To mark 70 years since the formation of the RAF’s 617 Squadron, known as the Dambusters, TV historian and presenter Dan Snow formally unveiled commemorative tail art on an RAF Tornado GR4 at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire on March 21.
Speaking about the anniversary, Dan said “In early 1943 you had no chance of hitting anything precisely – as a result the bombers concentrated on hitting large areas of cities. What 617 Squadron did is prove that precise bombing was possible – dams, ships, canals, that sort of thing. They were very ahead of their time, and that’s the job they’re still doing today – precision bombing.”
When asked about the true impact of the raid on May 16/17 1943, Dan said “Some people blame the raid for not ending the war in a night! But it had a massive impact, disrupting industry in Germany and stopping the production of tanks and planes. The heroism and sheer bravery of the crews was exemplified by Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, who realised how heavy the defences were and rather than circle safely above flew alongside other aircraft attacking the dams to draw fire away from them. Quite unbelievable bravery.
“Although I’m a generalist in history I love preparing for events such as this. The Dambusters is something you could spend a whole lifetime researching – the richness, the variety of the accounts – being involved is just a huge privilege. It’s a great story from the past. I’ve already met one of the three survivors, Johnny Johnson, and am hoping to meet the other two in May. Meeting veterans is always very special, be it from the war or Helmand today.”
Dan will be presenting a BBC programme on the night of the 70th anniversary in May, and as part of the pre-show preparation took a flight in the specially marked Tornado. “It’s not my first fast jet ride,” he said – “I have flown in a Typhoon – but it’s my first low-level flight.” After the 90-minute trip, Dan exclaimed: “It was absolutely thrilling – we went low level and it was brilliant to experience such excellent RAF flying skills. It was a great day for it, beautiful weather and there was some amazing scenery! We flew at low level over the Derwent Dam, and I was able to appreciate how difficult a task and how accomplished the airmen of that era were. Their modern day counterparts are equally as impressive, being able to get to exactly the right point in space, at the right speed and height.”
Dan’s pilot for the day, Squadron Leader Mark Jackson, said “It is an immense privilege to be on 617 Squadron. I’m proud to be here today, on such an important occasion and to be able to demonstrate the modern day capabilities of the squadron, following in the footsteps of our RAF forefathers.” Another presentation of the aircraft was made the following day at the squadron’s home base of RAF Lossiemouth in Moray.
For a full feature on 617 Squadron today look out for the June issue of AirForces Monthly, on sale May 16.