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...