Tuesday, May 16

Operation Chastise

A comment and brief account on the 63rd anniversary of the ''Dambusters Raid''
''Almost everything that is great has been done by youth''
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) One time British Prime Minister.
At 21.28 hours on the evening of 16 May 1943 Flt Lt JL Barlow DFC of the Royal Australian Air Force was the first pilot of 19 Avro Lancaster Bombers, each with a crew of 7, which took off from the grass runway of RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.

Barlow's mission together with that of that of his 132 colleagues was to breach the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe Dams on the German industrial hinterland of the Rhur. The raid which was without doubt dramatic in its execution and achievement was to become known famously as The Dambusters Raid.

Officially code named Operation Chastise, the raid undertaken by the newly formed 617 Squadron, commanded by the legendary Wing Commander Guy Gibson who at only 24 one of the RAF's most experienced and skilled operational leaders; a holder of the DSO and DFC both with bars. The 133 young air crew, aged between 20 and 32, had spent the previouse six weeks practising low level flying in preperation for their audasious mission.

One minute after Fl/t Barlow was airborne Flt Lt J L Munro took off in Lancaster AJ-W followed at minute intervals by two more Lancaster's, AJ- K and AJ-H.

All four aircraft flew at low level accross the North Sea. The bomb-aimer on board AJ-W recorded on his mission log:''The Sun had set when we reached the enemy coast but there was a little gloomy moonlight, I saw an aircraft to starport skim the water and send up a plume of spray''.

The plume of spray was almost certanly from Barlow's off track aircraft. None of the four aircraft were to reach their targets. Barlow and his crew were shot down crossing the coast as was the following aircraft AJ-K piloted by the young Canadian Pilot Officer Byers. All fourteen of the crew were reported as missing, later confirmed killed.

The other two aircraft AJ-W and AJ-H returned badly damaged to their airfield their crews surviving to fly another sortie.

This is how the now famous Dambusters Mission started. By the morming of 17 May when the success of the mission was being assesed a total of 52 young airman all in their early 20's had died; their aircraft had become victims of Nazi anti-aircraft fire.

After a dummy run, just after midnight, over the Mohne dam to check out the approach and defences, Gibson (AJ-G) dropped the first ''Bouncing Bomb (codenamed up Upkeep), but his mine detonated too far from the dam. Hopgood (AJ-M) then attacked, but was hit by flak during his approach, and the mine was dropped late - it bounced over the dam, and detonated on the power station below the dam; Hopgood's aircraft gained some height before exploding, but two of the crew did manage to escape, although they were seriously injured and became POWs.
Martin (AJ-P) then attacked, but his Upkeep veered to the left and exploded 20 yards from the dam. Young (AJ-A) then attacked, and after three bounces, his Upkeep mine exploded in contact with the wall. Maltby (AJ-J) then came in to attack, but as his Upkeep was dropped, it was realised that the dam was already crumbling. His mine also exploded in contact with the wall, and together with Young's, a breach 75 yards wide was created. Young was unfortunately shot down on his way home (the third time he had come down in the sea, but neither he nor his crew survived this time).
Gibson and Young flew on to the Eder with the three remaining aircraft that still had their bouncing bombs while Martin and Maltby headed for home.

After locating the dam, Shannon (AJ-L) made four passes over it, the steep dive and turn required to line up with the target proving difficult (the mine was not to be dropped unless the bomb aimer was happy with the approach). Maudslay (AJ-Z) tried twice, then Shannon
twice more before releasing his mine, which exploded close to the dam towards one end. Maudslay attacked again, this time releasing his mine, but it hit the parapet of the dam and exploded; it seems probable that the explosion damaged the aircraft, as there was no further radio communication from Maudslay, and his aircraft was brought down near the Dutch border on its way home. Knight (AJ-N) made one dummy run, releasing his mine on the second; it bounced three times before hitting the dam, and punched a hole about 30 feet in diameter through the masonry.
Unlike the Möhne and Eder Dams which were walled dams, the Sorpe was constructed of a concrete core flanked by earth banking on both sides. Different tactics were thus employed against the dam, which was to be attacked along its crest, and the mine dropped without spin. McCarthy (flying AJ-T as his own AJ-Q had developed a fault immediately before the mission) made the first attack, making nine dummy runs as the target was covered in mist; on the tenth run, the mine was dropped and exploded on the dam crest. Brown (AJ-F) also made several dummy runs, dropping his mine on the sixth run. It also exploded on target, but although the crest was damaged, the dam was not breached and no seepage through the core (as hoped for) resulted. The damage to the crown of the dam, however, required the Germans to half empty the reservoir to effect repairs, so there was some water loss as a result of the attack.

In total four of the six Dams were attacked - two, the Mohne and Eder Dams were breached. Of the 19 Lancasters that took of on the night of 16 May 1943 - only 11 returned. From the eight aircraft that were distroyed 53 young men died, three survived to be held as POW's untill after the was ended two years later.

As with all war myths inaccuracies and embellishments gradually become a part of the legend. One such myth is that all those who flew to the dams were already highly decorated and experienced, extreamely exuberant and were personally selected by Gibson to join the squadron. A few were but most were not.

Battles on land, at sea or in the air rarely follow the detailed path optimistically traced in staff conferences or briefing sessions. Not withstanding nearly two months of concentrated preperation and training, in this respect operation Chastise proved no exception.

On the night crews experienced unexpected crises of navigation, uncharted flak, mist-filled valleys, mechanical failure and human error. As one survior concluded, it was not a beautifully planned operation: ''all of it was very much fit and make up, despite what has been said afterwards.''

The success of the mission can not only be measured by the damage to German Industry on the Rhur alone but also the tremendous psychological boost to the Allies war effort at the time.

The mission broke two major dams, causing widespread flooding intreruption enemy miltiary production, communications, gas and electricity and water supplies. The choaos caused to the Nazi war machine with varing degrees of re-deployment of labour (20 thousand workers were transfered from Normandy defences to repair the damms) as well as diversion of troops and weapons in the days that followed the attack.

Of the surviving aircrew thirty-three were decorated at Buckingham Palace on 22 June, with Wing Commander Gibson awarded the Victoria Cross. In total there was one VC, five DSOs, ten DFCs and four bars, twelve DFMs and two CGMs.

Reconciling the human loss to the gain of the cause of the wars greater objective after any military action is never easy, if possible. The cold brutal facts remain as poinient after 63 years as the did at the dawn of 17 May when Barnes Wallace the inventor of the 'Bouncing Bomb' was reported as beeing inconsolable when the extent of the loss of airman became apparent.

Was the raid worthwhil? No balanced answer to this can be attempted without the rerference to issues that incompas the Second World War in its entirity and specificaly the War situation in May 1943, when ultimate Allied Victory was by no means certain. Any credible assesment must be made against a war time political bacground in which failure to totally defeat Nazi Germany was not an option.
Neither Gibson, nor his crew were to survive the war, they were all killed on different missions; their names are recorded along with approximately 54,000 other young men of Bomber Command who died between 1939 and 1945 at the RAF Memorial Church, St Clement Danes on the Strand, at the Runnymead Air Force Memorial and on 617 Squadron's crew memorial (pictured below) at Woodhall Linconshire.
Peter Troy County Durham, 20.28 hrs BST 16-05-06


A pilot of Bommer Comand, WW2 said...

Thank you for this posting. Excellent.

Dr Richard North said...

Nice piece.


Co-editor of EU Referendum

Florian UK said...

Strange that no mention of the cost to civilian lives and forced labourers that was the main result of this mission. For your information, this raid, were it to happen now would be classed as a war crime. An amendment was made to the Geneva Convention to prevent the massive loss of life by outlawing attacks on dams.