Home Office Plan for Dambusters Base RAF Scampton Remains Dogged by Archaeological Controversy

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Ahead of a Judicial Review sought by the local authority into the controversial decision by Home Secretary Suella Braverman to house two thousand young male asylum seekers at RAF Scampton, former home of the legendary 617 Squadron, the row looks set to become focussed on an unseemly tussle over archaeological practice within the planning system.

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This is because the County Archaeologist for Lincolnshire has recommended that the local planning authority, West Lindsey District Council turns down an application for listed building consent submitted by the Royal Air Force Heritage branch to move the memorial to Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC’s pet dog and squadron mascot which was run over and killed the day before the dams raid. The RAF wish to move the memorial and any remains of the animal which are discovered to RAF Marham, the current home of the famous Dambusters squadron.

Accompanying the application in the name of the head of the Royal Air Force heritage team, Wing Commander Erica Ferguson, is a formal design and access heritage statement.

Much of the submission is cut and paste information about the history of RAF Scampton from its beginnings in the First World War, to its formal closure in March this year [2023].

This history includes the two most historically significant periods in the station’s history, as a base for the UK’s V-bomber force during the Cold War and, most famously, as the first base of 617 Squadron, the Dambusters, who launched Operation Chastise, the raid on the Ruhr dams from Scampton exactly eighty years ago on the night of 16/17 May 1943.

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Significantly, in a comment on the negative impact of the Home Office plan to turn the base into a camp housing asylum seekers, the document argues that there is now no guarantee of a sustainable future for Scampton.

Such a future had been promised by the local authority, West Lindsey District Council, which had lined up a £300 million development project for Scampton, aimed at levelling up the area by turning the former airbase into a tech and aviation hub, but the project is now at risk after Home Secretary Suella Braverman overruled officials to insist that the former airbase would become one of the Government’s camps offering basic accommodation for up to 2000 asylum seekers as part of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats”.

West Lindsey’s project would have included also a substantial heritage component, which would include telling visitors the story of the dams raid and of Wing Commander Gibson’s dog, a Black Labrador which Gibson had owned from a puppy.

However, as a consequence of this uncertainty, and, in their view, the cultural sensitivity surrounding the dog’s name which is now regarded as an unacceptable expression of racial abuse, the RAF heritage team explain that they believe the grave site of the dog,

“…carries significant reputational risk given the racial slur now associated with the dog’s name.”

However, somewhat undercutting this conclusion, the report mentions, but fails to emphasise, that this risk was recognised already and mitigated in June 2020, when a new memorial was put in place where the dog’s story is described, but he is not named.

Consequently however, the RAF argue, it would be better to return the memorial marker and any remains of the dog which remain on site, to 617 Squadron at its current base at RAF Marham.

The RAF statement also apparently concedes that normal heritage practice would see the memorial, and any remains, stay at Scampton.

The document concludes,

“Ideally the grave would remain at Scampton as part of the important story in the location hugely significant parts of the RAF, and indeed the Nation’s, story but the future is now too uncertain to recommend this course of action.”Adding to this uncertainty the RAF document claims, is an incident when a group known as ‘Abandoned’ broke onto the base and accessed the Officers Mess.

An action which increases concern over the future of the heritage fabric of the site the RAF said.

What the document does not say, and which Historic England confirmed to thePipeLine, is that the officers mess at Scampton is currently the subject of an application for listing. An action which, if granted, would give the site additional legal protection over and above the existing listing of four hangers and would enable the prosecution of anyone actually damaging the building and which arguably also goes at least come way to addressing the concerns expressed in the RAF heritage statement.

Critics of the RAF document also point to several instances where the Heritage Statement seems thinly written and poorly researched.

For example, there are gaps in the sources cited, with Max Hasting’s book “Bomber Command” mentioned, but not his more recent “Chastise: the Dambusters Story” which is about the Dams raid specifically and Guy Gibson’s “Enemy Coast Ahead” and Paul Brickhill’s “The Dambusters” are absent entirely, even though they are cited as the sources for the famous film which fixed the mythology of the raid including the role of Wing Commander Gibson’s dog at RAF Scampton.

Perhaps most significantly John Sweetman’s “The Dambusters Raid” is not cited at all, even though it is widely regarded as the standard account of the raid.

However, most strikingly given its iconic nature in post war English culture, the document refers to the famous 1954 film, the Dambusters in a way which suggests the author has not actually watched the film recently, if ever?

In discussing the context of the dog’s grave the heritage statement references,

“…the poignant scenes at the end of the film when Todd was told his dog had been run over and died during the raid in which so many men were killed.”

In fact the Dambusters takes a strictly chronological approach and the dog is shown to have been killed on the day of the raid itself [actually this is inaccurate too as he was run over the day before the raid]. An event which falls almost exactly half way through the film.

In the film, as the briefing for the raid ends Richard Todd, playing Guy Gibson, is told by his batman that the dog is dead and he later asks that animal is buried outside his office at midnight as the attack on the dams is getting underway.

R C Sheriff’s screenplay does in fact deliver a poignant scene at the end of the film, but it does not involve the dog.

On the morning after the raid Sir Michael Redgrave playing Sir Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb which destroyed the dams and in the film the main instigator of the raid, encounters Gibson and referring to the fifty six members of the squadron who did not return, asks,

“Is it true, all those men?” adding that if he had known the cost he would never have suggested the attack.

At the end of the conversation Wallis suggests Gibson gets some sleep, only for Gibson to reply,

“I’ve got some letters to write first.” The letters to fifty six next of kin.

On that dying fall the film ends, with the camera pulling back on the lonely figure of Gibson as the majestic notes of Eric Coates Dambusters March soars.

It is ironic therefore that the author of the RAF statement comments,

“In the hearts and minds of a significant proportion of the British public the dog’s story is synonymous with the Dam Buster story – perhaps to the extent that it detracts from the sacrifice of the 53 men lost in the Raid.”

That is absolutely not the effect of the film, which is probably the main source of information about the dams raid for much of the public.

As explained above, the film ends on a downbeat precisely explaining that cost and hinting at the emotional impact on the leading participants in planning and executing the raid, Wallis and Gibson.

It is however worth noting that there is little reference in the film to the over 1660 German civilians and Russian Prisoners of War who died in the floods unleashed by 617 Squadron.

There is one final criticism to be made of the RAF’s Heritage Statement.

The technical part of the document concludes with a method statement, which is entirely normal, except that it is described as only an outline, written in partnership with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation’s [DIO] archaeologists. That is the archaeologists who are responsible for archaeological issues on the Defence Estate.

The document assures the planners that,

“further detail can be given before work commences.”

However, it would be expected that the planning authority would be presented with full documentation, especially when the planning application relates to a nationally listed monument and one that could be especially emotive.

On close reading the thin nature of the souring, the absence of detail and of references to specific legislation leave the impression that the whole application for listed building consent to move the memorial was decided and put together in a hurry, with a key document, the Heritage Statement and archaeological method, submitted in an incomplete form by someone not entirely familiar with the historical source material.

There is one final hint that the application might have been less than thoroughly prepared and proof read.

The application form submitted to the West Lindsey planners on 9 May states that the application relates to,

“The grave of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson situated immediately in front of Hangar 2 on the former operational ‘water front’ of the airfield.”

That will come as news to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who tend Wing Commander Gibson’s actual grave in the Steenbergen en Kruisland Roman Catholic Cemetery in the Netherlands.

It would be entirely reasonable for West Lindsey’s planners to ask if this level of documentation is an acceptable way to treat such a serious issue as making a significant change to an iconic aspect of a listed building?

Against this background, while the Heritage statement from the RAF deals in generalities, an incomplete method statement and, what to its critics is speculative opinion, the advice from Dr Ian Marshman ACIfA, the County Archaeologists for Lincolnshire, published on the West Lindsey District Council planning portal, is much more focussed, citing legislation and the National Planning Policy Framework, which represents the Government’s official guidance on planning issues, including planning issues with an archaeological component, and standard archaeological practice.

Critically for the RAF case Dr Marshman states that the exhumation of the grave and the removal of the existing monument to another location would harm the significance of the Grade II Listed Hangar 2.

He further states that under section 16 of the Planning (Listed Buildings & Conservation Areas) Act 1990 the council should have

“…special regard to the desirability of preserving the building or its setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest which it possesses”.

The memorial to the dog is just such a special feature.

Dr Marshman also notes that the National Planning Policy Framework states that section 16, paragraph 199 of the document requires that,

“…great weight should be given to the asset’s conservation…irrespective of whether any potential harm amounts to substantial harm”.

Dr Marshman’s advice continues, referencing the method statement and the expressing concern that the RAF application does not contain sufficient clarity about the archaeological process they intend to employ.

The advice states that the National Panning Policy Framework also requires that material recovered from archaeological excavations carried out
as part of the planning process should be deposited with a museum where it can be
made accessible to researchers and to the public. He adds that the Lincolnshire Archaeological Handbook details requirements for this on excavations within the county and identifies the county museum in Lincoln as the usual place for such an archaeological archive to be deposited.

In a withering comment on the nature of the RAF application Dr Marshman observes, that the RAF’s application does not make clear whether it is intended to rebury or retain any remains of Wing Commander Gibson’s Labrador at RAF Marham, and, in a comment which echoes concerns of other experts in the History of the RAF approached by thePipeLine, it is suggested that the RAF’s application does not provide clarity as to how the integrity of the archive is to maintained in years to come.

Another key question is what happens if 617 Squadron is redeployed away from RAF Marham, or if a future Government decides the unit should be disbanded entirely?

In fact 617 Squadron has been disbanded three times, between 1955 and 1958, again between 1981 and 1982 and most recently from 2014 to 2016.

Responding to this possibility, which is not addressed at all in the RAF Heritage Statement, the advice from Dr Marshman states that any future Written Scheme of Investigation [WSI] relating to the site should contain sufficiently detailed and enforceable plans for post-excavation analysis by named specialists and for the long-term conservation of any remains uncovered in a publicly accessible archive or museum.

The advice also states that if the reburial of any remains is proposed then details of the proposed location, and “a clear justification” for the action should be provided for how material will be selected for retention, for reburial, or be discarded.

Dr Marshman concludes by quoting another section of the National Planning Policy Framework, this time section 16 paragraph 205. That states clearly that,

“Local planning authorities should require developers to record and advance
understanding of the significance of any heritage assets to be lost (wholly or in part) in a manner proportionate to their importance and the impact, and to make this evidence and any archive generated) publicly accessible. However, the ability to record evidence of our past should not be a factor in deciding whether such loss should be permitted”.

In other words, the NPPF tells planning authorities like West Lindsey that they should follow the ethical position adopted by the character of Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park.

In paraphrase,

“Just because the RAF can move the memorial to Guy Gibson’s Labrador, it doesn’t mean that they should.”

If that judgement is accepted then it would be remarkable if the planning officers and councillors at West Lindsey District Council did not side with their archaeological adviser Dr Marshman who concludes,

“Piecemeal developments such as this proposal, which remove and erode aspects of character and heritage of RAF Scampton without consideration of the preservation or future use of the site as a whole could lead to erosion and eventual loss of RAF Scampton’s heritage significance, which is of national and international importance.”

It is not just professional archaeologists like Dr Marshman who take this view.

The majority of public comments on the West Lindsey planning portal take a similar view that the heritage of RAF Scampton would be diminished if the memorial is moved and many express outrage that the move should be even considered.

Independent experts are also critical.

As aviation historian Andy Saunders put it when asked about the proposal,

“Although unrelated to the asylum accommodation issue, I’m deeply uncomfortable about plans to relate the grave of Gibson’s dog – possibly to RAF Marham. The whole context of the grave will be lost, in my view, by moving it. It should remain as an integral part of Scampton’s heritage.”

Planning application 146711 for listed building consent to move the memorial continues.

On 22 May [2023] Home Secretary Suella Braverman was asked at Home Office Questions in the House of Commons why in February she had overruled her officials to insist that RAF Scampton was developed as an accommodation camp for asylum seekers?

Ms Braverman did not answer the question.

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