Well, I had plans for a long post, complete with pictures, but between storms screwing with my Internet last night, and another (yes, ANOTHER) foundling dog washed up on my porch this morning, my plans got sabotaged. So here’s the quick and dirty of it.
70 years ago tonight, a group of very brave and daring young British and Commonwealth airmen took off on perhaps one of the best documented missions of World War Two. While its’ official name was Operation Chastise, the unofficial name has become legendary. These men were – The Dam Busters.
Their mission sounded like the ravings of a deluded mind. Take a huge (the size of a modern 737) 4-engined heavy bomber, fly it flat and level at 60 feet altitude (where everybody and their brother could take an easy shot at you) until a predetermined point, where they would drop a spherical shaped spinning bomb to blow up a major hydroelectric dam on one of Germany’s major rivers. And perhaps the most insane part was, it actually worked.
There had been much discussion on how to knock out Nazi Germany’s major industrial facilities in the Ruhr valley. Area bombing was taking too long, transport couldn’t be stopped effectively, and taking out the power grid was beyond the technology of the time. A British inventor, Sir Barnes Wallis, came up with the idea of blowing up dams across the many rivers, not only destroying some power-generating capacity but primarily in flooding out the areas downstream. The problem was, the dams were protected by anti-torpedo nets so that they couldn’t be destroyed from shots upstream, and precision bombing a relatively narrow target like a dam was well beyond the bombing abilities of the day. Wallis came up with an idea – spin a bomb, then drop it, so it would skip across the surface of the water like a stone, bouncing over the torpedo nets and rolling down the face of the dam, where their explosion would be magnified by the force of the water on the dam face. After proving the concept, a special squadron of Lancaster bombers was outfitted with the special bomb racks and spinning mechanisms. They then had to practice flying straight and level at a predetermined altitude. When the pilots had trouble maintaining the altitude, one of the squadron members came up with the idea of using two searchlights shining own from the plane, on angles where the beams would overlap at the necessary 60 feet.
After much training, the squadron set off on the evening of May 16. The details of the raid, and the relative success, can be found under “Operation Chastise” on Wikipedia. There are a few details worth mentioning. First, the planes flew to and from their target at a low altitude, to keep the German radar from picking them up. The problem with that is, anything with a gun can take a shot at your plane, from heavy anti-aircraft guns like the famous “88”, to your average soldier with a rifle. Second, this was done at night, so the pilots’ visibility was very limited, requiring stressful flying for the hundreds of miles to and from the target. Third, these men wanted to do a good job, so most of the planes made more than one “pass” at their targets. In one case, the plane of Bombardier George Johnson had his plane make no less than ten passes before dropping their bomb load – and this was in addition to flyovers they had already performed to draw anti-aircraft fire away from other aircraft! In his prototypically understated British manner, Johnson said in an interview today “We were sent to do an important job, and I wanted to do it right”.
I highly recommend the 1955 movie “The Dam Busters”. While not blessed with modern-day special effects technology, it is both a gripping and accurate portrayal of the raid. And speaking of special effects, the dramatic “trench run” in the very first Star Wars movie was inspired by the footage of the big bombers flying low, straight, and level, through heavy enemy fire, to their targets. So if you can’t find any other reason, perhaps George Lucas’ porting of history into his sci-fi masterpiece is enough that we all give a dam.