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.

RAF Scampton closure: constructive proposals needed

Pic: Lincolnshire Live

The government’s announcement on Tuesday that RAF Scampton is to close by 2022, leading to the relocation of the Red Arrows and the other RAF personnel who work there, has been met with predictable sound and fury. BBC Lincolnshire and the Lincolnshire Live websites provided blog updates throughout the day, the news was featured in most national radio and TV bulletins and Wednesday’s Daily Express even ran the item as its front page lead.

There is now a Facebook group called ‘Save RAF Scampton and its Red Arrows’, where the alternative suggestions include selling off the MoD’s main building in London, and moving the entire ministry to Lincolnshire.

There are two separate issues here. It is clear that there is no immediate threat to the future of the Red Arrows themselves. The RAF’s official aerobatic team has been based at other RAF stations over the years, and could be relocated. However, the bricks and mortar assets owned by the MoD have been consolidated in the last two decades as all three services, including the RAF, have had to adjust to their 21st century roles. Many RAF stations have been selected for closure over this period, including fifteen which were announced just a few months ago, in April.

Scampton has in fact been threatened with the axe several times previously, starting way back in 1995. At a later point, a date of 2014 was announced, although the station was reprieved in June 2012 when the MoD confirmed that the Red Arrows would remain there until at least the end of the decade. The runway was then resurfaced.

It is undoubtedly the case that the reason why the potential closure became headline news this week is because of Scampton’s connection with 617 Squadron and the Dams Raid. The squadron was formed there in March 1943, but in fact it moved out just five months later, at the end of August and never returned during the second world war. By contrast, the role of the other Bomber Command squadrons stationed at Scampton during the rest of the war is hardly ever mentioned, as is the fact that two other men besides Guy Gibson (Roderick Learoyd and John Hannah) won VCs while flying in 83 Squadron from the station in 1940. In fact, 617 Squadron returned to Scampton in peace-time, flying Vulcans, and occupied the station between 1958 and 1981.

It is possible that the decision will lead to a reappraisal of Lincolnshire County Council’s 2013 Feasibility Study for a new aviation heritage attraction at Scampton. This proposed a ‘credible model for the development of a major new aviation heritage attraction at RAF Scampton which would be able to sit alongside the existing scale of military use and would be flexible enough to work with a greater or lesser RAF presence.’ Five ‘key stories’ would be told at the site:  ‘The First World War, The Dambusters, Coldwar Standoff, The Red Arrows, Aircraft Innovation in Lincolnshire’ and there would also be a frequently updated exhibition space.

Any new aviation heritage attraction would take into account the fact that Scampton’s four 1930s hangars are ‘listed buildings‘, and therefore cannot be demolished or altered without official consent. Hangar No 2 contains the office used by 617 Squadron CO Guy Gibson, which has recently been restored with Princes Trust money. Along with the hangars, the presence on the site of other buildings such as the Officers’ Mess (in which the King and Queen had lunch after they visited the station after the Dams Raid), the Airmens’ Mess (which housed the briefing room used for the Dams Raid) and a parade ground and it is obvious that there is plenty of scope for a very attractive series of exhibits.

The current Heritage Centre is run by a group of volunteers, whose Head Guide, Tom Evans, told the Dambusters Blog:  ‘Our main concern is that the artifacts in our collection and the historic nature of the buildings are preserved. This could best be done by a sympathetic regeneration of the site, and improving the visitor experience.’

Taken as a whole, the airfield is a vast space, big enough for a 9,000ft runway, so any development could well be done piecemeal. It is to be hoped that, if it is to be sold, consideration is given to the preservation of enough of RAF Scampton’s historic features to make a fitting tribute to the generations of personnel who have served there over the last 100 years.

Dambusters at the bar

Les Munro Dambusters Inn IMG_9916

Les Munro autographing the pictureboard at the Dambusters Inn, Scampton, May 2013. [Pic: Heather Allsworth/Nigel Favill]

A grand display of pictures of all the 133 aircrew from the Dams Raid can now be seen in the comfort of the Dambusters Inn in Scampton village, a few miles from the airfield which was the base for the raid itself. It represents a lot of hard work by Heather Allsworth and Nigel Favill, who live locally.
It is arranged in three sections, as can be seen in the photograph above taken during a visit by Les Munro. On the left are the crews who did not return, including the three men taken POW. In the middle above a painting by Keith Aspinall is Guy Gibson and his crew. On the right hand side are the crews who returned, together with the medals they were awarded for the raid.
Heather and Nigel should be congratulated for putting together this now complete collection. It’s open for all to see during pub licensing hours. A pint for me, and a glass of white wine for the lady.

New life for Scampton?

For a number of years the only flying unit based at RAF Scampton has been the elite demonstration flight, the Red Arrows. Now they are on the move to Waddington, the airfield will lie largely empty. Many of the buildings are of historic significance, and some are even listed by English Heritage, so could they be used for a Dambusters ‘international visitor attraction’? Some local people think so, according to the Lincolnshire Echo.
My picture above shows the Officers Mess – it hasn’t been altered much since it was used by 617 Squadron between March and August 1943. It also featured in the 1955 film.