While much is known about the endeavours of the Dambusters, Squadron Leader Jerry Fray’s more covert role of photographing the resulting destruction is far less familiar
Almost seventy years ago, the Royal Air Force No. 617 Squadron or ‘Dambusters’ used a specially developed bouncing bomb to attack the dams that supplied hydro-electric generated power to Germany’s industrialised Ruhr valley. The aim was to bring the German military to a halt by denying power to the factories that would build the machines and ammunition required for Adolf Hitler’s war.
Operation Chastise was carried out on 16-17 May 1943 and its success is the stuff of legends. Barnes Wallis’ spectacular feat of engineering allowed a bomb to bounce across water until it struck its target, before sinking to explode underwater. The Möhne and Edersee dams were breached, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr valley and the Eder valley.
Iconic photographs showing Germany’s submerged industrial heartland quickly found their way onto the front pages of British newspapers. The images were taken during a lone flight in an unarmed plane on 17 May by Frank Gerald Fray – or ‘Jerry’ as his friends called him. A flying officer in the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, Jerry had flown in a specially adapted sky-blue camouflaged Spitfire to capture the devastation wreaked by the Dambusters’ raid.
Jerry’s identity was only revealed in 2001 by the RAF and brought to the public’s attention through an interview in The Sunday Telegraph in the same year. ‘I could see the industrial haze over the Ruhr area and what appeared to be a cloud to the east. On flying closer I saw that what had seemed to be cloud was the sun shining on the floodwater,’ said Jerry. ‘I looked down into the deep valley which had seemed so peaceful three days before, but now it was a wide torrent.’
With his photographs proving to be a massive morale boost to the British public, Jerry had written himself into the history books. Born in Bristol, and the eldest of three children, he was educated at the City of London Freemen’s School in Ashtead, Surrey. With war imminent in 1938, Jerry’s parents were not enthusiastic about his desire to become a pilot so he volunteered for the army and joined the Royal Engineers. Shortly after the outbreak of war, he was sent to France and attached to the No. 4 Squadron at Mons en Chaussée. Evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, Jerry was transferred to the RAF for pilot training shortly afterwards. His early flying training was at the No. 4 Elementary Flying Training School in Brough, followed by advanced training at the No. 9 Service Flying Training School in Hullavington, where he gained his pilot wings and was commissioned into the RAF in January 1942.
Medals and masonry
Electing for special duties, Jerry undertook specialist navigation training before flying unarmed Spitfires at RAF Benson. With his photography of the Möhne dam immortalising the exploits of the Dambusters, Jerry was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and later the Belgian Order of Leopold and Belgian Croix de Guerre (with palm) for photographic work to help the Belgian resistance.
After two successful operating tours, and with the war ending, Jerry was posted to India to command the No. 34 Squadron at Palam, Delhi. After the partition of India he joined No. 80 Squadron in Germany, still flying Spitfires, but in a tactical role. Then followed a period as a regular officer with No. 613 (City of Manchester) Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force, and two and a half years in Greece with the RAF Mission. Twelve months at the Staff College at RAF Bracknell preceded various staff appointments at Fighter Command and RAF HQ in Germany.
In 1963, Jerry took early retirement and for several years was involved in management training with the British Productivity Council in London. It was at this time that he began his masonic career. By all accounts an enthusiastic Freemason, Jerry was initiated into the Daedalus Lodge, No. 3843, in 1963. He joined the Pegasus Lodge, No. 5637, in 1965, where he was installed as the Worshipful Master in 1979. Jerry finally retired to Somerset in 1981. Becoming Provincial Assistant Grand Director of Ceremonies in 1985, he was appointed London Grand Rank in 1990 before being promoted to Past Provincial Grand Superintendent of Works in 1991 and to Past Provincial Grand Sword Bearer in 1999.
Just two years after his interview had been published, Squadron Leader Jerry Fray died on 26 June 2003. He had lived long enough to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Dambusters and his remarkable flight over the Ruhr valley. Ten years later, his contribution to the war effort still resonates in an evocative series of black and white photographs that were captured at first light on that May morning. ‘The whole valley of the river was inundated with only patches of high ground and the tops of trees and church steeples showing above the flood,’ said Jerry in the final remarks of the newspaper interview, ‘I was overcome by the immensity of it.’
Freemasonry Today would like to thank Squadron Leader Bob Chevin, Buckinghamshire Past Provincial Grand Charity Steward and Past Senior Grand Deacon, for his help in putting this piece together, and the RAF Museum London, for letting us access its archives.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – No. 21 Spring 2013
We were fascinated to read your article in the winter 2012 edition about Jerry Fray. Except for the mention of London Grand Rank, the article left out, in particular, that he joined Elthorne and Middlesex Lodge, No. 2094, in 1973, was Master in 1979, was a key player in achieving the lodge’s centenary in 1985, including writing the lodge history during a period (1980-1990) when its continuing existence was very precarious, and Master again in 1986.
He attended regularly thereafter as DC, until the day after our December meeting in 1995 when he suffered a stroke. Even so, he was back in post with a ‘runner’ the following October. We made him an honorary member in 1998. He last attended in December 2001, although he had not long before suffered another, less serious, stroke.
Charles Brookes, Elthorne and Middlesex Lodge, No. 2094, London
Although currently unable to be a frequent attender to my own Elthorne and Middlesex Lodge, I too was surprised that we were not mentioned in the newspaper report, although naturally bow to the fact that Jerry Fray wrote his own obituary.
However, there may be some small interest in my writing that once, at the Festive Board following a lodge meeting, I was able to discuss elements of his photo reconnaissance participation in the Dambusters’ raid with him.
I recall Jerry advising that he flew over the dams on several occasions prior to the raid, including the day before and again the day after. Upon returning to his home base, the film from his cameras would be quickly processed and (after his PR Spitfire was refuelled) he then flew copies directly onwards to the then RAF Spitalgate at Grantham. He would then deliver them personally to the Dams Project team with the great advantage that he was able to describe exactly what he had seen only the briefest of time before.
Jerry mentioned that he had been able to keep copies of the photographs and it is with great anticipation that I look forward to seeing these, should a book of his life come to fruition.
If interested to know why this was of particular interest to me, then I shall add that not only did I fly at RAF Spitalgate as an RAF Air Cadets gliding instructor, but I also served as a Territorial Army officer for many years at Prince William of Gloucester Barracks (formerly RAF Spitalgate), Grantham – so have always been pleased to think that I had, in one sense, shared the airspace with men of such sterling qualities as Jerry Fray.
Edward G Waite-Roberts, Elthorne and Middlesex Lodge, No. 2094, London