Sgt Vivian Nicholson was flying his first mission.

They would be flying in the second wave of Lancasters to attack either the Mohne or Eder Dams.

A total of 133 aircrew would be taking part in a mission which would call for flying skill and daring.

They also realised that some of them would not be coming back.

Mr Maltby was carrying his battered RAF forage cap for luck when he took off on May 16.

They had a textbook flight to the Mohne but others hadn’t been so lucky.

One aircraft ran into power lines and crashed with no survivors. Another made a miracle escape from a concentration of flak, anti-aircraft fire and lost its Upkeep bomb.

When Mr Maltby and his crew in Lancaster J-Johnny arrived, Guy Gibson had already dropped his weapon, which hit the dam and threw up a water spout.

Family and friends at Squadron Leader David Maltby’s grave
Family and friends at Squadron Leader David Maltby’s grave

The second Lancaster, M-Mother, flown by Flight Lieutenant John Hopgood, was shot down over the dam and smashed into a power station.

Amazingly, two of his crew bailed out and survived.

Mr Maltby saw Hopgood’s plane go down and watched as two more bombs hit the dam.

It was then his turn.

His bomb hit the centre of the dam, blowing a 150ft breach. Anti-aircraft firing ceased because the gunners on the ground couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

Afterwards, Mr Maltby said: “Our load sent water and mud to a height of 1,000ft.”

Bomb gone, he was sent back to Scampton.

Lancaster bomber flypast at Reculver
Lancaster bomber flypast at Reculver

Out of 19 Lancasters dispatched, only 11 returned. Guy Gibson led three to the Eder Dam, which they also wrecked. The Sorpe dam was slightly damaged but did not break.

A total of 1,394 people were killed by the tidal waves which swept down the valleys, and production in some factories was held up for up to six months.

Mr Maltby was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross he already held.

He was presented with his award by the Queen at Buckingham Palace because King George VI was away in the Mediterranean visiting troops.

Mr Maltby met the King and Queen when they visited Scampton just after the raid.

The veteran of 23 was promoted and given a flight to command.

In July, his son John was born.

But he was back on operations. A low-level attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal was mooted for September 14 which would end in tragedy.

Mr Maltby was leading the second wave and a recall message was sent. Inexplicably, his Lancaster crashed into the North Sea. Onlookers saw his aircraft flick down and cartwheel into the sea.

His friend Flight Lieutenant David Shannon, circled the spot but there were no survivors. He may have collided with a stray Mosquito bomber but nobody knows.

His wife, Nina, believed he crashed and drowned.

His body was then taken to Wickhambreaux and buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, where for decades, David Maltby the Dambuster has been honoured.

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