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Sergeant Dudley Heal DFM – The Hampshire Dambuster

by John Avery

 “Until very close to the operation we were flying at 150ft, but then we were suddenly told that the bomb was to be dropped at 60ft - apparently, that was the best height to achieve its purpose. So we all went to the bar and had a drink. Sixty feet! I ask you!”

Dudley was born in Portsmouth in 1916. A member of the RAFVR. he volunteered for  war service in 1940 and trained as a navigator. At Kinloss he teamed up with members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Grant McDonald, Steve Oancia and Ken Brown. At first they were posted to St Eval in Cornwall on anti submarine patrols but in February 1943 the seven men crew joined 44 Squadron. That was but a short appointment as in March they were transferred to the newly created 617 Squadron [later to take the nickname The Dambusters].

Pilot Officer Ken Brown had several run ins with Squadron Leader Guy Gibson and his character varied somewhat to the portrayal by the actor Richard Todd in the 1955 film. One example was at a briefing the door was left ajar and one crew member slipped to the back to close it again and Gibson judged him to have arrived late for the briefing. He was put on a charge and after operations often lasting 15 to 18 hours his punishment was to clean the windows in the mess and ops room before getting any sleep. Gibson was disliked by the ground crews, he was very class aware and treated uncommissioned crew with disregard and expected to be saluted even if a ground crewman was in the midst of lifting heavy equipment.

Ken Brown and his crew were directed to fly one of the five reserve aircraft and their mission was to fly past the main target dams to hit the Sorpe Dam. Their mine was dropped on target creating a huge plume of water but insignificant to breach the dam. Dudley’s role as navigator was without any vision of any landmarks or stars during the flight and he relied very much on a commentary from the bomb aimer Steve Oancia.

Many aircraft and crew were lost in the raid but the shock reaction to the enemy that the RAF was capable of mounting such an attack in the German heartland was deemed a sufficient compensation for the losses.

Dudley Heal’s logbook notes that during his service with 617 Squadron he made three operational bombing raids in a 24 hour period. The life expectancies of bomber crews were extremely short and understandably losing close friends each night and avoiding death each flight had its consequences. A few were on the verge of mental breakdowns and what we now describe as post dramatic stress. The RAF however classed men who had risked their lives sometimes several times a week who could no longer face the trauma as LMF cases [Lacking Moral Fibre] a way of describing cowardice.

By irony both the Canadian Grant McDonald and Dudley Heal were both to the take the same career paths after WWII. Grant joined the customs service in Vancouver and Dudley served with Customs and Excise at Southampton.

Dudley seldom mentioned his war service but did used to go the occasional Dambuster reunions and with his surviving colleagues had been special guests of honour at the film premiere.



Outdoor visit to Minstead Church image courtesy Will Temple Outdoor visit on a Guy Arab open top busTug tender Calshot in preservation