Friday 18 May 2012

Barnes Wallis, Guy Gibson and The Dambusters Raid

This week marked the sixty ninth anniversary of the RAF's raid on the great dams of the Ruhr, that has gone down in British folklore as The Dambusters raid, and which has been commemorated in the magnificent film of the same name with that music, composed by Eric Coates.

Wing Cdr. Guy Gibson and his crew (courtesy IWM)
The raid itself, although executed with great expertise and determination by Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC and his men of 617 Squadron, was in retrospect, only partially successful and was only achieved at tremendous cost. Of the nineteen specially adapted Lancaster bombers that set out from RAF Scampton, eight failed to return - a loss rate of forty percent. More important was the human cost; fifty three RAF aircrew were killed and three more taken prisoner. On the ground, two of the three targetted dams - the Mohne and Eder Dams - were breached but a third and arguably the most important - the Sorpe Dam - proved impossible to break. None the less, the damage caused was severe; German industry was severely disrupted for a matter of months although quickly recovered due to the failure of the RAF to mount follow-up raids on the dams whilst repairs were being undertaken. Ironically, for such an industrial target as these dams, much of the damage caused was to German agriculture. Vast areas of arable land were simply washed away by the ensuing flood waters and was not usable again until the 1950s. The loss of life on the ground was also high, with some 1,600 people being killed but again with supreme irony, many of these were Prisoners of War and forced labourers working in the Ruhr industries and therefore to the Nazis, supremely expendable.

Despite this debateable success, the raid proved a great fillip to the British public who were anxious to see the battle taken to the Nazis and also demonstrated to Stalin that the RAF were capable of mounting a sustained bomber offensive that could help take the pressure off his beleagured eastern front until such time as the Allies could open a genuine second front by means of an invasion of western Europe.

Much has been written and broadcast about this raid and it is impossible in a blog of this nature to discuss every facet of the raid in great detail but we can examine some of the people involved and how Operation Chastise to give the raid it's official name came into being.

Barnes Wallis
It is important to remember that the raid came out of an initial concept of a weapon designed by Barnes Wallis, who was the Assistant Chief Designer at Vickers. Wallis was a proven designer of quality and innovative designs such as the Wellington bomber with it's geodetic construction of huge strength that was capable of absorbing massive punishment and still being able to fly home. His initial concept of the Bouncing Bomb was of a ten tonne weapon designed to skim the surface as an anti-shipping device. The skimming aspect came out of a need to be able to skip over protective booms and nets, something that a conventional torpedo or mine was unable to do. The weapon was also quickly seen as a viable means of attacking the great dams of Germany - targets that had been identified as early as 1937 by the RAF planners in selecting targets when war with that country began to look inevitable. Testing of the bomb, firstly a scaled down version at the Building Research Establishment in Watford and later at the disused Nant-y-Gro Dam in Wales, convinced Wallis that the ten tonne concept was neither viable (no aircraft existed at the time capable of carrying such a weapon) nor necessary. Once he realised that a smaller version capable of being carried by the existing Lancaster bomber would suffice, full scale trials were carried out at Chesil Beach in January 1943. Wallis now had to sell his idea to the powers that be within the RAF, which effectively meant getting the scheme past the formidable head of Bomber Command, Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, who was notoriously opposed to anything that diverted resources away from his beloved area bombing plan and to whom scientists like Wallis were often dismissed as 'Panacea Merchants.' Indeed, Harris wrote initially that he felt that this scheme was "tripe of the highest order." However, this skepticism was not to last; Harris and his superior, Sir Charles Portal were sufficiently impressed upon meeting Wallis that Harris authorised the formation of a special squadron to undertake the mission. As a result, 617 Squadron was born and selected to lead this elite formation, was a 24 year veteran RAF officer - Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson.

Gibson had been born in India in 1918 but had returned to England with his parents, aged six, in 1924. He had joined the RAF in 1936 and had become a Pilot Officer in 1936. On the outbreak of war in 1939, Gibson was serving with 83 Squadron, flying Hampden bombers on raids into Germany and in July 1940 had won his first DFC. On completion of his first operational tour of 27 missions, instead of taking the usual six month rest from operational flying with a training unit, or desk job, Gibson volunteered for further flying duties with Fighter Command, flying Blenheim night fighters. He enjoyed great success in this role and on termination of his night fighter duties in December 1941, was awarded a bar to his DFC - effectively a second award of this coveted medal. In January 1942, he finally accepted a position as Chief Instructor at an Operational Training Unit or OTU, being posted to 51 OTU but in April 1942 was promoted to Wing Commander and posted in command of 106 Squadron in Bomber Command, flying the new Avro Manchester and later Lancaster bombers. After completing a further 46 sorties, he was selected to lead the new 617 Squadron to be based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.

Gibson was not universally popular; he was something of a martinet and mixed socially only with fellow officers, rather than with his NCOs. He was known by his squadron subordinates, only half affectionally, as 'The Arch Bastard' but his professionalism and devotion to his duty was never in doubt and for all of his disciplinarian traits, he was also thought to be fair minded and reasonable towards his men and understanding of their problems. 

Having selected the leader, the squadron members had to be chosen and Gibson selected twenty one bomber crews from within 5 Group, Bomber Command and as well as British crews, Gibson picked men from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, making 617 Squadron a truly Commonwealth affair.

'Upkeep' bomb at IWM (courtesy IWM)
The Bouncing Bomb, codenamed Upkeep was designed to be delivered from low level, at night - from a terrifying sixty feet at an airspeed of 390 mph, so low flying practice was relentlessly pursued until the squadron could deliver the bombs faultlessly. At this frighteningly low altitude, the Lancasters altimeters were not sufficiently accurate and so a system of light beams, designed to converge at sixty feet was devised, as well as a simple aiming device designed to line up on the towers on the dam walls, when the bomber was at the correct distance from the dam to release the bomb.

Time was now pressing; the combination of optimum water levels in the dam and full moonlight was on the night of 16th/17th May 1943 and so after the final full scale practices over Derwent Water at the end of April, the Upkeep bombs were delivered to the squadron on 13th May. Such was the secrecy surrounding this mission, that it was only on the 15th May - the day before the mission - that Gibson's deputy, Flt Lt John 'Hoppy' Hopgood, his two flight commanders, Sqn Leaders Harry Maudsley and 'Dinghy' Young, together with his bombing leader Flt Lt John Hay, were briefed as to the targets. The remainder of the crews were not briefed until immediately prior to the mission but such had been the intensity of their training, the actual names of the targets were unimportant - the work to reach and hit them had already been done. It just remained to put the training into effect.

On the evening of 16th May, the Lancasters took off and followed carefully planned routes over Holland and Germany at one hundred feet. The squadron had been divided into three formation - one for the Mohne and Eder Dams, one for the Sorpe Dam and the third as a mobile reserve to replace any aircraft lost or to attack secondary target dams at the Ennepe, Schwelm and Diemel sites. As related earlier, the Mohne and Eder Dams were destroyed and breached - the politically incorrect codeword 'Nigger' (the name of Gibson's black labrador dog) for the Mohne and 'Dinghy' for the Eder being radioed back to Bomber Command as a sign of success. The Sorpe Dam was a tougher nut to crack; the bombing approach was difficult and being an earthen dam, rather than the more usual concrete walled variety, the Upkeep bombs energy was absorbed by the walls and only relatively minor damage was caused. All the bombs were used up and there was no alternative but the remaining Lancasters to return home.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the human cost was high. Some 1,600 lives were lost on the ground, mainly due to the advancing deluge. The RAF losses amounted to forty percent - an appalling figure which could not be sustained. Barnes Wallis was essentially a peaceful man but one who recognised that Nazi tyranny had to be destroyed whatever the cost. Despite this, Roy Chadwick, the designer of the Lancaster, recalled seeing Wallis in tears when he learned of the losses of so many "wonderful young men."

So ended Operation Chastise - a mission that was to enter British and RAF folklore but what became of those involved that night?

Wing Commander Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross, the nation's highest military honour, for his role in the planning and execution of the Dams Raid and was immediately removed from flying operations and sent on a lecture tour of the USA, as much as anything as a way of keeping this young hero out of harm's way. This lecture tour took place at a time when the first USAAF airmen were coming home tour-expired after 25 missions over German territory and during questions following one talk, Gibson was asked how many missions over Germany he had undertaken. When he replied "one hundred and seventy four", there was a stunned silence in the room. Despite this respite, Gibson was anxious for a return to operational flying and in 1944 was posted as a Master Bomber based at RAF Coningsby flying Mosquitos. On 19th September 1944, Gibson's luck ran out and he was shot down - possibly in a friendly fire incident - over Steenbergen in Holland. Gibson was just 26 years of age.

Barnes Wallis, despite his peace loving nature, devoted himself to finding methods to destroy Nazi Germany, devising ever more powerful bombs. First came the Tallboy weighing in at 6 tonnes and then the truly awesome Grand Slam which was a devastating 10 tonne weapon. Both of these bombs were aerodynamically shaped for deep penetration and their description as 'Earthquake' Bombs was very apt. Many highly important strategic targets such as V2 and V3 launch sites, submarine pens, railway viaducts and perhaps most famously, the German battleship Tirpitz fell victim to these fearsome weapons. Wallis also devised a refinement of the Upkeep weapon, named Highball, which was specifically designed as an anti-ship weapon to be used in the Far East but which was not deployed before the end of that war. Post war, Wallis continued his design work and was a great champion of swing-wing technology, as well as being a design consultant for the Parkes River Radio Telescope in Australia. Wallis also continued his aircraft design work but possibly because he had seen so much death at close quarters during the Dams Raids, used models as much as possible during his test works, so as not to expose his test pilots to unnecessary dangers. Barnes Wallis was knighted in 1968 and died aged 92, in 1979.

617 Squadron Badge
617 Squadron RAF continued during the war as Bomber Command's elite unit, being selected for precision attacks on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, U-Boat Pens and the aforementioned raid on the Tirpitz on 12th November 1944. The leaders of the squadron in these post-Gibson days were Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC and later Wing Commander Willie Tait. After the war, the squadron re-equipped with the Avro Lincoln and later entered the jet age with the Canberra and the V-Bomber era with the Avro Vulcan. The squadron continues in service to this day, now equipped with the Panavia Tornado and has seen action in the Gulf War in 1991 as well as in Iraq in 2003. The squadron badge and motto 'Apres Moi Le Deluge' is a nod to the past and the reason behind the original formation of the squadron.

Some revisionist historians would have us believe that the Dams Raid was a waste of time, resources and valuable lives. Whilst there may be some mileage in this argument, there can be no doubt that in 1943, the raids provided a major boost to British morale and also demonstrated to our Russian allies that a sustained Allied bombing campaign was a serious proposition. The raid did cause massive damage to the Nazi war industries, even if for only a relatively short period of time and did demonstrate to the Nazi heirarchy that nowhere in the Reich was safe.The raid was also a further demonstration of British technical innovation as well as the great skill and determination of Gibson and his men in carrying out the operation.

To Barnes Wallis, to Guy Gibson and to the men of 617 Squadron, we owe a huge debt of gratitude - especially to the fifty three men who did not return from the night of 16th/17th May 1943.

Published Sources:

Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins 1997
Bomber Boys - Patrick Bishop, HarperPress 2007
Bomber Harris - Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2001
Dambusters - Max Arthur, Virgin Books 2008

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