Nigger was a male black labrador retriever belonging to Wing Commander Guy Gibson, V.C., D.S.O., D.F.C. of the Royal Air Force, and the mascot of No. 617 Squadron. Gibson owned the dog when he was previously a member of 106 Squadron. Nigger often accompanied Gibson on training flights and was a great favourite of the members of both 106 and 617 Squadrons. He was noted for his liking of beer, which he drank from his own bowl in the Officers' Mess.
Nigger died on 16 May 1943, the day before the famous "Dam Busters" raid, when he was hit by a car. He was buried at midnight as Gibson was leading the raid. "Nigger" (Morse code: -. .. --. --. . .-. ) was the codeword Gibson used to confirm the breach of the Möhne Dam. Nigger's grave is at Royal Air Force station Scampton, Lincolnshire.
The word nigger was used as a dog's name during the early part of the 20th century. A black explosive sniffer dog named Nigger served with a Royal Engineers mine clearance unit in 1944 during the Normandy Campaign. The dog leading a sledge dog team on the Terra Nova Expedition to the Antarctic (1910-1912) was also named Nigger.
Nigger was portrayed in the 1955 British war film The Dam Busters, in which he was mentioned by name frequently. In 1999, British television network ITV broadcast a censored version of the film, with all instances of the name removed. ITV blamed regional broadcaster London Weekend Television, which in turn alleged that a junior staff member had been responsible for the unauthorised cuts. When ITV again showed a censored version in June 2001, it was criticised by Index on Censorship as "unnecessary and ridiculous" and because the edits introduced continuity errors. The code word "nigger" transmitted in Morse Code upon the successful completion of the central mission was not censored. More recently, in 2012, ITV3 have shown the film uncut a few times, but with a warning at the start that it contains racial terms from the period which some people may find offensive. However, in 2013 the film has been shown a few times by Channel 5 uncut and without any warning.
Some edited American versions of the film use dubbing to change Nigger's name to Trigger.
The animal used to portray Nigger was an RAF dog, on loan to the production. Richard Todd was the animal wrangler, and later recalled that the dog was an exemplary actor who hardly ever required a re-take. On two occasions, however, the dog caused difficulty. On the first occasion, the dog could not be persuaded to wait when filming the scene when Nigger answers a knock on the door in Gibson's bedroom. The second occasion was when filming on location at RAF Scampton, where Nigger and Gibson were to stroll through a group of RAF men waiting outside of a building for a briefing. The dog could not be persuaded to move off one spot, or even dragged past it on a leash. It later transpired that the spot was the site where the real Nigger had been buried, some 8 years before, whose gravestone had been temporarily removed for filming. In the end, the scene was filmed without the dog.
Film critics have observed that Nigger is used in the film as a symbol of the men's emotional attachment to one another, an attachment that is not directly expressed between the film's characters. Sarah Street notes that the film, while full of emotion, does not articulate it except through secondary devices such as the affection that the characters are shown giving to Nigger. Christine Geraghty, a lecturer in media studies, observed that "Gibson's suppression of feelings is presented as appropriate rather than problematic, and the use of the dog as his most explicit emotional attachment is in keeping with the way in which class and masculinity are brought together in this isolated but self-sufficient figure.". James Chapman, lecturer at the Open University, adds to that the observation that the scene where Gibson is shown choking back his grief at the death of Nigger, silent and blinking awkwardly, is an example of the stiff upper lip behaviour characteristic of British war films of the genre.
Richard Todd, along with Jonathan Falconer, author of a book about the film, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in 2005 about the name of the dog and whether any remake of the film should retain the name. Todd, in a pre-recorded interview, said:
With political correctness which is a new concept of a way of life in this country and I think all over the world it didn't exist when we made the original film so Nigger was Nigger, but nowadays you can't say that sort of thing.
In response to being asked whether the name should be censored in a remake, Falconer said:
No. I think it's a question of historical accuracy here … the film and obviously the events are very much part of the time they were made in and took part in and so I think tinkering with the historical accuracy of the film and of the story is a very dangerous and slippery slope to start down.
In response to being asked whether he thought people would accept this as historical accuracy, Falconer said:
Well they ought to. If they are being objective about it then I think they should accept it as historical accuracy, but I can understand why some people may find it offensive.
In the same interview, George Baker, who also acted in the film, in response to being asked whether any opinion had been expressed on the name at the time that the film was made, said:
No, none at all. Political correctness wasn't even invented, and an awful lot of black dogs were called Nigger.
Peter Jackson, producer of the remake that later began, said in 2006 that "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 whinge and whine about political correctness. And if you don't change it, obviously you are offending a lot of people inadvertently. … We haven't made any decisions about what we'll do." Stephen Fry, writer for the remake, was asked to provide several alternative names for the dog, and came up with several suggestions. Executive producer David Frost rejected them all, saying "Guy sometimes used to call his dog Nigsy, so I think that's what we will call it. Stephen has been coming up with other names, but this is the one I want." Jackson's assistant contradicted this a week later, however, saying "To stay true to the story, you can't just change [the name]. We have not made any decisions yet. The script is still being written; and that decision will be made closer to the time."
Recently, one writer, James Holland, has commented that controversy over the dog's name seems to have overshadowed other aspects of the raid. When he told people that he was planning to write a book on the raid, 9 out of 10 replied "What are you going to call the dog?". He found that the three characters connected with the raid that most people had heard of were Guy Gibson, Barnes Wallis and Nigger the dog.
It has also been alleged by some sources that Nigger was deliberately run over by an enemy agent in an attempt to attack the morale of No. 617 Squadron, as it happened on the same day that Operation Chastise was launched. However, it is widely accepted that the driver of the car was an ordinary civilian who accidentally ran the dog over, though he had committed a criminal offence by not stopping or reporting it.