Operation Chastise: The Dambusters
Was one of the most audacious bombing missions into Nazi Germany worthwhile for the RAF?
By May 1943, the Second World War had been raging for almost four years. The Allies were drastically searching for a way to gain a foothold in Europe. Bombing missions had taken place throughout most of the war, but the night of May 16 would see a whole new type of aerial attack inflicted by the RAF.
Nineteen Lancaster Bombers of 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton, each carrying a bomb which had never been used before. The ‘Bouncing Bomb’, created by designer Barnes Wallace, would be used to target Dams deep in the Ruhr Valley, the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany.
The bomb was designed to be dropped from low altitude after being rotated at high speed within the aircraft. The motion of the spin would then cause the bomb to bounce along the water, over torpedo nets, make contact with the dam and then roll down the face where it would then explode.
The creation of the bomb was an ingenious feat of engineering, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the bravery of the Lancaster Bomber crews. A total of eight bombers were shot down; 53 of the 133 airmen who took part lost their lives. Tasked with flying at low level almost entirely from takeoff to landing, the crews would be aware of the daring mission they were taking part in.
To drop the bomb successfully, The aircraft needed to carry out the bombing run towards the dams at an altitude of just 60 feet. It was previously thought that 150 feet would suffice, but tests revealed that the even lower level of flying was needed. The bomb aimer would use spotlights on the bottom of the aircraft and an aiming tool to line up the precise moment the bomb would be dropped.
The target dams for the RAF were the Möhne, the Eder and the Sorpe. The bombers took off at 9:30pm. The Möhne was the first dam to be breached, although it took five bombs to do so, at 12:28am. The Eder was next to be destroyed shortly before 2 am. Due to its unique design, the Sorpe remained intact. Despite failing to knock out the third major target, millions of tons of water was flooded into a vital German industrial area.
An issue which has been raised in the decades following the war is the worthiness of the mission. To a certain extent, it both was and it wasn’t. The impact on the German war effort was very minimal, with full production restored after a relatively short period. However, the mission gave the British a significant morale boost and showed that it was possible to hit Germany right at its heart.
The loss of life on both sides was high. as well as the 53 RAF crewmen, an estimated 1500 German civilians were killed in the areas around the Möhne and Eder dams. These were people caught up in a war which would, once concluded, kill millions of innocent people.
The uniqueness of the mission and the design of the weapon will see the Dambusters raid go down in history; it will no doubt continue to divide opinion on if it was even worth the resources and loss of life in the first place.