The 70th anniversary of the Bomber Command raid on the German dams, Eder, Möhne and Sorpe in 1943 has just passed. The details of the raid have been recounted endlessly during the last week or so, accompanied by documentaries and a showing of the classic black and white film ‘The Dambusters’. Talking of which, some time ago it was rumoured that a remake was on the way, but there were likely to be several problems – firstly there are only 2 flying Lancaster bombers left in the world (although the RAF Battle of Britain’s Lancaster has been repainted as a 617 Squadron aircraft I think for this year at least) and so most of the action scenes would have been Computer Generated Interface (CGI) graphics (but what’s new in modern films); and the fact that Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s dog’s name would have been changed for the sake of political correctness! It was a black Labrador called ‘Nigger’ – a word that can only be used it seems by black comedians or in historical films made by Hollywood and in which the black men are always shown in a favourable light, like ‘Lincoln’. As an aside, there has been a literary argument that books should not be changed to reflect modern mores, but should instead represent the customs, habits, beliefs and speech patterns of the people of the day, another recent example being that of Enid Blyton’s childrens’ stories which could in some cases be construed as racist.
Cheltenham’s connection is, of course, through ‘Bomber’ Harris, whose birthplace is nearby and whose father taught at Cheltenham College. Personally I have a few, although admittedly obscure, connections too. First; regarding aircraft, our recently relocated neighbour Robert’s father was ground crew on Lancaster bombers in the war and last year, as a birthday treat, bought him a visit to a Lancaster and a taxi along a runway inside it, which must have been a thrilling experience, as anyone who has been close up to a taxiing or low-flying Avro Lancaster could aver. As a boy, I flew from Nigeria in an Avro York airliner, a conversion of the Lancaster, which was flown by several international airlines for about ten years post World War II. A slow and noisy experience in which my baby brother’s eardrums were partially perforated through the noise within the cabin.
Second; regarding the location of the bombing raid, in the mid 1950′s my father was stationed with the army in Germany, and one day we took an excursion to the Eder dam, which in those days still sported a large concrete patch in its centre, showing where the bouncing bombs had struck and severely damaged it, helping to flood industrial areas and boosting civilian (and military) morale. He told us the story at the time, which to a 6 year old was quite exciting and stuck in my mind. Years later, as an officer cadet at Sandhurst, Barnes Wallis, then in his late 80s or early 90s came as a guest lecturer and gave an enthralling and informative lecture on ‘modern’ technology and the way ahead. His earlier designs had included the geodesic Vickers Wellington bomber structure, as well as airship designs, the bouncing bomb and post-war the first ‘swing-wing’ designs for jet aircraft. He was employed by the Americans for a while while they developed the F1-11 swing wing bomber (a design he claims they ‘stole’ from him, then ruined by adding a vertical rear tailplane!). He was still in the process of futuristic designs and showed us pictures of the structure of huge cargo carrying submarines which due to the hull design could go very deep, beneath detection from the air (this was during the Cold War, when in the event of hostilities, secure maritime cargo transport would have been vital), and a supersonic airliner which could fly in the outer limits of the atmosphere to Australia without stopping or refuelling, and being loaded at terminals with either passenger or cargo modules.
A further connection was through my parents. My father had served in the Parachute Regiment during and after the war, at one time being co-located with Richard Todd the actor, also a member of the Parachute Regiment at that time. At one regimental ball, my mother danced with Richard, proclaiming him later to be a little short for her, but a very nice man. It was Richard Todd of course who portrayed Guy Gibson in ‘The Dambusters’. The squadron, formed specifically for the Dams Raid, and later called 617 Squadron, ‘the Dambusters’ (motto ‘Après moi le deluge’) was used for other special missions including bombing the Tirpitz battleship and German secret weapon installations later in the war with ‘Tallboy’ ground penetrating bombs and is still functioning as, I think, a Tornado or Eurofighter squadron in the RAF. Almost coincidentally, my mother served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), forerunner of the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) and now defunct, during the war, and was stationed with an anti-aircraft airfield defence unit in Exeter, where 616 Squadron operated, originally Mosquito’s and later Meteor jet aircraft at the end of the war.
It is apposite perhaps, with all the publicity, that now the new Bomber Command memorial has been erected in Green Park, London, and that discussion still rages concerning a ‘Bomber Command’ bar for the campaign stars awarded to servicemen 1939-45. After all, a new medal has at last been struck for the few survivors of the Atlantic convoys, and considering the number of bomber crews who failed to return home, something in the order of 55,000, it would be well-deserved despite the political furore by certain segments of the hoi-poloi against area or indiscriminate bombing. (I’ve blogged previously on Bomber Harris’ policy and whether it was justified or not. Interestingly, some of the same people who condemn area bombing also condemn the Atom bomb attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which without doubt shortened the war significantly and saved untold Allied and overall, Japanese lives. My father’s regiment was earmarked for the first wave airborne attack on Japan and had already been issued early with the new 1944 Pattern webbing in preparation. If it had gone ahead, his chances of survival and therefore of my existence would have been low – so you might say I have a vested interest!).
Looking at the Dams’ raid alone, more than half the Lancaster crews that took part did not return and those that did, were nearly all awarded medals, including Guy Gibson himself who was given a well-deserved Victoria Cross.