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Dam Busters +80
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, largely negating its value as a 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 250 mph, 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 on 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.Published in General
The Dam Busters was a movie I saw many times as a boy.
This is one of my husband’s favorite movies. He saw it as a boy. I had never seen it until he introduced it to me. Another great WWII movie is The Man Who Never Was.
I saw, at a distance, a Lancaster flying in formation with Spitfires and Hurricanes. It was in the UK during the 50th anniversary of VE day. Very cool.
More accessible is the Bomber Command Museum located in Nanton (near Calgary), Alberta, Canada, just north of Montana. They have a good aircraft collection including a restored Lancaster. It doesn’t fly, but they like to rev up the engines and taxi it around in front of the hangar. There is also a mock up of the dam buster bomb.
I also admired their Link Flight Trainer which included the instructor console, which I had never seen.
At least from the movie, I thought the special bombs were wheel-shaped, not spherical.
The final iterations of the bombs were cylindrical, like a steam roller or an old-fashioned lawn roller.
However, “spherical bombs,” and “surface torpedoes,” were Barnes Wallace’s own terms for them when he proposed the technology in a 1942 paper on the subject.
This Smithsonian article explains that the cylindrical bombs were easier to manufacture, but that they were originally encased in a spherical wooden case which was strapped onto the cylinders to make them round. However, the spherical case was fragile, eventually deemed unnecessary, and eventually abandoned. It also offers some more insight on the matter of spin-control mentioned in the OP.
Yeah, they were cylindrical.
That sounds like great fun.
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.”
Does anyone know how many civilians were killed by the flooding downstream of the dams?
The estimates that I found were around 1,600, of whom about 1,000 were reportedly POWs or forced laborers, mostly Soviet.
I had never heard of this operation before, so am glad to now have this information.
Yes. I knew the answer, without further research, before I wrote the post.
But do we know how many lives were saved by the success of the operation? And do we know how many of the people who worked downstream of the dam were in favor of its success despite the personal risks?
Here is a picture of the Lancaster at the Bomber Command Museum. Also visible, viewed from the end, is the replica dam buster bomb (at lower right). I believe it is smaller than the real thing.
Same here. One of the best.
And the dog.
As an aside, Paul Brickhill, author of the book The Dam Busters, on which the movie was based, also wrote one of my favorite childhood reads, Reach for the Sky, the story of Douglas Bader DSO DFC, the RAF pilot who had both his legs amputated after a 1931 accident when he was 21. So desperate was the RAF during the depths of the Second World War that it accepted him for active service and gave him his own squadron. The rest of the story is history. My history.
The film was released in 1956, and starred the redoubtable Kenneth More, one of the heroes of the only serious Titanic movie (1958’s A Night To Remember**) who–towards the end of his career, also appeared as the (relatively) Young Jolyon, in the only-worth-watching TV adaptation of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga (1967).
**A Night to Remember also starred a preposterously young David McCallum as the ship’s Assistant Wireless Operator Harold Bride. Harold Bride’s real-life daughter and her husband were among my parents’ dearest friends, and their two sons were my dear playmates for a time early in my life. I’ll always remember that–eventually–dad became so annoyed by their taunting the only young girl-child in their life, he asked a young member of our household–Yusufu–to teach the approximately five-year old me how to climb trees so that the slightly older boys could no longer escape and rain ridicule down on the inferior me from a great height.
Yusufu’s efforts resulted in a tremendous success!
As I’ve said, every now and then, here and elsewhere, I’ve had a very strange life. Not a shred of it has led me to question my sex or gender though.
How many civilians in other countries were saved by damaging the dams?
Great post. And great story. We were so lucky to have these heroes risk, and many times lose, their lives.
Congrats to @she on making Instapundit!
Welcome to Ricochet, Instapundit readers! This is a group blogging and podcast site – think of a PJ Media where most of the content is generated by members. Feel free to stick around, and consider becoming a member.
Yes Instapundit readers, become members!
Is it just me, or do the comments sound like people on Instapundit think Ed Driscoll wrote the story?
When someone objected to the loss of French lives when the Allies bombed factories in occupied France, Churchill replied that Allied aircrew were risking their lives to contribute to the war effort, so while it was regrettable that French civilians lost their lives, it was their contribution to the war effort.
I looked up the dog’s name on google. While I’m not a fan of censorship, airbrushing out the dog’s name probably avoided A LOT of trouble.
WWII movies were a constant fare on late 1950s and early 1960s TV (before the M*A*S*H era) and I consumed them all. The Dam Busters was amongst them. War is terrible, but there is a line from the movie Patton that captures the latent atavistic feeling in humanity:
American flyers in the Pacific also learned to skip their bombs into transports off New Guinea.
I once saw a documentary about this on the history channel. I marveled at the ingenuity of the raid. I didn’t realize so many brave men were lost achieving it.
Just add this to the 613 reasons why you think Britain and the West were wrong to oppose Hitler.
Yes. Congrats She!
I meant the comments on Instapundit.
There’s a song by The Orb that I think samples the Dam Busters movie. A man is calling his dog who is named “N—–” and in another sample someone is saying his dog died.
I can’t find it by the sample, and their catalog is wide.