When I was a schoolboy, I often used to take a ’bus, approximately 2 miles, to the outskirts of the nearby town of Ripley, Derbyshire, carrying my fishing tackle. A short walk brought me to Butterley Hill, with Butterley Reservoir (and the nearby Midland Railway Trust) at the bottom of it. Sometimes, just before I reached the huge, mostly silent, Butterley Engineering Company works (most of the buildings are now demolished), I used to glance at the row of modest houses across the road. One of them, grandly named ‘Cromer House’, was of special interest, in that it bore a small blue plaque announcing that ‘Sir Barnes Wallis, the most eminent of 20th century aviation engineers was born here on 26th September, 1887′ (more on the plaque, later).
Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, Kt, CBE, FRS, RDI, FRAeS (1887 – 1979), the second son of a doctor, grew up to be recognized as an engineering genius, inventing such things as geodetic construction (used on the Wellington bomber, etc.) and the principal of swing-wing aircraft. However, it was his work with air-dropped munitions (bombs and mines) such as ‘Tallboy’, ‘Grand Slam’ and ‘Highball’ for which he is most remembered. Perhaps his most famous invention was the ‘bouncing bomb’ (technically a mine) with the code name of ‘Upkeep’, which would skip over the surface of the water, and be used to attack the Ruhr Dams in Germany.
Special targets sometimes need a special operation; in this case they needed a special weapon, a special squadron and a special leader, too. ‘Operation Chastise’ was designed to breach the Eder, Sorpe, Ennepe and Möhne Dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. Wing Commander Guy Gibson (later Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson, VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, RAF) was a tremendous bomber leader, whose idea of a ‘rest’ was to get himself posted to a nightfighter squadron – where he got four confirmed kills! He was ordered to form ‘Squadron X’ (later numbered 617 Squadron) at RAF Scampton, near Lincoln, from picked aircrew, for the special task of destroying the dams in the Ruhr area, causing flooding, loss of hydroelectric power, and loss of water supplies to the industrial cities nearby. Intensive low-level training took place, using modified Avro Lancasters - BIII Special (Type 464 Provisioning) - capable of dropping the back-spun ‘Upkeep’ mine weighing around 10,000 lbs, from a height of EXACTLY 60 feet above the water level, at EXACTLY 232 mph, at night and under fire. ‘Upkeep’ mines, both inert and live, had been dropped in trials at Reculver, Kent (from RAF Manston) and Chesil Beach, Dorset (from RAF Warmwell) and the example above is one of the inert practice weapons, owned by the Barnes Wallis Memorial Trust, and displayed at the Newark Air Museum, Nottinghamshire.
The raid took place on the night of 16/17 May, 1943. The Möhne and Eder Dams were breached and massive damage done, with large areas of flooding, photographed by a Spitfire PR XI of No. 542 Sqn out of RAF Benson, Oxfordshire, the following morning. Unfortunately, 8 out of 19 attacking aircraft were lost. Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross, the nation’s highest award; all the other surviving aircrew were decorated. King George VI inspected 617 Sqn (now know as ‘The Dambusters’) at Scampton, and approved their official motto ‘Après moi le déluge’ - ‘After me, the flood’, allegedly used by the French King Louis XV (1710-1774).
617 Squadron practised hard, especially over the Derwent Dam in the Peak District of Derbyshire, and of all the memorials to the Dams Raid and Barnes Wallis, it is the simple plaque in the Derwent Valley Museum (which has an exhibition on 617 Sqn. and the raid) which I find most moving. That and listening to the theme tune, ‘The Dambusters March’ (from the 1955 film ‘The Dambusters’ starring Richard Todd) which was played well into the 1960s, as Derby County (‘The Rams’) trotted out for every home game (their then home was the Baseball Ground, around 1 mile from the Rolls-Royce Main Works in Derby).
Oh, and the plaque on Cromer House? It was replaced by a ’Red Wheel’ plaque from The Transport Trust, which says, ‘Sir Barnes N. Wallis, 1887 – 1979, aeronautical engineer and inventor, designer of airships, aeroplanes, the ‘Bouncing Bomb’, and swing-wing aircraft was born here.’