In my last few posts I’ve written about the importance of ‘tried and tested’, and how rules of thumb have a timeless quality to them, guaranteeing their survival well into the future. This had me thinking about my own areas of long-term interest, and how most of them extend way back into my childhood.
Marcel Proust famously observed (perhaps modestly in his case) that “We always end up doing the thing we are second best at”. (Only the second, some of you may be thinking). In trying to avoid such a cynical fate, I have cheated a little and have consciously weaved my varied interests together in an effort to create a singular view of the world and my role in it. On this basis, I have tried to promote my skills as a T-Shaped Cross Pollinator, making lots of small bets on my life’s interests, resulting in my what I term a ‘philosophy of optionality’.
One such long-term interest has been film. At one time, in my late twenties, I tried hard to become a film producer, tracing back the seeds of this ambition to childhood visits to the cinema, which, as you will see, had a special significance beyond just being entertained.
This love of cinema really began when I was a full-time boarder at a small, rather unorthodox prep school on the South Coast, which was consciously out of step, and sympathy, with the then social revolution taking place in ‘swinging sixties’ Britain. The school proved to be a great starting point for my education, if really tough on my young emotions. Once a month (always on a Saturday) Mum would come down from London by train and take my brother and I out for the day, usually to nearby Hastings. We would inevitably end up at the cinema for a double-bill matinee, followed by high tea in a local hotel. The whole experience, repeated time and again, took on the sanctity of a ritual.
In between these monthly visits, recently seen films provided material for our childhood imaginations, which saw us re-enacting key scenes over and over again. Cinema proved to be both an escape and a source of day-dreams and aspirations, as we searched for the hero within ourselves. And the one film, amongst all the ones I happily sat through, and which somehow perfectly summed-up the ethos of those fractured days, was the enduring classic of man, machine and revolutionary bomb, ‘The Dam Busters’. (At school, using a few well placed chairs set at different angles, you could easily imagined yourself in a Lancaster)
The presence of the Dam Busters continues to eerily pop-up at significant times in my life. The film was showing on TV the day my wife went into labour with our son, and every time she had a contraction we loudly dah, dah-ed along to the famous Dam Busters March. 10 years later the Dam Buster’s Lancaster was the first model plane my son and I built together. The house we live in is on the flight part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which has the only flying Lancaster in existence (besides one in Canada). In summer, it regularly buzzes low over our garden at 100 feet, the recognisable drone of its four Merlin engines giving away its imminent fly past long before it’s actually seen.
I’ve come to see the story of The Dam Busters, and their scant 10 week build-up to the mission, as a great lesson in how to be resourceful in your thinking and doing when tackling uncertainty – and still manage to have the last word on how to survive it, (even though sadly 53 airmen died on the night of the raid). Their story was one of having to quickly learn to ‘do’ things differently, of adapting to a new set of unknowns (even though it was ‘experience’ of doing the job that got you into the newly formed Squadron in the first place), where even the mission’s objective, and the revolutionary means of its destruction, wasn’t revealed until 4 hours prior to taking off for Germany’s Rhur valley.
Given the levels of stress imposed by the exacting demands of the mission, the crews willed themselves to excel in conditions that were the near opposite of what they were trained for. If you’re used to flying above 10,000 feet then re-learning to do the same at 100 feet was like learning all over again. Each benefited, at least professionally, from the new level of skills they had to master. The reliance on continual tinkering and testing, and testing again, perfected the technologies needed to deliver a 7,500lb bomb that had to unbelievably bounce along the surface of the water.
Having created a set of exacting disciplines for developing operational rigorousness, and without the luxury of overcompensation in anything they did, the Dam Busters used these self-same limitations to conceal from the enemy their ultimate intentions until the very last moment.
You may think that the world has well-and-truly moved on and such ‘flag-waving’ testimonies to Man’s ingenuity for destruction feels decidedly out of place. But the story of the Dam Busters provides the kind of enduring lessons that we can benefit from today.
We can make easy reference to the ‘agile’ way they went about perfecting their techniques and technologies. Empathise with their short lead in times for ‘delivering the goods’. And still agree that Guy Gibson-style leadership from the front invites greater buy-in. But for me the greatest take-out is this. When confronted by the unknown it seems at least possible to find ‘solace’ in perfecting a set of disciplines that actually benefits from increasing levels of uncertainty.
Men volunteered for a mission that was likely to be even riskier than usual without really knowing what they were signing-up for. Many had miraculously survived a ‘tour of ops’ already and we’re entitled to go on to jobs away from the front-line, but chose instead to sign-on. To be in with a chance of success, they had to go out and practise a new set of radical disciplines everyday, in approximate conditions, and with a willingness to tear-up the rule book and start again. That’s a big ask of anyone. And the story of the original airmen of 617 Squadron provides us with an enduring testimony of what’s possible – and unimaginable – in the face of overwhelming odds. The Squadron motto, “After me, the flood” is an apt summing up of their legacy and a useful shorthand description for those crossing into the unknown.
I’m indebted to James Holland’s excellent up-to-date retelling of the Dam Busters story: Dam Busters – The Race to Smash the Dams 1943