Last fight of the Dam Busters
28th March 2014: Finale
It’s the music really. The opening bars of ‘The Dam Busters March’ on the soundtrack of the 1955 film ‘The Dam Busters’ can induce arms-spread patriotism amongst the most cynical Englishmen. The theme sounded particularly poignant as it played on 28th March 2014, the day the famous squadron was disbanded – even more so for the two surviving participants of the audacious Dam Busters raid of 16th May 1943. That night 617 Squadron, formed for the occasion, attacked the German dams at Mohn, Edersee and Sorpe, breaching the first two and damaging German industry at the cost of ten aircraft and the lives of 53 crew. Seventy years on and the two surviving members are hearing the stirring tune again alongside the many pilots and navigators that followed them over the years. But today the march is a swansong.
617 Squadron was born to exploit a new piece of technology, the bouncing bomb developed by British scientist Barnes Wallis to destroy the supposedly invulnerable dams. Its demise was hastened by new technology too. The introduction of the F-35B stealth fighter, known as the Lightning II, means the end of the 617’s Tornado strike force, based at Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth in northeast Scotland since 1994.
“We’re hugely proud of what those men did and of the Dam Busters flash we wear on our flying suits”
The squadron’s final parade was held at Lossiemouth in the presence of Prince Andrew, Duke of York and Honorary Air Commodore, and senior staff of the RAF. The RAF hope to restart 617 in 2018 at RAF Marham in Norfolk, re-equipped with the new fighter. Nonetheless, for Squadron Leader Mark Jackson, second in command of the squadron and the pilot selected to lead 617’s final flight, the parade was an emotional occasion. Jackson has just completed his final tour with the squadron in Afghanistan, and at 39 he will be too old to fly the new fighter when the squadron is reformed. “The parade was bittersweet,” he says. “It’s very sad to leave a squadron but it was also a celebration of everything we had achieved over the last decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. But what really struck me, as it did during the 70th celebrations last year, was the sheer public interest in 617 Squadron. I was utterly blown away by it.”
It was the 1955 movie starring Richard Todd as Guy Gibson – the apparently nerveless 24-year-old who led the raid – that started the mania and stamped 617 Squadron into the English national consciousness. Although a similar cultural mechanism beatified other war movies like ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘The Great Escape’, ‘The Dam Busters’ became a particularly English signifier.
The tune is still sung whenever fans of the national football team gather, arms held out as Lancaster bomber wings. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were all just as much at war with the Nazis as England was between 1939 and 1945. Yet they have never exhibited a similar compunction.
This connection was, and still is perhaps, because the film’s tropes and themes – pluck, dash, boffinry, amateurism and a certain rigidity around the topper-most labia oris – appeal to a particularly English sense of self, even though 617 Squadron has long been stationed in Scotland. This national awareness of 617 and its exploits has created a strange burden for those who followed Gibson and his crews. “We’re hugely proud of what those men did and of the Dam Busters flash we wear on our flying suits but it doesn’t overshadow what we do,” says Jackson. “Still, you can’t help but be humbled by what they achieved, flying through flak in a big aircraft at 60 feet – which is about 20,000 feet below what it was designed to fly at – then dropping a weapon that is spinning backwards. ‘Johnny’ Johnson [George Johnson, the last British survivor of the Dam Busters raid] told me the Lancaster’s wingspan was greater than the height, so if you roll a Lancaster at 60 feet the tip of the wing will hit the water. So it’s always with you, but the people we have now are fantastic, and who is to say if you sent them back 70 years they couldn’t have done it as well?”
February 2003: Ready for war
The last time I was in the company of the 617 it was a beginning, not an end. I arrived with them on the eve of the 2003 Coalition invasion of Iraq armed with biro, pad and generous expense account, tasked with capturing the mood of the RAF’s operational elite. Weeks before I had watched the million-strong anti-war march trudging along the Embankment and through central London. However I was under few illusions about the power of marchers to change the government’s mind. Neither were my editors. The working title for the piece I had been commissioned to write was ‘Ready for War’.
On my arrival the officer in command of 617 Squadron told me: “I think the Iraqis will give up after the first wave of attacks, after the big bang at the beginning.” The bang would be very big. In 1943, 617 Squadron used Lancasters to drop the bouncing bomb. In 2003 it was equipped with Tornado GR4s. Although the jets carried a logo showing a destroyed dam and the motto ‘Dam Busters’ on their tails, they were armed with the Storm Shadow missile which enabled pilots to fire from more than 175 miles away. 617 was tasked with pulverising Iraq defences, practice for which was well underway. And I was going to to join in.
Everyone vomits in Tornados, I was told, even pilots who have done this before. Not me though. In truth I didn’t have time to be sick, as the whole experience was so intense that even now I am not entirely convinced it happened. Forcing myself to go to the toilet before I was strapped into an anti-G suit that would prevent me from doing so for another two hours, I perused posters in the cubicle exhorting the pilots to beware of bird strikes and to keep well clear of the hundreds of commercial airline flights that crisscross northern Britain.
These were in my mind ten minutes later as the pilot sitting in front of me engaged the burners and we rocketed out over a golf course and across the coast. As blood pulsed through my ears until I feared it would burst out, we surged up to 20,000 feet and then down to 3,000 feet in about the time it takes to shift a recalcitrant Nissan Micra from first gear to fifth. We then turned and toured the glens and peaks of the Scottish Highlands at extreme speed and with marginal clearance. I could only gasp at what I saw before we rose again, raced across the North Sea and rendezvoused, half way to Denmark, with a US air tanker.
Now I watched gobsmacked from the back of the cockpit as the American plane lowered a fuel pipe and guiding basket. The pilot flew the nose of the Tornado into this contraption as blithely as if he were on a garage forecourt. Throughout this the Americans maintained a constant stream of joshing over the airwaves, including – to my delight – the phrase “you limeys”.
Caught up both in my own exhilaration and the unlikely humour of the moment, I was temporarily oblivious to the fact that this was training for upcoming joint combat operations. I was woken up to reality when we dropped precipitously to 300 feet and streaked in over the Northumberland coast. Realising that Berwick-upon-Tweed was standing in for Basra I can admit now, to my shame, that I whooped.
Paying the cost
Back on the ground in Lossiemouth I found a small Scottish resort given over to flying. At a local pub, every glass and bottle rattled when a jet took off or landed, making it entirely possible for an RAF officer to know how many Tornados were in the air without leaving the bar.
My company in the pub was a group of pilots and navigators that I couldn’t name. Not through drink-prompted amnesia, but because if they were caught in Iraq, it might aid their interrogators. The capture of Tornado pilots John Peters and John Nichol of XV Squadron in the 1991 Gulf War was in everyone’s thoughts. On a low-level mission against an Iraqi airfield, Peters and Nichol were shot down by a surface to air missile then tortured, paraded on television and thrown in Abu Graib prison until the end of the war.
“Barnes Wallis went on to develop ‘Tallboy’, a deep penetration bomb with which 617 Squadron destroyed railway tunnels, U-boat pens and V1 launch sites”
Although the Tornado is, according to Jackson, a fantastic weapon delivery platform, it was nonetheless “conceived in the ’60s, designed in the ’70s and came into fruition in the ’80s.” By 2003 it was old. Created the last time war with Russia was a distinct possibility, it was designed to fly under radar, and although the Soviet Union was long gone the RAF still flew them that way.
Andy, a navigator, revealed the shock of realising someone is trying to kill you. “When you first see flak your reaction is ‘What on earth is that?’ It’s frightening but you report it to the nearest AWAC [Airborne Warning and Control operative] and get on with your job”. A nearby pilot had a more succinct modus operandi: “Get in there quick then get straight out as quick as you can.”
When the time came, my company in the pub all got in and all got out again. Not everyone was so lucky. On 23rd March 2003, just four days into the operation and a few short weeks after my cockpit’s-eye view of the Highlands, an RAF Tornado GR4 was accidentally shot down by a US patriot missile over Iraq. Both the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Kevin Main, 35, and the navigator, Flight Lieutenant Dave Williams, 37, of 9 Squadron, based at RAF Marham in Norfolk were killed. Speaking at the time, Williams’s father said it was his son’s “dream to fly in the Dam Busters Squadron”.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq saw the 617 continue its pioneering heritage, becoming the first to deploy the 16-foot-long air-to-surface missile known as the Shadow Storm. The squadron had a tradition of such innovation that measured up to the mythmaking of the 1955 film. Barnes Wallis really was an eccentric English genius, who tested his idea for the Dam Buster weapons by dropping barrel bombs on Reculver beach in Kent to see if they would bounce. He went on to develop ‘Tallboy’, a 12,000lb deep penetration bomb with which 617 Squadron destroyed railway tunnels, U-boat pens and V1 launch sites in occupied Europe as the balance of power shifted to the Allies.
“In 1943, 617 Squadron used Lancasters to drop the bouncing bomb. In 2003 it was equipped with Tornado GR4s”
In the spring of 1945, 617 Squadron dropped the first ever ‘Grand Slam’ bomb, a 22,000lb giant that destroyed the vital Bielefeld viaduct in Germany. In 1963 it became the first squadron to become operational with the Blue Steel standoff nuclear missile and in the 1991 Gulf War it pioneered the use of laser guided missiles.
The squadron’s last flight wasn’t a ceremonial one, but an active operation in Afghanistan in January 2014. “It is fitting that this milestone event occurred on Operations, delivering decisive airpower much as our forebears did in 1943,” said Mark Jackson at the time. “Back then the Squadron was employed on offensive operations, whereas today we’re trying to set the conditions for enduring security and peace. I think there are many parallels – the team spirit that existed back then endures to this day and I think the focus on getting the job done is exactly the same.” If everything goes to plan, 617 Squadron will reform in 2018 and the Dam Busters – flying brand new Lightning IIs – will once again fly at the forefront of the technology of warfare. But for now, at least, its mission is complete.
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