75th Anniversary of the Dambusters Raid
Very few exploits of World War II have attracted as much admiration as the raid on the German dams of the Ruhr Valley.
Prior to the Second World War, the British Air Ministry had identified the industrialised Ruhr Valley and its dams as important strategic targets. In addition to providing hydro-electric power and pure water for steel making, they supplied water for drinking and for the canal transport system. It was thought that destruction of the dams in the region would cause massive disruption to German war production.
The most effective means of attack was thought to be a one-off surprise attack but the RAF lacked a suitable weapon for the task. The dams were well protected with torpedo nets in the water to stop underwater attacks and anti-aircraft guns defended them against enemy bombers.
It was Dr Barnes Wallis, assistant chief designer at the Vickers Aircraft Company, who developed the secret weapon – a drum-shaped, rotating device that would bounce over water, roll down a dam’s wall and explode at its base.
In late March 1943, a single squadron was formed which included personnel from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. The squadron commenced intensive training in low-level night flying and navigation in preparation for raids on the dams. The aircraft were modified Avro Lancaster Mk Ills with much of the internal armour removed to reduce weight and to fit the unusual shape of the ‘bouncing bomb’.
The mission was codenamed Operation CHASTISE and on the evening of 16 May 1943, 133 aircrew in 19 Lancasters, led by 24 year old Wing Commander Guy Gibson, took off in three waves to bomb the main targets of Mohne, Eder and Sorpe Dams.
The Mohne and Edersee Dams were breached, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr Valley and villages in the Eder valley. The Sorpe Dam sustained minor damage. Two hydroelectric power stations were destroyed and several more damaged. Factories and mines were also damaged and some destroyed. While considered to be a success, particularly as a significant morale boost to the people of Great Britain, the impact on industrial production was limited and the cost was high.
Nineteen Australians flew with the Dambusters on the dam raids, including three South Australians, Squadron Leader David Shannon, Flight Lieutenant Robert (Bob) Hay, who trained the squadron’s bomb aimers, and Flying Officer Frederick Spafford.
Flight Lieutenant David Shannon was just 20 when he took part in the famous bombing raid on the German dams. The son of a South Australian member of parliament, Shannon enlisted in the RAAF as soon as he was old enough and after completing flying training was sent to England and posted to No.106 Squadron RAF, where his Commanding Officer was Wing Commander Guy Gibson. His ability as a pilot saw him invited by Gibson to join him for ‘special flying operations’ and ultimately the Dambusters.
At least 1,650 people were killed, around 70 perished in the Eder Valley and at least 1,579 bodies were found along the Mohne and Ruhr rivers, with hundreds more missing. Over 1,000 of the dead were prisoners of war and forced labourers, mainly Russian men and women. Of the 133 RAF aircrew who carried out the raid, 53 were killed and three became prisoners of war. The surviving aircrew of 617 Squadron were lauded as heroes and Wing Commander Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the raid. The raid established 617 Squadron as a specialist precision bombing unit, experimenting with new bomb sights and target marking techniques.