Thousands of people gathered at Derwent Dam, in Derbyshire’s Peak District, for a flypast of the Battle of Britain Flight’s Lancaster bomber, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the famous World War II Dambusters raid on the dams of the Ruhr Valley in Germany.
Peace and tranquility at Derbyshire’s Derwent Dam, scene of the Dambuster’s practice missions
There was understandable disappointment, but acceptance of the circumstances, when news came through that the Lancaster, the last airworthy example in Britain, would be unable to make the flight because of the high winds. But that was compounded when it was announced that the promised replacement RAF Typhoon jet had also been cancelled – only for it to make its appearance after people had begun to make their way through the trees back to their cars, missing the spectacle they had waited for hours to see.
People began arriving early for the flypast and a constant stream of visitors continued throughout the morning. Such is the admiration for those involved in this this operation, the ingenuity behind the attack and the bravery of those who undertook the mission, people came from as far afield as London, Durham and Wales to witness the occasion. The Derwent Dam visitor centre was extremely busy and there was entertainment from Johnny Victory singing songs of the 30s and 40s.
It was announced at around 9am that the Lancaster, the last remaining airworthy aircraft of its class, would be unable to leave its RAF Scampton base due to the high winds and that a Typhoon would make the flypast at 12.05. Crowds continued to gather in the knowledge that there would still be something to mark this historic occasion, but the expected arrival time passed and some 20 minutes later Squadron Leader Andy Millikin tweeted:
I’ve just been informed that the Typhoon could not make it to the Derwent Dams due to poor weather at low level. Sadly there will be no flypast of the Derwent dam.
Perfect view of Derwent Dam, just needs a plane….
This message was duly passed on the waiting crowds by park rangers and staff on the ground and the disappointed crowds began to pack up and head towards their cars. I, too, headed back from my wonderful vantage point overlooking the dam and the reservoir. I had just arrived at my car when I heard the unmistakable whistle of a fast-approaching jet engine and grabbed the camera just as the Typhoon flashed over head and away….
Just a fleeting glimpse…
The Typhoon flashes overhead
Many missed seeing the flypast altogether as they headed through the trees. There was hope that there would be a second pass, but sadly none came.
No reappearance over the dam
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight issued a statement confirming low cloud had been the problem, but no comment on the confusion surrounding the Typhoon’s appearance. Squadron Leader Millikin ended his tweet with the sentiment:
Please focus on the amazing achievements and losses of the Dambusters 75 years ago tonight.
So let’s do that!
OPERATION CHASTISE AND THE LEGEND OF THE DAMBUSTERS
Operation Chastise, more familiar as the Dambusters raid, on the night of 16/17 May 1943 is one of the most famous events of World War II and was possibly significant in bringing the war to an earlier conclusion.
Engineer and inventor Barnes Wallis, born in the Derbyshire town of Ripley, was convinced that the destruction of the dams of Germany’s Ruhr Valley would have a major impact on the German war effort as they provided water to the heart of the German war-time manufacturing area and the power stations that drove them.
The principle targets would be the Möhne and Eder Dams, huge reinforced concrete structures, which the Germans had protected with torpedo nets and armed defences. By 1943 the Germans scaled down the armaments at the dams, believing that they were too difficult a target for attack.
Wallis’s predicament was to accurately deliver a charge to the wall of the dam, large enough to breach the dam, from an aircraft. He conducted a series of tests on a device that could skip over the torpedo nets, like skimming a pebble, to reach the wall before sinking and exploding against the wall like a depth charge.
The Ministry of Defence were regularly receiving over-ambitious plans for schemes that in reality would have little chance of success against the enemy and through 1942 Wallis’s idea was thought to be just another crazy scheme. Among those opposed to the idea was Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command who did not want any of his precious supply of aircraft diverted to a project doomed to failure.
However, Wallis had an influential ally in Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham who persuaded Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, to back Wallis and overrule Harris. Harris duly allocated 30 Avro Lancaster Mk IIIs, which would need heavy modification, to the mission and work began on the production of the Upkeep bombs.
There were just eight weeks before the proposed target date of mid-May when the water levels at the dams would be at its highest.
24-year old Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a veteran of more than 170 missions was chosen to lead 617 Squadron, newly-formed for this special task and based at Scampton in Lincolnshire. He was to hand-pick the crews for the mission because of the level of skill that would be required. The crews began practising very low level flying, often at treetop height, occasionally passing below power lines and on courses that would lead them to a number of reservoirs, including Derwent Reservoir in Derbyshire.
Training continued after dark with the crews being introduced to the specifics of what was required for a successful mission. They would release their bomb from a height of 60 feet (18 m) which was gauged using converging spotlights fitted to each end of the plane. The airspeed would be 240 mph (390 km/h) and the distance of release from the target measured using a wooden gauge with nails to be lined up with the towers on the dam.
The Upkeep bomb, 50 inches (1.27 m) diameter by 60 inches (1.52 m) long weighed just over 4 tonnes and a motor was used to spin the bomb backwards at 500 rpm upon release. This would cause the bomb to travel down the surface of the dam wall on impact.
The crews were only told of their target on the day of the mission, many thought they were training for an attack on German battleships.
19 aircraft took off in three waves, flying low across the North Sea and taking routes to avoid known concentrations of flak, although the breeze caught out Vernon Byers (call sign K for King) whose aircraft was shot down crossing the Dutch coast. Norman Barlow (E Easy) and Bill Astell (B Baker) were also early casualties after both crashed into power cables.
Gibson (G George) led the first attack, on the Möhne Dam but his bomb exploded before reaching the dam. On the second attempt John Hopgood’s aircraft (M Mother) was hit by flak and caught in the blast of its own bomb, crashing when a wing disintegrated. There were two survivors. For the following attempts Gibson flew across the dam to draw flak. The first to hit the target was ‘Dinghy’ Young (A Apple) causing a small breach. Young’s aircraft was shot down on the return journey. The second direct hit, from five attempts, was delivered by David Maltby (J Johnny) finally breached the dam.
There were no defences at the Eder Dam, although the surrounding hills made the approach very difficult. Henry Maudslay’s aircraft (Z Zebra) was severely damaged by the blast when his bomb hit the top of the dam wall. The crippled Lancaster was later shot down. David Shannon (L Leather) and Les Knight (N Nancy) both scored direct hits breaching this second dam.
Only three aircraft reached the secondary target of the Sorpe Dam, a large earthen dam. This proved impossible to approach from the lake and the bombs were dropped as conventional bombs, damaging but not breaching the dam. One other bomb was dropped on the Ennepe Dam but caused no damage.
Of 19 aircraft, eleven returned. On the other eight aircraft 53 lives were lost with just three survivors. In his moment of triumph,
The most significant impact of the raid was breach of the Möhne Dam when a torrent of water 10 metres deep swept down the valley destroyed two power stations and damaged seven more leaving the area without power for two weeks. 11 small factories were destroyed with a further 114 suffering damage. Coal production in May was was reduced by 400,000 tons. Hundreds of lives were lost including those in forced-labour camps.
Water supplies were restored, using an emergency system, by the end of July and, with a huge labour effort that compromised the German forces on the Russian front, the dams were repaired by the end of the year. The effect on food production was more significant, with many square kilometres of arable land being washed away and effectively unusable until the 1950s.
The attack on the Sorpe Dam failed to cause a breach but the reservoir had to be drained to effect repairs to the dam.
News of the raid was a great boost to morale in Britain, after the devastation caused by the blitz of the previous year. Gibson and the surviving crew members became national heroes and feted wherever they went.
Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross, making him the most highly decorated serviceman in the country, although his reaction to the news was subdued as he felt responsible for the loss of life among his crew. He returned to operations in 1944 but died when his Mosquito crashed in the Netherlands, returning from a mission on 19th September.
Barnes Wallis was distraught by the loss of those carrying out the mission he had conceived. He was also disappointed that Bomber Command failed to revisit the targets to disrupt the repair work, which mitigated the effect of the raid. Wallis was knighted in 1968.
FOOTNOTE – 17 May
The day after the cancelled Lancaster flypast and poorly managed Typhoon episode, the Battle of Britain Flight announced that it had, earlier in the day, made the flight over the Derwent Dam cancelled from the previous day. On board was Squadron Leader George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, 96, bomb-aimer on N Nancy and the last survivor of the Dambusters raid who had been scheduled to fly on the anniversary flight.
A spokesman for the Lincolnshire-based team said the rescheduled flight was unannounced due to the safety reasons of managing crowds at short notice. “We are thrilled that we were able to finally mark this amazing anniversary in such a poignant way,” added Squadron Leader Andrew Millikin.
No doubt he was more ‘thrilled’ than the thousands who had taken a day off work the previous day, made the pilgrimage from across the country, walked up to 4 miles from their car to wait for hours in the cold, only to miss what fleeting spectacle their was and then have to make the long walk back to their car for the journey home.
The few that caught a glimpse of the Lancaster on it’s journey took to social media to say what a wonderful sight it was. Little consolation to those disappointed by the events of the previous day.
The Battle of Britain website had, ahead of the event, clearly indicated that there would be no rescheduled flight if it had to be cancelled because of the weather. If it was going to happen, the flypast should have been rescheduled for a date that could have given everyone the chance to return and celebrate the anniversary in an appropriate way.
The Lancaster on a previous visit to Derbyshire in 2013
There is an enormous amount of love for this old and iconic aircraft and an enormous respect for those gallant young men who were prepared to pay, and did pay, the ultimate price for our freedom. Less so, now, is the respect for those who mismanaged this PR own goal.
RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING
James Holland’s excellent DAM BUSTERS The Race To Smash The Dams 1943 (Corgi Books ISBN 978-0-552-16341-5) is the most in-depth study of the events surrounding Operation Chastise. Highly readable, Holland explores every detail of this remarkable story.