Did This Really Happen?

I can’t believe no one has posted about the recent 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid on 16th May, so it falls to me.

The debate about how effective the raid was still goes on today but what cannot be questioned is the skill and courage of those who carried out the raid. It has echoes in the Black Buck raids some forty years later but without the loss of life incurred in 1943; and the loss of life was considerable both on the ground and for the RAF – fully half the aircrew were lost. Saying that, this casualty rate was the same in Bomber Command throughout WW2.

I recall first reading about these raids as a child in the sixties; I was into Marvel and DC comics at the time but this was a story which, as they say, “You couldn’t make this up.” The lines between fantasy and reality were blurred in my young mind, so unbelieveable the raids seemed. Watch the video above again (and the one below) but this time imagine the bomber lower (just 60 feet up at bomb release); imagine it’s dead of night and oh – people are trying to kill you! No night vision goggles; no terrain following radar; no GPS.

And then there’s the actual conception of the raid. We’re going to launch a raid deep into the German industrial heartland, at night at very low level, to deliver a bomb designed to bounce on water over obstacles like torpedo nets, to nestle up against the sheer face of a dam (top spinning to maintain it’s position as it sinks) in the face of heavy triple A. And we’re going to perform this precision low level strike in a four engined bomber designed for high level carpet bombing! Must have kept the poor Health and Safety bloke up all night that one.

The following video puts you in the forward gunner’s position for the flypast. You would be forgiven for humming while you watch it. Dah dah dah dah da da da dah….

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May 23, 2013 9:21 am

The cost was very high, but it was quite clearly very much worth it. The same could not be said for the majority of the Bomber Command effort during the war

May 23, 2013 11:27 am

The bombs had to be dropped from exactly sixty feet bit there was no altimeter that could provide that level of accuracy. The solution was thought up by a member of 617 squadron whilst he was watching a strip-tease artist in a London club and who noticed how the two spotlights combined to produce a single circle of light over the performer. His idea was adopted and so the bombers flew the attack run whilst shining two bright lights down onto the water, angled so that they would come together when the aeroplane was at precisely 60 feet (the navigator, looking down from a blister, called out the corrections to the pilot). Taking a bomber in low and slow towards flak emplacements whilst shining searchlights so as the defenders knew exactly where the ‘plane was – the courage of those chaps bordered on insanity.

Then we have the fact that the raid was commanded by a fellow just 25 years old, with no degree, no staff college courses and who had been rejected by the RAF’s RCB of the day on his first application on medical grounds.

A very good friend of mine, now alas deceased was a fighter pilot trained to fly in Rhodesia in the late forties. His instructors were all RAF pilots who had survived WW2 and he maintained that they were all barking and most of them were pissed for most of the time. ‘elf and safety gone mad.

The Other Chris
May 23, 2013 6:12 pm

Backspin, not topspin.

Need the air to be pulled over the top to help generate the lift needed to exit the water on the bounce, as well as to move towards the submerged wall of the dam as it sinks.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 23, 2013 7:38 pm

Proper brave Kevins.

I do once in a blue moon leave an impression that Kevins are somewhat undervalued by me. The reality is that they more than hold their heads up in what they have achieved, and there’s no lack in any of them (well, apart from decent tailoring, a propensity to wear nylon, a willingness to marry the girl next door as opposed to the prettiest and most stimulating girl in Europe, running cash bars, and their insane Lat Long servitude which they share with the Andrew, as opposed to a proper grid system, and then there is the coordinated mincing of the RAF Regiment Queen’s Colour Squadron, the bestial torturers of the RAF Movements Branch…)


Well done the RAF.

(Historical diversion: the RAF rank of Squadron Leader is assumed to come from the call to arms in about late 1914 / early 1915 for anyone in the Army who had a pilot’s licence to transfer to the rapidly expanding RFC; along with about 500 others, my Great Uncle Harry did, in his case from the Westminster Dragoons. Most of the young men who did were possibly a bit more family money-advantaged than most in the UK, and had their pilot licences from university days or just by wanting to fly and being rich enough to do so. most were cavalrymen, and many held the appointment (not rank) of Squadron Leader. A nice story, probably true enough, and I have not seen it disproved anywhere.

Harry survived until July 1917, but was shot down over northern France and killed.)

May 23, 2013 8:34 pm


“I do once in a blue moon leave an impression that Kevins are somewhat undervalued by me.”

Not just the Crabs, Mr Trousers, but the entire RN and 95% of the Army as well. Still without good recce where should we be.

The stripper story made up? I dunno, Mr. Ape. Up in the attic I have the book where the chap is quoted. If subsequent to that he has been shown to be a liar it passed me by. Not that it really matters those fellows flew low and slow with lights to tell the opposition where to aim – courage bordering on insanity.

May 23, 2013 8:48 pm


About 3 mins in should answer the spot lamp question.

I thought it was a rather nice touch that the photographic recon spitfire was included in the fly past tribute an forgotten element.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
May 23, 2013 8:49 pm

“…and 95% of the Army as well.”

I protest. Not 95%. There are some seriously decent infantry Regiments, and an entire Corps of Royal Engineers who are onside. 70%, at the most.

“Still without good recce where should we be.”

Up shit creek, lost, without any understanding of where the likely threat is from, what form it might take, when it might be effective, where the minefields are, are they real or dummy, what the bridge classifications are, the mood of the local population, are there any obstacles in routes, and without a paddle or the ability to exploit rapidly any identified weakness or opportunities. :)

May 23, 2013 9:08 pm

“HurstLlama May 23, 2013 at 11:27 am

The bombs had to be dropped from exactly sixty feet bit there was no altimeter that could provide that level of accuracy. ”

FuG 101a, available since 1942. To the Luftwaffe.
<10% error, so less than 6 ft at 60 ft. This means the radio altimeter's error was likely smaller than the error caused by wind gusts, pilot and imprecise rudder controls.

May 23, 2013 9:13 pm

Oops if someone wants to delete one of those posts it would be helpful. I’m having some difficulty posting, I post a comment everything disappears but nothing adds to the thread.

Ace Rimmer
May 24, 2013 1:10 pm

RT, regarding the RFC being mostly cavalrymen, one of the first flying regulations introduced by the RFC was banning the wearing of spurs whilst flying due to the chance of damaging the aircraft canvas when climbing in and out of the cockpit! Regulation No.12 I believe……

May 24, 2013 11:57 pm

For me-beyond the undoubted courage and skill it took to launch and successfully pull off the raid and the obvious damage it did to the German war effort-the real significance of the operation is that it showed what could be achieved with well planned, rehearsed and executed pinpoint strikes of this nature.

The Dambusters saga puts a big fat tick in the small scale precision bombing column for me, it’s just a shame that such a potent resource as Bomber Command was largely wasted on ‘area bombing’ and had it’s policy shaped by Harris, Linderman and the de-housing paper when it should have made a determined effort from the start to take out refineries, transport and industrial infrastructure, U-boat pens and so on which could have had a far more dramatic effect on the course of the war.

The mere existence of the heavy bomber force would probably have been enough in itself to still divert hundreds of thousands of German troops and a hell of a lot of 88’s and other big guns onto home defence duties, and the odd raid on a big city ever few weeks or months could have reinforced the threat if necessary.

Nick London
Nick London
May 30, 2013 2:05 pm

TD given your interest in logistics, Barnes Wallis was quoted as saying that he was inspired to attack Germany’s industrial capacity when he read E.V .Francis’s “Battle For Supplies”
( a popular digest of his “Britain’s Economic Strategy”) whilst an invalid early in the war.

Francis argued that the war would be one on the basis of industrial capacity and mastery of the trade roots. The US publication Foreign Affairs reviewed the latter book as follows.

This book, though it contributes little that is new, at least summarizes the economic policies pursued by the British Government over the last two decades. The author unintentionally proves that it was precisely “strategy” and a planned organization which Britain lacked when she entered the war.

Sounds familiar.

May 30, 2013 3:22 pm

To be fair Nick, we were all muddling along at that time. Before WWII, long ranged bombers were not invented yet, so “Industrial Warfare” was a fairly new concept. Even during WWI, the idea of war was to throw lots of men into the field, not striking at factories and economic warfare. WWII overturned a lot of old, established concepts.

Peter Elliott
May 30, 2013 5:21 pm

Although the factories were considered out of reach economic blockade was very well understood and the prefrerred British method of waging war for at least 200 years before WW1. Throwing hundreds of thousands of men onto the continent was in fact the novel and risky innovation.

Although the battle of Jutland was inconclusive you can still argue that the RN made a huge contribution to victory in WW1 by enforcing a hightly effective an economic blockade on Germany.

“not striking at factories and economic warfare”