Back in the air, aged 89

The campaign for belated recognition of the wartime efforts of those who served in Bomber Command is gathering pace. At a recent parliamentary question time, Tom Harris MP elicited a reply from the government that a new memorial was under serious consideration. 

Scandalously, the aircrew of Bomber Command were never awarded their own campaign medal – the reason given at the time that because they were fighting from bases inside the UK, the Defence Medal would suffice. As Patrick Bishop has written:

The war had been a triumph for morality and civilized values, of light and darkness. The presence of Bomber Command loomed awkwardly over this legend. From then on, the political establishment colluded to keep it to the margins of the story [and] … when it came to awarding medals, care was taken not to identify the strategic bombing offensive as a distinct campaign. (Bomber Boys, Harper Press, 2007, p.368)

The Daily Telegraph has got in on the act with a fine new portal page on its website. There’s lots of great stuff here: archive pages from wartime issues, including the whole front page from the day after the dams raid, and a great piece about 617 Squadron’s Tony Iveson, a pilot who joined the squadron in late 1943, and took part in many operations later on in the war. He is now the chair of the Bomber Command Association. In his beautifully written article, with accompanying video, Gordon Rayner describes how he accompanied the 89-year-old Iveson on a flight in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster. When the pilot asked Iveson if he wanted to take over the controls for a short while, he leapt at the chance.

The link on the Telegraph’s portal page doesn’t seem to show the whole article, so I have taken the liberty of copying and pasting the whole 1300 words below. It repays reading!

The last time Squadron Leader Tony Iveson flew a Lancaster on operations, his bomber was so badly shot-up by a German fighter over Bergen that three of his seven crew bailed out, certain they were just moments from crashing. But the 25-year-old pilot wasn’t about to be beaten; despite losing an engine and with many controls out of action, Mr Iveson, determined not to become a prisoner of war, kept the stricken bomber in the air for several nerve-shattering hours before making an emergency landing on Shetland.
His courage that day in January 1945 earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and signalled the end of his war, in which he had flown more than 20 missions over enemy territory with 617 Squadron, “The Dambusters”. He was one of the lucky ones. Of the 125,000 men who flew with Bomber Command, with an average age of 22, a total of 55,573 were killed, the heaviest losses of any unit in the Second World War.
Yet their sacrifice has never been recognised by a memorial, and as chairman of the Bomber Command Association, Tony Iveson is one of the veterans spearheading the campaign to raise the 2 million pounds needed to build a memorial in central London. The Telegraph’s Forgotten Heroes appeal, launched today, calls on readers to help fund that permanent symbol of our nation’s gratitude.
“Never a day goes by when I don’t think about the friends that I lost,” said Mr Iveson, who became a pilot with BOAC before joining Granada TV, where he rose to be head of publicity. “It becomes more poignant the older you get, because you realise all the more how lucky you were and how much of life those young men missed out on.”
After he had come so close to losing his life in a Lancaster, I was unsure how Mr Iveson would react when I asked him whether he might like to fly in one again. “I’d love to,” came his excited reply when I rang him at his home in Oxted, Surrey. At the age of 89, it was clear that his boyish enthusiasm for flying remained undimmed, as did his fondness for an aircraft that got him home safely so many times.
Within weeks, Mr Iveson, a widower with three daughters and six grandchildren, would not only be airborne but at the controls of a Lancaster, becoming the oldest person to fly the RAF’s most famous bomber. It would be one of his most moving post-war experiences. The chance to fly in the Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight had been offered by Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, the Chief of the Air Staff and a keen supporter of the memorial campaign.
At the end of last month, having spent the night at the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire (which had served as 617 Squadron’s officers’ mess in 1944), Mr Iveson and I set off in thick fog for nearby RAF Coningsby, home of the memorial flight. Awaiting us was Lancaster PA474, one of only two airworthy examples of the 7,373 built, and the only one in Europe.
Up close the Lancaster seems a living, brooding beast, carrying nobility and menace in equal measure. “It really was a weapon of war,” said Mr Iveson as we climbed aboard. “It looks so big from the outside, but it’s quite cramped because of all the weaponry. It was a tough machine. I flew 25 different types of aircraft during my career, from Spitfires to heavy bombers, and there was nothing better than the Lancaster for getting the job done. It would take a lot of punishment and still be able to fly, and that was comforting to know when we set off on operations.”
PA474 has been beautifully maintained and still looks ready for battle. It even has racks filled with hundreds of bullets running down the inside of the fuselage to feed the four machine guns in the rear turret. Was it as Mr Iveson remembered it? “The smell is there and that brings it all back,” he said. “But I can’t believe how small the cockpit is. Did I really spend all those hours in such a tight space?”
Mr Iveson flew Spitfires with 616 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, and survived being shot down and landing his fighter in the North Sea before his transfer to Bomber Command and more than 20 raids with 617 Squadron, including the sinking of the Tirpitz in 1944.

But on this occasion, as Flight Lieutenant Mike Leckey fired up the four Merlin engines, Mr Iveson would have to squash into the wireless operator’s seat at the back of the cockpit. Fiddling mischievously with the Bakelite morse code sender, he said: “I’d never sat in this position before. It really is a tight squeeze and it’s only now that I realise how difficult it must have been for the wireless operator, sitting here for up to 12 hours at a time.”
With engines idling, the floor began to judder, and as Mr Leckey opened the throttles, the aircraft accelerated with surprising speed down the runway, pinning me back into my seat. Suddenly the juddering stopped, we were airborne and the Lancaster rose effortlessly above the Lincolnshire countryside. As Mr Iveson stared out across the wing, I asked him what memories were running through his mind.
“Flying was a huge thrill, and it was a great privilege to fly with my squadron,” he said. Then, with the compulsory understatement of the war veteran, he added: “It wasn’t pleasant at night over Germany. We lost 70 aircrew during my time on the squadron. It was something you lived with and tried not to dwell on.” 
I tapped the metal skin of the aircraft, not much thicker than a tin can, thinking just how exposed the men inside a Lancaster must have felt. I couldn’t help comparing it with the Volvo I had been driving an hour earlier, with its chunky doors and airbags to cocoon me from the perils of the M11, and suddenly felt faintly ridiculous.
Nor did Lancaster crews have such luxuries as a pressurised or heated cabin. Flying at altitudes where the outside temperature could be minus 40C, they relied on several layers of thick clothing, a flask of coffee and a ration of chocolate.
Half an hour into the flight came our moment of history. Mr Leckey invited Mr Iveson to slide into the flight engineer’s seat next to him, where he sprang the surprise of asking whether he fancied taking the controls. There was never any doubt what the answer would be. “It feels wonderful,” said a remarkably composed Mr Iveson as he gripped the control column and put his feet on the rudder pedals. “I never thought I would get the chance to do this again. It’s quite overwhelming to have this machine in my hands once more. It takes me right back to when I would fly over the North Sea at the crack of dawn.”
During the flight, adrenalin kept Mr Iveson focused on the job, but back on the ground his eyes began to well up as he was hit by the enormity of what his younger self and comrades had gone through. “Having the controls of the aircraft again affected me in a way I hadn’t expected,” he confided. “I really don’t know how we did what we did. It’s a sobering thought that we lost three and a half thousand Lancasters. This flight made me realise for the first time in 50 years just how lucky I am, because no matter how skilful you were, it was the luck of the draw whether you survived. It makes me all the more determined to ensure that we build a memorial to those 55,000 men who didn’t make it back.”
© Daily Telegraph, 29 October 2008 

Sherburn memorial pays tribute at last

Sherburn, a sometime colliery village in Co Durham, was the home of Flt Sgt Vivian Nicholson DFM, navigator of David Maltby’s aircraft AJ-J on the Dams Raid. Unlike most small communities in the UK it has never had a war memorial – for either World War. (Many of the dead from both wars, however, are commemorated on the wooden chancel screen in the village church, as I saw for myself last year when I was in the village researching Vivian Nicholson’s background.) 

This anomaly has now been rectified, and there is a handsome new memorial, surrounded by a small garden. It is largely the result of work by two local people, John Burrell and Kevin Stock – all respect to them for their dedication. It was unveiled on Remembrance Sunday last year, 2007.

As usual, it’s the sheer number of people commemorated that tells the main story. Forty-one men from this small community killed in the First World War, 20 more in the Second. In the First World War they came from my grandparents’ generation; in the Second, from that of my parents.

Some of the stories from those generations are heartbreaking. The Hellfire Corner website has dozens of accounts of men lost in “the war to end all wars”, including that of this ordinary Chatham woman who lost five of her sons. How lucky am I that my generation was not cut down in this way. And all I can do is hope that my children are as lucky too.

More Dambusters online

My 12 year old daughter, to whom these kind of things matter, tells me that girls nowadays have several categories of ‘best friend’, including such acronyms as BFF, Best Friend Forever, and the less permanent-sounding BFFN, Best Friend For Now. I’m pleased to say that this blog has a new BFFN, in the shape of Mike Whitaker, who has kindly sent me a long list of additions to my Operation Chastise complete crew list. These were mainly links to websites which describe the fate of the aircraft used on the Dams Raid. I have added a new page to the Breaking the Dams website which uses all this information.

I’ve also added more online information to the PDF list about several other Operation Chastise aircrew including Henry Maudslay, Richard Bolitho, Lawrence Nichols, Donald Hopkinson and Jack Liddell. Liddell was the youngest airman in the Dambusters: he was only 18 when he was killed, flying as the rear gunner in Norman Barlow’s aircraft. He must have lied about his age when he joined up in May 1941. 

Links to two of the online exhibits at the RAF Museum, Mick Martin and Charles Brennan’s logbooks have also been added. If you look carefully at the Brennan exhibit you can see that the signature of the acting OC of 617 Squadron is that of David Maltby, doing the grisly job of signing off the logbooks of dead aircrew while Guy Gibson was on leave. 

You can find everything in the new list on the Breaking the Dams website.

Partly political

Some politicians are as dull as ditchwater, but many have a genuinely wicked sense of humour and love an audience, however small. (I remember an evening in 1990 in a Bradford curry house with a lovely man called Derek Fatchett, a Labour MP who died far too young, who made the three or four of us present laugh so much that my head hurt. I can’t recall a single joke that he told, but it was one of those glorious nights, doubtless fuelled by lager and poppadoms, that you hope won’t end too soon.)

From the other side of the house comes Michael Gove, behind whose overgrown schoolboy looks is a mind which comes up with a stream of witty repartee. In the new, slightly risqué, Tory party he is a rising star, and is therefore allowed to write columns, like this one for The Times, which poke tongue-in-cheek fun at his colleagues. ‘Is your partner Tory enough?’, he wants to know, setting a quiz to find out. In the answer to Question No. 6, he states that if ‘The Dam Busters’ or ‘any film where Jerry gets it in the eye’ is your favourite you are ‘Simply Too Tory for words’ and need to be cossetted with copies of the Salisbury Review and bloater-paste sandwiches. 

For some reason, that sentence conjures up to me an image of someone not unlike the sainted Stephen Fry – but he bats for the other team in politics, as well as in his private life. I have no way of knowing the truth, but the great man always sounds as though he wears a smoking jacket in his rare moments of leisure. Last night, he was a guest team captain on ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’, next weekend he is going to be driving a taxi around the USA. Has he finished his work on the new Dambusters script is the question to which we all want to know the answer!

Gibbo’s four legged friend

Last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph had a bit of a scoop which probably confirmed the worst suspicions of some Dam Buster film enthusiasts. Sir David Frost, who is producing the new film with Peter Jackson, told the newspaper’s diary writer, Mandrake, that they had reached a compromise on the name of Guy Gibson’s dog. Its real name was Nigger, but in the remake, which is unlikely to appear before 2011, it will be called Nidge.

In the course of writing this blog I have spent a lot of time over the last six months reading various bulletin boards and discussion forums. In almost every thread that has been started about the remake of The Dam Busters someone raises the name of the dog within the first ten posts. A range of ‘jobsworths’ and ‘do-gooders’ are cited as being the people who won’t allow the original name to be used, with ‘the PC Brigade’ being the favourite culprit. 

Well, if the decision has been made, it’s made. Time for everyone to move on, I think.