Group Captain Willie Tait, DSO and three Bars, DFC and Bar

Group Captain Willie Tait
Master bomber who flew more than 100 sorties and led the famous 617 Squadron in the final destruction of the Tirpitz
One of the most experienced pilots and leaders in wartime Bomber Command, Willie Tait commanded 617 Squadron, of “Dam Busters” fame, for the three attacks it carried out on the German battleship Tirpitz in the autumn of 1944. Though she in fact fired her guns in anger only once during the entire war — in a raid on Spitsbergen in September 1943 — this great ship had presented a menace to Arctic convoys from the moment that she had been moved from the Baltic to Norway in January 1942.

For three years her mere presence in a Norwegian fjord tied down precious naval units — capital ships and aircraft carriers — which might have been used to alter the balance of naval power in other theatres of war. The mere hint that Tirpitz might be at sea led to the tragic losses sustained by the Murmansk-bound convoy PQ17 in the summer of 1942. Its ships were ordered to scatter, and 12 were sunk by U-boats.

The destruction of the Tirpitz therefore became the almost obsessional goal of the naval and air force staffs of Britain, the Soviet Union and even the United States. By the summer of 1944 a dozen attacks had been made on her from the air and by submarines. A Soviet submarine had claimed torpedo hits on her. The Royal Navy’s X-craft midget submarines had laid explosive charges under her hull which had incapacitated her for several months. In one of a number of raids by the Fleet Air Arm, Barracuda bombers and Hellcat fighters had bombed and strafed her, killing and wounding 400 of her crew. But the 2,000lb armour-piercing bombs of the Barracudas had failed to inflict mortal damage. Repaired after each attack on her, Tirpitz continued to pose a grave threat to the Russian convoy lifeline.

By mid1944 the 12,000lb deep penetration “Tallboy” devised by Barnes Wallace (with whose “bouncing bombs” 617 had breached the Möhne and Eder dams in 1943) at last provided the RAF with the means to administer the battleship’s quietus. 617 Squadron under Tait and his predecessor Leonard Cheshire, had already achieved spectacular results with the Tallboy against the allegedly impregnable concrete roofs of U-boat pens and rocket launch sites.

But Tirpitz’s heavily defended anchorage, nearly 1,500 miles distant inside the Arctic Circle at Kaa Inlet, off Altenfjord, lay beyond the range even of the Lancaster, when carrying such a heavy weapon as the Tallboy. The attack therefore would have to be launched from Russia. In September 1944 617 Squadron and the Lancasters of 9 Squadron, which had also used the Tallboy, flew to an airfield in the Dvina River, 20 miles north west of Archangel and only 600 miles from Altenfjord.

From there, after several days grounded in primitive accommodation by vile weather, on September 15, the weather aircraft reported clear skies over Altenfjord, and the 27 Lancasters of the two squadrons, which were under Tait’s overall control as master bomber, lifted off and set course for their target. As they approached Altenford Tirpitz could clearly be seen within her encircling girdle of antisubmarine nets.

But the Kaa Inlet was ringed by nearly 100 smoke pots which could completely cover it in eight minutes. Wreaths of smoke were already obscuring the ship with the leading aircraft, Tait’s, still two minutes from its bombing point. By the time they were over the target Tait’s bomb aimer had only the memory of the position of the tip of Tirpitz’s topmast to aim at. The remainder of the force bombed on gun-flashes occasionally glimpsed through the smoke, through which pale flickers of light showed Tallboys exploding — but where?

Tait had a moment of hope when a plume of darker smoke jetted skywards through the pallid covering pall, but was forced to dismiss it moments later as a Tallboy striking the shore. Bitterly disappointed, the airmen returned to their Russian base, and thence to the UK.

A second attack in October, this time launched direct from Lossie-mouth since the Tirpitz had been moved to Tromsø, 200 miles south of Altenfjord, and was now within range, was thwarted, not by the smokepots, but by a thick belt of cloud which moved in from the sea as the Lancasters approached.

Finally, on November 15, Tait led 617, again accompanied by 9 Squadron, to Tromsø for a third time. Intelligence had warned that the Germans had sent a fighter wing to the Bardu-foss air base nearby, for the specific purpose of shooting down the raiders, and heavy losses were anticipated. As the Lancasters approached, the squadrons’ airgunners scanned the sky nervously for the first sign of the expected fighter assault. In the event neither the fighters nor the smoke materialised. The Germans had installed the smokepots but had not yet primed them. At last Tirpitz was at the RAF’s mercy.

Tait’s Tallboy was the first to go down, striking the battleship’s foredeck after a free fall of 30 seconds, and detonating with a huge flash. Further bombs wreaked havoc, blowing up the battleship’s magazines and sending a pall of smoke jetting 1,000 feet into the air. As Tait led his bombers homewards, Tirpitz was developing a list. Not long afterwards she capsized, but the water under her was not deep enough to permit her to sink, and at the end of the war she was still upside down in the fjord, with the bottom of her hull protruding from the water like a gigantic whale, with hundreds of corpses trapped inside her.

Only after the war did Tait and his men learn that the November attack had been unnecessary. The bomb from Tait’s Lancaster on September 15, 1944, had, in fact, blown a huge hole in Tirpitz’s foredeck. She had been towed to Tromsø only to be moored as a floating fortress. From that moment her fighting days were over. But proof of her final elimination caused an outpouring of relief in high places. Telegrams from King George VI and Winston Churchill were just two among the flood of congratulations that poured into 617 Squadron’s mess at Woodhall Spa.

James Brian Tait (known throughout the RAF as Willie) was born in 1916 and educated at Wellingborough School. He joined the RAF as a cadet at Cranwell from where he passed out in 1936.

He took part in some of the early bombing raids of the war including a Whitley sortie over the Alps to Turin with 51 Squadron in June 1940, the first RAF raid on Italy. He was commanding 51 Squadron based on Malta on February 10, 1941, when paratroopers were dropped in southern Italy as part of Operation Colossus, the first airborne assault by British forces in the Second World War. The objective, the aqueduct near Tragino, was destroyed, though all the paratroopers were captured. Other remarkable raids included participation (though he was at that time “resting” in a training squadron) in the 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne in May 1942.

Over the next few years he accumulated an experience of operations that was almost unrivalled in Bomber Command. He became a master bomber in 5 Group in May 1944 and controlled a force of 200 Lancasters which bombed Cherbourg and destroyed a coastal gun battery threatening the American landings at Utah Beach on D-Day.

He assumed command of 617 Squadron in July 1944 in succession to Leonard Cheshire, VC. To many it might have seemed a hard act to follow, but Tait, by then with three DSOs and a DFC, soon won the squadron’s respect for his laconic, thoughtful style of leadership, and through his accurate low-level marking of targets for the bombers in a Mustang. On one daylight raid when haze obscured his smoke markers, he flew low over the target and radioed to the bombers: “Aim at me”, waggling his wings so the sunlight would flash on them and provide a reference point.

In a series of Tallboy raids on V2 rocket launch sites and V1 flying bomb storage dumps in July, 617 wreaked huge destruction under Tait’s cool leadership on Hitler’s Vergeltungs-waffen programme. Concrete U-boat and E-boat pens suffered a like fate, the myth of their impregnability being cruelly exposed by Wallis’s revolutionary bombs (and the pinpoint accuracy of Tait’s marking and 617’s bombing).

Not long after the destruction of the Tirpitz Tait was stood down from operations, and his skills were applied to training Canadian bomber crews. He had been in the front line for almost five years, and had flown 101 sorties. His well-earned tally of four DSOs and two DFCs was unrivalled.

Tait remained in the RAF after the war. He was on the staff in Cyprus in 1956 when the island was one of the air bases for the air operations supporting the Suez campaign. Among his commands was the bomber base RAF Coningsby. In the late 1950s he was involved in the rewriting of Queen’s Regulations for the RAF, for which he was appointed ADC to the Queen in 1959. He retired from the RAF in 1968.

After taking a computer programming course he joined ICL for whom he worked as a technical representative, travelling in Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia. Next, after a period turning round an ailing haulage company, he joined Scottish Widows, for whom he worked as an investment adviser until 1981.

His wife Betty, whom he had met as a WAAF officer and married in 1945, died in 1995. He is survived by a son and two daughters.

Group Captain Willie Tait, DSO and three Bars, DFC and Bar, wartime bomber pilot, was born on December 9, 1916. He died on August 31, 2007, aged 90

Another true legend gone

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