Were the WWII RAF Dambusters Racist?

The following poem by Una Marson (celebrated war-time broadcaster in the ministry of information, and a noted poet), published in 1933, can be found in the British Library:

Source: The Keys, Una. M. Marson, The League of Coloured Peoples, July 1933. Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board

She warns very conclusively, years before WWII, that without any doubt the N-word was considered racist and harmful.

So is friendly fire still fire? Yes, the Dambusters (RAF 617 Squadron in WWII) clearly embraced racism. Their leader chose the N-word for his dog in spite of very public protests against such racist behavior.

Even worse, the Dambusters chose to use a racist slur as a codeword and “mascot” in spite of known harm to the “RAF ethos” then and into the future.

It’s been a continual problem for Dambusters’ story-tellers to dance around the racism.

Back in 2011 the BBC reported that the Dambuster “mascot”, a black Labrador named the N-word, in a movie produced by Peter Jackson would be instead called “Digger“:

You can go to RAF Scampton and see the dog’s grave and there he is with his name, and it’s an important part of the film. The name of the dog was a code word to show that the dam had been successfully breached. In the film, you’re constantly hearing ‘N-word, N-word, N-word, hurray’ and Barnes Wallis is punching the air. But obviously that’s not going to happen now. So Digger seems OK, I reckon.

The BBC goes on to say that decision reflected a fact of a larger story to tell where a dog’s real name is a tiny, unessential detail.

“The film is not about the dog. My big concern would be if they watered down what the Dam Busters had achieved.”

Watered down? Pun not intended, I’m sure.

If the N-word is used in its full form, then historians must use context and talk about a it being a proven known wrong in 1943. Historians also must address why the N-word was allowed. Otherwise by using it without acknowledging the harm, it’s erasing the black experience and perpetuating racism.

The Independent in 2018, seven years after the BBC went with “Digger”, reported how screenings of the original 1955 movie were to leave the N-word intact because they also would prominently warn potential viewers of offensive language.

…”send a clearer warning to parents that the film contains discriminatory language of a nature that will be offensive to many”. The name has previously been censored for TV broadcasts, while some American versions have used dubbing to edit the dog’s name to Trigger.

Someone was giving new meaning to Americans being Trigger happy. Pun not intended, I’m sure.

Digger, Trigger… Vigor, Rigor, Bigger. Why would any codewords for anything have to be accurate for retelling the main story? Unless there’s a story behind the codeword, they were literally meant to have no association so nothing is lost by replacing them.

Look at it this way, does anyone really care at all what the codewords in the left column are? Change them arbitrarily and nothing happens because they are codewords.

Codeword Meaning
Cooler Callsign for Operation Chastise
Pranger Attack Mohne dam. German word for “pinch badly” and name for a medieval torture device
N-word Mohne dam breached, divert to Eder
Dinhgy Eder dam breached, divert to Sorpe
Tulip Cooler 2 take over Mohne, Cooler 4 take over Eder
Gilbert Attack last-resort targets
Mason Return to Base
Goner Upkeep release status (1-7) with results (8-10) on target (A-F). For example Goner 1-8-A is failed to explode, no breach of Mohne, whereas Goner 7-10-A is exploded on contact, large breach of Mohne

It shouldn’t matter what a dog’s name was in the Dambuster narrative (a narrative that really should only be about “convincing people on both sides that the Allies were winning“) unless you also want to talk about systemic racism in the RAF at that time… which tends to undermine “winning” narratives and get lots of attention from neo-Nazis.

Let me just pause for a minute to acknowledge the RAF did in fact have black airmen, and wasn’t nearly as racist as the Army and Navy. There are all kinds of upsides and positive black stories that can be heard about the RAF. Sorry, Nazis, don’t even try to pretend the RAF shouldn’t have humiliated you the way they did.

Back to the story, if Peter Jackson’s film crew had kept the original racist word, they also should address the racism with far more that just basic context setting.

One can’t simply insert the N-word and pretend like all the RAF racism at the time in 1943 doesn’t also come along with it. Going into the known racism of the RAF (could RAF be read as Racist AF, like were the Dambusters RAF?) would have been a very different (arguably much better) movie. Imagine watching a movie that admits both British and Nazis were racists but blacks were fighting on the British side because they hated Nazism so much more!

But I don’t know if that’s the movie Jackson would have wanted to make.

Using the N-word also means doing far more to set context than tossing out “offensive language” warnings, or even trying to say “you can go to RAF Scampton and see the dog’s grave” to learn more.

I understand such a “go look it up” sentiment, as it’s low cost to drive interested viewers to some other production team. Indeed anyone who needed to see an original dog name used to be able to visit the grave, meaning that tangential detail could be found elsewhere and need not be in the movie.

However, such a diversion tactic no longer will fly given that Sky News reports today even RAF Scampton has removed the N-word from the gravestone.

It is understood the decision was taken in order to not give prominence to an offensive word that goes against the modern RAF’s ethos.

I think that’s great. The N-word is removed as it’s acknowledged to be harmful (on a base scheduled to be closed next year).

Removal of racism clearly was the right decision by the RAF. However, note how Sky News is itself making a very subtle racist mistake in its reporting.

It really should have concluded that sentence with “…an offensive word that goes against the RAF’s ethos.” Saying it goes against the modern ethos is problematic because it means Sky News is passively excusing a legacy of racism in the RAF.

Fortunately the BBC does a better job and reports it the proper way:

The RAF said it did not want to give prominence to an offensive term that went against its ethos.

Right. RAF should take down the distraction and when it comes up explain that unfortunate choices were made, explaining why those choices were mistakes and that they are being corrected. It’s these acts of admitting fault and fixing racism that makes the RAF so much superior to the Nazis.

Everyone should be able to agree it was clearly and widely known to be derogatory after the 1800s, as the definitive book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” explains:

We do know… that by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult. […] For many whites in positions of authority, however, referring to blacks as niggers was once a safe indulgence. […] Given whites’ use of nigger, it should come as no surprise that for many blacks the N-word has constituted a major and menacing presence that has sometimes shifted the course of their lives.

“A safe indulgence” by “whites in positions of authority” seems exactly to be what has happened in the case of the Dambusters naming their dog a racist slur 200 years after it was known to wrong blacks.

The African American Registry explains how change does indeed come slowly for those in positions of authority:

No matter what its origins, by the early 1800s, it was firmly established as a derogative name. In the 21st century, it remains a principal term of White racism, regardless of who is using it. […] In 2003, the fight to correct the shameful availability of this word had positive results. Recently Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), gave a speech at Virginia Tech. There everyone was informed that a landmark decision was made with the people at Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Recognizing their error, beginning with the next edition, the word nigger will no longer be synonymous with African Americans in their publication.

While the word obviously has been harmful this whole time across two centuries, some still try to erase that fact of history by falsely presenting the Dambuster racism as innocent of motive.

It was not innocent, and it was not a different time.

To be fair, I will say that during WWII general British society was less racist towards black soldiers than the British military was. Also I will say British society was definitely far less racist than the American military:

…when US military authorities demanded that the town’s pubs impose a colour bar, the landlords responded with signs that read: “Black Troops Only”.

British civilians were defending black American troops against racism in the American military. Think about that for a minute.

But none of that changes the fact that racism was a huge problem in Britain and America, and even more of a problem in the military.

Consider how a 1964 campaign slogan used the N-word, because it was so harmful, as a weapon to attack Britain. That’s right, a politician won his election by openly flouting the N-word like a Dambuster would in “the most racist election” he could.

This was just 20 years after the Dambusters raid:

Conservative MP, Peter Griffiths, had been elected in the previous year’s general election on the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”

If anyone says that Dambuster dog name was neutral and at a “different time”, ask them how it ended up in a very public 1964 hate campaign.

Griffiths openly acknowledged his use of the term was racist. You can’t say 1943 was such a different time from 1968; those who used the term in World War II military campaigns then would have been voters in their 50s.

Dr. Harold Arundel Moody, a Jamaican-born physician in London who campaigned against racial prejudice established the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931, would never had his life story described as “Negro Victory” if there hadn’t been so much racism during those years.

More to the point, who were the Dambusters really targeting when they grotesquely indulged in racism by messaging bomb drops with the N-word over and over and over again?

By 1975 we can look at an episode of the popular Fawlty Towers comedy on BBC had their military veteran character Major Gowen (played by Ballard Berkeley) repeatedly saying the N-word.

The Major says: ‘The strange thing was that throughout the morning she kept referring to the Indians as n*****s.’ He adds: ‘ “No, no, no, no,” I said, “n*****s are West Indians, these people are w**s”. ‘ “No, no, no,” she said, “all cricketers are n*****s”.’

So you can plainly see a BBC comedy in 1975 was highlighting, as I am here today, how the N-word in Britain was treated by the “old fossil” military types — a hateful word used for a very long time.

That is why by 1943, during the raid that gave the Dambusters their famous name, there should be no question the N-word was known to be racist, as it has been widely documented widely as such before and after.

Its use in fact undermined the fight against Nazism — like dropping bombs all over black neighborhoods of the British Empire — as friendly-fire that was entirely unnecessary and easily prevented.

Do you know what doesn’t undermine the fight against Nazism? Admitting the word was racist at the time and condemning its use.

Again, friendly fire is still fire.

The best case for the Dambusters would be claiming weak leadership — despite public condemnations of racism — as they allowed unfortunate wrongs against their own citizens to continue unchallenged; even that doesn’t change a fundamental fact the N-word was known harmful and use of it by the Dambusters means RAF has to deal with a legacy of racism.

British racism goes bigger than just this one word, of course, given how the N-word is a reference to slavery in the military of a country that used to enforce slavery practices. Keep in mind how a push for abolition of slavery is as old as slavery itself, and the 1700s was when the British experienced mass condemnation (thus leading to its widespread abolition in the early 1800s).

We can’t say let’s erase the black experience and instead comfort whites taking the immoral luxury of perpetuating slavery through it’s associated language. The context of early 1800s abolitionism doesn’t do anything to excuse the RAF in a position of power and privilege indulging in racism.

Leaving the N-word prominently displayed without context legitimizes the wrongdoing.

Quite clearly there was racism in British ranks, and quite clearly it should be treated as such if their racism is repeated in the open. We even have documentation of the problem from those who suffered it.

…In 1939, the peacetime recruiting regulations…restricted entry into the RAF to men of “pure European descent”. Under the Act, all “men of colour” were automatically debarred…. […] …a Guyanese man…in 1941 was recruited by the RAF. Grant wanted to be a fighter pilot…. Years later after being shown Air Ministry records researched by Roger Lambo be was to painfully learn of the racism with informal Air Ministry policies.

And again, even more to the point:

As Robert Murray, who left Georgetown, Guiana to join the RAF, recalls: “I never heard of racism until I got to Britain.” …there is now a desire to celebrate the achievements of those such as Flight Sergeant Jimmy Hyde, the much-decorated Trinidadian piolt, there has been little recognition of the isolation they felt in the RAF. […] There is an official RAF photograph of Hyde, from 132 Squadron, with his Spitfire and holding “Dingo”, the squadron commander’s pet dog. Hyde, while forcing a smile, looks uneasy: it is unclear which one is the mascot.

Source: Caribbean Air Crew in the RAF – Imperial War Museum (IWM) Reference CH11978

However, rather than go too far down the complicated paths to explain motives for systemic racism in the military, we really should keep focus on consequences here.

Given the term was known harmful from the 1800s onward, and given that most blacks who heard the term would consider it harmful, with many first-person confirmations of being wronged, historians must conclude:

POSTING OR USING THE DOG’S NAME WITHOUT RACISM CONTEXT ERASES THE BLACK EXPERIENCE.

Perhaps this clarity to me comes from unique experience that makes the right answer more obvious versus those casually looking at the problem?

I spent many hours deep in the UK government’s military archives for my graduate degree in history from the London School of Economics. In those papers and secret memos I found an excessive amount of racism of an almost unbearable level, especially in the war-time Colonial Office correspondence on the North African campaigns (as you might imagine from the office name).

The intolerance and hate is all still there if you want to open the folders, but it most certainly should not be paraded or celebrated. And if someone pulled that racism from the archive and built a gravestone or monument to it for celebration, I would ask them frankly why they are trying to erase history (ignore the black experience) by trying to elevate and apologize for a particular racist tangent.

And here’s a sad example of a historian of Dambusters who fails miserably at this. He both acknowledges the catastrophe of the N-word and also falls victim to the false trope of “said things differently then”. From the 2020 edition of Operation Chastise.

…I have been repeatedly asked whether it is an embarrassment to acknowledge the name of Gibson’s dog, which became a wirelessed codeword for the breaching of the Mohne. A historian’s answer must be: no more than the fact that our ancestors hanged…and imprisoned homosexuals. They did and said things differently then. It would be grotesque to omit Nigger from a factual narrative merely because the word is rightly repugnant to the twenty-first-century ears. […] Yet in the twenty-first century it also seems essential to confront… the enormity of the horror that the unthinking fliers unleashed upon a host of innocents.

This is a clumsy section of the book, which has to be read very carefully. He is saying he leaves in the N-word as evidence of a wrong. Does he call it out effectively as a wrong?

No, it appears he gives far more careful consideration to the wrongs the RAF may have committed against Nazis, than the wrongs against blacks (or against homosexuals) in the RAF who were fighting against those Nazis.

Note the UK after the war coldly tried and executed their own war hero Alan Turing, for example, simply because he was gay. That narrative is almost never told correctly, given how the government today tries to elevate his name in spite of unjustly killing him.

Interesting data point: given this author of the 2020 Operation Chastise book says historians ought not to omit references to the dog’s name, he makes only 2 mentions in all its pages. And I am sure if he had gone to zero mentions, it would have done nothing to change his narrative.

If anyone believes that erasing history is harmful, then they should see removing the N-word is a restoration project (like cleaning graffiti or pulling down fences). Don’t believe anyone who claims the N-word was acceptable at the time, or that it didn’t get a reaction from those it slighted. Again, as I can’t say this enough, presentation of it without context erases the black experience.

To post such a word believing it to be “factual” without thinking of its factual consequences, is an act of erasure. It erases history and continues to promote severe and lasting wrongs, by failing to acknowledge mistakes as such. The RAF is right to correct the mistake, acknowledge the bigger story and fuller history, and move the racist name to where it can be studied appropriately for being racist.

As Randall Kennedy, the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School and author of the definitive history of the N-word, puts it:

“Given the power of ‘nigger’ to wound, it is important to provide a context within which presentation of that term can be properly understood.

What would context look like for the 1943 Operation Chastise? That’s fairly easy to answer.

The BBC three years earlier on May 16, 1940 responded to an angry letter and issued a public apology for its use of the N-word on air, acknowledging it as “sincerely regretted”.

My attention has been drawn to the fact that one of your announcers, when interpreting some records on the 11th inst., made use of the offensive term ‘nigger’. There is no need for me to remind you that this is one of the unfortunate relics of the days of slavery, vexatious to present day Africans and West Indians, and an evidence of incivility on the part of its user. I hope, sir, as a public corporation, you will take some steps to repair the damage done. I shall be glad to be advised as to what steps you take so that I may be able to inform my Committee accordingly.

======

From the Director, Secretariat of BBC to the President of the League. 16/5/40
Following my earlier letter, I find that our announcer was at fault. The point raised on your letter is fully appreciated, and is one which the BBC is at pains to keep constantly in mind. It was unfortunately overlooked on this occasion, and a reminder on the subject is being given to announcers. I hope that your Committee will accept the BBC’s apology for this slip, which is sincerely regretted.

Speaking of the BBC, don’t forget the beginning of this post was a contextual reference from one of their own broadcasters ten years before the Dambusters existed.

So I have to ask, after all this…

Have you heard of Una Marson?

Every time someone falsely claims the N-word was somehow accepted, or normal for 1943 in the RAF, they actively are erasing her from history despite her very prominent role and the black community opposition to the term during that exact time.


Update: April 2021 a reader has sent me “The untold story of the RAF’s black Second World War fliers over Europe“, a fascinating look back at the amazing stories of black RAF who had been erased while Dambuster’s racist story was heavily promoted.

…few people are aware of the important contribution made by 500 RAF aircrew recruited from the Caribbean and West Africa. Overcoming the legacy of the official British Colour Bar to serve over Europe as pilots, navigators, flight engineers and air gunners, these men were pioneers in the truest sense. After suffering a loss rate of more than 30% and, in some cases, incarceration as black PoWs in Nazi Germany, the men returned to their countries of origin and were lost from the historical record.

Not only were black contributions lost from the historical record, though…. When references were made to them in movies, there was such disbelief by racists that some tried to protest against the record of real veterans!

…the famous Great Escape. There’s a black character in that film and everybody said, ‘This is just ridiculous, political correctness, where have they got a black character?’. There was actually a black prisoner in Stalag Luft III. So that character’s based on Cy Grant.

Compare that to the controversy over removing the N-word from Dambusters. Following that, here’s a comment about racism during WWII that is spot on, calling out in just a few lines what I spent many paragraphs trying to say above:

The British official policy, written policy, stated that only British-born men of British-born parents, of pure European descent, could receive offers as commissions in any of His Majesty’s armed services. This of course also disqualified South Africans, Australians, anybody who was not British-born and of pure European descent. I mean, not a lot to choose from between that statement and what we were fighting against in Germany, to be honest, other than the fact that there were no camps, but the mind-set behind the policy was very similar.

It’s all a fantastic read, with many very insightful stories of black RAF airmen during war. This is perhaps one of the best:

Lincoln Lynch, DFM, tailgunner from Jamaica, who served with 102 Squadron, shot down a Messerschmitt night fighter on his first operational flight. He was a gentleman. He shot the night fighter’s engine with his machine guns, then he realised it was on fire and he then held fire while the German pilot and his crewmen climbed out and jumped off the back of the aeroplane and then he resumed firing and shot the rest of the aeroplane out of the sky. So [he was] quite a nice man.

Speaking of the meaning of words, what a name. Lincoln. Lynch.

Sergeant Lincoln Orville Lynch DFM, a West Indian air gunner serving with RAF No 102 Squadron, photographed wearing his flying kit by the rear turret of his Halifax at RAF Pocklington, February 1944.

Lincoln Lynch after WWII moved to America and became a strong civil rights advocate, heavily involved in New York politics and even a leading voice of opposition to the Vietnam War. If you haven’t heard of him, please do read his story.

3 thoughts on “Were the WWII RAF Dambusters Racist?”

  1. Interesting Dambusters and the dog Nigger piece. Good to hear a significantly new slant on the consequences of dealing with racism’s ingrained historical and contemporary prevalence. However much the identity crisis has increased, denials tended to supersede it. David Olusaga has been doing material on TV. He also did programmes on the vast amount of compensation (many billions of dollars in today’s money) the government taxed descendants of slaves to pay the slaveholder families because of the abolition of slavery. It ran throughout British society, as many lesser members of the shareholding 19th century establishment had invested in W Indian plantations and their slaves.

  2. Nigger was the name given to Guys best friend and pet dog, and it could also have been what he called Black people, and therefore either way it was an apt codeword for a successful part of the operation. I have seen many times where a black person calls a black person Nigger (and many ‘songs’ C-rap for instance use the term) as a term of friendship, so the only racist part I see is us White racists cannot use a racist word Nigger but any Black person can. I am a White racist obviousle

  3. @Joe you have struck upon the very issue. It is not ok to be racist. Whether you are a black or white racist, it still is not ok to be racist. Do I need to say it again? It is not ok to be racist.

    Read this for example:

    Black folk rescued the word from the smoldering debris of a virulently racist land, reclaimed it and renovated the slur into a celebration of black comradery — defenders of contemporary usage of “nigger” repeat this. When this tale collides with reality, however, it shatters as a misreading of history — the current use of the word is owed less to white folk calling black folk “nigger” and more to black folk who thought they were niggers and said so. Black people have hurled the infamous word for nearly as long as white folk have. It exists within black speech now because it existed within black speech then. The uncomfortable truth must be confronted: Absent the internalized oppression of those who called white men and women their masters, “nigger” would probably not be a part of black folk’s lexicon. We black folk are reclaiming it not from bigoted white folk but from our ancestors, who, sadly, deemed their blackness a badge of inferiority.

    It is not racist to say whites should not be racist, as it still would be part of an inclusive statement that nobody should be racist.

    By your logic the RAF would have reasoned that since the Nazis commit war crimes it should be ok for the RAF to commit war crimes. The obvious answer is that it is not ok to commit war crimes, whomever you are.

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