In Contact With The Past And Present

617 Squadron
617 Squadron Badge (The Dambusters)
Copyright of the Royal Air Force and produced here under fair use guidelines.

Yesterday evening at 21:55 UTC I made contact with Amateur Radio Station GB5DAM in Lincolnshire, next to RAF Scampton. The call-sign of the station recalls Operation Chastise in 1943 and is operated on the night of the 16th/17th of May which is the anniversary of what became known as the Dambusters Raid. It was from Scampton that three formations of Lancaster bombers took off on the raid with the first departing at 21:39. The intention of the raid was to breach three large dams and to flood German industry in the Ruhr region. The dams concerned were the Mรถhne, Eder and Sorpe, of which the Mรถhne and Eder were actually breached whilst the Sorpe was slightly damaged.

In our modern world where technology has allowed the production of weapons that can be dropped with a precision of a few metres, the indiscrimate broadbrush tactics commonly used for bombing in the Second World War seem primitive and excessive though it was almost certainly the only possible way to attack at the time. Modern military commanders often refer to a small number of civilian deaths as Collateral Damage. I cannot think of a term to adequately describe the huge numbers of civilian casualties caused by the massed raids of WWII. And, it’s fair to say that, the Dambusters Raid was planned in the full knowledge that it would cause significant loss of civilian life. At the time of the start of the Second World War, the philosophy behind bombing was still entrenched in the 1930’s belief that the bomber would always get through and that taking the war to the opponent’s civilian population would force a rapid end to hostilities as they turned against their own government. That was wearing a little thin by 1943 and of course, the lesson from WWII is that such ideaology was false – civilians, both British and German, bore up under the assault and tried to carry on as normal.

However, looking back to that raid in the early hours of 17th May, we can see the dawning of the idea of precision bombing. The methods used were crude but efforts to provide accurate bombing enabling more precise targetting were rapidly coming on line in 1943. The dams raid was a strange mix of an attack requiring extreme accuracy with an outcome that would be widespread and indiscriminate. I doubt that we will see its like again – the modern military commander is as aware of flak from public opinion as he is of anti-aircraft missiles.

Returning to GB5DAM – The station is operated by the Lincoln Short Wave Club to remember the RAF Aircrew and the German Civilians who lost their lives in the famous raid on the Ruhr Dams of Northern Germany. To quote from their entry on “Sixty Nine years ago tonight we could have stood outside our shack and counted the Lancasters out and back in again next morning.” 40% of the aircrew were lost and over 1600 civilians and pow’s died on the ground. Whatever else we may think about the actions that night there is no doubt that the attack was pressed home bravely. There must certainly be many untold tales of bravery on the ground that night too.

And so to the present morning of 17th May – my first contact just before starting work was with German station DK0YLO. The Young Lady, Mareike, was talking from Sundern – right beside the Sorpe Dam that was attacked on that night 69 years ago. The station was one of several on the air this morning to highlight the mining activities of the area. A number of mines were flooded after the dams were breached but there was no mention of wars, bombing raids or flooding today. Just a friendly Amateur Radio exchange of call-signs, names and signal strengths. The pain of the past has healed over the intervening years just as the dams were repaired in a few short weeks. Whilst Amateur Radio can’t take credit for the present friendly relations enjoyed between British and German people, it is a force for friendly contact between the peoples of the world regardless of race, colour, age, gender or creed.

In the shack
Operating in the Shack in 2008 – photo by Alasdair Addison

You can read a detailed account of Operation chastise , including an analysis of its overall effect on the war, on Wikipedia.


  1. What a fascinating piece of history, Martin! Just think of all the stories… truly incredible.
    It still makes me marvel when I stop to think about how easy it is now to meet people from all walks of life – all over the globe! Instantly! What a time we live in! It makes me feel incredibly fortunate!

    1. I think we are incredibly fortunate Bob. I hope that over time all the means of communication available to us will result in a critical mass of friendship and understanding between the whole human race. Sadly, at present there are those who misuse these avenues to cultivate hatred and unfortunately governments don’t help by then trying to censor the communications of everyone ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Let’s hope that the good will eventually triumph over the evil.

  2. My dad and two siblings enjoyed their “radio shacks” for a number of years. None of them are “on air” these days . . . but they all found connecting with others around the globe to to both interesting and fun.

    Sounds like you enjoyed your friendly exchanges.
    Here’s to the end of war and the dawning of peace. ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. No chance of me speaking to your Dad then! I do talk to US stations from time to time though my relatively limited station makes it difficult – the conditions have to be right. Probably my closest contacts to where you live were in Clermont and Milton. I’ve had a good day on the radio today including talking to a couple of 7 year olds at a primary school ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks Kate – that’s not a Liberty.. I posted it for people to read ๐Ÿ™‚ Just don’t blame me if your Dad asks for a sub towards a new rig ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Martin, thank you for this post. I lived as a child during WW2, and know a little of things that happened. I lived in Hull, which was grievously damaged in the blitz. I am delighted you pointed out that the commemoration was both for aircrew, prisoners of war and civilians. Barnes Wallace, the designer of the bouncing bomb was deeply distressed by the casualty toll.

    1. Hi John – I recall Michael Redgrave portraying Wallace’s distress very well at the end of the film. Indeed, it was probably the most poignant part. Glad you found the post of interest. I spoke to GB60VUL today (operating from Greenham Common), a station celebrating 60 years of the Vulcan Bomber – it’s amazing to think that those aircraft took to the air as part of our nuclear deterrent just 9 years after the dams raid!

      1. Oh yes, Martin, what rapid progress in aeronautics during those years. I saw the last Vulcan doing its trials a year or two back, during a walk on Watership Down near Newbury – I couldn’t believe my eyes!
        BTW you might try going to my blog and searching for two poems CHANGES, and PHILLIPS.
        The first is to do with wartime experiences and the second a Titanic poem. Hope you like them.
        John G3NCN

      2. I just ticked a like on your London poem. Was going to mention the Rylingair one to our resident Irish Wingate & Finchley supporter this evening. I’m just getting the bits together before popping off to our awards night. But expect some comments 2moro ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Coincidence — Husband and I at lunch were just talking about 1939-1940 — we were both alive, he a 12-year-old, me, 5 years old. The time of the Battle of Britain and the blitzes on London civilian— Hitler and his armies marching across all of Europe while Britain had really only its air force, France was falling, the US had only its navy and that all the way out in Hawaii — until it too was critically wounded at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
    Basically it was Hitler’s stubborn and egomaniacal decisions as commander-in-chief (the air war against Britain, Hitler repeating Napoleon’s blunder and invading Russia) that enabled the defeat of the Third Reich. Without his overreaching, it’s doubtful the Allied forces could have grouped and mobilized in time. I’m afraid I believe less that good triumphs than that evil overreaches — most fortunately.
    The dynamics that lead to war seem embedded in man’s personality. In fact wars probably begin at home, as it were, in the ongoing struggle in each of us between our own good and evil impulses. That’s the real drama of human existence, and it’s fully on display, business as usual, in our own time.

    1. Hi Judith – I agree that Hitler brought about his own downfall by not following the advice of his generals. The rapid advance through France masterminded by Heinz Guderian and spearheaded by Erwin Rommel was a masterpiece of military strategy that succeeded so well that it left Hitler with a big problem – England to invade but no means to do it. So he hesitated while the British turned Dunkirk into an Honourable retreat and he went sightseeing in Paris! Guderian, by the way, was known as ‘Hurry-up Heinz’ ๐Ÿ™‚

      I always wonder what would have happened if Hitler’s Generals had been allowed to land a large paratroop force in Kent immediately, cutting off the British Expeditionary Force in France? It would have delayed the evacuation long enough for the German army to wipe out those who were left on the continent and possibly forced Britain to sue for peace.

      Most evil leaders become so besotted by their own ‘capabilities’ that it only requires the ‘few good men’ to overcome their evil. In 1940 Goering had to win the skies over Britain for an invasion to be possible – Dowding had to ensure that the RAF survived. He did that in a masterly fashion and was duly punished for his efforts immediately afterwards by the Air Ministry – told to evacuate his office in 24 hours ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Sometimes I think the machinations of the ruling classes in my country at that time were a disgrace. Fortunately, some 40 years after the event Hugh Dowding was finally recognised for the key victory that he won. And Inskip at the treasury also gets a mention for realising that the RAF needed fighters rather than Bombers.

      The Victors write history… An example is Radar – The British claim credit for its invention, but the Germans almost certainly had it before us (the Graf Spee scuttled in Montevideo had excellent gun-laying Radar but the Admiralty didn’t want to know about it when it was reported back to them – an uncomfortable inconvenience!). On top of that – they certainly wouldn’t have passed on the information to the RAF. Interservice rivalries! The key difference between the British and German Radar in the early stages of the war was that, despite the technical superiority of the German version, the British created an effective means of using their Radar with reports being filtered and cross-checked before forces were allocated to the fight whilst the Germans tied a fighter to a radar station which seriously limited flexibility.

      Sorry Judith, you got me started on a period of history that I have a deep interest in. It’s a fascinating period that I have read a lot about due to my interest in aviation and radio. My favourite books covering the period are Blitzkrieg, and Fighter by Len Deighton, Panzer Leader by Heinz Guderian and Instruments of Darkness by Alfred Price.

  5. I enjoy reading history the way you tell it, Martin. It comes to life.
    And so true about the generals and other fighting men who know, and do (when they are allowed to) and the officials who DON’T know and interfere with the ones who do —
    A period also covered intensively in fiction, which is where I tend to encounter it.

    1. You’d enjoy Len Deighton’s books Judith – they bring it to life and he’s a far better historian than I will ever be ๐Ÿ™‚ He gives life to the subject very well!

      The film ‘Battle of Britain’ is not bad historically and I think gives a good feel of life here in that time. I love the bit where Section Officer Harvey (Susannah York) comes out with “Don’t you yell at me Mr. Warwick!” It’s one of those little cameos that make a film ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Martin, I can hear the theme music from the “Battle of Britain.” How wonderful to know that radio contact has been maintained and put to such positive use. How ironic that with modern technology and improvements in communication the war in Afghanistan has taken as long as it has . . .

    1. I think that one is in the hands of the politicians and arms manufacturers Patti ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Talking to Afghanistan on the Radio is quite difficult – I don’t think there are many licensed Ham’s in the country. The closest country to Afghanistan that I’ve worked is Kazakhstan.

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