The legendary dambusters included at least one trainee solicitor, and stories of heroism emerge from the raid.
At a pub quiz the other night one of the questions was: ‘By what name is the RAF’s 617 squadron better known?’ Anyone of my generation would have got it right away: we were brought up steeped in the story of the dambuster raid, which took place 70 years ago this year.
Partly, this was through the 1955 film. Even those who have never watched it all the way through know the stirring music and the poignant scene at the end when the extent of the casualties sinks in.
And the stiff upper lips as the mission continues after the second Lancaster to make the bombing run, M for Mother, explodes in a storm of anti-aircraft fire.
Keep M for Mother in mind, for a moment.
In more recent decades the dambusting raid has rightly come under more critical scrutiny.
One charge is that it was an illegal terror operation. I think this can be dismissed. True, under the 1977 additional protocol to the Geneva Convention, attacks on ‘dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations’ are banned ‘if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population’. But this raid was in 1943, at the height of a total war against an enemy that had shown its contempt for rules protecting civilians.
Whether or not the strategic bombing campaign as a whole was a war crime - on this subject I recommend philosopher A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities, though I don’t agree with all his verdicts - the dams raid seems justified.
A second revisionist interpretation is that the lives of the crews were recklessly thrown away on a stunt that had nothing but propaganda value. This has some validity. Patently, Operation Chastise did not end the war. The raid achieved little long-term damage and most of the 1,500 people it killed were Ukrainian prisoners of war. In an almost inexplicable act of bloody-mindedness, Bomber Command failed to follow up the raid by bombing the dams’ ruins, which would have put them out of use for the entire war rather than being restored to working order within months.
With hindsight, that was a piece of institutional incompetence at one with the RAF’s tardiness in equipping the Lancaster with an adequate escape hatch, a story told in the physicist Freeman Dyson’s autobiography Disturbing the Universe. Like most aircraft of its era the Lancaster was designed with little thought to its crew's life chances: in an emergency the pilot was supposed to remain at the controls while his crew jumped clear, and then to make his own desperate scramble to the escape hatch as the aircraft plummeted earthward. Not many got out.)
I find the incompetence interpretation convincing, though of course we should not discount the value of propaganda. If nothing else, the dams raid showed Stalin and Roosevelt that Britain was still fighting, and surely steeled nerves for the final victory.
But, looked at dispassionately, about the only people who emerge with credit from the strategic bombing campaign are the crews themselves. They emerge with a lot.
One such is John Vere Hopgood, DFC and bar, whom the Roll of Honour section of the Law Society’s Gazette dated September 1943 records was ‘killed in action in the Ruhr dam operations and buried in Dortmund’.
Hopgood, second in command of 617 Squadron, was the pilot of M for Mother. At the time of the raid, 'Hoppy' was a veteran of more than 40 missions, each one, at that stage of the war, not much safer than a game of Russian roulette. On the outward leg of the dams raid, M for Mother was hit by flak, killing one crew member and wounding Hopgood who fled with the flight engineer holding a dressing to his face.
Pressing on, M for Mother made the perilous second run at the Möhne dam against alerted defences, when the Lancaster was hit again. Its bomb dropped a fraction of a second too late, bounced over the dam, and exploded in a power station, its blast further crippling the aircraft. Hopgood’s last act as captain was to gain height and stay at the controls to give his surviving crew members a chance to bale out. Three men jumped; two lived.
The Gazette notes that Hopgood was ‘articled to Mr N. C. Dowson, of 7 St. James’s Place, SW1’. This superlative pilot of the most advanced machine of his day, hardened combat veteran and inspirational leader, was 22 years old.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor