Dambusters prepare for final tour before disbandment

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Media captionThe BBC's Caroline Wyatt is given rare access as the squad prepare for their last mission

The RAF's 617 Squadron - better known as the Dambusters - will disband next year. It will re-form in 2016 as the first squadron to fly Britain's new Lightning II aircraft but its current members are preparing for their last deployment.

A black and white photograph of their legendary predecessors hangs on the wall of the briefing room, watching over the men and women of today's Dambusters squadron as they prepare for operations over Afghanistan.

As they pore over maps and imagery of astonishing clarity from the Tornado GR4s of today's warzone in Afghanistan, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, immortalised in the film The Dambusters, smiles down confidently from the photo at those following in his footsteps.

His words of March 1943, "This squadron will either make history or be wiped out," are picked out on another photo on the wall of the crews' kitchen at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.

There, an enormous album contains the somewhat cloudier imagery available to the original Dambusters as they prepared their historic raid over Nazi Germany.

In that mission, carried out on the night of 16-17 May 1943, 19 Lancaster bombers used specially designed "bouncing bombs" to destroy two dams in the Ruhr Valley.

The breaching of the dams disrupted supplies of power and water, flooded German infrastructure including power stations, and forced a vast and costly repair operation.

The walls of today's Dambusters base preserve the telegrams sent to the squadron congratulating them on the success of their most famous raid, as well as later missions, such as the sinking of the Tirpitz.

"Congratulations on a splendid mission," reads one, while another has heartfelt thanks from the King and Queen, photographed with the squadron in May 1943.

Image caption The Dambusters destroyed the Mohne Dam in the Ruhr Valley in 1943

Yet another has po-faced queries over the suitability of the unit's chosen motto "Apres moi, le deluge" - After me, the flood - because of its association with Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour.

The squadron's history remains a crucial part of its DNA, creating a challenge for today's pilots, navigators and ground crews to live up to.

"It's been a fantastic year for the Dambusters, with the anniversary this year," says the modern-day heir to Guy Gibson, Wing Commander David Arthurton.

"Reflecting on the events of 70 years ago, the whole squadron recognises the spirit and the ethos that was forged back then."

He does not own a Labrador - unlike Wing Commander Gibson, whose dog was famously portrayed in the 1955 film - but is otherwise very much in the mould of his predecessors in his calm, unassuming demeanour.

"We've carried that ethos through to today and we'll be taking it with us on operations in Afghanistan," he says.

Afghan cold

This week, he and the 180 or so men and women of the squadron are bringing together all their pre-deployment training at their windswept base.

The rain and cloud of this October day may well be replicated in the sometimes bitterly cold Afghan winter at Kandahar airbase, where many in the squadron have already served on previous tours of duty.

The mission rehearsal today is a realistic one for Tornado pilot Flight Lieutenant Al Spence, who at 29 is already a veteran of Afghanistan.

As part of the exercise, he runs to the aircraft to fly in aid of coalition and Afghan troops on the ground needing close air support.

This will be his third tour of duty in Afghanistan before he takes up a new role as a trainer.

Image caption Flight Lieutenants Alex Lock and Al Spence are training for duty in Afghanistan

"The challenge for us in flying during a winter tour of Afghanistan is that unlike in the summer, where we have crystal-clear blue skies and no real weather to worry about, we'll be battling rain, icing, snow, and it will make the tasking more difficult and the recovery to the airfield more challenging," he says.

So is he looking forward to the deployment?

"In a strange way, yes I am," he smiles.

Flying with him as navigator, or weapons systems officer in the back of the Tornado, Fl Lt Alex Lock, 28, will be on his first operational tour of Afghanistan.

"I'm glad I'm deploying with this squadron. It's a real honour and a privilege," he says.

"My family have come to terms with it and it's not been a rushed decision so they've seen this on the horizon for the last few years."

During their final mission rehearsal exercise today, the Scottish skies and the waters of the Moray Firth stand in for the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan - where 617 Squadron will be called on to support Nato and Afghan troops, still under fire even as the Nato combat mission draws to a close by the end of 2014.

Image caption About 180 men and women of 617 Squadron will go to Afghanistan

At 45, Fl Lt Ian Abson is the squadron's most experienced navigator.

He last served in Afghanistan on exchange, flying with the French, and will again leave his wife and two children back at home.

"I've done it before, so I'm not that tense about it," he says.

"It's probably just as difficult as ever for the family, because invariably it's the families who never get a mention, but they're the ones who are left back at home and managing things, while we jet off and do our thing."

Seventy years ago this March, the Dambusters took to the skies to help turn the tide of war.

On this winter tour of duty, they'll fly together for the last time - before they're disbanded next spring.

But in 2016, the squadron will rise again with the new Joint Strike Fighter jet - as the Tornados slowly take their place in RAF history.

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