By 1943 the German threat in North Africa had been negated; there was no chance that the Nazis could or would invade Britain; and the Americans had entered the conflict on the Allied side. Yet still Britain endured regular poundings from Luftwaffe bombing raids ; and the German war machine, centred on the Ruhr, was turning out arms and ammunition for the Third Reich’s forces. Such was the background to 617 Squadron’s Dambusters Raid, or Operation Chastise as it was officially dubbed.
Chastise was intended to hit German industrial production by destroying several strategically important dams that provided both hydro-electric power and water for factories in the area. As the dams were too small to be hit with accuracy by high level bombing, and defended by nets from torpedo attack, a new method was devised by Barnes Wallis – the bouncing bomb. This was a cylindrical device, rotated at high speed to impart backward spin that made it skip over the water like a skimming-stone until hitting the dam walls, at which point its remaining spin would roll it down the face of the dam where a depth sensitive detonator would explode it beneath the water, in theory causing devastating breaches.
The raid proved very costly, 53 of the 133 aircrew on the mission being killed, and eight of the 19 Avro Lancaster bombers not returning. The floods caused by breaches in the Möhne and Eder dams wreaked havoc in the area, and many of those killed were Allied prisoners of war and forced labourers from the USSR. But for more than a month the power generating capacity of the region was drastically reduced; and above all British morale was raised by the daring nature of the attack, and the reassurance that we had secret weapons to combat those it was constantly feared the Germans were developing. The operation’s leader, Guy Gibson , won the VC for his action in drawing fire from planes yet to complete their bomb run by offering his as a target; sadly he was later killed during a mission in 1944.