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‘Our Dambuster heroes were forgotten’

The sacrifice of Jewish airmen during the Dambusters’ raid should be seen as a tribute to all Jewish Bomber Command heroes

    A Lancaster bomber flies past the Derwent dam in the Peak District in 2008 to mark the 65th anniversary of the Dambusters (Photo: David Jones/PA Wire)
    A Lancaster bomber flies past the Derwent dam in the Peak District in 2008 to mark the 65th anniversary of the Dambusters (Photo: David Jones/PA Wire)

    The sacrifice of Jewish airmen during the Dambusters’ raid should be seen as a tribute to all Jewish Bomber Command heroes, according to Ajex archivist Martin Sugarman.

    The Dambusters operation took place 75 years ago this week, on the night of May 16-17, 1943, and badly damaged German factories and mines serving the Ruhr Valley.

    Few events have so deeply entered the mythology of the Second World War as the audacious RAF mission to destroy the industrial bases.

    The raid, also known as Operation Chastise, has been commemorated since 2008 by a blog naming a ‘Dambuster of the Day’.

    The legendary 1955 film, The DamBusters, co-starring the dashing Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave, painstakingly recreated the true story of the RAF’s 617 Squadron, which attacked the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams.

    Several cinemas this week showed the film, which was widely credited with having influenced the Star Wars series.

    Apart from a flyover by a Lancaster at a dam in the Peak District’s Derwent Valley — one of the pre-operation training locations — official events organisers insisted there be little acknowledgement of the date. Last month’s RAF centenary was more widely celebrated.

    In a significant move, a parallel event was planned at the Eder Dam, linking people who once fought on opposite sides. In the April issue of Britain at War magazine, Hull University academic Victoria Taylor, argued that the “gung-ho, Boy’s Own narrative of the dams raid — while valid and understandable — is not always sensitive to the immense sorrow the operation provoked”.

    What is less well-known is the story of the “horrendous sacrifice” of the Jewish Bomber Command heroes during the war, as Mr Sugarman notes.

    Some 55,000 fighters were killed, almost 50 per cent — the highest of any service branch — and 101 Squadron had the highest death rate of the RAF.

    Mr Sugarman explains: “We know about 20,000 British Jews served in the RAF, excluding Commonwealth Jews, of whom there were several thousands more, and over 900 were killed.

    “Of these we estimate about 600 were Bomber Command deaths. Jewish RAF personnel won 193 Distinguished Flying Cross medals — the third-level military decoration; 64 Distinguished Flying Medals; and one Victoria Cross, awarded to Louis Aaron.

    “The men included two Dambusters who died on the mission, Abe Garshowitz and the gifted artist Jack Guterman, plus some 50 Battle of Britain air crew; many pathfinder and fighter pilots. Over 80 were prisoners of war of both the Germans and Japanese.

    “Many of these supremely courageous men were scandalously refused the Bomber Command medal after the war as their service fell by chance outside of two arbitrarily chosen dates.”

    Typical of these was Flt Lt Leslie Temple, an RAF Special Operator in 101 Squadron Bomber Command, who died in March.

    Special Operators faced particular dangers. Many Allied bombers fell victim to German night-fighters, guided by ground controllers scrutinising radar screens. A response was developed by the British Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern, and tested by 101 Squadron, enabling the German VHF frequency and language to be identified and jammed.

    In letters home to their families the airmen described the close camaraderie of wartime friendships. Jack Guterman qualified as a wireless operator/air gunner and was posted to 207 Squadron at RAF Bottersford in February 1942, beginning flight operations in June.

    He and his crew flew some 19 sorties and he was recommended for a DFM. Throughout his RAF career, Guterman created powerful Expressionist paintings which he hung on the walls of his various postings. In a letter to his sister he described his excitement about his new work, a darkly primitive painting he called Gethsemane. “I get so thrilled about it that I cannot get it out of my mind.”

    Gunterman was shot down with his crew in 1943 and died instantly at Hamm, where they were buried by the Germans. After the war they were re-interred in the Reichswald Forest Commonwealth War cemetery. His DFM Award, which praised “his fine, fighting spirit, welcoming every opportunity to use his guns against the enemy”, sadly did not reach him in time, but was sent to his family.

    The Canadian Albert Garshowitz was one of a five-man crew training to fly Lancasters. Posted to 57 Squadron, they flew their first operation with their pilot Bill Astell on February 13, 1943. After a number of sorties they were transferred to 617 Squadron in March, but all died less than two months later after colliding with a pylon.

    Like Gunterman, Garshowitz and his crew were re-interred after the war in Reichswald. His friendship with comrade Frank Garbas was movingly reflected by their nephews Paul Morley and Hartley Garshowitz, who have done much to keep their uncles’ memories alive.

    V Obituaries, p63

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