Some sixty-seven years ago today, nineteen Lancaster bombers of R.A.F. 617 Squadron took off on a mission which, many hoped, could drastically alter the war in favour of the Allies. They hoped, by use of a special weapon, to breach three of the Ruhr dams when they were at their highest level of water storage. The weapon was a product of the agile mind of Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, and it became the precursor of many of the exceedingly effective weapons which issued from the agile mind of this superb scientist. The bomb was built in the shape of a drum, and dropped with the case spinning in reverse to the motion of the aircraft. The idea was that the spinning bomb would hit the waves and then ‘bounce’ forward, dropping, bouncing and slowing on the water as the bomb advanced.
The trouble with the attack, which had to be carried out at an extremely low altitude and in a straight line, was that the bomber could be tracked and attacked by seriously-accurate German anti-aircraft fire during the predictable approach path. The Moehne, Eder & Sorpe dams were chosen as targets, and the Lancasters of 617 Squadron, modified to carry the three ton weight of the bombs which had to be held partly outside the bomb-bay as the spin had to be applied before the bomb was released, set off on their mission. The Moehne and Eder dams were successfully breached, albeit with heavy loss to the attacking squadron; with eight of the nineteen bombers failing to return, and fifty-three fliers in total died during the operation. Squadron Leader Guy Gibson received the Victoria Cross, there were also five D.S.O.’s, ten D.F.C.’s and four Bars, two Conspicuous Gallantry Medals and eleven Distinguished Flying Medals and one Bar.
It was hoped that the resultant torrents of water would damage war industries, halt electricity generation, clog rail routes and damage the German war effort. The actual effect was rather different; in that the electricity supplies were back in business due to an emergency pumping system built by a forward-looking German generation industry; the great percentage of deaths were actually of P.O.W.’s, and the rail system was rebuilt where damaged in typical German quick-time, mainly by the use of slave labour. The surprising outcome was a rapid decline in food production, as large areas of arable land were flooded, as well as huge numbers of farm animals killed. German civilian morale suffered greatly. British morale went sky-high, as the pictures of the broken dams were shown in cinemas and in the newspapers.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Image from the works of Ronald Suchiu