THE Dambusters’ raid of May 1943 was one of the most daring and imaginatively conceived attacks of the war.
Designed to breach a trio of dams in Germany’s Ruhr valley, the Nazis’ industrial heartland, it combined the great courage of pilots flying through flak at 100 feet to drop their bombs and the inventive genius of some of the country’s leading boffins.
The Daily Express showed just how successful Operation Chastise – as it was officially known – had been by running on its front page aerial photographs of the devastation they had wreaked.
Under the headline “Floods roar down Ruhr valley” it reported that waterspouts shot 1,000 feet into the air and aircrew saw 30ft waves generated by their explosives on the reservoirs below them.
“Reconnaissance planes which flew over Germany yesterday brought back photographic proof that rail and road bridges in the Ruhr had been washed away and that floods were spreading fast in the Dortmund area following the destruction by the RAF of the Mohne and Eder Dams and the attack on the Sorpe Dam early in the morning.”
It added: “Hydro-electric power stations are destroyed or damaged.
"A railway marshalling yard is under the water which is sweeping down the Ruhr valley…
"The attack was one of the most devastating of the war.
Reconnaissance planes which flew over Germany yesterday brought back photographic proof that rail and road bridges in the Ruhr had been washed away
"Lancasters dropped mines in Germany’s two greatest reservoirs, smashing great breaches in the dams and unleashing torrents of flood water into the busiest industrial area in Europe…
“They blasted a hole 100 yards wide in the thickest and biggest dam on the Continent and a volume of water larger than the weight of Lake Windermere poured out on towns and villages.”
The heroes of the hour were the two key men involved: Dr Barnes Wallis, the designer of the Wellington bomber who had masterminded the construction of a revolutionary type of bomb, and the pipe-smoking 25-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson who led the squadron of 19 Lancasters that dropped them.
The challenge presented to Wallis was that the dams were protected by underwater torpedo nets that would prevent conventional bombs reaching them.
His solution was to invent the bouncing bomb, a barrel-shaped mine that would bounce across the surface of the water before striking its target and then sink to explode underwater like a depth charge.
The effect of such explosions was spectacular, as the Daily Express reported. One airman is quoted as saying: “Our load sent up water and mud to a height of 1,000ft.
"The spurt of water was silhouetted against the moon.
"It rose with tremendous speed and then fell gently back.
"You could see the shockwave at the base of the jet.”
On their return the aircrew celebrated as war heroes and Gibson – who was tragically shot down and killed 18 months later – was awarded a Victoria Cross for his efforts.
The Lancasters’ achievements were celebrated in 1955 film The Dam Busters starring Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd, which portrayed Wallis as a voice in the wilderness who only got his proposal accepted after lobbying Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command.
He then took the idea to Churchill who authorised the plan.
But casualties were high – of 133 aircrew, 53 were killed – and militarily the mission had limited success.
The squadron failed to breach the Sorpe Dam and water supply in the Ruhr valley was back to its original levels within six weeks.
The daring nature of the raid, however, meant that it served as a significant boost to national morale at a critical time.
- The Dambusters' raid was one of the most daring attacks of the war [REX/EXPRESS].
- How the Daily Express reported it 71 years ago [EXPRESS].
- The Eder Dam after the Dambuster raid of 1943 [PA].