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Dambusters 70: How Bill French helped make take the raid to the silver screen

By JohnPakey  |  Posted: May 17, 2013

  • Bill French was part of the aircrew who flew Lancasters for the film The Dam Busters.

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The drama of the raids on the Ruhr dams was captured in the 1955 film ‘The Dam Busters’, staring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave. For the first time the world could witness the daring flying needed to deliver the bouncing bomb. John Pakey speaks to Bill French, one of the RAF aircrew who flew the Lancaster bombers for the filming of the famous movie.

Moving from Scampton to Hemswell was not the exotic posting I expected, but it did give me a new opportunity

I joined the RAF in 1950 and I trained at Scampton. When I passed out I wanted to go somewhere exotic, so I applied for all the far flung places. In the end I was posted to Hemswell, which was not really what I was expecting. However, it was not long before we were approached and asked if we would like to fly Lancasters for a film.

I had been flying in Lincoln’s, the aeroplane which had replaced the Lancaster and my role was that of a signaller, working with the early radar sets in planes.

We all said we would be up for it and we were one of four crews selected to go and get back into Lancasters. They had to get the planes back in service as after the war they had been mothballed. We noticed the first thing was how it did not have the same power as the Lincoln. However, for five months we got up in them and flew around for the filming for The Dam Busters.

In 1943 they flew at 60ft, but that was not low enough to make it look good on film

Every day we would have a flight plan and we would go along the different locations. We were told where the cameras were and we would make sure we flew the direct route.

In the evening we came back into Lincoln and after the showings at the Savoy Cinema, where the Waterside shopping centre is now, we would sit and watch what had been filmed that day. The first time we were filmed over water there was a great shout from the directors and film crew at the front – and it was not a good one.

We had been replicating what 617 squadron did by flying at 60ft, a very low level over water. However, the gap between the Lancaster and the water was just too big on camera and the film crew were aghast.

So, we turned round to them and said there was only one option – to go lower.

The next day we were up flying at just 40ft over the water.

It was a challenge, but the boys from 617 squadron had a much tougher task.

We were a few feet lower, but we did not have a barrage of anti-aircraft guns firing towards us.

Everyone was in the film working together and it created a great camaraderie

There was no them and us feeling on set. A lot of the actors took the time to chat to you and find out about what you did.

Richard Todd, who starred in the film, would join us in the mess and have meals and a drink with us and would really muck in.

If it was raining one of the actors who did a few comedy skits would pop into the coach we were sat on and entertain us with a few jokes.

It was already good, the only person who kept himself away from it all was Michael Redgrave who was playing Barnes Wallis.

He was very much a method actor and did not associate with us as a result.

You understood why.

We all had our own approach to our jobs and this was his.

Accuracy was vital, it helped make the film what it was and create its character

One night we were sat watching the shots from earlier in the day and our gunner jumped up and shouted ‘stop!’. The projector slammed to a halt and he raced up to the screen and pointed out that a film camera could be seen on the bank of the reservoir, just peeking under one of the Lancasters.

The film people said that they could scratch it out, or edit round it, but we were defiant, we insisted that we go up again and do it properly, we did not want any shortcuts on a project like this.

The whole film was very well produced in that way. People cared about it.

Barnes Wallis himself was there on set to advise in any way he could, but this was only a few years after the war and a lot of the information was still wrapped up in the official secrets act.

And there were also a lot of the surviving members of 617 squadron around to help us out as well. In the end, when we went to the premier of the film in London we were delighted.

Not because of the flying, but because I felt we really captured the moment, the brotherhood that existed between the aircrew.

That’s why I fear any new production of the film would just feel flat in comparison.

There are better special effects, but computer animation is not the same as the physical feel of a Lancaster.

And also, it has been too long since the war.

And that character which existed between those aircrews has gone and cannot be replaced.

Barnes Wallis was still upset about the lads that never came back

Later on in life, when I was working in radar in the RAF, I finished up working in electronics.

One day I was at Brooklands and they asked me if I would like to meet their chief engineer.

I popped into the office and there behind the desk was Barnes Wallis.

I asked if he remembered me from the filming at Scampton and he did, which was amazing.

We talked about it all and you could see the tears in his eyes when we got on to the subject of the aircrew who had lost their lives.

This was 16 years on from the raids, but he was still deeply affected by it.

Thankfully, history has hopefully shown what a crucial role they played.

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