The Final Briefing Before the Dambusters Raid Began

The Final Briefing Before the Dambusters Raid Began

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This article is an edited transcript of “Johnny” Johnson: The Last British Dambuster available on Our Site TV.

Of all the air raids carried out during World War Two, none are as famous as the attack by Lancaster Bombers against the dams of Germany’s industrial heartland. Commemorated in literature and film throughout the decades, the mission – which was codenamed Operation ‘Chastise’ – has come to epitomise British ingenuity and courage throughout the war.

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On that Saturday night before the raid, we met as a squadron. The majority of us really met Barnes-Wallis (the inventor of the bouncing bomb) for the first time.

He explained the bomb to us, and showed us film of its development, explained how it had been developed, and how difficult it had been to get it right in the first place.

Then he told us something about the bomb itself. It weighed 9,000 pounds, of which six and a half thousand was explosive within that bomb, fused with two depth fuses to explode at a depth of 25 feet but also fused with a self-destruct fuse. We learned why subsequently.

Then came probably the highest powered briefing I attended throughout my operational career.

Of all the air raids carried out during World War Two, none are as famous as the attack by Lancaster Bombers against the dams of Germany’s industrial heartland. Commemorated in literature and film throughout the decades, the mission – which was codenamed Operation ‘Chastise’ – has come to epitomise British ingenuity and courage throughout the war.

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The Air Officer Commanding was there. The station commander, Gibson, was there doing the briefing along with Barnes-Wallis, and senior officers of armament and engineering from the station were there. Well, Gibson explained the trip to us.

After Barnes-Wallis’ talk, the conjecture was it was going to be German battleships, notably the Tirpitz, based on the way the bomb had to be dropped. How wrong can you be?

Breaching the dams

The first thing we saw of course were the models of the Möhne and one of the Sorpe. The one on the Eder hadn’t been completely fitted.

We found out what the target was from the models of the dams.

Front view of a scale model of the Möhne Dam photographed in 1954. The model was constructed in 1941 at the Garston Building Research Station. Built to facilitate the testing of underwater explosive devices, it was 1/50th scale of the actual target. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

When the bomb was dropped, it was being rotated at 500 revs per minute backwards.

It had to be dropped from exactly 60 feet at a ground speed of 200 knots.

That meant it was sort of four men flying the aircraft, with the navigator watching the lights until everyone was aligned and that was the exact height.

The flight engineer was watching the speed and indicating when it was up or down and the bomb aimer was directing the pilot to the target.

It meant the pilots were being told by three other members of crew how to fly the aircraft, but they didn’t seem to complain too much about it.

On 1 April 1945, as the Second World War in Europe was reaching its end, one of the bloodiest battles in the whole conflict commenced on a small island south of mainland Japan. It was the Battle of Okinawa.

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That was the way it was going to be. Gibson in the briefing explained that he would take off with two others. They’d head for the Möhne and attack it.

When they got there six others, in two sets of three, would follow him and they too would head for the Möhne.

If the Möhne hadn’t been breached by the time they got there they would attack that under Gibson’s direction. When that was breached, they would move over to the Eder. That was the briefing for nine of the crews.

Five, of which we we were one, were briefed for the Sorpe, and of course the Sorpe had to be different from the other two.

It had no towers, so there was nothing to sight on. It was so placed in the hills that a head on attack was virtually impossible, certainly extremely difficult.

The destruction of the Möhne dam. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

We had to fly down one side of the hill with the port outer engine over the dam itself and fly along the dam and estimate to drop the bomb as near as possible to the centre of the dam.

With the port engine over the dam, the bomb was on the water side. Well that meant we weren’t going to use any of the bombing practices we’d been doing for the last six weeks. But that was what we had to do, so that was the job.

Pre-flight jitters

We then went back to the messes for the usual operational bacon and eggs meal before you left. Normally, some wit would probably say to you, if you don’t come back, can I have your sausage?

But that sort of thing was taken in good form.

But the sortie was then out to the aircraft, Q-Queen. I know it’s Quebec now, but it was Q-Queen in those days.

But then came our big shock, because it decided it didn’t want to go that night. It developed a hydraulic leak on run up which couldn’t be fixed in time to take off.

Avro Lancaster modified to represent those used in the “Dam Busters” film displaying at Coventry airport. Credit: RuthAS / Commons.

There was only one reserve aircraft and that had come in three o’clock that afternoon.

It had been bombed up, fuelled up and it had done a compass swing with the bomb on board to offset the metal of that bomb against the aircraft composition.

As soon as we knew we weren’t going to be able to take Queen, Joe said,

For Christ sake, get that reserve before some other bugger gets there and we don’t get to go.

Header image credit: The King inspects ground crewmen lined up beneath the nose of Avro Lancaster B Mark I, ED989, DX-F, ‘Frederick III’. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

REVIEW – Chastise: the Dambusters story, 1943

Of all the events from WWII to capture the imagination of the British public, few remain as compelling as the ‘Dambusters’ raid of 1943. Dubbed Operation Chastise, it saw the destruction of the Möhne and Eder dams in north-west Germany by 617 Squadron of the RAF. Their daring exploits and their bouncing bombs – known as ‘Upkeep’ – were made famous by the iconic 1955 film Dambusters.

Max Hastings, noted historian and journalist, is a titanic force in British history, with 27 books to his name – many of which cover conflict. In Chastise, he brings his expertise on warfare to bear on this critical episode in WWII history. The raid has generated significant debate amongst historians, with disagreement particularly over whether it had a lasting impact on the German war machine.

Hastings’s aim is less a rigorous reappraisal, and more a search for the middle ground. This is not a text of British military triumphalism. Rather, we are taken on a sweeping journey through the many human actors in this story, meeting a slew of scientists, commanders, and pilots along the way.

He is also careful to not make Chastise too Anglo-centric, and engages with the ‘enormity of the horror’ unleashed in the nightmarish floods created when the dams were breached. In the cauldron of total war, it is right and proper that both the 1,400 civilians killed in these floods and the 53 crew members from 617 Squadron lost in the attack have their place in the narrative.

Hastings begins Chastise by describing the British war effort in 1943. Whilst the nation no longer faced imminent danger of invasion, Britain was still firmly on the defensive. Ordinary people heard reports of the Soviets starting to win great victories against the Nazis on the Eastern Front, but they saw little evidence of Britain truly ‘taking the war’ to the Germans.

Here we are introduced to the concept of military theatre: a chance for a symbolic victory over the enemy, even if it had little tangible impact on the war. Through this ‘impatient’ mindset, the decision to pursue a highly dangerous operation like Chastise begins to make sense.

The intellectual vision for the Dambusters raid came from a man named Barnes Wallis. His frenzied white hair could easily make him seem like another scientific heavyweight exploited by the British war machine. But as Hastings makes clear, Wallis was a ‘Whitehall warrior’, who was able to navigate the many clashing priorities of British officialdom to convince them of the value of his project.

It seems extraordinary to the 21st century reader that, at a time when bombs were falling from above on Britain in 1940, men like Wallis had any time to pursue futuristic weapons. Yet, as we quickly learn, Wallis engaged in a frenetic search for bombing methods to target German hydro-electric dams.

The book here is a wonderful intellectual journey, guiding the reader through Wallis’s key discoveries, like the iconic bouncing effect and the disproportionate explosive impact of a bomb detonated underwater close to a dam. In this manner, much as they had for Wallis, the pieces begin to fall into place for the final shape of the operation.

That operation involved 23 modified Lancaster Mark III Type 464 aircraft. They had been altered to accommodate the rotating machinery that would provide the backspin for the Upkeep bomb and its 6,600lb explosive charge – a wonderful diagram of the aircraft’s interior accompanies the textual descriptions.

Hastings’s human approach is crucial here, to stop the narrative veering towards myth-making about British heroism. The process was far from perfect, with the weapon altered at the last minute from spherical to cylindrical.

Wallis’s scientific exploits are balanced with discussion of the bureaucratic limitations in which he operated. The figure that stands out is Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, commander-in-chief of RAF Bomber Command.

He is famous for his role in leading the bombing campaigns against German cities in the later war. A man of great bombast, Harris was quick to see his own place in the British war effort, jumping to get his own ‘stamp’ on Chastise when it became clear it had the full weight of the British military establishment behind it.

Harris’s coming in behind the project, after initial scepticism, is in many ways symptomatic of a duality in thought amongst British military commanders about Chastise. At one point, says Hastings, they harboured deep doubts about whether it could be pulled off , but simultaneously held ‘extravagant hopes for the impact of such an assault upon the Nazi war machine.’


Before the fateful flight to the German dams, the narrative takes time to introduce us to some of the men in 617 Squadron. Led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, this group of mostly young men formed tight bonds as they prepared for the most daunting of wartime operations.

Hastings’ familiarity with the close-knit world of 617 Squadron is self-evident here – he interviewed several of them when he was commissioned in 1977 to write Bomber Command .

The men completed an intensive training programme, including flights at very low altitudes, precise manoeuvres at speed, and bombing tests over water. These low-level flights were particularly alarming for civilians below, with the pilots low enough that observers could see ‘flashes of the crews’ pink features’.

Only on the morning of 16 May, the ‘Big Day’, were the 133 men told the purpose of all their training: a fast, low-altitude operation to Germany to bomb the Möhne, Eder, and Sorpe dams.

The flight to Germany is rendered with typical flair and confidence by Hastings. Their initial flight over the North Sea is captured in beautifully calm prose, as the planes quietly soared towards the coast. This shifts dramatically when we arrive on the European continent.

Flying below 100ft to avoid German radar, the men’s own Gee navigation system became erratic at this extremely low altitude. The operation relied, therefore, on intense concentration from all involved, particularly from the human navigators, to steer clear of the principal threats to life: flak on the ground and power lines.

Even a ‘split-second loss of concentration’ could be deadly: Norm Barlow and his E-Easy flight hit power lines in Holland, killing all seven of his crew instantly.

The tale of bouncing bombs destroying two out of three of the targeted dams is familiar territory for many interested in WWII history. Hastings is careful to add the human thread that holds this formidable book together. He works hard to add introspection to this critical piece of narrative, noting how as Gibson approached the Möhne dam in the first bombing run ‘he felt almost overwhelmed by the vastness of the dam looming before his Lancaster, suddenly so small.’


Hastings ends with a clinical reflection on the realistic impact of the bombing raid. He includes numerous translated German testimonials of the ‘Möhnekatastrophe’, the German word to describe the devastating impact of the torrent of floodwaters unleashed by the two dam breaches.

After the accounts of bravery from the British airmen, it is sobering to read of the dire consequences of their actions. We hear of whole families swept away, children clinging onto branches for dear life, and 100 French POWs locked in an air-raid shelter that became their tomb.

This catastrophic impact has to be part of conclusions about the operational success or failure of Chastise. Hastings is clear that this was a ‘damaging’ operation on German capabilities in their industrial heartland of the Ruhr.

However, opportunities were missed by Bomber Command to follow up Chastise with bombing raids to hamper the repair operation. The impact on German industry ultimately proved temporary, and Chastise failed to deliver the ‘decisive’ hammer-blow promised upon its conception.


Chastise is a worthy text, ideal for anyone looking for an engaging and nuanced history of the famous Dambusters operation in WWII. It is full to the brim with stirring narrative, beautiful pictures, and detailed maps of the operation.

The text does not provide much in the way of new research, with Hastings being very upfront in his deference to the expertise of past historians of this subject. Its true value is to, perhaps, shift debate away from British myth-making and into a murkier world of the brutal decisions made by the human beings who lived through this era of total war.

It is sobering that Hastings’s overwhelming emotion at the end of Chastise is sympathy for those who flew, those who died, and the British commanders forced to make decisions that led to such loss of life on both sides.

Every word from this period drives home this sombre conclusion. Gibson, watching from above, wrote how cars tried in vain to escape ‘in front of the great wave of water which was chasing them and going faster than they could ever hope to,’ as he witnessed the ‘water overtake them.’

Review by Alexander Izza

This article was published in the March 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

AS part of the 75 th anniversary commemorations of the famous Dambusters raid, the University of Huddersfield’s Professor Richard Morris – a leading authority on the mission and the men behind it – has written a special appraisal for the UK’s most popular history publication.

His article is headed How successful was the Dambusters raid? and it appears on Historyextra, which is the official website for BBC History Magazine.

Richard Morris – who is Emeritus Professor at the University – is writing a biography of Barnes Wallis, the brilliant engineer who developed the “bouncing bomb” that was carried by the squadron of Lancasters that attacked a series of German dams in May, 1943.

The article includes an account of Wallis’s anguished reaction to the death toll among members of 617 Squadron: “At the final briefing late on the Sunday afternoon, Wallis had addressed 19 crews. The next day, only 11 of them came back. Fifty-six of the faces into which he had looked just a few hours before were gone, and all but three of them were dead.”

The raid did succeed in breaching two dams, causing considerable chaos and loss of life. But Professor Morris asks if Operation Chastise – as it was codenamed – was truly successful.

“It is not as if Chastise succeeded on its own terms,” he writes. “For all the raid’s audacity and courage the technical brilliance behind it and despite the widespread destruction and adverse repercussions for the German war economy that it certainly caused, it did not bring about the long-term crisis for which planners in the Air Ministry and Ministry of Economic Warfare had hoped.”

The article describes the jubilant reaction in Britain when news of the raid was reported and this would lead to “wishful thinking” about its success. The legend of the Dambusters would be secured by the 1955 film, starring Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis and Richard Todd as Wing Commander Guy Gibson. The film received a gala screening at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 75 th anniversary commemorations.

“It is fair to ask why an event with such heart-breaking consequences for almost all concerned should still stir fulsome national feelings,” writes Prof Morris, whose online article also compares the fictionalised version of Barnes Wallis – as “a softly-spoken, slightly abstracted genius” – with the real man.

He adds that: “The film’s version of events nonetheless endures and, with it, a narrative of daring imagination versus dull officialdom leading to an outstanding feat of arms that has gripped the nation ever since”.

How the Dambusters Pulled Off Their Legendary World War II Air Raid

With Guy Gibson’s Lancaster flying above to attract anti-aircraft fire, Henry “Dinghy” Young drops his “Upkeep” mine on the Möhne dam, in Robert Taylor’s painting Dambusters—The Impossible Mission.

After 70 years, the bold British raid on Germany’s strategic river dams remains one of history’s most audacious bombing missions—a testament to ingenious engineering and the bravery of RAF aircrews.

As a red flare curved into the Lincoln­shire sky, the engines on 19 Avro Lan­casters clattered to life and the black bombers began to move slowly out of their dispersals. The muffled roar that evening, May 16, 1943, was familiar to nearby residents. Operations were on again. RAF Scampton’s aircraft would likely be joining hundreds of others in another “maximum effort.” Where are our boys going tonight: Berlin? Hamburg? Some would offer a silent prayer for their safe return.

The new squadron was in fact setting out, by itself, on one of the most remarkable missions of the war, using a unique new weapon. The operation was so secret that not even the ground crews, who had loaded the huge cyl­indrical objects under the fuselages that earned the planes the nickname “Scampton Steamrollers,” knew where they were going.

At 9:28, Bob Barlow, one of many Aus­tralians serving with Bomber Command, pushed the throttle levers fully forward, then moved his hand aside for flight engineer Sam Whillis to hold them in position. With such a heavy fuel and bomb load, any loss of power on takeoff would be disastrous. As the Lan­caster gained altitude and the airfield disappeared behind his turret, rear gunner Jack Liddell would have breathed a sigh of relief. Just 18, he had falsified his age two years earlier to join the Royal Air Force, and was already a veteran of 30 missions when few bomber crews survived half that number.

At the RAF’s No. 5 Group headquarters, Barnes Neville Wallis faced the longest night of his life. As assistant chief designer for the armament firm Vickers Armstrongs, he had conceived the mission plan. His research had shown that to produce each ton of steel, the Germans required thousands of gallons of water from several great Ruhr valley dams, the largest being the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe. Coal and armament production, hydroelectric power and cities also depended on these sources. The largest conventional bombs would barely chip the concrete dams, assuming they could hit them from 20,000 feet. But, Wallis theorized, detonate enough high explosive in contact with the dam wall and the water would magnify the force, in the same way a torpedo with a relatively small explosive charge could sink a battleship.

The paper he sent to leading scientific, government and military personnel, complete with formulas and calculations, produced either ridicule or indifference. It also resulted in a visit from a Secret Intelligence Service agent, who wanted to know why Wallis was sharing “vital and very secret” information. “Is it?” he replied. “When I showed it to the authorized people they said I was mad. I’m supposed to be a crackpot.”

Years later, he discovered another possible reason for resistance to his ideas: He had been on a list of potential enemy agents. Inventors in the pay of the Germans, the theory went, would submit ideas to scientific branches of the services and from their reaction deduce what was already being worked on.

The government had earlier formed the Air Attack on Dams Committee, which concluded “an attack on the Möhne Dam is impracticable with existing weapons.” Wallis pleaded, “Give me time to find out how much RDX will blow a hole in the Möhne if it’s pressed up against the wall.” A 279-pound charge of the powerful new explosive de­stroyed a small, disused dam in Wales, from which he calculated that 6,000 pounds would punch a 50-foot breach in the Möhne. The total weight of such a mine would be less than 5 tons, which the four-engine Lancaster could easily carry to the Ruhr. But the problem of how to avoid torpedo nets guarding the dams and place the mines deep against the wall re­mained unanswered.

Recalling that Admiral Horatio Nelson had sometimes attacked French warships by skipping cannonballs off the sea, Wallis experimented by catapulting marbles off water in a bathtub, and then from a boat on a nearby pond. From tests on larger projectiles at the Teddington ship research laboratory, near London, he calculated the distance a mine should be dropped from the dam, at what height and speed, and how much backspin would cause it to skip on the water and help it cling to the dam wall as it sank.

On December 4, 1942, with Vickers test pilot Captain “Mutt” Summers at the controls and Wallis in the bombardier’s position, a modified Wellington approached the bombing range with a full-size inert mine slung beneath. Naval gunners, unable to identify the aircraft with its great bulge, opened fire, which Wallis considered “carrying official obstructionism a little too far.” As the aircraft leveled off, he pressed the release. To the grati­fication of skeptical observers, the mine broke apart upon hitting the water, as did subsequent ones. Finally, in January 1943, a mine with a strengthened casing skipped 20 times, covering 1,315 yards.

During a trial run demonstration, British officials watch the spinning mine bounce across the water toward the shoreline. Barnes Wallis is at far left, urging the bomb on. (IWM FLM 2343)

In mid-February, Bomber Command’s Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, concerned that RAF resources would be diverted for Wallis’ scheme, wrote to the chief of the Air Staff, Charles Portal, that “the weapon itself exists only within the imagination of those who conceived it,” and called it “just about the maddest proposition as a weapon that we have come across.” When Wallis met with Harris on February 22, the air chief marshal’s reaction was hardly encouraging. “I’ve no time for you damned inventors,” he growled. “My boys’ lives are too precious to be wasted by your crazy notions!” However, after watching films of the model tests at Teddington and the successful full-size drops, Harris agreed to think about it.

The next day Vickers’ chairman summoned Wallis, telling him he’d been making a nuisance of himself and should stop further work on the project. Shocked, Wallis offered to resign. But just three days later, after Air Chief Marshal Portal overruled Harris’ ob­jections, the inventor was again summoned and told, “Orders have been received that your dams project is to go ahead immediately with a view to an operation at all costs no later than May” (when the lakes would be full). It meant less than three months to perfect the mines, modify the planes and create and train a new squad­ron to do what had never been done before.

On March 14, 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson landed after a harrowing mission to Stutt­gart. An engine in his Lancaster had failed soon after takeoff, and with an 8,000-pound bombload the aircraft could not maintain altitude. Gibson pressed on, and with the three good engines shaking the Lancaster at full power, bombed the target at low level. It was his 173rd mission and completed his third tour, a monumental achievement when few of his contemporaries lived to finish one. Now he could look forward to en­joying leave in Cornwall.

Instead, he received orders to report to Air Vice-Marshal Ralph Cochrane, 5 Group commander, who first congratulated him on the award of his second Distinguished Service Order (he already held the Distinguished Flying Cross). Cochrane then asked, “How would you like the idea of doing one more trip?” Thinking of the flak and fighters he hoped to avoid for a few weeks, Gibson hesitantly replied, “What kind of trip, sir?”

“A pretty important one, perhaps one of the most devastating of all time,” said Cochrane. Three days later at another meeting the air vice-marshal told him that a special squadron was to be organized for the job. “I want you to form that squadron,” he said. “As far as aircrews are concerned, I want the best—you choose them.” Gibson selected 22 highly experienced crews from Britain, Aus­tralia, Canada and New Zealand. And the U.S.: 6-foot-3-inch “Big Joe” McCarthy and Henry “Dinghy” Young, so nicknamed be­cause he had twice been picked up from his rubber raft after being shot down.

Gibson addressed the men: “You’re here to do a special job, you’re here as a crack squadron, you’re here to carry out a raid on Germany which, I am told, will have startling results. Some say it may even cut short the duration of the war. What the target is I can’t tell you. Nor can I tell you where it is. All I can tell you is that you will have to practice low flying all day and all night until you know how to do it with your eyes shut.”

In the days that followed, the new No. 617 Squadron’s crews gleefully flew across Britain at previously forbidden hedge-hopping heights, buzzing towns and villages, down rivers and out to sea. As complaints flooded in, Gibson tore them up.

Wallis couldn’t even tell Gib­son, who was to lead the raid, what the target was, as the wing commander was not on the list of those permitted to know. He did show Gibson the films of his successful drops from the Wellington. “Well, that’s my secret bomb,” he said. “That’s how you’re go­ing to put it in the right place. Now, can you fly at 240 miles per hour, at 150 feet, over water?”

Gibson took his crew to practice over Der­went Water, a lake and dam in Derbyshire re­sembling the Möhne. It proved difficult by day, and impossible in the dark, to dive over the surrounding hills and level out at the right height. Once they nearly went into the lake and bombardier “Spam” Spafford said, “This is bloody dangerous!” The so­lution was to fit two spotlights under each plane, aimed to converge at 150 feet. Crews now found they could fly at night to within 2 feet of that altitude. More sobering was the fact that a Lancaster, flying straight and low and shining spotlights, would be a prime target for anti-aircraft gunners.

Cochrane showed Gibson scale models of the dams, the first time he knew what they would be attacking. “You’ll be the only one in the squadron to know,” Cochrane said. “Keep it that way.” But three weeks from the raid’s scheduled date, mines continued to break up on hitting the water 150 feet was too high. “Can you fly at 60 feet above the water?” Wallis asked Gibson. “If you can’t, the whole thing will have to be called off.” A Lancaster’s wingspan was more than twice that distance. At that height, Gib­son thought, you would only have to hiccup and you would be in the drink, but he told Wallis, “We’ll have a crack at it tonight.” On April 29, a mine dropped from 60 feet worked. The aircrew could see, down on the beach, a white dot bobbing about—Barnes Wallis waving his cap and dancing in the pouring rain.

Gibson (at door) and his crew board their Lancaster before the raid. (IWM CH 18005)

May 16 had been a fine, sunny day. The hectic mission preparations were complete. At a final briefing by Cochrane, Gibson and Wallis, the aircrews were shown scale models of their targets, and enjoyed the rare treat of a bacon and eggs meal. Some, with un­canny premo­nition, wrote final letters to their next of kin or said goodbye to friends in other crews. The previous night, Gibson’s black Labrador, who often flew with him, had been run over and killed: a bad omen. He ordered his pet to be buried at midnight, feeling that at that moment, at the raid’s height, he might well be joining his faithful friend. More encouraging was the assigned identification, AJ-G, for his aircraft. They were the initials of his father, whose birthday it was.

Finally the time came to take off. Gibson’s wave of nine Lan­casters would attack the Möhne. Once it was breached—if he survived—he would lead the aircraft that had not yet dropped their mines to the Eder. A separate wave of five planes would attack the Sorpe. Five reserves would bomb any targets not destroyed.

Crossing the North Sea at 60 feet, aided by the spotlights, they climbed to 1,000 feet over the Dutch coast, then down again, low enough sometimes to pass under high-tension cables. With 40 minutes to go to the Möhne, several aircraft had taken flak damage. An engine on John Hop­good’s AJ-M was knocked out, and Hop­good, rear gunner Tony Burcher and wireless op­erator John Minchin were wounded. At 10:57, Vernon Byers’ AJ-K, in the second wave, was hit and crashed in the Waddenzee. Soon Bill Astell’s AJ-B was also lost. Barlow’s AJ-E, the first to take off and carrying rear gunner Jack Liddell, crashed 13 minutes later. Its mine was recovered intact by the Ger­mans, who unsuccessfully attempted to copy it as an anti-ship weapon. Three down.

Lancaster AJ-E was the third Dambuster to go down. Its mine was recovered by the Germans, who tried in vain to copy the weapon. (IWM HU 62922)

At the Möhne, Gibson thumbed his transmitter: “I am going to attack. Stand by to come in to attack in your order when I tell you.” As his Lancaster sped across the lake, its two .303-inch forward machine guns en­gaged in an unequal duel with the dam’s battery of 20mm cannons, whose gunners wondered why the crazy British apparently had their landing lights on. With tracers whipping past, Gibson yelled to his flight engineer, “Stand by to pull me out of my seat if I get hit!”

Spafford shouted “Mine gone!” and they rocketed over the dam. Gibson banked to see a gigantic white plume rise from the black waters. When it subsided, the dam was still there. Hopgood, wounded in the head earlier, attacked next. Shells hit a wing, and the mine fell away late, exploding on the power station. Trailing fire, the Lancaster struggled for altitude as Hopgood yelled to his crew, “For Christ’s sake get out!” Minchin, his leg nearly severed in the earlier flak strike, crawled to the escape hatch. Without telling Hopgood, he had continued at his post with this terrible wound. Burcher clipped Min­chin’s parachute on and pushed him out, then he and bombardier Jim Fraser followed. They were two of only three who became POWs out of the 56 of 133 airmen who did not return. (Minchin died from his wound.)

“Mick” Martin bombed next, but a hit in the wing caused him to swerve, and the mine exploded short of the dam. With Gibson flying alongside to attract flak, Young attacked, his mine exploding on the parapet. Still the dam held. David Maltby, with Gibson and Martin flying on each side, bombed accurately, and a few seconds later Martin’s voice filled their earphones: “Hell, it’s gone! It’s gone!” The lake water was crashing through a 100-yard gap. Burcher, lying in a field, his back injured, heard the roaring water.

Wallis received the news with mixed feelings—elation that the first target had been destroyed, disappointment that it had taken four mines. (Gibson’s probably exploded on the anti-torpedo nets, blasting a hole for Malt­by’s, the only one to hit the dam’s center.)

On to the Eder. The lake was long and winding, rimmed by sheer, tree-lined hills, requiring a steep cork­screw dive with only seconds to level out, adjust altitude and speed and drop the weapon, then a maximum-power climb to avoid hills on the other side. Flying a big Lancaster in the dark and a gathering mist, it was incredibly difficult and dangerous. After six attempts, Henry Maudslay and Dave Shannon could not get their height and speed right in time to bomb. Finally Shan­non succeeded, and the familiar geyser of spray rose at the dam wall.

Maudslay came in too fast, the mine exploding on the parapet as his bomber flew over. He managed to nurse the damaged Lancaster, AJ-Z, for several miles before becoming a flak victim. On his fourth try, Les Knight, in the remaining plane, dropped his weapon, which bounced three times and hit. Once again the surviving crews watched in awe as a roaring torrent exploded out of the breach. They could see the lights of vehicles, desperately trying to escape, turning green as the water rolled over and snuffed them out.

Unknown to Gibson or those at Scampton, of the five aircraft assigned to the Sorpe, only Joe McCarthy’s got beyond the Dutch coast. The others, together with most of the five reserves, had been shot down, hit power lines or returned with equipment problems. Gibson, and Control in England, called Astell, Barlow, Byers, Louis Burpee and Warner Ottley several times, but they were all dead. (Freddie Tees, Ottley’s rear gunner, had a miraculous escape. Blown clear when AJ-C crashed and the mine exploded, he became the third and last POW survivor.) McCarthy and reserve pilot Ken Brown bombed the Sorpe dam, but, unlike the masonry Möhne and Eder, it was a massive earth structure with a concrete core. Wallis had hoped tremors from several mines would start leaks that would widen and cause it to fail, but two explosions proved insufficient.

Eight tons lighter in bombs and fuel, the 10 surviving Lancasters hugged the ground at 260 mph in a race to get home. The coast was an hour away, and dawn was breaking. Several bombers suffered further flak damage. Young radioed that he was ditching yet again. After 65 missions his luck finally ran out this time he was not in his dinghy.

Wallis met the survivors at Scampton. When the extent of the losses became clear, he was distraught, saying, “If I’d only known, I’d never have started this.” Martin took him aside and explained that seeing sudden death was nothing new to the men of Bomber Com­mand, and few had expected to survive the war. It could have been worse: There were no losses to enemy night fighters. A communications breakdown had caused the nearby German base at Werl to continue its night flying training. Other fighters were unable to locate the incoming and outgoing aircraft at their extremely low altitude.

A post-raid recon photo shows the breached Möhne dam. (IWM CH 9687)

The Ruhr valley, which had been enduring a trial by fire, now experienced one by water. Roaring torrents, racing at 50 feet per second, swept away buildings, power stations, high-tension lines, bridges and railroad viaducts, including the ones carrying the main Dortmund and Frankfurt lines. Factories in Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund, Hamm, Essen, Bochum and beyond were destroyed or damaged many others had no water or electricity. Fifty miles away, coal mines and airfields were inundated. The industrial area of Kassel was underwater. Canal banks were washed away, and barges—crucial conduits for coal, munitions and aircraft parts—sat grounded on the bottom. Steel production was affected for the rest of the year.

The official German report called it “a dark picture of destruction,” and estimated it was equivalent to the loss of production of 100,000 men for several months. Armaments minister Albert Speer was confident that German skill and discipline, and the ruthless use of slave labor, would rectify the worst damage and restore lost production within months. The surviving dams could maintain a reduced water and power supply. If the Sorpe had also been breached, Speer said, “Ruhr production would have suffered the heaviest blow.”

Hitler ordered 27,000 workers and slave laborers to clean up the damage and repair the Möhne and Eder dams. Over Speer’s objections, 10,000 were diverted from building the Atlantic Wall defenses. At the postwar Nuremburg trials, he stated: “The transfer of these workers…into Germany amounted to a catastrophe to us on the Atlantic Wall.” Allied soldiers wading ashore at Normandy, en­countering half-finished coastal defenses, were major beneficiaries of the raid.

The surviving “Dambusters” found themselves famous at home and in the U.S., where Winston Churchill was visiting President Franklin Roosevelt. Thirty-three medals were awarded, making No. 617 the most highly decorated squadron in Bomber Command. Guy Gibson received the Victoria Cross—one of only 23 awarded to the 125,000 RAF Bomber Command crewmen in the war—before leaving for a lecture tour in America. On his return he chafed to get back on opera­tions. Reluctantly, the RAF acquiesced. On September 19, 1944, serving as master bomber for a raid on München Gladbach, he circled in his Mosquito above the target at low altitude, ignoring flak and directing the bombing before transmitting: “OK, chaps, that’s fine. Now beat it home.” Minutes later he crashed in Holland. The Dutch buried him there.

For the rest of World War II, 617 Squadron flew as a special operations, precision-bombing unit, dropping the heaviest conventional bombs of the war, Barnes Wallis’ 6-ton Tallboy and 10-ton Grand Slam. Today the squadron operates the Tornado GR4 fighter-bomber in the ground attack, anti-shipping and reconnaissance role. RAF Scampton is now home to the RAF’s aerobatic team, the Red Arrows. All subsequent commanding officers used Guy Gibson’s old office. From its window one can see a small grave, that of his Labrador. The station’s museum has photos of the dams, and one of Gibson’s caps. It’s just a 20-minute bus ride from Lincoln, whose great cathedral was a welcome sight to aircrews returning from Germany.

RAF Bomber Command veteran Nicholas O’Dell last wrote for Aviation History about jet engine developer Sir Frank Whittle. Further reading: The Dam Busters, by Paul Brickhill Enemy Coast Ahead, by Wing Commander Guy Gibson A Hell of a Bomb, by Stephen Flower and The Men Who Breached the Dams, by Alan Cooper.

This feature originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe today

Great Events in British History: Operation Chastise – The Dambusters Raid

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Few airborne missions in the history of the Second World War have taken on such an iconic status as that of Operation Chastise, otherwise known as the Dambusters Raid. On the night of 16 May 1943, Royal Air Force Squadron 617 launched a surprise attack on a number of strategic German sites, featuring the pioneering use of new ‘bouncing bombs’, codenamed ‘Upkeeps’. This surprise attack successfully targeted German industrial sites with a high degree of precision, resulting in the breaching of two major dams in the Ruhr industrial valley, and severely damaging a third. The raid caused extensive damage to German infrastructure, power and water supplies, and resulted in a very high civilian death toll. Only half of the squadron survived the mission, which was immortalised in the 1955 epic war film The Dambusters. Although the significance of the raid in the overall war effort is debated, it is clear that Operation Chastise functioned as a significant blow to German morale in this critical stage of the Second World War. The raids live on in the collective British memory as a shining example of British ingenuity and daring-do.


  • March 1942 – Wallis designs the new ‘bouncing bomb’ to target German dams
  • 26 February 1943 – Operation Chastise is given the go-ahead testing begins
  • 29 April 1943 – Final tests of the new bouncing bombs
  • 16 May 1943 – Operation Chastise is launched


  • Barnes Wallis – Inventor of the ‘bouncing bombs’ used in Operation Chastise
  • Sir Arthur Harris – Chief of Bomber Command
  • Guy Gibson – Wing Commander of No.617 Squadron
  • Building the Bouncing Bomb

During the early 1940s, at the height of the Second World War, Allied policymakers had identified a number of strategic sites in the German heartlands that were thought to provide opportunities to limit the capacity of the Germans to operate potentially. In particular, the heavily industrialised Ruhr Valley was singled out as an important target. The valley contained a number of important dams that provided crucial hydroelectric power and ensured a clean supply of water for civilians, military personnel, and for industrial use in steel making. If these dams could be breached, it was suggested, it would strike a keen blow to the German war effort.

However, devising a way to attack these important and well-defended sites was no easy feat. The targeted dams, particularly the Mohne, were well defended by German flak (anti-aircraft guns), and the mission would require a surprise attack, capable of dropping a significant load on the site with hitherto unprecedented accuracy. The bombs needed to be large enough to cause sufficient damage to breach the concrete dam, but the planes also needed an extremely accurate targeting system, flown with sufficient dexterity in order to avoid detection. Such a raid had never been attempted before, and to all intents and purposes, in the early 1940s, it seemed to be impossible.

A number of wartime engineers were set the task of creating new technology that would facilitate the mission. Barnes Wallis, an engineer at Vickers, applied himself and developed an innovative and intelligent solution to the problem. The initial idea was to construct a 10-tonne bomb that could be dropped from around 40,000 feet in the air. This bomb would have the capacity to cause serious damage to the dam wall but was likely to have limited success on account of the torpedo nets that were intended to prevent such attacks. Wallis needed to find a way to circumvent the torpedo nets and to land the bombs at the base of the dam wall. In order to achieve this, he devised an ingenious solution. The bomb he designed was drum-shaped and small and was designed to spin backwards. This meant that it could be dropped from a low altitude on to the water, where the spinning momentum would lead it to bounce along the surface, in much the same way as a spinning stone bounces off the surface of a lake. In this way, the bomb could avoid the torpedo nets altogether and be detonated once it landed next to the dam by means of a hydrostatic fuse.

Wallis’s designs were initially met with ridicule, and Sir Arthur Harris, Chief of Bomber Command, is said to have referred to them as ‘tripe’ and the ‘maddest proposition’. However, Wallis persevered with his tests. The second challenge was to find a vessel suitable for carrying the bombs to their destination. The planes needed to be capable of carrying a four-tonne bomb, modified to allow for the spinning mechanism to be fitted, and needed to be flown extremely low to the ground in order to ensure that they hit the water at the correct angle. A series of trials were carried out in late 1942, first on a scaled prototype and later on a full-sized prototype on Chesil Beach in January of 1943. Following this, it was decided that a modified version of the Arvo Lancaster bomber would be sufficient to carry the bombs, thus considerably accelerating the process of development. Finally, on 26 February 1943, the mission was given the go-ahead.

Planning and Preparations

The operation was assigned to a new squadron taken from No. 5 Group RAF, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Gibson was an experienced and capable flyer and was given the task of putting together the dedicated 617 Squadron and running tests with the new bombs and modified planes. Gibson was the only one to be given full information about the details of the raid, and he began to intensively drill his crews in order to give the mission the best possible chance of success. The squadron consisted of personnel from the Royal Air Force, in addition to those from the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

The key targets for the mission were identified as the Mohne Dam and the Sorpe Dam, both upstream from the Ruhr industrial complex. The Eder Dam, on the nearby Eder River, was chosen as a secondary target, but there were limited hopes that this would be destroyed, due to the steep hills surrounding the reservoir, which would make the approach more difficult. The days leading up to the raid were tense and uncertain, as the final preparations for the mission were made. At midday on 16 May, the crews were finally briefed on the substance of the plan and given their orders for the raid. Operation Chastise would take place that very night.

Operation Chastise: The Launch

From 9.28pm on 16 May, 19 Lancaster bombers, carrying 133 crew, departed Lincolnshire in waves, organised into two main groups and taking different routes into enemy territory. The bombers flew low in order to avoid radar detection and this created problems from the very outset. One fighter, flying too low, actually struck the sea, and lost the bomb in the water. Another ran into electricity pylons and crashed others were shot down by anti-aircraft fire as they hit the Dutch coast.

Gibson headed the first formation, bound for the Mohne Dam. One by one, the bombers went in and dropped their payload, but it took five attempts before the dam was breached. The planes with the remaining bombs then went on to attack the Eder, which was also successfully breached just half an hour later. Repeated bombardment of the Sorpe yielded limited results: the dam was damaged but remained intact.

The last bomber arrived back at base at 6.15am on 17 May. Of the 133 crewmen who had set out as part of Operation Chastise, 53 were killed, and three were captured, becoming prisoners of war. However, the operation had been a surprising success. The breaching of the Mohne and Eder Dams had caused a huge flood to surge down the valley, destroying factories, military infrastructure and putting a major hydroelectric power station out of commission. In addition to this, the operation killed approximately 1600 people, most of whom were factory workers and foreign prisoners of war. The surprise hit on German infrastructure was a huge blow to morale, and created a corresponding surge of hope among the British and Allied forces.


The impact of Operation Chastise as part of the overall war effort has been the subject of extensive debate, even from the moment the last planes flew back on 17 May 1943. Privately, Arthur Harris continued to disparage the entire mission and believed it to have no strategic worth. However, publicly, the raid was immediately announced as a major victory and was said to have caused catastrophic damage to the German war effort. In particular, the flood based by the breaching of the Mohne Dam had an extremely significant effect on local infrastructure, washing away roads, bridges and railway lines within a 50-mile radius. In addition to this, the dam’s principal utility, which was the production of hydroelectric power, was destroyed, meaning that factories and households across the region were left without power for weeks after the mission. Coal production across Germany dropped significantly in the month following the raid, which appears to have been a direct consequence of the damage done in the Ruhr Valley. In addition to this, local agriculture was devastated the flood washed away significant tracts of arable land and livestock, leaving the area impossible to cultivate for almost a decade after the raid. Operation Chastise was lauded in Britain as an enormous strategic and military victory.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, it appears that the raid did not have as decisive an impact in the war that has been assumed. Although the Ruhr Valley suffered a huge shock, in practical terms, water and electricity output was restored to their pre-raid levels within six weeks of the operation. Although the loss of life had been considerable, the fact that the majority of these casualties were foreign workers and prisoners of war meant that the effect of the deaths was muted in German society. Although the raid was a profound shock and temporarily damaged domestic morale, its impact was relatively short-lived. Significantly, the British failed to target the site again during the reconstruction effort, when it would have been at its most vulnerable, and so any strategic impact on the overall German war effort was fairly limited.

Perhaps the most significant implication of Operation Chastise was its boost to Allied (and especially British) morale. The British, who had been subjected to the incessant onslaught of German bombs throughout the Blitz, had scored a huge victory with just a handful of daring airmen. The operation showcased British ingenuity, bravery and tactical superiority, which raised the hopes that were beginning to fade after four long years of war. It is for this reason that the Dambusters raid has endured in British memory: it provided a real sense of victory at a time when it was most needed in British society.

The Dambusters raid

Seventy years ago to the minute as I am writing this, the groundcrews of 617 Squadron were carrying out the final checks on 19 Lancaster III bombers fitted with some rather special bombs and the aircrews were attending their briefing for what was to become the most famous air raid of WW2.
The Dambusters’ raids on the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr took place on the night of 15/16th May 1943 when 19 Lanacasters of 671 Squadron performed precision, low level attacks using the Barnes Wallis designed “bouncing” bombs codenamed “Upkeep” in an action officially called “Operation Chastise”.
The raid was a major propaganda coup for the Allied forces at the time and has subsequently passed into legend despite revision attempts to belittle its effectiveness and the denigrate the major participants.
Of the nineteen aircraft engaged on the raid eight were shot down and 53 of the 133 crew were killed and 3 taken prisoner. The aircrew came from Australia, New Zealand, Canada as well as Britain plus a lone American volunteer to the RAF. The average age of the aircrew was 21, slightly older than the average in Bomber Command as all were seasoned veterans. The Squadron Commander, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the “old man” was just 24.
Strategically, the raid was not a particular success as Bomber Command failed to follow up with additional raids to delay repairs although the action encouraged the Luftwaffe to move thousands of AA guns from the Kammhuber Line to defend key points and 6000 workers, construction equipment and tens of thousands of tons of materials were diverted from the Atlantic Wall defences.
In pop culture, the legacy is a stirring tune, an image of British “can-do” and a famous name for a black Labrador dog.

Operation CHASTISE (The Dambusters Raid, 16 May 1943)

AVM R A Cochrane, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, King George VI and Gp Capt Whitworth discussing the ‘Dambusters Raid’ in May 1943

18.00 (16 May 1943) “We are going to attack the great dams of Germany”, Wing Commander Guy Gibson revealed to his men in their final briefing. They had been training to fly at low height and deliver a bouncing bomb over water, but for most, this was the first they knew of their targets.

19.30 The crew were given their last meal – two eggs and bacon. Some of the canteen staff guessed that they were about to fly out, as it was the only time that they were given two eggs. Some of the men knew that this would be their last ever mission, and gave instructions for their affairs to be put in order.

21.28 The first of three waves of Lancasters took off from RAF Scampton. Cloaked in secrecy as ever, they flew out under complete radio silence. The 19 planes, carrying a total of 133 airmen, took different routes to trick the Germans into thinking the raid was bigger than it was.

Hailey Dixon, The Telegraph, 16 April 2013

Imagine purchasing your Starbucks latte from a 24 year old employee and wondering if they had the abilities to lead 133 airmen, flying less than 100 feet off the ground, and delivering an experimental weapon never used before in combat! This is what occurred 77 years ago (16/17 May 1943).

Part of the home quarantine “battle rhythm” has been an evening movie starting with the Marvel series and since “May the 4th,” the “Skywalker Saga.” After viewing the films, we watch the “making of shorts” to learn more about the “background story.” The first Star Wars film (Episode IV, A New Hope), director George Lucas incorporated certain aspects of World War II aerial combat film and movies such as The Dambusters.

The 1955 classic captures the élan and bravery of 617 Squadron however, the real story is even more impressive.

RAF crewmembers were from across the Commonwealth (and an American Joe McCarthy, who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force before America’s entry into the war) crewed the modified Lancasters. Losses were heavy, 53 airmen were lost, three taken prisoner, and eight aircraft shot down (1/3 of the entire losses experienced by the group during the war).

Many German workers previously dedicated to Atlantic Wall preparations were reassigned to repair the breached dams.

Twenty-nine years ago, you may have heard of a similar effort to develop an experimental weapon. In just two weeks the GBU-28 Bunker Buster was designed and tested (19 February 1991) and declared ready for use. On 27/28 February two weapons were dropped on a target located at the al-Taji Airbase. The first missed due to a misidentification, the second successfully hit the target.

The GBU-28 is still part of our munitions inventory.

The Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron was the first to transition to the F-35 in 2017.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson was lost in action on 19 September 1944 (shot down over Occupied-Holland).

A beer commercial in the late 1990s acknowledged this feat of airmanship and the 1955 movie was restored and shown at London’s Albert Hall in honor of the 75 th anniversary (unfortunately not available on Blue Ray at this time).


'I have to say well done to her for getting the petition going and all she has done to voice her views on this.'

The stone tablet honours Gibson's black Labrador N****r, who was run over by a car and killed just hours before his Wing Commander owner led the famous World War Two raid.

But the RAF carried out a 'review of its historical assets' and decided the term – which is an offensive slur against people of colour – had to go.

The airfield said it 'did not want to give prominence to an offensive term'.

Ms Hobday, whose great uncle Sydney Hobday was part of the crew who breached the Eder dam, initially set a goal of 15,000 signatures which was eclipsed by Saturday. She has since gathered 19,574 supporters

Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, Officer Commanding No. 617 Sqn, was awarded the VC for his part in leading the Dambusters raid but died in 1944 aged 26 when his plane crashed over Germany

The memorial had remained untouched at RAF Scampton - the World War Two base of 617 'Dambusters' Squadron – for years in the dog's honour.

The switch was only revealed when headstone firm Draper Memorials posted an image of the new tablet online.

Royal Air Force veteran Mark Dewberry told the company he was disgusted about the monument being changed.

He said: 'You have questions to answer about replacing N****r's memorial stone.

'You have upset thousands of veterans, like myself.

'Are you going to delete this post and start to disrespect your countries veterans. You all should be ashamed of yourselves.'

Despite having been paid for the work, Drapers' original comment next to their now-deleted post seemed to hint at their own disquiet over the change.

It said: 'This morning we have been out to replace the plaque to Guy Gibson's black Labrador at Raf Scampton. You can't rewrite history'.

Richard Todd played Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC in the 1955 film The Dam Busters

The dog, who served as the mascot of 617 Squadron, was run over by a car and killed on the day of the famous raid in May 1943.

He was buried at Scampton at midnight, the very moment his owner, who was killed a year later aged 26 during a late night sortie over Germany, was leading the daring attack on a series of dams in Germany's Ruhr Valley for which he won the Victoria Cross.

The gravestone was marked with his name at the top and the story of his demise beneath it.

An RAF Spokesperson said: 'As part of an ongoing review of its historical assets, the RAF have replaced the gravestone of Guy Gibson's dog at RAF Scampton.

'The new gravestone tells the story of Guy Gibson's dog, but the name has been removed.'

The Dambusters: How bouncing bombs - and incredible flying by RAF pilots - flooded the Ruhr and delivered a crucial blow to Hitler

On May 16, 1943, 19 Lancaster bomber crews gathered at a remote RAF station in Lincolnshire for a mission of extraordinary daring - a night-time raid on three heavily defended dams deep in Germany's industrial heartland.

The dams were heavily fortified and needed the innovative bomb - which bounced on the water over torpedo nets and sank before detonating.

To succeed, the raiders would have to fly across occupied Europe under heavy fire and then drop their bombs with awesome precision from a mere 60ft above the water.

The Mohne and Eder Dams in the industrial heart of Germany were attacked and breached by mines dropped from specially modified Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron.

A Lancaster Bomber on a commemorative flight in 1967 to mark the anniversary of the Dambusters raid that breached the Mohne and Eder dams

The Sorpe dam was was also attacked by two aircraft and damaged.

A fourth dam, the Ennepe was reported as being attacked by a single aircraft (O-Orange), but with no damage.

Up to 1,600 people were estimated to have been killed by floodwaters and eight of the 19 aircraft dispatched failed to return with the loss of 53 aircrew and three taken prisoner of war.

Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, Officer Commanding No. 617 Sqn, is awarded the VC for his part in leading the attack.

The raid, orchestrated by Guy Gibson and the RAF's 617 'Dambuster' Squadron, was seen as a major victory for the British, and Wing Commander Gibson is recognised as one of the war's most revered heroes.

Their success was immortalised in the classic 1955 film The Dambusters, its thrilling theme tune and gung-ho script evoking the best of British derring-do.

Wg Cdr Gibson was killed at the age of 26 when his Mosquito plane crashed during a night-time sortie over Germany.

Dambuster of the Day No. 78: Vernon Byers

Plt Off V W Byers

Lancaster serial number: ED934/G

Call sign: AJ-K

Second wave. Shot down on outward flight and crashed into sea.

Vernon William Byers was born in Star City, Saskatchewan on 24 September 1919. He was a keen sportsman at school. When he left, he worked on a farm, in construction and then as a miner in the interestingly named town of Flin Flon, Manitoba.

In March 1941 he enrolled with the Canadian Army, where he was assessed as ‘a healthy appearing young man desirous of transferring for active service with the RCAF’. He managed this transfer on 8 May 1941, enlisting with the RCAF in Winnipeg. He was determined to become a pilot, and received his wings in March 1942, with his final report concluding that he was a ‘dependable average pilot in all phases of work.’

He arrived in the UK in May 1942 and finished his training over the next few months. The final stage was at 1654 Conversion Unit at Wigsley, which he joined on 8 December 1942. Here he built up a full crew, of whom four would later take part in the Dams Raid. These were Sgt Alastair Taylor, flight engineer Plt Off James Warner, navigator Sgt John Wilkinson, wireless operator, and Flt Sgt James McDowell, air gunner, the only other Canadian in the crew. Along with bomb aimer Sgt John McKee and air gunner Sgt Robert Haslam they were transferred to 467 Squadron at RAF Bottesford on 5 February 1943 to begin active operational duties.

467 Squadron was notionally an Australian squadron under RAF command. However its personnel came from all parts of the Commonwealth, as well as Britain. It had been founded in November 1942, but its first operational flying took place on 2 January 1943. One of the squadron’s new crews was piloted by Sgt Henry Vine, and it contained Neville Whitaker as bomb aimer and Charles Jarvie as mid-upper gunner. The Vine crew had undertaken a handful of operations by the time the Byers crew arrived in February at which time, for some reason, these two swapped with McKee and Haslam. This was a bad move for McKee and Haslam as exactly a fortnight after they had arrived at Bottesford they were lost when Vine’s aircraft was shot down on an operation targetting Wilhelmshaven.

According to the Vlieland website (scroll down) they were probably the victims of a German nightfighter pilot, and crashed into the North Sea ironically not far from the coastal island of Texel where Byers and his crew would be shot down three months later.

Meanwhile, Byers and his crew were preparing for their first operation as a crew. In preparation, Byers himself flew as ‘second dickey’ on two operations with other crews. On 28 February, he flew with Flg Off Graeme Mant to bomb St Nazaire and on 5 March he accompanied Flt Lt ‘Jimmy’ Thiele to Essen. On 9 March, Byers and his crew took off on their first operation. As was customary at the time, this was a mine-laying sortie (‘gardening’ as it was called) in the Silverthorne area. Two nights later, the crew was sent on its first bombing operation, to Stuttgart. Twenty miles away from the target the rear turret lost power, meaning that James McDowell could only operate the swivelling mechanism by hand. Despite this, Byers pressed on and successfully dropped his bombs from 16,000 feet. A few days later, on 22 March, the crew carried out their third and final operation in 467 Squadron, bombing St Nazaire.

At around this time, 467 Squadron’s CO, Wing Cdr Cosme Gomm, must have been asked to nominate a crew for the new as yet unnamed squadron to be set up at Scampton for a top secret mission. The memo sent to the AOC 5 Group on 17 March said that the operation for which they would be training would not, ‘it is thought, prove particularly dangerous, but will undoubtedly require skilled crews.’ However it appears that Byers was not the first choice. Gomm first offered the place to Sgt Frank Heavery, whose crew had at the time completed 12 operations. He gave him 24 hours to think about it until Heavery had talked it over with his crew. The crew were split evenly – three for, three against, so Heavery had the casting vote and he decided to stay. Gomm had talked to Heavery about keeping his experienced crews to help the new crews who would be arriving soon, and that he could use this as an argument with Cochrane should he object. Cochrane must have accepted this argument, and Vernon Byers was selected instead. (Tony Redding, Flying for Freedom, Mulberry 2008, p1.)

Heavery and his crew survived the war, so you could argue that he made the right decision. Meanwhile, Byers and his crew, with their record of just three operations, plus Byers’s two second dickey trips, would shortly find themselves en route to Scampton, and a place in history. Their transfer is noted in the 467 Squadron Operations Records Book on 24 March 1943.

Byers may not have had much experience as a pilot, but he obviously had a ‘press-on’ attitude and this along with the skills he exhibited during training must have impressed Guy Gibson. On 17 April he was recommended for a commission, with Gibson noting that he was: ‘A good type of NCO who is fully capable of holding down a commission. He keeps his crew in order, is punctual, and understands discipline. Recommended.’ The commission came through a few days before the Dams Raid.

And so the new Pilot Officer Byers lined up Lancaster ED934/G, code number AJ-K, as he prepared for take off a minute after Les Munro. Everything seems to have gone smoothly and he left Scampton at 2130 but then, as the official records recorded at the time, nothing more was heard from him.

Crew members in Munro’s aircraft, ahead of Byers, and in Geoff Rice’s, a minute behind, both appear to have witnessed Byers’s last moments. Jimmy Clay saw an aircraft on its starboard side, heading towards Texel island, rather than Vlieland, the prescribed route. Having crossed the island, he then seemed to climb to about 450 feet, according to a post war Dutch report. Rice’s crew saw an aircraft shot down by flak at 300 feet ‘off Texel’ at 2257. Despite the fact that he was off course, and had crossed Texel which had more anti-aircraft defences than its neighbour Vlieland, it seems that he was very unlucky. The German guns could not depress low enough in order to hit an approaching aircraft flying at just 100 feet but having crossed the island Byers rose a little and it must have been a speculative shot from behind which did for AJ-K, and sent it down into the Waddenzee, 18 miles west of Harlingen. Two German units stationed on Texel were credited with the kill. This point is disputed by author Andreas Wachtel, who thinks that it was more likely 3/Marine Flak 246 unit on the western end of Vlieland which was responsible. (Ward, Lee and Wachtel, Dambusters: Definitive History, Red Kite 2003, p64.)

Byers and his crew were the first to be lost on the Dams Raid and, like the Barlow crew, died before midnight on 16 May 1943.

The bodies of Byers and five of his crew have never been found. That of rear gunner James McDowell must have been detached from the wreckage at some time as it was found floating in the Waddenzee, in the Vliestrom channel, south of Terschelling near buoy No. 2 on 22 June 1943. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery, and remains there today.

After the war, this fact allowed a final memorandum to be added to Vernon Byers’s file. ‘As the body of F/S McDowell was washed ashore off the Coast of Holland it is assumed that the aircraft was shot down over the sea. Classified. Lost at Sea. Case Closed.’ Vernon Byers and his five comrades are all commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

Note: Some sources have wrong information about Byers. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission states that he was 32 years old. In some books he is said to have already completed a full tour of operations before being transferred to 617 Squadron. I have however examined his personnel file from the Canadian National Archives and verified his date of birth and service record. As indicated above, his only operations as pilot were the three mentioned above, all undertaken in 467 Squadron in March 1943.

Thanks to Max Williams for help with this article.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Robert Owen, Steve Darlow, Sean Feast and Arthur Thorning, Dambusters: Failed to Return, Fighting High 2013.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Vernon Byers and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.


The one and only Dambusters blog, bouncing across the choppy waters of the internet since 2008. Compiled and written by Charles Foster, nephew of Dambuster pilot David Maltby, and author of the new book The Complete Dambusters, published by the History Press.
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The Dambuster Raids, or more correctly Operation Chastise is without doubt the most famous bombing mission of the Second World War (at least here in Britain). 75 years on everybody has heard about the bouncing bomb and the flawed hero pilot Guy Gibson. Most people, if they only know of one RAF Squadron, it will be the Dambuster 617 Squadron with their moto Apres Moi le Deluge (After me the flood).

The raid is well known with lots written about it, but in brief, it took place during the night of 16-17 May 1943. Nineteen specially modified Lancaster bombers took off from their Lincolnshire base at RAF Scampton in an attempt to breach the Möhne, Eder, Sorpe and three secondary target dams around Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley. The Möhne and Eder attacks were successful, the Sorpe Dam was a different type of dam requiring a different bombing technique and remained intact, and there was only a single unsuccessful attempt on the secondary target dams. Eight of the Lancasters were lost in the raid and 53 of the 133 crew members lost their lives. But the event, and a film made in 1955 (recently excellently restored) has immortalised them forever.

The design, the bombing, the myth, the legend and the subsequent adulation is well documented, but the preparation and testing which made the raid such a success, less so.

Probably the most famous training site where many people will associate The Dambusters is Derwent Reservoir in Derbyshire. It was used for intensive low-level night time flying exercises for about six weeks prior to the raid and used because the Derwent Dam resembled the Möhne Dam with its twin towers.

The RAF regularly commemorate the part it played with regular flights of their historic Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Lancaster over the dam. On Sunday 21 September 2014 I like many was lucky to see the last two remaining flying Lancasters, one which had flown all the way from Canada, make 3 graceful flypasts together down the Derwent valley and over Derwent Dam. Impressive, beautiful and moving.

Derwent Reservoir, 21 September 2014

In the past 617 Squadron have also made special visits, notably with Tornados, and the hope is that the recently re-formed 617 Squadron with their state-of-the-art F-35 Lightnings will keep up this spectacular tradition. At the dam there is a small memorial to the part it and until recently there was an excellent museum dedicated to the Dambusters in the west tower.

But Derwent wasn’t the only reservoir used for Dambuster flight training. There are two other reservoirs slightly less well known but equally as important.

Eyebrook Reservoir, (sometimes quoted as Uppingham Lake) between Leicester and Peterborough was also used by 617 Squadron for low flying practise. Although it’s dam was more like that at the Sorpe, scaffolding towers were erected to give it the appearance of the Möhne Dam. It proved excellent for honing their difficult bomb aiming skills.

The BBMF Lancaster and 617 Squadron have been occasional visitors, and there is a metal plaque erected to commemorate the part the reservoir played.

The third training reservoir was Abberton just south of Colchester as it was supposed to look like the Eder Reservoir from the air. It was used for final tuning of low flying techniques and was in fact used during the night of 14 May for a ‘full’ dress rehearsal for the raid.

Of course, no practise aerial bombing was ever done at any of these reservoirs, despite a scene in the 1955 film showing attempts to hit floating target. Images of Mosquito aeroplanes testing bouncing bombs on land at Ashley Walk Bombing Range in the New Forest, and at Loch Striven on the Firth of Clyde are of the spherical Highball Bouncing Bomb designed for use against battleships and not for the dams. Similarly the rail track at Brean Down Fort in Somerset was for testing bouncing bombs for use against battleships. The Bouncing Bomb (in reality a mine) used for the dams was called Upkeep and like the Highball was designed by Barnes Wallis.

The early design of the Upkeep was a cylindrical inner bomb surrounded by a spherical wooden casing. Initial bombing tests were undertaken in January 1943, using a modified twin-engined Wellington bomber in the Fleet Lagoon at Chesil Beach in Dorset and then with specially modified four-engined Lancasters at Reculver on the Kent coast.

The use of an outer wooden outer casing was soon discarded, and the now famous cylindrical bouncing bomb was used for the raid. (Note: details of the Upkeep mine were only de-classified in 1963 so when The Dambusters film was released in 1955 it depicted, amongst other inaccuracies, a spherical and not cylindrical bouncing bomb).

Upkeep testing at Reculver, with spray damage to the Lancaster (IWM Photo)

Final live aerial testing took place at the Wainfleet Firing Range off the Lincolnshire coast and off the Kent coast near Broadstairs. Several Upkeep mines are on display including one at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and others at RAF Scampton and the Herne Bay Museum near the Reculver testing site.

Prior to the flying tests the early idea of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb famously came from a marble game he was playing with one of his daughters. By the summer of 1942 this had developed into a large-scale experiment at the National Physics Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington where he tested shapes, materials and bouncing techniques in scale bombs in Number 2 Ship Tank. Here he was able to analyse the travel, the sinking of the bomb, the effects of water pressure and shockwaves and it’s where he developed the clever use of backspin to hold the mine against the dam wall as it sank.

NPL’s No 2 Ship Tank (photo from

The same facility was used in making the Dambusters film in 1955 but Number 1 Ship Tank was used as it was better for the film crews to get the required angles for filming. Though NPL still exits at Teddington the Ship Tank facilities were sadly broken up in 1996.

Even before the NPL testing, in late 1940 Wallis had taken his idea of attacking the Möhne and Eder Dams to the Building Research Establishment (BRE), or as it was known at that time the Building Research Station (BRS) near Watford where engineering teams had been studying the use of explosives on various structures. His idea obviously didn’t seem so farcical and it was decided that the best way to determine the requirements for explosive and best location to detonate would be to build an accurate scale model.

Between November 1940 and January 1941, a 1/50th scale model of the Möhne dam was built across a stream in a remote corner of the BRS site. For added reality the majority of the dam was constructed of special miniature blocks to replicate as near as possible the original construction of the Möhne Dam, and an inner wall of clay replicated the Möhne’s earth embankment. After seven weeks construction, it took just less than a week for the miniature reservoir to fill and testing began on 22 January 1941.

The tests consisted of detonating charges at various distances from the dam and at various depths. A probe on the dry side of the dam monitored the impact. After the sixth test the model dam was already leaking, and part of the parapet had been blown away. After the tenth explosion the model was so badly damaged it was no longer usable.

The BRE dam during testing

The great news is that the model still exists in its original location and though it appears to have been repaired at some point in the past it is a testament to the incredible work that went on in preparation for the famous raid. In 2002 Historic England declared the model as being a historic monument of “not only of national but also international importance”.

The BRE dam as it is today (photo from flickr)

The success at BRS was followed by a series of further tests by the Road Research Laboratory – RRL (now Transport Research Laboratory -TRL) in Harmondsworth (close to what is now Heathrow airport). Here ‘simplified’ replica dams were constructed of cast concrete rather than miniature blocks and were used in a series of tests. Again, the results were encouraging, enabling them to calculate that to breach the full-size Möhne dam it would require 7,000 lbs (3,400 kg) of explosive detonated 30 feet (9 m) below the water level against the inside face of the dam.

Harmondsworth concrete dam under construction (photo from

Sadly, none of the Harmondsworth model dams exist today but a plaque commemorating the involvement of the RRL in the tests was unveiled in 2013.

Barnes Wallis’s daughter Dr Mary Stopes-Roe, and his grandson, Jonathan Stopes-Roe

The final destructive tests took place on a small dam near Rhayader in Mid Wales where the secluded Nant-y-Gro stream flows into the Caban Coch Reservoir in the Elan Valley. During the construction of the Caban Coch Reservoir a 180-foot (55m) long and 30-foot high (9.1m) dam was constructed across the Nant-y-Gro stream to supply the water needs of a navvies village and steam driven construction equipment.

The Nant-y-Gro Reservoir contained over a million gallons of water but once the Caban Coch Reservoir was completed in 1904 the water from Nant-y-Gro Reservoir was no longer needed. The dam was still standing in 1942 and it was requisitioned for use by Barnes Wallis.

Tests were undertaken in May 1942 but were not successful in destroying the dam. Following further development, a test was carried out on 24 July 1942 when 280lbs (127Kg) of explosives was suspended from scaffolding at the centre of the dam against the inner face of the dam at a depth of 10-foot (3m) and detonated remotely. The explosion blew a hole 60-foot (18m) wide and 25-foot (7.6m) deep.

The remains of the dam remain today much as they were left 76 years ago though they are now largely overgrown with trees. The tough walk to see it is well worth the effort and there is an information board nearby giving details.

Remains of the Nant-y_gro dam today

Following the dams raid consideration was given to using the bouncing bomb on other targets. On 4 and 5 August 1943 five 617 Squadron Lancasters were used to test a modified bouncing bomb with a clockwise rather than an anti-clockwise spin for use against coastal defence systems. The idea of a forward spinning bomb dropped at sea was that it would take it further up the beach.

The tests at Ashley Walk Bombing Range near Fording Bridge were considered successful despite the loss of one of the Lancasters which got caught in the wake stream of another Lancaster and crash landed (fortunately with no loss of life), but it was decided to abandon the idea.

Restored Upkeep mine at RAF Scampton

Between August and December 1946 three ex-Dambuster Lancasters (ED932, Guy Gibson’s, ED906 David Maltby’s, and ED909 Harold ‘Mick’ Martin’s) were brought out of storage and used for the disposal of the unused ‘Upkeep’ mines. In ‘Operation Guzzle’ the 37 remaining mines were dumped into the Atlantic Sea about 300 miles west of Glasgow.

So, in summary there are still quite a few Dambuster ‘things’ still to see and I haven’t included details of Guy Gibson’s office at RAF Scampton, any remaining or preserved Upkeep mines, or the commemorative plaques in the UK, Holland and Germany.

Watch the video: The Dambusters - Takeoff (December 2022).

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