A Vale of Glamorgan group have been working tirelessly to keep the history of the RAF and its important events alive.
Group 617 is a non-profit organisation based in Penarth, with the aim of supporting veterans and civilians of all backgrounds with mental health issues caused by experiences during service.
It was founded in 2011 by Russ Kitely.
One special member is their honorary President, Sqn Ldr George ‘Johnny’ Johnson MBE, the only remaining survivor of the 1943 Dambusters Raid.
He turns 100 this year.
Mr Johnson flew 50 missions during his 22 years service in the RAF and was the bomb aimer in ‘Operation Chastise’ to cripple the Nazi war effort. He’s been awarded a raft of medals, including the ‘Distinguished Flying Medal’ for his part in this daring 617 Squadron raid.
The operation set out to destroy three dams deep within Germany’s Ruhr valley in order to set back the country’s war effort, a task that was thought near impossible. It delayed production in the Ruhr quite considerably and contributed hugely to the War effort.
Tragically 53 of the original 132 service men who went out on that mission lost their lives
Before the pandemic, Group 617 would meet up weekly for a ‘social catch up,’ providing practical, emotional and sometimes financial assistance to those in need. They would also organise regular trips to Holland to honour the War graves.
But because of current restrictions, the group’s regular meetings and travels have been postponed, leaving the elderly veterans more isolated than ever.
As it isn’t as easy for them to use virtual resources like Zoom, the group’s RAF Association Welfare Officer, Geoff Horton and his colleague, Kath Fisher, have been providing their support over the phone.
Kath, who is also a Police Officer from Penarth, says: “It’s been a very difficult time, but Geoff and Russ have done a fantastic job of staying in contact with our veterans over the phone – especially our most vulnerable ones.
“A lot of our veterans feel extremely isolated at the moment.”
Although the support for veterans and civilians is a main part of the group, they also spend a lot of time educating people in the Vale and abroad on the Dambusters Raid and other RAF history.
Usually, they would give Dambusters tribute presentations at schools, clubs and museums to promote history and remembrance, but because of the pandemic they have taken to Facebook to do their teaching instead.
Their page, Group 617 ‘Making a Difference,’ provides important factual information to keep those, especially the younger generation, aware of some of the most important moments in British History.
Asked about the importance of young people knowing about events like the Dambusters Raid, Geoff says: “It’s very key to make people aware of the history of the RAF.
“It’s essential that the future generation are aware of what has gone on before to make sure the same mistakes happen again.”
Despite it looking like a while before things return to normal, Group 617 aren’t letting that ruin their hopes of going back to Holland this year. As they are funded by their own members paying a small subscription, as well as donations from George ‘Johnny’ Johnson MBE, the group are looking to raise money to help pay for hotels, wreathes and hosting gifts.
More information can be found here.