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Dambusters raid: new book by historian MAX HASTINGS brings it to life as never before

At exactly 9am on May 15, the Air Ministry sent a ‘most immediate, most secret’ order to High Wycombe: ‘Op. CHASTISE. Immediate attack of targets ‘X’, ‘Y’, ‘Z’ approved. Execute at first suitable opportunity.’

It was the go-ahead for one of the most audacious raids of World War II.

X, Y and Z were the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams, holding back millions of gallons of water. If breached, it would pour through the Ruhr valley, Nazi Germany’s industrial heartland, and ruin Hitler’s war machine.

From High Wycombe, Bomber Command dispatched the order to 617 Squadron at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.

There the crews of 19 Lancaster bombers – 133 men in all – were let in on the ‘Big Thing’ as their skipper called it, the mission behind the past eight weeks of training.

Operation Chastise was an attack on German dams carried out in May 1943 by the Royal Air Force’s No. 617 Squadron. Pictured: Lancaster Bomber painting

They’d carried out hours of gruelling low-level flying, skimming the countryside at a death-defying 100ft, under the critical eye of 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson, veteran of 72 bomber operations and 99 sorties as pilot of a night-fighter. 

Small in stature, he was tough, demanding and peremptory in manner. As one gunner said sourly, he was the sort of ‘little bugger always jumping out from behind a hut and telling you your buttons were undone’.

When the targets were finally revealed to the crews, some sighed with relief. They’d feared having to attack heavily defended submarine pens.

The dams seemed easier — until they heard about the steep wooded terrain protecting them, the anti-torpedo nets strung across the surface and the near impossible approach run. In a thrilling extract from his book, Max Hastings recounts the tension of those raids in 1943 in amazing detail. 

In the smoke-filled briefing room, front gunner Fred Sutherland, 20, gazed in dismay at the model of the Möhne, took in the fact that they would be flying at night by just the light of the moon and concluded: ‘We didn’t have a hope.’

The next evening – May 16 – the crews assembled at 1800 hours, seated on lines of benches.

On a dais was a large map of Europe on which their routes to the Ruhr valley were marked with red tapes. 

The hum of chatter was stilled, and the men rose to their feet as Gibson and a group of high-ranking officers marched in to give them their final briefing.

Reich’s Minister Speer visits the Möhne-Dam in the Ruhr District, which was destroyed on 17 May by the British 617th RAF Squadron. Speer is pictured with members of the Organisation Todt (OT)

Reich’s Minister Speer visits the Möhne-Dam in the Ruhr District, which was destroyed on 17 May by the British 617th RAF Squadron. Speer is pictured with members of the Organisation Todt (OT)

Gibson gazed at his men with a pride that was wholly justifiable, reflecting upon what he had made them in a few short weeks.

They had been ‘rather tousled and a little scruffy. But now they were experts, beautifully trained, and each one knew his job as well as any man had ever known any job he was to do’.

His confidence was an overstatement: some would struggle, and indeed die, that night, because Chastise demanded from them more than they were capable of giving.

It is a deeply moving aspect of the operation that, in an age when the concept of duty meant much to many people, the aircrew of 617 would strive to the limits of their powers, and beyond, to do what was now to be asked of them.

Gibson began by introducing his principal guest, the white-haired, studious-looking engineer Barnes Wallis.

This naturally gentle man assumed the fervour and conviction of a missionary priest as, with the aid of blackboard and chalk, he explained the evolution and workings of his extraordinary Weapon – the cylindrical bouncing bomb (codename Upkeep) that could be dropped on the water, spinning as it went, and skip like a stone across the surface to crash into the dam wall and explode.

The pilots and navigators were hearing of something so remarkable, so far beyond their experience and — for almost all those present — a literal matter of life and death, that Wallis was never in danger of losing his audience.

Bomb-aimer Jim Clay later observed he thought it incongruous that such a gentle, kindly-looking figure ‘should be involved with devastation’.

Then it was Gibson’s turn to rehearse the operational details for the three successive waves of bombers that would do the job.

They would fly 500 miles to the target area at a low level of 100ft to escape the attentions of enemy radar. Accurate map-reading was vital; so too was sticking tightly to routes and turning points painstakingly plotted to sidestep known enemy concentrations of anti-aircraft guns. 

But light flak would pose a threat throughout, he warned.

When – and if – they reached the dams, the really dangerous work would begin.

The briefing broke up, leaving every man thoughtful, some more bullish than others. At 1930 the fliers adjourned either to officers’ or sergeants’ messes for the usual pre-flight meal.

Security had billed that evening’s activity as merely another round of training, but those with eyes to see noticed that bacon and eggs were being served, luxuries in wartime Britain which were readily accessible only to men not unlikely to be dead before morning in their country’s service. 

At 2000, ninety minutes before the first take-offs, they drifted towards the crew rooms to strip themselves of personal possessions, don flying kit, collect parachutes, flight bags and flying rations –— chocolate, sandwiches, fruit juice, an orange, chewing gum — and escape equipment, consisting of Dutch and German currency, miniature compass and silk maps.

Then they lay on the grass chatting, smoking, in the beauty of a fine summer’s evening. Men solemnly shook the hands of friends and said goodbye.

Gibson later described his own sensations at such moments, when almost every flier’s anticipation was at its most acute: ‘Your stomach feels as though it wants to hit your backbone. You can’t stand still. You laugh at small jokes, loudly, stupidly. You smoke far too many cigarettes, usually only half-way through, then throw them away. Sometimes you feel sick and want to go to the lavatory.

‘The smallest incidents annoy you and you flare up on the slightest provocation . . . All this because you’re frightened, scared stiff.’

He had learned how to conquer it, however, and sometimes showed himself harshly unforgiving towards others who were less fortunate.

For all the breezy confidence that most men exuded when among a crowd, Flt Sgt Bill Townsend, a veteran of 26 operations, was convinced that they were all ‘for the chop’.

John Hopgood told Dave Shannon: ‘I don’t think I’m coming back.’

Lewis Burpee, whose wife was expecting their first baby, shook the hand of fellow-Canadian Ken Brown, saying ‘Goodbye Ken’ with undisguised finality. 

‘One rear-gunner spoke confidently about the occupants of other aircraft who shared their bus to the dispersals: ‘You know those two crews aren’t coming back, don’t you?’

Thirty minutes later, Gibson gave the word: time to go. Buses and trucks bore the airmen to their planes, and they clambered aboard. At 2100 a red light soared from the Very flare pistol of Gibson’s Lancaster, G-George, to signal them to start engines.

An airman on the ground gave a thumbs-up, signalling that the wooden wheel stops had been dragged clear, followed by a hiss of air as brakes were released.

One by one the big aircraft began to bump across the field.

The Reserve Wave crews watched almost in disbelief as the first planes lifted off ‘with this enormous thing, almost like a garden roller, hanging underneath’.

For me, the so-called Dambusters represent an emotional journey from my own childhood, from the day at boarding school when I first thrilled to Richard Todd’s portrayal of Gibson in the most popular British war film of all time, with its stirring march composed by Eric Coates.

Both the 1955 film and the book which preceded it made a profound impression on me. I memorised the names of 617’s pilots; assembled and painted plastic models of the Avro Lancasters they flew; became intimately familiar with Enemy Coast Ahead, Gibson’s posthumously published memoir.

I perceived – as did millions of other Britons – a nobility about the bravery displayed that night as these young men, almost all of an age with modern gap-year adolescents, or students at university, lifted their big, clumsy bombers into the air, barely four decades after the Wright brothers initiated heavier-than-air flight, and embarked in cold blood on a mission that would require exceptional courage, skill and luck to succeed, and which many recognised was likely to kill them.

For two and a half hours they raced through the moonlit sky towards Germany, at a height that made power cables as deadly a menace as anti-aircraft fire.

They then attacked Hitler’s dams, flying straight and level at 220mph, much lower than the treetops and less than a cricket pitch length from the lakes below, to unleash those revolutionary weapons created by the brilliance and persistence of Barnes Wallis. 

Half of 617’s aircraft which got as far as Germany failed to return, but two of the biggest man-made structures in the world collapsed into mud and rubble.

The fliers contrived a feat that caused all the world to wonder — the Allied nations with pride, the German people and their leaders with horror and apprehension.

But I now blush to remember how I embraced The Dam Busters with special enthusiasm because the raid seemed victimless, save for the 53 dead among the gallant young men who carried it out.

In truth, however, as we will see in more detail later, something approaching 1,400 civilians perished, more than half of them foreign female slaves of Hitler.

The crew of 617 squadron's G for George board the Lancaster bomber (left to right): Trevor-Roper, Pulford, Deering, Spafford, Hutchison, Guy Gibson, Taeru

The crew of 617 squadron’s G for George board the Lancaster bomber (left to right): Trevor-Roper, Pulford, Deering, Spafford, Hutchison, Guy Gibson, Taerum

Alongside our continuing awe for the fliers who breached the dams, the enormity of the horror that they unthinkingly unleashed upon a host of innocents has to be confronted.

There was never an easy route from Lincolnshire to the Möhne. Gibson’s aircraft were obliged to brush the Ruhr, the most heavily defended region of Nazi Germany, in order to reach its water supplies in the rural Sauerland beyond.

The received wisdom of bombing operations was that height conferred improved prospects of survival, yet for this one mission, the squadron was flying all the way to the target below the threshold at which German radar would pick them up and send in the night-fighters to slaughter them.

This, though, put them at the mercy of anti-aircraft guns, which were clustered in belts between the Dutch coast and the dams.

Gibson’s three lead aircraft – G-George, P-Popsie and M-Mother – approached Holland but the ground defences, surprised, stayed mute at first as they swept overhead, navigating by map, compass and landmarks: a windmill here, a communications mast there.

Fleeting glimpses of houses, factories, railway lines were punctuated at intervals by an intercom yell of ‘Pull up!’ from the nose, signalling a power line in front. 

They were flying so low that M-Mother – piloted by ‘Hoppy’ Hopgood, a 21-year-old who still began his letters home ‘Dear Mummy’ – passed beneath one set of power lines.

They spotted the Wilhelmina Canal, and followed it eastwards until they turned north-east and passed over the German frontier.

The flight to the dams was a remarkable affair in its own right, demanding the highest skill, courage and luck, even before the Lancasters launched their attacks.

Already for five crews, fate had run against them and they had either crashed (one into a power line) or returned home.

The strain for the remaining 14 was immense, dodging flak, becoming briefly lost, flying 30 tons of metal, Perspex, fuel, armament and human flesh as if the Lancasters were stunt planes.

But they surged onwards, fields and villages flashing beneath them, until the Rhine came into view and they knew that the industrial conglomeration of the Ruhr lay beyond. The sky erupted as searchlights and light flak raked the darkness around them.

Identifying their last turning point just 19 miles from the Möhne, they swung south-east for the last – mercifully uneventful – six minutes of the flight.

Just after midnight, Micky Martin in P-Popsie was first to glimpse the Möhne dam, followed seconds later by Gibson, to whom it looked ‘squat and heavy and unconquerable’.

He was relieved to see no sign of searchlights, from which the dazzle could have been fatal to attackers making low-level bomb runs.

Instead, there were only angry stabs of light flak, green, yellow and red, streaking up from six German gun positions, the gunners puzzled by the appearance of enemy aircraft.

Surely they weren’t hoping to breach the vast Möhne? ‘Bit aggressive, aren’t they?’ muttered one of Gibson’s crew.

Over the VHF radio link, Gibson ordered Hopgood and Martin to orbit the valley while he examined the approach to the dam. Then he joined them as they circled overhead, with three more Lancasters that had just arrived.

Of the three target dams, the Möhne offered by far the most open approach, but to fly a heavy bomber head-on towards the guns on the dam walls nonetheless represented an immensely daunting challenge.

Gibson told his crew, ‘Well, boys, I suppose we’d better start the ball rolling.’ Since much about Bomber Command’s fliers echoed the mood of students attempting some supreme athletic challenge, it does not seem frivolous to compare Gibson’s predicament with that of a cricket captain.

Under the eyes of his team, he was opening the bowling. It would betray everything that he represented if he let them down, muffed the moment, made a hash of his run.

A wartime photograph showing the damage inflicted by the 'Dambusters' raid on the Eder dam. The RAF's 617 Squadron used bouncing bombs to breach two dams within Germany during a night attack in May 1943

A wartime photograph showing the damage inflicted by the ‘Dambusters’ raid on the Eder dam. The RAF’s 617 Squadron used bouncing bombs to breach two dams within Germany during a night attack in May 1943

The hydraulic motors were started on the bombs to spin them at the required speed of 500rpm. Gibson announced: ‘I am going to attack. Stand by to come in to attack in your order when I tell you.’ 

Then he dived G-George towards the lake, the airframe vibrating as the four-and-a-half ton cylinder packed with explosive spun beneath the bomb bay.

As G-George lost height the crew could clearly see everything under the brilliant moonlight — the dam wall, twin towers, sluices. 

One called from the nose: ‘Good show. This is wizard’, before suffering a moment’s panic about the proximity of fir trees a few feet beneath him.

Then came the vital 45 seconds as they raced at 230mph above the surface of the lake.

The navigator switched on the spotlights, saying ‘Down — down — down’, then ‘Steady — steady.’ Incoming tracer from the dam wall whipped past and each man braced for a brutal collision between German shells and the thin alloy of the Lancaster.

At the wheel, Gibson felt almost overwhelmed by the vastness of the dam looming, his Lancaster suddenly so small.

‘Left — little more left,’ called out the navigator. ‘Steady steady — steady — coming up.’ Then: ‘Mine’s gone!’ The first of Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bombs’ was on its way.

G-George surged sharply upwards with the loss of weight, then Gibson heaved back on the yoke and climbed away.

A voice over the radio called from another aircraft: ‘Good show, leader. Nice work.’ But it wasn’t. The bomb bounced once . . . twice . . . three times — then vanished beneath the surface.

A huge explosion sent a column of water shooting high into the night sky and the lake surface boiled, yet as minutes passed and the lake calmed, the dam still stood.

Disappointment was crushing for Gibson. The evidence suggests that his bomb was dropped early, causing it to sink before striking the dam wall. 

After his extraordinary exertions, not least to overcome exhaustion, his personal effort had failed. But it now became his task to rally and support the other attacking crews.

Hopgood was next in M-Mother but his attack went disastrously awry. Cannon shells thrashed the aircraft and it erupted into flames.

The dropped bomb sprang over the top of the dam as the burning Lancaster struggled to gain height and hurtled 200ft downwards, to explode on the power station below.

Hopgood somehow cleared the forested ridge behind the dam but then ordered his crew: ‘For Christ’s sake, get out of here!’

In those terrible seconds aboard the blazing M-Mother, three were able to escape before it ploughed into the ground and dissolved into flames, killing the four men still aboard.

‘Poor old Hoppy,’ said an unidentified voice among the crews still circling the target, stunned by the horror of the spectacle they had witnessed.

It was now Mickey Martin’s turn in P-Popsie. ‘Come in number three, you can go in now,’ called Gibson, who had decided to fly alongside P-Popsie as he approached, to divert German fire.

He would invite his own destruction, the fate that had just befallen John Hopgood and his men, to improve another crew’s chance of success.

Gibson had been an exhausted man even before he took off. Only iron strength of will could be keeping him airborne.

The ruse didn’t work. As the two Lancasters roared up the lake, P-Popsie was hit in the starboard wing, jolting the aircraft just as its bomb fell away, bounced across the water and exploded a critical 50 yards off the central aiming point.

As Martin banked away, his rear-gunner saw a gigantic waterspout as the bomb exploded — and left the dam standing. The three outstanding fliers of 617 Squadron had now failed in attempts to breach the Möhne.

From the pack circling overhead, Melvin Young — nicknamed ‘Dinghy’ because he’d twice been shot down over the sea and survived —in A-Apple was called in next.

P-Popsie took station on his port wing, matching his approach as A-Apple flew in low, low, lower, up the lake. Then their load was gone, skipping over the water while the two bombers banked and climbed steeply away.

The bomb bounced three times, struck the dam wall and vanished. The positioning was perfect.

Three seconds later, 6,600lb of Torpex exploded, inflicting upon the Möhne a pulverising earthquake shock.

As a new column of water soared upwards, Young cried exultantly over the VHF: ‘I think I’ve done it!’ Yet as the lake calmed, still the wall appeared unbroken.

So at 0049, it was the turn of J-Johnny, piloted by David Maltby, who had celebrated his 23rd birthday a week earlier and had a wife back in Lincolnshire expecting a baby any day.

He made a perfect run, dropped his bomb and even as his aircraft crossed the dam wall, he saw its crown already crumbling.

Water soared into the sky, this time accompanied by mud and fragments of masonry, then gently fell back to reveal a colossal breach opening in the midst of the dam. 

Gibson banked towards the wall and saw the lake surface looking ‘like stirred porridge . . . gushing out and rolling into the Ruhr Valley towards the industrial centres of Germany’s Third Reich’.

There was a thrilled yell over the VHF: ‘It’s gone! It’s gone!’ The desperation that had overtaken the fliers, the sense of humiliating failure, was replaced by exhilaration, wonder, relief, triumph.

In every watching cockpit there were cheers and roars across the intercoms as these very young men succumbed to a schoolboy joy. ‘I can hardly describe the atmosphere in the plane,’ said Maltby. ‘The yelling, the pure excitement.’

There has since been debate about whose bomb breached the dam. It seems almost certain that Young’s had achieved a decisive fracture, which became apparent even as Maltby’s exploded.

Now Gibson watched the tidal wave sweeping down the valley, the clouds of spray that became a fog, the irresistible weight of water racing through the breach in the dam.

‘Down in the foggy valley we saw cars speeding along the roads in front of the great wave of water which was chasing them and going faster than they could ever hope to. 

‘I saw their headlights burning and . . . water overtake them, then the colour of the headlights underneath the water changing from light blue to green, from green to dark purple, until there was no longer anything except the water, bouncing down in great waves.’

The codeword indicating success was received at operations HQ back in England at 0056. There, Barnes Wallis had been burying his head in his hands at the earlier news of casualties and of failure.

The young men, the fliers, were doing their parts with wondrous courage. The old ones, like him, who had sent them, appeared to have got it wretchedly, tragically wrong. And now despair was replaced by success. He jumped up, pumping his arms like a triumphant athlete. Every face in the operations room broke into beams of relief and congratulation.

Back at the Möhne, Gibson ordered home those Lancasters whose bombs had gone, while he turned towards the Eder dam, 45 miles away, to mastermind the next phase of Operation Chastise.

He stood off in G-George issuing instructions as, one by one, four Lancasters took a tilt at what was an even more terrifying objective than the Mohne. Surrounded by wooded hills, attacking it required a sudden dog-leg turn at the last minute, release of the bomb and then an instantaneous violent climbing turn, to gain height over the towering dam.

The first dozen passes were unsuccessful, the Lancasters failing to drop their bombs or missing the target. One exploded in mid-flight and was lost. The last hope now rested on N-Nuts, piloted by Les Knight.

On his second attempt, the bomb-aimer made a perfect drop at 240mph, 450 yards from the dam. The bomb bounced three times, hit the wall, sank and exploded. 

For a moment the dam remained intact but then, as one of the crew reported, ‘as if some huge fist had been jabbed at the wall, a large, almost round black hole appeared and water gushed as if from a large hose.’

‘We could see the water gushing out,’ said N-Nuts’s navigator Sid Hobday, ‘and all the masonry coming down. It really was fantastic, a sight I shall never forget.’

A similar attack on the third target, the Sorpe dam, was made by a sole Lancaster — all that remained of the five-plane third wave — but failed to breach it. A second plane later had a go but with the same result.

However, the main aim of the mission had been achieved. Gibson called up his crews and told them: ‘Good show, boys. Now let’s all go home and get pie,’ —though the last word may in truth have been more vulgar.

And so they headed back to Scampton, the first arriving at 0319, the last at 0615, many of the Lancasters holed and limping. Eight out of the 19 did not return at all. Fifty-six of the 133 men who had set out on Operation Chastise were dead.

Barnes Wallis lingered in the debriefing room, devastated by 617 Squadron’s losses, a price for the fulfilment of his vision such as he had naïvely never contemplated.

Those who made it, however, were ecstatic. ‘Absolutely marvellous,’ was the verdict of one pilot. ‘Water, water everywhere — wonderful, wonderful. A terrific show.’

A few of the exhausted young men went to bed, but many partied for hours, with beer and whisky freely available in the officers’ mess. 

Some Waafs were dragged from their beds to join a conga. Around the piano, remembered one airman, ‘stubble-chinned, bleary-eyed aircrew types croaked out dirty songs about the Germans’ before collapsing into unconsciousness.

Their spirits revived after sleep and the grant of seven days’ leave. They were young, and thrilled by the blaze of publicity and indeed adulation that descended upon them. ‘We were treated like bloody gods,’ said wireless operator George Chalmers in wonder.

BUT what Gibson and his men had achieved would come to trouble the ‘WingCo’. In his memoirs, he wrote: ‘We destroyed a legitimate industrial objective so as to hinder the Ruhr Valley output of war munitions.

‘The fact that people were in the way was incidental.

‘The fact that they might drown had not occurred to us. Nobody likes mass slaughter, and we did not like being the authors of it. It brought us in line with Himmler and his boys.’

It was — and still is — a fair point, and one often overlooked.

In 1948 a Norwegian Resistance hero, Knut Lier-Hansen, wrote words that linger in my mind whenever I compose narratives of conflict: ‘Though wars can bring adventures which stir the heart, the true nature of war is composed of innumerable personal tragedies, of grief, waste and sacrifice, wholly evil and not redeemed by glory.’

In tomorrow’s extract, I shall consider whether the extraordinary tale of Operation Chastise —its impact upon World War II set against its human consequences — is redeemed by glory.

  • Extracted from Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943 by Max Hastings, to be published by William Collins on September 5 at £25. © Max Hastings 2019. To order a copy for £20 (offer valid to 1/9/19; p&p free), call 0844 571 0640.