The car once more full to bursting, ready for the long drive south, and my companions either back at work or heading for the airport, I went to collect Nick from the hostel, ready for a morning in the hills. There were a few things I wanted to show him before he headed south himself and we began with a drive across the moors, following a spectacular little backroad we had stumbled across on our travels.
We were heading for the Derwent Dams. My sons had been fascinated by old aircraft in their childhood. We could all tell the sound of a Merlin engine…and every one of us would abandon the table when we heard that note that told us the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight was passing overhead. Lancasters were a favourite plane and it was inevitable that the Dambusters, 617 Squadron, would feature in the stories they learned.
Using the bouncing bombs invented by Barnes Wallis, the squadron had been sent on the now-controversial raid to the dams of the Ruhr valley. While there is neither glory nor heroism in war itself, the stories of the very young men who obeyed orders and served their country, laying down lives barely begun… that is a different matter.
The bombs, in order to be effective, had to be launched with great precision using the most rudimentary tools, aligning lights on the water to give them their mark. This meant flying low through narrow valleys, close to the water and in direct line of fire. One of the places they trained for the raid was the Derwent Valley. Their memorial stands within one of the towers of the dam and it is to here that we were heading. Fifty three of the 133 young men who participated in the attack were killed. So were 1600 people on the ground, of which a thousand were forced laboureres and prisoners.
The aircrew were boys. An average age of 21, with the youngest being Sgt Jack Liddell, a rear gunner and a mere 18 years old. He had already served for two years…he had lied about his age to join the forces. Lidell was killed during the raid. Leaving the wheelchair in the car, my own son and I stood in silence for a long time.
War is too easily glorified by those who wish to wage it. The cost of war is calculated and defence budgets prioritised; the true cost of war is not money. It is not just the lives of those who fight, not even just those who die or are maimed as the clinically labelled ‘collateral damage’. It is the cost in grief to those who wait and wonder, to those who survive but whose lives are shattered by fear, by PTSD, by uncertainty. Standing with my own son…a son I had so nearly lost to violence… there was a momentary glimpse of the weight of grief borne by those who have loved and waited. I too have waited, not knowing, though I could see my son and knew every breath and heartbeat the machines ensured. It is not the same, but it is enough to feel the wrongness of violence on any scale. The cost of war is life…. and humanity.