Dambusters and Grand Tour of Belgium 13-18 May 2017

We set off for Ypres from Calais in the mid-morning and spent time at sites around the area, immersed in World War I. We then rode on in the afternoon to our overnight stop in Lessines.

In the morning we rode on towards the Nimy Bridge in Mons and heard the story of the first main action of the war as the Germans advanced over the rail bridge towards Mons itself. On the bridge were the first two recipients of a Victoria Cross (Dease and Godley). The group went on to pay respects at the grave of Dease and to visit the beautiful setting of St Symphorien German and British cemetery .

Nimy Bridge

Nimy Bridge

St Symphorien Cemetery, Mons

St Symphorien Cemetery, Mons

After moving off from Mons, the group were treated to a ride in the beautiful lowlands of Belgium and north towards Brussels for the battlefield at Waterloo. The museum and restaurant were popular spots for a visit and afterwards, we all rode around to the Charleroi road and to La Belle Alliance, where Napoleon spent the early morning of 18 June 1815.

After reaching our overnight in Liege, the group spent a pleasant evening in the old City, ready for the long run north into Germany and the Ruhr valley.

Day three was spent winding ever closer to the Mohne and Sorpe dams. The group arrived at the Sorpe at lunchtime in warm sunshine. A stroll to the dam was followed by Chris giving an account of the two aircraft that managed to reach the dam and successfully release their UPKEEP mines. He also talked about the surviving dambusters - including Jonnie Johnson who was the bomb aimer for the first mine dropped here in McCarthy's aircraft.

Sorpe Dam

Sorpe Dam

We then set off for the Mohne dam and the beautiful tranquility of the Mohnesee. A pleasant late afternoon spent walking around the area, taking in the sun at the cafe and hearing a full account of Operation Chastise on the evening of 16-17 May 1943. Chris talked about every aspect of the raid, from the design and concept, the objectives, the unfolding events and the aftermath, including the impact on civilians and the industrial production of the Ruhr and Rhine areas.

The Mohne Dam, the breach scar is just visible in the centre span.

The Mohne Dam, the breach scar is just visible in the centre span.

After finishing the day with an evening run towards the Eder, the group spend the night reflecting on the day and enjoying a variety of local cuisines (including local steaks and salads).

The next morning started at the Eder and took in the Ennepe and Bever dam which was attacked by one UPKEEP mine in error. The countryside was spectacular and the routes included several deep valleys and over forty different towns and villages - with clear open roads to open up the bikes on perfect ribbons of clear tarmac.

The Ennepe Dam

The Ennepe Dam

The Bever Dam

The Bever Dam

The morning brought blue skies and the prospect of a ride in dappled sunshine through the Ardennes in the direction of Bastogne. We stopped off at the Baugnez crossroads to pay repsects enroute to an afternoon at the museum in 32 degree heat.

Bastogne War Museum

Bastogne War Museum

The party then rode to our overnight stop at the ancient walled town of Givet on the Meuse and then embarked on the long run back to Calais

High Flight (John Gillespie Magee Jr)

John Gillespie Magee


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee Royal Canadian Air Force

Died in 1941 Aged 19 after a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire 

The Sorpe Dam

Meanwhile the sole survivor of the second wave, McCarthy, had arrived at the Sorpe which had been difficult to find because of low mist in the valleys. It was immediately apparent that the approach to the dam was extremely challenging, and so it proved. McCarthy flew the approach nine times but found it difficult to clear the high hill and then bring the Lancaster down low enough, with the church steeple on the approach proving particularly troublesome, and either McCarthy himself or his bomb-aimer were not satisfied that all was right and called for the aircraft to go around again. The other members of the crew became restless as the bomber had now been circuiting the dam for half an hour and they were also puzzled that no other aircraft from the second wave had appeared. Eventually, on the tenth approach both McCarthy and his bomb-aimer were satisfied that the approach was perfect and dropped the bomb alongside the dam. Two and a half hours later Brown, who had received a radio message directing his aircraft to attack the Sorpe while in the air, arrived at the dam and found that the ground mist was now even thicker. Brown found the approach no easier than McCarthy, and the thickening mist made flying the circuit correctly difficult even though the dam itself was clear, and after flying into a mist-bound nearby valley and nearly crashing he ordered that incendiaries be dropped round the circuit to help him. In all Brown flew five separate approaches before dropping the mine on his sixth attempt. Although both mines exploded close to the dam and caused considerable damage, no breach occurred. The loss of so many from the second wave had seriously weakened the assault on the Sorpe and it survived the attack.

The Sorpe Dam. Essentially an earth bank. This type of dam was not the intended design for the Upkeep mine and was ultimately an unsuitable target for Operation Chastise. It was badly damaged by two near-perfect hits, but it survived the attack.

The Eder Dam

The aircraft flying to the Eder all had difficult finding it in the thickening mists and when Gibson eventually located it he fired a red flare to attract the other crews. As at the Sorpe the approach proved very difficult. Shannon flew three or four approaches without being able to get the Lancaster low enough after the steep dive and sharp turn. Maudslay then tried twice with similar results. Shannon flew two more approaches before he and his bomb-aimer were satisfied, dropping his mine at 1.39 in the morning. Maudslay then flew down the valley for the third time. The watching Gibson thought that he saw something hanging from the Lancaster as if it had previously been damaged. The mine was released but probably too close to the dam and exploded on hitting the parapet shortly after Maudslay’s aircraft passed over it. It is not clear whether the aircraft was caught in the explosion of its own Upkeep or not, as the eyewitnesses differed. Maudslay made brief and indistinct radio contact with Gibson and is known to have left the area immediately, suggesting his aircraft may indeed have been damaged. Knight attacked next, making one dummy run, before dropping his mine at the correct height, speed and alignment. It hit the dam, sank, and exploded at the correct depth. The dam crumbled and collapsed and the water poured into the valley beyond.

The Eder Dam 17 May 1943 draining into the valley below (courtesy of the MoD)

The Eder Dam on 17 May 2016. The contrast enhancement shows the scars of the raid in the repairs to the concrete wall.

Operation Chastise - The Mission

Courtesy of the RAF History Department at the Ministry of Defence

The Air Ministry originally considered the Ruhr dams as a possible target early as 1937. A number of proposals and studies were undertaken between 1938 and 1941, though none produced a proper plan with all the necessary components of a viable weapon and feasible means of delivery.

A new squadron was formed at Scampton on 21st March 1943, initially known as “X” Squadron and latterly as 617 Squadron, and the 24 year old Wing Commander Guy Gibson was personally selected to lead it by none other than Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command. Gibson had flown 71 bomber sorties and an entire tour of 99 sorties on night fighters and was already the holder of four gallantry awards - the Distinguished Service Order and bar and the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar.
Despite the “elite” tag and the presence of some very experienced airmen – e.g. the two flight commanders, Sqn Ldrs Dinghy’ Young and ‘Henry Maudslay, and experienced pilots such as Dave Shannon, ‘Hoppy’ Hopgood, Les Knight and Joe McCarthy - NOT all 617 Sqn air crew were veterans. Some had flown fewer than 10 missions and one less than 5 and some of the flight engineers on the raid were flying their first operational sortie. Not all had volunteered for 617, and not all were known to or selected by Gibson: one entire flight of 57 Squadron was simply posted en masse to 617 Squadron.

2016-05-18 08.57.15.jpg

Modified Avro Lancaster B Mk III Special known as “Type 464 Provisioning”. The mid-upper gun turret along with the bomb-bay doors was removed and callipers along with a drive motor and belt fitted in the aircraft to hold and spin the bomb. Twin spotlights were fitted [see below] along with VHF radio telephone which allowed direct speech communication between aircraft, which was not normal for bomber aircraft at the time. This would allow Wg Cdr Gibson personally to direct the raid. The final approval to start modifying just three Lancasters to conduct experiments came only on 26th February 1943 with conversion sets to be prepared for thirty, later reduced to twenty, aircraft. The first plans for the necessary modifications being drawn up on 1st March and the order for the conversion of the first aircraft being signed on 8th March.

The crews, who had trained to operate their bombers at heights above 15000’, with a measured approach to the target allowing accurate navigation, were put through an intensive training programme involving extensive low-level flying and cross-country navigation eventually moving on to do the same thing at night, flying at 150’ over water, along with bombing practice. However, night-flying at that height with no moon was a a major problem and there were not enough moonlit nights, so four aircraft were fitted with an American system involving sheets of blue celluloid inside the Perspex and orange goggles, which gave the impression of moonlight when flying in the day. The aircraft flew very low, returning with dents and bits of foliage hanging off them and on at least two occasions birds smashed through the cockpit windscreens which could have been disastrous. However, despite many close shaves there were no serious accidents.

This varied depending on the type of dam. For the Mohne and Eder aircraft approached at SIXTY feet above the water IN THE DARK flying at 220 mph. For the earthen Sorpe dam aircraft flew along the dam very low at 180 mph and dropped the bomb, without spin, in the water alongside the middle of the dam. The barometric altimeters were not sensitive enough to give that accurate a reading and in any case the pilot could not look at the instrument panel at that height for fear of hitting the water. The aircraft therefore carried two spotlights which were angled so that when the beams met on the surface of the water the aircraft was flying at sixty feet, roughly twice the height of a normal house. The navigator watched the beams and called out “up” or “down” to the pilot. Flying very fast and very low with no modern radar aids with lights burning on your aircraft to show the enemy where you were was extremely hazardous. The wingspan of a Lancaster is 102’ so there was a real danger of hitting the water as the aircraft made the tight turns on the approaches to the dams. At the Eder and Sorpe the topography of the surrounding countryside with steep hills and the dams in the valleys made the approach in the dark to drop the bomb accurately in a large bomber very, very difficult. At the Eder the aircraft had to drop down from over 1000 feet to the lake and fly a curving approach hopping over a spit of land which rose to 50 feet less than a mile from the target, and then line up at the correct height and speed, before pulling up steeply to avoid the 300 feet hill which rose precipitously immediately behind the dam. To get the Lancaster down to 60 feet round and over the spit and lined up properly at right angles to the dam at 220 mph, and then make a climbing turn to getaway in the dark, was very challenging flying. At the Sorpe the aircraft had to fly over a 180-foot hill and dip down steeply to the dam just a quarter of a mile beyond to fly along and drop the bomb before climbing out using full power over another 300-foot hill immediately behind the dam. To make matters even more difficult a tall church steeple was exactly in line with the correct line of approach to the dam. The approach at the Mohne was slightly less daunting but still involved lifting the aircraft over a spit of land which rose to some 180 feet, but did provide some cover from the flak, and then dropping down to the surface of the lake to line up on the dam about a mile away. After dropping the mine the aircraft crossed the dam and then the pilot had to turn the big bomber round to the left away from flak positions to the right.

The route to and from dams was also flown at very low level to avoid the defences. Their primitive radio navigation aids were usually jammed over enemy territory though some apparently worked up to the River Rhine – most navigation after crossing the Dutch coast was done by map reading and dead reckoning. This was extremely difficult at low level in moonlight, and very dangerous – two, aircraft hit power cables and crashed, and one hit the surface of the sea, lost its bomb and was very lucky to make it back to Scampton. Some aircraft flew beneath power cables on their way to the target and others flew along roads below the level of the surrounding trees. Others strayed off course by just a few miles, which it was almost impossible to avoid doing, but the route had been designed to avoid flak defences, though not all were known, and some of the unlucky ones who strayed in the wrong place were shot down.
Three waves of aircraft were sent to attack.
First Wave – 9 aircraft in 3 “vics” of 3. To attack the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams. Aircraft Captains: Gibson, Martin, Hopgood; Young, Shannon, Maltby; Maudslay, Knight, Astell.
Second Wave – 5 aircraft. To attack the Sorpe. Aircraft Captains: Barlow, Munro, Rice, Byers, McCarthy.
Third Wave – 5 aircraft. Airborne reserve. Aircraft Captains: Ottley, Burpee, Brown, Townsend, Anderson.

Of the nineteen aircraft which left Scampton eleven had made attacks, resulting in breaches at the Mohne and Eder and damage to the Sorpe. Two aircraft had returned early, five had been lost on the outward journey and one at the Mohne dam. The surviving aircraft, including one which could not find its target, still had to make their way home across hundreds of miles of hostile territory. On the return trip two more aircraft were to be shot down. The victims were two of the most senior and experienced members of the Squadron. Maudslay’s aircraft may or may not have been caught in the explosion of its own weapon over the Eder and suffered further damage. Two radio messages were heard from the aircraft after the attack and it is clear that it headed for home as soon as it had dropped its mine. Probably damaged it strayed too close to the oil refineries at Emmerich on its return journey and was shot down by the flak defences. Young very nearly made it home but fell victim to German flak batteries on the coast of Holland and crashed into the sea. There were no survivors from either aircraft. McCarthy’s aircraft also nearly came to grief when it strayed over the heavily defended marshalling yards of Hamm, flying through them so low that a member of the crew remarked that the Germans didn’t need flak they only needed to change the points. Other aircraft were fired on by flak batteries on the return journey and at the coast. In all eight aircraft from the raid were lost resulting in the deaths of 53 men: three more became PoWs.

The flooding from the breached dams affected a wide area inundating many factories and damaging or destroying power stations, road and rail bridges, and other facilities. The loss of power and water for the Ruhr, crucial to many manufacturing processes, was also significant. Among a large number of towns temporarily deprived of water were Hamm, Hagen, Bochum and Dortmund. The Germans had to draft in tens of thousands of workers to repair the damaged dams and other facilities, including at least 7000 workers removed from building the Atlantic Wall defences against Allied invasion with direct positive results a year later during the D-Day invasion. Both ammunition and coal production fell after the attack, just at the point that the Germans mounted their last significant offensive on the Eastern Front. The raid also had political consequences. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was visiting America at the time, and news of the attack’s success was telephoned through to him. He was able to make considerable capital from the attack and specifically referred to it in an address to the American Congress. American and British newspapers also made much of the attack with it appearing on the front page of British papers and the New York Times. The Germans also constructed elaborate defences at all the dams in the Ruhr and elsewhere, diverting considerable military and construction resources in the process. These included anti-aircraft batteries covering every dam – prior to the raid only the Mohne had any guns protecting it. The dams were also protected by mine barrages, ramps to deflect Upkeep mines, and wire net curtains strung in front to down low flying aircraft. Although the human cost of the raid was high, and unsustainable on a regular basis, it should be remembered that it represented less than a 1000th of Bomber Command’s total losses, and the results of the attack, politically, economically and militarily undoubtedly made it worthwhile.


Air crew decorated 34
Victoria Cross – 1; Distinguished Service Order – 5; Distinguished Flying Cross – 10; Bar to Distinguished Flying Cross – 4; Conspicuous Gallantry Medal – 2; Distinguished Flying Medal 11; Bar to Distinguished Flying Medal – 1.


617 Squadron "The Dambusters" Anniversary BOAB Flight 16-18 May 2016

    After Me - The Floods

    After Me - The Floods

This evening marks the 73rd anniversary of Operation Chastise, the tactical bombing of a number of great dams in the Ruhr valley that fed the industrial heartland of Germany around Dortmund, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Essen and Duisburg. The operation was conceived as early as 1940 but there was no technology or capability at that time to breach the dams, even though their defences were considered to be minimal and planned to expect a torpedo attack.

The ingenuity of Barnes Wallis, working at the time for Vickers in Weybridge and his team of engineers and scientists developed a solution that unique to the attack planned. The development of the innovative depth charge released from the air and designed to skim across the water was described as "fantastic to the point of fantasy" by Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris of Bomber Command. The weapon was eventually developed after successful trials at Reculver and the subsequent enthusiasm expressed by Winston Churchill himself. 

A new squadron was formed to undertake the operation, led by Guy Penrose Gibson. He was already a veteran Wing Commander at the age of 24, having completed over 170 sorties over three full tours. This one was individual and unique. Nineteen Lancaster aircraft were adapted to carry the five ton bouncing bomb and the training to deliver the weapon from an height of 60 feet, at 210 knots, 600 yards from the dam was completed in record time - only five weeks of full preparation was possible due to the constraints of timing the raid when the dams were full.

On the evening of 16 May 1943, the raid was launched and of 19 bombers deployed, 11 returned intact. 56 men were lost to the raid, 53 killed and 3 taken prisoner. 

The operation was considered to be a success and the damage done to the Ruhr valley industrial production is contended, although it is certain that steel production was reduced for the months immediately following the raid. 

Follow our updates on our Battlefields On A Bike aerial tour over the next few days...