The Dambusters Raid
On the night of May 16-17, 1943, a specially trained bomber unit of the Royal Air Force, the 617 Squadron, flew 19 modified Avro Lancaster heavy bombers in a dangerous raid that utilized innovative weapons and deployed them with highly unorthodox tactics to attack three dams in the Ruhr Valley, the heart of German industry and wartime production. The dams were protected by torpedo nets to shield them from torpedo attacks, and no aircraft or delivery mechanism existed at the time to accurately drop a conventional bomb big enough to do damage.
An innovative British scientist, Barnes Wallis, came up with an unconventional solution: skipping a bomb across the water like a stone, thus bypassing the torpedo nets by going over them, until it struck the dam, at which point it would sink, and going off at a predetermined depth, the surrounding water would concentrate the blast energy against the dam’s wall, rupturing it and causing a breach.
Barnes Wallis then developed a drum-shaped explosive and affixed it to a motor in the bomb bay to make it spin counter-clockwise. Dropped at a precise height by a bomber flying low at a set speed, the drum would skip on the water’s surface, hit the dam’s wall, with the rotation causing it to sink while hugging the wall, against which it would explode at a predetermined depth.
Elite pilots from RAF Bomber Command were reassigned to 617 Squadron, specially formed under the command of Guy Gibson, a highly competent Wing Commander, and trained rigorously on the flying technique necessary to utilize Barnes Wallis’ special weapon. On the assigned night, the raiders flew low on a hazardous zigzag route intended to avoid known concentrations of antiaircraft guns, and losses started piling up long before the bombers neared their targets.
Before crossing the coast into Europe, one Lancaster was forced to turn back after it flew too low and struck the North Sea’s surface, losing its explosives. A second soon followed suit after its radio was destroyed by ground fire. A third crashed after running into electric power lines, a fourth was destroyed when it ran into an electric tower, and a fifth was shot down.
The survivors reached the first dam, where Gibson launched the opening attack in the teeth of heavy antiaircraft fire, then flew across the dam multiple times to draw enemy fire and distract the gunners from the following Lancasters, which attacked in turn, losing one bomber while another suffered heavy damage before the dam was finally breached and a wall of water came pouring out to sweep and flood all in its path below. Gibson then led the Lancasters that still had bombs against a second dam, which they also breached, causing yet more havoc and destruction.
The third dam survived intact. For his valor that night, Guy Gibson won a Victor Cross, and for their daring exploit, 617 Squadron earned the nickname “Dambusters”, by which they are known to this day.