It was one of the most memorable events of WWII. Not least because of the popular movie immortalisation, as well as Paul Brickhill’s best-selling historical account. It was May 1943, and the German dams at Mohne, Eder and Sorpe were well-defended: anti-torpedo nets hung from enormous boons; gunners on the dams themselves were armed with anti-aircraft fire. The risks were huge. The rewards proportionate.
The Allies knew that successful destruction of the dams would severely harm the German production of munitions and steel from the numerous factories that lay in the shadow of the dam. Getting the explosives close enough (not to mention the planes themselves) would prove a challenge on a par with some of the greatest military tactics ever conjured.
Step forward Squadron X. Latterly to be called Squadron 617. Later to be forever remembered as ‘The Dambuster Squadron’.
The selection of Squadron 617 was left to Wing Commander Guy Gibson: “it took me an hour to pick my crews. I wrote all the names down on a piece of paper…from my own personal knowledge, I believed them to be the best bomber pilots available.” An integral part of that squadron was Squadron leader Tommy Lloyd, who served as the Intelligence Officer at the squadron’s base at Woodhall Spa.
It was to be the crowning glory of a long and highly decorated military career. During WWI Thomas William Lloyd served with the 4th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment in France from 1915. In October of that year he was appointed Adjutant to a unit of The Royal Engineers – the unit that evacuated the Serbian Army from Albania. He then spent a year in Mesopotamia as personal assistant to General Grey, joining the British Forces fighting against the Ottoman Empire in what would become modern-day Iraq.
On the renewal of hostilities, Tommy Lloyd was commissioned to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and stationed at Woodhall Spa. According to Paul Brickhill’s superb account, Lloyd was a popular personality, and a vital part of the events of May 1943.
The Dambuster’s mission itself is well documented. Of course, we’ve all seen the wonderful film (and no doubt cringed at what they used as a codeword for a successful hit – those were different times!), but as is often the case in these instances the glory can overshadow the tragedy.
Eight of the Lancaster Bombers that set out on that night did not return. Fifty-three men of 617 Squadron lost their lives.
If fell to Squadron Leader Lloyd to debrief those that returned. One can only imagine the emotions that must have been experienced at that debriefing. On one hand, the mission was highly successful, with two of the three dams breached. On the other, so many of the Squadron’s friends and colleagues had paid the ultimate price.
It takes a special kind of courage, quite alien to us who live in peacetime, to be able to perform such a duty in such circumstances.
The Great War Distinguished Service Order group of 7 awarded to Sqaudron Leader TW ‘Tommy’ Lloyd, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, Intelligence Officer to 617 “Dambuster” Squadron. Lot 3987 in Baldwin’s London Auction 101, 28 September 2016. Estimate: £1,500-2,000
Less than a year after his greatest triumph, Tommy Lloyd was killed in a tragic accident in February 1944. On 12 February, eleven bombers had taken off from Royal Naval Air Station Ford to perform bombing raids on the Antheor Aqueduct in Southern France. Upon their return to RNAS Ford they were debriefed (again by Lloyd) and then due to return to Woodhall Spa. Lloyd was offered a lift by one of the pilots. Shortly after take-off in bad weather, the plane hit a tree and crashed into a hill. All of those on board lost their lives.
It was a tragic end. His medals, now for sale at our London Auctions on 28th September, stand as a remembrance to one of Britain’s true war heroes – a man of impeccable standing, respected and admired by generations.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute, however, comes from Wing Commander Cheshire (then Commander of 617 Squadron), who had the unenviable task of writing to Lloyd’s widow:
“Dear Mrs Lloyd,
…Your husband was killed while flying from Ford, in Sussex, back to this Station. He had been down there with the Squadron, as was his usual custom, and having finished his work…was on his way back to us…the whole crew died instantly, except for (Captain) Suggit, who, although unconscious, remained alive for two days.
Your husband had been with this Squadron ever since it first formed, and wherever the Squadron went, he went too. He looked after us not only as an Intelligence Officer, but also as a friend, and I don’t think any loss could mean more to us than his. I know there is little I can say what will help you or ease your burden, but I would like to tell you something of the influence that Tommy had on all of us. He was somehow a man to whom you could always turn in trouble, and a man who always did so much to make our life happier and more comfortable.
Wherever I may go, I know that I shall meet no-one more tolerant or unselfish, and on behalf of everyone here, as well as myself, I would like to extend to you my great appreciation and gratefulness for all that he did for us, and for the personal sacrifices that he so often made. I would like to extend to you my deepest and most profound sympathy.
Wing Commander, Commanding No.617 Squadron”