“On my right was John Hopgood in M-Mother, that grand Englishman whom we call “Hoppy”; one of the greatest guys in the world…he had no nerves, he loved flying….I should say, “Hoppy” was probably the best pilot on the Squadron.”
Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC DSO & Bar DFC & Bar
Simon Atack has produced a most striking and emotive painting portraying the last seconds of RAF Lancaster ED925 AJ-M (Mother) under the command of Flt. Lt. John Vere Hopgood DFC & Bar as he made his ill-fated attack on the Mohne Dam in the early hours of 17th May 1943.
Simon Atack writes:
“I have been inspired many times to portray human stories and examples of outstanding courage. Few match that of 21-year-old Flt. Lt. John Vere Hopgood DFC & Bar and his gallant crew of AJ-M Mother. It is a graphic example of outstanding courage and selflessness so often displayed by that generation of young people during World War Two.
Here was a crippled aircraft flown for an hour by a seriously wounded skipper with badly wounded crew. “Hoppy” pressed on with his attack on the Mohne Dam, flying all the way into the storms of relentless German fire. Right to the end, he fought to keep his blazing aircraft flying to a height that could give his crew a hope of escape. Three managed to bail out; two survived. Two families and their respective generations were saved by John Hopgood’s selfless devotion to duty”.
As Gibson’s second In Command on Operation Chastise, Flt. Lt. John Hopgood was part of the leading element of three Avro Lancasters. He was flying alongside Wg. Cdr. Guy Gibson in ED932 AJ-G (George) and Flt. Lt. Harold ‘Mick’ Martin in ED909 AJ-P (Popsie) in the first wave of nine ‘cooler’ aircraft detailed to attack the Mohne Dam.
Flying at tree-top height to avoid enemy radar and fighters, the flight of three Lancasters ran into an unexpectedly intense searchlight and flak defence en route over Holland, just one hour’s flying time from their target. AJ-M was coned in the beams and raked by enemy fire. Her port fuselage took the brunt and her wing was severely damaged; her port outer Merlin engine was hit, causing oil smoke to stream behind her.
Worse however was suffered by her crew.
Burcher the rear gunner was hit by shell splinters in the stomach and groin; Minchin the wireless operator had one of his legs almost severed by a cannon shell. Gregory, the front gunner was either killed or so seriously wounded that he was unable to answer his intercom or operate his turret.
Hopgood had sustained a severe head wound. As Brennan his Flight Engineer tried to staunch the blood flow he was heard to say, “Christ, look at the blood….”
Hopgood replied, “I’m OK. Just carry on and don’t worry.”
No thought was given to turning back. Nobody could have blamed them if they had done, but they pressed on, trimming the throttles to compensate for the loss of power from the damaged port outer engine and holding perfect formation with Gibson and Martin. All three Lancasters reached the dam.
Gibson made the first attack with his Upkeep Mine exploding underwater against the dam face. As Martin circled in the distance, awaiting his order to attack, Hopgood gathered himself for his, the second, bombing run-in.
Now, with full knowledge of the RAF’s method of attack, the German gunners defending the approaches to the dam knew exactly where to concentrate their fire. Equipped with 20mm four-barrel “Flakvierling” anti-aircraft cannons, they poured thousands of rounds of tracer fire down the reservoir into Hopgood’s path.
Into a blizzard of enemy fire, Hopgood fought to get his Lancaster down to the point where his twin spot lamps met their figure-of-eight, 60ft off the surface of the water. Further hits tore into her fuselage; no fire returned from her front turret. She became heavy on the trim but Hopgood held her down to the release point. John Fraser, his bomb-aimer, called ‘BOMB GONE!’…
As the 5-ton mine skimmed the surface for the first time in a plume of spray, Hopgood’s Lancaster took the full force of a 20mm cannon burst right into her starboard wing. Engines and fuel cell were hit and the starboard wing immediately caught fire. The Lancaster would have swung violently under torque as the trim fell to the straining portside engines. Hopgood used all his remaining strength to prevent the Lancaster from dipping a wing into the water. His left hand on the column, he desperately tried to correct the trim-wheel with his right. Still taking fire from the twin towers and from a third battery protecting the dam, Hopgood, his starboard wing ablaze, cleared the dam top.
And so did his mine.
Released just a moment too late, it bounced over the crest and fell deep into the lee of the dam to destroy the power station in an enormous explosion.
For Hopgood there was only one course left. He ordered his crew to prepare to abandon aircraft. He would have known what would happen next. He opened the throttles to summon all the power that his doomed aircraft could give. With little hope remaining he gave his final order to jump. The hydraulics had failed so Burcher hand cranked his rear turret and released the door as Minchin dragged himself the length of the fuselage. Burcher helped the badly injured Minchin clip on his parachute, hauled him to the rear escape hatch and pushed him clear, pulling the rip cord of the parachute as he fell. Minchin’s chute failed to deploy in time and he did not survive the descent.
Fraser and Burcher, knowing the height they had would give little chance of their chutes opening in time, pulled their chutes inside the Lancaster. Fraser made a successful escape but before Burcher could jump there was a terrific explosion and he was thrown out; he hit the tailplane and broke his back.
At a mere two hundred feet above the ground, they were two of the lowest successful bailouts during the war. Both he and Fraser would become POWs for the remainder of the war.
As they fell into clear space, M-Mother’s blazing wing collapsed and the aircraft fell, taking Hopgood and his remaining crew down with her.
Hopgood was just 21 years old.
Simon Atack offers:
“I believe if ever a man deserved the highest award for valour, then it was John Hopgood. Guy Gibson justly deserved his award, but it’s hard to find a more worthy candidate for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. I sincerely wish that my painting “Hopgood’s Courageous Run” will be viewed as my humble and respectful portrayal of his Lancaster’s attack and an historically accurate testament to the courage and sacrifice of Gibson’s 2nd In Command.
Just read his story. Honour his memory. Be proud of this young British Lion”.
Copyright Image and Text Simon W. Atack