Operation Chastise: The Dambusters raid

News Article / May 16, 2017

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By Dave O’Malley

In the years since the night of May 16-17, 1943 – the night of Operation Chastise – the events that transpired on that moonlit spring night have been made into feature films, documentaries, novels, non-fiction books, magazine articles, dramatic paintings, computer games, marches and comic books. It was a stunning attack deep inside Germany on targets long thought to be unassailable.

On that dark night, lit only by the moon, 133 very young men of 617 Squadron took off in 19 specially-modified Avro Lancaster bombers, formed up and flew extremely low over the English Channel across the Dutch coast.

Having trained for months to deliver a very special weapon, the young men were headed for a date with destiny. The aircraft were to fly low, beneath radar coverage, navigate deep into Germany, locate and attack a series of massive dams on tributaries of the Ruhr River. Behind each of these dams – the Möhne, the Sorpe, the Eder and the Ennepe – were massive reservoirs of water that, it was hoped, would flood factory sites downstream and bring much of Germany's industrial production to a standstill.

The attacks would be carried out using a special explosive device which, when released from a Lancaster bomber at exactly 60 feet (18.29 metres) AGL (above ground level), at exactly 240 miles per hour (386.24 kilometres per hour) and at a specific distance from the reservoir-side face of the dam, would fall to the water and then bounce like a skipping stone, in decreasing bounces, until it fell exactly at the face of the dam.

The bombs would then sink down the face of the dam to a specific depth where a hydrostatic sensor would detonate the bomb like a depth charge. And like a depth charge, the bomb would use the power of compressed water to deliver a devastating blow deep beneath the surface, weakening the dam's structural integrity. The massive weight of the stored water would then breach the weakened dam wall and roar down the valleys, flooding industrial complexes downstream.

The squadron was made up of hand-picked crews under the leadership of the charismatic 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a veteran of more than 170 bombing and night-fighter missions. These crews included Royal Air Force personnel of several different nationalities, as well as members of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), who were frequently attached to RAF squadrons under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The squadron was based at RAF Scampton, about eight kilometres north of Lincoln. Thirty-one of the 133 crew members were from the RCAF.

The crews found their targets and, facing heavy flak and cannon fire from the dams' batteries of anti-aircraft guns, they pressed home their attack, with only the moon to guide them.

The Möhne and Eder Dams were breached. Flooding was extensive for 64 kilometres below the Möhne and 25 bridges were swept away below the Eder. It is now believed that the Sorpe, although damaged, was not as vulnerable to the type of weapon being used because it was an earthen dam, where the Möhne and Eder were made of steel and concrete. The attack against the Ennepe Dam was unsuccessful.

“I well remember the destruction of the Möhne and Eder Dams while I was in a prison camp,” said Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader. “It had an enormous effect on the Germans and the opposite effect, of course, on the prisoners of war.”

The flooding required a huge effort to rebuild the dams, rebuild bridges, railways, and roads, dredge new channels for river traffic, and replace and repair factories. Seventy thousand people were diverted from their regular wartime duties just to repair roads, railways and bridges. Water and power supplies were significantly disrupted as well.

The success came at a cost. Of the 19 aircraft from 617 Squadron that participated, eight were shot down. Of the 133 men involved, 53 were killed. And of those, 14 were Canadian. Seventeen members of the Royal Canadian Air Force survived, 16 of them were Canadians and one was an American.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross for the raid. Five Distinguished Service Orders, 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses and four bars, two Conspicuous Gallantry Medals, and eleven Distinguished Flying Medals and one bar given out for service on that one night alone. Seven RCAF personnel were decorated.

The story of the DamBusters is well told, in every form. But we ask that, on 16 and 17 May, you take a moment to imagine you're one of those young Canadian men hunched in the dark, thundering down a flat expanse of cold, black water, deep in the heart of an evil empire on a moonlit night.

The hills around you are filled with armed men who wish to kill you. Imagine the roaring sound of four Merlin engines thundering at 240 miles per hour, just 60 feet from death. Imagine the flash of tracer fire, the hellish vibration of the Lancaster, the icy air, the explosions, the grim determination, the shaking hands, the stench of sweat, gas, oil and death, the sound of the bomb spinning up beneath you and then releasing, the gut wrenching pull up, the shells and hot metal shrapnel smashing through the thin aluminium skin all around you.

Imagine the steady voice of the bomb aimer in your headset, muffled yet high-pitched from fear. Imagine the Lancaster in front of you exploding as it passes over the dam. Imagine swimming upstream against a flow of deadly tracer, trained on your face, on your body, on your friends. Imagine your family 6,000 miles away. Imagine it was you in the front of that fragile, thin-skinned, yet screaming Lancaster.

Then ask yourself if you have thanked those men enough.

Canadian Dambusters

  • Sergeant James L. Arthur of Coldwater, Ontario. Pilot Officer Burpee’s bomb aimer. Killed.
  • Flight Sergeant Joseph G. Brady of Ponoka, Alberta. Pilot Officer Burpee’s rear gunner. Killed.
  • Sergeant Charles Brennan of Calgary, Alberta. Flight Lieutenant Hopgood’s flight engineer. Killed.
  • Flight Sergeant Ken Brown of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Pilot. Survived the raid and the war. Awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.
  • Pilot Officer Lewis J. Burpee of Ottawa, Ontario. Pilot. Killed.
  • Sergeant Vernon W. Byers of Star City, Saskatchewan. Pilot. Killed.
  • Sergeant Alden Preston Cottam of Jasper, Alberta.  Squadron Leader Maudsley’s wireless operator. Killed.
  • Flight Sergeant George A. Deering of Toronto, Ontario. Wing Commander Gibson’s front gunner. Survived the raid but killed in action September 16, 1943. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
  • Flying Officer Kenneth Earnshaw of Bashaw, Alberta. Flight Lieutenant Hopgood’s navigator. Killed.
  • Pilot Officer John W. Fraser of Nanaimo, British Columbia. Flight Lieutenant Hopgood’s bomb aimer. Taken prisoner of war following the raid and survived the war.
  • Sergeant Francis A. Garbas of Hamilton, Ontario. Flight Lieutenant Astell’s front gunner.  Killed.
  • Sergeant Abram Garshowitz of Hamilton, Ontario. Flight Lieutenant Astell’s wireless operator. Killed.
  • Flying Officer Harvey S. Glinz of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Flight Lieutenant Barlow’s front gunner. Killed.
  • Sergeant Chester B. Gowrie of Tramping Lake, Saskatchewan. Pilot Officer Rice’s wireless operator. Survived the raid but killed in action December 20, 1943.
  • Flying Officer Vincent S. MacCausland of Tyne Valley, Prince Edward Island. Squadron Leader Young’s bomb aimer. Killed.
  • Flight Sergeant Grant S. MacDonald of Grand Forks, British Columbia. Flight Sergeant Ken Brown’s rear gunner. Survived the raid and the war.
  • Sergeant James McDowell of Port Arthur, Ontario. Sergeant Byer’s rear gunner. Killed.
  • Flight Sergeant Donald A. MacLean of Toronto, Ontario. Flight Lieutenant McCarthy’s navigator. Survived the raid and the war. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.
  • Sergeant Stefan Oancia of Stonehenge, Saskatchewan. Flight Sergeant Brown’s bomb aimer. Survived the raid and the war. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.
  • Sergeant Harry E. O’Brien of Regina, Saskatchewan. Flight Lieutenant Knight’s rear gunner. Survived the raid and the war.
  • Sergeant Percy E. Pigeon of Williams Lake, British Columbia. Flight Lieutenant Munro’s wireless operator. Survived the raid and the war.
  • Sergeant William Radcliffe of British Columbia. Flight Lieutenant McCarthy’s flight engineer. Survived the raid and the war.
  • Flight Lieutenant David Rodger of Sault St. Marie, Ontario. Flight Lieutenant McCarthy’s rear gunner. Survived the raid and the war.
  • Sergeant Frederick E. Sutherland of Peace River, Alberta. Flight Lieutenant Knight’s front gunner. Survived the raid and the war; shot down September 16, 1943, evaded and returned to England.
  • Pilot Officer Torger Harlo “Terry” Taerum of Milo, Alberta. Wing Commander Gibson’s navigator. Survived the raid but killed in action September 16, 1943. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
  • Flight Sergeant John W. Thrasher of Amherstburg, Ontario. Pilot Officer Rice’s bomb aimer. Survived the raid but killed in action December 20, 1943.
  • Flying Officer Robert A. Urquhart of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Squadron Leader’s Maudsley’s navigator. Killed during the raid.
  • Flying Officer D. Revie Walker of Blairmore, Alberta. Flight Lieutenant Shannon’s navigator. Survived the raid and the war. Awarded Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross.
  • Fight Sergeant Harvey Weeks. Flight Lieutenant Munro’s rear gunner. Survived the raid and the war.
  • Pilot Officer Floyd A. Wile of Truro, Nova Scotia. Flight Lieutenant Astell’s navigator). Killed.

In addition, Flight Lieutenant Joseph Charles “Joe” McCarthy, an American, was a member of the RCAF and a pilot during the raid. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He survived the war, remained in the RCAF and eventually became a Canadian citizen.

For a complete list of all crew members on the Dambusters raid, visit the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command site (available only in language of origin).

This article was originally published by Vintage Wings Canada in May 2013. Translated and reproduced with permission. With files from the Bomber Command Museum of Canada.

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