THE LAST BRITISH DAMBUSTER PILOT
Born Lawrence Seymour Goodman into a Jewish family in West London. His father owned an advertising business. It was always expected he would grow up to join the family firm.
He was educated at Herne Bay College in Kent and was in the Officers’ Training Corps at the school.
In 1937 he enrolled in an electrical engineering course, believing it would hold him in good stead – even if he worked in advertising.
When war broke out in 1939, Lawrence joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was immediately accepted for air crew training, even though he was only eighteen.
He joined the RAF proper in 1940 and was posted to Abingdon as a ground gunner. From there he moved to RAF Bridgnorth for flying training.
He was taught to fly in just three months, in a de Havilland Tiger Moth.
His training was completed at a flying school in Manitoba and became a qualified pilot in April 1942, with the rank of ‘Pilot Officer’. He then became a flying instructor, training Fleet Air Arm pilots.
Then he sailed back to the UK. It was a very eventful journey. He left Halifax, Nova Scotia on a New Zealand ship full of troops – but with many women and children on board.
Their escort ship (which was carrying Lawrence’s equipment), an American destroyer, was torpedoed within 24 hours and sank. The ship he was on was also hit but limped on.
Lawrence lost all his flying kit and his logbook.
Back in England, he was sent for specialised training as a bomber pilot, to Grantham. There he was promoted to Flying Officer.
He moved to Cottesmore to fly Wellingtons, was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, and was allowed to pick his own crew. By now his colleagues had nicknamed him ‘Benny’, after the famous jazzman (a.k.a. The King of Swing).
Then Lawrence was sent (with his new crew) to join the 617 Squadron at Woodhall Spa. They were to become known as the ‘Dambusters’. They only took very experienced flyers. They did extensive training and were taught to fly with (and drop) Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb, nicknamed ‘Tallboy’. It was a “deep penetration bomb”, weighing 12,000lb.
The Dambusters would only take highly skilled teams. Goodman’s were not experienced but his skill was so exceptional that his novice team were readily accepted. He was the only pilot accepted into 617 Squadron without operational experience.
Although he was attached to the Squadron, he did not participate in the famous dam busting raids on the Mohne and Eder in 1943. He did partake of the training on Derwent Water, though. This operation, known as ‘Chastise’ was led by Guy Gibson and 53 airmen lost their lives. Lawrence became one of the replacement pilots.
Lawrence’s first operation with the Dambusters was against U-Boats based at La Pallice. He flew with a more experienced crew to gain experience. He was Second Pilot, and he flew with them to familiarize him with operational procedures.
The first operation with his own crew was on the 27th August 1944. It was an attack on Brest. It didn’t start well. As soon as they set off his radio operator reported his wireless set was on fire. It was put out with fire extinguishers – and they flew on to their target.
He flew many significant operations. On a trip to attack the famous German ship the ‘Tirpitz’, as he was about to take off. Another plane lost control, swerved all around the airfield and missed his plane by about six inches. A lucky escape. The other plane crashed. Lawrence was involved two attacks on the Tirpitz.
And then came the next wave of the famous Dambuster raids on Germany. Lawrence was sent to hit the Arnsberg Viaduct on the 19th March 1945. It was 42 feet long, over the River Ruhr. His bomb was a massive 22,000lb, nicknamed ‘Grand Slam’. He hit the viaduct and destroyed it. He always said was proud of being part of the process to speed up the end of the war.
He was also sent to bomb Hitler’s hideaway, the ‘Eagle’s Nest’ at Berchtesgaden in Southern Germany. He felt this time, it was personal. They only inflicted minor damage on the hideaway, but he ensured a nearby SS barracks “caught a packet.”
Then he attacked Hamburg in early April 1945. There, he was attacked by a squad of Messerschmitt’s, but managed to escape and fly home.
He flew a total of 30 missions with the Dambusters. He was always terrified of crashing and being captured, knowing what the Nazis would do to him if they discovered he was Jewish.
At the end of the war, Lawrence was transferred to Transport Command Squadrons 51 and 53.
He was demobilized in 1946, so he volunteered for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and was flying Spitfires from RAF Hendon, Middlesex.
He missed the RAF so much that he rejoined in 1949. Then he flew various modern planes including jet fighters.
He was sent immediately out to Germany to be involved with the last few days of the Berlin Airlift, flying supplies into the beleaguered city.
In 1957, he moved to Photographic Reconnaissance and ironically, was posted to Germany.
In 1960, he went back to London to work for the Air Ministry. By 1961 he was promoted to Squadron Leader.
He retired from the RAF in 1964, having won many medals. He had flown 3,500 hours in 22 different types of planes.
Then he finally moved into the family advertising business – “better late than never.”
He immediately got his civil pilots’ license and part-owned a Piper Comanche which he flew until he was 93.
In 1995, he was invited back to Arnsberg by the townspeople, to be part of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the bombing – in the spirit of British / German relations. He gave a very moving speech next to the mass grave of the victims of the bombing. He made so many friends he was invited back to the town on many occasions and made frequent visits.
He spent his last years working for charities, especially the RAF Benevolent Fund. He also gave talks to current service personnel and members of the public, including school children.
He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by France in 2017.
Lawrence was a very keen Chelsea fan. He worked closely with the football club on their anti-Semitism campaign.
He was particularly active in the RAF ‘Jewish Hidden Heroes’ project started in 2018.
He absolutely loved the 1955 ‘Dambusters’ film starring Sir Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd.
He was asked about his role in the Dambusters. He said he was very proud – “but I didn’t do anything special.”
He was supposed to be the Guest of Honour at the Battle of Britain Gala in September 2021 but died just before the event.
Two Dambusters survive him. One is ‘Bomb Aimer’, George Johnson, aged 99. The other is pilot Arthur ‘Joppy’ Johnson of the RNZAF, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
RIP – Releasing Incendiary Power