Wednesday, February 02, 2011

After The Flood, The Dud

Nearing the end of January, the bout of insomnia that looked like it was going to see me through the whole of 2011 thankfully abated. I’d grabbed an appointment with my GP to see if I could score some barbiturates but she’d only sent me back home with a sympathetic smile and a leaflet on muscle relaxation and breathing exercises to help aid sleep. In the end it was probably exhaustion that proved to be the eventual cure, but that said I haven’t wholly managed to fall back into a pattern of a good night’s sleep every night.

Whereas before I would carry on writing at the computer, these odd few nights, while I may type in a few notes or continue with my research, I usually spend the time catching up with the television programmes I’ve missed during the past week. Last night, still up and pacing, unable to sleep, I settled down to give the documentary Dambusters Declassified another go. Stuck into BBC One’s schedule in the early hours of the morning, it had first been shown last year at the tail end of the celebrations commemorating the glorious Spitfire Summer of 1940.

Back then I’d tried watching it, first during its initial broadcast and then a couple of times while it languished on iPlayer, but each attempt came to naught. My main frustration had been that rather than being a fully factual piece, which shouldn’t be too much to ask for, Dambusters Declassified was another useless celebrity–centric documentary. Obviously this happens more and more now, and both the BBC and ITV decided their run of programmes paying tribute to the young pilots of the Battle of Britain required Ewan McGregor and David Jason fannying around in Spitfires rather than hearing from any surviving pilots of the day themselves. In this instance, the look back at Operation Chastise was hosted by a dour Martin Shaw, which made it even worse.

Purporting to take a fresh look at 617 Squadron’s attempt to breach the dams in the Rhur Valley using Barnes Wallis’ revolutionary bouncing bombs, Dambusters Declassified hadn’t helped itself from the outset by telling viewers that Michael Anderson’s classic film The Dam Busters, starring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave, and made when much of the information regarding the development of the Upkeep was still classified, actually took dramatic license with the truth. Even before it got to Shaw, a pilot himself, navigating the flight path taken by the first wave of Avro Lancasters from their base at RAF Scampton, north of Lincoln, across the North Sea to the Netherlands and then on to Germany, that pretty much did it for me the first time around.

Why I carried on watching this time around I’m not sure. maybe it was because this time around the documentary was signed and, as Shaw went on and on about himself I was hoping that the signer would give up translating his worthless blather, curl her fingers into a loose fist and shake her hand from side to side as he prattled on. Back in May of last year, months before that first transmission of Dambusters Declassified, I’d written about interviewing members of the Directorate of Corporate Communication (RAF) and how they would go about assisting film and television projects if they thought the material was worthwhile. At the time they had been working with Tigress Productions to make the excellent two-part documentary The Dambusters, which took a number of NCO air–crew and officers and had them recreate the raid on a specially created flight simulator to show how bloody difficult it had been.

During that interview, Marcia Nash, who at the time oversaw the television side of the department, admitted they were wary of programmes about the exploits of 617, especially when some proposals had come in that suggested they were aiming to be uncomplimentary about the leader of the squadron. “Wing Commander Guy Gibson was a colourful character and had some flaws as everybody does. And in order to preserve his memory it wasn’t in our interest that they do a character assassination.” And surprise, surprise, one of the points raised by Shaw was that Gibson, rather than being like Richard Todd’s portrayal in the film, was a bit of a stuffed shirt who, after a brief failed marriage, sought solace in the arms of another woman. Would the DCC (RAF) have helped with Dambusters Declassified? I doubt it.

Hagiographies make me want to choke on my own vomit, but when it comes to someone like Guy Gibson, they deserve to be honoured with all “sins” pretty much forgiven. Here’s the thing to remember: When Gibson took off from RAF Scampton at 9:39pm on the night of 16 May, 1943, flying AJ–G “George” in the first wave of Lancaster bombers, he had already flown over 170 missions. After flying for over three hours at night, at a height of 100 feet, when he reached the Möhne dam Gibson made a dummy pass first, which enable the sentry gunners a chance to get ready for his attack run, before dropping to 60 feet so that Pilot Officer Frederick Spafford, his bomb aimer, could release the Upkeep. After the second Lancaster, AJ–M “Mother”, piloted by Flight Lieutenant John Hopgood took a hammering from the defences and ultimately went down in flames, Gibson flew in ahead of the third and fourth bombers in an attempt to draw the flak away, going so far as to turn on his navigation lights when it was the turn of Squadron Leader Henry “Dingy” Young flying AJ–A “Apple”.

Once the Möhne dam was destroyed, finished off by the Upkeep released from AJ–J “Johnny”, piloted by Flight Lieutenant David Maltby, rather than head back with the Lancasters that had released their bombs, Gibson headed further into Germany with Young to oversee the attack on the Eder dam, Though unguarded the terrain, with a difficult dogleg approach and a perilous exit due to high ground on the dry side of the dam, gave the pilots little more than a few seconds to line their aircraft up for the attack run. Gibson co–ordinated the attack and it was only after the Eder was successfully breached by AJ–N “Nut”, flown by Pilot Officer Leslie Knight, that he ordered what remained of the squadron home, landing AJ–G “George” back at Scampton just over six–and–a–half hours after taking off. In recognition of his valour and leadership, Gibson would be awarded the Victoria Cross by King George VI, “in recognition of most conspicuous bravery”. He was three months shy of his 24th birthday.

So when someone of that calibre is being criticized for his behaviour by a jumped up little actor, remembered by a generation for having the most awful bubble perm while he ran about firing a pretend Luger, my repeated response to the television was, “Fuck you, you cunty cunt!” at every claim made. Rude, I know, but right all the same. Having said that, by sitting through the whole programme I did learn that Flight Sergeant James Fraser, the bomb aimer of AJ-M “Mother”, who had managed to bail out after Flight Lieutenant Hopgood flew the crippled Lancaster to a height that his crew could safely parachute from, eventually broke during interrogation, revealing plans of the raid; that the Germans had discovered a virtually intact 9,250 pound Upkeep amongst the wreckage of one of the bombers shot down and went on to develop their own rocket-assisted version; that Churchill, expecting a retaliatory attack, had special defences set up around Derwent Reservoir in Derbyshire, which had been one of the practise grounds for the aircrews of 617 Squadron; and that bombing a dam is now illegal under the Geneva Convention because of the loss of life it can cause to the civilian population.

Unfortunately, rather than going into any real detail, this information was brought up and then quickly tossed aside so that time could be wasted as Shaw got into a twin–prop and showed that he could hardly navigate his way out of a paper bag. The programme makers had got special dispensation from the British and Dutch governments to fly at 100 feet over the countryside and coast just to show how bloody scary it is during the day time let alone at night. In fact Pilot Officer Geoffrey Rice, flying AJ–H “Harry” in the second wave of bombers, lost his Upkeep after clipping the North Sea and had to return to base. When Shaw and his pilot eventually got to the Möhne dam they flew over at regulation height, not even lining up on the towers because that would probably be frown upon, making the whole venture pretty pointless. I think Shaw then burbled on about war being bad and the bombers crews being very courageous but by then I was alternating between feeling the need to sleep and losing the will the live.

It all ended with Shaw flying in one of the two remaining Lancasters still in service, and taking part in last year’s Battle of Britain fly–past celebration, proving that in the end the whole show was just one big jolly for the actor, while the audience got the short shrift. If the programme makers wanted to do something different why didn’t they cover the further operations of 617 Squadron that gained them a reputation for accurate night–bombing, whether it was using the 12,000lb High–Capacity bombs on the Dortmund–Ems canal, the part the bombers played in Operation Taxable as part of D-Day, the three attacks on the Tirpitz, or their last operation, attacking the Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden.

Eventually I went to bed wondering if we’ll see something like that in the future. Instead I suspect it’s more likely we’ll be watching Barney the Dinosaur present new evidence on the Big Bang. I haven’t seen next week’s listings yet. Maybe that’s what next Tuesday night has in store for me.


At 12:34 am, Blogger Engelbert said...

I’ve never entertained reading blogs before but having an interest in the wartime 617 squadron and perhaps just verging on being an anorak I’ve just found your views on the “Dambusters lets see how many different ways we can tenuously associate minor celebs with greater peoples achievements and make money of it without actually giving people something new Declassified” program that was on TV a long while ago now pretty much in view with my own. The long and short of it is I felt fookin cheated I sat down to watch something I thought was going to give me some fantastic new information on a raid that I consider to be one of the greatest military achievements of the all time regardless of its actual affect on the war it was a genius daring plan from start to finish. However I ended up viewing some chap that used to be remotely famous when I was still in nappies showing me how he’s really not a very good pilot. I also have to concur with your views on Ewan McGregor becoming a world authority on Spitfire’s, The Battle of Britain and Lanc Bombers fair play he’s done the odd good movie but seriously can’t his brother get a job at tesco’s instead of getting Ewan to sort out another stretch of the imagination way of getting him a flying job on TV every time he needs a bit of cash. The hero’s that really did all this work back in ww2 aren’t getting any younger shouldn’t we be hearing more from them after all they were there they did it first hand and more importantly they wont be around for ever.
Look out for BB2’s program this summer where good old Ewan fixes his dog sitters aunties next door neighbor up with a job riding in a tank from England to Germany just because they need a bit of cash.


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