Operation Chastise took place in May 1943. If that doesn’t ring a bell, how about the Dam Busters, the name given to the squadron that carried out a daring air raid on dams in Germany’s industrial Ruhr district? Famed for the use of specially designed ’bouncing bombs’, the night raid saw Lancaster bombers make multiple runs just 18 metres above the water, while all the time being targeted by German ground forces. While the operation was a success and a blow to Hitler’s regime, it did not quite cripple Germany’s industrial capacity (and left 1,600 civilians dead). Yet, it was a huge propaganda victory and the Dam Busters sealed their place in history, even inspiring an epic war film in 1955.
Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943 is a new book about the operation by Max Hastings. Listening to an interview with the historian, something that struck me about the raid, which was highly complex and succeeded against all odds, was how young the people who carried it out were. Wing Commander Guy Gibson was in charge of the raid. Despite being a veteran flyer with over 170 missions under his belt, Gibson was only 24 at the time, and the men he picked for the raid were often even younger. Squadron Leader Henry Maudslay was just 21 years old, pilot John Vere Hopgood died in the raid aged 21, while at 20 pilot Dave Shannon was even younger. And these were no raw recruits, they were already highly-experienced airmen with many missions to their names. It made me think, because I’m in my fifties and can barely tie my shoelaces.
It also made me think about young people today. Recent figures estimate that almost 80% of young adults under 30 still live with their parents, while the jobless rate for under-25s is 32%. My grandfather – who to be fair, as a young man fought in the Second World War – would surely argue that what they need is a stint on the front lines. Fortunately, my granddad was never the prime minister, although I’m sure he wouldn’t do any worse than those in charge now. An extreme example though it is, the Dam Busters show us that young people are far more capable than we think. It could even be the case that those airmen did not achieve what they did despite their tender age, but even possibly because of it.
Young people are an asset, and an underutilised one at that. Young people have been much in the media spotlight recently with the role they have played in the protests against the jailing of Catalan independence leaders. Whether it is blockading transport infrastructure, clashing with police, student strikes or sit-ins, young people have taken the lead in the efforts to achieve self-determination, and to the relief of pro-independence supporters, have helped to reinvigorate a flagging movement. If you haven’t already, you can read an analysis of the phenomenon on page 12 of this edition. One thing that has struck me is that their protests are not limited to condemning the sentences or calling for self-determination, but add demands that reveal an understanding of the raw deal they’ve been handed. Striking students protested the sentences but also expressed dissatisfaction with an inflexible grading system, while the young people camping out in Barcelona also call for the return of “everything that’s been taken from us.” Starved of opportunity and resources, overprotected, and increasingly a minority in an ageing society, if we gave young people more of a chance and more responsibility, it would not only do them good, but might benefit all of us.