The 617 Squadron – the incredible story of Operation Chastise

AVM R A Cochrane, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, King George VI and Gp Capt Whitworth discussing the 'Dambusters Raid' in May 1943

Mention the 617 around Lincoln these days and thoughts turn to the lively bunch of fans in Upper 7, bouncing and creating atmosphere.

Their name continues a long tradition of Lincoln’s proud RAF heritage being celebrated at the football club, with my recollections starting in the mid nineties when the Dambusters theme tune became something of a terrace chant. Whenever the Imps scored fans would stand on seats, arms out to the side and hum the theme tune. In matches against Manchester City and Southampton, it was spine-tingling and emotional and even today, when we do the same celebration, it still gives me goose bumps.

There’s nothing wrong with our current group taking the 617 name, certainly not as it is respecting the brave heroes who boosted British morale in the Second World War. Many of the Stacey West readers will know exactly who the 617 were and why they matter so much, but some may not.

Today, on May 17th 2018, we commemorate 75 years since the bombing raid we take such pride in. I fail to say ‘celebrate’ because despite their bravery and mission success, thousands of innocent people died, brave British personnel lost their lives and some ended up as prisoners of war. Remembering the 617 isn’t about celebration, it is about respecting bravery, honour and most of all, respecting the horrors of war and the people who lived through it. So, in a break from the football-led Stacey West tradition, here is a brief account of who the 617 squadron were and why they mattered so much. If you celebrate our own 617, if you buy into our proud RAF heritage and yearn for fly pasts and the like, you must read this.

“Upkeep” bouncing bomb mounted under Gibson’s Lancaster B III (Special)

Even before the conflict started in 1939, the British had identified the Ruhr Valley in Germany as an important strategic target. It housed three dams, all vital for supplying water and generating electricity which, after 1939, became vital to the German war effort. Once conflict broke out, targeting those dams became an increasingly important part of Britain’s strategy to upset the German war effort.

It wouldn’t be easy though. All three dams presented significant logistical problems, not least torpedo nets protecting them from underwater attacks. Aircraft couldn’t simply fly over the dams either, they were heavily fortified and any effort to attack from directly above would be futile and result in significant loss of life. It was the original mission impossible.

The Möhne dam was the primary target, it secured the water supply for much of the surrounding area, but it was 40m high and 650m long. There were tree-covered hills around the reservoir, but any attacking aircraft would be exposed on the immediate approach. The Eder Valley dam was not as well defended, but the tricky approach via a winding river, as well as more surrounding hills ensured it wasn’t an easy target. Finally, the Sorpe dam was least likely to be breached. It was a huge structure and earthen dam unlike the two concrete built dams that formed the other two targets.

Plans for an attack on the dams had first been considered in 1937, but the were five years in fruition. The reason? Developing the right weaponry.

That breakthrough came courtesy of a man called Barnes Wallis. He devised the ‘bouncing bomb’, a barrel-shaped incendiary that could bounce along the water to the target before detonating. It would enable the attacking aircraft to fly low along the river, drop their bombs and be away. Wallis developed the idea by experimenting with marbles,  bouncing them across a water tub in his back garden. Initially he believed the new weapon could be used to attack moored battleships, but it quickly became a solution to the five-year dam problem. With that sorted, Operation Chastise was put into action.

Barnes Wallis and others watch a practice Upkeep bomb strike the shoreline at Reculver, Kent.

The RAF carried out many tests at various sites across the country, including the Elan Valley Reservoir in Wales and Chesil beach. The tests revealed that the bomb needed to be dropped from a height of just 60 feet and at a speed of 232mph. It was to be a dangerous mission requiring precision, nerves of steel and incredible bravery. Once released, the bomb would spin backwards across the surface of the water before reaching the dam where it would explode. Specially modified Lancaster bombers would fly the mission. The modifications needed to reduce weight, so much of the planes internal armour was removed, as was the mid-upper turret. The dimensions of the bomb and the odd shape meant that the bomb doors had to be removed to and the bomb itself hung partly below the fuselage.

Now, all that was now required was the men to carry out the mission; the Dambusters.

In March 1943, 617 squadron was formed, based at RAF Scampton, to carry out the raid on the dams. 617 Squadron was led by 24-year old Wing Commander Guy Gibson and consisted of aircrew from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Only Gibson knew the full details of the plan, right up until a month before they were set to fly. That wasn’t unusual in war time, but despite the secrecy the squadron began intensive training in low-level night flying and navigation. Thirty Lancasters were to be allocated to the mission and the target date was set for May, when water levels would be at their highest and breaches in the dams would cause the most damage.

From 9.28pm on 16 May 1942, 133 aircrew in 19 Lancaster bombers took off from RAF Scampton in three waves, with two more formations dropping out at last minute due to illness. Formation One consisted of nine aircraft in three groups. They were flown by Gibson, Flt Lt John Hopgood Flt Lt ‘Micky’ Martin, Sqn Ldr ‘Dinghy’ Young, Flt Lt David Maltby, Flt Lt Dave Shannon, Sqn Ldr Henry Maudslay, Flt Lt Bill Astell and Pilot Officer Les Knight.

A FULL LIST OF NAMES APPEARS ON PAGE 2 – PLEASE SHARE ONE ON YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA TODAY ASA MARK OF RESPECT.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article Gary. Really important that people hear about the bravery of this group of men. My grandfather joined 617 shortly after the raid and got to know some of those named very well. He was involved in many other events with the squadron including the bombing of the battleship Tirpitz and also the controversial raids over cities like Dresden and Cologne. I am sure that all had a big impact on him and his fellow airmen. He passed away back in 1979 but I still have very fond memories of him. He was very proud of serving in the RAF. Did not like football though!

  2. Good that you have said about commemorate not celebrate here. I am probably on my own on this but I feel it is time to
    Leave the war behind in terms of a celebration. When I see Lincoln City memes with Lancasters on it, it is invoking that we “won” and there is a parallel with us winning. Firstly it makes the war effort and the sacrifice feel trite, secondly are we not past all that “we won the war” stuff? My abiding memory at the Germany v England game in South Africa will forever be the camera lingering on two lads dressed in RAF uniform down beat at 4-1 and the German fans chuckling at the big screen behind us.
    Be proud of the brave service men and women. But for me I think it should be left well away from the club. That is not how I would think it should be commemorated. I wouldn’t expect a US team to have Enola Gay emblazoned on their team shirt in pride at their plane ending the war with Japan. There is solemn respect for the act and loss of life.

    Sure I am in a minority and I am not telling people what to do and nor would I expect them to listen. Just airing my thought about it as someone who wouldn’t be here had RAF Scampton not existed in 1944 when the US Air Force came over… and a lincoln fan

    Ps fabulous piece as ever

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