Eighty years ago, on May 16-17 1943, an elite group of airmen, mostly from the Royal Air Force, but also with contingents from Canada and Australia, took off in nineteen Lancaster bombers from the RAF station in Scampton, Lincolnshire. Their mission was clear: Destroy three dams in Germany’s Ruhr valley, thus taking out the hydroelectric power and the water supply to Germany’s industrial heartland, and largely negating its value as as manufacturing center for the war effort.
Recognizing their importance, the Germans had heavily fortified the dams, installing impenetrable torpedo nets below the waterlines to guard against an underwater attack, and it was widely believed that they could be destroyed only by placing charges underwater and against the dam walls themselves, a difficult and dangerous task with a limited prospect of success.
Enter Barnes Wallis, an English engineer working for Vickers, a man with an inventive turn of mind and a determination to square this particular circle.
The result of his ruminations was the “Spherical Bomb” or “Surface Torpedo,” a bomb that skipped across the water–as children since time immemorial have skipped pebbles across the water–before sinking and exploding at depth.
Demonstrations in which he skipped marbles over tanks of water in his backyard led to some Ministry of Defence interest, and after a team at Vickers implemented some refinements in speed and direction of the spin–leading to more control over the bomb–the bomb-building project began. After extensive testing in the UK (during which at least one homefront dam was destroyed), what was then known as Operation Chastise, but would be forever after be referred to as The Dam Busters, came into being and 617 Squadron was formed for the purpose, under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson. (Reports from family friends who knew Guy Gibson all state that he was an extraordinarily difficult man, but they’d have followed him into Hell and back.) At the time he took over 617 Squadron, Gibson had already flown more than 140 missions. He was just 24 years old.
The training for the mission was intensive and difficult, as the bombers would have to fly only 60 feet above the dams, while going about 250mph, in order to drop the bombs accurately. Along the way, it was determined that the regular instruments weren’t precise enough to measure the altitude, so spotlights–angled so that their beams would overlap on the surface of the water when the planes were at the right height–were installed on the Lancaster’s undercarriages. Great solution, if you leave out the part about the lights making the planes very visible and vulnerable to ground fire, or the part about how most of the planes’ armor-plating was removed to make them lighter.
The planes took off in three waves, using three different routes, beginning the evening of May 16, 1943. By the end of the raid, the Möhne and Eder dams had been destroyed, and the Sorpe dam was damaged, but not extensively. The raid was, from a public relations standpoint, a huge success, and achieved its objective of seriously damaging Germany’s military-industrial capabilities in the region. As with most such missions in times of war, there was also extensive collateral damage, and Germany moved quickly to repair the dams.
Nine of the 19 Lancaster bombers who took off from RAF Scampton were lost. Fifty-three of the 133 men on the mission were killed in action. Three were captured. God bless them all. How terribly young they were.
The last Dam Buster, “Johnny” Johnson, died at the age of 101, on December 7, 2022
On May 16, 2023, to mark the 80th anniversary of the raid, the last operational Lancaster bomber in Britain undertook a flyover of 28 former RAF Bomber Command locations that were used in WWII.
Most Brits of my generation learned of the Dam Busters from our parents and grandparents. For us, though, the visuals were immortalized in the 1955 film, which can only be seen these days with the name of Guy Gibson’s dog airbrushed out due to its offensive nature. (The dog, whose name was also used as the code word to indicate completion of the mission and that the planes were coming home, was killed on the night of the Dam Busters raid when he was hit by a car.) There have been TV retellings of the story in the intervening years, and on-again, off-again, mentions of a Peter Jackson remake. But, for now, for a jolt of nostalgia, we’ll have to make do with Richard Todd, Michael Redgrave, and that magnificent march:
Wing Commander Guy Gibson flew his last mission sixteen months later, on September 19, 1944 when his de Havilland Mosquito crashed near Steenbergen, in the Netherlands. The circumstances leading up to the crash and the death of one of the most highly-decorated RAF pilots in history and his navigator, Squadron Leader James Warwick, are unclear. The since-constructed industrial district commemorates the event with a union jack marked out in colored bricks in center of the street known as Mosquitostraat. Near by are also Gibsonstraat and Warwickstraat.
Note: This is cross-posted from Ricochet, where it’s currently on the member feed and behind the paywall, but should I be lucky enough that it’s promoted to the main feed, you’ll be able to view it–and the comments–on the public Internet. (The conversation in the comments is the best part of Ricochet!) A very lovely comment in which a member recommended a visit to the Bomber Command Museum of Canada prompted me to respond as follows:
I may put that on my bucket list. I might like to do trans-Canada by rail someday, and that sounds like a perfect break.
While my interest in modern air travel has subsided by several orders of magnitude since my fascinated childhood, or even since the days when local pilots in tiny single-engine planes (most of whom were RAF or Dutch Army Aviation Brigade veterans) went above and beyond (see what I did there) to entertain me on the way–“Would the little girl like to fly through a cloud? Or perhaps upside down?”–ferried us from place to place in Nigeria, I do love the WWII aircraft. The late Mr. She and I were regular attendees at Pittsburgh airshows, and I loved clambering in and around them. A prized possession around here is his own (original and contemporary with him) set of WWII plane-spotting cards.
The most impressive of the in-service propeller planes I remember during my lifetime was the Blackburn Beverly. Post WWII, it first flew in 1950 and was a heavy transport aircraft which came and went in Nigeria, sometimes taking off and landing in very rough conditions, while picking up and delivering huge payloads. I thought it was magical, although I have to say that the thing first and foremost in the minds of its designers must have been the thing that is the opposite of “comfort.”
LOL. What a strange life I have led. I wouldn’t have it any other way.