Last week marked the 70th anniversary of a very Lincolnshire legend – the Dambusters raid of May 1943. The anniversary provided the opportunity to commemorate the extraordinary bravery and courage of the men who took part in the raid, and to take pride in our county’s contribution to bringing the World War II closer to its end.
I was born on an RAF base and have lived on many since so I was brought up with the story of how on May 16, 1943 Lancasters from 617 Squadron flew from RAF Scampton, on a daring and dangerous mission to knock through dams in Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley using the ‘bouncing bombs’ designed by Sir Barnes Wallis.
The raid, led by Guy Gibson, was the Lancaster’s most famous mission. Its aim was to disrupt production at Germany’s armaments factories and the mission – named Operation Chastise – was a success, breaching the Mohne and Eder dams, and damaging the Sorpe dam. Operation Chastise has become a legend, aided of course by the 1955 film.
Despite the success of raid, 8 of the 19 Lancasters that set off that night did not come back. In order to deploy their bouncing bombs effectively the bombers had to fly at just 60ft, so low that one aircraft hit the sea, and another hit electricity cables and caught fire. Tragically, 56 out of 133 crewmen did not come home and some have no known graves.
The courage of those men, the average age of whom was just 22, was incredible. Not only was the mission clearly very dangerous but the conditions in which they operated were dire; the crews spent hour upon hour cramped, exhausted and in the freezing cold.
There are of course those who highlight, with some justification, the civilian casualties of the raid and question the morality of Bomber Command operations. But whatever your view, to my mind these questions should never detract from the heroism of the crews themselves, and in particular those who sacrificed their lives.
Last week’s anniversary involved a number of excellent events, notably Thursday’s flypast over Derwent reservoir (where 617 Squadron rehearsed for the raid proper) and Friday’s commemorations at Lincoln Cathedral.
There were, for me, two moments which I thought inspired particular local pride. The first was simply the sight of the only remaining airworthy Lancaster in the UK, PA474 ‘City of Lincoln’, with our city’s coat of arms painted on its nose.
The second is something which I will think about each time I look at our cathedral: this was the last landmark of home which some of those men saw and – more happily – for those who returned to Lincolnshire, confirmation that they had made it home.
[button url=”http://thelincolnite.co.uk/2013/05/lincoln-dambusters-70th-memorial-and-flypast/” title=”Dambusters 70th gallery”]In pictures: Lincoln Dambusters 70th memorial and flypast[/button]