From The Times
April 29, 2010
Ray Grayston: Flight engineer during the Dambuster raid
Ray Grayston was one of the last surviving veterans of the aircrews who took part in the celebrated attack by 617 squadron on the Ruhr dams in May 1943. As a sergeant, he was flight engineer in the Lancaster piloted by Pilot Officer Les Knight, whose bomb eventually breached the Eder dam, after several previous attempts at doing so had been unsuccessful.
In a Lancaster the flight engineer was responsible for handling the throttles on take off and landing, and for monitoring the performance of the engines in flight. If the pilot should be killed or wounded, it fell to the flight engineer to drag him from his seat and take the controls himself. Without formal flying training few engineers could do more than fly “straight and level” and they, naturally enough, fervently hoped that they would never be called on to land the aircraft.
Raymond E. Grayston was born at Dunsfold, Surrey, in 1918. He had joined the RAF in 1940, initially as a ground engineer. He then retrained as aircrew and was serving in Lancasters with 50 Squadron when he was posted to the specially created 617 Squadron, formed at Scampton, Lincolnshire, in March 1943 under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
Its objective was the destruction, using a bomb designed by Barnes Wallis, of the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams, which provided most of the electricity for the factories of the Ruhr, the heart of Germany’s war industries. The bomb had to be dropped from extremely low level at a specific speed, giving it the trajectory that would, this gifted scientist was convinced, enable it to skip over the torpedo net defences like a gigantic skimmed pebble, and lodge itself by the dam wall.
After intensive training in low flying at night, the raid, codenamed Operation Chastise, was launched from Scampton on May 16. Led by Gibson, the first formation of nine out of the total of 19 Lancasters involved, headed for the two most important targets: the first, the Möhne, which dammed a lake of 134 million tons of water, and the Eder, which was even larger, penning back 212 million tons of water, which was the second objective.
In the event, though Wallis’s calculations were that one bomb placed correctly would break any one of the dams, it required four direct hits on the Möhne to achieve a breach. Wallis, on the ground at Grantham with senior RAF officers at 5 Group headquarters, fell into an ever deeper gloom as reports of direct hits but no breach of the dam were radioed in from 617’s bombers in the night skies above the Ruhr.
Finally came the magical signal which vindicated his scientific theories — of which not all airmen, certainly not Bomber Command’s irascible Chief, “Bomber” Harris, had been convinced at the outset. The fearsome Bomber’s face now cracked into a grin: “Wallis, I didn’t believe a word you said about this damn bomb. You could sell me a pink elephant, now,” he admitted.
The Eder Dam was to prove a much more difficult target than the Möhne. Its lake was surrounded by hills that rose to 1,000ft on all sides, and the bomb-laden Lancasters had to lose this height in a very short time, at the same time executing a 90-degree turn to port, to be in position and at the 60ft altitude required for the correct functioning of Wallis’s remarkable weapon.
Furthermore, fog was already beginning to fill the Eder lake by the time Gibson, who had already bombed the Möhne, arrived over it with the three remaining aircraft allocated to the attack. Two pilots, David Shannon and Henry Maudslay, had already attempted their bombing runs without breaking the dam; Maudslay was subsequently to crash with the loss of his entire crew.
Then Knight, who had the last bomb, was ordered in. His first pass was not accurate but he retained his bomb for the second attack, Grayston throttling back to allow him to drop it plumb on target. Pilot and engineer then wrestled the bomber into a steep climb to clear the sharply rising ground behind the dam. They had struck the decisive blow. The crews watched with awe as the water subsided from the explosion to reveal a ragged breach in the dam through which the 200 million tons of water in the Eder lake poured through and thundered down the valley.
The Dambusters’ raid was one of the most remarkable precision bombing operations of the war. Its combination of superlative pilot and navigational skills and scientific ingenuity have earned it an indelible place in the annals of the RAF. But its spectacular results were achieved at a percentage cost that could hardly provide a basis for a long-term strategic air offensive. Eight of the 19 bombers that had taken off from Scampton failed to return home, with 53 aircrew killed out of 133. Three survived to be taken prisoner.
In the aftermath of the dams raid, during which period Grayston was commissioned, the squadron basked in a certain amount of well-deserved celebrity, which included a trip to Buckingham Palace to be invested with their decorations.
For some weeks 617 undertook no further operations, and were mildly ribbed by other squadrons for their lack of activity.
This was soon to change, and with grim suddenness. A new — and again fiendishly difficult — target, was in prospect, the important link between the Ruhr and the North Sea, the Dortmund-Ems Canal, through which prefabricated U-boats made their journey from factories to their bases. It was now an RAF priority, and 617’s lowlevel expertise was again called upon.
Grayston was Knight’s flight engineer on both 617’s attempts to breach the embankment of the canal in September 1943 — not this time with Wallis’s weapon, but with 12,000lb “Blockbuster” bombs. Both of these were badly hampered by fog, in which the Lancasters had to plunge — nerve-rackingly for their crews — at low level in virtually zero visibility as they groped for their target.
On the second attempt, on September 16, Knight’s Lancaster hit treetops as he came in at 150ft and his two port engines stopped. With his ailerons also badly damaged and with no hope of getting the Lancaster home, he managed to coax the aircraft up to 1,400ft and hold it relatively steady so that the rest of his crew could bale out. Grayston, the last to do so, always remembered Knight’s final words to him: “God bless”. With the aircraft going into a steep dive as soon as Knight relinquished the controls, the pilot could not get to the hatch in time.
Parachuting safely to earth Grayston was captured by the Germans and spent the most of the rest of the war in captivity in Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Silesia.
After the war Grayston worked for the aircraft manufacturer Hawker Siddeley, for whose military division he worked in inspection and quality control, retiring from British Aerospace, as it had by then become, in the mid-1980s. In 1985 he retired to Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, the heartland of wartime bomber operations. In May 2008 he was among a number of 617 veterans who gathered there to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Dams raid.
Grayston was married twice and is survived by his second wife, Sylvia, and by a stepson. His death leaves four surviving members of 617 Squadron who took off from Scampton to confront the defences of the Ruhr on the evening of May 16, 1943.
Ray Grayston, wartime RAF flight engineer and veteran of the 617 Squadron raid on the Ruhr dams, was born on October 13, 1918. He died on April 15, 2010, aged 91
5 ½” x 8 ½” photo signed by Ray Grayston
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