Channel 4: Mission to confuse

Tirpitz_(AWM_SUK14095)

Channel 4 programming bods have come up with what sounds a very confusing documentary, The Dambusters Great Escape –Secret History, to be aired tonight at 8pm UK time.
Can’t imagine what the thinking is behind this, because the subject is about the operation which finally sank the German battleship the Tirpitz, in November 1943 1944, which had nothing to do with the Great Escape. On this raid, the Dambusters, in the shape of 617 Squadron, were accompanied by another Lancaster squadron, 9 Squadron, also armed with Tallboy bombs.
However, the programme is presented by the completely sane Patrick Bishop, the distinguished author of Bomber Boys and other great books, so we can only hope that the bonkers title won’t reflect what should be a lucid presentation of interesting content.

The wrong Dambusters

Patrick Bishop is a great author, and his books Bomber Boys and Fighter Boys are invaluable sources of reference for anyone wanting to find out more about life in the wartime RAF. But someone has taken their eyes off the ball in creating the artwork for the jacket of his latest work, Target Tirpitz.

In the breathless prose loved by publishers’ blurb writers (confession: my first ever job!) HarperCollins tell us:

The Tirpitz, Hitler’s greatest weapon, was reputed to be unsinkable and the battleship inflamed an Allied obsession: to destroy her at any cost.
More than thirty daring operations were launched against the 52,000 ton monster. Royal Navy midget submarines carried out an attack of extraordinary skill and courage against her when she lay deep in a Norwegian fjord in an operation that won VCs for two participants.
No permanent damage was done and the Fleet Air Arm was forced to launch full scale attacks through the summer of 1944 to try and finish her off. But still the Tirpitz remained a significant threat to Allied operations.
It was not until November 1944 that a brilliant operation by RAF Lancaster Bombers, under the command of one of Britain’s greatest but least-known war heroes finally killed off Hitler’s last battleship.

The writer is referring to the raid carried out by 617 and 9 Squadrons, who dropped Barnes Wallis-designed Tallboy bombs which blew the final massive holes in the Tirpitz’s hull. The 617 Squadron contingent was under the command of Group Capt Willie Tait, and a picture of him and a crew which was not his own, taken after the raid, appears in a recent Sunday Telegraph review. However, these are not the five airmen who appear on the cover. Instead, the designer has chosen to use figures from one of the most famous pictures of the war, the photograph taken of Guy Gibson and his crew as they set off on the Dams Raid, 18 months before the Tirpitz was sunk.

(Imperial War Museum, CH18005)

From the left, the figures are Richard Trevor-Roper (rear gunner), John Pulford (flight engineer), George Deering (front gunner), ‘Spam’ Spafford (bomb aimer) and Bob Hutchison (wireless operator). Guy Gibson, on the ladder, and ‘Terry’ Taerum, the navigator, have been cropped out of Harper Collins colour-tinted version.

All five men were of course Dambusters, so they fall into the category mentioned in the book’s subtitle, ‘X-craft, agents and Dambusters’. But it’s a disservice to the real men who were on the raid, and a bit of an insult to the five portrayed on the cover, who couldn’t have been there for one simple reason – they were all dead.

UPDATE: Alex Bateman has kindly pointed out another bit of artistic licence on this cover. The Lancaster shown in the background is in fact Guy Gibson’s usual aircraft from 106 Squadron, known colloquially as ‘Admiral Prune’.