Born in 1920, Lawrence “Benny” Goodman joined the Royal Air Force in 1940 and the new, but legendary, 617 “Dambusters” Squadron in 1944, as a pilot with the rank of flight lieutenant. He took part in 30 operations with the squadron, attacking everything from U-boat and E-boat pens to viaducts, railway bridges, dams, battleships and even Adolf Hitler’s infamous ‘Eagles Nest’ at Berchtesgaden. He left the RAF in 1964 as a squadron leader. Now in his mid-90s, he spoke to History of War in issue 32 about his extraordinary flying experiences.
What did you know of 617 Squadron before you joined?
I heard about 617 and Operation Chastise [the “Dambusters Raid”] when I was in the RAF in 1943 and we all thought what a wonderful mission it was. I joined the RAF at the end of 1940 and went to an EFTS [Elementary Flying Training School] at Peterborough and then went on an instructor’s course at Reading. 617 was my first operational squadron, which was quite unusual.
How did you find flying Lancaster bombers?
I enjoyed it. They were a great aircraft and easy to fly. It was a beautifully designed aeroplane. It always did its job and could be modified to carry the Grand Slam bomb. The bomb bay doors were taken away and other small modifications were made so we could carry it, but the Lancaster itself didn’t murmur on takeoff. Once it got airborne it was a slower climb but it responded to everything. I did 30 operations on a Lancaster and on every one, the aircraft responded exactly as it should have done. Sometimes it was damaged but it took it in its stride.
What was your role in attacks on the Tirpitz in October 1944 and how did it feel to encounter a German battleship?
It was rather small from about 20,000 feet. As far as the pilot was concerned, the bomb aimer dictated your course. Once we’d started the run in he controlled you as he was focussed on the target. He adjusted my course from his bombsight so that we could try to keep within one or two degrees of the direction he wanted.
My raid was the second attempt to sink the Tirpitz and it was rather cloudy. We had a great deal of trouble spotting the ship, big though it was. It was not only cloudy but the Germans put up a smoke screen. My bomb aimer finally saw it, but the trip itself was called off. Although he dropped the bomb I don’t think it had much effect. We didn’t encounter any fighters but we later learned that they watched us going over the airfield and decided that we were transport or cargo planes of the Luftwaffe carrying supplies, so they didn’t bother.
On 12 January 1945, you were attacked by German fighter planes while dropping Tallboy bombs on submarine pens at Bergen. What are your memories of that experience?
We did come under fire sometimes and some trips, like Bergen, were bad. It was a daylight raid and we were after the ports there. We had a fighter escort but they went down to deal with the heavy flak. As they did, a mixed squadron of Focke-Wulf 190s and Me109s came up and played a little bit of havoc with us. Several of the squadron were shot down or damaged but we did bomb. When you’re in the moment quite a lot of things go through your mind. The main thing is, particularly as the pilot of the aircraft, you must keep cool and make sure everybody else does, but I never encountered any panic among the crew ever. Discipline was maintained because you had to, you were trained for that. We were pretty lucky.
How did it feel to be followed by a Me262 fighter jet on 9 April 1945 and what was your knowledge of jet aircraft before that?
When we bombed Hamburg on a daylight raid, about 10-20 minutes after we left the target we saw a Me262, which was the latest jet fighter. I’d never seen one before and I think very few of us had. I must say it was more than a surprise to have my flight engineer nudge me in the ribs and nod his head towards the starboard side. I didn’t look the first time as I thought he was indicating the fuel gauges. He did it again more vigorously and I looked up and was amazed to see the latest German jet on our starboard wing. That didn’t please me to say the least and several things went through my mind such as “What do I do?” We had an evasion tactic called the ‘Five Group Corkscrew’ but this aircraft was sitting by us and I’m sure his ability to corkscrew in the air as a fighter would have been far more than flying a bomber so I dismissed that immediately. We had no mid-upper turret; he could see that and knew he wasn’t going to be fired on. He just sat there for what felt like hours but the flight engineer later told me it was just under a minute. There was no comradeship in the air, we didn’t salute each other or wave. He was staring at us and we back at him. I was wondering what the hell to do of course. Fortunately, I don’t know whether he ran out of ammunition or not but he had been firing at another aircraft of our squadron and hadn’t hit that either. He was either a new pilot or new to the jet but as far as we were concerned it was a lucky escape.
What was your role in the attack on ‘The Eagle’s Nest’ – Hitler’s mountain retreat near Berchtesgaden – on 25 April 1945? Did it feel symbolic?
We had no idea it was going to be the last operation of the war but I know that we certainly destroyed the SS barracks at Berchtesgaden. We were the first of eight aircraft to bomb so anything could have happened behind us but I don’t think Berchtesgaden itself was damaged. Certainly the barracks were shattered as far as we could see. There was quite a lot of destruction, I don’t quite know who hit it but I would never claim any individual success, we always did it as a squadron. It didn’t feel symbolic at the time but we realised what it meant to Hitler and the German people having it bombed.
What are your thoughts on Bomber Command’s wartime legacy?
I think Bomber Command had a very unfortunate legacy after the war because people criticised politicians. Therefore it bounced back on us because we’d bombed civilians, and it left a nasty taste in a lot of people’s mouths. I went to the unveiling of a statue to do with Bomber Command at the RAF church on the Strand and people threw things at us and I was horrified. We weren’t very popular, which I think was a bit unfair considering that the Germans had destroyed British cities first. My view is that we had an excellent C-in-C in Sir Arthur Harris. He was the sort of man that was absolutely needed for a large force like Bomber Command. Now that’s the opinion of a 20-something as I was then. We really knew, tough though it was sometimes, that he knew what he was doing. We say we had faith in our leaders.