Friday, 18 May 2018

The Dambusters - 75th Anniversary

I am writing this post, slightly bleary eyed, after attending the showing of the remastered 1955 classic 'The Dambusters' starring Richard Todd as Wing Commander Guy Gibson and Micheal Redgrave as Sir Barnes Wallace.

The performance lasted some three hours as the audience was treated to a live 'simulcast', to use the current parlance, from the Royal Albert Hall in London as a specially invited audience including people and family of those involved with the actual raid and with the making of the film were treated to music from the Glen Miller Band and presentations about the history of the raid by Dan Snow.

Squadron Leader George 'Johnny' Johnson

The highlights for me during the pre-film presentation was an interview with Squadron Leader George Leonard "Johnny" Johnson now aged 96 and sharp as a knife talking about his reminiscences of the raid, the squadron and Guy Gibson.

We were also treated to some rare colour footage of Wing Commander Gibson held by the Imperial War Museum together with a radio interview he gave in San Francisco on a tour of America after the raid. To hear Gibson speaking is incredibly rare and that was the first time I had ever heard him talk.

Gibson seen in the clip from the IWM with his VC medal ribbon for the Dambuster raid

The voice didn't seem to match the young boy that presents itself in the images and at 24 with some 100 plus sorties to his name and his first complete tour of operations (30 ops was a tour in Bomber Command and took some surviving) it perhaps shouldn't be surprising that this young man sounded like a man twenty years older than he was.

Perhaps the most moving part of the interview was when he explained to the interviewer that he joined the Royal Air Force with three close friends and that now he was the only one left.

My personal links to this extraordinary moment in history is very minor, but in the 70's I went to school in Effingham in Surrey and Sir Barnes Wallace was a close neighbour to our school and very much held in high regard locally at that time.

Thus it was lovely to see his two daughters in the audience last night talking about their father and his work designing the special bomb or as it should be called an aerial mine and their participation in the film with the famous scene of the marbles being fired across a paddling pool on to a table, the first incarnation of skipping a bomb across the water.

With the music and presentations over Dan Snow announced the movie and that it was to be shown at the same time in over 4,000 other cinemas in the UK with other members of 617 Squadron in various audiences across the country, sadly with no veterans in Exmouth last night.

As part of the introduction Mr Snow explained that although the film had been remastered by Studiocanal, the 'offensive word' used in it had not been altered and that no offence was intended.

I thought this was a reasonable compromise as I probably fall into the camp of allowing people the freedom to feel offended providing the intent was not to cause offence in the first place, but to preserve the freedom to recall historical fact truthfully and respectfully.

Times change and so does common parlance and we shouldn't impose our views today on past generations especially when you remember that this generation were fighting the most hideous existential threat to democracy and common decency the world has ever seen.

I grew up with this film which was made five years before I was born and thus have seen it many times on television but never on the big screen. It was described during the evening as one of the best war films ever made and has influenced other film makers and directors since. Modern generations who love Star Wars should remember where the idea of the low flying attack on the Death Star came from.

Great seeing Lincoln Cathedral in the film last night, especially as I am off up to Lincoln for Partizan this weekend

I can't say I noticed much difference in the remastered version to the previous one but the site of real Lancasters and Mosquitos up on the screen last night and the attention to historical detail was a real pleasure for a history nerd like me, although the 'special effects' of dams bursting and trains being swept away are past their sell by date and a modern version of this film is very much required.

This presentation last night was a fantastic salute by the whole nation to a great British achievement but it also went with recognition of the lives lost in the operation, and not just the fifty plus crew who failed to return in the eight out of sixteen aircraft that pressed home the attack, but also the hundreds of civilians killed in the flooding that followed the raid. Let us hope that at some time war is consigned to the history books but that we don't forget that freedom carries a very heavy price tag.

One slight criticism of last nights otherwise excellent presentation is that the organisers made a big point that the evening was in support of the RAF Benevolent Fund and I can only hope that part of the ticket price was heading in that direction, although that was not made clear, but I was surprised that there were no collection boxes in the house.

I therefore put a donation through via the web page and attach a link below if you feel inclined to join me.

Next up, The First and Second Battles of Castalla and I am really looking forward to heading off to Partizan this weekend with friends.


  1. Fantastic write up of what sounded like an excellent evening.

    1. Thanks Lee, it was a memorable evening and very moving and great to have my eldest son with me seeing the film for the first time and thoroughly enjoying it. Another generation reminded of their history.

  2. Remember watching the film on the television as a boy on a Sunday afternoon and just grinding it so stirring and exciting. Great review JJ.