We had met for lunch and to discuss School business as usual, then, with the afternoon ahead of us and the weather clearing, we took a walk through the wooded valley close by. It seems a little strange as you stand looking out over the waters of the Derwent Valley, drinking in the quiet peace of a spring afternoon, knowing that this one once a training ground for war.
There are many stories to be told about this series of reservoirs that span the valley, but the most famous has to be that of Operation Chastise that took place 63 years ago, almost to the day. Here, during WWII, Guy Gibson’s 617 Squadron practiced for the famous, if controversial raids on the dams of the Ruhr and Eder valleys in Germany that are better known as the Dambuster raids. The raids were designed to take out the industrial heart of Nazi Germany by attacking the hydroelectric plants and water supplies. They also killed some 600 Germans and a thousand prisoners and forced-labourers and have been heavily criticised in recent years.
I am no advocate for war, nor do I know enough of the facts to judge the political or military value of the operation. Whatever the reasons that determined the targets, the airmen who flew in that operation were simply doing their duty for their country. Politics takes nothing away from individual heroism.
Wing Commader Guy Gibson had, by the time he formed 617 Squadron, flown over 170 bombing and night-fighter missions. He was just 24 years old. Of the 133 aircrew who took part in the raids, little more than boys for the most part, 53 were killed and 3 taken prisoner.
The raids required the use of precision bombing. Torpedo nets protected the dams from conventional attack and a new weapon was developed by Barnes Wallis. Based on the same principles as skimming a stone on water, the Bouncing Bomb had to be dropped at a precise height and speed whilst flying low over the water. A method of sighting was developed where lights, shone onto the surface of the water, indicated the correct altitude.
The Derwent Valley was one of training locations chosen for this dangerous operation due to its similarity to the German terrain. Caught between the steep sided hills, and flying close to the water at night, it must have been a terryfing prospect for the young men in the Lancasters, even without the thought of anti-aircraft fire and German fighter planes.
Gibson himself survived the raids but was killed in action over the Netherlands in September 1944, aged 26. Of the 80 young men who survived the raids, 22 later died serving with 617 Squadron and a further 10 with other units during the war. A memorial to the Dambusters is housed within one of the towers of the Derwent Valley Dam.
It is difficult to encompass the scale of war. Hard to imagine its devastation on a scale of millions. It is the smaller things that bring home the true horror and utter senselessness of global violence. It is stories such as that of a young Jewish girl and her diary, the memories and stories of grandparents who served, the tale of Gibson’s dog, the squadron’s mascot killed by a car the night before the raid… and the photographs of his men, younger than my own sons, called to give life, limb and sanity for their country’s need, that really bring it home. It is through the small things that we feel the need for peace.