by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, May 16, 2018
A bomb before dinner seems a lot to digest, but there it is anyway – tucked beside the Twenties swimming pool, which has been turned into a fountain. It looks, at first glance, like a heavy roller for a cricket pitch, idle between innings. But a sign in front reveals the truth – that this is a prototype of the famous “bouncing bomb” cleverly devised by the British genius Barnes Wallis to target German dams in the heat of the Second World War.
It looks oddly at home on the lawn of the Petwood Hotel, the evening sun slanting across it. I have slipped out of the restaurant and across the terrace to inspect it – and as I do so, I hear a cascade of exuberant laughter from the lounge. Ghosts adrift on the early summer breeze? In a property built in 1905, which became a hotel in 1933, this seems almost within the realms of possibility.
The source of the mirth is a table of guests and a bottle of rosé – but the idea of guffaws echoing down the years is not so far-fetched. Petwood may have settled into a groove as a luxury retreat in the Lincolnshire village of Woodhall Spa, but it is still revered for having been the officers’ mess of the RAF’s 617 Squadron in 1944 and 1945. These dashing aviators called it “a splendid place remote from battle”. And they had earned their refuge.
On the night of May 16-17 1943, 133 of them had flown 19 Lancaster bombers towards Germany as part of Operation Chastise – a daring attack on the Möhne, Edersee and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr valley, with Wallis’s new bombs as a spear-tip. Largely a success, the raid made a celebrity of the squadron’s commanding officer Guy Gibson, and landed his men the joyful nickname “Dambusters”.
It is a word, and a mission, which has stuck fast to the British consciousness. This week, its 75th anniversary will be marked with everything from flyovers to nationwide screenings (Thursday) of the 1955 film that transported the derring-do to the cinema (with a DVD re-release to come, on June 4).
Petwood remains a treasure trove of memories, the Squadron Bar preserved as a salute. In a photo in one corner, Gibson stands on the terrace, flashing the cocksure smile that characterised his existence; above the fireplace, a frame of black and white shows the entire 617 Squadron at their home base, RAF Scampton – five long rows posed formally in front of a Lancaster, amid the puddles of July 9 1943. The sturdy tree limb above the bar apparently became wedged in the front of one of the bombers on 617’s other fabled mission – to assist in the destruction of the German battleship Tirpitz, on Nov 12 1944.
There are further echoes in the area: the memorial to the squadron on Royal Square in Woodhall Spa, where 204 men are listed as dying on duty in the Second World War, the words “Australia”, “Canada” and “New Zealand” after some of the names re-emphasising the global nature of the conflict; and Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre in East Kirkby, which has one of the three Lancasters still in operation.
Then there is the soul of the Dambusters, RAF Scampton – still a functioning base, but one that lets civilians peek at infrastructure, which sings of 1943. Upstairs in the RAF Scampton Heritage Centre, Gibson’s office has been restored to its appearance in 1943 – a dial-telephone on the desk, a pipe and ashtray, a pair of leather gloves, a chalkboard detailing the personnel for the May 16 mission.
There is context, too, in the next room, where a board names all 133 airmen who flew that night, with a poppy – 53 in all – next to each who did not return. And there is a frisson to entering the hangar behind, and knowing that it was here where the Lancasters were readied.
The hangar is currently given over to Bastion in the Air, an exhibition that examines Lincolnshire’s role in the air-defence of the realm during the First World War, via artefacts as varied as a new-build Sopwith Camel, and an officer’s cricket bat, taken to the Somme. It is part of a drive to celebrate the county’s links to aviation – which will bear further fruit in November with the unveiling of an art installation, next to the A46 at Hill Holt Wood, which will mimic the Angel of the North, but take the wing of a Lancaster as the core facet of its design.
“Lincolnshire has been at the forefront of flight in this country for more than a century,” says David Harrigan of Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire – an RAF veteran who has been instrumental in the exhibition’s creation. “It’s been that way since the first German zeppelins came over, using the Humber as a navigational aid.”
Bastion in the Air extends to The Collection, a museum at the heart of Lincoln – a city that understands its heritage. Its cathedral marries 11th-century magnificence to 20th-century remembrance in its trio of military chapels – including the Airmen’s Chapel, with stained-glass tributes to the men who flew and died with Bomber Command. Its castle manages a similar leap in time, visibly Norman in shape, but mighty enough still for its Observatory Tower to be used as a lookout point in the Forties.
From the tower, I can see the latest addition to the view. International Bomber Command Centre opened on the outskirts of the city in April, arranged around a spire of weathering steel which, at 102ft, replicates the wingspan of a Lancaster. The curves of the same metal that radiate out around this elongated epicentre are inscribed with the identities of those who lost their lives in the war fighting for UK-based bomber squadrons.
“That’s 57,861 people,” says the centre’s director Nicky Barr, “pretty much the capacity of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.” She pauses, then adds: “There are no honours or ranks on these walls. We decided that, at the exact time of sacrifice, everyone was equal.”
There is also equality within the centre, which balances honouring wartime heroism and acknowledging the damage. A video introduction to the main exhibition reminds the viewer that “almost a million people across Europe died as a result of bombing”. Screens show interviews with veterans – re-created by actors – which include the testimonies of Luftwaffe pilots who had to face the Lancasters. Items such as an Italian board game teaching children air-raid precautions underscore the terror on the ground.
But then you emerge to images of British airmen, in their 90s, and you are reminded that this era is slipping beyond living memory – George “Johnny” Johnson, the final surviving Dambuster, is now 96 – and of the human beings behind these legends.
Where to stay
Double rooms at Petwood Hotel (01526 352411; petwood.co.uk) cost from £99, including breakfast.
See the film
As we went to press, tickets were still available for Thursday’s screening of The Dam Busters at the Royal Albert Hall, admission from £18 (royalalberthall.com; thedambusters75.co.uk). For more on Lincolnshire, see visitlincoln.com/raf