Squadron Leader Lawrence ‘Benny’ Goodman

The Royal Air Force Museum is saddened by the news that Squadron Leader Lawrence ‘Benny’ Goodman has died at the age of 100. Squadron Leader Goodman enjoyed a distinguished RAF career spanning 24 years, during which he completed a full tour of operations as a wartime bomber pilot with No. 617 Squadron, the celebrated ‘Dambusters.’ On retiring from the Service, he dedicated himself to supporting RAF charities, promoting reconciliation with Germany and educating younger generations about the realities of war. More recently, he offered untiring support to the RAF Museum’s ‘Jewish Hidden Heroes’ project, which highlights the vital role played by Jewish people, like himself, in the RAF’s battle against Nazi tyranny.

Benny Goodman at a young age

Lawrence Goodman was born in Maida Vale, London, and volunteered to join the RAF, aged 18, at the outbreak of war in September 1939. Called up the following year, he began training as a pilot on the De Havilland Tiger Moth biplane, advancing without difficulty to more powerful aircraft. Benny was ultimately rated ‘Above Average’ (that is, ‘very good’) and, to his dismay, he was retained as a flying instructor. In January 1942, he travelled as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan to Ontario, in Canada, to teach RAF and Fleet Air Arm pupils to fly the North American Harvard. While there, he also experienced the novelty of introducing the naval trainees to dive bombing and deck landing techniques. Benny liked Canada and liked instructing, but he was determined to see operational flying and eventually persuaded his commanding officer to post him back to the UK. His ship was torpedoed on the voyage home, forcing a detour to an American port, but he crossed the Atlantic safely soon afterwards.

In December 1942, Benny began converting to night bombers, learning to fly the Vickers Wellington and the four-engined Short Stirling before progressing, in August 1944, to the more capable Avro Lancaster. His pilot rating remained ‘Above Average’, and in recognition of his superior ability, he was offered a posting to No. 617 Squadron, the RAF’s crack precision bombing unit. Although proud to be selected, Benny was conscious of being the first pilot without operational experience to join the ‘Dambusters.’ He and his crew were, however, welcomed by the veterans when they arrived at the squadron’s base at RAF Woodhall Spa. The newcomers now underwent a period of intensive training, familiarising themselves with the state-of-the-art Stabilised Automatic Bomb Sight (SABS) and the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tallboy ‘earthquake’ bomb designed by Barnes Wallis. Benny was soon ready to take his modified Lancaster to war; and as a young, Jewish bomber pilot, he was fully aware of the implications of being shot down over Nazi Germany.

Beginning on 18 August 1944, Benny, now a flight lieutenant, participated in 30 operations with ‘617’ against key objectives including the U-Boat pens at La Pallice; the battleship ‘Tirpitz’ moored at Tromso in Norway; and the synthetic oil refinery at Politz. On 19 March 1945, he demolished the Arnsberg railway viaduct with a 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) Grand Slam bomb. This followed several failed attempts on the target by USAAF squadrons that caused substantial civilian casualties in the town. Benny continued to fly operationally until the end of the war, and his last foray was the attack on Hitler’s ‘Eagle’s Nest’ at Berchtesgaden on 25 April 1945. Curiously, during a daylight raid on Hamburg two weeks before, a Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter formated with his aircraft. Surprised, but unafraid, Benny thought that the German pilot had run out of ammunition and was simply curious to see a Lancaster close to.

After VE Day, Benny transferred to No. 51 Squadron, Transport Command, and was tasked with delivering men and cargo to India and South-East Asia in converted Stirlings. Compulsorily demobbed in 1946, but still keen to serve, he became the first non-fighter pilot to join the part-timers of No. 604 Squadron (Auxiliary Air Force). Benny thoroughly enjoyed his weekends flying Spitfires from RAF Hendon (now the Museum’s London site) but voluntarily rejoined the regular air force with the onset of the Berlin Blockade in June 1948. During the crisis, he piloted Handley Page Hastings transports into airfields in Germany; and was subsequently employed with No. 53 Squadron on air trooping flights to the Middle East and casualty evacuation from Korea. From 1953 to 1955, he served as a liaison officer at the Embassy in Vienna, and was later engaged on intelligence duties with the Air Ministry in London. He resumed flying two years later, and after converting to English Electric Canberras, was posted to No. 80 Squadron, which operated the type on photo-reconnaissance sorties from RAF Bruggen. In 1960, he returned from Germany for a second stint with the Air Ministry, finally retiring as a squadron leader in 1964, in order to help run the family business. While with the RAF, Benny logged over 3,500 hours on 22 different types of military aircraft; and he continued to fly a Piper Comanche for pleasure until he was 93.

Benny Goodman was a kind, moral man with a strong sense of duty, and these qualities were reflected in his selfless work for charities that included the RAF Club, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the 617 Squadron Association. He also worked hard to bring about reconciliation with Germany, accepting, in 1995, an invitation to attend a ceremony in Arnsberg commemorating the civilians killed there by Allied bombing 50 years before. Benny duly travelled to the town, and speaking in German, he explained Britain’s perspective on the war and the reasons for the RAF’s attacks on the railway viaduct in 1945. He then closed his powerful, courageous, speech by appealing to his German audience for closer international understanding. Benny’s words were warmly received by his hosts, and there began a friendship between the veteran airman and the people of Arnsberg that would last for more than 25 years. Travelling at his own expense, he returned to the town as a formal guest on numerous occasions, giving presentations about war and reconciliation to local groups; and he also graciously hosted Arnsbergers visiting the UK. Benny would write that he considered his friendship with Arnsberg the most important in his life, and this friendship stands as an enduring testament to his wisdom and generosity of spirit.

Benny Goodman was the embodiment of what is sometimes called ‘the greatest generation’, and recognising this, the Republic of France appointed him a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 2017. Despite his many achievements, however, he remained a modest, genuinely humble man who more than once asked:
‘Why am I being honoured? I’m not a hero…I was only doing my duty just like everyone else.’
As the UK’s last surviving wartime RAF pilot from No. 617 Squadron, Benny understood the importance of remembrance; and in November 2019, he made a video marking the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the ‘Tirpitz’ for a German, Norwegian and British audience. He was also strongly committed to educating younger people, and whether lecturing officers attending the UK Defence Academy or giving presentations to schoolchildren, he shared his experiences, ethos and values with enthusiasm.

In recent years, Benny became an excellent friend to the RAF Museum. When the ‘Jewish Hidden Heroes’ project was launched in March 2018, he readily agreed to be interviewed by author and Museum Ambassador, Joshua Levine. Furthermore, he shared his remarkable story at a special event at the Museum that November, travelling to Hendon alone despite his advanced age. Benny was also an enthusiastic supporter of the RAF Museum’s partnership with Chelsea FC and of the Club’s campaign to challenge anti-Semitism and racism through education. The partnership was formally launched at Chelsea’s ground at Stamford Bridge on 4 December 2019, and he was introduced to an appreciative crowd before the game that afternoon. It is also thanks to the relationship with Chelsea that Benny’s testimony will feature in the Augmented Reality displays planned for the Museum’s forthcoming Bomber Command exhibition.

Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, in September 2020, Benny joined us at the Museum, along with Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, to mark the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain and his own 100th birthday. And earlier this year, he agreed to be the face of the virtual Lancaster Challenge, helping the Museum to raise funds by encouraging participants to maintain their physical fitness during the COVID crisis. Sadly, Benny was to have been the guest of honour at the Battle of Britain gala in September this year.

Benny with Maggie

Maggie Appleton MBE, CEO of the RAF Museum, concludes:
‘So many of us will be mourning Benny, while celebrating his outstanding contribution during the Second World War and his faultless RAF Service. The RAF Museum has been fortunate to call Benny a friend. He supported us in sharing the incredible story of Jewish servicemen and women during the war, and the brave airmen who were in a particularly perilous situation should they have been captured. Benny was a special man who lived a long and fruitful life and brought joy and inspiration to many. He will be sadly missed by his friends at the RAF Museum, but we will ensure that his stories live on to inspire generations to come.’

With sincere thanks to Dr Robert Owen, Official Historian of the 617 Squadron Association.

About the Author

Peter Devitt: Curator

Peter Devitt is a Curator at the Royal Air Force Museum and has studied ethnic diversity in Britain’s flying services while working closely with the African-Caribbean, Asian and Polish communities. In 2013, he curated ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’: Volunteers of African Heritage in the Royal Air Force, the award-winning exhibition produced by the RAF Museum in partnership with Black Cultural Archives.