Squadron Leader Larry Curtis flew more than 70 bombing operations during the Second World War and had the very unusual distinction for a wireless operator of earning two DFCs.
He had already completed two bomber tours when he arrived on No 617 Squadron in July 1943 as one of the replacements for the men lost on the Dam Busters raid. He joined the crew of the Australian Mickey Martin (later Air Marshal Sir Mick Martin), who was described by his CO, Leonard Cheshire, VC, as “the greatest bomber pilot of the war”.
Curtis flew on the squadron’s first bombing operation after the Dams raid, a low-level attack by eight Lancasters on the Dortmund-Ems Canal. The new CO was shot down and several aircraft were badly damaged. Low cloud thwarted those who got through, and Martin and his crew made 13 attempted attacks before releasing their bomb; the canal, however, remained intact.
Throughout that winter No 617 attacked precision targets, including the V-1 flying bomb sites in the Pas de Calais. On the night of February 12 1944 Curtis took off on his twelfth sortie with Martin. The target was the Antheor viaduct on the vital coastal rail link between Italy and the south of France, and it was at the extreme range of the Lancasters. On arrival, Cheshire and Martin were to illuminate the target from low level to allow the rest of the force to drop their bombs.
Situated in the hills, Antheor was a particularly difficult target; two previous attempts had failed. Martin dived on the viaduct and, just as his bomb aimer pressed the bomb release, anti-aircraft fire hit his Lancaster, knocking out two engines and seriously wounding two of the crew. The bombs had failed to release, the bomb doors could not be closed and Martin struggled to prevent the heavy aircraft hitting the sea.
With no hope of returning to England, the crew headed for north Africa. After Curtis had sent an SOS, raising an advanced fighter airfield on Corsica, Martin altered course. Curtis remained in wireless contact, but when he requested that a doctor be on standby, he learned that none was available. The crew turned for Sardinia and Curtis made contact with an American airfield there.
With the bomb release circuits destroyed, the crew managed to prod some of the bombs away using a ruler, and the aircraft was able to gain some height. Martin made an emergency landing at Elmas Field, where it was discovered that the bomb aimer, Bob Hay, a veteran of the Dams raid, had been killed. Whilst on Sardinia, Curtis flew one or two unofficial bombing sorties with an American squadron. A few weeks later it was announced that he had been awarded a Bar to the DFC he had earned for earlier operations.
After the Antheor operation Martin was rested and Curtis went on to fly with other pilots who had flown on the Dams raid, in particular the American Joe McCarthy. He was also made the squadron’s signal leader. During early 1944 the squadron was pioneering Cheshire’s low-level marking technique, and Curtis attacked a number of pinpoint targets in France. He was involved in the highly successful attack against the Michelin plant at Clermont Ferrand.
On June 5 he took part in the brilliant “spoof” raid, which simulated an amphibious landing in the Pas de Calais, and was timed to coincide with the actual D-Day landings in Normandy. Over the next few weeks Curtis attacked many of the large V-1 storage sites in northern France using the 12,000lb “Tallboy” bomb.
On September 15 No 617 flew to an airfield near Murmansk to position for an attack against the German battleship Tirpitz, which was sheltering in a fjord in the north of Norway. The attack was thwarted by the ship’s smoke screen. Two months later, when the ship (labelled “The Beast” by Churchill) had moved further south, another attack was mounted from Scotland, and on this occasion the battleship was sunk. It was Curtis’s 38th and final operation with No 617.
Lawrence Wesley Curtis was born at Wednesbury on May 10 1921 and educated at Dudley Park School before spending four years at Dudley and Staffordshire Technical College. A keen sportsman and cyclist, he was also a Rover scout until he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in November 1939.
After training as a wireless operator/air gunner, Curtis was posted to No 149 Squadron, flying Wellingtons. He attacked Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Brest, and on one occasion, when searchlights coned his aircraft, the pilot was forced to dive to low level. The aircraft was hit by flak, and the damaged bomber returned at low level to land at the nearest airfield with just five minutes’ fuel remaining.
After 30 operations Curtis was rested, and spent time as an instructor at a bomber training unit. During this period he flew on the first Thousand Bomber raid to Cologne when, in a repeat of his experience over Brest, his pilot was forced to dive to roof-top height to escape the searchlights and anti-aircraft fire. He was commissioned in January 1943 and, after converting to the Halifax, joined No 158 Squadron. During an attack against Berlin in March 1943 his aircraft was hit by flak over the target.
All four engines stopped and the aircraft spiralled towards the ground. As the crew prepared to bale out, one engine picked up and the pilot was able to recover and start the remaining three. After attacking other heavily-defended German cities, Curtis was awarded a DFC for his “high courage and devotion to duty”.
Having left No 617 he was posted to No 246 Squadron, equipped with the new York transport aircraft. He spent the next year with various Transport Command units before being released from the RAF in May 1946.
Curtis studied textiles at Leeds University before working in the wool trade at Bradford. He established his own company, Curtis Wool Holdings, which he managed with his three sons. The company became the largest crossbred wool processing and trading company in the northern hemisphere, and in 1984 received a Queen’s Award for Exports. Curtis retired in 1984.
With a passion for motor racing, Curtis was much involved in amateur motor sport, taking part in many hill climbs and sprints. He remained competitive until he was in his late sixties, when he was still driving a Chevron which had raced at Le Mans.
In his mid-seventies he decided to learn French, and he became sufficiently competent to be awarded a certificate allowing him to act as a tour guide, a role in which he continued until shortly before his death.
Curtis was a staunch member of the 617 Squadron Association and a member of its committee. He remained a close friend of Micky Martin, naming his second son Martin, and made a number of visits to Sardinia to visit the grave of Bob Hay, his bomb aimer killed over Antheor.
Larry Curtis married, in 1945, Barbara Craven, who survives him with their three sons.”