EIGHTY years ago tonight, as dusk fell over Lincolnshire, 133 young men set out on the mission that would immortalise them as the Dambusters.
The crews of the RAF’s 617 Squadron, led by 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson, took to the skies from RAF Scampton on May 16, 1943, in 19 Avro Lancaster heavy bombers. Each plane carried a top-secret aerial mine designed to breach vital dams in Germany’s industrial Ruhr region.
Invented by aeronautical engineer Dr Barnes Wallis, the four-and-a-half-ton weapon, shaped like an oil drum, worked by being rotated at high speed and released to skip across the surface of the dam reservoir like a skimming stone – hence its nickname ‘the bouncing bomb’. It would then sink against the dam wall and explode.
To deliver it, the Lancaster crews had to go in at a speed of 230mph and a height of just 60ft – around one-third the height of Nelson’s Column. To make matters worse, they had to shine spotlights on the water to gauge their altitude, illuminating themselves to anti-aircraft batteries. The attacks called for almost superhuman flying skills and ice-cold courage.
Despite setbacks, the bouncing bombs blasted open the walls of two major dams, releasing gigantic torrents of water which swept into the enemy’s heartland, causing widespread death and destruction. But the mission, codenamed Operation Chastise, ended with the loss of 53 RAF men – a dreadful casualty rate.
Despite the terrible toll, the audacious attack was a massive boost to Britain’s war-making prestige, unnerving the enemy, impressing our allies and giving a huge lift to the morale of a weary nation that had been fighting the Germans for almost four years.
In the eyes of the public, the Dambusters became the stuff of legend and their fame outlasted the war. In 1955, the hit film The Dam Busters, based on the book of that name by Paul Brickhill, cemented their place in the pantheon of military heroes.
In the movie, Barnes Wallis was played by Michael Redgrave and Gibson by Richard Todd. (Todd was a distinguished warrior in real life, having parachuted into Normandy with the 6th Airborne Division in the early hours of D-Day in June 1944).
Today, 80 years on, the men of Operation Chastise will rightly be commemorated by various events, the most enthralling being a sortie by the Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight over all the wartime Bomber Command bases in Lincolnshire.
However, there has long been criticism that while the dams raid was spectacular, it wasted RAF lives and had no serious effect on the German war effort. Among those said to have held this view was Sir Arthur Harris, wartime head of Bomber Command, who was instead obsessed with area bombing.
It goes without saying that historians must search for and state the truth rather than the myth. But it is regrettable that in some quarters the dams raid has morphed from being an act of daring and heroism to one of pointlessness and folly. Thus is one of the cornerstones of Britain’s valiant wartime story being chipped away.
However, it is a familiar pitfall for historians to judge past events by today’s attitudes and sensibilities, with the added benefit of 20-20 hindsight.
In 1943, although the tide of the war was slowly turning against Germany, Britain still had to strain every sinew to keep up the pressure on the Third Reich. When a revolutionary new type of bomb became available for a major specific target, along with a team of airmen brave and talented enough to deliver it, it was inconceivable that it would not be used.
The Dambusters knew only too well the risks of their uniquely hazardous mission. But they also knew that the ultimate job of military men is to engage the enemy, to march towards the sound of gunfire. All were imbued with a sense of duty and – probably most compellingly – a determination not to let their comrades down. And so they set out on their fateful flight.
In the event, the hoped-for catastrophic effects of the raid on German war production were not fulfilled. And the RAF’s failure to follow up Chastise with conventional raids against construction teams repairing the dams was a glaring error.
But these subsequent developments don’t invalidate the decision to go ahead with the attack on the dams. And nothing can detract from the professionalism and courage of the Lancaster crews. It is these qualities that we honour when we commemorate the Dambusters, which makes two events in recent times all the more invidious and incomprehensible.
In 2020, we had the grotesque decision by the RAF, infected by the disease of wokery, to surreptitiously delete the name of Gibson’s beloved dog Nigger from the black labrador’s gravestone at Scampton. (Last week, I watched the Dam Busters on Channel 5 and the dog’s name had ridiculously been changed to Trigger).
Now, even more disgracefully, plans are going ahead to use RAF Scampton as accommodation for 2,000 asylum seekers, with the Government brushing aside the significance of the airbase and the protests of heritage groups and nearby residents.
This shabby proposal beggars belief and tells us much about the direction in which Britain is being taken by its useless, self-serving, empty-headed leaders. In the face of such senseless trashing of our history, what price the sacrifice of those brave men 80 years ago?
However, it is all the more reason for us to honour the Dambusters today. And damn those who would tarnish their memory.