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Frederick Michael Spafford (1918–1943)

by Eric Fry

This article was published:

Frederick Michael Spafford (1918-1943), by unknown photographer, 1943

Frederick Michael Spafford (1918-1943), by unknown photographer, 1943

Australian War Memorial, UK0154

Frederick Michael Spafford (1918-1943), air force officer, was born on 16 June 1918 in North Adelaide, only child of James Michael Burke (d.1923), tannery foreman, and his wife Vida Muriel, née Spafford (d.1926), both South Australian born. Little evidence survives of Fred's childhood and education. On 19 September 1929 he was adopted by his maternal grandfather Frederick Blaker Spafford, a 70-year-old ironworker, and given his surname. In time, he worked as a fitter.

On 14 September 1940 Spafford enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. His grandfather had died on 25 March that year and Fred named his uncle Walter James Spafford (1884-1962), South Australia's director of agriculture, as his next of kin. After training in wireless at Ballarat, Victoria, and in air gunnery at Evans Head, New South Wales, he arrived in England, under the Empire Air Training Scheme, in August 1941 as a sergeant air gunner.

Sent to No.5 Bomber Group, Royal Air Force, in the East Midlands, Spafford spent short periods with a number of units. In May 1942 he was posted to No.50 Squadron, R.A.F., with which he flew in Manchesters and later Lancasters as a specialist bomb-aimer. The four-engined Lancaster bomber became the principal weapon in Britain's air offensive against Germany by night. Following fifteen sorties, Spafford was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal in October for his skill and 'praiseworthy example'. He was commissioned in January 1943. Having survived his tour of thirty operations, he could have expected a respite from combat, but in March he was invited to join an elite R.A.F. squadron, No.617, being formed for a special mission against dams in the Ruhr and Weser valleys. (Sir) Barnes Wallis had designed a new type of mine or 'bouncing bomb' able to skip over defensive torpedo-nets and explode at depth against the wall of a dam.

On the night of 16 May Spafford flew with Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who led a formation of nineteen Lancasters in attacks on the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams. Bombs had to be released at the dangerously low height of 60 ft (18 m) at a set speed, line and distance from the wall of each targeted dam. Gibson regarded Spafford (whose nickname was 'Spam') as 'the best bomb-aimer there is'. The Mohne and Eder dams were successfully breached, flooding a large stretch of country. The daring and spectacular 'Dam Buster' raid was acclaimed as a triumph, boosting allied morale. Interviewed by the press and on the radio, Spafford described the secrecy and hazards of No.617's training for low-level flying, the elaborate briefings, and the attack which was carried out in bright moonlight against enemy fire. Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross and, among the other decorations presented at Buckingham Palace, Spafford received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Five ft 8½ ins (174 cm) tall, stockily built and square shouldered, with a fair complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair, he had an open face and wore his cap at a rakish angle. Crew mates spoke of his nonchalance in the face of danger.

Despite high losses in the dams raid—nine of the Lancasters which had set out did not return—No.617 Squadron was kept in commission for similar tasks. On the night of 15/16 September 1943 the British attacked the Dortmund-Ems Canal, using substantially the same tactics. In patchy fog and poor visibility, and against alert defences, five of the eight attacking aircraft were shot down. Hit by flak, Spafford's plane caught fire, crashed, and blew apart on the ground. There were no survivors. Spafford was posthumously promoted flying officer.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Gibson, Enemy Coast Ahead (Lond, 1946)
  • P. Brickhill, The Dam Busters (Lond, 1951)
  • C. Webster and N. Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939-1945, vol 2 (Lond, 1961)
  • E. Fry, An Airman Far Away (Syd, 1993)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 Apr, 22, 28 May, 9 Sept, 1 Oct 1943.

Citation details

Eric Fry, 'Spafford, Frederick Michael (1918–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frederick Michael Spafford (1918-1943), by unknown photographer, 1943

Frederick Michael Spafford (1918-1943), by unknown photographer, 1943

Australian War Memorial, UK0154