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The Royal Air Force 617 Squadron, known as "The Dambusters", flew their last mission in Afghanistan today performing close air support duties for the Coalition forces. The squadron will return to their base in Britain to be temporarily disbanded. Their Tornado GR4 aircraft will be passed on to other squadrons until they are also phased out.

Their name comes for Operation Chastise in 1943. 617 Squadron was formed from elite flyers for a special mission requiring flying so precise it is difficult to reproduce even today. They were assigned to drop Barnes Wallace's "bouncing bombs" against dams vital to production in the German industrial heartland. Conventional bombs simply did not have enough explosive force to damage these dams. Instead Wallis devised a method of spinning a barrel-shaped bomb which would skip over the surface of the water of the lake behind the dam. When it hit the dam wall, it sank and exploded against the wall. The water around focused the explosion, so magnifying its force. Wallis's original idea of massive "earthquake" bombs would later be used against other heavily reinforced targets.

To achieve this effect the spinning bomb had to be dropped at a precise height, at a precise speed and a precise distance from the dam - in the dark. The planes had to be kept dead level on their final approach as a wing could hit the water if it was not. Altimeters were useless as they did not have the accuracy required. Instead Wallace devised a system of spotlights mounted at the front and back of the place, aimed down so that the two beams came together when at the right height. A similarly elegant solution was found for getting the drop distance accurate. A V shaped sight was used so when, viewed from the bottom of the V, the two ends lined up with features on the dam, the bomb aimer knew to release his load.

Over the night of May 16/17 1943, 19 Lancaster bombers mounted raids on three dams. 8 aircraft were lost, 53 aircrew killed (13 were from the Royal Canadian Air Force and 3 from Australia) and 3 taken prisoner of war. Two dams, the Möhne and Eder dams were breached. The Sorpe dam was damaged. The resulting floods are estimated to have killed 1600 of who over a thousand were (mainly Soviet) prisoners and forced labourers.  Armaments production was affected, especially by the loss of the hydroelectric power but the Germans fairly quickly repaired the damage and by June 27 power output had been restored. This has been seen as a failure of the strategic objectives but recent re-examination now sees this as a vital element in ultimate victory. Workers had to be withdrawn from building the "Atlantic Wall" allowing the invasion the following year to progress. Disinformation schemes like "Operation Mincemeat" had convinced the German High Command that the invasion would be further up the coast near the Straights of Dover (the narrowest point in the Channel) rather than in Normandy.

617 Squadron kept up a tradition of supreme flying skills. Cuts to military spending means delivery of the RAF's replacement for the Tornado GR4, the F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter has been put back to 2016. The squadron will then be reformed with personnel from both the RAF and Royal Navy.

Originally posted to Lib Dem FoP on Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 02:02 PM PST.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force, World War Two Aircraft, and Aviation & Pilots.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (31+ / 0-)

    We will work, we will play, we will laugh, we will live. We will not waste one moment, nor sacrifice one bit of our freedom, because of fear.

    by Lib Dem FoP on Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 02:02:54 PM PST

  •  wow.... thanks! (9+ / 0-)

    A piece of history I did not know.  Using the angled spotlights was genius.  

    Thanks again.

  •  Dambusters -- The Movie (12+ / 0-)

    I saw it a number of years ago and thought it was good.

    My invisible imaginary friend is the "true" creator

    by Mr Robert on Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 02:20:16 PM PST

  •  I read a great book on this many years ago. (8+ / 0-)

    What stuck with me was the story of how the tail gunner on one of the planes watched as a wall of water poured down the canyon and he described the headlights of a vehicle frantically tried to stay ahead of the water.  Eventually the lights were overtaken and the car (and presumably driver) were drowned.

    Part of the reason they had to skip the bombs was because the Germans had anti-torpedo netting protecting the dams.  The Brits had to figure out how to get a bomb to land between the netting and the dam, right up against it.  The skipping was a stroke of genius, and IIRC it came from the (now obvious) observation of stones being skipped across water.

  •  This from Afghanistan in 2011 (8+ / 0-)

    Their current capabilities. That is, the capabilities they are willing to talk about.

    Rudeness is a weak imitation of strength. - Eric Hoffer

    by Otteray Scribe on Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 03:07:50 PM PST

  •  A true story (9+ / 0-)

    An American company wanted to build an air separation plant to supply a steel works on the Ruhr downstream of the Moehne dam.

    When doing the safety review of the plant the US company's safety manager looked at the river's maximum height over the previous 50 years, and informed the review committee that as the land had been flooded once over the previous 50 years, he could not sign off on the plan.

    To which one unknown German replied

    "If you don't bomb our dams, we won't flood your plant"

    I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

    by peterfallow on Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 03:23:26 PM PST

  •  It is an interesting, and debatable, question as (0+ / 0-)

    to its effectiveness and justification. The car being swamped reminds of some rather smirky comments in one of the Iraq pre-onvasion bombings of a driver being lone of the luckiest people in Iraq, and the non recognition and apparent nonconcern of proabbly many people being killed when buildings were shown before and during a bomb which blew out all windows. It seemed to be shown on tv as a sort of video game.

    •  Of its time (0+ / 0-)

      The movie was made in the early 1950s which you can probably tell from the what we would consider now extremely crude special effects.

      Operation Chastise was a significant turning point in terms of British morale during the Blitz and attacks with the V weapons. 60 years later we are looking back at what is a historic social document as well as a simple movie. Several aspects are unhistorical -the upper class English accents of the actors is completely wrong for the most part for example.

      The reprise of significant events in WWII and the technical innovations that resulted were a panacea for the angst over the loss of status, wealth and empire that followed the war (when the film was made, there was still food rationing in the UK)  

      Arguably there was a similar sort of synergy in the USA during the 1990s with such films as Independence Day and Armageddon in the wake of the Challenger disaster and as America's influence declined and manufacturing moved overseas. After a brief hiatus following 9/11 we are starting to see more of similar "USA #1" inspired movies and TV shows like "24".

      I should also have pointed out that attacks on dams where significant civilian loss of life is likely to occur is outlawed by a protocol to the Geneva Conventions.

      Barnes Wallis' intention was to shorten the war by disabling the coal, steel and related industries and was frustrated by the lack of follow up raids to disrupt the rebuilding. I think we should also recognize that aircrew have a far more detached view of the consequences of their weapons than soldiers on the ground.

      The attack did have clear military objectives (if outlawed now) which to some extent makes it more excusable than the later war crimes committed in both USAF and RAF raids like the fire bombing of Dresden.

      We will work, we will play, we will laugh, we will live. We will not waste one moment, nor sacrifice one bit of our freedom, because of fear.

      by Lib Dem FoP on Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 04:53:35 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Remake (3+ / 0-)

        Supposedly Peter Jackson is working on a new Dambusters film - he's already had several replica Lancasters built for it and they're in storage pending his work on the "Hobbit" films. The fact the Stephen Fry supposedly is writing the script does not bode well...I'll also be fascinated if Jackson can resist the idea of getting an all-star and likely much too old cast (Guy Gibson was 24, for God's sake!). And of course there's the "what do we call Gibson's dog?" problem.

        •  According to wikipedia (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          the dog's name will be changed to Digger.  I don't think I need to spell out what it was originally.  It apparently was a rather common name for black woozles in England mid-century.

        •  Why do you say that about Fry? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Stephen Fry is an extremely talented writer, documentary presenter, director and actor as well as being a prominent campaigner for gay rights and greater understanding of depression.

          His own experience of that last would, I should think, add a lot to the portrayal of Barnes Wallace whose probable bipolar disorder is alluded to in the 1954 film.

          We will work, we will play, we will laugh, we will live. We will not waste one moment, nor sacrifice one bit of our freedom, because of fear.

          by Lib Dem FoP on Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 06:24:07 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I get the impression... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            ...perhaps incorrectly, that he's a comic writer. And if there's anything this story is, it's not funny. I have nothing against him personally, I just wonder if he's the right person to script it. I'll be immensely pleased to be proven wrong!

            Of course his experiences may also give him better insight into Gibson, who seems to have been somewhat manic depressive himself.

            •  Far from it (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              hawkertempest, RiveroftheWest

              He wrote as well as presenting an Emmy award winning documentary on bipolar disorder. (He also wrote and presented two documentary series, one visiting every US state and another on endangered species)

              He's had four novels and two volumes of autobiography published. He got a 2:1 in English Literature from Cambridge University where he joined their "Footlights Club" which has been the entry for many famous actors and comedians.

              He is also a bit of a technology geek and was the first person in England to have an iPad.

              Look him up, he is quite extraordinarily talented.

              We will work, we will play, we will laugh, we will live. We will not waste one moment, nor sacrifice one bit of our freedom, because of fear.

              by Lib Dem FoP on Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 07:44:45 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

        •  Just be thankful (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          hawkertempest, RiveroftheWest

          that Michael Bay didn't get a hold of it.

          First thing they'd do is change the plot to make it Americans, because it always has to be about us.

          Then they'd cast Nicholas Cage and/or Vin Diesel in it.

          Barnes Wallace would be spinning in his grave like a Merlin at the red-line.

          If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

          by Major Kong on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 04:43:17 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Worth a read (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Munchkn, Mr Robert, RiveroftheWest

    James Holland's new book Dam Busters: The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the Dams in 1943 is absolutely superb, and one of the first books to really take into account how horribly costly this mission was. You really get involved with one of the aircrew (one of the Australians, in fact), only to turn the page and he's dead. Quite devastating.

    Worth a note, though, while Barnes Wallis was a genius, he didn't come up with the idea for the spotlights. A scientist named Benjamin Lockspeiser came up with that.

  •  Okay, someone has to do it (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Musical interlude time...

    Here's another nice version.

  •  Really quite the story (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mr Robert, RiveroftheWest

    of courage and problem solving.  

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 07:54:37 PM PST

  •  Barnes Wallace was an absolute genius, and not... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...just in the field of weapon design. I have covered the Dams Raid from another angle to a previous diary (for those who missed it, please see below)

    As I said, when I used to go fishing as a boy, I walked by  the modest house (now with its plaque) where Barnes Wallace had been born.

    Each year, the RAF's 'Battle of Britain Memorial Flight' send their Lancaster bomber on a mission to the Derwent Valley Dam in the Derbyshire Peak District. The Derwent Valley has a dam wall very similar to those on certain German dams, and its twisting, difficult approach was ideal for training purposes by 671 Squadron.

    I have included a couple of links to diaries I wrote about two Lancasters, and one to an excellent video of flypasts by the BBMF 'Lanc' and one of their PR Mk XIX Spitfires (a 'recce' Spitfire was used to take 'post raid' assessment photographs by the RAF) and a pair of Tornado aircraft, too.

    The Peak District National Park has a beauty all its own!

    Full disclosure: I was - for my sins - Deputy Air Show Co-ordinator, 'Battle of Britain Air Show Office', Royal Air Force

  •  Oh, and I should mention... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ....that the Derbyshire connection to the Dams Raid goes deep, in that the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (which powered the Lancaster and many other WW2 aircraft) was designed and built (initially) at the Rolls-Royce Main works on Nightingale Road, Derby. Oh, and Flight Lieutenant 'Bill' Astell, DFC who was killed on the raid, was always described by Guy Gibson as an "Englishman from Derbyshire" (he was brought up in the Peak District, although he was born in nearby Cheshire)

    Indeed, in what is probably the ultimate piece of Dambusters trivia, fans of Derby County the local Football League team, from the late 1950s to well into the 1960s, heard the side trot out to the strains of the 'Dambusters March' at every home game. This puzzled visiting fans, to say the least!

    One reason the original film HAD to be made at that time, was the imminent withdrawal of the RAF's last active Lancasters (modified for maritime reconnaissance) at the School of Maritime Reconnaissance (SMR) under the direction of Coastal Command at RAF St Mawgan, in Cornwall, which closed in September, 1956.

    I look forward - with interest - to the new film (NOTE - to Peter Jackson - I'm available for consultation, weddings and b'nai mitzvah/b'not mitzvah - and I'm cheap; OK, there are some who would say VERY cheap!)

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