DAMBUSTERS: The history of the brave mission 70 years on

Dambusters
Dambusters

Two boys are throwing a rugby ball around. Perhaps they are trying to impress a couple of girls sat giggling on a nearby bench.

All four youngsters seem totally oblivious to the fact that just a few yards away, there’s a memorial that seems to dominate Royal Square in leafy Woodhall Spa.

Then again, it is 70 years since the men whose names are etched on that memorial took part in one of the most celebrated missions in British wartime history.

They were members of the RAF’s 617 Squadron, more widely known as ‘The Dambusters.’On the evening of May 16, 1943, 19 Lancaster bombers took off from nearby RAF Scampton.

Their objective? To attack a number of dams that were at the heart of Germany’s industrial heartland. The Lancasters were carrying ‘bouncing bombs’ - invented and developed by Barnes Wallis.

The aim was to drop the bombs and watch them bounce along the surface before exploding against the dam walls, leading to a breach.

Experts said the impact would be devastating. The Ruhr valley – such an important part of the German war machine – would be flooded.The war, they said, would be over in months. Many would argue the mission – code named ‘Operation Chastise’ - was a resounding success.

Two dams – Mohne and Edersee – were breached. A third – Sohr – was damaged.

Others would say the whole mission was a waste of time, money – and lives. Of those 19 bombers, eight were shot down. More than 50 air crew were killed. More than 1,600 people living in the Ruhr valley lost their lives. The vast majority were prisoners of war and ‘forced’ labourers - mainly Russians. The Germans were rattled, briefly. Rapid repairs meant production returned to normal just four months later.

Still, the 617 Squadron conjures proud memories.

No-one would question the bravery of the men who took part. The roles they played were featured in a 1955 film ‘The Dambusters’ - one of the most popular war movies ever. Dodgy special effects apart, the film told an epic story of bravado and is widely accepted as a true reflection of a dramatic mission.

But, how did ‘Operation Chastise’ come around?

Even before the outbreak of World War Two, Britain had identified the strategic importance of the heavily industrialised Ruhr Valley.The dams were a weak point. How to breach the walls was another matter. The Air Ministry turned to Barnes Wallis, an assistant chief designer at Vickers. Initially, he planned to drop heavyweight bomb from an altitude of 40,000-feet.

There was just one snag. The RAF did not possess a bomber capable of carrying such a heavy load.

Eventually, Barnes Walls came up with the solution - his bouncing bomb.

It would bounce over any defences and explode against the dam wall. Tests were carried out – first in Wales and then at Chesil Beach – but with mixed fortunes. Barnes Wallis was convinced his bombs would work. The RAF had other ideas and almost scrapped the mission.

Sir Arthur Harris – head of bomber command – was opposed to the whole idea. However, the Chief of the Air Staff saw a film recording of the trials at Chesil Beach and gave the go ahead. The date was set. Responsibility was handed to No.5 Group RAF. A new Squadron – initially called ‘X’– was set up. It was led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a veteran of more than 170 missions. In total, 21 bomber crews were selected, including Australians and Canadians. Practice sessions were held at various locations including the Lake District.

There were numerous teething problems – not least because the mission involved night-time flying.

Eventually, the bombs were delivered on May 13 - just three days before the mission. Flight crews were briefed and an operation room set up in Grantham.

The squadron was divided into three groups. Formation One would target the Eder Dam, Formation Two the Sorpe Dam and Formation Three three smaller dams, the Lister, the Ennepe and the Diemel.

Routes were carefully selected in an attempt to avoid German defences over mainland Europe and the Lancaster flew at 100 feet to combat radar detection.

There were casualties before the bombers had reached Germany. One Lancaster was shot down over Holland, another crashed after hitting relectricty pylons. Another crashed landed after flying into high voltage cables.

Eventually, the bombers reached their target. Formation One - led by Gibson - struck first. The Mohne Dam was heavily defended and one aircraft - hit by flak 0- was then caught in the last of its own bomb and lost a wing.

Gibson bravely flew his aircraft into the face of German guns in an attempt to clear a safer route for his colleagues. Finally, the dam was breached when three bombs struck the dam wall.

The attack on Eder was slightly easier. Although the dam was not defended, it was shrouded in fog. It took the final bomb from the Formation to cause the breach.

Attacks on the other dams (Sore and Ennepe) caused some damage but did not lead to breaches. A combination of topography and German defences led to casualties while pilots had problems avoid a church steeple which was directly in their path.

According to come records, the Bever Dam was also attacked - by mistake. Again, there was no breach with a bomb exploding in woodland.

The return flight was equally as hazardous. Two more Lancaster were lost and one crashed into the North Sea just off the Dutch coast.

The nine surviving bombers retrured to Scampton at 3.11am - Gibson touched down just over an hour later. The last bomber landed at 6.15.

In total, 53 of the 133 aircrew who took part in the operation were killed - a casualty rate of almost 40 per cent.

Of the survivors, 34 were decorated at Buckingham Place on June 22 with Gibson awarded the Victoria Cross. Almost 30 other medals were handed out.

Most of the German casualties were drowned in extensive flooding.

In the aftermath of the operation, Barnes Wallis said: “I feel a blow has been struck at Germany from which she cannot recover for several years.”

Later, he was to voice his frustration that Bomber Command did not mount another operation while the dams were being repaired.

The Germans also expressed their surprise that there was no follow up.

The initial raid did knock-out hydro-electric power generated by the dams. That had by far and away the biggest impact on armament production in the Ruhr Valley.

Supplies were restored within two weeks.

Various communities were hit by flooding and the effect on food production was even more significan. Acres of arable land could not be used for more than a decade.

Overall, the raid did hit German production and led to vital resources being diverted into first repairing the dams and then guarding them.

There is little doubt pictures of the damaged dams were tremendous propaganda to British people who were still victims of regular bombing missions by the Luftwaffe.

Gibson became an instant hero. He toured America and wrote a book - ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’. He returned to operational flying, only to be killed in action in 1944.

The squadron was kept together as a specialist unit and took part in a number of other missions, working closely with Barnes Wallis and his ‘Tallboy’ and ‘Grand Slam’ bombs.

Today, ‘The Dambusters’ enjoy world-wide recognition.

The squadron’s Officer’s Mess is now part of the renowned Petwood Hotel. It is possible to order a pint of ‘Dambusters’ bitter where Gibson and his fellow officers ince relaxed.

A new memorial will be dedicated in Royal Square to coincide with the 70th anniversary, a lasting reminder of the bouncing bomb...and the crews who never came home.