The 80th anniversary of Operation Chastise in May 2023 enabled a rare opportunity to visit St Vincents Hall in Grantham, Lincolnshire
As the headquarters of RAF Bomber Command’s No.5 Group from July 1937 to December 1943, it was the operations centre during the night of May 16/17, 1943, when now legendary figures such as Barnes Wallis and Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris waited for hours for news of that most special mission.
Today, St Vincents Hall is the private home of Graham Jeal, who kindly allowed members of the public who were lucky enough to get one of the necessarily limited number of tickets online to visit. Despite this taking place on the day of the anniversary, entry was free of charge.
The rooms accessible to visitors contained many paintings and items of memorabilia related to Bomber Command and 617 Squadron, including two plaques over the fireplace – one in stone, the other in metal – commemorating the period when it was home to 5 Group. For this special occasion, the display was boosted by several more exhibits provided by Lincolnshire County Council’s Heritage service and private individuals. These included telegrams and other documents, including the night’s battle order/crew list, upon which were pencil marks noting those who failed to return. Perhaps the most visually striking objects were two different styles of night-vision training goggles – essential when preparing for a moonlit attack as their blue lenses enabled the wearer to see sunlight appear as moonlight.
Rather than concentrating on the well-known aspects of Operation Chastise, Brian Riley from Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire explained the stories behind the items on display. Some of the rarest pieces were those amassed by 617 Squadron’s original adjutant, the late Flt Lt Harry Humphries. Eighty years ago, realising the significance of that special night, Humphries attempted to collect the signatures of all the airmen taking part. He was quite successful in obtaining those about to take off as ‘A’ Flight, but ran out of time and only obtained three signatures from those in ‘B’ Flight. Sadly, the losses suffered by ‘B’ Flight meant there was no second opportunity to collect signatures and the disparity between the numbers in the two autograph sections tells its own sad story. Other items of interest included two (half-pint?) wartime beer glasses, one engraved with the name of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson and the other carrying that of his famous labrador dog, both reputedly rescued from a bin at Scampton’s officers’ mess decades ago. The dog famously enjoyed lapping up a beer or two from a glass, so maybe these two receptacles once had notable owners.