Water Takes No Prisoners is part three in a series of articles about England’s Peak District
The Dambusters Museum, England’s Peak District
After Me, The Flood. That’s the translation, the story told in four tight words beneath scarlet lightening strikes. Apres Moi, Le Deluge. As I read, water mats together my eyelashes and rising damp penetrates my shoes. With this rain, a flood feels imminent, and the words ‘after me’ a plea rather than plan.
I’m wrong, of course. Apres Moi Le Deluge refers to the Dambusters, the RAF crews who practiced here in World War II. It no longer surprises me that this innocent country scene was once a training ground for war; the water holds many secrets here in the Peak District.
Just north of artificial Ladybower lies the Derwent reservoir, another expanse of shimmering blue glass or turbid corrugated iron, depending on the weather. Watchtowers flank the dam and house the unassuming, barely advertised Dambusters museum.
The “Bouncing Bomb”
In World War II, the allied forces wanted to attack Germany’s industrial heartland by destroying its dams, an idea that became more complicated the more it was investigated. A successful overhead hit required massive bombs that were too heavy for the aircraft to carry, yet torpedo netting blocked a horizontal approach. After years of research, Dr Barnes Wallis devised the ‘bouncing bomb’- a black cylinder that hopped along the water’s surface like a skimming stone. On reaching the dam wall, Wallis predicted that it would sink to the floor, exploding at the base to cause maximum damage.
Nearly suicidal flying height…
But the solution created more problems. Pilots needed to release these bouncing bombs 18 metres above the water, a nearly suicidal flying height. Furthermore, the altimeters gave unreliable readings this close to the ground, prompting RAF Squadron 617 to develop a simple but elegant technique. They attached two fixed lights to the underside of the aircraft. When the beams overlapped on the water, crews knew they had reached the crucial position. This image, of crossing beams slicing through the night, still lingers in pub wall paintings across the region.
The Dambusters museum itself houses a replica of the bomb and a selection of maps and military uniforms.
But for me, the most moving exhibit in this single, drafty room was the display of letters and telegrams written by Squadron Leader Guy Gibson to the relatives of the dead. Of the 19 aircraft that left in May 1943, only nine returned.
That soldiers die in war should never really surprise me, but it does always stop me in my tracks. While some were killed outright, many letters describe the aircraft that simply never returned. Words raise the hope that the crew survived, somewhere, somehow and might emerge later as POWs, before the author suffocates this chance with the statistics of reality.
Only Nine Returned…
An image of a young man in the dark – alone, wet, cold and frightened – haunts the edges of my consciousness, fuelled by the photographs of the fresh-faced men who never aged. Then the invisible faces, the families reading these words and the lives that would never now be the same.
“You look in need of a good cup of tea,” bellows the owner, a cheery rounded volunteer. He forces me to stand under the heater, a generous but futile attempt to dry out the dampness and chill.