The story of the legendary Squadron 617 of the Royal Air Force and why it came to be known a the “Dambusters”
The RAF has a rich history of brave acts, especially if you talk about the events of World War 1 and World War 2. It was an era that re-defined how wars were fought as technologically supreme machinery entered the battlefield and strategic warfare was taken to new heights of secrecy and execution.
From that era of secrecy comes a legend of WWII which has multitude of missions and acts of valor attached to it. It’s a legend commonly known as “Dambusters”, but to the RAF, it is known as Squadron 617.
Inception: On the 21st of March 1943, a squadron was formed at RAF scampton in utter secrecy.
Team: The squadron comprised of personnel from Royal Canadian Air force, Royal Australian Air force and Royal New Zealand Air force
Mission: the squadron was initially formed with the specific task of attacking three major dams (Mohne, Eder and Sorpe) that supplied water and power to the Ruhr industrial region in Germany.
Operation Chastise, Strategic Importance & Execution:
The mission was code named: “Operation Chastise”. The squadron’s chosen motto was “Après moi le Deluge” (“After me, the Flood”). The Ruhr valley had been identified as an important strategic place by the RAF, especially its dams.
· Challenge: Initially, it was planned to drop a 10 ton bomb from an altitude of 40,000 ft to blow up the dams, but there wasn’t a bomber available at that time that could fly at such a high altitude with such a heavy load. A much smaller explosive could do the trick, but German dams were protected by torpedo nets.
· The Ingenious Bouncing Bomb: Barnes Wallis, assistant chief designer at Vickers, designed a drum shaped bomb spinning backwards at over 500 rpm. If the bomb could be dropped at sufficiently low altitude at the correct speed, it would bounce over the surface of water such that it can easily skip the torpedo nets and explode against the dam wall.
· Assignment: For the execution of this bombing, squadron X (which later came to be known as 617 RAF) was selected under the leadership of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
· The Aircraft: The aircrafts used were modified by B Mark III Special. They were especially modified to carry heavy payload and much of the internal armour by removing the upper gun turret. The bomb bay doors were modified and the bomb itself was hung in part below the fuselage. Before dropping the bomb, it was spun by an auxiliary motor.
· D-day: The squadron was divided into three groups. Formation No. 1 was composed of nine aircrafts in three groups, whereas Formation No. 2 had five aircrafts. Formation No. 3 was a mobile reserve. It was on the 16th May 1943 when the 2 formations entered German airspace. Bombers flew low at about 100 ft (30 m) altitude to avoid radar detection. Formation No 1, led by Gibson, successfully attacked Mohne dam precisely with only 1 aircraft down. The tricky topography of the surrounding hills and dense fog of Eder dam made the approach difficult, taking six runs before taking a break. The Sorpe dam was the one least likely to be breached as it was a huge earthen dam, unlike the two concrete-and-steel gravity dams that were attacked successfully. Due to the difficult topography of the dam, the bomb couldn’t make a right angle attack on the wall, damaging only a section of the crest.
Post Mission Effects:
Following the Dams Raid 617, the squadron was kept together as a specialist unit and came to be known as Dam busters. Of the survivors, 34 were decorated at Buckingham Palace on 22 June, with Gibson awarded the Victoria Cross. To this day, the attack and the handful of people who took part hold a special significance in RAF history.