Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Dambusters: Operation Chastise

Today heralds 75 years since the Dambusters Squadron (617) embarked upon their daring raid of the Ruhr dams in Germany. The mission, codenamed Operation Chastise, took off from RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire on the evening of the 16th May 1943, with Wing Commander, Guy Gibson as the leader.

The Air Ministry had identified the dams in the Ruhr Valley as potential targets as early as 1937. Operation Chastise had its origins in a meeting of the RAF Bombing Committee way back in 1938 when potential weak spots were identified in Germany's industry. The reservoirs were key - they provided water and power to industry and to sever the supply would slow up German's war machine. It was decided that by destroying the Mohne dam, enormous volumes of water would be lost, water which was necessary for the industries in the Ruhr Valley. By destroying the smaller dams, there would be a loss of electrical power and much disruption, not to mention the destruction caused by the subsequent flooding.

Barnes Wallis
Barnes Wallis was an engineer and an aircraft designer. When WW2 was declared, he immediately began to think of what he could do to help shorten the war.

In 1941, it was concluded that less than ten percent of bombs were falling within a five-mile radius of their target. Wallis began to focus his attention on particular targets, including the dams of the Ruhr Valley. He quickly realised that the available weaponry was no match for the construction of the dams. No, something special was required. Not only was he going to have to design a suitable bomb, but he also realised that he would have to consider the aircraft used and look at necessary adaptations.

He experimented with bouncing marbles across a water tub in his garden at home and immediately realised he had something. After some time and a great number of experiments, he came up with the idea of a bomb that could potentially be released upstream of the dam, and bounce upon the water a few times before hitting its target.

Using a modified Wellington bomber, experiments were carried out over Chesil Beach in September 1942, using a spherical-shaped bomb. Following the tests, officials gave the go-ahead for further testing, which eventually led to the developments of two bombs, a larger version of the bouncing bomb, codenamed 'Upkeep' and a smaller variant, codenamed 'Highball', for use on Mosquitoes when attacking ships such as the Tirpitz.

'Upkeep' was a cylindrical mine designed to explode approximately thirty feet below the surface. It was just under five feet long and a little over four feet in diameter. This 'bouncing bomb' was designed to act like a skipping stone, to avoid hitting torpedo.

In early 1943, it was suggested that the optimum time to launch a raid on the dams was after they were filled to capacity following the spring rainfall. In February, the go-ahead was given, and twenty-three Lancaster bombers were allocated to be modified to carry Upkeep. Having been initially a spherical shape, it had since been changed to a cylindrical shape following further testing.

The aircraft had their mid-upper gun turrets removed, along with the bomb-bay doors. Adaptations were made to hold the bombs in position. Twin spotlights were fitted along with VHF radiotelephones which would allow the crews to communicate with each aircraft.

Meanwhile, crews for the mission had to be sought. Squadron X was formed at RAF Scampton on March 21st, 1943. The men chosen for the operation were all made aware of the seriousness ahead and of the risks, being directly informed that the chances of returning were slim.
The Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris appointed Wing Commander Guy Gibson to lead the squadron and not even he was privy to the top secret information of the planned mission. His role was to train the men.
Wing Commander Guy Gibson
Some very experienced pilots and crew volunteered to serve under Gibson, men he already knew. However, not all were experienced, with some having flown less than ten missions, and for some of the flight engineers, this was to be their first sortie.

On March 31st training commenced. This consisted of low-level flying and navigating at zero feet. They then trained over water, which caused problems for the pilots who struggled to judge their height over the water.

On the 16th May 1943, the night of a full moon, the final briefing began at 6 pm. Guy Gibson introduced Barnes Wallis to the crews, and full details of the mission ahead were finally revealed. At 21:28 hours the first wave of Lancaster bombers roared to life beneath the setting sun as they prepared for take-off.

The mission was divided into three waves of attack, each wave following a different route, to their individual targets. The first wave comprised of nine aircraft and was tasked with attacking the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams. Wing Commander Gibson led this wave, along with Martin, Hopgood, Young, Shannon, Maudsley, Astell, Knight and Maltby.

The second wave, which took off first as they had a longer route, comprised of five aircraft, piloted by Barlow, Munro, Rice, Byers and McCarthy.

The third wave had five aircraft piloted by Ottley, Burpee, Brown, Anderson and Townsend.
Their routes were flown at a very low level to avoid defences. After crossing the Dutch coast, all navigation was done by map reading and dead reckoning, and it must have been nerve-wracking considering they were flying extremely low in the dark, with only the light of the moon.

Amazingly, some of the aircraft were flown below power cables while others followed roads, flying below tree-top level. Byers aircraft strayed off course and was shot down over the island of Vlieland with the loss of all on board. Munro's plane also flew over Vlieland and was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, forcing them to return to Scampton.

When Rice's Lancaster hit the surface of the sea, the Upkeep bomb was ripped free, and the back of the aircraft was flooded. Luckily, they made it back to Scampton.
Barlow's aircraft hit power lines and is thought to have possibly been hit with flak first, and it crashed with the loss of all on board. By now, four out of five of the aircraft from the second wave had either been downed or forced to abort.

The Mohne was the first dam to be attacked. Gibson led his formation directly to it, and while they circled out of range of the flak, he made a single pass over the dam before informing the others of his intention to attack. He flew down to skim the water at the height of sixty feet, so low in fact the bomb-aimer yelled they were about to hit trees. The navigator flicked on the spotlights, and the bomb-aimer waited for the precise moment to release the mine. Flak rained down all around them while the front-gunner fired back. Gibson later confessed to being afraid as his brightly lit aircraft became the prime target, but he retained his composure to do his job and lined his Lancaster up, maintaining a height of sixty feet while the flight engineer adjusted their speed. At 00:28 hours, they released Upkeep, which bounced three times but sank short of the wall. It detonated, and a vast plume of water surged up and over the dam wall. After it had subsided, they could see that the wall was still intact.

Gibson then called Hopgood in to make his attack. The Germans, now prepared, fired relentlessly, hitting Hopgood's aircraft several times. The bomb-aimer, unhappy with the approach, was about to order another run when they were hit once more. Hopgood ordered the release, which was actioned, and the bomb was dropped late. It bounced up over the dam and exploded, destroying the main powerhouse. Fire now raged through the aircraft and Hopgood ordered the crew to bale out. The aircraft then exploded. Only the rear gunner and the bomb-aimer managed to bale out. The others were killed.

Martin attacked next, and Gibson flew alongside to distract the gunners. Their bomb exploded about twenty yards from the dam. Next up was Young who made the perfect approach and their bomb hit the dam wall centre. The dam wall still seemed to be intact when Maltby made his run and noticed the wall was now crumbling. They dropped their bomb which was a direct hit, and millions of gallons of water surged through the breach and down through the valley. Gibson had ordered Shannon to attack next, but now he cancelled the order and instructed him to follow him on to the Eder dam, along with Maudslay, Young and Knight.

In conclusion, of the nineteen aircraft that had left Scampton, eleven had attacked the dams, the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe.
On the return trip, two more aircraft would be shot down. In all, eight aircraft were lost in the raid, equating to fifty-three men killed and three more became POWs.
617 Squadron after the mission
The results were significant, with industry badly affected, many areas flooded and the loss of power. Thousands of men were drafted in by the Germans to help rebuild the dams, taking them away from the Atlantic Wall defences they were building. This was to aid the Allied invasion on D-Day in June 1944. Thirteen hundred civilians were killed, including around five-hundred Ukranian slave labourers when the dam ruptured, causing mass flooding.

Goebbels later said the attack was "an act of war against the state, but one to be admired, for the English had navigated and planned so thoroughly."

The Dambusters raid was a huge boost to morale mid-war when nothing was certain.

Fred Sutherland
Today, there are only two surviving veterans of the former Dambusters. George 'Johnny' Johnson is the last remaining British survivor of that squadron, and Canadian front gunner Fred Sutherland is the last surviving Canadian crew member of the raid.

George 'Johnny' Johnson
The bravery and the sacrifice of the young men involved will always be recognised and honoured.
The mission was top secret and extremely dangerous. Flying at such low levels left the bombers extremely exposed, and the loss of life was tragic on both sides.

I had the honour of meeting Johnny Johnson, and the daughter of Barnes Wallace a short while ago, and she explained how her father never got over the loss of life on that mission, a burden that remained with him for the rest of his days.

Remember them all this evening. Think of those brave few as they left England to embark upon the daring raid to the Ruhr Valley. Remember those who never returned and those who did, only to tragically lose their lives later in the war, as was the fate of Guy Gibson. Please, spare a moment to remember them all on this 75th anniversary of Operation Chastise.
Guy Gibson & crew preparing for take-off. Operation Chastise.

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