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11 June 2011

The Dambusters

Tag(s): History

Probably the most famous squadron in the Royal Air Force was 617 Squadron known as the Dambusters because of their awe-inspiring exploits in May 1943 with their attack on the Ruhr Dams with the Bouncing Bomb invented by Barnes Wallis. The 1954 feature film of the story has established itself firmly in the list of evergreens that a new generation keeps finding with its remarkable story of the mad scientist who was not at all mad and the heroic young pilots and crew who achieved a kind of immortality while actually for many of them it was their last act on earth.

Last week I met a member of the Squadron, Squadron Leader Tony Iveson DFC. He had not been a member at the time of the Dambusters’ Raid but joined the following year and flew equally impressive missions including the sortie that dropped Barnes Wallis designed 20,000lb Tallboys to sink the Battleship Tirpitz, at that time the scourge of Allied Shipping in the North Atlantic.

Squadron Leader Iveson has written a book on the Lancaster[i], the iconic bomber aircraft that proved so successful in Bomber Command. I attended an event where he gave a lecture on the story and took questions for an hour or so. Tony is a mere 91 years old, perfectly lucid with total recall of these amazing and often tragic events.  He is dignified but witty, proud but humble and above all respectful of so many lost colleagues. In the Second World War 120,000 young men flew in Bomber Command missions over Europe and 55,000 lost their lives with an average age of 22. Many more were seriously injured and a similar number captured and spent the rest of the war in Prison of War Camps.  The chances of survival were poor and statistically an airman was unlikely to fly more than 21 missions. A tour was 30 after which one could take a break or do something else. Wing Commander Guy Gibson who led the Dambusters’ Raid was flying his 175th mission that night at the age of 24.  In one night-time raid on Nuremburg more airmen were killed than in the whole of the Battle of Britain.

Edwin Alliott Roe was responsible for the first flight in Britain as an unwelcome guest at the Brooklands Racetrack in Surrey in 1908. He flew 50 yards. Roe later founded Avro, the manufacturers of the Lancaster bomber. Many years after I was a member of the Board of Sony UK that decided to build new purpose built office headquarters at the Brooklands site. From my office window I had a perfect view of the pits where the racing had taken place. But there was also a museum there to both motor racing history and to air flight as Vickers had their headquarters there during the war. A Lancaster bomber was being reconstructed and I had the chance to tour it. It did not take long. It was designed by Roy Chadwick and built by Avro in Manchester (actually in Newton Heath, the original home of Manchester United). It was a development from a previous plane, the Manchester which was twin engined. They added two more engines of the same Rolls Royce Merlin design and from then on it gradually became the aeroplane of choice for most of the Bomber Command squadrons under the leadership of Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, known to the public as “Bomber” Harris, but to his devoted squadrons as “Butch.”

Another key character in the story was Air Marshal the Honourable Sir Ralph Cochrane, a descendant of Lord Cochrane, the founder of the Chilean Navy (see my blog Chilean Naval Day 28th May, 2011) He was given the job of organising an elite squadron to specialise in low- flying. He first recruited Guy Gibson who in turn recruited the best he could find. The squadron had one purpose, to breach the Ruhr Dams but afterwards was kept together to fly many more specialist missions. Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC took over from Gibson and Tony Iveson spoke of him even more highly than Gibson. Both were great leaders but Gibson was very demanding. Cheshire was someone all the crews would have followed anywhere. Gibson did not survive the war while Cheshire, who ended the war as Great Britain’s official observer at the Nagasaki bombing, later became a peer and founded the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity.

In the middle of the Battle of Britain on 3rd September, 1940, the first anniversary of the start of the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill told his War Cabinet:

“The Navy can lose us the war but only the Air Force can win it. Our supreme effort must be to gain mastery in the air. The Fighters are our salvation, but the Bombers alone provide the means of victory. We must therefore develop the power to carry an ever-increasing volume of explosives to Germany, so as to pulverize the entire industry and scientific structure on which the war effort and economic life of the enemy depend, while holding him at arm’s length from our island…”

He saw that the only way to keep Germany at bay and raise morale at home was to mount a continuous campaign flying deep into Germany with a barrage of bombs. They were intended to hit military targets but after the Luftwaffe had indiscriminately bombed towns and cities all over England the War Cabinet became less concerned about this point as the stakes were so high. This was further strengthened when the Germans started to send over unpiloted V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets which were all aimed at the Tower of London and killed many civilians. At the end of the war there was wide spread criticism of the strategy and Arthur Harris emigrated to South Africa to escape the critics. Despite making sacrifices proportionally more than in any other theatre of war Bomber Command’s airmen did not receive a campaign medal and there is no memorial. Every other theatre of war has its campaign medal and indeed there are memorials to the animals that gave service; the women; the Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians; the merchant navy; the firemen; and all rightly so, but there is no memorial to the brave service men of the Bombers who arguably won the war.

As Chairman of the Bomber Command Association Tony Iveson has been leading a campaign to reverse the decisions which were made by Clement Attlee after the war even though as Deputy Prime Minister Attlee had been a member of the War Cabinet. Subsequent appeals to Defence Ministers of both major parties have failed all citing the Attlee decisions. But on the Memorial they have finally won the argument. The money has been  raised (with ease), the architect has produced a design , a foundation stone has been laid and blessed in Green Park and I for one will want to go and see it when it is complete to pay my own modest respects to the extraordinary bravery, skill and sheer bloody-mindedness of the men of Bomber Command.

[i]Lancaster, the biography Squadron Leader Tony Iveson, DFC & Brian Milton. André Deutsch 2009

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