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

Friday 11 May 2012

War and The Weather

The recent and regular deluges of rain have forced Neil and I to cancel a couple of our scheduled Sunday walks and it is fair to say that we have been thinking of renaming our business 'Blitzwaders', so bad have things become. However, the recent interventions of the weather are a ready reminder of how easily the best planned operations of war can fall foul of the elements and also how good or bad fortune with forecasting of the weather could easily spell the difference between an operation running smoothly or going catastrophically wrong, with all of the associated implications.

Group Captain JM Stagg RAF
Perhaps the best known example of weather forecasting affecting an operation of war was during the run-up to 'Operation Overlord' - the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. So important was the impact of the weather on this monumental operation, that General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, had a meteorological department attached to his staff. The man chosen to be at the head of this organisation was Group Captain JM Stagg RAF, a somewhat dour Scotsman, upon whose shoulders the success or failure of the mission rested, surely just as much initially as the military prowess of Eisenhower, his planners at SHAEF and any of his field commanders. The operation was originally scheduled for June 5th but on this day, the winds were at hurricane force, with low cloud making flying operations impossible and seas too rough to ensure that the vast naval convoys would reach the other side of the Channel in the right order, or at all. It was therefore, an easy decision to postpone the operation but not so easy to decide how long to postpone for. This is where Stagg's expertise came in. At 4 a.m. on the morning of the 5th June, the planners met again; it was still blowing a gale outside and the rain was lashing against the windows, yet Stagg was able to predict a break in the weather the following day, allowing a brief period of acceptable weather for the invasion to proceed. The alternative was to wait another fortnight until the 19th June, which was the next time that the tides would be favourable enough to repeat the operation. It was a huge risk - the weather on the 6th June that Stagg was forecasting was barely acceptable - but to wait another fortnight was unthinkable and so with the simple words "OK, we'll go", Eisenhower gave the go ahead for the operation. The rest, as they say, is history. The Allies got ashore, established a bridgehead and gave themselves a springboard to liberate occupied Europe and cleanse Germany of the Nazis.

What is perhaps not so well known is what happened on the alternative date of the invasion. On the 19th June, the most violent storm for over 40 years swept up the Channel and combined with the spring tide, created a tempest that the locals had never seen the like of before. The temperatures were the equivalent of November - a cold one at that - and the storm ripped apart the American 'Mulbery' temporary harbour and severely damaged the British one, thus causing major disruption to the Allied supply lines. The storm raged for three days and had the invasion been attempted during this period, it would surely have ended in disaster. Had Group Captain Stagg got his weather forecast wrong and had Overlord failed as a result, the implications for Western civilisation do not bear thinking about.

Four years earlier, the weather was also generally kind to the Allies during 'Operation Dynamo', the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and their French allies from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940. Despite the success of this operation, a huge number of British, French and Polish troops remained to be evacuated from France and so 'Operation Cycle' was put into effect. From the port of Le Havre, a further 15,500 British and French troops were successfully brought back to Britain but at the small fishing port of St Valery en Caux, the weather intervened and demonstrated just how much operations of war, as well as anything man-made, was at the mercy of the elements. It had been hoped to bring out the 51st Highland Division from this port but this crack division had been delayed in falling back and by the time the reached the port, some twenty four hours later than scheduled, patchy fog and reduced visibility ensured that the vessels sent to rescue the soldiers lost contact with each other and the shore. The delay caused by the weather and also by the late arrival of the troops at the port meant that the Germans captured the high ground overlooking the port and evacuation proved impossible. Fewer than 2,500 soldiers were evacuated, mainly wounded and other troops but the bulk of the 51st Highland Division were forced to surrender, the majority of whom were to spend five long years in German captivity.

Another famous example of the weather intervening to destroy an operation of war was during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, although it is fair to say that this was only the final nail in the coffin for the ultimately ill-fated 'Operation Barbarossa' as the invasion was officially known. Indeed, it could be argued that the weather became a factor precisely because the wheels were already coming off the German advance. Hitler had been confident, indeed over-confident of a quick success, so much so that he had discounted the need for his soldiers to be equipped with clothing suitable to withstand the severe Russian winter weather. The harsh weather also affected machinery as well as men; weapons malfunctioned, engines froze and the whole operation ground to a halt. The casualties on both sides were enormous but the Soviets prevailed and the 'Battle of the Century' was slowly but relentlessly won by the Red Army.

At sea, poor weather could sometimes ironically be a help. Many an Allied convoy prayed for rough seas to keep the U-Boats away. Relying on their surface speed during daylight hours to shadow the convoys and pounce at night, rough seas meant that the submarines had to remain submerged and fall out of contact with their prey. Poor weather, especially in the days before radar and full air cover, meant that ships could 'hide' in the vast expanse of the North Atlantic whilst their hunters searched fruitlessly for them. This could cut both ways though; the chances of survival in an open boat following a torpedoeing in a North Atlantic gale were slim. On the Arctic convoys, the weather could be ferocious in the extreme. Convoy RA64 in February 1945 sailed in the most appalling weather throughout and was scattered by hurricane-force winds. In such conditions, it was not unknown for ships to simply break apart. In such conditions, the chances of being picked up were remote and the chances of survival in the boiling seas were even slimmer.

In the air war, operations were equally at the mercy of the elements. Bombing, especially at the start of the war, was not an exact science. Poor visibility meant that bombs would miss their targets, although when bombing a large target such as London or Berlin, this was not especially important, as bombs dropped over an urban area would invariably find a target of sorts. When the weather did intervene, it could sometimes mean the salvation of a target and saving of lives on the ground. On the 29th December 1940, the Luftwaffe set the City of London ablaze in a great fire raid that became known as the Second Great Fire of London. The damage wreaked was enormous but a planned second wave of bombing mercifully did not materialise due to poor weather back in France that prevented the aircraft from flying. The weather again intervened in the summer of 1943 during the so-called Battle of Hamburg. The bombing of this great Hanseatic port city has been covered many times, including this blog and was given the macabre title of 'Operation Gomorrah' by Sir Arthur Harris, C in C of RAF Bomber Command. From an Allied point of view, the raids were largely a successful operation. The human cost was appalling but on the night of 2nd August 1943 - the fourth and final British raid of the operation - the elements combined with the RAF bombers to produce a truly apocalyptic scene. The RAF bombers appeared over the city in the midst of a huge thunderstorm, and to the beleagured citizens of Hamburg, the combination of bombs falling, lightning flashing and thunder echoing amid the explosions of the bombs, produced scenes more hellish than ever. 

Apart from Group Captain Stagg mentioned above, meteorologists played a prominent part in the Second World War on both sides. The Germans had U-Boats stationed in the North Atlantic on weather ship duties, passing on the prevailing conditions to the Wolf Packs. They also had a weather station on Spitsbergen until it's capture by the British in 1941. The British weather station there was subsequently shelled by the German battleship Tirpitz in 1943 thus demonstrating the importance attached to these low-key but vital outposts. As would be expected, RAF Bomber Command also had it's own meteorological staff, headed by Group Captain Magnus Spence, another seemingly dour Scotsman. Appearances were deceptive however, as when questioned about his christian name by Bomber Harris, Spence merely replied that at the time of his birth, Spence's father had been suffering "from a severe attack of Norse mythology!"

In the early days of the Third Reich, the sun shone regularly at the great Nazi rallies, so much so that the German people used to call warm sunshine 'Fuhrer Weather.' Although the elements themselves favoured neither side, we have huge reason to be thankful for the likes of Group Captain Spence and all of the Allied meteorologists during the Second World War. Their works, largely unsung and behind the scenes laid the path for the ultimate victory.

Printed Sources:
The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977
BEF Ships, before, at and after Dunkirk - John de S Winser, World Ship Society 1999
Bomber Harris: His Life and Times - Air Commodore Henry Probert, Greenhill Books 2001
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy - Anthony Beevor, Viking 2009
Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind - Sean Longden, Constable 2008
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe, Viking 2007
The Lonely Leader: Monty 1944-1945 - Alistair Horne with David Montgomery - Pan 1995