Anyone interested in Bomber Command is probably aware that last night marked the seventieth anniversary of what, in popular culture, is probably the most famous air raid of all time. The ‘Dambusters’ raid of 16/17 May 1943 – more properly known as Operation Chastise – was the daring, novel, unique, dangerous, costly and mostly effective operation by the RAF’s 617 Squadron that used the so-called ‘bouncing bombs’ to destroy two of Germany’s great dams and severely damage a third. The morale boost to Britain, in the middle of 1943 during a dark patch in the war, was arguably greater than the material effect on Germany, but the raid entered the popular consciousness and made the leader of 617 Squadron, Guy Gibson, into one of, if not the, most famous airman in Bomber Command.
So naturally there have been many activities and events to commemorate exactly seven decades since this auspicious event. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster has made a fly-over of the Derwent Dam in Derbyshire, England, where the squadron practiced before the raid. There’s been black and white footage of bouncing bombs on the television news in Australia (though Sky News showed the later ‘Highball’ devices which were never used operationally and were more or less spherical in shape, rather than ‘Upkeep’s cylindrical bomb, and dropped by Mosquitos rather than Lancasters, but I’ll let that slide for the moment). There have been commemorative services at Woodhall Spa (the later home of 617 Squadron), Lincoln Cathedral, RAF Scampton and in Germany. The Royal Air Force has even been live-tweeting wireless messages and key events from the raid, seventy years to the minute since they occurred.
It’s all a bit much really.
It’s an awful lot of fuss over just one operation, just one night of a very very long war. Taking absolutely nothing away from the 53 aircrew who were killed on the raid – out of 133 men, all of whom were already highly experienced – but there has indisputably been a very strong focus on this raid in the years since, perhaps at the expense of the rest of Bomber Command. So much so, in fact, that in much the same way as ‘Battle of Britain’ means ‘Spitfire’ to the average Englishman or Australian, to the detriment of the Hurricane and all the other parts of Britain’s defensive effort that summer of 1940, ‘Lancaster’ has come to mean ‘Dambuster’. And don’t worry about all the rest of Bomber Command, thanks very much.
Much of this is probably due to the Dambusters film of 1955, based on Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book. So much so, in fact, that one newspaper in the UK chose to mark the 70th anniversary with a collection of photographs… from behind the scenes in the making of the movie. Which, all rather interesting, but really??? It’s a sign that the anniversary has become all about the legend, and much less about the blokes who did the job that night – and indeed, the blokes who did the job every night.I mean no slur on 617 Squadron, either to the original members or anyone else involved with it. I mean no slur against Barnes Wallis, the engineer who came up with the concept. I mean no slur against the makers or the actors in the movie (which is probably still one of the greatest war movies ever made). But it would be really nice to see some of the interest, scholarship and mythology associated with the Dambusters carry over into the rest of Bomber Command.
I’ll close with a quote on the Professional Pilot Rumour Network forum by a member calling himself ‘Chugalug2,’ who in this case says it far more eloquently than I can:
The pride that the Royal Air Force has rightly expressed since WW2 over the subject exploits of this thread was not similarly expressed over those of Main Force, when almost every night was one of Maximum Effort.
The Dambusters played an incredible part in the Second World War bomber offensive. But there were many others, just like them, who played an equally important role and who have not been nearly so recognised. Think about them on May 16 each year, too.
(c) 2013 Adam Purcell