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“Apres moi, le deluge”

The Motto of 617 Squadron

Almost exactly 70 years ago, on the evening of 16th May 1943, an event took place that has become imprinted on the British character. There will be many of us who know the story rather well – the stressed but determined engineer, the ‘press-on-regardless’ pilot and his team of courageous flyers, the dog that was killed and the mighty concrete walls that came crashing down. Most of all we remember a piece of music that is still whistled ironically on holiday jets coming in to land at Malaga and Palma, played at football matches and used in TV commercials. The official name for this event was ‘Operation Chastise’ but to most people it is the ‘Dambusters Raid’.

Gibson and his crew

It had been recognised by the British Air Ministry even before 1939 that the huge Mohne, Sorpe and Eder dams in the Ruhr Valley and the lakes they contained were important strategic targets. Not only did they supply hydroelectric power to the armaments industry in the Ruhr but also water for the production of steel and the canal transport system. The problem was how to destroy the dams. Using conventional bombing practise it called for an enormous bomb to be dropped with pin point accuracy from a great height by an extremely large aircraft. None of these items or flying skills were available.

Barnes Wallis

Aircraft engineer Barnes Wallis, who had designed the successful Wellington Bomber, came up with the outlandish idea of bouncing the bomb across the surface of the lakes. This would avoid the protecting torpedo nets, and allow the weapon to explode directly against the wall of the dam. After a great deal of research and experimentation – some of which took place at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington – it was discovered that for this bizarre idea to work, the bomb had to be dropped at a precise speed at 240 mph and at a precise height of 60 feet (18 metres). To achieve such a high level of flying precision a new squadron, 617, was formed under the leadership of an outstanding and experienced bomb leader Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Their aircraft, Avro Lancaster Mk IIIs, known as B Mark III Special (Type 464 Provisioning), were equipped with lights at nose and tail, angled downwards to triangulate the precise height and special bomb sights made from bits of wood or string!

bouncing bomb

Early tests of Wallis’s bouncing bomb were undertaken in 1942 at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington using the ‘ship tanks’. These tests were repeated in 1953 for the filming of the feature film “The Dambusters”.

Guy Gibson

Operation Chastise started at 9.00pm on the evening of Sunday 16th March 1943, when the water behind the dams was at its highest level. 14 aircraft of 617 Squadron with 5 reserves took off from RAF Scampton under the leadership of Guy Gibson.

Although 8 aircraft were lost during the raid along with 53 crew and about 1600 people on the ground, including 749 French, Belgian, Dutch and Ukrainian prisoners of war and labourers, the raid was considered a remarkable success. Both the Mohne and Eder dams were destroyed and the Sorpe dam damaged. Diplomatically it was seen as a triumphant strike against the enemy and a sensational boost to public morale. It demonstrated to our allies, America and Russia, that as war weary as we were Britain was still in the fight and resolved to fight on.

Guy Gibson, Nigger and crew

One important part of the familiar Dambusters story concerns Guy Gibson’s black Labrador dog, the popular mascot of the new formed 617 Squadron. Unfortunately the dog was killed by a speeding motorist on the morning of the raid. As a mark of respect his name was chosen as the code word for a successful breeching of the Mohne dam… and here lies a problem. Although he was commonly called ‘Nigsy’ his real name was ‘Nigger’ which in those days simply meant ‘black’. Today the name is understandably recognised as being offensive and unacceptable. Because of this in some recent TV showings of the classic 1954 film “The Dam Busters” the dog’s name has either been bleeped or edited out. The same dilemma faced Stephen Fry who is writing the screen play for a new version of the story produced by Peter Jackson, the director of “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”. To avoid controversy Fry has decided to name his black Labrador “Digger”.

Lancaster bomber

So why is the story of the Dambusters so closely woven into our national character and collective memory? It is of course a terrific adventure of courage and fortitude but there is something else that lifts it above the usual war story. Operation Chastise is about imagination, resourcefulness, improvisation and a willingness to press on in the face of official reticence at home and aggressive defiance from our enemy. It is about a science that we can easily understand, a strategy that we can follow and a determination to get the job done that we can appreciate and respect. After 70 years and research that now shows that full water and electricity output in the Ruhr were restored in seven weeks, there are some who say that the bouncing bomb was a gimmick and the raid itself caused only minor inconvenience to Germany’s industrial output. For all that Operation Chastise remains a story about British ingenuity and gallantry and what this country, in the hardest of times, can do against a ruthless enemy. It is about us.

Clip from “The Dam Busters” 1954 showing the raid on the Mohne Dam

— from Martyn Day