The Dambusters: A Story of Ingenious Gallantry

Eighty years since the epic World War ii raid

A full moon illuminated the French countryside. Livestock peacefully grazed or slept huddled together in the warm spring night. This silent serenity betrayed the fact that it was a nation ravaged by war. In 1943, France lay prostrate before the Third Reich, and it became the front line in the battle for civilization. Often the night skies were filled with sleek objects darting through the darkness; the air, disturbed by the drone of propellers.

This night of May 16 was no different. The calm was shattered with the roar of dozens of Rolls Royce-Merlin engines. The 619 Squadron of Avro Lancaster heavy bombers streaked across the countryside at over 200 miles per hour, flying only 100 feet off the ground to avoid radar detection, dodging power lines and scattering farm animals. These steel behemoths were engaged in a secret mission to drive a stake through the heart of the Ruhr: Germany’s most important industrial region.

The innovation, the daring and the bravery of all involved in this operation 80 years ago reminds us of a time when our nations had pride in our power. The Dambusters remind us of a time when our nations had the will to win.

Patriotic Innovation

In 1943, the tide of the war was beginning to turn in favor of the Allies. Victories at El Alamein and Stalingrad had put the Wehrmacht on a steady retreat in North Africa and on the Eastern Front. After years of fighting for survival, Britain and the United States began looking for opportunities to take the offensive. Before creating a second front in northwest Europe, the Royal Air Force Bomber Command looked to substantially weaken the Nazi war machine.

Arthur Harris, who led the Bomber Command, believed an intensive, heavy strategic bombing could force Germany to surrender. By destroying Germany’s means of war production, they could avoid the terrible bloodshed of World War i. Harris was also determined to retaliate for the terrible destruction wreaked on Britain. A Rhodesian who had fought against Germany in the Kalahari desert, Harris had observed the Blitz in London and on one occasion remarked to Sir Charles Portal, the head of the Air Ministry, that Germany was “sowing the wind.” Harris wanted to make Germany reap the whirlwind.

Britain’s best minds were aiding the war effort by designing new machines of war and solving the novel problems of the age of conflict. One brilliant mind was Barnes Wallis, the assistant chief aircraft designer at Vickers Aviation. He was the brainchild of the geodetic aircraft design, which revolutionized the heavy bomber. While designing for Vickers Aviation, he dedicated his spare time to working on novel projects to help the war.

In 1942, Wallis conceived of the the idea of a “bouncing bomb.” Germany’s capital ships and dams were protected by heavy torpedo nets, and high-altitude bombing had proved ineffective due to their lack of precision. If a bomb landed within a mile of a target, it was considered an accurate drop. Wallis’s idea was to have the bomb skip over the top of the torpedo nets, impact the target, and submerge before detonating.

A fierce patriot and brilliant engineer, Wallis was able to procure resources to develop this new weapon. The main target of these bouncing bombs would be the dams in the Ruhr. If these dams could be breached, Germany’s production could be disrupted.

The largest version of these bouncing bombs was called “Upkeep,” a 5-foot-long cylinder filled with 6,600 pounds of explosives. The bombs were to be dropped from specially fitted Lancaster bombers. A truss arm would connect the cylindrical bomb to a hydraulic motor that would “backspin” the bomb at 500 revolutions per minute. In order for the skipping effect to take place, Upkeep needed to be released exactly 60 feet from the water line while traveling at 240 miles per hour. Two spotlights were fitted to the front of the bombers that would intersect at exactly 60 feet. The bombs could skip for 1,200 feet before submerging. The backspin of the bombs would drive them below the surface once hitting the dam.

The bomb and the physics worked. Now they had to find pilots who could maneuver a 40-ton, four-engine behemoth through valleys and hilltops to make a precision bombing run in complete darkness, after crossing hundreds of miles of enemy territory.

Guts and Gallantry

Bomber crews were a different breed of men. Flying for hours in a massive steel fortress, the entire frame chilled by the temperatures at high altitude, and sharing close quarters with thousands of pounds of explosives required skill and daring. The seven-man teams in the Lancaster bombers were a small band of brothers who fought together and often died together.

The Royal Air Force believed they had the right man to lead this special mission. Guy Gibson was a distinguished, 24-year-old pilot who had flown over 170 missions. He selected a group of men from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States to form the 619 Squadron. The men were on a short timetable: The mission was approved in late February, and the mission was planned for May, when the water would be at its high mark.

The mission, dubbed Operation Chastise, would target three dams: Mohne, Sorpe and Eder. Each presented its own difficulties of tight turns, steep angles of approach, or a church steeple being in the way. The date for the mission was set for the night of May 16.

At 9:28 p.m., the first two waves of Lancasters took off into the darkness. The third wave would be launched over two hours later. The two waves took two different routes across the Netherlands to get to the Ruhr and weaved their way through enemy territory, trying to avoid airdromes and cities. George Chalmers, a flight sergeant in one of the Lancasters, looked through the aerodrome on the top of the aircraft and saw the pilot was flying below the tree line.

The casualties started mounting even before they made it to the targets. Formation 2, taking the northern route, had two aircraft return to base due to damage by flak or malfunctions, one was shot down, and one crashed after running into electrical pylons. Only one of the five Lancasters made it to the target. Formation 1 fared better, losing only one bomber on the way that crashed into electrical wires.

Formation 1, led by Gibson, arrived at the Mohne gravity dam and began its attack. The Lancasters were exposed to antiaircraft fire as they roared over the reservoir toward the dam wall. After delivering his bomb, Gibson flew over the top of the attacking Lancasters, drawing fire from the antiaircraft batteries. It took three successful impacts for the dam to finally be breached.

The remaining Lancasters from Formation 1 flew to the Eder dam next, which provided a far more difficult challenge. There were no antiaircraft defenses because the topography seemed impossible to overcome. The reservoir made a 90-degree turn just before the dam. The valley was also covered in a layer of fog. The Lancasters had to make this sharp turn and, in a very short distance, find the right altitude and air speed. One of the pilots took six runs before taking a break to allow the other pilots to have a crack at it. In the end, two of the bouncing bombs hit the Eder, and the dam was breached.

The last dam, the Sorpe, was a massive earthen dam and the bombs had to be dropped on top of the dam, horizontally. Because of the early losses of Formation 2’s bombers and the decision by Wave 3 to disperse to secondary targets, the Sorpe dam was not breached.

Of the 19 Lancasters and 133 crew who set off on May 16, only 8 bombers and 77 men returned. Fifty-three were killed in action; three were taken prisoner. The results of their raid were catastrophic: Millions of gallons of water surged downstream from the Mohne and Eder dams. Every bridge for 30 miles below the Mohne was washed away, and 12 factories were destroyed. Some civilians were killed, including 1,600 slaves from Eastern Europe.

“Albert Speer, the German armaments minister, admitted that the breaching of the dams was ‘a disaster for us for a number of months’ and [Adolf] Hitler was forced to recall thousands of workers constructing his Atlantic Wall,” the London Mint Office wrote. “The wall was intended to repel a seaborne Allied invasion of Western Europe, but the work was severely hampered by the fact that so many workers were sent to the Ruhr to repair building, factories and the dams themselves.”

The dams were repaired, but German industry was disrupted for several months. Was the Dambusters’ raid a success or a propaganda stunt?

The Glorious Dambusters

Many today debate whether the losses of the raid were justified by its success. It is easy for armchair generals to look back 80 years and dissect and criticize the operation, but the Dambusters remain a towering example of what can be achieved with character, willpower, bravery and daring. Oftentimes in war, the impossible is asked to be overcome. The Dambusters did what was impossible to strike back at the enemy.

Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross after the mission but lamented that so many of his men had died in the raid. Refusing to stop serving his country, Gibson died in September 1944 returning from a raid. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill wrote in a personal letter to his widow, Eve Gibson: “I had great admiration for him—the glorious Dambuster. [H]e never spared himself nor would allow others to spare him. We have lost in this officer one of the most splendid of all our fighting men. His name will not be forgotten; it will forever be enshrined in the most wonderful records of our country.” This tribute can be said of all the men who participated in Operation Chastise.

We live in a society that has lost what produced the Glorious Dambusters. Instead of raising young people who are patriotic, using their minds to serve their country, daring, brave and selfless, we are producing generations of people who have lost the will to win. They have lost pride in our power as a nation.

The Bible prophesied that this present generation would be full of people who love sin more than God (2 Timothy 3:1-4). The pervasiveness of sin and rebellion against God’s law is what causes our nations to have a broken will (Leviticus 26:19) and to be devoid of military leaders, like Churchill, Harris or Gibson (Isaiah 3:1-4). Even our own history is a condemning indictment of our hapless state prophesied in the Bible. There are a few individuals left with courage and daring, but not many.

The glorious Dambuster raid took place 80 years ago and has a legacy of what our nations are capable of while being blessed by God. Bible prophecy explains why there is this stark generational contrast. Read The United States and Britain in Prophecy, by Herbert W. Armstrong. This important book will explain this vital truth in detail.