My Top Shelf – Chapter 5

MY TOP SHELF

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

5

THE DAM BUSTERS

Paul Brickhill (1953)

Folio Society, 2015.  Quarter-bound in cloth with cloth sides, and slip case; blocked with a design by Richard Sweeney, with a Lancaster on the spine.

In the early 1950’s, not long after the war, the parents of my mother Norma lived in what even then looked to me to be an aging weatherboard house in Orlando Street Hampton.  It was a quiet street.  Not a lot happened in it – there was quite a stir when the former Australian cricket captain Lindsay Hassett moved into a ‘cream brick vanilla’ flat, as we were starting to call them, in Hampton Street, overlooking our back fence.

My grandfather, Les, was called an engineer.  I think that meant that he was a tool-maker, or metal-worker.  When Les left Humes after forty years’ service, they gave him a mantel clock that chimed.  It sat on the kind of sideboard that people had back then, when the whole house seemed to chime.  Les had a perfectly kept tool-shed, with designs traced for each tool.  He kept something of wonder there.  It was a shanghai, or ging – not roughed out of eucalypt, and powered by rubber bands, but made out of forged steel, and powered by springs so taut that we could hardly pull them back.  One day a cousin and I screwed up our courage and lifted it from its designated space to give it a test fire from the ti-tree overlooking the bay.  The first shot hit a ti-tree just in front of us and nearly took our heads off; the second took off on a high trajectory in the general direction of Williamstown.  We shot through in mortal fear, and we never touched the ging again.

Les and Liza were frugal.  All those who had survived the depression, a word muttered in a subdued tone, were.  It was, I recall, quite an occasion when they signed up for the Herald-Sun Readers’ Book Club.  I cannot recall seeing books in the house before.  The series may have followed on a six volume encyclopaedia that we later inherited – with some gratitude.  The series proper consisted of novels and memoires.  Many of those were of the war just finished, like Two Eggs on my Plate, Wingless Victory, or Boldness be my Friend.  (Everybody had already read The Cruel Sea.) 

The first book in the series proper was, I think, The Dam Busters.  At any rate, I have a clear recollection of looking at the one in front of me now at the left end of a growing collection – in a red dust-jacket with HS on the spine, an image of a dam wall on the front cover, and on the rear a photo of the author.  As befitted a chap who wrote that kind of book back then, Mr Brickhill was photographed with nonchalantly brushed back hair, a pencil moustache, a hound’s-tooth check jacket, an open-necked shirt – with a cravat, in navy polka dot set in the spacing dictated by Winston Churchill – and with the rather imperious sidelong glance of a man not used to difficulty with skirt.  The first review in the blurb says ‘In all the history of arms there is no finer epic.’

It was therefore a major event when the movie came to Hampton in 1955.  As I recall, the excitement was as great as that which later greeted the start of television or the Olympic Games.  Les took me to a matinee on Saturday arvo at the Hampton Cinema in Hampton Street, about five hundred yards from home.  We got there early, which was just as well, because the place was chockers.  Later events make it hard to recall my first reaction, but I believe that I was entranced from beginning to end.  It was miles better than going to ‘town’ on the train with Liza – she and Les never had a car – and eating donuts at Downyflake.

Two things were beyond magic.  The leader of the raid had my name!  And my initials!  Guy Gibson.  And one Australian when they were practising low flying said, in a flat Australian accent, ‘this is bloody dangerous.’  How shockingly grown-up – the word ‘bloody’ on the screen, and out loud!  It was truly bliss to be alive that day.

I walked back home with Les in a state of exaltation.  He took me to see it again on two more occasions.  Then it came to TV and video and DVD.  I lost count of how many times I have seen it about thirty years ago, but you can proceed on the footing that I watch it about once a year, in varying states of composure or decency.  I only ever saw the dog get killed once.

If you do not know the story, you have a major problem.  In 1943, a squadron formed especially for that purpose, 617 Squadron, attacked the Moehne and Eder dams in Germany using a bouncing bomb especially designed and made for that purpose by an immensely gifted scientist named Barnes Wallis.  Both the book and the film contain two stories of great character and courage – that of Barnes Wallis for the courage of his conviction in his own skill and judgment, and the dedication and courage of the young men who delivered the bombs.  Fifty-six of those young men, whose whole and gifted life still lay before them, did not come back.  Wallis, a man of peace, was distraught.  It took him a long time to recover. The scene of Wallis standing under the hawk-like gaze of Bomber Harris and the blank coldness of Cochrane is still wrenching.

They had to fly as low as possible to beat radar.  Power lines were a real threat, and I think one plane was lost this way.  The bomb had to be delivered from sixty feet, the length of a cricket pitch.  The pilot had to hold the aircraft steady at that altitude in the face of enemy fire.  The only way that they could do that was by using spotlights on the water to illuminate their target.  From time to time, modern crews try to replicate the feat for TV, and they then find out how hard it is.  Among other things, someone might have to pick up a compass and protractor.

The cream of Bomber Command, and therefore the nation, went into 617, and not just from England.  They had all completed full tours.  Apart from Gibson, the pilots included at least three Australians – Mickey Martin, Dave Shannon, and Les Knight.

Martin (played by the late Bill Kerr in the film) commanded ‘P’ Popsie.  He delivered one of the bombs that hit the Moehne.  Although hit on his starboard wing, Martin then accompanied Gibson on the next attacks to draw the flak.  Gibson was later awarded the VC for his part in the raid.  When the Moehne was finally breached, Martin and Gibson accompanied Shannon and Knight to go to the Eder.  They had trouble finding it.  Having sat up there watching all the attacks on the Moehne, Dave Shannon then watched the first attack on the Eder fail – in a blazing explosion.

There were only two bombs left, and they were both to be delivered by Australians.  It was a very tricky target – fatally tricky.  Dave Shannon eventually found a way to deliver his bomb on to the target.  Gibson ordered Knight in with the last bomb.  Brickhill described it this way.

Knight tried once and couldn’t make it.  He tried again.  Failed.  ‘Come in down moon, and dive for the point, Les’, Shannon said.  He gave more advice over the R/T, and Knight listened quietly.  He was a young Australian who did not drink, his idea of a riotous evening being to write letters home and go the pictures.  He dived to try again, made a perfect run and they saw the splash as his bomb dropped in the right spot.  Seconds later the water erupted, and as Gibson slanted down to have a look he saw the wall of the dam burst open and the torrent came crashing out.

Knight, more excited than he had ever been, was yelling over the R/T, and when he stopped he left his transmitter on for a few seconds by mistake; the crew’s remarks on the intercom were broadcast, and they were very spectacular remarks indeed.

Some time after all this, Dave Shannon celebrated his twenty-first birthday, and then married an English lass in the service.  The last of the pilots, Les Munro from New Zealand, died earlier this year (2015).  Mickey Martin never forgave Churchill for allowing Gibson to fly one more mission.  I have made the pilgrimage to the grave in Holland.

The devotion and courage of all those involved, from Wallis and Gibson down, defy belief.  It comes from another time.  They are all real and true heroes.  They are my absolute heroes.  I brought my children up on this story and I look forward to doing the same with their children.  Both the heroes and the children deserve no less.

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