A Dam­busters march through Lin­colnshire

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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 – recre­ated 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. Dou­ble rooms at Pet­wood Ho­tel (01526 352411; pet­wood.co.uk) cost from £99, in­clud­ing break­fast.

linc­savi­a­tion.co.uk; raf­s­camp­ton.co.uk; thecol­lec­tion­mu­seum.com; lin­col­ncathe­dral.com; lin­col­ncas­tle.com; in­ter­na­tion­al­bcc.co.uk

As we went to press, tick­ets were still avail­able for Thurs­day’s screen­ing of

at the Royal Al­bert Hall, ad­mis­sion from £18 (roy­alal­berthall.com; thedam­busters75.co.uk). For more on Lin­colnshire, see vis­itlin­coln.com/raf

Main, Pet­wood Ho­tel; above, Lin­colnshire Avi­a­tion Her­itage Cen­tre; be­low left, the Dam­buster raid crew

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