What the Dambusters did next? We got on with our lives, says Hitchin’s modest Frank

Frank Tilley

Frank Tilley - Credit: Archant

‘We didn’t think of ourselves as heroes. No-one did. It certainly wasn’t glamorous – not in the way the Dambusters film portrayed it. I don’t see myself as a hero in any way’.

Members of 617 Squadron photographed at Scampton after the Dams raid in May 1943.

Members of 617 Squadron photographed at Scampton after the Dams raid in May 1943. - Credit: Archant

So says the remarkable Frank Tilley, of Blackhorse Lane in Hitchin, who served in the famed RAF 617 Squadron which embarked on one of the most famous raids of the Second World War, with their exploits later immortalised as the Dambusters.

The 92-year-old was contacted by best-selling author and former RAF pilot John Nichol – famously shot down himself while at the controls of a Tornado jet during a Gulf War raid in 1991 – as he researched his new book, After the Flood – What the Dambusters Did Next.

John said: “617 Squadron were known for their precision attacks, proving themselves again and again.”

Their most famous mission saw 133 airmen set out in 19 Lancaster bombers to destroy dams in the Ruhr Valley in May 1943, in a bit to cripple major factories which supplied the German war machine.

Frank Tilley and his fellow crewmen

Frank Tilley and his fellow crewmen - Credit: Archant


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John said: “Despite catastrophic losses the raid became an enormous propaganda triumph and the survivors were feted as heroes.

“My book details the story of what the Dambusters did next – dropping the largest bombs ever built on Hitler’s prize battleship, the Tirpitz, attacks on crucial railway viaducts and secret rockets sites, on U-boat construction pens and a German super-gun which could have rained 600 shells an hour on London.

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“During my research I talked to modest men like Frank, who took the fight to the heart of Hitler’s war machine and helped change the course of the war.

“My book is about the most dangerous attacks, heart-breaking stories and incredible personal courage – which Frank was very much part of.”

Frank Tilley

Frank Tilley - Credit: Archant

Frank wasn’t part of the squadron until the year after the famous 1943 mission, but still saw plenty of action in the skies above Germany.

Born in Hackney in 1923, he moved to Letchworth in the 1960s to work for the British Tabulating Machine Company in Works Road, before living in Hitchin, first at Hollow Lane, then Blackhorse Lane.

He said: “After the war, you just got on with things and never talked about what you did during it.

“I married my June in 1947 – but it wasn’t until the 1990s I mentioned I was part of 617 Squadron. She wasn’t particularly interested.

Frank Tilley and his fellow crewmen

Frank Tilley and his fellow crewmen - Credit: Archant

“I flew on eight missions from September 1944. We weren’t known as the Dambusters then – only when the film came out in 1955.

“I was a 21-year-old flight engineer who had never flown on a night operation before. Logic should have made me ask why it was easy to volunteer as bomber aircrew.

“It was good being with your mates. You just tried to be cheerful. If you didn’t get an aircrew returning you just said: ‘I hope they’re OK’.

“But we did see a lot of new faces. On my eighth flight we lost our port wing. We made it back from Germany at 1,000 feet before crashing in Lincolnshire.

“I survived. Two of my crew didn’t. When I was better the war had finished.

“I take pride in what I did but I’m not a hero. The real heroes are the lads who went on German bombing raids and never came back. I still think of them.”

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