A 1950s milk run over the Eder Dam

Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick. [Pic: Frank Pleszak]

Frank Pleszak has sent me a lovely story he heard from a family friend, GC, who served in the RAF in the 1950s. He was based at RAF Wahn, which is now Cologne-Bonn international airport.

At that time the British High Commissioner for Germany was a career diplomat called Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick. He had been based in the Berlin embassy before the war, where he apparently believed that no business could be done with the Nazis, and after the war became the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under Secretary for Germany. He sat on the Allied High Commission, based in Bonn, which had been established by the USA, the UK and France to regulate and supervise the development of the new Federal Republic of Germany.

Kirkpatrick liked his tea made with fresh milk. However diplomats in the Bonn area were not allowed to drink the local fresh milk as it caused illness, so powdered milk had to be used. Kirkpatrick refused to drink this and when he heard that fresh pasteurised milk was available in the north of Germany he was given a twice weekly 400km round trip milk run from RAF Wahn to RAF Bückeburg (between Osnabrück and Hannover) using his RAF-provided De Havilland Devon aircraft. A milkman’s wireframed four-pint milk bottle carrier was acquired for the purpose.

Normally the flight would just involve Kirkpatrick’s personal pilot, an ex-WW2 Squadron Leader with a significant set of medals. GC got talking to the pilot one day and he invited GC along for a jolly, happy for the company. On the 200km flight north-east from Wahn to Bückeburg the topic of the Dams Raid came up. The pilot asked GC if he would like to see one of the dams from the air. Who would turn down that opportunity? GC wasn’t about to.

On arrival at Bückeburg the pilot retired for lunch in the officers’ mess whilst GC had to make do with the NAAFI. The pilot returned a few hours later complete with the four pints of fresh milk. As they got back into the Devon GC was entrusted with the precious cargo and told in no uncertain terms “Look after the milk. Don’t spill a drop”.

On the way back they diverted to the Eder Dam and flew very low along its lake and over the dam at about 60 feet. They then pulled round for another view, where GC was able to see the damage from 1943, now repaired.

A great story. Read it in full on Frank Pleszak’s blog.

Two more showings for The Dam Busters next week

I know it’s unlikely that anyone reading this blog has never seen Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters. But if you haven’t – or if you just want to watch it again – you have two more chances this week, on the UK channel Film Four. Tomorrow, Monday 20 July at 4.35pm or Friday 24 July at 1.25pm. “Stand by to pull me out of the seat if I get hit.”

Replacement of Scampton plaque should be welcomed

RAF Scampton from the air. [Pic: Harvey Milligan/Wikipedia Commons]

The RAF has made the correct decision to replace the plaque at RAF Scampton which marks the grave of Guy Gibson’s dog with a new one: one which does not use the dog’s name. It did this quietly, without any fanfare, but of course as soon as the news leaked out a furore ensued. As I write this, at lunchtime on Friday 17 July, the number of comments on the Daily Mail’s online report has exceeded 700, mostly disagreeing with the decision. And a poll on the Lincolnshire Live website asking “Were the RAF right to remove the name of Guy Gibson’s dog from its gravestone?” is running at 91% voting No.

The point that those suffering such apoplexy don’t seem to have noticed, however, is that things have changed. The changes may seem to have happened very quickly, in response to the killing of George Floyd by police in far-away Minnesota, but in reality the issue of racism has been under the surface but ignored for too long. We may have had different attitudes in the past, covering everything from the erection of city centre statues of philanthropists without questioning where their fortunes came from to the use of racial stereotypes in TV comedy programmes, but that doesn’t mean these attitudes are acceptable now.

So, suddenly, we have started to rethink. Four years ago, the influential US National Football League refused to allow players to “take a knee” at the beginning of a game to protest against racism and police violence. It changed its policy – just like that – with the league’s commissioner admitting that they were wrong “for not listening to NFL players earlier”. And now, on this side of the Atlantic at every professional football match since the end of lockdown, there is a moving moment at kick off when all the players and officials take a knee.

It is in this context, I believe, that the decision to change the Scampton plaque was taken. The authorities have started listening. The name which was always offensive to black people is now recognised as such by the majority of the UK’s population. In the 1940s or 50s it was probably regarded by most people as being merely descriptive of the colour of a dog’s coat or a tin of shoe polish. That is not a justification for its continued use in the 2020s.

The decision may have been sudden, it may still be too quickly taken for some, but to my mind it is absolutely the right thing to do. We need to rethink how things are memorialised. We need to reappraise our historical narrative. I’m not saying that every statue should be pulled down or every plaque removed. However, there needs to be an evaluation of what each item represents and whether the item would be more appropriately consigned to a museum where the full story can be told.

There are signs that our institutions, from universities to the armed forces, have now begun this process and are now engaged in both listening and learning. And this is to be welcomed.

The change should start in the nation’s schools. One of the key writers pushing for an updated curriculum is the historian David Olusoga, presenter of the Black and British: A Forgotten History series on BBC TV. Since these programmes were aired, he says that his life has “become a constant impromptu focus group. I am stopped in the street by people who want to talk about the histories those documentaries explore. Most of those people are young, and a great many, but not all, are black or mixed race. This is the generation who have led the Black Lives Matter protests and they, quite rightly, expect more from their schools than I did from mine.” See this Guardian article.

Olusoga hopes that change is coming. I also like to believe that this is so. The small matter of the modification of a memorial plaque in Lincolnshire is a necessary step along the road.

Comments on this piece are welcome, but will be moderated.

Byers logbook up for auction

Pic: Spink Auctions

Update 15 July 2020:
Sold for £16,000

The pilot’s logbook belonging to Plt Off Vernon Byers is coming up for sale by Spink Auctions next week, on Wednesday 15 July. Also in the lot are his medals, his wings and other badges.

Byers, a Canadian from Star City, Saskatchewan, was the most inexperienced of the pilots who joined 617 Squadron in March 1943. He had flown as a pilot on just three operations, along with two more as ‘second dickey’, when he and his fledgling crew were posted out of 467 Squadron. However, he demonstrated enough ‘press-on’ attitude in his new posting to impress his commanding officer Guy Gibson, who recommended him for a commission on 17 April 1943. So he was given a place in the second wave, targeting the Sorpe Dam, flying in Lancaster AJ-K. He took off from RAF Scampton at 2130 on 16 May 1943.

Byers and his crew were the first to be lost on the Dams Raid, shot down on the Dutch coast at 2257. Despite the fact that they were off course, and had crossed Texel island which had more anti-aircraft defences than its neighbour Vlieland, it seems that they were very unlucky. The German guns could not depress low enough in order to hit an approaching aircraft flying at just 100 feet but having crossed the island Byers rose a little and it must have been a speculative shot from behind which did for AJ-K, and sent it down into the Waddenzee, 18 miles west of Harlingen.

The bodies of Byers and five of his crew have never been found. That of rear gunner James McDowell must have been detached from the wreckage at some time as it was found floating in the Waddenzee on 22 June 1943. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery, and remains there today.