TWO episodes can be said to have defined the spirit of the Royal Air Force and to have cemented it in the imagination of the public. The first is the ‘Few’ and the Battle of Britain in 1940; the second is Operation Chastise, which was executed 80 years ago on the night of May 16/17 1943, as TCW reported yesterday . ‘Chastise’ was the attack on the Möhne, the Eder and the Sorpe dams carried out by 617 Squadron which would forever after be known as ‘The Dambusters’.
Just as the former RAF station Biggin Hill (now London Biggin Hill airport) is associated with RAF Fighter Command and the Battle of Britain so the former RAF station Scampton (to the north of Lincoln just off Ermine Street) is associated with RAF Bomber Command, 617 Squadron and the dams raid. It was also the home of the Red Arrows from 1983 until October 2022 with the exception of a five-year hiatus from 1995 when the team was temporarily based at nearby RAF Cranwell.
Biggin Hill’s place in our nation’s history is secure with the RAF Biggin Hill Museum and Chapel, but something more controversial is planned for Scampton by the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. Scampton is every bit as significant as Biggin Hill to the people who served there, their descendants, to the local community and to our national heritage.
Mrs Braverman plans turning it into a detention centre to house up to 2,000 migrants. In so doing not only will she ride roughshod over objections raised but she will also ignore the local regeneration plan which designated Scampton ‘an opportunity area’. Under the new £300million local plan for Central Lincolnshire the RAF Scampton Heritage Centre would be preserved, the airfield kept open and the officers’ mess turned into a hotel, all of which would generate more than 1,000 jobs for the depressed local economy.
West Lindsay District Council (WLDC) has written to the Home Office announcing that it has launched legal action and it is seeking a judicial review which, if successful, could mean that the Home Office would be in breach of planning regulations if it were to go ahead.
The stripping of the heritage, however, has already started. The Red Arrows’ Hawk which was the ‘Gate Guardian’ has been removed and sold at auction (minus an engine) for £90,000, Dambusters raid leader Guy Gibson’s office has been emptied and a metal fence erected around the officers’ mess in preparation for its demolition. All this has been done although WLDC has recently applied to Historic England to have the mess, a classic of its type, designated a listed building. Security contractor Serco, which has a reputation for its involvement in accommodating migrants, has already advertised for employees to work at Scampton, stating that skills required would include ‘conflict management, de-escalation, reporting anti-social behaviour and responding to complaints or medical requests’.
This is an unforgivable affront to the memory of the men who flew on the night of May 16 1943. They were led by Wing Commander Gibson who, at 24, was one of the youngest men to attain that rank. Gibson was to earn the Victoria Cross that night. After dropping his own bomb he repeatedly flew backwards and forwards across the target to let his gunners attack the flak batteries while his aircraft drew their fire away from others on their bomb runs. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris would later declare him to be ‘as great a warrior as these islands ever bred’.
The feat of arms cannot be understated. From the ingenuity of engineers Barnes Wallis who designed the Upkeep bomb and Roy Chadwick who modified the Lancasters to carry and deliver them, to the simple methods employed by the crews for achieving the correct weapon release-height and distance from the dams, it was stunning. The weapon had to be dropped from precisely 60 feet, at precisely 240 miles per hour, flying in a straight line, over water, at night, under fire. Take it from this former military pilot, that requires exceptional concentration and no little courage.
The bomber crews who formed 617 Squadron were a mixed bunch. Some were hand-picked, some simply at the end of a tour of operations or at the start of a second. They came not just from Britain but from all over the Empire (and former Empire). Men like Australian Micky Martin, Canadian Ken Brown, New Zealander Les Munro and American Joe McCarthy.
Nineteen Lancasters and 133 young men left RAF Scampton that night. Just 11 aircraft and 77 men returned.
There is a personal dimension to this: I was never based at RAF Scampton but I was one of the first pilots to arrive on 617 Squadron when it re-formed with the new Tornado GR1 at RAF Marham near King’s Lynn in January 1983. Shortly after the squadron came together we hosted the visit of 617 Squadron Association and held a formal dinner on the 40th anniversary of the raid. I had the privilege to meet Micky Martin, Les Munro, Ken Brown and Leonard Cheshire, who took command of the squadron in November 1943, and to show them over one of our Tornados. It was a memorable event made poignant by the realisation that, even then, fewer of the original squadron would be attending the event in the future. Squadron Leader Johnny Johnson, the last surviving member of the original 617 Squadron who took part in ‘Chastise’, died in December last year aged 101, mercifully before he could learn of the Home Secretary’s intentions.
The 617 Squadron Association marked the 80th anniversary of Operation Chastise this past weekend. It held its annual Dams Dinner at Woodhall Spa on Saturday evening and a memorial service on Sunday. Looking back, the 70th anniversary in 2013 was a special one because, with squadron then based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, not only was it the last significant one with survivors present, it was held at RAF Scampton with a Sunset Ceremony and filmed by the BBC. You can watch it here. The late Eddie Butler was the commentator.
RAF Scampton is the site of the grave of Guy Gibson’s dog Nigger, the squadron’s mascot. The black Labrador was killed by a car on May 16, 1943, the day of the raid. He was buried at midnight as Gibson was leading the assault. The grave has been carefully tended over the last 80 years, albeit with the dog’s name having been removed in July 2020.
The latest news is that on Thursday last week the High Court rejected WLDC’s application to block the Home Office’s plan and the RAF is proposing to dig up Nigger’s bones and gravestone and move them to the present base of 617 Squadron, at RAF Marham. A 40-signatory open letter has been sent to Suella Braverman by historians James Holland, Sir Anthony Beevor, Sir Max Hastings and Professor David Edgerton among others who include the comedian Al Murray, a military history enthusiast. Much good it will do.
If you are angered or offended by this insensitive, ignorant trampling of the Royal Air Force’s and our nation’s heritage and the threat it poses to a very welcome Lincolnshire regeneration plan, please sign the petition against the Home Office’s intentions here and write to your MP here.
It is tempting to suggest, as David Starkey did, that politicians such as Braverman and Sunak, children of fairly recent immigrants, are not fully in tune with the British nation, our history and our heritage. Maybe the good people of West Lindsay should invite Mrs Braverman to visit them and explain to her what conservatism means.