The way we were: Dam Busting at Cranfield

Guy Gibson''Wk25 MPMC
Guy Gibson''Wk25 MPMC
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OH dear. It seems that one of the nation’s favourite ‘luvvies’ is trying to be ever so trendy, and tinge history with the airbrush of political correctness. Yes, in the remake of the film ‘The Dambusters’ apparently Guy Gibson’s dog will now be named ‘Digger.’

And no doubt by the same token the Third Reich will be portrayed as a bunch of social reformers, who were just a little bit misunderstood.

Yet it’s hardly a surprise that throughout the war one of the main reasons that the BBC was avidly, if clandestinely, listened to by the oppressed peoples was that, in contrast to the enemy propaganda, the content could be trusted as factually accurate.

And therefore it should be pretty obvious that those who seek to sanitise the past play straight into the hands of totalitarian regimes, by giving credence to ad hoc re-writes of the nasty bits. And, of course, it’s only by understanding the mistakes of the past that there can ever be hope for the future.

The real story of the Dambusters is now well known, but perhaps less well known are the following two local connections.

Of those who took part in the raid, one would be the grandson of the Rev James Chadwick Maltby, the rector of Aspley Guise from 1880 until 1915, whilst as for Guy Gibson, he would spend three months as Chief Flying Instructor at Cranfield aerodrome. When the war finally arrived Cranfield was reformed as a Group Pool under No. 6 Group, providing replacement aircraft and personnel for the Advanced Air Striking Force in France, and in December 1939 hard runways of concrete were laid – in fact the first in Bedfordshire.

With this work complete in April 1940 No 14 Service Flying Training School arrived from Kinloss, and Cranfield was next transferred to No 23 Group, Flying Training Command. It was then decided that the unit should concentrate on twin engine training using Airspeed Oxfords, and as the fighting intensified Cranfield came under attack from the Luftwaffe, and even until recent years several pillboxes and air raid shelters could still be seen.

On consecutive nights in August 1940, 52 bombs plus incendiaries were dropped on the neighbourhood, but the decoy service units, dispersed in the surrounding fields, ensured that the bombs were widely scattered.

Nevertheless Astwood church suffered damage, and a German parachute mine caused damage to several shops and houses in the High Street of Cranfield. In fact probably from the same raid another mine, complete with parachute, was discovered three weeks later hanging from a tree in Hulcote Wood. The bomb was detonated the following day by bomb disposal experts. Throughout that year and into the next the German attacks continued, although the damage was fortunately limited to the creation of a few craters on the landing ground.

In August 1941, No 51 Operational Training Unit arrived at Cranfield for the instruction of night fighter crews, and the aerodrome now became part of No 81 Group, Fighter Command. As recuperation from operational flying, during which he had not only destroyed enemy aircraft but also gained the DFC, on December 29 1941 Guy Gibson was posted to 51 OTO, and of the appointment he wrote in block capitals in his log book; ‘WITH THE NEW YEAR I AM POSTED AS CFI TO 51 out CRANFIELD. THIS BEING HELD AS A REST FROM OPERATIONS!!!.’ Yet with his duties being to organise the flying aspects of the courses, and monitor the progress of the trainee crews, he would do very little instructional flying, and soon began to yearn for operational service.

In consequence he wrote to Air Marshall Arthur Harris, Commander in Chief of Bomber Command, and having attended an interview on March 12 1942, two days later he was appointed as commander – at the age of 23 – of 106 bomber squadron, Coningsby. Subsequently he would become involved with 617 Squadron, and of course the rest is history. And let’s keep it an accurate history, shall we, and not one ‘dogged’ by political correctness for default.