To conclude a recent run of pieces on aircraft flown in the Battle of Britain, and to coincide with the birth today in 1887 of the famous mechanical designer, Barnes Wallis, I have chosen to add a final article on “the Dambusters” – the famous world war two operation to destroy three German dams in the Ruhr valley. Though not part of the Battle, this operation, and the aircraft it involved, are deserving of their own article.
On Friday 5th September, I had occasion to visit one of the dams involved in the operation, the Mohne. Seeing the vast stretch of lake water before it, covered in a light autumn mist, it was easy to imagine the same scene on 16th-17th May, 1943, when 17 Lancaster Bombers of 617 Sqn. flew in low across the water to drop bouncing barrel-bombs, designed by Barnes Wallis, to successfully blow a huge breach in the dam wall. Thousands of tonnes of floodwater were released to massively destructive effect, the result of one of the most hazardous and controversial operations of the war.
The Ruhr valley was the industrial heartland of Germany, producing armament destined for both the Eastern front and Hitler’s western defences in France. Much of the Ruhr had already been reduced to rubble in an attempt to stop this production. but this raid was different in that it was a precision raid directed against a choke-point in the German chain of production. Its aim was to destroy the Mohne, Eder and Scorpe dams, and to degrade the water supply of the Ruhr by flooding large tracts of fertile agricultural land.
The raid was carried out by 617 Sqn., led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, using a purpose-built bomb designed to skim over the surface of the lake as one would skim a stone in order to avoid any obstacles as it hit the dam wall. The attack was planned as a night raid, to be flown at a mere 100ft above ground so as to minimise casualties from the flak defences in the wooded slopes either side of the lake and on top of the dam itself. The RAF regarded the operation as a suicide mission, and of the 19 Lancasters selected for it, two were badly damaged by flying so low that they clipped and shipped sea water on the outward flight. Another hit high-tension electrical cables. Several of these aircraft had to turn back, so even before they had reached their target the force had lost some significant firepower for the mission.
Squadron leader Gibson made the first run against the Mohne, followed by a second Lancaster which was destroyed by flak and the blast of its own bomb detonating against the dam. Gibson’s own bomb exploded short of its target, and he flew his aircraft across the dam to draw flak away from a third bomber, whose bomb this time breached the dam. The remaining aircraft flew on to attack the Eider and Scorpe dams, which were undefended but covered in heavy morning fog. On these, only light damage was inflicted.
Gibson was awarded the Victoria cross, but only 9 of the 19 Lancaster’s survived. Was the raid a success for this price? This is in fact a point of some debate, despite the popular opinion that it was an outright victory. For though the physical damage caused was enormous, with every bridge 30 miles below the Mohne destroyed and buildings damaged up to 40 miles away, the Germans were able to rebuild the military resources lost by the following September. Despite the destruction of 12 manufacturing plants, thousands of acres of farmland, the loss of 400,000 tonnes of coal, and the forced shut-down of a number of power stations and assembly plants, the German labour force recovered quickly. And there were no further raids to disrupt their repairs.
However, the dambusters raid significantly slowed the supply of heavy armament to western France, and this certainly contributed to German defences being incomplete prior to the D-Day landings. The same was true on the Eastern front, where again Germany would be short of weapons just before a major offensive – both the direct result of the raid.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.