Seventy-three years ago this coming Monday, on 16 May 1943, nineteen Lancaster aircraft from the RAF’s 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton on what would become the Allied forces most famous single bombing operation of the Second World War. Their task was to attack and destroy the great hydroelectric dams of the Ruhr and Eder valleys and thereby cause massive disruption to the industrial heartland of the Third Reich.
The method for attacking these dams had been conceived by the engineer Dr Barnes Wallis. For most of the dams this involved dropping a spinning depth charge from a low flying aircraft at a precise distance from its wall. The momentum imparted to the bomb would therefore bounce it across the surface of the water and then, when it reached the wall, it would sink below the surface and explode.
This precision low level attack was completely different from the Allies normal bombing operations, which involved dropping explosives and incendiaries from a great height, and it needed aircrew with a high level of skill and determination. Twenty-one crews were chosen for the raid and undertook specialised training during April and May 1943. Nineteen of these crews were finally selected.
The nineteen crews of seven were mainly British, but of the total of 133 men who took part in the Dams Raid there were 30 Canadians, 13 Australians, 2 New Zealanders and one American, who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. They are all listed on the Complete Dambusters website, where the entries link back to each man’s individual profile posted here over the last three years.
Fifty-three men from eight crews died on the raid, and they are pictured above. But we should not forget that the official casualty figures also show that 1,294 people died as a result of the Möhne Dam’s collapse with 47 more lost in the Eder valley. 749 of the dead and missing in the Möhne area were listed as ‘foreigners’, of whom 493 were Ukrainian women labourers, ordered back to their camp for safety when the air raid warnings sounded.