Dambusters Dog
has Unspeakable Name

What shall we call the dog?

That’s the dilemma facing the makers of the new Dambusters movie, who must choose between historical fact and racial sensitivity.

Oscar-winning movie producer Peter Jackson of New Zealand is preparing to remake the classic 1955 flick. Read more in last week’s blog post by clicking Remaking The Dambusters.

The old movie dramatized the true story of a daring bomber raid on three German dams by Royal Air Force Squadron 617, led by twenty-four-year-old Guy Gibson.

The squadron’s mascot, also featured in the original movie, was Gibson’s black Labrador retriever named (brace yourself) “Nigger.”

Here’s a shot from the original film of actor Richard Todd with his movie canine.

Altogether the objectionable word is spoken twelve times in the original movie. You can view a clip from the 1955 movie by clicking here: Dambusters Movie Clip.

Guy Gibson himself looked like a movie star. He was a handsome, pipe-smoking lad who won the Victoria Cross for his part in the Dambusters raid. Sadly, he was shot down and killed two years later.

However, you may notice that Gibson’s dog was given a makeover for the 1955 movie. In real life, he was an adorable but somewhat scrawny little guy. Here he is with some of the aircrew.

He was much loved by the whole squadron and often accompanied his master Guy Gibson on training flights.

The dog was known well to one of the Canadian aircrew named Fred Sutherland, who was a nose gunner during the daring raid. Fred was married to my mother's cousin, and you can read my interview with him here: Fred Sutherland.

Here the curious canine comes close to the camera while the crew stand by their Lancaster, awaiting their next mission.

 (To read my blog post about this iconic aircraft, click: Love Those Lancasters.)

Unfortunately, the poor Labrador (you will notice I’m avoiding his name) was run over by a car and killed the morning of the raid.

This was terribly demoralizing for the squadron. Superstition was rife amongst the airmen, and their beloved mascot’s death seemed a bad omen. There were even mutterings of sabotage.

Aside from this drama, there is another historical aspect to the dog’s name. It was the code word Gibson used to confirm the breach of the Möhne Dam. Changing it for the movie involves changing a piece of history, and that has diehard historians fuming.

In vain have they insisted that the dog was named for the Latin word “nigra” meaning “black,” and carried no more racial connotations than a dog named Blackie.

When the movie was shown on British television in recent years, the dog’s name was erased altogether. And when shown in the United States, the dog’s name was overdubbed with the word “Trigger.” (Wasn’t that a horse?)

Movie producer Peter Jackson says he’s caught between a rock and a hard place.

“It is not our intention to offend people. But really you are in a no-win, damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't scenario. If you change it, everyone's going to whine about political correctness. And if you don't change it, obviously you are offending a lot of people inadvertently.”

Scriptwriter Stephen Fry is more definite on the subject. He says the dog’s name will be Digger, and that’s his last word on the subject.

“There is no question in America that you could ever have a dog called the N-word. It's no good saying that it is the Latin word for black or that it didn't have the meaning that it does now - you just can't go back, which is unfortunate.

“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 . . . but obviously that's not going to happen now. So Digger seems okay, I reckon.”

The dog’s body was buried at midnight, just as Gibson was leading the famous raid. His grave is located at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.

There’s another twist to this story. According to Bruce Barrymore Halpenny in his book Ghost Stations, the dog’s ghost has been spotted on numerous occasions.

As for me, I support the decision to rename the dog.

This is a movie, not a documentary, and I can’t imagine that any viewer today would hear that ugly word without a thrill of revulsion.

Changing the name won't detract from the tremendously exciting subject of the Dambusters raid, which will be a blockbuster if Jackson does his usual stellar job.

                            * * * * *


I have now collected twenty-eight original stories from Wartime Wednesdays and made them available in printed book form.

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