Marking the 75th anniversary of Operation ‘Chastise’, Steve Beebee visited the Möhne and Eder dams in Germany. Here he describes what can be seen in the area today and reflects on the legend – and sacrifice – of the Dambusters
“MOST SECRET – Operation Chastise – immediate attack of targets ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ approved – Execute at first suitable opportunity.”
The message received at RAF Bomber Command HQ from the Air Ministry on May 15, 1943, was simple and to the point. It offered no indication that the most famous raid in the Royal Air Force’s history was about to begin. Even now, 75 years later, no single action undertaken by the service has been so frequently recalled, celebrated and written about. Inevitably, it also remains the subject of controversy – the merits and cost of the three-pronged attack are argued to this day.
One thing that has never warranted debate is the unquestionable courage of every man that took off that night – May 16 – from Scampton in Lincolnshire. Neither would any commentator, past or present, wish to question the brilliance of Barnes Wallis who designed the famous ‘bouncing bomb’, codenamed Upkeep, or of Roy Chadwick, the mastermind behind the Avro Lancaster and a key player in the modifications made to the bomber for that one-off mission.
Led by the indefatigable Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, at the age of 24 already a highly decorated veteran of over 170 sorties, the Dambusters raid was a stunning success. It knocked out two of the three dams targeted in Germany’s Ruhr valley, the enemy’s industrial heartland, a feat that would be challenging to replicate with conventional weapons by the modern RAF, let alone accomplish in 1943. It is the stuff of legend, and with good reason.
When visiting the dams today – and they are a commanding and awe-inspiring sight – it is of course necessary to remember the thousands of people who died or suffered as a result of the floods that were unleashed when the Möhne and Eder were breached. Equally, it is important to recognise the bravery and sacrifice of the airmen, 53 of them were killed, and to keep in mind what it was they were trying to achieve. These men, and many others like them, put their lives on the line with one aim – to shorten the war, to defeat the enemy and forestall the even greater number of casualties that a prolonged conflict would bring.
Whatever the damage done to German industry – a matter that divides opinion – the true impact of Operation ‘Chastise’ can be measured in its heroism, by its effect on morale, and on its enduring legacy. The story of its success boosted confidence among the Allies, particularly the British, while doing the opposite to the enemy. At a time when Allied losses were severe and spirits perhaps wavering, this was more than a mere fillip – it showed, spectacularly, what could be achieved when fortitude, skill and innovation were brought together.
The rest of this article is in the July issue available on sale in the UK now and other countries following that. It can be ordered direct from www.flypast.com or in leading newsagents. Alternatively, you can download a digital edition from www.pocketmags.com – simply search ‘FlyPast’.