Dambusters 75th Anniversary (Operation Chastise)

Dambusters 75th Anniversary
Dambusters 75th Anniversary

Did you know that 75 years ago, on May 16th 1943, RAF No.617 Squadron, were about to carry out Operation Chastise, an attack on the German dams using a bouncing bomb?

On the night of May 16th, the Dambusters left RAF Scampton in three waves of Operation Chastise, led by Guy Gibson, one of the RAF's best bomber pilots and attacked the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe Dams. The Möhne and Eder dams were breached successfully, however the attack on the Sorpe was less effective. The breached dams caused floodwaters to sweep through the Ruhr Valley, and the Möhne dam was swept away and railway and road bridges vanished - the news really boosted morale in wartime Britain.

Wing Commander, Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership and bravery during the raid.

Acting Wing Commander G P Gibson
Acting Wing Commander G P Gibson

The Dambusters....

Those selected to carry out the Operation Chastise were the most supreme pilots of bomber Command who flew specially adapted 30-tonne Lancaster’s which were originally designed to operate at 10,000 feet and at nearly 250mph. Something that might highlight just how astute and accurate the pilots had to be is knowing that for Operation Chastise the pilots had to fly at 60 feet - which is about the height of a medium sized tree, sometimes they flew lower than that, at speed, and during enemy fire sometimes. And for the night time raids they were doing all that in the dark. What skill that must have took - boy, what a mission! You really have to admire the pilots who not only had to fly very strategically, but who also had very little time to prepare for the mission - honourably and devotedly they just did it. Apparently, Wing Commander, Guy Gibson who led the mission only had 11 weeks to prepare crews for Operation Chastise. And even though they practised ­some low-level flying and precision bombing, crews had no idea about their target until six hours before ­take-off. Can you imagine that? Perhaps it was better to not have had much time to think about the massive challenge ahead?

Sadly though, almost half of the 113 airmen that were a part of it never made it back. The pilots must have had a fantastic amount of bravery. For example, I read a really touching and poignant story about the last surviving British Dambuster, Johnny Johnson, who according to the article, never doubted that he'd make it back from the mission. Johnny, as he apparently likes to be known, lives in Bristol and recalled his part in the legendary raid - talking about flying without any lights at just 30ft, getting attacked by enemy fire and dropping his bomb with such skill. Sheer amount of bravery... Again, the sheer courageousness and humble nature so synonymous with our war heroes really shone through as I read this interview.

    “I’m asked how it feels to be the last British Dambuster. Well, excuse the language, I feel bloody lucky," said Johnny. “I was in the right crew, in the right place at the right time and I feel honoured and privileged to have been able to take part.

Talking about flying home from the operation and his landing at Scampton, Johnny recalled the engineer spotting a burst tyre. "We discovered the shot from the goods train had burst the tyre, gone through the undercarriage, on through the wing and ended up in the roof just above the navigator’s head. Another foot either way and it would have got the petrol tanks and that would have been bye-bye. Lady Luck was with us that night!” “But surviving when so many didn’t come back was pretty shattering. There was an awful lot of loss – on both sides.”

It is stated that 1,294 people on the ground in Germany were killed and many were prisoners in forced labour camps. In recent years there has been much debate about the true impact of the raids and some believe the mission involved too much effort and loss to be called a true success. But, Johnny, who retired from the RAF in 1962 to be a junior school teacher, rubbishes the arguments of 'retrospective ­historians'. “These people really get up my nose,” he said. “They weren’t there and they were not aware of the circumstances. It proved to Hitler and the hierarchy that what they thought was impregnable could be got to by the RAF and destroyed." In the interview Johnny says that a certain pilot broke down upon the news of the losses, but that Guy Gibson who led the campaign told him that without him that significant raid could have never taken place.

Men of the Dambusters raid
Men of the Dambusters raid

The anniversary is sure to evoke mixed emotions of pride and great sadness while remembering the losses.

The bomb that bounced...

At the core of the RAF's Operation Chastise was the magnificent bouncing bomb which was quite an amazing design, by Dr Barnes Wallis. The bouncing drum-shaped bomb could be dropped at a very low height with pinpoint accuracy. It could spin backwards and bounce along the surface of the water avoid torpedo nets and then attach itself to the wall of a dam. The surge of water from the broken dams aimed to destroy factories and the area's electrical supplies and power stations.

Barnes Wallis
Barnes Wallis

At the time, Dr Barnes Wallis had around 8 weeks in which to perfect the perfect weapon for the mission, including building it, designing it, constructing the carrying arms, the mechanism to release it, and modification to the Lancaster’s carrying it.

The resulting bomb, weighing 5 tonnes, and measuring 5ft lengthwise, 4ft across, would be carried in a special cradle beneath a Lancaster bomber, but it could only be successfully launched by a meticulous and extremely skilled pilot. As ‘Witness to World War Two’ by Karen Farringdon explains, the only way to get it to the target dams in the first place would be to fly in at a dangerously low altitude, to avoid the German radar, then release it at precisely 60 ft (18m) above the water and 425 yards (388m) from the dam wall, while maintaining a speed of 220mph. Only then would the bomb sink to exactly 30 ft (9m) before exploding, inflicting the maximum possible damage. All that was quite an ask, even without the added complication of negotiating ground defences.

Bouncing bomb fitted to a Lancaster
Bouncing bomb fitted to a Lancaster

‘The Bomber Command War Diaries’ by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt explains that, on 21st March 1943, Wing Commander Guy Gibson formed 617 Squadron from the best crews in 5 Group, who then trained for 6 weeks to make sure they knew exactly how the bomb should be released. Gibson also conceived the ‘Master Bomber Technique’, whereby a lead pilot would remain over the target for the duration of the raid, ensuring marker flares were placed in the right location, and that each following pilot knew precisely where their bomb should be released in relation to the marker.  To achieve the necessary level of precision, angled lights were placed on the nose and rear fuselage of each Lancaster; the beams would meet on the water’s surface when the plane was at precisely the right height.

Artist's impression of Lancaster bombers dropping bombs on Germany's Ruhr Dams during a daring low level attack
Artist's impression of Lancaster bombers dropping bombs on Germany's Ruhr Dams during a daring low level attack

The Möhne Dam had always been intended as a target, and additionally three other dams in the industrial Ruhr area of Germany were to be attacked, the Eder, Sorpe, and Ennepe Dams. Just after 8.30pm on 16th May, 1943, 19 Lancasters, all armed with the brand new bomb, took off from RAF Scampton in three waves. One struck the sea, tearing off its bomb, and was forced to turn back; five were shot down or crashed before ever reaching their targets, and another was so badly damaged by flak that it too turned back to Britain. 12 planes made it to the Ruhr Valley. The first wave of five aircraft, including WC Gibson’s, attacked the Möhne Dam, successfully breaching it despite heavy fire from the ground. Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross after the operation, not only for his work in training the team but for his bravery in flying to attack the guns and protect his fellow pilots after his own bomb had been released. The Eder Dam was also successfully breached, but the other two proved harder to destroy (the Sorpe Dam had to be bombed with traditional bombs, as the earth-and-concrete structure would have been impervious to the ‘bouncing bomb’. Three more planes were shot down after the bombing, so eight of the original 19 Lancaster’s were lost, along with 56 crew (only three of whom survived to be taken prisoner). In terms of impact, 1,294 German citizens were drowned in the tidal waves that resulted from the breach, and it took three months to repair the damage, which was done by directing valuable resources away from the construction of the Atlantic Wall; had the Sorpe been breached, it would have been much worse. The most important success of the raid was actually the morale boost it gave to the spirits of the British public, and 34 pilots were later decorated alongside WC Gibbs.

Breached Möhne Dam RAF bouncing bomb attack 17th May 1943
Breached Möhne Dam RAF bouncing bomb attack 17th May 1943

‘Operation Chastise’ was dubbed a success, and more of Barnes Wallis’s ideas were given the go-ahead for development. As ‘History of the Second World War, Volume 7’ explains, his other inventions, though less famous, were actually used more effectively. Since there was still no plane capable of carrying a 10-tonne bomb to a height of 40,000 feet, he first designed a six-tonne bomb with a tough outer casing that could hit the ground at the speed of sound without being destroyed. This deep penetration weapon was called the Tallboy, and was first used on 8th June 1944 to destroy the Saumur railway tunnel, then later to cave in underground weapon stores and bunkers and pierce U-boat pens. Most famously, on November 12 1944 they were used to pulverise the battleship Tirpitz. 854 of these devastating bombs would be dropped by the war’s end, along with 41 Grand Slams.

A collection of bombs, for RAF aircraft, ranging from 40-pounders to the Barnes Wallis Grand Slam
A collection of bombs, for RAF aircraft, ranging from 40-pounders to the Barnes Wallis Grand Slam


The Avro Lancaster Bomber....

•              First flight from Woodford, Manchester on 9th January, 1941

•              Years Produced    1941 - 1946

•              Crew 7

•              Top speed of 282mph

•              Range of 2,530 miles

•              Wing Span 102 feet

•              Length 69.33 feet

•              Ability to cruise routinely at altitudes over 20,000ft

•              7,377 Lancaster’s were built for the Allied forces, of which some 3,500 were lost on operations

•              17 intact Avro Lancaster’s known to exist, just two are airworthy

•              Lancaster Squadrons carried out 156,308 operational sorties

•              Dropped 604,612 tons of bombs, 51,513,105 incendiaries, and laid 12,000 sea mines

•              9,000 Bomber Command aircraft lost or destroyed

•              Of the 120,000 who served in Bomber Command, 55,573 were killed

•              Of every 100 airmen who joined Bomber Command, 45 were killed, 6 were seriously wounded, 8 became Prisoners of War, and only 41 escaped physically unscathed.

Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster
Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster

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