Tom Heldt’s letter published in the October issue of AirForces Monthly has certainly caused many of you to reply – so many that we can’t publish them all in the magazine, so we’ve taken the opportunity of the digital age and reproduce them here below.
As a reminder, here’s Tom’s original letter:
I have to comment on the RAF 617 Squadron ‘Dambusters’ special paint scheme on two of its Tornado aircraft (see AFM June). Is it really appropriate to ‘celebrate’ this occasion, in which over 1,500 civilians were killed and no military target attacked?
The purpose of the mission, to bring the German production in the Ruhr area to a permanent halt, was not achieved and after a short time the production lines were running again. How would people in the UK feel, if a fin of a Luftwaffe Tornado showed a silhouette of burning London with a flying Heinkel 111, therefore celebrating the first such attack of the Luftwaffe on London?
The UK was never able to defeat Germany on its own – not even in the so-often celebrated Battle of Britain – which was supported by numerous allied pilots and aircraft. Enough already! The UK should remember that if it was not for the support of the USA and other allies, the language spoken in the UK today would be German!
Firstly I would like to point out that it was not a celebration, but a commemoration to those who sacrificed their lives to save others and try to prevent many more people being killed in the war. The aim was to stop production of tanks and other military equipment in civilian factories to help bring an end to the war.
When we commemorate the Battle of Britain it is often mentioned that we are here to remember those lives lost on both sides.
One last thought for Tom – what does the B-29 ‘Fifi’ commemorate? I can think of only one think that aircraft was famous for.
As an American I was appalled to read the letter submitted by Mr Heldt. Upon reading, my thoughts immediately turned to an incident that occurred in my home State of North Carolina during the Second World War – early in 1942 the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign of the war, was being fought within sight of the shore all along the East Coast and Gulf Coast of the United States. The US was woefully unprepared for the Nazi U-Boat offensive. There was heavy loss of life and the amount of ship tonnage being destroyed was catastrophic. The UK immediately came to our aid by sending 24 Royal Navy anti-submarine trawlers ideal for combating the U-Boats in coastal waters. In May 1942 one of those vessels, HMS Bedfordshire, was torpedoed and sunk by U-558 off Cape Lookout, North Carolina. Sadly, all hands aboard were lost. Only the remains of four of the crew were ever recovered out of the dozens killed. Those four were buried with full military honours in a small cemetery in Ocracoke, North Carolina. To honour their memory and their fellow sailors the burial site was deeded to the UK and the Union Flag is flown overhead to this day. Every May a ceremony is held to remember the crew and to honour our ally. It took the combined effort and resources of the US, UK and many other Allied nations to defeat the Axis powers. This should never be forgotten.
High Point, North Carolina
May I suggest to Mr Heldt that, had New York lost over 50,000 citizens to German bombing, night and day, then he would not be so supercilious about the RAF hitting the dams. The whole idea was to bolster British morale so that we, holding the line against the Germans, would feel we were able to hit back. It was recognised from the start that it would only delay German production, but nonetheless some 10,000 German troops were subsequently deployed to protect the other dams. Mr Heldt clearly comes from the same school as US Admiral Ernest King who did his best to persuade the great American President Roosevelt to leave the British to it on their own. Thankfully this did not happen and many fine Americans gave their lives to support the cause. We, the British, will never forget them.
Alan F Smith
Crikey Tom, you really don’t seem to like the UK. The bombing of the dams was to disrupt production of equipment for the German war machine; it was never going to stop it altogether. It did, however, force the Germans to defend sites that previously they wouldn’t have considered defending; taking troops from other areas. Today 617 Squadron is not celebrating the death of civilians, but the anniversary of its formation – the squadron badge is a breached dam, hence the scheme.
Any loss of life in wartime is tragic and everyone would agree that it is terribly sad that so many civilians lost their lives in the dams raids. I would just like to remind you that far more civilians (140,000) were killed by the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second attack in particular was not really necessary.
We are also well aware that there were other nations’ pilots fighting with the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, many from countries already over-run by German forces. We will always be grateful to them and all the other men and women who have given their lives fighting for us in many conflicts over the years.
Oh dear. I thought twice about responding to Tom Heldt’s letter due to the risk of causing an international incident, but thought ‘why not?’, as someone else had already caused one! Tom has expressed his views; however these have been made by someone clearly isolated from the full facts, and without a full grasp of European and British military history.
The special colour scheme and tail design celebrates 617 Squadron’s formation, 70 years ago on March 21, 1943. I agree that a bursting dam is featured, but this is the unit’s heraldic device/crest; a breached dam and three lightning bolts that indicate the three dams struck in the series of attacks that the unit was formed to complete. This has been used by the unit since March 1944 and has adorned the squadron’s aircraft, in accurate or stylised form in the time since; no-one seemed to have an issue when it was boldly worn on the tails of Avro Vulcans.
The scheme also commemorates the bravery and sacrifice of those who were lost in action, both in the Dams Raid, and during other operations. We have many monuments to the nation’s war dead. Visitors to the centre of our village will immediately understand the reason for the stone ‘soldier’ and plaques on a column; we must never forget those who lost their lives in war, or how futile warfare was and still is. The later commemorations held between May 16 and 19 remembered all those who served on the squadron and gave their lives whilst serving with the RAF.
The Dams Raid was a bold idea, and was completed in wartime to gain an advantage, and hopefully help towards the shortening of the conflict. Its results were, in hindsight, not as effective as expected; however the target was selected to cause damage to armament production, and disrupt a then enemy nation’s ability to wage war.
Area bombing was practised by the RAF, USAAF and Luftwaffe in the Second World War due to poor navigation aids (simply finding the target), variable weather conditions and visibility, and by the simple fact that ‘smart’ weapons were not available. This led to vast areas, including many non-military targets, being hit, with the civilian casualty figures to match. Area bombing is certainly not celebrated and neither are civilian deaths. Innocent losses which should always be remembered, from past conflicts and those in the very real present; we need to learn from the past.
I find it a little inflammatory when Tom makes the comment on how British people would feel, if a Luftwaffe Tornado was painted to show a silhouette of London burning under a Heinkel bomber. Sorry Tom, but you have clearly missed the point – the artwork shows the unit’s first and current aircraft, and its ‘badge’. I have never had an issue with the ‘Minuteman’ on the Air National Guard’s badge; this image represents something that happened in history, and that this particular organisation and the people of the United States can commemorate. It keeps alive events that can be justified, of a proud people fighting for their own determination and freedom. The American War of Independence was certainly not bloodless.
I am confused as to where Tom is going with his point on the Battle of Britain. It is a well-known fact that many nationalities from the occupied nations in Western Europe/Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, as well as from the Commonwealth and pre-independent British Empire nations and states, and from many other neutral nations, joined the RAF and free air forces in the UK. Strangely though, the aircraft in 1940 were all British; Blenheims, Hurricanes, Defiants, Gladiators and Spitfires, and the airfields, industrial support, organisation/leadership and tactics were also British. Yes, some Brewster Buffalo aircraft were received, but these were certainly not donated and were only used for training.
Events in history are continually being ‘debunked’, and the British contribution to the outcome of the Second World War belittled by those who don’t understand the morale boost these actions, like the Dams Raid, had at the time, or don’t have the grace to realise the sacrifices made by the British people.
I am proud of our Armed Services, as they are professional, disciplined and represent part of a conventional deterrent, that has helped keep the peace in Western Europe for nearly 70 years, after a millennium of almost continual conflict. I do not have a problem with a unit commemorating events in their past, and neither do have I have a problem with veterans, and people with no connection to past conflicts commemorating human losses and terrible events that took place. I do have an issue with those who celebrate suffering and death during war, and those who want to perpetuate the divisions and hate caused during wartime.
If there are German readers who saw this commemoration as wrong, and agreed fully or in part with Tom’s comments, I hope they can understand my point of view, which should balance or explain the reasons behind this series of events and the aircraft’s special paint scheme. If not, then Tom’s narrow view of the world will be the accepted one.
In response to Mr Heldt’s criticism of 617 Squadron’s ‘celebration’ of Operation Chastise, I would like to remind him that it wasn’t only German civilians who lost their lives, but 53 of the RAF aircrew flying the missions. Their bravery in such unimaginable conditions is surely worth celebration, and if Mr Heldt feels it is his place to criticise the remembrance of an event that occurred in a time of ongoing political and military confusion and guesswork, then I implore him to think of those brave airmen and interpret the Dambusters’ paint scheme as a celebration of their contribution and their courage.
On another note, Mr Heldt, the Luftwaffe was, at that time, in the hands of Goering and Hitler, so your suggestion that it would be improper for a Luftwaffe aircraft of today to ‘show a silhouette of burning London’ is in itself improper – do not suggest that Germany would celebrate something instigated by the Nazis.
I think that Mr Heldt should go back and read his history books again or perhaps get some new ones. He seems to completely ignore the type of war that was fought in Europe during the Second World War and the fact that there were no such thing as ‘smart’ bombs or precision weapons. He further seems to ignore the significant flying skills and bravery demonstrated by the crews of 617 Squadron flying at low level in the dark with very limited navigation equipment and no terrain following or avoidance radar. Long may they be remembered for their contribution to the defeat of the Nazi war machine.
Co. Kildare, Ireland
Mr Heldt’s letter cannot be allowed to go unanswered! It displays the same distorted view of history as portrayed in Hollywood films, which have included American sailors boarding a sinking U-boat to rescue an Enigma machine when in reality this act was carried out by members of the crew of HMS Bulldog.
Despite the Germans’ embrace of the concept of total war in the First World War, as demonstrated by the indiscriminate bombardment of several north-east coastal towns by units of the High Sea Fleet, followed by Zeppelins, RAF Bomber Command started the Second World War in a much more timid way. Aircraft that took part in the daylight attack on the German Fleet in December 1939 were actually forbidden to drop bombs on land, while for most of the first year of the war they dropped nothing but leaflets on Germany. When they eventually did drop bombs a study of the effects of bombing revealed that only around one in five was delivered within five miles of its target – hence the adoption of area, or carpet bombing, which was by definition total war. In this context the civilian casualties of the Dams raid should be viewed no differently to those of any other bombing raid and were, in fact, much lower than those caused by the attacks on Hamburg and Dresden in which the US Eighth Air Force also participated. In the concept of total war it is irrelevant whether the target has military significance as the aim is to cause the destruction of the enemy’s economy and thereby render it incapable of continuing to wage war.
While it must be acknowledged that the economic dislocation caused by the Dams raid was nothing like that expected the effects on morale (positive for the Allies, negative for the Germans) cannot be underestimated. The verdict of John Sweetman, author of ‘The Dambusters Raid’ is that “…in the fourth year of war British people needed hope, and that is what 617 Squadron gave them”. For this reason no true Brit should begrudge the squadron celebrating its 70th anniversary by decorating a pair of its current aircraft with the Squadron badge, approved by King George VI. Furthermore in an attempt to correct Mr Heldt’s erroneous view of the Battle of Britain it should be pointed out that only two RAF units made up of foreign nationals took part, namely 303 (Polish) and 310 (Czech) Squadrons. The majority of escapees from the other occupied countries (Belgium, France and Norway) had either still to arrive in the UK in the summer of 1940 or were under training. Also, as far as I’m aware, with the exception of the Dutch Navy (who brought some Fokker T.VIII floatplanes) they neglected to bring any aircraft with them, and hence were equipped with British-built Hawker Hurricanes. Finally just indulge in a little speculation; Mr. Heldt should really give thanks to the RAF for winning the Battle of Britain and thereby giving the USA a base from which to win the war for us, because otherwise the day would certainly have arrived when his nation would have been threatened by a long-range version of the V2, possibly with an atomic warhead. In which case Americans could also have been speaking German!
The celebration of the Dambusters’ raid is as valid today as any other. It was a remarkable achievement of technology coupled with mission planning, air crew excellence and raw courage.
The four months of disruption caused [to the Germans] was no small thing and it had the desired effect to disrupt and hinder industrial output and thus tie up valuable resources in sorting it all out. It all took its toll.
The human cost was indeed high, not only in the numbers of Lancasters that did not return from the raid, but of course the death and destruction the raid created. This has always been the case and none more so as a result of the Eighth Air Force daylight raids celebrated by the museum exhibits in the USA such as Memphis Belle, the Doolittle Raiders and the biggest of all Enola Gay… So it is a bit rich to see critical comment on civilian casualties from Mr Heldt, given his own country’s activities in the Second World War and beyond.
The last time I checked there were no B-17s involved in the dams raid – it is, however, well recorded that the Lancaster crews were populated by many peoples of different nationalities including American, Canadian and Australians, to mention just a few. It was the also the case in the Battle of Britain where RAF squadrons were reinforced with volunteers from all over the world. The Battle of Britain was an RAF victory against the Luftwaffe at a time before the USA had committed to be directly involved in the war. It was the very first defeat the Luftwaffe suffered. And it was a British victory that allowed these islands to be used as a stepping stone by future American endeavours. I assume Mr Heldt does know the war kicked off in 1939 for the UK and even earlier for other European countries?
On a final note I would add that the American effort in the war is paid great tribute here in the UK with exhibitions of aircraft and equipment contained in many collections, both public and private. Added to that there are poignant displays of individual names that show the observer just what the true sacrifice was made by Americans. To most it is a reminder of the overall cost of war.
So I for one welcome such displays to remind me of the courage of the RAF crews… no matter what nationality… that flew the Dambusters raid. I am reminded also of the civilians caught up in the conflict – not only in the Ruhr but in London, Liverpool, Coventry, Berlin, Hiroshima and many other cities that truly paid the price for their leaders’ political ambitions.
Michael A France
It is very appropriate for 617 Squadron, the RAF and the British as a whole to commemorate the bravery, sacrifice and sheer daring of our British and commonwealth crews in the Dambusters raid. We do not celebrate civilian deaths. Furthermore the target was industrial, not a city such as London. I wonder how you would describe the targets of your own air force against Japan? As for the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
To finish and on a personal note I’d like to remind readers that the P-51 Mustang, America’s most famous and successful fighter of the Second World War, owes a great deal to the British idea to fit it with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.
Mr Heldt is certainly entitled to his opinion, but I feel that he is swimming in rather murky waters. It is often said that it is the victor who gets to write the history and you may not always like what you read. I have read comments by one American who asserted that, when Churchill talked about the ‘Few’ in his tribute in the Battle of Britain, he was referring to the seven American pilots who took part in it. Imagine the reaction that got!
Don’t forget too, that some NATO Luftwaffe squadrons are still named after pilots who fought against Britain in both world wars.
On one point Mr Heldt is mistaken – none of the countries, except the Canadians, who fought alongside the RAF in the Battle of Britain brought planes with them. When the Canadian crated Hurricanes arrived, they were found to be early models and were immediately replaced by more up to date versions. All the Polish, French, Belgian and Czech pilots who flew did so in English-built Hurricanes and Spitfires.
London, Ontario, Canada
Having read similar comments on numerous defence-related forums on the internet, I am aware that such responses range from the patriotic, the xenophobic to the vitriolic; I will therefore attempt to avoid these pitfalls and respond in a manner that befits an excellent publication like AFM.
With regards to 617 Squadron’s ‘celebration’ of the anniversary of the Dambusters raid, I would be very surprised if anyone ‘celebrated’ the deaths of the civilian victims, least of all the current members of 617 Squadron. In their defence I would comment that the commemoration is one of the dedication, skill and courage of the crews of the aircraft, not the unfortunate victims. The mission itself was carried out at night, with the aircraft flying at 100 feet or less (which is less than the wingspan of the Avro Lancaster bomber), long before the advent of night vision goggles (NVG) and terrain-following radar – whatever your opinions on the outcome of the raid, this takes significant skill and courage. Having had the privilege of speaking to several of the veterans of Operation Chastise, I can only hope my mind and wit is as sharp when I reach their age.
As Mr Heldt was writing from the USA, I believe a special mention should be made regarding one of the pilots, Flt Lt Joe McCarthy, an American serving with the RCAF who flew ‘T’ for Tommy. His actions that day while attacking the Sorpe Dam are worthy of note. Many other members taking part were Canadian, Australian and New Zealanders, in this sense it was very much an international operation.
As to how UK citizens would feel with regards to a German Air Force Tornado emblazoned with a Heinkel 111, I believe it is poignant to remember who was actually trying to invade who at that time. To paraphrase a Battle of Britain veteran recently interviewed on television, “We weren’t the ones who started all this bloody nonsense.”
With regards to the UK never being able to defeat the Axis Powers alone, I don’t believe there are many who actually thought we could. What the UK did do was stand resolutely against the very real threat of invasion from an overwhelming military force. It should be remembered that these were very dark and desperate times for the UK, well over a year before the United States entered the conflict, with the call being sent out for volunteers to come to our aid. I believe the history books are very clear on this point, as is the Battle of Britain memorial and indeed the film of the same name. The tide did turn when the Nazi regime decided to change its strategy and bomb UK cities instead. I know this because my grandmother was undeservedly on the receiving end and can still recall the events with vivid clarity despite her advanced years.
Often the UK is still lampooned satirically as the ‘51st American State’ for supporting US foreign policy, deservedly or not. In addition, the UK’s military participation in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan, which I am sure Mr Heldt would agree are and were American-led adventures, has seen many British servicemen and women killed and maimed, both physically and mentally. If this cannot be construed as at least part-payment for US support in conflicts past, then as a nation, what would Mr Heldt have us do?
With reference to the comments made by Mr Heldt, I would like to remind him that until the Korean War, the only war the Americans ever showed up to on time was their Civil War!
I wonder if Tom picked up a copy of your magazine in the doctor’s waiting room by mistake. AirForces Monthly’s subject matter is WARPLANES. Warplanes sometimes drop bombs during combat. Sometimes civilians are killed. I have no problem with 617 Squadron painting their planes to acknowledge a certain mission. They earned that with their service and sacrifice during the war. Does Mr Heldt want us to sand off the nose art on the Enola Gay and BocksCar to make things a little more politically correct?
Charles D Kansas
Firstly, the Dams raids are never celebrated, they are commemorated. Please learn the difference. Secondly, the Ruhr valley was integral to the German military-industrial complex, thus making it a valid target. Third, I’m unaware of ANY aircraft used in the Battle of Britain not being of British origin.
Finally, addressing Tom’s final point – the Germans would not have eradicated our language and the USA has never single-handedly won a war.
Thank you for producing such a great magazine which is keeping my morale high after being unsuccessful at RAF aptitude testing.
How dare you Sir! The Battle of Britain was won by the UK – if it was not for these ‘Few’ heroes primarily from the UK, we may all be communicating in German now, as the US was in no position to do anything should these valiant Englishmen and women have been defeated. It was this battle and others that followed that allowed Detroit – ‘the arsenal of democracy – to gear up for the fight to come. As an American, I must insist you retract your statement about a very proud and pivotal moment in world history.
You ask is it appropriate to celebrate the Dambusters by painting two RAF Tornados? Why not – again this is just the English celebrating yet another proud moment in their history. I have seen far worse every time I travel south of the Mason-Dixon line to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Your rebel flag – the stars & bars – this symbol of the south has negatively impacted more people than the Germans you concern yourself with.