Dambusters tribute moves wartime engineer to tears

Lancaster bomber over Derbyshire
Lancaster bomber over Derbyshire
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This week marked the 70th anniversary of 617 squadron’s legendary ‘Dambusters’ raid against Germany in the Second World War.

To mark the occasion, two Lancaster bombers swooped through the Derbyshire Dales and thousands of people came out to witness the event at Derwent Dam – where the bouncing bomb was tested – and at the Chatsworth Estate.

For Tansley resident Sarah Needham, though, who witnessed the spectacular at Chatsworth, the flyover had an extra significance as it was the first time she had seen a Lancaster since 1945 – when she used to inspect such warplanes before combat.

Sarah said: “The flyover was really overwhelming for me and brought back so many memories of a wonderful time in my life.

“It even made me cry a little bit as it had been years since I had seen one of those beautiful planes”

Sarah, 87, joined the war effort in 1943, hoping that she could “get it finished up quickly” so she could be with her sweetheart, Tansley resident Arthur Toplis, who was serving in North Africa at the time.

As an engineer she inspected many aeroplanes, including Lancaster bomber before they took to the skies.

Sarah joined the war aged 17 and was stationed all over the UK during her service.

“I loved working with the planes,” said Sarah. “We used to have our heads in engines all day, then at night time we would dance and sing.”

Plane inspectors would often be put to the test by the pilots, though.

“I had just given the all-clear for a plane, when this pilot from New Zealand approached me and asked if I was certain the plane was safe,” said Sarah.

“I assured him that it was and he said: ‘well in that case you wouldn’t mind coming up with me for a test flight.’”

Excitedly, Sarah went up into the sky with the pilot and was shown an array of stunts. But suddenly, the pilot slumped in his chair and made no movements.

Sarah said: “I tried to revive him but he would not wake up. So I grabbed hold of the controls and prepared myself to land the plane – even though I’d never done it before.

“Then I turned around and he was wide awake, grinning. He said: ‘I wondered how you would handle that.’ I could have killed him!”

When the war was over, Sarah and Arthur married, moved to Tansley and had three children.

“You think you’ll never forget those days. But seeing the flyover made me realise just how much I had forgotten. It was a special moment.”