The Dambusters - my part in their history

I have just watched Dambusters Declassified, a BBC documentary on Guy Gibson's 617 Squadron. It is an affectionate and informative piece on the real story behind the Richard Todd film of 1955. For those interested in this sort of thing, it is recommended.

617 Squadron moved its officer's mess from their base in Scampton, South, to the quite luxurious Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa. The documentary shows aerial shots of Scampton, The Petwood Hotel and much of the Lincolnshire landscape. I shall be staying a few miles from Woodhall, towards Lincoln, later in the week. The journey from the airbase to the hotel is some 23 miles, so I expect it was something of a trek in the 1940s.

My part in their history? As a young man I worked for a couple of periods at the hotel. In those days, little had changed - thirty or so years since Guy Gibson and his officers sipped gin in the oak panelled bar. The hotel lies just outside the village, surrounded by woodland, a perfect place to unwind, had you been a young flyer in 1943.

Most of the Kitchen and Restaurant staff were retired NCOs, and ran the place like a military operation. The Head chef was a massive man who roared like a lion, but his staff seemed happy enough. The dining room had a fluffed up maitre d' adorned in a penguin suit. Under him were numerous waiting staff and me, the stillroom boy. Two of the waiters were characters from one of those wartime comdies; all fags behind their backs, talking out the sides of their mouths like spivs. They were dressed in fine white starched linen coats and had slicked back, brylcreemed hair. They hated each other and moaned incessantly about the customers. Sometimes, I was on shoe-cleaning duty. Sometimes I carried bags - anything that the lowliest of the low ended up doing. The vegetable chef was an ex-con. When I asked him what he had been in for, he told me he was "in trouble over young boys". What appalled me most about him, bearing in mind he worked in a kitchen, was his long, dirty fingernails. They must have been an inch long. I got my first real introduction to a nymphomaniac - she worked there. She was at it with customers, the owner/manager, the staff and she tried her charms on me too. Somehow, something deep inside repelled me and I never fully complied. I have no really bad memories of the Petwood, at least as a plongeur, but I gather its former glory days are a fond memory.

Gibson was a Wing Commander held the DSO at the age of 24. By the end of the Dambusters affair he had been awarded the VC at 25. He moved to East Kirkby, one of many now deserted bases that criss-cross the Lincolnshire landscape to this day. As I drive around these flat lands with their distant horizons, I shall think of all the boys who flew out during the dark days of the 40's, and came back men and perhaps, pay a nostalgic visit to the Petwood.


ex brylcream boy said...

617 Sqn moved up to Lossiemouth and flew buccanneers in the first Gulf War.( laser guided bombs on Iraqi missile launchers etc). They switched to Tornados and are destined to move back to England ( Marham) when Lossiemouth gets shut down by the Tories.

ebb said...

Sorry just checked google. It was 12 Sqn at Lossie that flew the Buccanneers in GW1.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Nice story. Coincidentally, Mrs P & I planned to watch this on iPlayer tonight before it's pulled tomorrow. So your recommendation is timely.

Dave said...

When I have visitors to stay I take them for a drive around the countryside surrounding our town. We have WW2 airfields (Grafton Underwood, Denethorpe and Harringworth are close. The first two were US 8th Airforce, while Harringworth was where the carpetbaggers flew from).
Part of my little itinerary includes a glimpse of Eyebrook Reservoir, where the trial bombing runs took place.

My tv only picks up soaps in the evenings (my wife seems to have control of the zapper at that time), so I have a subliminal knowledge of the goings on in Emmerdale. I understand that one of the longest serving cast members, Richard Thorp, starred in the 1954 film of the Dambusters raid.