Dambusters? That’s the most damn fool idea I’ve heard since dropping exploding rats on Black Forest! The reaction of Bomber Command chief Sir Arthur Harris to the daring bouncing bomb plan

  • Minute-by-minute account reveals bravery of Comber Command’s Arthur Harris
  • Three waves of Lancaster bombers carrying bouncing bombs were scrambled
  • Of the 19 aircraft that took off, three were lost as the mission got underway  
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Operation Chastise, the daring mission by 617 Squadron under the command of 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson to destroy the Ruhr dams, is under way in May 1943. 

Three waves of Lancasters carrying bouncing bombs, codenamed Upkeeps, are heading for their targets. Of the 19 aircraft that took off, three have been lost and two forced to turn back. 

Gibson and seven others from the first wave have reached the largest of the targets, the Mohne dam…

Target dead ahead: A Lancaster approaching one of the Ruhr dams, as show in the 1955 film The Dam Busters 

Monday, May 17, 1943


Having circled the Mohne dam a few times, Guy Gibson in Lancaster G-George says: ‘Well boys, I suppose we’d better get the ball rolling . . .’

The German flak gun crews on the dam watch as Gibson’s bomber heads straight for them. Unteroffizier Karl Schutte, a commander of a gun crew, suddenly sees the ‘four-engined monster’ send two powerful beams of light on to the water.

These are two angled spotlights underneath the Lancaster which, when they come together to form a figure of eight, let the navigator know it is the right height to drop the Upkeep. 

The crew’s height, air speed and distance all have to be exactly correct. Bomb aimer Frederick ‘Spam’ Spafford is holding a triangular sight with two nails at one end to judge the perfect distance to release the bomb.

Gibson is struggling to keep the plane level at 60ft and battling the urge to pull away in fear.

‘Mine gone!’ shouts Spafford. It bounces once, hits the wall, sinks 30ft and explodes — but the dam doesn’t break.

Barnes Wallis is following the raid in RAF Scampton’s Operations Room in Grantham.Next to him is head of Bomber Command Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who’d been sceptical from the start — inventors were constantly coming to him with bizarre ideas such as using rats to set fire to the Black Forest by dropping them from planes with incendiary bombs tied to their tails.

He once called the dambusters plan ‘tripe beyond description’ and said ‘there is not the smallest chance of it working’.

A signal arrives from Gibson — the first Upkeep has failed to breach the Möhne dam. Wallis sighs: ‘No, it’s no good . . .’

The crew of Lancaster ED285/`AJ-T’ sitting on the grass, posed under stormy clouds. Left to right: Sergeant G Johnson; Pilot Officer D A MacLean, navigator; Flight Lieutenant J C McCarthy, pilot; Sergeant L Eaton, gunner. In the rear are Sergeant R Batson, gunner; and Sergeant W G Ratcliffe, engineer


Multiple hits by Upkeeps would be needed to destroy the Sorpe dam, but only American pilot Joe McCarthy in T-Tommy has made it there.

McCarthy’s crew are expecting the four Lancasters that set off ahead of them to be circling in preparation for an attack. All alone, they guess the horrible truth — they have either crashed or turned back.

Their orders state that to destroy this dam they should fly along the dam wall, then drop Upkeep from ‘the lowest practicable height’.

Not only has T-Tommy never practised this attack, a tall church spire is blocking the bombing run.


At the Mohne dam, it’s the turn of John ‘Hoppy’ Hopgood, in M-Mother. ‘It’s a piece of cake . . .’ Gibson tells his friend. But M-Mother is soon hit by Karl Schutte’s flak guns.

The Upkeep bounces once and shoots over the wall, exploding on a power station 200ft below.

Blood pouring from his head, Hopgood struggles to gain height to give his crew a chance to bail out. Rear gunner Anthony Burcher puts a parachute on badly injured wireless operator John Minchin and pushes him out.

Burcher then jumps, holding his already opened parachute. He clips the aircraft’s tail, breaking his back, but hits the ground alive. 

Minchin doesn’t survive the fall. Canadian bomb-aimer John Fraser jumps out with his parachute partially open. The bomber explodes in the air three miles from the dam. Hopgood and the rest of the crew are killed. Burcher and Fraser will spend the rest of the war as PoWs.

Their orders state that to destroy this dam they should fly along the dam wall, then drop Upkeep from ‘the lowest practicable height’


At Scampton, the ground crews and waiting WAAFs hear the sound of Merlin engines. It’s W-Willie, piloted by Kiwi Les Munro, returning home after their aircraft was damaged.

Squadron adjutant Harry Humphries can see, in the gloom, figures running away from the stationary Lancaster.

One of the fleeing men says breathlessly: ‘He has just landed with his bomb still on, and I think it’s going to drop off!’


At the Mohne dam Gibson tries something new. He flies alongside P-Popsie during its bombing run, to draw the German fire.

With Australian pilot Micky Martin at the controls, P-Popsie’s Upkeep drops, bounces four times, and explodes on the reservoir’s banks. Now it’s Melvin ‘Dinghy’ Young’s turn in A-Apple. His Upkeep bounces three times and explodes dead centre. ‘I think I’ve done it!’ Young shouts, but the dam isn’t breached.


At THE Sorpe dam, McCarthy in T-Tommy is on his ninth run. It’s proving hard to drop the Lancaster down to 35ft after flying over the church steeple.

They try again. Once again they are not properly aligned, so bomb aimer George ‘Johnny’ Johnson has to shout: ‘Dummy run!’

‘I discovered how to become the most unpopular member of the crew in double-quick time,’ he later said. They circle round for the tenth run and this time height and speed are perfect. ‘Bomb gone!’ Johnson shouts. ‘Thank Christ for that,’ Dave Rodger, the Canadian rear gunner, mutters.

The crest of the dam has crumbled, but it will need more Upkeeps from the third wave to destroy it. T-Tommy heads for home.


At THE Mohne dam they are running out of Upkeeps. Four have failed so far. As Gibson in G-George and Martin in P-Popsie circle the dam, David Maltby with his young but experienced crew in J-Johnny comes in for his run.

Schutte’s flak guns have jammed, his crew are using rifles. Maltby flies so low and close, the Germans can see him in the cockpit.

Maltby drops the Upkeep, which bounces cleanly and hits the wall. There is a massive explosion and mud and water shoot up a thousand feet into the air.

The dam begins to crumble and water thunders through the breach. ‘I think she’s gone! I think she’s gone!’ Gibson shouts.

Back in the Operations Room in Grantham, the signals officer receives the codeword that the Mohne has been breached.

Wallis jumps to his feet and punches the air. Arthur Harris shakes him by the hand, and says: ‘I didn’t believe a word you said when you came to see me. But now you could sell me a pink elephant!’

In the town of Wickede about five miles away from the Mohne dam, the telephone is ringing at the home of post office clerk Clement Mols. It’s the post office at Arnsberg warning him that a tidal wave is on its way.

Mols and his wife run to the first floor as a giant wave slams into their house. From their window they watch the water carry away furniture, farm wagons, even a goods train. They hear cries for help and the sound of drowning cattle.

Gibson sends Maltby and Martin home, but as leader he must stay to oversee the attack on the Eder dam. Gibson and the four remaining aircraft of the first wave head east to their target 40 miles away.

Among the locations targeted as part of Operation Chastise was the Eder Dam, pictured


The only survivor of the second wave, McCarthy in T-Tommy, is flying home full throttle. He is so low that as they thunder over railway yards his crew are worried they will hit one of the arms of the trackside signals.

Dave Rodger shouts: ‘Jeez! At this height they don’t need flak guns! All they have to do is switch the points!’


Gibson arrives at the Eder dam and discovers it is undefended. The Germans reckon no bomber could attack the dam at the end of its twisting 400ft-deep valley.

617 Squadron have three Upkeeps left. Dave Shannon, an Australian, in L-Leather and Henry Maudslay in Z-Zebra make dummy runs without dropping their bouncing bombs.


Shannon tries again. The Upkeep bounces twice, explodes, but does only minor damage. Then Maudslay makes another attempt — his Upkeep hits the top of the dam and explodes in a yellow flame, but his plane is hit by the blast.

Gibson calls: ‘Henry! Z-Zebra! Are you OK?’ No answer. Gibson tries again. ‘I think so — stand by . . .’ Maudslay replies faintly as the Lancaster flies away. 617 Squadron will never see Z-Zebra again.


Only Les ‘Digger’ Knight in N-Nuts is left — Squadron 617’s last chance to destroy the Eder dam. He makes a textbook run.

His fellow Australian, N-Nut’s wireless operator Robert Kellow watches the dam: ‘It was intact for a short while, then as if some huge fist had been jabbed at the wall, a large, almost round black hole appeared.’ The crew are overjoyed.

A few miles down the valley, the postmaster at Bad Wildungen calls neighbouring villages to warn about the flood, and hundreds of people dash to higher ground.

The crews of 617 Squadron had no idea about their target until a few hours before take off


At THE Scampton Ops Room, Harris is trying to get the telephone exchange to put a call through to the White House where Churchill is staying as a guest of President Roosevelt. He wants to tell the Prime Minister the good news.


Gibson is once more circling the Mohne dam to survey the damage. He can see stranded pleasure boats and mud banks appearing as the reservoir drains.


C-Charlie, one of the third wave, is hit by flak. They are so low there is no chance to bail out. Pilot Warner Ottley says: ‘Sorry boys, we’ve had it . . .’ C-Charlie crashes in a field and its Upkeep explodes.

The rear gun turret breaks free with gunner Fred Tees inside. He is the only survivor. Tees spends the rest of the war in a PoW camp.

The crews were due to take off in three waves 


Pilot ‘Dinghy’ Young got his nickname because he had been shot down twice over the sea and escaped in his dinghy. But tonight his luck runs out.

As his Lancaster A-Apple crosses the Dutch coast it is hit and crashes — the eighth aircraft to be lost. There are no survivors. Gibson’s crew are flying north in silence. It’s starting to get light and the crew can now see cattle grazing and chickens scattering in fear at the sound of their engines.

Although most of the crews are returning to base, Barnes Wallis knows the danger is far from over.

Low flying has always concerned him. He said: ‘To make the device work I had to ask Guy Gibson to come down to a height of 60ft — but one felt in doing that that one was endangering those men’s lives, simply to make an idea work — and that is misery.’


The third wave of Lancasters had left Scampton just after midnight, their targets determined by what the first and second waves had achieved. Ken Brown, the Canadian pilot of F-Freddie, has been instructed that the Sorpe dam is now their target.

By now, fog means the only thing the crew see is the top of the church spire. Although with every run the Lancaster’s propellers are clearing the fog, Brown decides that flares will help them locate the target. After several attempts, the Upkeep is dropped on to the water side of the wall but F-Freddie is caught in the shockwave of the explosion.

Brown later said: ‘The waterspout went up to about a thousand feet and so did we.’ When the spray cleared they could see that they had failed to break the wall.


The first wave are starting to land at Scampton. Adjutant Harry Humphries greets David Maltby who in J-Johnny successfully blew up the Mohne dam.

‘How was it, Dave?’ ‘A terrific show! Marvellous, absolutely marvellous! Water, water everywhere,’ Maltby replies. Then, to his young crew, Maltby shouts: ‘So long sprogs! Thanks for coming!’


Having dropped their Upkeep on the Sorpe dam, Ken Brown takes F-Freddie north-west to look at the Möhne. The crew are stunned at the devastation.

Brown had heard on the radio that the dam’s guns had brought down John ‘Hoppy’ Hopgood’s Lancaster. ‘I felt that we owed that fellow a visit for John’s sake.’

He brings F-Freddie low over the water and when they are about 500 yards away, the forward gunner opens up at the flak guns. Once they have passed over the dam, the rear gunner takes his turn. The German guns are silent as the bomber roars away.

The mission led to the destruction of the Mohne dam, pictured which was breached in the raid


Third wave pilot Bill Townsend in O-Orange reaches the Ennepe dam, a secondary target. The journey there had been ‘very, very nasty’, under heavy enemy fire.

Once, to avoid the flak guns, he had taken O-Orange so low they flew through a break in the forest. As they reach the dam, the Upkeep is released. It bounces twice, but sinks short of the wall before exploding.

O-Orange heads home as fast as possible.


Now on his way home and flying at only 50ft, Ken Brown points F-Freddie towards the Zuiderzee. The massive Lancaster is an easy target for the German anti-aircraft guns that ring this large bay. Cannon shells start ripping through its fuselage.

Brown decides to go down to 40ft. Ahead of him he can see the gun positions on a sea wall pointing their barrels down in an attempt to hit him.

As F-Freddie flies over the wall, the Germans jump into the water in fear.


On the night before the historic raid, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, pictured, was suffering from gout

Wallis and ‘Bomber’ Harris are being driven in Harris’s Bentley from the Operations Room in Grantham to Scampton to greet the returning crews.

The chauffeur accidentally drives into a pothole and Harris bangs his head on the roof. The fact that the normally feisty Harris doesn’t tell him off confirms for the chauffeur that the raid has been a success.

E-Easy, piloted by Australian Robert Barlow, had crashed just before midnight near the German town of Haldern.

Its Upkeep had rolled clear and is now an object of fascination for local people who agree that it must be full of petrol. The mayor of Haldern poses for a photograph sitting on top of it.


The floodwater released when the Mohne dam broke is still spreading. The water hits the town of Schwerte 28 miles away from the dam, forcing people to seek safety.

A flood warning had been received by the town’s Nazi party officials two hours earlier, but fearing panic they decided against circulating it.

An anti-aircraft battery on the Dutch coast is firing at the fast-approaching O-Orange by bouncing shells off the sea’s surface. Aussie navigator Lance Howard says that this is ‘hardly cricket’.


A battered F-Freddie lands at Scampton. Ken Brown and his crew are elated to have made it home safely. They clamber out and are shocked to see the ground crew weeping.

Brown asks a flight sergeant who has tears running down his face what’s wrong. The flight sergeant replies: ‘Have you any idea where any of the other boys are?’


Bill Townsend in O-Orange is the last to land. As Townsend walks down the ladder he is asked how the mission had gone. Failing to recognise Sir Arthur Harris, he snaps: ‘Wait until debriefing!’

The aircrew’s mess has been laid out with tables and a hot meal has been prepared by the WAAFs for the returning crews. But no men have turned up.

A WAAF sergeant gets her unit together. ‘I must tell you now the very sad news. Of our 19 aircraft only 11 have returned. Eight have been lost and 56 of our young boys will never return.’ In fact, three would survive the war as PoWs.

The WAAFs look at the empty tables and burst into tears.

The floods from the Mohne dam are still spreading. Part of a railway viaduct at Herdecke, 35 miles from the dam, is washed away.

Passengers on a packed train see it collapse ahead of them and pull the emergency brake just in time.


In the mess, Gibson and the crews are drinking beer and singing rude songs around the piano. Adjutant Harry Humphries decides not to join them. He has to write 56 telegrams to the families of the missing men.

Barnes Wallis finds the death of his Upkeep crews hard to accept. In the middle of the celebrations at Scampton he stands to one side, his eyes full of tears.

Later that morning, Flying Officer Jerry Fray is in a Spitfire 30,000ft over the Ruhr, taking reconnaissance photos.

‘As I came nearer the Mohne dam, I could see the floodwater was about a mile wide,’ he recalled ‘I was overcome by the immensity of it, and I wondered if the powers that be realised just how much damage had been done.’

Downstream from the Mohne dam, 11 factories had been destroyed, 114 damaged, 25 bridges flattened and 9,900 acres flooded. There were 1,294 casualties. At the Eder, the floods spread over 260 miles, drowning about 70 people and destroying an airfield and numerous power stations.

Thirty-four members of 617 Squadron received medals for gallantry from the King, including a VC for Guy Gibson.

  • JONATHAN MAYO is the author of D-Day: Minute By Minute, (Short Books, £8.99)

The Dambusters: How bouncing bombs – and incredible flying by RAF pilots – flooded the Ruhr valley and delivered a crucial blow to the Nazi war machine

On May 16, 1943, 19 Lancaster bomber crews gathered at a remote RAF station in Lincolnshire for a mission of extraordinary daring – a night-time raid on three heavily defended dams deep in Germany’s industrial heartland.

The dams were heavily fortified and needed the innovative bouncing bomb – which bounced on the water over torpedo nets and sank before detonating.

To succeed, the raiders would have to fly across occupied Europe under heavy fire and then drop their bombs with awesome precision from a mere 60ft above the water.  

19 Lancaster Bomber crews armed with Bouncing Bombs set off to attack several dams in Germany on May 16, 1943

The Eder Dam, pictured, was destroyed as part of Operation Chastise on the early hours of the morning on May 17, 1943

This is a list of all the bomber crews who took part on Night Flying Programme 16.5.43. The names with a line through are the crews who did not return while the numbers in the far right hand column are the times the crews returned back to base in Lincolnshire

Eight of the bomber crews were lost while a further three were forced to turn back. Of the 133 men sent out, 53 were killed and three were taken prisoner by the Nazis

The Mohne and Eder Dams in the industrial heart of Germany were attacked and breached by mines dropped from specially modified Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron.

The Sorpe dam was was also attacked by by two aircraft and damaged.

A fourth dam, the Ennepe was reported as being attacked by a single aircraft (O-Orange), but with no damage.

Up to 1,600 people were estimated to have been killed by floodwaters and eight of the 19 aircraft dispatched failed to return with the loss of 53 aircrew and 3 taken prisoner of war.

Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, Officer Commanding No. 617 Sqn, is awarded the VC for his part in leading the attack. 

The raid, orchestrated by Guy Gibson and the RAF’s 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron, was seen as a major victory for the British, and Wing Commander Gibson is recognised as one of the war’s most revered heroes. 

Their success was immortalised in the classic 1955 film The Dambusters, its thrilling theme tune and gung-ho script evoking the best of British derring-do.

The flight crew were forced to approach their targets at 60 feet and at a speed of 232mph to hit the target 


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