Dambusters group shot

The Dambusters

May 2013 was the 70th anniversary of one of the most memorable operations of the Second World War, Operation Chastise, which saw 617 Squadron using the famous bouncing bomb to attack the industrial region of Germany.

The heroes in 617 are of course now best known by the name of the film that dramatised these events - The Dambusters.

Upkeep was the codename for the revolutionary dambusting weapon, familiarly known as 'the bouncing bomb', devised by inventor and aircraft designer Sir Barnes E Wallis. 

Operation Chastise

The RAF had attempted daytime air strikes on Wilhelmshaven and Heligoland at the start of the war, but not only were these ineffective, in human terms the cost was unacceptably high. By 1942 the German army was weaker, and this, the Allies believed, could be the time to target the Ruhr dams again from the air.

Dr Wallis put forward his idea of the 'bouncing bomb', a cylindrical explosive that could be dropped from a very low height with pinpoint accuracy, bounced along the surface of the water avoiding torpedo nets, and attach itself to a dam wall. With the dam breached, the deluge of water would destroy factories and power stations, heavily disrupting the area’s vital water and electricity supplies.

Operation Chastise needed a crack squadron to put it into action, and the first man recruited was Guy Gibson, a fearless and inspirational pilot. Even he was unaware of the operation's true purpose – all he knew was that low level flying and bomb aiming were vital to the plan.  

617 Squadron was chosen for the mission, and Gibson’s first task was to find crews from the cream of Bomber Command. 

"It took me an hour to pick my crews. I wrote all the names down on a piece of paper… from my own personal knowledge, I believed them to be the best bomber pilots available." Guy Gibson

Preparations

Training began in earnest, the crews practising and perfecting flying in the specially adapted 30-tonne Lancasters, planes originally designed to operate at a height of 10,000 feet and at nearly 250 mph.

Now they would have to fly at 60 feet, the height of a medium-sized tree. Only a few of the squadron had the opportunity to practise dropping Upkeep.

"At that height, you would only have to hiccough and you would be in the drink." Guy Gibson

The mission is revealed

16 May 1943 - "All crews of 617 Squadron report to the briefing office." Military policemen were on guard by the doors.

617 Squadron was finally briefed on the mission: to breach the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams.

Even then, not even Fighter Command knew they were operating that night. After the traditional flying supper of bacon and eggs in the mess, the crews carried out final checks on their aircraft and waited for take-off.

They were to leave RAF Scampton in three waves. At 21:28, with a full moon, the first aircraft of the second wave started its take-off run – they went first because their journey was longer.

Then, nine Lancasters of the first wave led by Gibson headed to attack the Möhne dam. The second wave target was the Sorpe dam and the third, taking off two hours later, would either attack the main dams or target smaller dams. 617 Squadron was in action.

"Bomb Gone!"

Gibson’s Lancaster was the first to drop a bomb, which failed to reach its target. An aircraft piloted by John Hopgood was hit on its run and destroyed. To draw enemy fire away from Flt Lt 'Micky' Martin's run, Gibson courageously flew across the dam repeatedly.

Martin made a successful attack but his plane sustained a hit. Melvin Young's plane was the next to attack, and its bomb struck its target.

"A huge column of water rose and a shock could be seen rippling through the lake. The dam was beginning to break."

Gibson recorded later that the dam did not collapse immediately, so he ordered Flt Lt David Maltby, piloting AJ-J 'Johnny', to attack.

Success: Gibson radioed HQ with the news that the dam had been breached; in the moonlight he could see a gap about 150 metres long and "a torrent of water that looked like porridge".

That night, the Möhne and Eder dams were breached successfully, however the attack on the Sorpe was less effective. More details can be viewed in summary of Operation Chastise (pdf format).

Aftermath

Aerial photographs of the breached dams appeared in the British press shortly after the raid, showing floodwaters sweeping through breached dams in the Ruhr Valley that in turn damaged factories and power stations. The Möhne dam was swept away and railway and road bridges vanished.

With many families experiencing German bombing and missing loved ones in the Armed Forces, Operation Chastise gave a boost to national morale and pride. 

617 Squadron

The men of 617 Squadron had to learn extraordinary flying skills for Operation Chastise: a full moon - necessary for the type of assault -meant flying the whole mission as close to the ground as possible to avoid defences.

Altimeters (using air pressure) were unreliable in the mountainous terrain so close to the ground, and so the crews fixed two spotlights to the nose and tail of their Lancaster aircraft and directed their beams downwards so that they crossed 60 feet (18 m) under the craft. The navigator would direct the pilot up or down until the spots touched, forming a figure 8.

Meanwhile the bomb aimer found the correct distance from the dam by looking through a simple hand-held wooden triangle with dowel markers. When the dowels lined up with the towers on the dam he released the bomb.

The 19 Lancasters carried one bomb each, and they were needed: it took five attempts to breach the Moehne Dam, upon which point Gibson led the three remaining armed Lancasters to attack and breach the Eder Dam.

Two other dams were attacked but not breached. 11 of the bombers survived the mission; 53 crew members died in the raid.

The 33 surviving Dambusters were awarded honours. For his outstanding leadership and bravery Guy Gibson received the country's highest award for valour: the Victoria Cross.

On the day of the investiture at Buckingham Palace the Dambusters arrived together and took precedence over everyone else receiving awards.

Remembering the fallen

Eight of the Lancasters that set out on Operation Chastise did not return. Fifty-three men of 617 Squadron lost their lives and before the war's end a further 31, including Wing Commander Guy Gibson, died in subsequent action.

Today, at the time of writing, the only surviving Dambusters are Squadron Leader George 'Johnny' Johnson who was a member of the AJ-T 'Tommy' crew, Flight Lieutenant Les Munro, a New Zealand pilot, who flew AJ-W 'Willie' and Sergeant Fred Sutherland who was the front gunner for AJ-N 'Nut' (living in Canada).

Munro never got the chance to reach his target, as his aircraft was hit over the Netherlands and he had to return to base.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph at the unveiling of the UK's Bomber Command Memorial in June 2012, he said simply, 

"Thank God there is something now to recognise the sacrifice that all those blokes made." Les Munro

617 Squadron: Still going strong

Squadron Leader George 'Johnny' Johnson, now in his 90s, is the sole British link between the historic, original Dambusters and today's 617 Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.

He remembers lying at the front of the cramped aircraft as the Lancaster prepared for its tenth run along the Sorpe dam.

Johnson also remembers the sigh of relief from the rest of the crew when he called out "Bomb gone!", and reckons that the explosion sent a plume of water rising to about 1,000 feet. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal on 28 May 1943, and went on to fly another 40 missions before retiring in 1962.

“We had six weeks' low level training but didn’t have the foggiest idea what it was about.” Squadron Leader George Johnson

Aprés moi le deluge

The Dambusters chose Louis XV's alleged last words as part of their Squadron crest. The quote translates as 'After me the flood', a reference to their 1943 raid. The design depicts lightning striking a dam and water flowing from the breach.

Commemorative events

A number of events were held to remember the Dambusters 70 years on. Some notable examples are listed below.

  • The Royal British Legion called on everyone to take part in the Dambusters 70th Anniversary, and to remember with us the courage of our heroes of the skies.
  • Thank you to everyone who wrote a message on our Dambusters 70th Anniversary card, which showed that the bravery of the men of 617 Squadron is still remembered.
  • 11,000 cardboard crests, each with a personal message of tribute and thanks to honour the brave members of the RAF who undertook this treacherous mission, were planted at the National Memorial Arboretum, the home of Remembrance in the heart of England.
  • Displayed on the slope leading to the Armed Forces Memorial, the largest of the 250 plus memorials was set amongst 50,000 maturing trees in this peaceful site. The messages show that the men of 617 Squadron, many who made the ultimate sacrifice, are still remembered with deep gratitude for putting their lives on the line in defence of our nation.