F/L John Fraser, perhaps best known for his participation as one of the Dam Busters, as well as a part of “The Great Escape”, was an RCAF bomb-aimer from Nanaimo, BC. Prior to being selected to join No. 617 Squadron, he had completed a tour of 30 operations with No. 50 Squadron.
John Hopgood ( “Hoppy” ) was F/L Fraser’s pilot. He was selected from the No. 106 Squadron, having served there with Guy Gibson, Wing Commander of 617 Squadron.
“Fraser and Hopgood were part of Formation No. 1; Fraser was Hopgood’s bomb-aimer…like all the attacking aircraft, Lancaster AJ-M flew to the Mohne Dam at an extremely low level. At one point, the rear gunner, Tony Burcher, saw an arc of high tension cable above his line of vision. “It seemed to drop away behind the aircraft as Hopgood gained height. ‘Right under the bloody things!’ exclaimed the front gunner. ‘Sorry about that,’ said Hopgood.
Soon afterwards, AJ-M was raked by ground fire. Burcher was hit in the groin and stomach. A searchlight blazed onto the aircraft but Burcher shot it out. Then a shell burst alongside and Hopgood feathered an engine that had been set on fire.
As well as Burcher being wounded, John Minchin, the wireless operator, had been hit in the leg and the front gunner did not respond over the intercom, having been seriously injured or killed. The flight engineer shouted, ‘Christ, look at the blood’ as he held a handkerchief to his pilot’s head. ‘I’m okay,’ shouted Hopgood. ‘Carry on and don’t worry.’
It was still an hour to the Mohne Dam and F/Lt Hopgood could certainly have returned to base with honour. But his character and determination was typical of those chosen for No. 617 Squadron and he pressed on to the target.
AJ-M was the second aircraft to attack. John Fraser recalled, ‘Gibson got away with it because he had the element of surprise. They (the guns in the towers) crossed up on us and the light flak battery came in on the side. We had to fly through the middle of it. I released the bomb. We were put on fire in the starboard wing. The one engine came on fire immediately. We flew on and the pilot gave the order to abandon the aircraft within about 25 seconds after we passed over the dam. I knelt facing forward over the escape hatch and I saw that the trees looked awful damn close. I thought there was only one thing to do and that was to pull the rip cord and let the pilot chute go out first and then let it pull the chute out and me after it and that’s what I did. I rolled out and the tail wheel whizzed by my ear. I swung to the vertical and within 2 or 3 seconds I touched the ground. While I was in the air, before I touched the ground, the aircraft crashed about probably 1500 or 2000 feet away from me.’
‘Get out you damn fool,’ Hopgood shouted to the rear gunner, ‘If only I could get another 300 ft. I can’t get any more height.’ He was struggling to get enough altitude so that some of his crew could escape. He knew that he would not survive. Burcher was struck by the tail plane as he jumped from the crew door. His back was broken but he survived. A voice overheard on the squadron radio lamented, ‘Poor old Hoppy.’
The five crew members killed were pilot F/LT J.V. Hopgood DFC, flight engineer Sgt. C. Brennan from Calgary, wireless operator Sgt J.W. Minchin, gunner P/O G.H. Gregory, DFM, and navigator F/O Kenneth Earnshaw RCAF from Bashaw, Alberta.” (Bomber Command Museum of Canada)
“John Fraser found himself in a wheat field. He hid his parachute in a culvert and at dawn watched from a hiding place as hundreds of Germans came to see what had happened to the Mohne Dam. He snuck through the cordon that enemy soldiers had put in place around the area and headed towards Holland. After ten days he was captured, only 30 miles from the border.
He spent a week in solitary confinement. His spirit remained unbroken however, his interrogation record reporting comments such as, ‘Fraser refused to give details of the practice location’ and ‘Fraser is proud of his involvement in the Dams attack.’
F/Lt Fraser spent the next two years in four different P.O.W. camps, one of them being Stalag Luft III where he played a role in ‘The Great Escape.” (Bomber Command Museum of Canada) This was the role of “penguin” in the construction of the tunnels, a role which involved him inserting a bag with drawstrings attached into each trouser leg, filled up with the excavations from the tunnels. He would then casually walk around the compound, gently releasing the drawstring and therefore allowing the contents of the bags to be scuffed into the dirt as he walked. This was important, as the soil colour from the tunnels was different from that in the compound, and would have drawn attention if it had been found.