In May 1943, the Royal Air Force launched an audacious raid on key war-time manufacturing targets in the Ruhr Valley of Germany – Operation Chastise. The mission became famously knows as the Dambusters raid. The key players were Barnes Wallis, who designed the innovative bomb that was used, Guy Gibson who put the No 617 squadron together for the mission, the Lancaster bombers and the 113 air crew gathered from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America who executed their task with great effect while suffering significant casualties.
Barnes Wallis and the Bouncing Bomb
Britain saw the destruction of the dams in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland, as the best strategy for pinning back the Nazi war machine. But in 1938 they couldn’t do it with the weapons of the time.
English scientist, engineer and inventor Barnes Wallis (Later Sir Barnes Neville Wallis) set about finding a way to do it by destroying dam walls and flooding the river valley, and the factories and power stations within it.
Barnes Wallis and his bomb
Dropping a bomb directly on to the dam walls was unlikely to succeed – accuracy would be a problem and the walls were immensely strong and protected by anti-torpedo nets.
Wallis’ first idea was a 10-ton bomb to create an earthquake effect, but Britain didn’t have a plane that could carry the bomb to the required height.
Despite the misgivings of commanders and politicians, Wallis persevered to create the bouncing bomb.
He reasoned that small bombs could penetrate the defences and hit the dam walls from the water side, coming in horizontally and exploding as they finally sank. He resorted to a common pastime of youngsters – skipping stones across water – to deliver the bombs to the dam walls.
Early in 1942, Wallis began experimenting with skipping marbles over water tanks in his garden.
He believed a bomb could be skipped over the water surface, avoiding torpedo nets, and sink next to a battleship or dam wall as a depth charge. The water would concentrate the force of the explosion on the target. Backspin would cause the bomb to trail behind the dropping plane (decreasing the chance of that plane being damaged by the force of the explosion below) and increase the range of the bomb. It also prevented the bomb from moving away from the target wall as it sank.
Wallis tested the idea in a large indoor pool with a scaled-down bomb. The tests were a success.
When a life-size one was dropped under the greatest of secrecy in the waters off Kent, the first tests were failures and the Ministry of Defence was sceptical about any success.
Sir Arthur Harris, Chief of Bomber Command, initially called the scheme “tripe of the wildest description” and claimed that “there is not the smallest chance of its working”.
Wallis persevered. He believed that the plane was flying too high and asked the crew to fly in even lower for the next test. His gamble, and the crew’s flying skills, worked – the bomb bounced and bounced so, in the experimental situation, it would have cleared any nets that protected the dams in the Ruhr. The idea was again active and the “Upkeep” bouncing bomb was made ready.
The RAF succumbed and accepted the bouncing bomb concept (codenamed Upkeep) for attacks on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr valley. The raid on these dams in May 1943 (Operation Chastise) was immortalised in Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book The Dam Busters and the 1955 film of the same name.
The actual raid was a great technical success. Two dams – the Mohne and the Eder – were breached and the water that was released caused widespread damage and destruction up to 100 mi (160 km) away; 25 bridges were destroyed (plus 21 damaged), 11 factories were destroyed (plus 14 damaged); and many coal mines, waterworks, pumping stations and power stations put out of action. Casualties on the ground were around 1,300, more than half of whom were foreign labourers. There were also losses of livestock and agricultural land.
The Eder Dam after the attack
The breached Mohne Dam
Success came at a price for the British: eight of the 19 attacking aircraft failed to return, along with 53 of 113 RAF aircrew.
Upkeep was not used again operationally. By the time the war ended, the remaining operational Upkeep bombs had started to deteriorate and were dumped into the North Sea without their detonation devices.
Wallis also invented the “Tallboy” bomb that was used to penetrate the U-boat pens on the west coast of France. He also devised the construction technique for the Wellington bomber, used often in bombing raids over Nazi Germany.
Wallis continued inventing things after the war. He produced a glassless mirror that did not mist up – and put forward ideas for swing-wing planes. He retired aged 83 and his work for the country was recognised in 1968 when he was knighted.
- The Barnes Wallis Foundation, established in 1986, aims to inspire, inform and advance education in aeronautical and engineering design, drawing upon and in memory of, the life and work of Sir Barnes Wallis.
Guy Gibson – leader of the pack
Wing Commander Gibson (centre)
with 617 Squadron members
Guy Gibson was the first Commanding Officer of the famous 617 Squadron that undertook the destructive Dambusters Raid (Operation Chastise) on Germany in 1943.
He had completed over 170 operations by the age of 26.
A radio broadcast in 1944 described him as “the most highly decorated man in the British Empire … VC, DSO and Bar, DFC and Two Bars”.
The Air Ministry’s citation outlined his career and deeds:
Air Ministry, 28th May, 1943.
ROYAL AIR FORCE.
The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —
Acting Wing Commander Guy Penrose GIBSON, D.S.O., D.F.C. (39438), Reserve of Air Force Officers, No. 617 Squadron: —
This officer served as a night bomber pilot at the beginning of the war and quickly established a reputation as an outstanding operational pilot. In addition to taking the fullest possible share in all normal operations, he made single-handed attacks during his “rest” nights on such highly defended objectives as the German battleship Tirpitz, then completing in Wilhelmshaven.
When his tour of operational duty was concluded, he asked for a further operational posting and went to a night-fighter unit instead of being posted for instructional duties. In the course of his second operational tour, he destroyed at least three enemy bombers and contributed much to the raising and development of new night-fighter formations.
After a short period in a training unit, he again volunteered for operational duties and returned to night bombers. Both as an operational pilot and as leader of his squadron, he achieved outstandingly successful results and his personal courage knew no bounds. Berlin, Cologne, Danzig, Gdynia, Genoa, Le Creusot, Milan, Nuremberg and Stuttgart were among the targets he attacked by day and by night.
On the conclusion of his third operational tour, Wing Commander Gibson pressed strongly to be allowed to remain on operations and he was selected to command a squadron then forming for special tasks. Under his inspiring leadership, this squadron has now executed one of the most devastating attacks of the war—the breaching of the Moehne and Eder dams.
The task was fraught with danger and difficulty. Wing Commander Gibson personally made the initial attack on the Moehne dam. Descending to within a few feet of the water and taking the full brunt of the antiaircraft defences, he delivered his attack with great accuracy. Afterwards he circled very low for 30 minutes, drawing the enemy fire on himself in order to leave as free a run as possible to the following aircraft which were attacking the dam in turn.
Wing Commander Gibson then led the remainder of his force to the Eder dam where, with complete disregard for his own safety, he repeated his tactics and once more drew on himself the enemy fire so that the attack could be successfully developed.
Wing Commander Gibson has completed over 170 sorties, involving more than 600 hours operational flying. Throughout his operational career, prolonged exceptionally at his own request, he has shown leadership, determination and valour of the highest order.
Gibson was born in Simla, India, the son of Alexander James Gibson and his wife Leonora (“Nora”) Mary Gibson. His father was an officer in the Imperial Indian Forestry Service.
In 1924, when he was six, Gibson’s parents separated and his mother was granted custody of the three children and decided to return to England
From an early age Gibson wanted to fly. He had a picture of his boyhood hero, Albert Ball VC, the First World War flying ace, on his bedroom wall.
He left school and joined the Air Force in 1936 and began flight training at the Bristol Flying School, Yatesbury.
His initial posting as a pilot was to No. 83 (Bomber) Squadron, stationed at RAF Turnhouse, west of Edinburgh.
After a succession of promotions and war-time sorties, head of Bomber Command “Bomber Harris” – later Sir Arthur Travers Harris – called in Wing Commander Gibson to head a new squadron for a special mission.
“It took me an hour to pick my crews. I wrote
all the names down on a piece of paper
… from my own personal knowledge,
I believed them to be the best bomber
–Guy Gibson on selecting his crews
from Bomber Command.
In 1942, the British Cabinet had agreed to the “area bombing” of German cities. Harris was given the task of implementing Winston Churchill’s policy and supported the development of tactics and technology to perform the task more effectively.
The 617 squadron was initiated on 24 March 1943 at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire. Its purpose was to deliver a new kind of bomb – called Upkeep – to massive dams in the Ruhr Valley where much of Germany’s industrial war effort was centred.
One of the main requirements for the use of Upkeep – a “bouncing bomb” developed by Barnes Wallis – was that the bomb could not be released higher than 60ft. (18m) or it would be damaged when it hit the water. As a result, 617 Squadron had to do a lot of dangerous low-level flying training before the mission was given the go-ahead.
At 9.28pm on 16 May 1943, the first of 19 Lancaster heavy bombers lifted off the runway into a clear, still early summer night.
Some Dambuster figures:
133 men took part in Operation Chastise, 19 crews each of 7 men.
Eight crews were lost; 53 men were killed, 3 were taken prisoner.
Eighty men survived the raid. Of these, 22 were killed serving in 617 Squadron later in the war and 10 more were killed while serving with other squadrons.
Only 48 men who took part in the raid survived the war.
Gibson flew only on the Dambusters raid with 617 Squadron even though its members flew several more precision bombing missions afterwards.
On 19 September 1944, Wing Commander Gibson led a bomber force into Germany to attack railways and industrial targets at Monchengladbach and Rheydt.
He was killed when his Mosquito bomber was brought down in the Netherlands.
Seventy years later it emerged the he was probably the victim of friendly fire when a recording by a British airman was uncovered.
Bernard McCormack, a gunner in a Lancaster bomber, said he mistook Gibson’s twin-engine Mosquito for a Junkers 88 plane during a night-time sortie over Germany in 1944.
He opened fire and sent it crashing to the ground. Gibson and his navigator were killed.
Sgt McCormack realised it was an Allied plane the following day when he and his crew were debriefed.
Sgt McCormack told nobody about what happened that night – but left a taped confession of the incident, which he gave to his wife before he died in 1992.
Australians Jack Leggo, Mick Martin, Tammy-Simpson, Bob Hay and Toby Foxlee in London after being decorated at Buckingham Palace, June 1943. AWM-pic
The RAF’s 617 squadron contained several Canadian, Australian, American and New Zealand airmen as well as Britons.
None of the airmen survive today – the last survivor, New Zealander Les Munro, died in 2015 aged 96.
Thirteen Australians were involved in the raid, including Harold (Micky) Martin from Sydney who was an expert in low-flying at night and his bomb-aimer, Bob Hay from Gawler, South Australia, who trained the squadron’s bomb aimers. A mine dropped by another Australian pilot, Les Knight, breached the Eder dam.
Knight was killed in action a few months after the Ruhr raid, and Hay in 1944. Martin survived to set a number of aviation records after the war and rose to the rank of air marshal and NATO commander.
The story of the Lancasters that left RAF Scampton is now legendry, because of the great risks and the use of the bouncing bomb.
The planes, flying at night, were only 100 ft (30 m) or less over enemy territory. One flew so low that hit the sea, having its bomb torn off and sea water getting into the fuselage. Another plane was lost in flames when it flew into high voltage electricity cables.
“At that height, you would only have to
hiccough and you would be in the drink.”
Wing Commander Guy Gibson
The planes that made it to the dams delivered the damage that planners envisaged; two dams were breached, and a third damaged.
Water surging down the valleys severely damaged factories and infrastructure.
While some have questioned the effectiveness of the raids given the dams were able to be repaired within six months, James Holland in his book, Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams, says it was time “to put the record straight”, insisting the damage was “absolutely enormous” and it was “an extraordinary achievement”.
He points out that every bridge for 30 miles below the breached Mohne dam was destroyed, and buildings were damaged 40 miles away. Twelve war production factories were destroyed, and around 100 more were damaged. Thousands of acres of farmland were ruined.
German sources attributed a 400,000-tonne drop in coal production in May 1943 to the damage.
Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson was particular about selecting his air crew for the mission. Thirteen Australians were chosen.
Dave Shannon, an Australian member of the “Dambusters” squadron, was just 20 when he joined.
Dave Shannon (AWM image)
Shannon was the son of a South Australian member of parliament and enlisted in the RAAF as soon as he was old enough.
After completing his flying training, he was sent to England and joined No. 106 Squadron RAF, where his commanding officer was Guy Gibson. Gibson left to form No. 617 Squadron for special flying operations and asked Shannon to join him.
Flt Lt Shannon received the second of his two Distinguished Flying Crosses for an attack on the Dortmund–Ems Canal, and another DSO for an attack on Munich in April 1944.
The citation in the London Gazette read: Since the award of a bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross, Squadron Leader Shannon has completed many sorties which he has executed with outstanding resolution and success. He has at all times displayed courage and fortitude of a high order and his appreciation of the responsibilities entrusted to him have set a fine example to all
He left No. 617 Squadron with a record of 69 operations and opted to drop rank to resume operational flying in Transport Command.
After the war Shannon remained in Britain, becoming an executive with Shell. he worked on oil drilling operations in Borneo, Kenya, Tanganyika (Tanzania), Venezuela, Suez, Colombia and Uganda for 16 years, rising within the company to the position of refinery coordinator, Shell Co. of East Africa Ltd. On 23 September 1961 he retired to a farm in Suffolk where he raised poultry, beef cattle, and pedigree Welsh ponies.
In September 1968 he returned to the oil industry, becoming assistant to the managing director of Offshore Marine Ltd, part of the Trafalgar House Group. He conducted offshore surveys in Canada, Australia, and the Far East, and became managing director of the company in November 1973. In 1978 he transferred to Geoprosco Overseas Ltd, taking over as managing director. He retired on 30 September 1984.
He died only a few weeks before a reunion planned for the 50th anniversary of the Dam Busters raid, aged 70.
The other Australia Dambusters:
Plt Officer Frederick Spafford DFM: Born in Adelaide, survived the raid on which he was a bomb-aimer for Gibson. Died later when his plane was shot down in a raid on the Dortmund Ems Canal on 16 September 1943.
Plt Officer Anthony Burcher DFM: Born in Vaucluse, Sydney. Rear gunner. In the rear turret for the raid. Plans crashed past the dam after hit by flak. Taken prisoner and returned to Australia after the war and lived in Tasmania.
Flt Lt Harold “Mick” Martin DFC: Born Edgecliff NSW. Bomber pilot and senior commander in the RAF. Left Australia for the UK in 1939 to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh but volunteered to join the RAF in August 1940. Became a senior officer in the RAF, commanding RAF Germany and later serving as Air Member for Personnel, a member of the Air Council, the RAF’s controlling body.
Harold (Mick) Martin
After Gibson’s retirement and the loss in action of his successor, Squadron Leader George Holden, Martin assumed temporary command of No. 617 Squadron. He stayed with the RAF after the war and was promoted to Air Marshal and later knighted – KCB, DSO & Bar, DFC & Two Bars, AFC. After retiring from the RAF in October 1974, Martin worked for aircraft manufacturer Hawker Siddeley as an advisor. Sir Harold Martin died in England on 3 November 1988.
Flt Lt Robert Hay DFC: Born in Adelaide and survived the raid. He graduated from Roseworthy Agricultural College in 1935, where he also excelled in sports. The swimming pool is now named in his honour. Bomb-aimer for the Dambusters raid but later was killed in a Mediterranean operation on 13 February 1944.
Flt Lt Jack Leggo DFC: Born in Sydney and attended Newcastle Boys High School. Like many other Australians, he did part of his training in Canada before joining the RAF. He joined Mick Martin’s crew as a 27-year-old navigator in 1941, with Tammy Simpson and Toby Foxlee. After the raid Leggo trained as a pilot and flew Sunderland flying boats for the rest of the war. He joined the sugar industry in Queensland after the war. He was knighted by the Queen in 1982 and died in 1983.
Plt Officer Bertie (Toby) Foxlee DFM: From Ashgrove, Queensland. Front gunner on the first wave of the Dambusters raid. He joined the RAAF in 1940 and trained in Australia and Canada as a wireless operator/air gunner. Became a member of Martin’s crew with Plt Off Leggo and Burton, Sgts Smith, Paton, Simpson and Foxlee. After the raid he trained other air crew. He left the RAAF in 1948, returned to Britain to join the RAF where he worked as an air traffic controller. He retired from the RAF in 1957, and after farming for a while in Kent, took his family to live in Australia in 1962. He returned to Britain in 1977 and died in Nottingham in 1985.
Flt Sgt Thomas (Tammy) Simpson DFM: From Hobart, Tasmania. Rear gunner. In early April 1943, he joined Mick Martin, Jack Leggo and Toby Foxlee in the new 617 Squadron, practising for the dams raid. He received the DFM for his role and promoted to Flt Lt. Returned to legal studies after the war and practised as a barrister, working mainly for ex-service personnel. He died in Tasmania in 1998 aged 80.
Plt Officer Leslie Knight DSO: Born in Camberwell, Victoria. He planned to become an accountant, but when war started he joined the RAAF in 1941, and was sent to England. Knight had flown on 26 operations by March 1943 when the crew was offered the chance to transfer into a new squadron being formed at nearby Scampton for a special secret mission- the Dambusters raid. Knight ‘s plane was one of those to record a success on the bombing run. The bomb was released, bounced three times and hit the dam wall punching a large breach below the top. Wireless operator Bob Kellow said later: “It seemed as if some huge fist had been jabbed at the wall, a large almost round black hole appeared and water gushed as from a large hose.” The plane had to rise sharply after the run. Bomb aimer Edward Johnson said later that it “required the full attention of the pilot and engineer to lay on emergency power from the engines and a climbing attitude not approved in any flying manuals and a period of nail biting from the rest of us not least me who was getting too close a view of the approaching terra firma from my position in the bomb-aimer’s compartment.”
Knight was killed when his plane crashed during a raid on the Dortmund Canal, just outside the village of Den Ham. He is buried in the village’s general cemetery.
Flt Sgt Robert Kellow DFM: Born in Newcastle NSW and was a schoolmate of Jack Leggo. Enlisted in the RAAF and selected to train as a wireless operator/air gunner. He was sent to Canada for training and later posted to the UK where he joined Les Knight’s crew. He was among those who successfully bailed out of Knight’s plane during the failed raid on the Dortmund canal. He avoided capture, helped by resistance groups, and after six weeks made it to Spain and eventually back to England. he returned to Australia in May 1944. He served in RAAF 37 Squadron for the rest of the war, mainly in Australia, including a deployment to New Guinea where he flew in a Lockheed Lodestar. He was promoted to Flt Lt in March 1945 and was discharged from the Air Force in 1946. He married a Canadian and in 1952 moved his family to Winnipeg where he worked for the Manitoba Power Commission. He died in February 1988.
Flt Lt Norman Barlow DFC: Born in Carlton Victoria. Killed on the Dambusters raid. Norman’s father Alec Barlow had built up a thriving motor business, Barlow Motors. Barlow joined the RAAF in April 1941 and as he was a qualified private pilot he was chosen for a flying role. He was sent to Canada and received his pilot’s flying badge in January 1942 and commissioned and sent to the UK.
By March 1943, Barlow and his crew had completed a full tour, and he was recommended for the DFC. The citation read: Throughout his many operational sorties, this officer has displayed the highest courage and devotion to duty. He has participated many attacks on Essen, Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne, and on two occasions he has flown his aircraft safely back to base on three engines. During periods of the most extensive operations Flt Lt Barlow has set a magnificent example of courage and determination.
Barlow’s AJ-E was the first Dambusters Raid plane in the air. The plane reached the border between the Netherlands and Germany and crashed near Haldern, 5km east of the Rhineside town of Rees, apparently after hitting a power pylon. All the crew were lost.
Flg Officer Charles Williams DFC: Born in Hughenden, Queensland. He went to school in Townsville and worked on the family farm. When war started, at almost 32 he was deemed too old for pilot training and was mustered as a wireless operator/air gunner. He was commissioned and posted to England. He joined the squadron formed for the Dambusters raid and was assigned to Barlow’s ill-fated crew.
Charlie Williams and the rest of his comrades were first buried in Dusseldorf, before being reinterred after the war in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.
Plt Officer Lancelot Howard DFC: Lance Howard was born in Freemantle, WA. He joined the RAAF in 1940 and was initially selected for pilot training. Eventually he was reassigned as a navigator. He arrived in the UK in late 1941 and was posted to 14 OTU at RAF Cottesmore. By late 1942, he was flying as the regular navigator in Bill Townsend’s crew and went on to complete 25 operations by March 1943.
By then he had been recommended for a commission, although it was not confirmed until after he had joined 617 Squadron.
Howard’s recollection of the Dambusters raid is recorded in the Colin Burgess book, Australia’s Dambusters:
It was a clear night with a full moon and we flew at 60 to 100 feet to keep under German radar. On the way in we received a radio message to attack the Ennepe dam, which indicated that the main target, the Möhne, had been breached. This we saw for ourselves shortly afterwards as we used this for a turning point on the way to the Ennepe. It was an horrific picture with a great stream of water bursting down the valley from the breach in the dam wall.
We attacked the Ennepe at sixty feet height and a speed of 240 miles per hour. There were no defences and the bomb was accurate. But no breach was observed and it was obvious that two or more bombs would be needed. Unfortunately there were no other aircraft … So back we screamed flat out to the Möhne with the engines at maximum revs and thence up to the north Dutch coast where we were sent on our way by a large flak gun, and then over the North Sea to Scampton.
We had another encounter with flak and searchlights on the way in, and all in all one wonders how we survived flying low-level and dodging high tension cables and trees. We were the last crew back.
Howard’s last two operations in the war were the squadron’s attacks on Italian targets in July. In September he was listed as “tour expired” and later posted to a conversion unit as an instructor. Howard was released from active service in March 1945 and returned to Australia.
After the war he worked in the Repatriation Department and then at the West Australian newspaper before retiring in 1972. He was active in the RAAF Association and also involved in the Karrakatta Cemetery association.
Lance Howard founded the Air Force Memorial Estate in Bull Creek, near Perth. The estate provides comfortable housing for ex-servicemen, next to the largest aviation museum in Australia. He and his wife lived there until his death on 26 December 1989.
References/Sources: Dictionary of Biography. Australian War Memorial (AWM), www.UK gov.com (Dambusters history), Charles Foster’s dambustersblog.com, Australia’s Dambusters (Colin Burgess).