617 Squadron deserved to be saved – its Second World War crews were more than dambusters.
So the Dambusters of 617 Squadron have been spared the chop, and thank goodness for that. Ironically, it is one of the more recent squadrons, formed 70 years ago in March, 1943. The numbers over 600 were originally given to pre-war Auxiliary Squadrons, part-time “weekend fliers”, but by the time 617 Squadron was allocated its number, all the RAF regular squadron numbers had been taken up. It says much about the changing nature of the Royal Air Force that it has been reduced from nearly 300 squadrons in 1945 to just a handful today.
The oldest and original squadron, No 1, formed in 1912 and then part of the Royal Flying Corps, will also remain, and justifiably so: it contains more aces – 31 in the First World War alone – than any other in the RAF. But it is quite right that 617 Squadron should be preserved, too. The historiography of the Second World War has been marked by a rather “declinest” view over the past 30 years or so, in which Britain’s wartime effort has been belittled by comparison with the supposed tactical superiority of the Germans, the economic clout of America, and the vast numbers involved on the Eastern Front. Even the Dams Raid has been given the once-over, with the claim that – while the courage of those involved could not be doubted – it was little more than a good PR exercise, and showed our American allies what the RAF could achieve.
After all, the argument goes, the dams were rebuilt in five months. This view is nonsense. It took the Germans the most gargantuan effort, and drain on crucial resources, to get the dams rebuilt in time for the winter rains, at a time in the war when they could least afford it. Repairing the dams cost 756 million Reichsmarks – £5.6 billion in today’s money. Thousands of workers were taken from building the Atlantic Wall to help with the repair work, and in addition to that work, every single dam in Germany was strengthened with new and extensive anti-aircraft defences.
Nor should 617 Squadron be remembered purely for the extraordinary attack on the German dams. Later in the war, under the command of the quite brilliant Leonard Cheshire, it became the outstanding elite precision bombing squadron in the RAF. Its attacks on Munich, on the Saumur Tunnel, and on the E-boat pens at Le Havre, for example, proved that the RAF could deliver very large and destructive bombs with considerable accuracy. In November 1944, they did it again when they sank the German battleship, Tirpitz.
They also carried out a simulation of a cross-channel invasion on D-Day, further towards Calais, which helped keep crucial German forces north and away from the real invasion. This they did by flying in rows and repeatedly leapfrogging one another, so that on German radar the blips looked like an invasion fleet travelling at eight knots. It required skill of the very highest order. There was no other Allied squadron capable of such a feat.
This kind of legacy is important. Talk to any of the current aircrew operating fast jets, and they will, to a person, agree that 617 is the squadron they would want to serve with above all others. They are a progressive bunch, who look forward rather than back; they are also using incredibly sophisticated technology and equipment. Despite this, the heritage of the RAF, and 617 Squadron in particular, is hugely valuable. Every man and woman currently flying Tornados with the Squadron is profoundly conscious that they are following in the footsteps of some of the greatest names in the RAF. This is a good thing. It instills a desire to live up to the name; it makes them try that little bit harder. Squadron Leader Jona Howard, 617’s current Executive Officer, admits that he is immensely proud to fly with the Squadron. “And we all want to live up to the ethos, courage and commitment it began with,” he tells me. In the RAF, the most famous squadrons are every bit as important as the best-known Army regiments. Our Armed Forces have constantly evolved, and we should never allow ourselves to become stuck in the past. But it is not helpful to belittle the forces of yesteryear. Fortunately, the pendulum is swinging in the right direction with regard to the way we view the Second World War. A new, less-jaundiced breed of historians is re-examining Britain’s performance and discovering that our wartime triumphs go beyond holding out in 1940 and hanging on until the US joined in the fight. The Dams Raid was just one of many significant technological as well as deeply ambitious and successful achievements. After all, even at D-Day, now widely perceived as a largely American show, Britain landed two thirds of the men, provided two thirds of the 4,000-strong air forces, three quarters of the warships and landing craft, and all three service commanders. Those who fly with 617 are rightly proud to do so. We, as a nation, should be proud of that heritage, too. We forget it at our peril. James Holland is the author of 'Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams, 1943’ (Bantam Press) Source: Telegraph