Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Review of Fairy Tales of London

There's a new issue of Fantastika Journal out, which is the first issue of Fantastika Review, and I have a review in it, of Dassi Elber-Aviram's excellent Fairy Tales of London.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Apres moi le déluge

[Like many men of my age, I have been fascinated by Operation Chastise, the May 1943 Dams Raid, at least since seeing the 1955 movie about it.[1] From my late father I inherited copies of Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead (London: Michael Joseph, 1946) and Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters (London: Evans, 1951). To mark the sixtieth anniversary of the raid, I wrote a largely unresearched piece for my LiveJournal (remember that!), followed a year later (April 2004) by a piece in a mailing of the APA Acnestis, in which I read all the Dam Busters[2] literature I owned or could get through the local library, and commented on it. To mark (just) the eightieth anniversary of the raid, I present below, in somewhat modified form, that piece, which incorporated my original Live Journal entry. Whilst revising the piece, I revisited Brickhill and John Sweetman (with David Coward and Gary Johnston), The Dambusters (London: Time Warner Books, 2003). I also consulted Sweetman’s The Dambusters Raid (London: Arms and Armour, 1990), his more scholarly account, The Dambusters Raid, which in 2004 I had not read, but was available in the Cassell’s Military Classics series, and the shorter Dambusters (London: Carlton Books 2013), as well as Max Hastings’ Chastise (London: William Collins 2019), as well as his Bomber Command (London: Joseph, 1979), and the June 2023 issue of Flypast. I was going to write all that reading up as well, but this piece is already chapter-length, so I have decided not to make it even longer. Other than some editing, I have tried to largely leave the original piece untouched. Where my views have changed, I generally, though not always, have indicated this in a footnote. Though matters of history will be touched on in what follows, this is not intended as a historical study of either the Dams Raid or No. 617 Squadron, but as a survey of some of the literature around both. If you wish to read a full account, then I would direct you to one of the books by John Sweetman, either The Dambusters Raid, or the shorter Dambusters, for the raid itself; there is also James Holland, Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams, 1943 (London: Penguin, 2012), which I have not read. For the subsequent wartime operations of 617 Squadron, I suspect the go-to text now is John Nichol, Return of the Dambusters: What 617 Squadron Did Next (London: William Collins, 2015), which again I haven’t read. Nevertheless, Brickhill’s, The Dam Busters, for all its faults, is still worth a read for the casually interested. 

This whole piece is dedicated to the memory of all aircrew of 617 Squadron who have died on active service, 1943–2023, and to the many more people who died as a result of the bombs they dropped.]


A Type 464 Provisioning Lancaster, the modified aircraft for the Dams Raid. This example has no Upkeep ‘bouncing bomb’ (the bombs did not arrive until some time after the planes), and has yet to acquire its squadron identification codes. It would become AJ-T for Tommy, the reserve aircraft flown on the raid by Flight Lieutenant Joseph McCarthy, an American serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, a route followed by many Americans who wished to fight Nazism when the United States was still neutral. This was one of the two Lancasters to attack the Sorpe dam. Note also that the ventral turret has yet to be removed, as can be seen from the projecting machine gun (see text).

Back in 2003–2004, I had been doing quite a bit of reading around the Dam Busters raid, and watched the 1955 movie again. The origins of this activity lie in the following, largely unresearched piece that I wrote in my LiveJournal, and later reprinted in the August 2003 Acnestis (I’ve added a few more notes, where what I originally wrote may well be wrong). 

Sixty years ago tonight [16th May 1943], nineteen specially-modified Lancasters took off from RAF Scampton, and flew into legend. Their mission that night in 1943 has become the single most celebrated operation in the history of RAF Bomber Command.[3]  
It has become fashionable in recent years to denigrate Operation Chastise, the Dams Raid, to suggest that it was only a propaganda success, that its effects on German production were minimal. I have even seen it stated that the main result of the raid was the loss of fifty-six experienced aircrew (617 Squadron was recruited from men who had completed their standard tour of duty;[4] eight of the Lancasters failed to return). 
Some years ago, Channel 4’s myth-debunking series Secret History took a look at the Dams Raid, and reached much that conclusion.[5] However, as often with the Secret History series, I felt that enthusiasm for debunking had resulted in an unbalanced historical picture. The raid was undoubtedly costly. A near-50% loss rate (to say nothing of the aircraft that returned damaged) was unsustainable, and this is why no subsequent attack was ever mounted on the Ruhr dams.[6] 
To view the raid as ‘only’ a propaganda success is hardly telling the whole story, however. In Spring 1943, Bomber Command was suffering punishing losses in the night campaign against German cities (they could lose in a single night more aircrew than were killed in the whole of the Battle of Britain). The US Eighth Air Force was on the verge of being driven from the daylight skies over Germany. Neither part of the strategic bombing offensive was having an appreciable impact on the Germans’ willingness or ability to carry on the war. Joseph Stalin, as ever, was questioning the western Allies’ commitment, due to their failure to open the Second Front. A spectacular propaganda victory was exactly what was needed, and the Dams Raid, which made front pages across the world and was described by Joseph Goebbels as a ‘disaster’, delivered that in spades. As the US proved in the Second Gulf War with the rescue of Jessica Lynch, there is nothing like a daring mission widely-reported to restore the faith of one’s people, media, and allies.  Undoubtedly the Dams mission did not have the catastrophic effects on industry in the Ruhr that had been hoped for, partly because only two dams out of five targets for the night were successfully breached; one which escaped destruction was the Sorpe, most important of the lot.[7]
But it did have effects. Production was disrupted, and electricity supply not properly restored until the end of the year.[8] That this did not have more of an impact is down to the same reason that contributed to area bombing of industrial targets not crippling Germany—unlike Britain, in 1943 German industry was not working at anything like full capacity. And, as Secret History conceded, slave labour that might have been more profitably employed on the Atlantic Wall was diverted to rebuilding the dams, and anti-aircraft guns taken from elsewhere to defend targets that were never attacked again.[9] 
What the Channel 4 programme did not look at was what I consider to be two of the most significant outcomes of the raid; the subsequent history of Barnes Wallis, designer of the ‘bouncing bomb’, and that of 617 Squadron itself. Wallis only worked on the bouncing bomb because he had been unable to raise any Air Ministry interest in what he really wanted to design, a ten-ton ‘earthquake’ bomb.[10] With the success of Operation Chastise, official attitudes to Wallis changed, and he was able to develop, first the 12,000-pound ‘Tallboy’, and then the 22,000-pound ‘Grand Slam’.[11] These weapons were used with great effect against railway tunnels and viaducts, U-boat pens, and canals. They were a significant addition to the RAF’s arsenal, which might not have existed without the Dams Raid. 
Of course, these weapons required more accurate techniques than the area bombing usually practised by the RAF. To be effectively employed, they needed a squadron trained and experienced in precision attacks. As a result of the Dams Raid, the RAF now had such a unit—617 Squadron. I do not believe it to be an exaggeration[12] to say that the RAF strike tactics standard in the twenty-first century, low-level precision attacks, have their origins in the formation of that unit and their first operation in May 1943. (The USAF, meanwhile, keeps alive the tradition of indiscriminate area bombing, in the shape of the B-52.) 
The Secret History programme ended by saying that 618 Squadron, formed at the same time as 617, but equipped with De Havilland Mosquitos employing ‘Highball’, a smaller version of the bouncing bomb, never got to attack its intended target, the battleship Tirpitz. The Tirpitz was sunk by other means. True, but unfairly the programme left it there, and did not tell the whole story. For what finally sunk Tirpitz were Tallboys, dropped by aircraft of 617 and 9 Squadrons. Thus, even though Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb was not employed, nevertheless the sinking of this ship was[13] a direct result of the success, sixty years ago this night, of the attacks on the Möhne and Eder dams.

The crest of 617 Squadron.

Actually, it’s not quite true that my thinking on 617 was first prompted by the sixtieth anniversary. I’d already started mulling over the Dams Raid in summer 2002, as a result of reading Unsurprising Stories 7, one of science fiction author Christopher Priest’s contributions to Acnestis.[14] In this, when talking about the research conducted for his 2002 novel The Separation (London: Simon & Schuster), he talked about Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters (he and I had the same 2/6 Pan edition),[15] and a 1959 novel by actor Robert Shaw,[16] The Hiding Place (filmed in 1965 as the comedy Situation Hopeless… But Not Serious, changing the British bomber crew for an American one).[17] The central part of what Priest was talking about was a passage in Shaw that plagiarises an account in Brickhill of Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s Lancaster crossing the Dutch coast on the night of the raid. But Brickhill himself plagiarizes in this account, which is at least partially fictionalized, as none of the aircrew concerned survived the War to be interviewed by him.[18] An exchange in Brickhill where Gibson asks his wireless operator to turn the heat off is taken directly from Gibson’s own Enemy Coast Ahead, but in the latter book the conversation took place on Gibson’s last op before the Dams Raid. What really set my mind in motion was Priest’s view of the effect of the raid—‘most of the damage was superficial.’ That reminded me of the Secret History programme, and my reaction to that, and I was waiting for an opportunity to set my views down. The sixtieth anniversary of the raid gave me that chance. I then returned to the topic, reading what books I had in my collection and could borrow from the local library.

Even before seeing the movie,[19] I probably first encountered the Dams Raid in the pages of Airfix Magazine, which in August 1973 ran ‘Dambuster Lancaster’, a piece by Gerry Preece showing how to convert an Airfix Lancaster model into the modified version used by 617 on the raid.[20] When I originally wrote this article in 2004, all my old copies of Airfix Magazine had long been thrown away, but in 2023 the magic of eBay means that I can get hold of a copy.[21] The article details how to convert the Airfix Lancaster to a B. III (Special)[22] (and, along the way, how to improve the overall standard of the Airfix Lanc). 

However, by the time the article was published, it had been overtaken by Revell’s 1971 release of kit of a Dam Buster Lanc. I myself built one of these (or more probably got my father to make it). I was forever puzzled by the twin machine guns in a ventral turret (a ‘dustbin lid’ style mounting rather than a full glazed turret such as elsewhere on the aircraft), which I never saw on any other Lancaster plans, pictures or models. (Though I can now see it in the drawings that accompany the Airfix Magazine article.)


The box artwork for the Revell 1:72 scale Dam Buster Lancaster. The artist has made the dam wall convex, rather than concave (most dams are concave in order to better resist the weight of water, though convex dams do exist). Consequently, at first glance it appears as if the plane is suicidally flying below the top of the dam. Also missing are the sluice gates both the Möhne and Eder dams possessed. Note also the ventral turret, depicted by the artist inaccurately with two machine guns rather than one, but not actually fitted on the mission.

I finally discovered in the early 2000s that early Lancasters had single or twin ventral machine guns as a factory fitting, with a periscope to allow a gunner to see to operate it. This was generally removed in operational service (due to the lack of a gunner dedicated to this position, and the difficult in operating it through the periscope), and later discontinued. The ventral turret appears on blueprints outlining the modifications to be made for the B. III (Special). To save weight and gain power, the mid-upper turret was removed, but the ventral turret seems to have been retained, though reduced to just one machine gun.[23] In the end, since this particular operation was intended to be conducted all the way at very low level, opportunities to engage the enemy below the aircraft would be non-existent. Moreover, the mid-upper gunners, who would have operated the ventral turret, for this mission flew in the front turret, normally operated by the bomb aimer. This left the ventral turret with no-one to operate it, and meant that it was dead weight with no benefit. So it made sense to remove it, whatever the merits or otherwise of leaving Lancasters in general with no downward-firing weaponry. 

My 2004 reading started with John Sweetman (with David Coward and Gary Johnston) The Dambusters (London: Time Warner Books, 2003), written to accompany a Channel 4 series. It is a book of two halves; one, by Sweetman, is a history of the raid (based upon his more scholarly account, The Dambusters Raid; indeed, some of the text is identical), and the other, presumably by Coward and Johnston, describes Channel Four’s assembly of a modern crew to replicate the Dams mission. In my 2004 notes, there is no mention of this second part of the book, and I wonder if I just didn’t read those chapters (most unlike me), or decided that they were irrelevant to what I wanted to write about. I did discuss the series itself, as you can read later.

The prefaces of this book, one by Sweetman and one, a producer’s preface, by Johnston, led me to suspect some of what I said in the LiveJournal piece reprinted above was repeating commonly-held myths, and might need correction. For instance, I wrote that the crews were all recruited from personnel who had completed their standard tour of duty of thirty missions—this turns out to be true of many, and others were near completion, but some of the aircrew had flown as little as seven missions. This myth has its origins in Enemy Coast Ahead, where Gibson claims to have hand-picked all the pilots from people who met the qualifications; he certainly hand-picked some pilots, but not all of them.[24]

Many myths have their origin in the movie. For example, there is the story that Air Ministry officials, resistant to Wallis’ request for a Wellington, were surprised to find he designed it; I first came across this in what was supposedly a factual account, albeit one aimed at children, the first proper account of the raid I read (which I have long since lost). Another myth the movie promoted was that the idea of using spotlights to judge the aircraft’s height came from Gibson’s watching a show in the theatre. The truth is that the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, came up with the idea, based on experiments already carried out with Coastal Command Sunderlands. The way Gibson tells this story in Enemy Coast Ahead (subsequently reported by Brickhill in The Dam Busters) is that his crew claimed, when the solution was presented to them, to have had the idea already from watching spotlights at a strip show—but they may have been winding their CO up. Nevertheless, a variation on this was thought to be better cinema than the truth. Other myths, such as Gibson’s entire crew following him from 106 Squadron into 617 (only his wireless operator did)[25] come from Brickhill’s book.

However, Sweetman’s book is not as myth-shattering as it first appears. Barnes Wallis’ activities up until early 1943, around which many of the myths have arisen (fostered by the movie) are skimped over pretty quickly—they warrant better attention. The book does, though, have sensible things to say in its conclusions, noting that the Dams Raid was not as ineffectual as a number of post-war assessments have stated. Sweetman makes the entirely sensible point that the raid’s success needs to be judged against the expectations of those who planned it, not the exaggerated claims of the contem­porary pro-Allied and neutral press. But I wanted to see more on the post-raid careers of Wallis and 617 Squadron, both of which, as I stated before, were given a serious boost by the success of Operation Chastise. Sweetman’s book is a very thorough account of the raid itself and the eight weeks of intense preparation that led up to it. Sweetman also makes the less well-known crews, those who didn’t survive the raid, come alive in a way other accounts haven’t.

Sweetman is, however, also not entirely free of error; he asserts in his preface that the movie fails to cover the Eder, which is not true, as the movie includes the Eder attack, and even mentions the Sorpe, albeit briefly, the third target. In a television documentary on the bombing offensive as a whole, Sweetman says sixteen Lancasters took part in the raid, instead of nineteen—sixteen, however, is a number Gibson mentions, apparently as the number that actually crossed into Germany, after two planes had been forced to turn back and one shot down in the sea, and Sweetman may have meant this.[26]

I had to get from a completely different source[27] the information that illuminates Sweetman’s comment about Flight Lieutenant (F/Lt)[28] Les Knight. Knight was killed (on a later raid against the Dortmund-Ems Canal) after keeping his stricken aircraft in the air long enough for his crew to get out; he got a Mention in Dispatches, when his crew thought he should have got a Victoria Cross. It seems unjust that such an act of bravery should only be rewarded with a humble Mention in Dispatches, but apparently, that was the next highest award after the VC that could be given posthumously.

To understand the legend of 617 Squadron, however, I still think Brickhill’s The Dam Busters (1951), which I read in parallel with Sweetman,[29] is a good starting point. (So it seems odd that this was the first time I had read the book cover-to-cover, having owned it for nearly thirty years). The Dam Busters was Brickhill’s third book, after Escape to Danger (London: Faber & Faber, 1946, co-written with Conrad Norton), and The Great Escape (London: Faber, 1950). Both of those were about prisoners-of-war in Germany; Brickhill had been a POW himself, and been barred from the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III due to his claustrophobia, a decision that probably saved his life.

The Dam Busters was fifty-two years old when I read it, and reading it in the twenty-first century, the prose seems incredibly archaic. Today, there’s no way you could get away with saying things like: ‘Memory is like a woman; it was only when he put it out of his mind that it sneaked insidiously back to him.’ Nor can you describe someone as a ‘gay, chunky little navigator’ and have it mean what Brickhill meant.

An ‘Upkeep’ bouncing bomb loaded on AJ-G for George, Gibson’s Lancaster. This photo was taken on 30 April 1943, and shows a practice Upkeep, filled with inert material, for a test drop on the beach at Reculver in the Thames Estuary. Upkeep was originally spherical, with the central cylinder surrounded by wooden staves; wood was used because of a shortage of steel. The outer casings invariably disintegrated on hitting the water, and the cylinder bounced perfectly well without them, so they were abandoned.

Two points strike me about the book. First, the degree to which Brickhill was bound by official secrecy. When he wrote, details of the ‘bouncing bomb’ were still classified, and were to remain so for another two decades. His book therefore contains no illustrations of the weapon. There are odd circumlocutions; an unnamed character is described as ‘a great scientist who had access to Churchill’. Clearly this must be Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s chief scientific advisor, but Brickhill leaves him in anonymity, because he was lukewarm at best to Wallis’ scheme (there is no mention of Wallis or the Dams Raid in Adrian Fort’s 2003 biography of Lindemann, Prof). Brickhill couldn’t even use the true codename for the attack, Operation Chastise—he calls it ‘Operation Downwood’. This term is still found in some online sources, no doubt derived from Brickhill, and originates in Gibson’s account, where it is the codeword for both the operation and the weapon; presumably, unable to use the actual codeword while the war was still going on, Gibson came up with ‘Downwood’ as a variation on the actual codename for the bouncing bomb, ‘Upkeep’. Still, overall The Dam Busters is considerably less restricted in what it can say than Gibson’s own Enemy Coast Ahead, which could not even name Barnes Wallis.

The second observation is that Brickhill appears to be giving more weight to personal anecdote than official record. I noted above how he claims that all of Gibson’s own crew joined him in 617, when it was only the wireless operator. A simple check of records, you might have thought, would have put him right. Things are said that don’t match up with Sweetman’s account. When the Lancaster of F/Lt Bill Astell (whose mother, I have discovered from Alan Cooper’s book mentioned below, lived in Chapel-en-le-Frith in Derbyshire, where I was brought up) was lost on the raid, Brickhill writes: ‘They [the crews of the two Lancasters in formation with Astell] did not see him again.’ Yet Sweetman includes a description of Astell being shot down by flak, as reported by a crew member of one of the other bombers[30] (Gibson too includes a description of Astell’s Lancaster going down, perhaps drawn from the same eyewitness). The mystery is compounded by Brickhill placing Astell in a different formation from that in which he actually flew, an error corrected by the time of the movie, but which derives from Gibson’s own account. To further confuse the issue, the Channel 4 series that Sweetman’s The Dambusters accompanies states that Astell hit an electricity pylon, as do Jonathan Falconer’s and Alan Cooper’s books mentioned below, as well as Tobin Jones, 617 Squadron: The Operational Record Book 1943–1945 (Bicester: Binx Publishing, 2002), though Jones also reproduces the view held by the RAF at the time that Astell was shot down.[31] Possibly what happened was that Astell was hit by flak, and then hit the pylon on the way down. A similar fate may have befallen F/Lt Norman Barlow, where again there are differing accounts, the British saying he was shot down, the Germans either that he hit a pylon or crashed while trying to crashland his aircraft.

Max Hastings’ helpful timeline of the raid in Chastise illuminates a comment in Brickhill. The latter writes that, on his way back from the dans, Gibson saw a Lancaster going down in flames near Hamm. ‘It may have been Burpee. Or Ottley.’ Both of these were shot down on their way out to the Dams, but they were part of the reserve wave, which had taken off more than ninety minutes after Gibson, and some of the first and second wave were already on their way home before the reserves reached Germany. From Hastings’ timeline, it must have been P/O Warner ‘Bill’ Ottley’s C for Charlie that Gibson saw; he went down near Hamm,[32] and when P/O Lewis Burpee’s S for Sugar was hit, Gibson was still over the Eder. (Sweetman’s The Dambusters Raid already makes this point.)

There were aircrew Brickhill did not talk to—there were, for instance, survivors from two of the lost Lancasters, but their accounts do not inform anything Brickhill wrote. On the other hand, there’s Brickhill’s report that Squadron Leader (S/Ldr) ‘Dinghy’ Young sent a message that he was ditching before his plane ended up in the North Sea (Falconer’s book includes a photograph of the wreckage of a Lancaster washed up on the Dutch coast, probably Young’s aircraft). Sweetman makes no mention of this, but nor does he explicitly deny it, and I am inclined to accept that this might be true.

Brickhill covers the entire history of 617 at war, including the Tirpitz raids, and other attacks. For the period after the Dams Raid itself, I had in 2004 no corrective to him readily to hand. So I had to take what is said at face value, but with the knowledge that Brickhill is not wholly reliable.

On the morality of bombing, Brickhill certainly feels that area bombing of civilian targets should be avoided, where possible, but accepts that some civilian deaths are an inevitability of war. There’s no serious criticism of Air Chief Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris’ policies, bar Harris’ reluctance at first to accept Wallis’ ideas.

Brickhill makes up in readability for a lot of his lapses in accuracy. I remember as a boy starting Reach for the Sky (London: William Collins, 1954), his biography of Douglas Bader. I got no further than his account of Bader’s mother’s childhood in north-west India, because Brickhill’s evocative tales of mysterious maybe-burglars and faces appearing at windows terrified me.

Jonathan Falconer’s The Dam Busters: Breaking the Great Dams of Western Germany 16–17 May 1943 (Stroud: Sutton 2003) is a short, but heavily illustrated, popular account. It includes a chapter on the 1955 movie. The cover cunningly airbrushes off the mid-upper turret of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster, so that it resembles a 617 Squadron machine. This book adds further alternative versions of events. In Brickhill’s account, as Young made his attack on the Möhne, Gibson and F/Lt Harold ‘Micky’ Martin, who had already dropped their bombs, flew either side of him to distract the German flak. This is how it is portrayed in the movie (albeit with Gibson and Martin flying together above and to the right of Young), and in other popular versions, such as a painting Falconer reprints. According to Falconer’s text, however, Martin alone accompanied Young in this fashion, while Gibson engaged the flak from beyond the dam wall. Falconer must be correct, as his text tallies with Gibson’s account. For the final attack on the dam (that of F/Lt D.J.H. Maltby), however, both Gibson and Martin came in from ov>er the lake to provide cover. (Martin, incidentally, survived the war, and went on to become an Air Marshal in the RAF.)

Falconer’s account doesn’t add too much new, but the archive illustrations are fascinating, including German drawings of the Upkeep weapon after they had captured an example, and an impressive aerial reconnaissance mosaic showing the almost-empty Möhne lake. There is Gibson’s VC citation, which notes that he attacked first ‘thus taking the full brunt of the anti-aircraft defences while still at their best’. This may well have been Gibson’s intent, but in fact he made his run when the Germans were too surprised to even shoot in the right direction—when the second plane, F/Lt John ‘Hoppy’ Hopgood’s AJ-M for Mother, attacked, the flak gunners had woken up, and shot him down.[33] Too many details of illustrations, however, disappear into the join between pages on double-page spreads. Oh, and Falconer reports that his aircrews called Harris ‘Butch’, without adding that civilian press reports called him ‘Butcher’.

I said earlier that I didn’t have access to another history of 617 post-Dams Raid with which to judge the later chapters of Brickhill. Tom Bennett’s 617 Squadron: The Dambusters at War (Wellingborough: Stephens, 1986) is not that book. It does deal solely with events after Operation Chastise, but it is not a history, but a collection of anecdotes concerning individual aircrew, assembled in no particular order, by someone who served briefly with the Squadron when they had their own Mosquitos. It’s a good source of material for anyone wanting to write a history of the Squadron, as the anecdotes are plainly drawn from direct interviews with the personnel concerned. But Bennett is a rather dull writer. He is probably more accurate than Brickhill, though. An instance: Flying Officer (F/O) ‘Billy’ Duffy, who joined 617 after Chastise, was killed, together with his navigator, in one of the squadron’s target-marking Mosquitos, when it broke up in mid-air during a non-combat flight. According to Brickhill, Duffy and his crew had just been taken off operations, and this was one last flight for Duffy and his navigator before they left the squadron. According to Bennett, however, Duffy had been regularly flying ops with the Mosquito (leaving most of his regular Lancaster crew behind), and practising target-marking techniques on the bombing range at Wainfleet. And on the day of the fatal flight, his regular navigator cried off the practice flight, and it was another navigator who perished. There is no mention of the crew having completed their tour of operations. Bennett is almost certainly correct here (for one thing, he had actually spoken to the regular navigator concerned), and it highlights again the issue of Brickhill’s diligence (or rather lack of it) with sources.

Alan W. Cooper, Born Leader: The Story of Guy Gibson V.C. (Bromley: Independent Books, 1993) does exactly what it says on the cover (which, incidentally, actually depicts Martin’s Lancaster over the Möhne, with Gibson’s in the background), telling the story of Gibson. Unfortunately, it too is very dull, due to the inclusion of just about every single detail you could imagine. The result is more like a catalogue than a biography. At times, it also gets close to being a hagiography, both of Gibson himself, and of Bomber Command and all its works. Excessive respect for various senior officers leads Cooper to mishandle documents. When Gibson was recommended for a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order, Cooper states that this was endorsed by both the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) 5 Group, Air Vice-Marshal the Hon. Ralph Cochrane, and by Air Marshal Arthur Harris, who remarked that any officer with Gibson’s record deserved two DSOs, if not a VC. The documentation Cooper actually prints tells a different story. Whilst commending Gibson’s record, Cochrane felt that it was too soon after the first award of a DSO to give Gibson another, and instead recommended a second Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross. Harris in his remark was actually over-ruling Cochrane in re-instating the original recommendation. Whether this disagreement had any role in Gibson’s selection to command 617 (Cochrane’s suggestion in Cooper, Harris’ in Brickhill) can never be determined. (Also, Cooper clearly knows more about the RAF than the army, suggesting at one point that Brigadier Orde Wingate led the 14th Army, rather than merely being part of it.)

The book displays its small-press origins in the way it is somewhat carelessly laid out, most obviously in the presentation of two air combat reports from Gibson’s time as a night-fighter pilot, where the second pages are attached to the wrong first pages. It also has the most un­intentionally ironic line that I came across in my reading: ‘whenever the story of the Dambusters and Guy Gibson is told the name “Nigger” will always be part of it.’ This was disproved in an early twenty-first century ITV showing of the movie, where all references to the dog’s name were excluded.[34]

The author has apparently written widely on Bomber Command and on 617, including The Men who Breached the Dams: 617 Squadron ‘The Dambusters’ (London: Kimber, 1982), Beyond the Dams to the Tirpitz: The Later Operations of 617 Squadron (London: Goodall, 1991), and The Dambusters Squadron: Fifty Years of No. 617 Squadron RAF (London: Arms and Armour, 1991).[35] But, as a review of Born Leader by Lloyd Brodrick in Sabretache 37 (1996) identifies, Cooper is not much of a critic or historian—rather he is a storytelling enthusiast. This makes him blind to some of Gibson’s faults—for instance, though popular with the people with whom he flew, Gibson could be a martinet to ground crews, and was unloved by them as a result.

A frame from a cine film showing a Lancaster B. I (Special) piloted by F/O P. Martin, releasing a ten-ton ‘Grand Slam’ against the Arnsberg Viaduct in 19 March 1945; the first such bomb had been dropped on the Bielefeld Viaduct five days previously. In order to accommodate the bomb, a great deal of equipment was removed, including the bomb bay doors, front and mid-upper turrets, and two of the guns in the rear turret (Allied air superiority by this stage of the war was such that Lancasters did not need as much defensive armament, even in daylight), and uprated Merlin engines with wide ‘paddle-blade’ propellers were fitted. Even then the bomb-laden aircraft barely got into the sky. 617 was the only squadron to deploy this weapon. 617’s usual squadron code was AJ, but Grand Slam carrying aircraft had the code YZ.

A brief diversion now, to consider some science-fictional versions of Guy Gibson. First, Christopher Priest, The Separation (2002). Christopher Priest briefly postulates that Gibson went into politics after the war, becoming an MP and then a PPS in the Home Office. It is true that the real Gibson was, briefly, prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for Macclesfield. However, it seems to me that he was pushed into accepting the candidacy because the Conservatives felt his fame would be an electoral asset. Gibson decided in the end he didn’t like politics, and forced his way back onto operations (where he swiftly got himself killed). His pre-war ambition was to be a test pilot, and he had joined the RAF as a means to that end. Harris, in his introduction to Enemy Coast Ahead, says that ‘Gibson was not a professional airman’, but what he means by that is that Gibson was not a professional serviceman. A professional flyer was exactly what Gibson wanted to be, and his short-service RAF commission was intended as the first step in his career. I can see a Gibson who survived the war and became famous as a result of it going into politics. However, I suspect a Gibson who was not made famous would have pursued his test pilot dream.

Secondly, in issue 10 of The Ultimates (July 2003), a dark and cynical take on the Marvel superhero group the Avengers, there is a flashback to 1945, and Captain America attending a secret briefing. Part of that briefing is given by an RAF officer. The officer is not named, but from the artwork it is clearly Gibson. It seems that either writer Mark Millar or artist Bryan Hitch are suggesting that Gibson’s death in September 1944 was faked (there are some odd aspects to Gibson’s death, of the sort that appeal to conspiracy theorists) in order for him to undertake top secret work.

I did some related television and video watching. The Channel 4 series The Dambusters spent more time on putting a crew of modern RAF personnel through a computer simulation of the raid than it did telling the full story. However, the reconstruction and the historical account did complement each other, and led to a greater understanding on my part. The Dambusters was considerably more successful in this respect than Spitfire Ace, an earlier attempt to do the same for the Battle of Britain, where the footage of veterans and historians describing the Battle and that of modern flyers learning to fly Spits tended to get in the way of each other. Moreover, The Dambusters did have some nifty CGI reconstructions of the raid itself—even if I could have done without the accompanying music.

In November 2003, I also caught another documentary, The Dam Busters: The True Story, on the History Channel, but as I was working from home, and then had to leave to properly observe the two minutes’ silence for Armistice Day, I wasn’t able to concentrate on it as fully as I’d like. However, I was able to note that it dated from 1993, and interviewed two of the then-surviving pilots, David Shannon and Ken Brown (both sadly now deceased). I thought at first that it was the Secret History documentary I originally referred to, but this isn’t actually the case, as its conclusions were much more favourable to the operation, noting the enhanced credibility given to Wallis and the resultant development and effective deployment of the Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs.

The 1955 movie is still the form in which most people are familiar with the raid. As noted throughout this piece, it gives rise to a number of myths about what actually happened, and is stirringly heroic (if largely unsentimental). What struck me in particular is how British it is. America had been in the war over a year by the time of Chastise, yet the USA is hardly mentioned. I don’t think even ten or fifteen years later the movie could have been made in this way, and certainly not today. Today there would have to be more emphasis on Joe McCarthy, the American pilot in the Squadron, and I can imagine Hollywood producers being unable to accept that all he achieved was to damage the parapet of the Sorpe, while Brits and Aussies breached the Möhne and Eder. (But perhaps they would make more of Young’s Californian heritage. Assuming, of course, that they just didn’t make the whole thing an American operation anyway, cf. 2000’s U-571.)

Still from The Dam Busters (1955). Note the mock bomb carried; because Upkeep was still classified in 1954, the movie-makers had to come up with something that conveyed the idea of the bouncing bomb. Ironically, it looks more like Wallis’ original idea for a spherical bomb.

I also note how anonymous everybody is. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the aircrew from one another. Even the actors who later became well-known, George Baker as F/Lt David Maltby, pilot of AJ-J, Robert Shaw as Gibson’s flight engineer, Sgt John Pulford (fifteen years later Shaw would be in a Spitfire in Battle of Britain), and Nigel Stock as Gibson’s bomb aimer, P/O Fred ‘Spam’ Spafford (thus playing an Australian!), are sufficiently young as to blend into anonymity. There are scenes of empty rooms the morning after the raid; one really has to have been paying attention to know that these are the rooms of Young, Hopgood, and S/Ldr Henry Maudslay, and we saw them in their rooms before the raid. And by ‘aircrew’, I realize that I’m actually mostly talking about the pilots. In most of the literature mentioned above, the pilots get much more coverage than the other aircrew. Usually, only Gibson’s crew emerge with any individual personalities, and that is the case in the movie as well. (An exception to this is Bennett’s book, since each of his anecdotes usually concerns a single aircraft, so the reader gets to know the crew of that aircraft.)

I also glanced at the Internet in 2004, but the quality of information soon went into a sharp decline, such that even a BBC feature could suggest that F/Sgt. Bill (or Peter in Gibson—perhaps some editorial confusion with the fighter pilot who was later Princess Margaret’s suitor?) Townsend’s mission on the Dams Raid was to fly over minor dams to distract the Germans from the true targets. It was nothing of the sort. Townsend belonged to the mobile reserve, to be directed to primary or secondary targets as felt appropriate. He attacked what he thought was the Ennerpe (but was probably actually the Bever), dropping his bomb successfully, but not breaching the dam. The inaccurate version probably is a distortion of something Gibson wrote, when he suggested that the prime task of those aircraft assigned to attack the Sorpe was to act as a diversion. Again, this is not true—the importance of the Sorpe as a target is shown not only by the five aircraft assigned to it, but also the fact that any mines left from the Möhne/Eder force were designated for the Sorpe. But Gibson was writing after only two aircraft had managed to reach the Sorpe, and failed to breach it, but when the war was still on and public admission of failure bad for morale. Better to suggest that it wasn’t that important after all.

And so, finally, to Enemy Coast Ahead(1946), Gibson’s own account of his war service up to Chastise. It has been demonstrated, by Richard Morris in Guy Gibson (London: Viking, 1994, with Colin Dobinson),[36]  who saw the original manuscript) that this volume was Gibson’s own work, without the aid of a ghost-writer, though some of what he wrote was toned down in the editing process. Even so, he was a little coarse for the mores of 1950s Britain. Before the raid, Young asked Gibson if he could have Gibson’s next egg if Gibson didn’t return. In the movie, Gibson’s response is to say, ‘Okay, I’ll have yours if you don’t.’ What he actually said, as Gibson makes clear through some transparent circumlocutions, was, ‘Bugger off and go fuck yourself.’

One actually gets a better idea of what Gibson might have been like as a person from this book than from Cooper’s; as Max Hastings later notes in Chastise, Gibson reveals a remarkable sensitivity in these pages. Of course, anyone writing their autobiography may slant things in their favour, and not be fully aware of how other people see them, but a personality leaps out at the reader far more here than from Cooper’s dull record. Though Gibson’s upbringing inclined him naturally towards Conservatism, had he pursued that career he would have been very much on the left of the party. Early on he complains about how mistakes in British leadership have led to the War, and makes the following plea: ‘in order to protect our children let the young men who have done the fighting have a say in the affairs of State.’ One can imagine Ted Heath thinking that, but not Maggie Thatcher.

One also gets an impression that Gibson was a man often on the edge of great events, even if he were not always in the thick of it himself. For instance, Gibson’s squadron took part in the attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal that earned Bomber Command its first VC (Gibson himself was on leave at the time.)

There is of course, much that Gibson cannot tell, and much that he does not know—he seems, for instance, to have no idea of the appalling casualty rates of the USAAF’s daylight bombing offensive. (And odd mistakes—e.g. Martin flew AJ-P for Popsie, not AJ-T for Tommy, which was McCarthy’s plane.) Much of what he includes are anecdotes, possibly apocryphal stories of the sort servicemen always tell. But, refreshingly, Gibson’s well aware of this, and one suspects that many of the stories he includes that don’t concern him personally are not just there to fill out the account of a man who was not a habitual diarist, and so suffered from a shortage of material about himself. Gibson wants to give an impression of the sort of tales that would be heard around an airbase.

When he considers Bomber Command policy, he has no doubts about its morality. The ‘Hun’ deserves this, as repayment for all the times in the last 150 years they have taken war to other nations. (That 150 years is an odd figure, as from when Gibson was writing it takes one back to Napoleonic times, when the German states were Britain’s allies against the French.) But he is firmly of the belief (in contrast to Harris) that bombing cannot win the war on its own—it is a necessary precursor to a land invasion. Gibson is also capable of presenting an imagined ‘typical’ raid in which he shows both the RAF and the Luftwaffe side, and reveals himself more sympathetic to the enemy’s point of view than in his more forthright statements. (His view of the night defence of Germany is no doubt partly informed by his own time as a night fighter pilot.)

Local connections raise themselves. For me, it’s the mention of Ringway, to where Gibson is sent in the winter of 1939, which later became Manchester International Airport, with which I was once quite familiar, and West Malling, where he served part of his time as a night fighter pilot, which is near to where my wife’s mother lives. For you it may be something different.

This is a lost world that these books and programmes describe. Even when I first read of the Dams Raid, in the early ’70s, the crews had seemingly outrageous names: Burpee, Ottley, Maltby, Astell, names you no longer seem to come across.[37] I wonder what this says about the generation that fought the war, and those following. At the end of all this, I come away with a renewed respect for the men of 617 Squadron, their bravery and professionalism, and their achievements.

It occurred to me on 2004 that there needed to be a definitive and well-written wartime history of 617, covering the Dams Raid and subsequent operations, that also deals with Wallis and his special weapons, including ‘Highball’, the Mosquito-borne anti-shipping version of Upkeep, hardly ever touched upon in these works.[38] I’m not sure if Alan Cooper’s other works might fit the bill—I suspect they would be good reference material, but too meticulous and stylistically boring to provide the popular history that is needed.

However, Chris Ward, Andy Lee & Andreas Wachtel, Dambusters: The definitive history of 617 Squadron RAF at war 1943–1945, published in 2003, looks much more likely to fill that role, and certainly, from its publicity, thinks it does—but sadly I haven’t seen a copy. As noted earlier, I would now turn to John Nichol’s Return of the Dambusters.

[1] The copyright date on the DVD is 1954, but the film was not actually first shown to the public until 1955.

[2] There is no apparent consensus on whether ‘Dambuster’ is one word or two. I have chosen two, as that seems to have earlier authority, though the RAF now has it as one on their official documentation.

[3] In this piece I take for granted a familiarity with the principal details of the raid.

[4] This, as I note later, was not, in fact, the case.

[5] Curiously, Channel 4 marked 2003’s sixtieth anniversary weekend with a showing of Battle of Britain film Angels One Five (1952), though in fairness they had earlier in the month shown the 1955 classic The Dam Busters, and a new two-part documentary-cum-reconstruction, The Dambusters.

[6] This is not quite true, as the Sorpe dam was later attacked, unsuccessfully, with ‘Tallboys’.

[7] And more-or-less impervious to the ‘Upkeep’ bouncing bomb.

[8] This is what I wrote in 2003, but it may not be entirely true. Different accounts give different perceptionsthis comes from the Channel 4 Dambusters series, but Jonathan Falconer in The Dam Busters: Breaking the Great Dams of Western Germany 16–17 May 1943 (Stroud: Sutton 2003) says that electricity was restored in a matter of weeks; this is also Sweetman’s conclusion. One could add to this list of effects that the dams were never used to full capacity for the rest of the war, to hinder a repeat attack.

[9] But see the preceding note on a later attack on the Sorpe.

[10] When I originally wrote this in 2003, I was still very much buying into the myth of Wallis as the genius frustrated at every turn by the bureaucratic establishment. The reality was far more nuanced; Wallis did face opposition, notably from Air Marshal, later Air Chief Marshal, Sir Arthur Harris, C-in-C of Bomber Command, but he also had plenty of support at the Air Ministry, including that of the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal. Had it been otherwise, Wallis’ ideas would never have got anywhere, and a lot of the objections were practical, e.g. the RAF did not have an aircraft capable of carrying the ten-ton bomb to 40,000 feet, what Wallis believed was the most effective altitude (though Wallis offered to design such a bomber), nor much hope in 1941 or 1942 of delivering such a weapon with sufficient accuracy. The success of Chastise nonetheless probably did make Wallis’ life easier.

[11] Though still not the high-altitude Victory bomber to deliver them.

[12] Or at least, not too much of an exaggeration.

[13] Or could be argued to be.

[14] Chris was enthusiastic about this piece as originally published.

[15] I subsequently replaced this with a later edition, as my original was falling apart through multiple readings; but I may still have the original somewhere.

[16] Shaw appeared in The Dam Busters, playing Gibson’s flight engineer, Sergeant John Pulford.

[17] I have neither read Shaw’s novel nor seen the movie.

[18] Most of Gibson’s crew were lost when Gibson’s successor as CO of 617, Wing Commander George Holden, was shot down by flak (German anti-aircraft fire) on 16 September 1943, during a disastrous raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, in which five out of eight Lancasters were lost. Pulford (despite what Paul Brickhill says) had transferred to another crew before this, but was killed when his Lancaster crashed in a flying accident on 13 February 1944. Rear gunner Flight Lieutenant Richard Trevor-Roper had also transferred, to 97 Squadron, and was killed on 31 March 1944, when his Lancaster was shot down by a German night fighter. Gibson himself was killed when flying a Mosquito on 19 September 1944 on a raid against Bremen.

[19] The movie was first shown on British television in 1971. I don’t know when I first saw it.

[20] The Upkeep bouncing bomb was only fully declassified in 1973, though enough data had been released in October 1962 to attempt a model.

[21] It is very nostalgic, full of features I remember poring over as a child, about modelling the Charge of the Light Brigade, or the Eighth Army in the desert, or a Russian SU-152 assault gun.

[22] The modified aircraft was termed the Type 464 Provisioning Lancaster, sometimes referred to as an Avro Lancaster B. III (Special); the B. III was identical to the standard Lancaster B. I, except that US-built Packard Merlins replaced the Rolls-Royce Merlins of the B. I. For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the Dam Buster Lancs as the B. III (Special), though the term was not employed until after the raid.

[23] This is not quite what I thought in 2003, where I suggested the ventral turret was an addition to Lancs that otherwise would not have had it.

[24] Also it was the original intention of Bomber Command to select the crews from people who had completed their tours.

[25] Flight Lieutenant Robert Hutchinson. Sweetman’s 2013 Dambusters states that Gibson came with a navigator, but Pilot Officer Harlo Taerum actually came from 50 Squadron.

[26] Though Gibson gets confused, and sixteen later appears in Enemy Coast Ahead as the number that crossed the coast. That figure only works if you discount P/O Vernon Byers’ plane, shot down as it crossed the Dutch coast—but Gibson then says that of the sixteen, eight were shot down, a figure that must include Byers.

[27] Twenty years later, I have no idea what that source was.

[28] I’ve adopted the abbreviations in use in the war for the RAF’s ranks. Newer works sometimes follow the RAF’s current practice, in which, e.g., Flight Lieutenant is abbreviated as Flt Lt.

[29] Where I cite ‘Sweetman’ in what follows, I am referring to the 2003 The Dambusters, except where noted.

[30] Flight Sergeant (F/Sgt) Robert Kellow, wireless operator in AJ-N, piloted by Les Knight, who was looking back through the Lancaster’s astrodome.

[31] That Astell hit a pylon is also the view in Hastings, Chastise, and in Tom Allett’s ‘Eight of the Lancaster are missing’ in the June 2023 issue of FlyPast.

[32] Rear gunner Sgt Fred Tees survived the crash, though with severe burns, one of three survivors from the crews of the eight Lancasters lost.

[33] A thing I learnt from the FlyPast articles, not covered in detail in any other book I’ve seen, though Sweetman’s 2013 Dambusters briefly mentions it, is that Hopgood’s aircraft had been hit by flak on the run in to the Möhne. Front gunner Flying Officer (F/O) George Gregory had been seriously wounded, probably killed, and Hopgood himself was nursing a head wound.

[34] The name has also been removed from the dog’s gravestone, though it has now been restored in the movie, together with a warning about the language used. I use it here strictly for historical accuracy, whilst recognising that it is a racial slur, and ought to be avoided in most contexts.

[35] To this can now be added The Dam Buster Raid: A Reappraisal, 70 Years On (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2013).

[36] Still considered by most to be the definitive Gibson biography.

[37] Though in fairness I have come across several Maltbys, including a Professor of Latin at Leeds and the author of a book on Hollywood cinema.

[38] There is rather more on Highball in Max Hastings’ Chastise.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Captain Carter review on The Slings and Arrows

I don't do reviews for The Slings and Arrows Graphic Novel Guide as often as I'd like, but I did manage to write one recently. The subject is Jamie McKelvie and Marika Cresta's rather nice Captain Carter: Woman Out of Time.


Monday, May 15, 2023

Vapour Trails: Klaus Voormann special.

Klaus Voormann's drawing of the Plastic Ono Band rehearsing on the plane going over to their first gig in Toronto in 1969, as discussed in the programme.
I have done another of my internet radio appearances, this time discussing the career of Klaus Voormann. Thanks to Steve Brooks for allowing me on the air again.