World War II hero who survived 30 bombing missions

Date: Monday 13th November 2017

A WORLD War II hero from Penrith who survived 30 missions as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber has died.

Harry Dobinson passed away, aged 97, at the Bupa care home, Croft Avenue, Penrith, where he had been cared for over the previous year.

He joined the RAF at the age of 20 and served with 514 Squadron, stationed at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire. Part of Bomber Command, Harry became a rear gunner, also known as a “tail end Charlie,” the most vulnerable job on the war-winning four-engine heavy bomber.

On his first run, he and the six other crew members were attacked four times by German fighters. He also once narrowly escaped being killed by a Lancaster flying above his plane and dropping a bomb.

In another incident, he remembered being “blown out of his bed” after a German fighter attack on the aerodrome where he was based.

So perilous was the job that flying more than seven operations was regarded as “living on borrowed time”, yet Harry flew in 30. He is understood to have been the last surviving member of his crew.

He was born Thomas Henry Dobinson in Kendal on 8th August, 1920, but as was family tradition, he went by the name Harry. His parents ran Leeming House farm, Watermillock. He was married for more than 71 years — to Irene (nee Lawson), aged 92, of Monks Close, Penrith.

The pair celebrated their platinum wedding last year.

In their youth, the couple knew each other but got together celebrating the end of World War II at the Musgrave Monument, Penrith, on VE Day, 8th May, 1945.

At the time, Harry was home on leave, while Irene was in the WAF, where she served as an accounts clerk for three- and-a-half years — having joined in the hope of “seeing the world” and getting as far as Carlisle and Wales.

The couple walked down the aisle at Sandgate Head Methodist Church on 21st March, 1946. They moved around as newlyweds, including to Blackpool and Acton, Middlesex. They settled with Harry’s parents at Leeming House farm, Watermillock, where he worked for 11 years. The family also lived at Ravenstonedale and Hartley, near Kirkby Stephen, for a time.

They had three children — Gordon, of Preston; Anne Harriman, of Penrith; and Peter, also of Penrith, who runs an agricultural engineering business in the town.

The couple went on to have eight grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and a great-great grandson in Perth, Australia.

In 1966, they moved to Penrith to run Barco Guesthouse where they stayed for 20 years. Irene ran the guesthouse while Harry worked at Express Dairy, Appleby, as a fitter. In the mid-1980s they retired to Monks Close.

In later life, Mr. Dobinson joined the North Lakes gym when he was 70, having never set foot in one before. He amazed staff and gym regulars with his stamina. At the age of 78 he regularly rowed 5,000 metres a day and passed a personal target of rowing a million metres, equivalent to more than 600 miles.

He went on to take part in several rowing competitions, travelling around the country to compete. He remains the holder of the British men’s indoor championship in the 80 to 89 years category, which he won at a mere 82. He was presented with awards by Olympic rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave, and British Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell.

In his earlier years, Harry ran a modified boat on Ullswater, and always maintained an interest in Lancaster bombers. His home was adorned with paintings, photographs and models of the impressive bomber, and he was often able to recognise their engines from afar, telling his family: “That’s a Lanc!” He gave talks in local schools about his time in the war but was a reluctant hero.

Like his father before him, Harry maintained a lifelong interest in motorcycles. He attended the Isle of Man TT Races, and completed a lap of the course. In his 80s, he still ran a Triumph Trident. The family interest in motorcycles continues to this day with son Peter and the upcoming generations.

Harry’s son-in-law, Martin Harriman, served in the Scots Guards, in Malaya and Borneo. Harry’s family remember him as a proud, helpful man, who was devoted to his family, and a jack of all trades. Daughter Anne called him a “super dad” while his grandchildren adored him for his stories.