Coachlines - November 2020

05.11.20 Liveryman Roger Earl

Celebrating Squadron Leader Benny Goodman’s 100th Birthday

Pictured above: Liveryman Roger Earl, Colin Spreckley, Barry Blacker, Sqdn Ldr Benny Goodman, Nigel Miller and Callum Stewart

18 year old Benny the day he joined up in 1939

Four fellow LMC (Lloyd’s Motor Club) members, Barry Blacker (“BJ”), Colin Spreckley (“Spreckles”), Nigel Miller, and Callum Stewart (“Scotty”), joined me, writes Liveryman Roger Earl, at the RAF Club on Tuesday 29th September to celebrate the 100th birthday of the remarkable Sqdn Ldr Lawrence “Benny” Goodman, the last surviving Lancaster skipper/pilot of 617 Dambusters Squadron, and a couple of years ago, our annual LMC Military Lunch VIP guest and speaker. I would have dearly loved more of us to have been there for such a special occasion but the current rules do, of course, limit us to only six. Scotty and Nigel both have powerful RAF connections (as does BJ – his father was a Bomber Command station commander in Lincolnshire during WW2) – Nigel’s dad, a Wing Commander, being one of the top Mosquito night-fighter pilots in the war with 15 or 16 kills and three DFCs and Scottie’s Air-Vice Marshal father was head of the RAF’s aeronautical and high altitude research group (and the sole survivor of a B17 crash) in WW2.

Tuesday’s lunch, a few days after his “real” birthday on 24th (as we had been outranked by the Chief of the Air Staff and Benny’s son Robert on the actual day), was a real triumph, Benny clearly enjoying it enormously and to the full. We kicked off, or should I say “took off”, at 12.45 and “landed” at 3.30, a bottle of Champagne and three bottles of wine later. He was on absolutely sparkling form, as bright as a Grenadier’s buttons and as bouncy as he always is, full of stories, and with his delicious sense of humour fined to a perfect point. Classic ‘greatest generation’.

Miniature of Tirpitz presented by Nigel Miller

Benny joined the RAF as an aircraftsman in early September 1939 at the age of 18 and soon showed aptitude as a pilot and was shipped off to Canada for more training. He was retained there for a while (to his frustration) as a flying instructor, part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan but finally returned to the UK in late 1942. To add a little excitement to his life, his ship was torpedoed mid-Atlantic but he survived that too. And as a result of his superlative flying skills, Benny was selected as one of the few ab initio pilots for 617 Dambusters Squadron, where he would complete 30 operational missions by the time the war ended, dropping Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs on numerous targets, including the battleship Tirpitz and Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.

As Benny always modestly reminds me about his and his crew’s completion of their “full tour” of 30 operations, it wasn’t enough to be a good pilot and to have a great crew – you needed a lot of luck as well to survive. Of Bomber Command’s 125,000 aircrew in WW2, every one a volunteer, more than 55,500 lost their lives, another 8,400 were wounded and over 9,800 became POWs. To underline the point, while he and his crew were rested for a week in early 1945 after their 15th successful operation, another crew was assigned to his Lancaster “Miss Toronto”, for a raid on Bergen’s U-Boat pens on the 12th January and was lost on return with its whole crew.

NF992 KC-B took off from Woodhall Spa at 8.30am on 12th January 1945 carrying tallboy bombs, the mission being to attack the U-Boat pens at Bergen. They were attacked by German FW190s off the Norwegian coast and the Lancaster was last seen to have an engine fire, but made a perfect landing on the sea at around 1pm in the afternoon of the 12th. All the crew managed to scramble onto the top of the aircraft and life saving equipment was dropped by a Warwick aircraft, in spite of the attentions of an enemy Junkers 88. But the Junkers proceeded to strafe the downed Lancaster killing all onboard. They are named on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey.

Avro Lancaster lost on operation in January 1945

To accompany Nigel’s lovely Tirpitz model, my more humble gift to Benny was a model of his own Lancaster B1 Special (the type stripped out of all its armament except the rear gunner’s position so it could carry a 22,000lb Barnes Wallis Grand Slam bomb) which started the day on top of his cake.

At the war’s end in 1945, Benny joined 604 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, flying Spitfire XVIs from RAF Hendon as a reservist and then re-joined the RAF “proper” in 1949 during the Berlin Airlift, initially flying Hastings in Transport Command and finally retiring in 1963 after a tour on Canberra PR7s (high altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft).

Benny with his cake 'Grand Slam 100'

Benny with his cake ‘Grand Slam 100’

During his 21 years of service, he had flown more than 3,500 hours in 22 different aircraft types, and continued to fly as a private pilot until he was more than 90 years old. Since retirement, Benny has been a great supporter of reconciliation with Germany, becoming a long-standing friend of the city of Arnsberg, 400 feet of whose viaduct he collapsed with a Grand Slam bomb in 1945.