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The Dambusters – A Calgary Story

It was 80 years ago today that one of the most famous events of World War II took place. On the night of 16 May 1943, 19 Avro Lancasters took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to bomb three dams in the Ruhr Valley: The Möhne, Eder and Sorpe. It was called Operation Chastise, better known today as the Dambusters Raid.

The operation was led by Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson (1918–1944). The raid turned Gibson a legendary figure in British history. His biographer, Richard Morris, wrote: "The story of 617 Squadron's breaching of the dams has joined a group of historically based tales – like King Arthur, or Robin Hood – which defy all efforts at scholarly revision." Like many boys, I grew up watching the iconic 1955 film The Dam Busters, starring Richard Todd as Gibson, and marvelling at the heroism of the airmen who partook in the raid. Of course, the actual history of the operation was much more tragic than was depicted in the film. Though the purpose of this piece isn't to analyse the raid, I highly recommend Max Hastings's 2019 history Chastise for a realistic appraisal of the mission.

There will undoubtedly be many articles written this month to commemorate the Dams Raid. In this space, I would like to draw attention to a little-known story about the Dambusters and Calgary. Although the raid has gone down as a monumental event in British history, it was undoubtedly a co-operative Commonweath effort. Of the 130 airmen who flew in Chastise, 30 were Canadian, and six of those were from Alberta. Indeed, one of Gibson's crew, P/O Harlo "Terry" Taerum was a Calgarian.

Few are likely aware that Gibson visited Calgary. Following the raid, from mid-August to early-December 1943, Gibson toured Canada and the United States. The tour began when Gibson left England on the Queen Mary on 4 August as part of Winston Churchill's party that was travelling to the First Quebec Conference in Quebec City. The ship arrived in Halifax on 9 August, and then the group took the train to Quebec, arriving on the 11th. For more information about the full itinerary of Gibson's tour, see here.

Gibson arrived at RCAF Currie in Calgary at 6:00 on Saturday, 11 September. A platform was set up where Gibson gave a speech to the crowd of civilians that was allowed onto the base. Those who joined Gibson on the platform were: 

-Mayor Andrew Davison

-Air Vice-Marshal George Howsam

-Hilda Bjelland, Terry Taerum's mother

-Col. Greer

-Lt. G. R. McKay, RCN

-G/C D. Iron

-S/L C. W. Gordon

It's unclear whether Howsam was posted in Calgary or whether he visited exclusively for the event. After Gibson's speech, he gave a radio address on CFCN from the control tower. Gibson then got in a car and was given a parade of sorts from Currie to the Palliser Hotel. The route was:

-from Currie, north on Crowchild to 33rd Ave

-east on 33rd Ave to Vercheres St

-north on Vercheres to Premier Way

-east on Premier to Montcalm Crescent

-north on Montcalm to Frontenac Ave

-east on Frontenac to 8th St

-north on 8th St to Royal Ave

-east on Royal to 5th St

-south on 5th St to 26th Ave

-east on 26th Ave to 2nd St

-north on 2nd St to 18th Ave

-east on 18th Ave to 1st St

-north on 1st Street to the Palliser

Below is an image of the route, as well as two photos of Gibson at Currie:

At the Palliser, a dinner and dance followed. At 8:30 that evening, Gibson gave a radio interview on CFAC from the top floor of the Herald Building.

The next morning, Gibson drove with a group to Banff and spent the day there. The group included Kaye Vaughn Leach (1925–1995, later Dillon), who also appears to have been Gibson's date the previous evening. Before the dinner Saturday, Kaye entertained a group at her parents' house (925 Royal Ave). The others who went to Banff with Gibson were Cynthia Staples (George McMahon's sister-in-law), Barbara Graham, F/L Frank deBrisay Walker, and LAC Lindsay Gardiner. Walker (d. 1908–1998), a Montrealer, was accompanying Gibson on his trip. After the war he became an advertising executive. Sunday night Gibson went to the home of Mrs Taerum and spent several hours with her. Miraculously, Mrs Taerum's house at 334 15 Ave SW still stands (see picture below).

Gibson stayed over in Calgary Sunday night and took the train to Vancouver Monday morning. Below is all of the coverage of Gibson's visit:

As with many war stories, this one ends in tragedy. Guy Gibson left Calgary by train on Monday, 13 September. Four days later, on Friday the 17th, Terry Taerum was killed on operations while attacking the Dortund-Ems Canal. Exactly a year later, on 19 September 1944, Gibson too was killed.