One of the most famous air raids of the Second World War took place on the night of 16-17 May 1943, involving a squadron of Royal Air Force (RAF) Lancaster bombers sent to attack large dams servicing the industrial production of Germany’s Ruhr area. Officially the mission was known as “Operation Chastise” but was later to become popularly known as the Dam Busters raid.
The British were well aware that the Ruhr industrial complex was a major steel and synthetic oil producing area supporting Germany’s war effort, and began a concentrated bombing campaign across the area during early 1943.
The attack on the dams – the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe, was designed to disrupt industries in the area, both by flooding and the destruction of hydro-electric stations powered by the dams.
A specially designed 4.2 tonne “bouncing bomb” was developed by the British scientist Barnes Wallace, that was designed to explode against the dam walls after release from the Lancaster – and then skipping across the surface of the water. The bomb had to be dropped at precisely the correct height (18 metres) and distance from the dam wall (390 metres) at an air speed of 390 km/hr – and to make this even more difficult, the mission was to take place at night.
An elite force was assembled – 617 Squadron – commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson and the raid consisting of 14 specially modified Lancaster bombers was launched from RAF Scampton Field in the late evening of 16 May. A reserve force of five other bombers took off soon after.
After an heroic action that lasted for much of the night, the Mohne and Eder Dams were breached, generating massive floods down the Ruhr Valley – together with a major boost to Allied morale. However the cost to the RAF was high – eight Lancaster bombers and 56 aircrew were lost. Wing Commander Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his fearless leadership of the raid.
Image: Photograph of the breached Möhne Dam taken by Flying Officer Jerry Fray of No. 542 Squadron from his Spitfire PR IX, six Barrage balloons are above the dam, 17 May 1943, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.