Why You Should Give A Dam

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.

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23 Responses to Why You Should Give A Dam

  1. El Guapo says:

    Impressive piece of history.
    But I wonder what the 10 pass crew thought of the bombardier…

    • They probably thought “Dam it!”

      • More like “What the heck is this guy’s problem?!?” Johnson admitted in the interview that, on the 7th or 8th pass, somebody came on the intercom and said “Would somebody just PLEASE get rid of this thing?!?”. Suffice to say, he wasn’t too popular, until their bomb hit successfully!

  2. That was a dam good mission.

    • With puns noted, that was a heck of a run. I’ve seen enough film from WW2 of big bombers just going through the heavy flak to know I’d rather be just about anywhere OTHER than on a bomb run. To think these guys weren’t just ducking big stuff, but light anti-aircraft like 20mm cannons, machine guns, even rifles and MP-40s – WOW! I don’t think brass would’ve worked for their .. um .. “cojones”. It’d have to be depleted uranium! 😉

  3. I just realised I forgot to add an important point. For you REAL history nuts (or maybe that should be “real history NUTS”), the RAF is posting the communications records between the aircraft and their base, on the RAF’s Twitter Feed. You can subscribe to @RoyalAirForceUK and see what was said, both between the aircraft and between the flight and its’ airfield. There is also a service being held in commemoration, and as I understood from the BBC report, survivors from both sides will be present. How cool that will be, I hope the Beeb will carry tomorrow morning.

  4. whiteladyinthehood says:

    Gripping story, John. (I will try and check out the movie) and another dog washed up…you are too kind to help these animals. (I had 4 dogs and 2 cats not too long ago)

    • And wouldn’t you know, another female. I guess I spent so many years single because I didn’t realise I was a babe magnet – just not among my species. 😦

  5. fasab says:

    Great story and a great war movie, and you can forgive the not so special effects

  6. Elyse says:

    John, I’d never heard of this story! You are a wealth of information.

  7. tom says:

    As always, interesting and informative. No wonder stray dogs like you 🙂

  8. I really enjoyed this story. i don’t follow military missions or strategies very well, but I have a tremendous respect for the individuals who fought with so much courage. I think the thing I enjoy most about reading your posts is the depth of enthusiasm you have for these stories. It’s a bit contagious!

    • Thanks! There’s so much information out there, be it books or the Net, but so much is so darn dry. I got a great lesson when I was re-enacting, and we did a little Q&A for a Boy Scout troop. My buddy was just reeling off facts, until one kid (literally a Mini-Me) started asking really technical questions. I tried to answer with technical details, but saw I was losing the kids, and fell back on a few person-oriented stories I had. When I saw the kids light up, I realised there’s only a few of us nuts who want to memorize dates and numbers, but a LOT who want “the human connection”. So I try not to just re-write Wikipedia, but to put folks into the situation – as limitedly as I can, granted. That’s why I loved re-enacting – it didn’t teach me anything about dates or technology, but it taught me VOLUMES on how the guy in the foxhole feels. (Either cold and wet, or hot and sweaty, and tired ALL the time, if my experiences were anything to go by!)
      Thanks again!

  9. benzeknees says:

    I highly recommend finding the episode of NWT Pilots on the History Channel where they re-create this bombing run & show it could be successful. This is where I first learned of this important bombing run.

    • Hm, I hadn’t heard about that. I know that this technique was used elsewhere during the war, including by the US with conventional-style bombs from medium-sized bombers (like the B–25 Mitchell) and by the British using spherical bombs (called “Hiball”, if I remember correctly) dropped from modified DeHavilland Mosquito 2-engined bombers. I’ll see what I can find – thanks for the referral!

  10. Here is a podcast from the BBC with an interview of one of the crewmembers: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/witness (If you check it later, look for the podcast of 17 May 2013.)

    • I’ll check into it – it might be the “long form” of the interview with the gent I quoted in my post. Or better yet, a different perspective, even better! Thanks for letting me know!

  11. aFrankAngle says:

    This dam story was a damn good one. Nope – never heard of it. The idea of spinning the bomb surprised me more than you knowing the story.

    • The British had tried dropping bombs the normal way, but they weren’t accurate enough (long before laser guiding, and a bit before video guidance, which the Germans did use a bit later in the war). The Royal Naval fliers wanted to use torpedoes, but the Germans had nets that would stop those. So they needed something else. Legend has it that Wallis got the idea skipping stones with his children one day – and the rest, as they say, is history!
      World War 2 is full of weird technology – swimming tanks, the first ballistic missile, early guided bombs and missiles, submarine aircraft carriers … hmm, maybe a multi-part “weird weapons” post is in order…. 😉

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