Classifying the Dambusters

R Morris article page 1 lores

One of the most eminent professional historians studying the Dambusters is Professor Richard Morris, now working at the University of Huddersfield. Back in 2010, he wrote an article in an edition of Everyone’s War about the background history of the Dambusters.

For copyright reasons, I can’t include the whole article here, but another version appeared in the newsletter of the 617 Squadron Association, Apres Moi, which is available online (scroll to page 7).

In it, Morris writes:

One hundred and thirty three men flew to the dams on the night of 16/17 May 1943. Twenty-one per cent of them were Canadian, ten per cent were Australian or New Zealanders, the rest from the UK…
While we do indeed know a little about some of them, and a fair bit about a handful, our information about the majority ranges from sparse to nil. Moreover, some of what we think we know is wrong. For historians, personal witness is both priceless – because it captures human detail not found in written records – and treacherous, because memory often plays us false. Thus when Gibson tells us in Enemy Coast Ahead that his flight engineer John Pulford was a Londoner, he is wrong: Pulford came from Hull. There are other such slips, for instance that Young had been to Cambridge, whereas in fact he was an Oxford man, or that Young was an American, when in fact he was British. Taken individually, such errors seem trivial, and to draw attention to them seems pedantic. I do not do so in criticism – there are plenty of mistakes in my own books, all of which were written with the luxury of access to references and sources, and none of which are half as compelling as Enemy Coast Ahead. But history is in part built up from detail, and it is not for us to say where the boundary between triviality and significance may lie. If we don’t care about accuracy in tiny things then the cumulative picture may itself be affected…
Historians have a way of dealing with [these questions]. It is called prosopography – the analysis of data about social groups whose members are difficult to approach as individuals through available historical sources. It concerns itself with the micro-histories of ordinary people.

If you are interested in the social history of the Dambusters (and if you read this blog, you surely must be!) then it’s worth looking at the whole thing.