We can now easily see the genius of the famous weapon designed by Barnes Wallis, but at the time he had some convincing to do. It’s fair to say that not all RAF top brass were immediately convinced by the idea of a bomb that could bounce on water! In fact Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris first described the very idea as “tripe”, saying that there was “not the smallest chance of it working”.
It is thought that Wallis got the actual idea for the Bouncing Bomb from reports of cannonballs doing this in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was said that Admiral Nelson used the trick to smash open the hulls of enemy boats. But could it possibly work on a much larger scale, centuries later? Trials took place on Derwent Water (left) with hopes of a breakthrough; in more ways than one!
With the high demands of the mission at hand, a new squadron were established: 617 would be led by Guy Gibson, a talented and brave pilot who had carried our many risky but successful missions.
Remarkably, the squadron were only informed of their eventual target just before take-off on the evening of May 16th 1943! Led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, it was to be a high risk, high reward mission. The aircraft used in the raid were the iconic Lancaster Bombers. 19 were used in the mission, but only 11 returned, with 53 deaths incurred.
One lesser known fact is that the planes had to fly exceptionally low to deliver their heavy, unwieldy cargo. Even the training was risky, with pilots making runs at extreme low altitude. To give some idea of the levels they had to maintain, on the night of the actual mission one of the planes had to return to England as its bomb was lost when it touched the sea!
The Dam Busters raids were hugely innovative and daring, but how much impact did they really have? At the time, there was much speculation. The mission was to cause mass flooding, crippling steelworks and other facilities and cause the enemy huge logistical problems.
Not everyone was convinced, however. Even after the event, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris refused to budge on his earlier scepticism. In private, he wrote that the raids “achieved nothing compared with the effort and the loss”. Lancaster bombers were too valuable to have risked in this way, he was adamant.
Was it all a morale boosting stunt then, or something far greater? Perhaps the most telling evidence came from the Germans themselves. After the war it was revealed that the flood damage had caused chaos. Some 20,000 men were forced to redeploy to repair the dams and deal with the damage, rather than helping defend key strategic points in the conflict. The German Minister for Armaments himself, Albert Spear, declared it as “a disaster for us.”
In spite of the huge risk of that fateful night in May 1943, the squadron’s success would lead to them being picked for other remarkable and dangerous special missions. These included using Barnes Wallis’ other specialised bombs, including Tallboy and Grand Slam models. At 10,000 KG in weight, these were the heaviest bombs in history.
For huge numbers of men and women stationed in the airfields of Lincolnshire, life was painfully tense. We can only imagine what passed through the minds of young pilots as they contemplated the mortal risks with every mission. The average age of RAF aircrew at the time has been estimated to be as low as 21. Almost three quarters (73%) were hurt or killed in action. Some 56% of those who flew with Bomber Command overall were killed in action or died of injuries.
Despite these risks, life had to carry on with as much normality as possible. In the case of Squadron 617, you can still see the areas they worked, planned and relaxed here at Petwood, including the officer’s mess. The Squadron Bar was a favourite haunt between missions. Here, you can find some remarkable memorabilia and curiosities. You might ponder, for example, why there is a large pine branch mounted above the bar; this actually came from a night raid, in which a plane came perilously close to crash landing and arrived back in England with a “souvenir” still attached!
Starring the original Dam Busters Movie was a huge hit. Using direct accounts from Guy Gibson’s famous memoir “Enemy Coast Ahead” it captured the risks and daring of the mission in authentic style and was groundbreaking for its time. Released in 1955, it was a big influence on none other than George Lucas, who has acknowledged just how influential the film was in inspiring action sequences in the original Star Wars movie. You can find a fascinating further selection of movie trivia and lesser known aspects at the Internet Movie Database.
Inevitably, there has been talk of a remake, but for various reasons, it has yet to happen. In fact, rather like the bouncing bombs themselves, it has tended to hit a wall! Very frustrating for movie fans, given the number of times it has been rumoured that take-off was imminent. Entrusted to much acclaimed director Peter Jackson, with a script supposedly already written by Stephen Fry, it could be a mouth-watering prospect… if it ever gets up and running. With WW2 themed titles such as Dunkirk and Darkest Hour proving big hits at the box office, however, you never know.
Not only did the movie immortalise the famous Dambusters raids, but also spawned one of the most memorable of all theme tunes in British cinema history. Penned by Eric Coates, it was part of a golden era for so called “Light Music” by famous composers from Blighty. The term is a little unflattering, in fact, as the 20th Century yielded some truly stirring, if deliberately accessible classical music scores, including the likes of The Great Escape and Star Wars. Perhaps Coates next best-known other work is the swaying, evocative theme used for BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs series.
Although the legendary 617 squadron were specifically put together for the famous Dambusters raids of WW2, this was not their only period of existence. They also served in Malaya (until 1955) and were also re-established at Scampton in May 1958 until 1981.
More recently, 617 saw active service in Iraq under so-called Operation Telic (2003) before being disbanded in 2014. Currently, the squadron is active again as of 2017, however, flying state of the art F-35B aircraft. The technology might be vastly different then, but the “Dambusters” moniker remains, along with an ethos of bravery and innovation.
As for the way we continue to remember the brave souls of Squadron 617, and indeed the many thousands of men and women from all over the world who served in the air force, this has been a bone of contention for many. Indeed, campaigners have fought for decades for full recognition of their sacrifice.
This very year (2018) has seen a landmark development with the opening of the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincolnshire. It features interactive exhibits, along with a beautiful garden of remembrance, featuring the UK’s tallest war memorial and the many thousands of names of those who served and gave their lives.