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Who were the Dambusters?

The Week logo The Week 16/05/2018 Gabriel Power
Who were the Dambusters? © Wikimedia Commons Who were the Dambusters?

At 9.28pm on 16 May 1943, the first of 19 Brtitish Lancaster bombers took off from Royal Air Force Scampton in Lincolnshire, headed for the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany.

Nine hours later, the final survivor touched down. The fleet of bombers had inflicted a decisive blow to Nazi infrastructure by breaching two major dams in the Ruhr. Although officially designated Operation Chastise, the attack is more commonly known as the Dambusters Raid.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack, the audacity and precision of which made headlines around the world.

Here, we take a look back at the landmark raid and the men who made it happen.

The innovation

Before the war, intelligence in London had identified three dams in Germany’s industrial northwest as potential targets. They were the Mohne Dam, the Sorpe Dam and the Eder Dam, all of which took the names of the rivers they controlled.

Slideshow- The Dambusters: Operation Chastise remembered 75 years on (Mirrorpix)

However, intelligence deemed that Britain did not have sufficient weapons to destroy them, and so turned to aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis to devise a weapon that could inflict heavy damage on the dams, and possibly breach them.

The result was the now-famed “bouncing bomb” - a 10,000lb cylindrical bomb designed to deploy at high speed and an exceptionally low angle. This, combined with considerable backspin, would allow the bomb to skip across the surface of a reservoir towards the dam wall before sinking and detonating, destroying the structure.

The men

The mission fell to 617 Squadron, led by 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson, and made up of 133 airmen from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, the Imperial War Museum documents.

Just one month before the raid, and with only Gibson having been briefed, the squadron began training in low-level night flying at sites across Britain. On the night of the attack, the remainder of the squadron was informed of the details of their mission. 

Historian Charles Foster, author of The Complete Dambusters, released on 8 May, told The Week that the squadron was immediately “well aware of the risk of low-level flying, the risk of using untested bombs and the risk of using modified Lancaster bombers”.

The attack

After a number of planes were lost en route, Gibson was the first to drop his bomb at the Mohne dam at 12.28am. Due to problems with accuracy and heavy ground fire, it took five further attempts before the dam was breached.

The remaining aircraft still carrying bombs then continued on to the Eder dam, destroying it at 1.52am. The other two waves of bombers targeted the Sorpe dam but failed to breach it.

Of the 19 planes and 133 men involved in the mission, eight aircraft were lost, 53 men were killed and a further three were taken prisoner.

The aftermath

The attack badly damaged vital Nazi infrastructure, flooding the region and killing around 1,300 civilians in the process, the BBC says.

Such was the importance of the dams that the Nazis set about rebuilding them immediately, sapping a large amount of resources. Repair work concluded just four months later, leading some to question the effectiveness of the raid in the long term.

Foster disagrees. “Those months took labour away from other construction projects. They couldn’t use that time on the Atlantic Wall or other seaborne defences which they were intending to build,” he says.

“People choose to disagree on this, but I would say claims that the attack wasn’t effective simply aren’t accurate at all.”

The legacy

The raid was portrayed in the 1955 film The Dam Busters, a classic of British cinema. Although the film’s accuracy has long been a point of contention, it made household names of the airmen involved and helped cement the legendary status of Operation Chastise.

But Foster, whose uncle Squadron Leader David Maltby piloted Avro Lancaster “J for Johnny” in the first wave of attacks, is keen that people avoid becoming swept up in the romanticism of the Dambusters.

“I’m very proud of the fact that I have a relative who was involved in such a pivotal mission,” he says. “But that doesn’t change the fact he was one of 55,000 men killed in Bomber Command during the Second World War.

“To promote the 53 men killed in one operation as if they were somehow ‘more important’ or ‘more heroic’ than others is not something they would have wanted.”

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