I suggest to the BBC a 'Songs' of Praise' programme to mark the Dam Busters 50th Anniversary - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I suggest to the BBC a 'Songs' of Praise' programme to mark the Dam Busters 50th Anniversary

I was conscious throughout 1992 that the following year would be the 50th anniversary of No 617 Squadron's Dams Raid and I felt sure that Scampton would be involved in some way in whatever events were being organised to mark the occasion. How wrong I was! When I made enquiries, I discovered that the RAF had no plans at all to mark the anniversary.

I got in touch with the Dam Busters' Association to find out what their plans were. I spoke to Squadron Leader Ted Wass, who was both the Association's secretary and, as I learned when I got to know him, one of the greatest experts on all matters to do with the Dams' Raid, although he had not joined the Squadron until shortly after it had left Scampton. Ted put me firmly in my place during our very first conversation when I mentioned that we were considering how the station could celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Dams' Raid. "Squadron Leader", he said gravely, "We do not celebrate an event which cost the lives of 53 of our colleagues and countless lives on the ground". I felt quite humble and I never made that mistake again.

I had often wondered why the surviving Dam Busters aircrew never came on visits to Scampton. When I asked Ted for the reason he eventually, and rather reluctantly, admitted that they had not been made welcome the last time they visited Scampton several years earlier. Try as I might, Ted would not be drawn further on the subject except to say that it went back to an incident several years before I arrived at Scampton. I assured Ted that they would be honoured guests in 1993 and at any other time.

It transpired that the Association always held their annual reunion at the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa, a beautiful country hotel in a quiet village 18 miles south-east of Lincoln and about five miles from Coningsby. When the Squadron had left Scampton almost immediately after the Dams Raid, the hotel had been requisitioned by the RAF in 1943 to serve as the 617 Squadron Officers' Mess.

In spite of the fact that the RAF apparently was not intending to do anything about it, the Station Commander and the Church of England Padre agreed with me that it would be very appropriate for the 50th anniversary of such a well-known, and nowadays controversial, war mission to be marked by means of a religious service with a theme of reconciliation and forgiveness. Accordingly, on 10 March 1992, I sent the following fax to the BBC Television Songs of Praise office:

"16 May 1993 will be the 50th anniversary of the famous Dam Busters raid by No 617 Squadron led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in it. The raid was mounted from this station and the precise 50th anniversary occurs during your 'on air' time: the crews were briefing for the operation at about 7pm on 16 May 1943. I wonder if you would be interested in producing a Songs of Praise programme from here to commemorate the event. I am in touch with the surviving members of the crews who flew in the raid. We are considering various plans at the moment including a concert with music provided by the Central Band of the RAF in one of the large hangars that housed the Lancaster bombers during World War 2. For your information, Richard Todd who played Guy Gibson in the film The Dam Busters lives locally. Guy Gibson's black Labrador dog was killed in a road accident outside our main gate just a few hours before the crews took off on the raid. The dog's grave is here in front of the hangar where it has always been, still tended carefully by a local civilian."

A few days later I received a fax from the Reverend Roger Hutchings, the Editor of the programme:

"You certainly persuade me that this is a suggestion we should consider carefully. It would be particularly good to broadcast a live Songs of Praise on the 50th anniversary and I am sure it would be very popular with our viewers. The problem is this. We would not normally be transmitting on 16 May, which is two weeks before Pentecost, when we normally produce one special programme for that festival within our repeat series, Praise Be! Thus a transmission on May 16 would mean a considerable re-jigging of our schedules. I would like to find time to come and see the base, and a possible venue, and to discuss the possibilities."

Roger Hutchings visited me at Scampton some weeks later. Based on my experience with the Friday Night is Music Night band concert in 1991, I was confidently able to tell Roger that there was room in the hangar for 2,500 people including the Central Band of the RAF. There would still be room for the world's last flying Lancaster, from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and a Tornado from the present-day 617 Squadron, together with a British Aerospace Red Arrows' Hawk, and other Scampton-based training aircraft, to form a colourful backdrop for the TV cameras. All the surviving aircrew from the Dams' Raid, including some travelling from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and USA, would be in the area for their annual reunion and so could take their place in the congregation. Roger was instantly sold on the whole concept.

Then by happy chance came an opportunity to include in the programme the other City of Lincoln aircraft. Two years after that first visit to Scampton by the British Airways Boeing 747 GBNLT, an entirely Lincolnshire-based British Airways crew were, quite independently, organising a charity flight for 250 disabled and under-privileged Lincolnshire children. The idea was that Lima Tango should return to RAF Scampton and take the children on a two hour flight, including low level flypasts over all the major towns and villages in the county. It soon became clear that the BA charity flight could be run on the same day as the 50th anniversary Songs of Praise. Lima Tango could be parked just outside the hangar and the children and flight crew could be part of the congregation. This would add an extra dimension to the programme.

With more than 10 months still to go, the Station Commander obtained the approval of the Air Officer Commanding to go ahead with the plans and, unsurprisingly, he appointed me as the Project Officer. I had several meetings with the Dam Busters' Association committee and together we started working out a programme for the day. With nine months still to go, I put out a news release nationally inviting people to contact me if they wished to be present and, as a result of that, I gave a large number of interviews on radio, TV and in newspapers. Letters started pouring in from all around the UK asking either for more information or making firm bids for tickets.

I agreed with the BBC that we would have to give priority for tickets to the Songs of Praise event to those people with connections with Scampton or 617 Squadron. Although the tickets would be free, we needed to issue them to named persons for security reasons and to avoid over-crowding on the day. Within four weeks I had allocated over 1,000 tickets to named persons for an event that was still nine months away.

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