Dambusters - sixty years young
Gary Parsons sees history in the flesh
It seems so long ago, yet so recent in history. 17 May 1943 will always be remembered as long as the RAF is around, for on that day one of its most daring, risky and imaginative missions was flown - it needs no repetition here, but the legend of the Dambusters was born.
Not many of the original 133 aircrew survive today - less than a hundred survived the flak and terror of the night itself. Those that did survive undertook further missions, many falling victim to enemy action as did the mission leader Guy Gibson, a name now etched in the nation's consciousness, whether aviation enthusiast or not.
For the few that survived the war, a lifetime of reunions and lectures was assured. Some shied away for a while, but each year the fallen aircrew are remembered on the anniversary of the raid, and those that were initially reluctant to be exposed to the limelight now seem to want to remember, whether it be by TV documentary or airshows. Since 1987 the remembrance service has taken place at the splendid memorial in the centre of Woodhall Spa, the home of the squadron for the last two years of the war. Created to represent a breached dam, it carries all the names of 617 Squadron personnel that lost their lives in the Second World War.
This year's service was on Sunday 18 May, the weather proving good with broken cloud and mild temperatures. A small crowd gathered around the memorial, many faces lined with the passing of time though the twinkle in the eye was proud. Lines of medals adorned their chests, evidence of past valour. Passers-by stopped to wonder what was about, and why an officer from the Royal Air Force was standing to attention next to the flag-post, which proudly flew the Union Jack.
The local vicar then started proceedings, paying tribute to the courage of all aircrew, especially those lost in conflict. Moments were shared amongst the veterans - only they can tell of their memories of that night. The sound of the 'Last Post' then drifted across the crowd, followed by a clarinet rendition of the 'Dambusters March', while in the background could be heard the sound of Merlins as PA474 made her way across town to position for the flypast - it was all quite moving. But, first was the tribute from today's 617 Squadron as a quartet of Tornado GR4s flashed across the small memorial garden, followed at a more leisurely pace by the Lancaster. As she headed out over the former wartime airfield to the south, the veterans paid their respects to their fallen colleagues, and retired back to the Petwood Hotel. Another year has passed, but the legend grows stronger with time.