In remembrance of all the lives lost before, during and after Operation Chastise.
May 17th 2002, the anniversary. Two men are standing a stone’s throw apart, midway between twin towers on the half-mile long curve of granite blocks. They’re both gazing down, preoccupied, at a group of youths, one in a red sweatshirt, skimming pebbles on the lake behind the dam.
Despite new glasses, Helmut’s seventy-year-old eyes can’t make out the logo on the youth’s red sweatshirt. It’s something black on a white circular background, possibly a souvenir of some rock concert. Possibly. He shivers despite the spring sunshine and refocuses to gaze along the stone parapet and down the walkway. You can’t tell the repair work from the original structure now, perhaps that isn’t so surprising after fifty-nine years. For the first time Helmut notices the other man: his ridiculous sunhat, green cagoule, waterproof trousers and brown walking boots. English, as are the stone-skipping youths. The Englishman turns, gaunt, nervous, and makes eye contact.
Graham had been counting the ripples as pebble after pebble skipped across the water. He had leant out over the parapet, looked down to where the bouncing bombs must have struck the dam and then further down into deep water where they’d sunk and exploded. He had shuddered and hauled himself upright. Sensing the presence of someone else he had turned.
The man facing Graham is about his own age, with close-cropped grey hair, a stylish leather jacket, slacks and polished shoes. Impeccable. German. Behind steel-rimmed glasses the man’s eyes appear cold, questioning. The German blinks, coughs and looks away, and then he seems to make up his mind and begins a slow arthritic plod, closing the gap between them. A step away from Graham he pauses and slips his right hand inside his jacket. He withdraws something smooth, leathery, slides the cover off and offers Graham a cigar.
Graham exhales, shakes his head. ‘No. Thank you. I gave up some time ago.’
The German shrugs, replaces the cover and tucks the case back beneath his jacket. ‘They came that way,’ he says in English, pointing up the valley, past the youths skimming stones, toward the Möhne River, ‘your Lancaster bombers.’
‘Not my bombers, I was only ten years old.’
‘I too was this young, but bombers have no respect for age.’
‘You were here?’
‘Of course.’ He progresses painfully to the other side of the walkway, gesturing to Graham to follow. Pointing out over the dizzying drop and the outfall toward distant buildings beyond, he says, ‘Here is where we are when the deluge comes, Wickede, my hometown. It is eight kilometres below this dam, but still it is destroyed: houses, railway, animals – everything.’
Graham feels the cold ache he has experienced many times before when looking at the photographs but this time it is intense to the point of pain. The view wobbles. He staggers but a strong grip supports him before he can fall.
‘You are unwell?’
‘Just a bit giddy.’ Graham waves a dismissive hand, leans against the parapet.
‘Drink this.’ An opened hip flask is in the German’s fist. ‘Schnapps. It will help I think.’
Graham takes it, nodding his thanks. ‘My name is Graham,’ he says.
‘So, Mr Graham—’
‘Just Graham, it’s my first name.’
The German watches Graham drink, accepts the flask from him and downs a long draft. Between swallows he says: ‘So— Graham— it is your father flying with the famous 617 Squadron?’ He wipes his mouth with his hand and passes the flask back.
‘Thank you.’ Graham takes it but hesitates. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’
‘No, Helmut, my father died at Dunkirk. My only connection with the raid is through an uncle.’
Helmut examines the ground, nodding. ‘So, he is a Lancaster pilot, this uncle—’ he hiccoughs ‘—with many decorations for glorious victory.’
Graham passes back the flask, hand shaking. ‘No, it wasn’t like that. My uncle flew unarmed Spitfires on photographic reconnaissance.’
Helmut refuses to take the flask. ‘This shaking, it is more than giddy, I think. You drink please. I apologize for rudeness. So many of your countrymen come here following the heroic Dam Busters.’
Gripping the flask in both hands, Graham drinks and then returns it. ‘I understand your bitterness, Helmut. I saw pictures that my uncle took. The destruction—' He averts his eyes. 'As a child, I had nightmares about people drowning.’
‘Many Germans did drown, and many more died that were your allies, Graham, prisoners. But my nightmares were not of drowning.’
‘No? What did you fear most?’
‘Your Mr Churchill, with his butterfly tie.’
Graham almost chokes. ‘You mean Churchill’s bow tie? Really?’
‘Indeed, so.’ Helmut is smiling now. ‘My father had a— What do you say? Cartoon? —from the newspaper, with this horrible face and the bowtie, yes? It filled my nightmares.’
Graham is smiling too. With a controlled shake of his head, he says, ‘My fear was of gas masks, even more than the bombs.’ He stops smiling, swallows hard, and stares into the distance. ‘But it was the idea of people drowning that I hated most, even if we were enemies.’
Helmut puts a hand on Graham’s shoulder. ‘We were not all Nazis you know.’
‘I know, and I couldn't get that out of my mind. I became a hydraulic engineer. I’ve built dams, so I understand the power of water, for good and for bad.’
The two men survey the view from the dam in pensive silence for several minutes.
Helmut turns. ‘It has been a pleasure to meet you, Graham.’
‘You too, Helmut.’ Graham glances at his wristwatch. ‘Goodness. I must go, I shall miss my coach.’
‘Graham, you chose to come here for the fifty-ninth anniversary, why?’
‘It’ll be crowded next year. And I wanted time to think. You know?’
‘Besides, I won’t be around then–– Cancer.’
‘Ah—’ Helmut nods. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘So am I.’
The men on the dam shake hands and turn to leave in their respective directions, each glancing down at the youths who had been skimming pebbles.
Clearly aware of their gaze, the youth in the red sweatshirt jumps to attention, twitches on his heels and performs an insolent straight-armed salute.
If you are interested to know more about the Dam Busters and Operation Chastise, please follow the links below to the RAF Museum website. Even if you think you know everything about 617 Squadron and their most famous raid you will probably find there is information this excellent archive that will fill-in gaps in your knowledge. Some of the papers have never before been on public display.
Finally, if you feel moved to give something back to those who risked – and those who continue to risk – their lives in the cause of our protection, please click this link to the RAF Benevolent Fund.