Friday, 17 May 2013

617 'Dambuster' Squadron 70th Anniversary

In March 1943, 617 'Dambuster' Squadron was formed from an elite group of military men who were chosen or volunteered for one of the Second World War's most daring and innovative strategic attacks on Nazi Germany. It was an attack which was to mark the turning point in the war for Great Britain and her allies.

I have just been watching the coverage on television of the tributes that were happening today here in the Peak District where the squadron honed their skills over the Derwent Dam and this evening at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire from where the 19 Lancaster planes set off this very night 70 years ago.

The skills that the pilots and their crew had to hone, with none of today's technology, in the space of eight short weeks, were incredible. The mission was to be carried out purely by the light of the moon and the eyes of the crew using sights which look like they'd been knocked up in the potting shed (some wood and a couple of nails) and some basic target altitude aids. Added to this, the Avro Lancaster bomber which they were flying was designed to be operational at far greater heights than the few hundred feet which were required for the success of this top-secret mission. These were brave and courageous men indeed and when they set out this night of May 16th, 1943, many of them knew they were unlikely to return.

As I sit, writing this, in the house that Flt Lt William 'Bill' Astell DFC was living in with his parents and three sisters at the time of his active service, I feel both extraordinarily privileged and very moved. It was to this house, in this quiet Derbyshire village, that he returned having been awarded his DFC for fortitude in Libya, to rest and recuperate prior to his involvement in the Dambusters' Raid. It was a place he loved, as confirmed to me by his sister Betty in a brief correspondence we enjoyed before her own death a few years ago. She said how happy they had all been living here and that, indeed, the only sadness was that their beloved brother died in action while they still lived here.

Edmund Bradbury, member of the British Legion and long-term resident of Chapel-en-le-Frith, worked tirelessly to bring together today's commemoration of Bill Astell who died just 53 days after Edmund was born. The sun shone on Chapel's market place - site, too, of the War Memorial where William Astell's name is etched in the stone like too many other fallen comrades of the First and Second World Wars. A message was read out from Her Majesty the Queen; flags were raised and lowered; a lone trumpet played The Last Post; a minute's silence was held and its end marked by the Revalle; hymns were sung, prayers were said and readings given; wreaths were laid and the Chapel Male Voice Choir sang the famous Dambusters' March. BBC and ITV news were both there filming and interviewing and military and local dignitaries were joined by a good crowd of invitees and passers by.

Refreshments were then offered in the Town Hall where a local business, Cup 'n' Cake, had provided a generous spread of home-made sandwiches and cakes; a two-man band played songs from the 40s following speeches of thanks and a special presentation to Edmund Bradbury from two current young members of 617 Squadron.

At around 12.40 we all moved outside onto the High Street and lifted our eyes, cameras and videos to the sky to capture the moment that the only remaining flying Lancaster in Great Britain (there is also one in Canada), the 'City of Lincoln', flew over Chapel-en-le-Frith. Responding to a special request from Edmund, it took this short detour on its way to the Derwent Dam where many more people were gathered to watch this magnificent and iconic old lady of the air make an emotional sweep through the same skies where the crews had trained so intensely and secretly during those extraordinary eight weeks. Friends in Combs arguably had a better view as the City of Lincoln swept majestically over the village three times, its engines roaring and its four propellers glinting in the sun. I was told that it actually went over our house and I thought how very fitting that was - although the pilots would have had no knowledge of that particular significance.

If you will indulge me, I would like to write out some paragraphs from a book called 'The Peak District at War' by Peter Clowes which Edmund so kindly sent me before today's Remembrance Tribute:

'When Flight Lieutenant Bill Astell drove to Chinley Station one sunny morning in 1943 there were only two people with him in the family's black Austin car - his mother and his nine-year-old sister Heather. After all, he was just returning to his base after a normal seven-days' leave.

The 11.15 train to Sheffield pulled out of the station on time and Bill, his peaked cap askew on his head, waved cheerily until his carriage vanished in drifting smoke. His mother and sister drove back to their home at Spire Hollins in Combs unaware that Bill knew he was about to take part in one of the most hazardous operations of the Second World War - the famous Dambusters' Raid.

Bill had been awarded  the Distinguished Flying Cross earlier in the war for 'displaying great courage and fortitude' after being shot down in Libya and surviving a five-day walk across the desert. He returned to Combs to recuperate, smoke his favourite pipe and sometimes go on rabbit hunts in the fields on Ladder Hill, his shotgun echoing around the hills that rim the Combs valley.

His wounds healed, he was eager to return to the war and, early in 1943, began to fly four-engine Lancaster bombers. Then he joined 617 Squadron at Scampton in Lincolnshire where the Dambusters' Raid was being prepared. When he reached Combs for a final leave in May 1943 he was quieter than usual and contented himself with long walks in the Peak District hills. He hinted to his sister Betty, who was in the WRNS, that 'something big' was coming off but that was all.'

Bill Astell's Lancaster hit uncharted power cables before it even reached the Ruhr dams and exploded in a ball of fire. He was one of the 53 (out of 133) crew who never returned that night.

As I drove back from Buxton this sunny morning along the narrow lane which tracks Combs Moss before plunging down into the village, I looked across the wide vista towards the peaks of Eccles Pike and Kinder Scout to the north, and Castlenaze to the south. I could not help but marvel at the beauty of the landscape and think how little has changed since Bill Astell walked these very hills, smoking his pipe and taking a pop at the rabbits. The Reverend Bralesford made the same observation at the tribute an hour later and it was hard not to feel both humbled by and proud of  the sacrifices this courageous and committed young man, like so many thousands of others, made during those turbulent, violent and uncertain times.

I will go to bed shortly, on the very night that he lost his life, and feel his spirit lingering quietly and happily in this place that he loved. I will imagine him strolling around the very same garden which I tend and nurture in the spirit of those who have gone here before me. I will imagine him walking out of the top gate and into the fields of Ladder Hill beyond, turning to admire and breath in the vista that so many have admired before and since, and will continue to admire for many years to come. People come and go, but landscapes such as these outlive us all.

We are simply guardians of stone and mortar for a moment in time, before we too have to move on. But in the meantime it is a privilege to be able to inhabit this place which he, too, called home.

Spire Hollins, Combs, 16th May 2013


 

10 comments:

Pondside said...

This was a beautiful tribute. It was a time of such sacrifice and bravery.

moonstruckcreations said...

What a marvellous and moving post. I was born just 15 years after the end of the war, and it still seemed like it had only happened the year before, so great was the terrible impact on families.
I remember reading the book "the Dambusters" at the age of 8 and being astonished, even at that young age, by the bravery of those men who took part in the raid.
Im very fortunate as we sometimes get to see the awe inspiring City of Lincoln fly over our house, often at very low altitudes.

Helenxx

HER ON THE HILL said...

Thank you Pondie and Moonstruck, it is lovely to hear from you.

How wonderful to have the chance to see the City of Lincoln flying over you more frequently. At our last house in Isleworth, before moving up here, we used to get Concorde flying directly over our house and down our street. We would see her approach from the conservatory and then rush up to the bathroom and watch the orange burn of her engines as she descended to the tarmac at Heathrow. She was so low you felt you could almost touch her. Magnificent.

I don't know if either of you opened the link in the above post to the Dambuster Raid. It is a fascinating read, just for the stark facts alone. Certainly brings it all home. As you both say, such extraordinary sacrifice and bravey, and at such a relatively young age. The programme on BBC 2 last night at 7pm was also a fabulous watch - both emotional and very informative.

Nutty Gnome said...

What a superbly written post - I could have wept.
I was working and couldn't get out to Derwent, but my dad was there, as was Woody Wilbury from Allotment 81. They both said it was a wonderful sight, but I was bitterly disappointed at how little time they gave to it on the BBC news - even the local news :-(

The magnificent 'City of Lincoln' and the Spitfires in the Battle of Britain flight often fly over our house en route to some show or other and their very distinctive engine noise never fails to have me shooting out of the house to see them - I've always had a bit of a love affair with both Lancasters and Spitfires!

I was only about 9 or 10 when I read both 'The Dambusters' and 'Reach for the Sky' by Douglas Bader and being awestruck by their down to earthness combined with their bravery. Must re-read them.

HER ON THE HILL said...

Thank you Nutty, I can't tell you how much what you say here means to me. I must read Reach for the Sky. I have given my father many books on the subject, but never actually read them myself...

Hartley G. said...

A lovely article. My uncle WO2 Sgt. Albert Garshowitz was Bill Astell's wireless operator on that fateful flight. I just attended ceremonies at Scampton and Lincoln Cathedral in commemoration of the mission, truly memorable and moving.

Unknown said...

Hello Cora
I've written a post on the Dambusters blog about you living in Bill Astell's house. See http://dambustersblog.com/2013/06/03/dams-raid-peaks-interest/
I'd very much like to find out more for the series of profiles I am writing of all 133 aircrew who took part. Please email me at charlesjfoster@gmail.com
thanks -- Charles Foster

estreettalk said...

Its always a pleasure to read of such brave pilots and air crew. I am the son of Arthur Dodds who I believe was Bill's navigator who crash landed with Bill in Libys. My father died when I was just age four and I am trying to learn about his service in the RAF. I have his 74 squadron badge along with a small dagger pin they my late mother said was from the underground. I have read on the RAF Benevolent that Arthur Dodds was captured in Germany whilst travelling back to the UK with Bill in Germany and it appears he escaped from capture. If anyone knew of my late father Arthur Dodds No. 74 Tiger squadron please please post a comment. I can remember a small metal aircraft fighter model in metal that was made by a polish airman.
Russell

Sirikoi said...

Loved your blog.
Bills nephew William, named after Bill (Bettys son) and 5 siblings live here in Kenya. 3 of them have their own aviation companies and are all brilliant pilots, also one grandson has his own plane, so this talent continues in the family.
Betty loved Spire Hollins and has many pictures of the family and the old house in her photo albums. She told us tales of Bills escape through enemy lines in N.Africa and what a wonderful brother he was.
Would love to visit you one day and see the house. I am Williams wife.
best wishes
Sue Roberts

HER ON THE HILL said...

I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have been able to stir up some memories and connections through writing this blog post.

It is especially wonderful to hear from Sue Roberts (in the comment above) as I was in fact in touch briefly with Bill's sister, Betty, (through a set of extraordinary coincidences which occurred immediately after we moved here) before she died. I had established how much she loved Spire Hollins, her only sadness being that her beloved brother Bill had died when it was still there family home. It is for this reason that I am convinced he is still here from time to time as it was the last place he was before he left for the fateful mission and because he, too, found peace and respite and comfort here.

I knew from my correspondence with Betty that she had married and gone to live by Lake Baringo where she had brought up her own brood of children and clearly been supremely happy. It is wonderful to hear that they are all still out there and continuing in the aviation footsteps of their uncle.

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