Dambusters’ true impact revealed 70 years on

The crew of 617 Squadron, aka the Dambusters. Picture: MoD/PA
The crew of 617 Squadron, aka the Dambusters. Picture: MoD/PA
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AS THE nation prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the daring and innovative Dambusters raid, a retired fighter pilot has revealed the true extent of the damage the mission caused to Nazi Germany.

Clive Rowley, a former commanding officer of the Royal Air Force’s prestigious Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) turned aviation historian and author, said the military and strategic significance of destroying three dams in the industrial heartland of Germany in 1943 has only just been realised.

The 133 men who went on the mission in 19 aircraft, 56 of whom did not return, were also incredibly courageous and skilful in carrying out the daring low flights, he said.

Operation Chastise, the attack on German dams portrayed in the 1955 film The Dam Busters starring Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd, took place 70 years ago on 16 May, 1943, during the Second World War.

The mission was launched from RAF Scampton, near Lincoln, by 617 Squadron.

At the time, it was hailed as an incredible success, even with the loss of life, but for decades afterwards its effects were downplayed or even condemned as a waste of resources by a succession of historians.

Now, extensive research carried out by retired Squadron Leader Mr Rowley suggests that the loss of water caused by the dams’ destruction had a far greater effect than many realised even at the time – from leaving firefighters powerless to put out the flames of British incendiary bombs to cutting vital German steel production due to a lack of water for cooling.

The cost of repairing the damage caused by 617 Squadron’s raid ran to the equivalent of £5.9 billion in today’s money and 7,000 workers who would otherwise have been building the Atlantic Wall to prevent the D-Day landings had to be called away to fix the ruined dams.

It was an economic disaster for the Third Reich that diverted significant resources away from Germany’s war effort at a critical point during the conflict.

Four power stations and 12 war production factories were destroyed, while about 100 other factories were damaged, railway bridges were incapacitated, road bridges knocked down and 3,000 acres of farmland destroyed. Coal production dropped by some 20,000 tonnes and steel production by about 180,000 tonnes in the month that followed.

Mr Rowley said: “In that sense it was truly militarily important, strategically important. I think that is more modern research that has uncovered that, and it hasn’t been widely recognised until now.”

Mr Rowley – who as well as flying one of the Coningsby-based BBMF’s Spitfires and commanding the unit, also flew BAC Lightning jets – has revealed his findings in a new publication called Dambusters.

It combines his detailed research with previously unpublished pictures and original artwork to provide a full and unvarnished account of the raid – arguably the most daring mission in the RAF’s history.

The timescale in which the raid came about – the Lancaster had only been in squadron service for 17 months and it took only 56 days from the formation of the squadron to the bombings – was nothing short of amazing, Mr Rowley said.

He went on: “Then you were asking these men, 133 men, went on the raid in 19 aircraft, to fly these enormous bombers with 102ft wingspan at 100ft, 60ft on the attack run, in the dark.

“I’ve spent a lot of my life as a fighter pilot flying around at low level, normally at 250ft in fast jets, sometimes lower, often quite a bit faster than the Dambusters flew but generally in daylight.

“I can state categorically that the courage, the skill, the tenacity to carry on doing what they were doing – and actually it would appear that they were enjoying the thrill of it – is nothing short of amazing.

“It was a combination of bravery, skill, ingenuity, science, technology. It all came together in this one precision raid.”

The Dambusters crew would have been fearful, he said, but appeared fearless in order to boost morale among fellow airmen.

“To them it was just a job and they just got on and did what they were asked to do and paid an enormous price for it,” Mr Rowley said.

“Forty-two per cent of the men that went on the raid did not come home, and they knew that was highly likely, and yet they volunteered for the new squadron, they volunteered for the mission. They wanted to make a difference.

“When it came to the actual getting in the aeroplane and doing it, they tended to have a fatalistic attitude: ‘From now on, what will be will be’.

Remembering and commemorating the mission, especially with such heavy losses, was vital said Mr Rowley, and even more so now to acknowledge the full extent of the effect on Nazi Germany.

He said: “It is important to recognise that it was worthwhile and that the results were worth their death, if anything ever is worth a man’s death.”

Men who led the mission

The young men flying on the daring Dambusters raid have been celebrated as some of the bravest and most elite airmen.

Tragically, almost half of the crew members who went on the raid did not return.

Guy Gibson, the 24-year-old Wing Commander in charge of the crews in the mission, has become synonymous with the Dambusters raid.

He was a veteran of more than 170 bombing and night-fighter missions.

Following the Dams raid, Gibson left the squadron but remained in the RAF.

He died in 1944, aged just 26, in a crash while returning from another bombing mission.

Group Captain Leonard Cheshire led 617 Squadron for eight months during the Second World War.

He pioneered a new method of marking enemy targets, flying in at a very low level in the face of strong defences.

He became one of the youngest commanding officers and the most decorated bomber pilot of the war with the award of the Victoria Cross in 1944.

He died in 1992, at the age of 74.

How 617 Squadron dealt a devastating blow to Germany’s Third Reich with bouncing bomb

The plan for the Dambusters raid originated early in the Second World War – some sources cite as early as 1940 – when aeronautical engineer Dr Barnes Wallis, proposing the use of a 10-ton bomb from an altitude of 40,000ft on German dams, was forced to rethink, as no bomber aircraft was capable at the time of flying at that altitude with such a heavy payload.

With a team at Vickers, Wallis designed the “bouncing bomb”, a missile that would skip across the water, hit the dam and roll to the bottom.

For the mission, named Operation Chastise, a new unit, 617 Squadron, was formed with 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson in charge and based at RAF Scampton, just north-west of Lincoln.

Even Gibson did not know the reason behind the formation of this squadron. His task was to mould and train the crew members into a squadron capable of carrying out a difficult single raid.

Nineteen aircraft set out at dark. Nine were to attack the Möhne dam, then proceed to the Eder dam; five were to attack the Sorpe dam; and five were a “flying reserve”.

On the outbound flight, Gibson’s Formation 1, consisting of nine Lancasters, lost an aircraft en route to the Möhne when it was downed by high-tension wires.

Gibson led the attack on the Möhne dam and successfully released his bomb.

He was followed by Flight Lieutenant John Hopgood, whose bomber was caught in the blast from its bomb and crashed.

To support his pilots, Gibson circled back to draw German flak while the others attacked. Following a successful run by Flight Lieutenant Harold Martin, Squadron Leader Henry Young was able to breach the dam.

With the Möhne dam broken, Gibson led the flight to Eder where his three remaining aircraft negotiated tricky terrain to score hits on the dam. The dam was finally opened by Pilot Officer Leslie Knight.

While Formation 1 was achieving success, Formation 2 and its reinforcements continued to struggle.

Unlike Möhne and Eder, the Sorpe dam was earthen rather than masonry.

Due to increasing fog and as the dam was undefended, Flight Lieutenant Joseph McCarthy from Formation 2 was able to make ten runs before releasing his bomb. However, it only damaged the crest of the dam.