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.