Thursday 21st March saw media assemble at RAF Coningsby for the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters, with one of two specially-marked 617 Squadron Tornado GR.4s being officially unveiled. TV presenter / historian Dan Snow was there, as was Gareth Stringer, for Global Aviation Resource.
Operation Chastise, better known as The Dambusters Raid, May 16 and 17 1943 – one of the most famous exploits of World War II and one which saw 133 airmen in 19 Avro Lancaster bombers dropping a unique weapon (the bouncing bomb), and achieving a huge physical, and political, blow for the Allies.
After flying across Germany, at night, at an altitude of 60’, two dams were destroyed and one damaged, with the loss of 53 crew and eight aircraft, while three crewmen were taken prisoner; an overall loss rate of 42%.
For its time, this was precision bombing like no other, and the raid required great imagination, accurate intelligence, complex planning, superb flying ability, strong leadership and above all, extraordinary courage. Just 11 weeks separated the go-ahead from the execution of the raid, with OC 617 Sqn, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, given just eight weeks from the actual formation of the Squadron to recruit and train his crews.
I am sure we will revisit that night once again, as the actual anniversary of the Dams Raid approaches, but last Thursday, GAR joined other invited media as the present day 617 Squadron brought one of its specially marked Tornado GR.4s to RAF Coningsby for an official unveiling, with the help of the BBMF, and its Lancaster, and Dan Snow.
Firstly, it must be said that they have done a superb job with the artwork for the tail – it is both fitting and eye-catching; a fantastic tribute to their forefathers.
WSO Sqn Ldr Mark Still from 617 Squadron told me:
“I think everyone is aware of the history when they join 617, it is such a prestigious squadron. While the technology has come forward, we are also following directly in the footsteps of the Dambusters, and our intent today is exactly the same as theirs – namely to complete a precision strike with cutting-edge technology.
“We still practise at low level too, although we wouldn’t even contemplate flying at 60’, it’s hard to imagine doing that, especially in a Lancaster, flying those big sweeping turns – there’s no way we could do it!
“Our Junior Engineering Officer designed this tail originally, and although there have been a few tweaks, it says everything we wanted it to, especially with both the old and new aircraft featuring.”
I also caught up with Dan Snow, before he flew in the GR.4, to discuss the importance of the raid in a little more depth:
“The raid worked on many levels. Firstly there was the damage done, which was significant, and while it didn’t bring the War to an end, there was an effect on production of steel and raw materials in Germany.
“But, more importantly, the Second World War was a people’s war; it was a war of media, of press, and of spin and propaganda. The Dambusters Raid made people believe that the Allies could take the battle to the heart of Hitler’s Germany, and in 1943 that was still a surprising thing.
“People say, ‘it was only a propaganda victory’, but you know what, that is still a victory, and we know from subsequent conflicts, like Vietnam and Iraq, that what the public think is almost as important as what is actually happening on the ground.
“In terms of today, I think the current 617 Squadron is very modest, in that they say that they couldn’t do what their predecessors did, but its men and women show all the same skill and courage to marry high-technology with good old-fashioned flying ability, to achieve their aims, and those aims haven’t changed either.”
With reference to ‘The Dambusters’ film, I wonder whether he thinks what was essentially a piece of post-War propaganda helps or hinders an assessment of what actually happened 70 years ago?
“Film is very important for historians; 100 years ago it was books. We think of D-Day and we think of ‘Saving Private Ryan’, we think of Scotland and we think of ‘Braveheart’, for example. These films aren’t true, they aren’t educational, but they are a significant part of our cultural history, and I really hope that Peter Jackson remakes The Dambusters!”
Today’s Lancaster crewmen, those from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight of course, are also in awe of what was achieved by 617 Squadron, 70 years ago, with Flt Lt Roger Nichols, one of PA474’s pilots, telling me:
“It was a huge undertaking; at low level, at night, and needing total concentration. It must have been a very tense and frightening situation – if they missed anything, or made any wrong move, then they could easily have hit the ground. It really did require an extremely high level of skill.”
BBMF Navigator, Sqn Ldr Russ Russell, added:
“It is important to remember that we (the BBMF) are all experienced aviators – we’re a lot older than many of them were, which was about 19 / 20 years old. They knew what they were going in to and they knew what the odds were, so it must have been an enthralling and very scary thing to go and do – it was also an extraordinary feat of navigation to get there in the first place.”
With that, and after more photos and interviews, Dan Snow is whisked away by the 617 Squadron crew to prepare for his trip in the GR.4 with Sqn Ldr Mark Jackson. A little later we are assembled outside the 29(R) Squadron building to watch him depart, returning after an hour or so to watch him arrive back at Coningsby. Just minutes after landing, I caught up with him once again:
“That was absolutely incredible! It was a stunning day and to be given a chance to see those low level flying skills was just as impressive as might imagine. It gave me a real sense of some of the challenges that faced the crews back in 1943, and we flew over some of the dams that they used for training – it was just extraordinary.
“You can’t really put yourself in their place, I was just there for the ride, they were doing it for real, but to get the chance to fly with the same squadron, the direct descendants of the men who carried out the raid, well, that was a once in a lifetime experience. The current 617 Squadron is totally worthy of bearing the name of its predecessors and I have great respect for all of them.”
Gareth Stringer would like to thank 617 Squadron, Dan Snow, the BBMF, Jim Robinson, Yvonne Masters and Kelly Rhodes.