They shall grow not old

My good friend Dom Howard has kindly let me use this video he created a few years ago as the Dambusters Blog’s contribution to Remembrance Day. It shows the crests of all the squadrons who made up Bomber Command, to whose fallen members we particularly pay our respects this weekend.

The voice you will hear at the end is that of Sgt Dennis Over, a rear gunner who survived the war. Dennis joined the RAF as soon as he turned 18 and served on 106 and 227 Squadrons. In his later years, he ‘discovered’ the internet and in particular a couple of forums dedicated to Bomber Command. To one of these, the much-missed Lancaster Archive Forum, he contributed more than a thousand posts, full of experience, wisdom and wit.

Dennis died on 4 October 2015. He grew old, but many of his comrades did not, and he never forgot them. May they all rest in peace. 

 

A poem for Remembrance Day

Think Not That They Are Lonely
[The peoples of the occupied lands defy their German oppressors by placing flowers on the graves of British aviators.]

Flt Lt Owen Chave

Think not that they are lonely where they lie
Your tears are not the only ones to bless
Their sacrifice, for no one passes by
But pays his homage to their quietness.

As demi-gods they rest, and on each shrine
Are laid the votive gifts that children bring;
All Europe’s flowers are heaped there for a sign
That their swift fame need fear no tarnishing.

As far as I can tell, Flt Lt Owen Chave had no connection with 617 Squadron, although as he spent the early part of the war as a flying instructor, some of the squadron’s pilots may have passed through his hands. During this time, Chave wrote some rather good poems which are not widely known. The one shown above appears in a collection called Air Force Poetry, edited by John Putney and Henry Treece and published in 1944.

Owen Chave. [Pic: Brighton College]

Owen Cecil Chave was born in Southampton on 29 April 1912, the son of Sir Benjamin and Lady Chave (née Rachel Morgan). He was educated at Brighton College between 1926 and 1931. On leaving school he worked first in insurance, and then became a schoolmaster. However, he really wanted to be a writer, and before the war had poems and articles published in a number of magazines including Punch and The Spectator. He joined the RAF Reserve in 1936, and gave up teaching to work in commercial aviation.

When the war started, Chave became an RAF instructor, flying Airspeed Oxfords at RAF South Verney in Gloucestershire. He found this a frustrating experience, as can be seen below in the typescript of a humorous poem published in Punch:

Pic: Brighton College

A book of Chave’s poetry, Winged Victory: Poems of a Flight Lieutenant, was published in 1942, using the pseudonym ‘Ariel’. Eventually, he was allowed to volunteer for operational flying and in 1942 he joined 15 Squadron at RAF Bourn, flying Stirling aircraft. He flew on a number of operations until, on 14 February 1943, his aircraft was shot down by a night fighter over Belgium, with the loss of everyone on board. The crew was buried in a local graveyard and, after the war, reinterred in the Heverlee Commonwealth War Cemetery.

When the clocks strike eleven this Sunday morning, please pay homage to the quietness of the grave of Owen Cecil Chave – and indeed to all those who have fallen in war, combatant or not, many of whom who have no known place of rest. Think not that they are lonely.

Chave information at Old Brightonians, Brighton College
Chave crew page at Aircrew Remembered

Dining with a Dambuster

j johnson panel
Pics: Edwina Towson

On Remembrance Day, Tuesday 11 November, Sqn Ldr George “Johnny” Johnson was the guest of honour at a Lord’s Taverners charity event at Langan’s Brasserie in London. Dambusters Blog reader Edwina Towson was one of the guests, and has written this report:

It’s a long way from a farm-labourer’s cottage in Lincolnshire to Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair – 93 years long in Johnny Johnson’s case.

But there he was, AJ-T’s bomb-aimer and lately author of an autobiography “The last British Dambuster” (Ebury Press), the guest of honour at a supper event at Langan’s hosted by the Lord’s Taverners charity, on Remembrance Day 2014.

After the supper plates were cleared away, Squadron Leader George “Johnny” Johnson was introduced by Con Coughlin, Defence Editor of the Daily Telegraph, in case any of the company was unaware of the distinguished credentials of the speaker.

The speaker greeted us first in his native dialect as, mindful of his own journey and the Lincolnshire theme, the dams story began. He gave the context for his return to Lincolnshire through his selection for 617 Squadron, which had been wholly due to his American pilot, Joe McCarthy. Johnny hadn’t thought much of American aircrew before meeting Joe (“just couldn’t stand them,” he said!), so it was good to hear that the pilot’s steady demeanour and skill had completely won the sceptical bomb-aimer’s confidence by the time that his crew was asked to move to Scampton.

And it was from Scampton that we really took off with Johnny. In spirit, he had left the room and was muffled in his flying kit, watching the fields that he had known as a child speed underneath him during the intense six week training for the dams raid.

He talked about having mixed feelings as their low flying flattened the tulips in the fields round Spalding: he felt sadness for the broken flowers, but also some amusement at knowing how the canniness of the farmers would result in very inflated claims for compensation!

Unprompted, and choosing quite detailed episodes from memory to give an impression of his experiences, he recounted the primitive and unreliable state of the equipment in those days and how the entirely novel and experimental nature of the mission meant that the crews had to fathom what it was that they needed as they went along. Having the combative, driven and demanding Gibson as commander clearly helped in getting what was required; we heard the story of Gibson being told that some key equipment couldn’t be supplied in time and how he pestered Group HQ, Bomber Command HQ, Air Ministry HQ and any other HQ with a telephone in an obstinate escalation of protest until the squadron indeed got what it needed. “That was Gibson to a T,” said the former 617 Sergeant with mixed wariness and appreciation.

How narrow the chances of survival were came over strongly in many of Johnny’s recollections, whether in spotting, themselves, by accident a ditched Beaufighter crew, just because the practice navigation over the North Sea had taken them over the frantically waving figures, or whether in the ground crew showing them on landing how the wing of the Lancaster had been holed by a shell which missed the petrol tank by a squeak and then lodged on the fuselage just above the navigator’s head.

The focus of the evening was inevitably the dams raid itself and it was a moving and slightly eerie experience for us to hear a first-hand participant recall, unscripted and with all the deep-felt immediacy of a participant, the arrival of the unrecognizable bomb (“just like a glorified dustbin”), the unfamiliarity for the pilots in following orders from the bomb-aimer on direction to target, orders from the flight engineer on speed and orders from the navigator on the convergence of spotlights for height accuracy and then the unfamiliarity for all of them as the special briefing took place with so many important people (even the Group AOC) present for the revelation of the targets.

AJ-T was given the Sorpe dam as a target which, as Johnny wryly explained, meant that the crew used little of the special training techniques in tackling the considerable difficulties of the awkward terrain, the parallel approach required and the eventual bomb drop from 30 feet. The bomb drop was made effectively but the impact was not adequate to breach the dam, even though the water spout was estimated by the rear-gunner to be 1,000 feet tall.

They found a little consolation in passing over the Möhne dam some half an hour after it had been attacked and witnessing the aftermath: “it was just like an inland sea – there was water everywhere”.

Despite a punctured starboard tyre, AJ-T landed well and, still at our supper tables, we all came to a standstill, slightly stunned by what we had heard as “passengers” in the dams adventure. We were immediately invited to put questions, which elicited answers on the range of ages of the various crews, the fortunes of 617 after the dams raid and the total focus required for crew members to feel confident in each other’s performance. Finally, there was the obligatory question about Guy Gibson as a personality on the squadron. From his sergeant’s perspective and as a lucky survivor of the unique, unprecedented and highly dangerous attack, Johnny gave his judgement on the raid commander’s contribution: “in attack, yes, he was absolutely first class. He was a bit difficult to get on with outside of that but, in doing the job, he really did it properly. ”

After that, Con Coughlin looked round at the hundred or so invited guests and gave a short speech of collective thanks for the speaker’s willingness to keep the awareness of the dams raid fresh in the medium of living speech. After signing copies of his autobiography and rising to leave, the Sqn Ldr (retired) walked steadily for the exit, congratulated along the way by a number of the table-waiting staff who had been standing spellbound round the edges of the function room.

Outside it was raining and dark. The guests dispersed into a Remembrance Day evening unlike any other and unlikely, by them at least, ever to be forgotten.

© Edwina Towson

Dambusters at the Albert Hall

BBC screengrab

The Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance takes place on Saturday 9 November at 9.15pm and will be broadcast live on BBC1 for UK viewers. This year it will feature a tribute to the 133 aircrew who took part in the Dams Raid, and use the pictureboard created in conjunction with this blog as part of the video sequence.
An iPlayer link will follow here on Sunday after transmission. (See here, about 5 minutes in:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03hwbvv/Royal_British_Legion_Festival_of_Remembrance_2013/ ).
If you know of any other Remembrance Day tributes to Dambusters, then please get in touch.

Remembrance Day, 2009

Poem by Ann Stevenson in The Guardian, Saturday 7 November, 2009. I can’t find it in the online version, so I am reproducing it in full here.

After the Funeral
by Anne Stevenson
For Sally Thorneloe, in memory of Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, killed in Afghanistan, 1 July 2009
Seeing you lost in that enormous hat,
Your face rigid with grief, I thought of how
In love with life you used to be, so much that
“Happy” seemed to be a word kept warm for you.
Seeing you stunned there in the camera’s eye,
Forbidding your chin to undermine your lip,
I knew the knife in you was asking why?
Oh, ceremony couldn’t answer it.
Though they were trying desperately to give
History’s unspoken underside a face,
A frame, words and reason to believe
The afterlife is ordered – like the place
In which, beside his flag-draped coffin, you
Acted, like him, the role you’d been assigned to.

National differences in Remembrance Day customs

Interesting article by a British academic in the New York Times about different attitudes to Remembrance Day in different countries. It goes under a number of different names: Armistice Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day. In the USA, the day is more about celebrating lives of those who survived. In Poland, it is a day of national rejoicing as it marks the day in which the nation was reborn. In both France and Britain, however, it is more about remembering those who died. 

Video of Lancaster in flight

I’ve only just caught up with this article in the Canadian Hamilton Spectator which appeared back in September. On the twentieth anniversary of its restoration, it tells the story of how one of the only two airworthy Lancasters in the world was saved from the scrapheap and brought back into flying condition.

Some splendid video footage and fascinating interviews. The newspaper’s main site also has video footage of the Remembrance Day service held at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Centre.