Dinghy’s oar? Or not?

Last Sunday’s BBC Antiques Roadshow came up with an interesting artefact which had a Dambuster connection. A viewer brought in the blade of an oar which she said her husband had found in a skip in Bletchley.

Antiques Roadshow oar

As can be seen from the screengrab above, this is inscribed with the names of the Oxford University eight who had taken part in the 1938 Boat Race. (For the benefit of non-UK readers: this is a race between Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs, which takes place every spring on the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake.)
Roadshow expert Paul Atterbury was quick to note the possible significance of one of the names. The No. 2 oarsman is listed as H M Young (Trinity), weighing 12st 12lb, who later became famous as Melvin (‘Dinghy’) Young, pilot of AJ-A on the Dams Raid.
Paul Atterbury went on to give a brief summary of Young’s role: how he caused the initial breach in the Möhne Dam, then completed by David Maltby’s attack, and his tragic end, shot down over Holland on the way home.

Young book oar

However, a comparison with a picture of the genuine oar, shown above, which appears in Arthur Thorning’s 2008 biography, The Dambuster who Cracked the Dam, quickly shows that the Bletchley skip oar is not Young’s. Although the full oar isn’t shown in Thorning’s picture there are many obvious discrepancies between the style of lettering and the punctuation in both pictures. In fact, it doesn’t look at all like the work of a professional signwriter. Thorning also states that the oar was in the possession of relatives in California, along with other of Young’s rowing souvenirs.
Which leads us to a mystery. If this is not Young’s real oar, what is it? It could, of course, have belonged to one of the other seven oarsmen in the 1938 Oxford boat. Many, if not all, would have done what Young obviously did – had it inscribed as a souvenir.
But there is another intriguing possibility. One of the many stories told about the making of the 1955 film, The Dam Busters, is that the Young family lent the producers the actual oar. In one of the film’s last sequences, the camera shows some of the things which signify the crews who went missing – empty chairs in the mess, a ticking alarm clock, and poignantly, the name of H M Young on an oar.

Dam Busters 1955 screengrab

Here is a screengrab from this scene. Although this is not of the highest quality, it’s plain that the lettering is consistent with that on the oar from the Bletchley skip. So it would seem that even if the film’s props department had a loan of the original oar, they decided it wasn’t suitable and made another one. They thereby caused yet another of The Dam Busters myths to be wrong. So, this could be the prop, created for the film and now left in a skip.
However, there’s one more thing, as Lt Columbo used to say. It’s possible that the oar from the Bletchley skip was not even used in the film. If you look carefully at the screengrab above, you can’t see the name of the Bow oarsman J L Garton at all, and there seems to be a larger gap between the centre spine of the blade and Young’s name than appears on the Antiques Roadshow picture. Is it possible that when director Michael Anderson and cinematographer Erwin Hillier came to shoot the actual scene, they discovered that Garton’s name got in the way and so a new prop without his name was created and used in the actual sequence?
Paul Atterbuy gave a valuation of somewhere between £200 and £500 if this had been the real Young oar. This seems a bit on the conservative side to me, given that people have paid considerably more than this for Gibson autographs and signed first editions of Paul Brickhill’s book. How much it would be worth as a film prop is probably anyone’s guess, even coming from a film as famous as The Dam Busters.

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5 thoughts on “Dinghy’s oar? Or not?

  1. Richard Hickmott January 8, 2013 / 2:41 am

    Don’t think it is. I used earn a living in the litho graphic printing industry, and the ‘Oxford’ and ‘Cambridge’ headings is in two different fonts. It’s a decent copy, but that’s about it.

    Sorry…

  2. Dick Budgen January 8, 2013 / 10:32 am

    Fascinating find, Charles ! I think this IS the film prop. The low angle and lighting of the film shot account for the apparent spacing difference and quite possible Garton’s name is hidden in the shadow and by the angle.

  3. molly McCullagh February 25, 2013 / 7:55 am

    I’m wondering if it is a prop for the film, originally run up, and found to be too awkward to read the most important name, so close to the middle, and on that curve, (and 2nd down), in the camera shot wanted. Back then, it would have been cheap and easy enough to scrounge blades. You’d get an extra blade or 2 &/or pairs, in case one fell off the mounting and was wrecked, etc., as back up. The shortening of initials on both, was probably advised, to lessen the visual crowding the viewer had to skim, to get the point, that this was Young’s. Simply a matter of someone saying, “Do it again, but this time, position Young’s name better, forget about a closer copy of original, put a gap in the middle, so the paying public naturally and easily, find the name Young,”. I’m wondering if someone in the props dept went, “Ooh, can I have the dodgy one?” and the head or props painter, saying, “Go for it,” or the 50s equiv., OR the head of props saying faster to use a blank 2nd blade, chuck that one, and someone young or with a little boy at home, taking it home to show what things they were doing.

    A lot of original letters, etc., of lads lost, as only sons, were pitched out, when parents died or spinster/bachelor siblings died. I don’t think an awkward angled blade from the film, WOULD be seen as precious. I know a WW1 cavalry officer widower, without children, had all his photos and bits and pieces thrown out, by the ghastly people he left his house to, in the 1970’s, and even tho I didn’t like the man, if I’d known, I’d have picked through garbage, to see them kept safe. The preciousness of WW2 souvenirs, and props from iconic movies just wasn’t the huge excitement or value of today, in the general public, or amongst those who worked on them.

    It looks like both have been run up to be far easier to read than the original. The name HAD to be easy to catch the eye and be read, on that fairly quick camera shot. I really believe someone tried to do a clearer version but with so much info, was told to simplify again, and put Young’s name exactly where a viewers eye would catch it, 1st name under a clear gap, that is also avoiding an awkward curve. It may be that on the film oar, Young has been drawn slightly larger, again, to draw the eye to the point the director is making, the use of the curve, to make the other names written smaller to fade into the background, ASSUMED to be due to the curve.

  4. CD Riches April 22, 2013 / 8:07 am

    More on the Oar. Here at Westminster School Boat Club , we also have a copy of the 1938 Oar spoon , probably left to the Boat Club by the OUBC president that year;J.C.Cherry who rowed at seven and like Melvin Young had rowed at Westminster School . The clear indication that there are a series of copies is provided by the missing initial from H.A.W. Forbes who rowed at four. In the original nine oars that would have been sign-written for each member of the crew as race souvenirs Forbes has his full H.A.W. but on copies , presumably made for the film his third initial is missing.
    On 16 May this year, we will mark the seventieth anniversary with the official launch our new Eight; ”H.M.Young DFC”

  5. Archy August 1, 2016 / 8:42 am

    It is not possible to see in the photograph, but when this oar appeared on the Antiques Roadshow it appeared that the Oxford University arms on the oar read “NOMINUS ILLUMINATION MEA” instead of “DOMINUS”.

    A university signwriter would never have made that mistake.

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