It was a task deemed impossible owing to the massive construction of the targets. In their bomb bays was a unusual weapon designed to skip across the surface of the reservoir and crawl down the face of the dam until they reached its most vulnerable point to explode. The bomb itself was the product of an eccentric British scientist who had once designed airships.
Sixty-four years ago, the Lancasters of 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton at sunset on May 17, 1943 but on the clock of World War 2 the historical moment was just after dawn. After an unbroken string of defeats the Allies were at last winning against the Axis.
Just 2 months before the German 6th Army had surrendered at Stalingrad. On the other side of the world the Japanese Army had given up Guadalcanal. But in Western Europe the night of Nazism was dark as ever. Inside Germany the White Rose resistance cell had just been broken; in the Krakow ghetto of Poland Jews were being liquidated. And Britain still looked impotently across the channel. But the 19 four-engined Lancaster bombers led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson set out to change all that.
Sir Barnes Neville Wallis
The weapon Sir Barnes Neville Wallis had devised to destroy the Ruhr dams was a rolling drum of high explosive of unconventional design which he initially developed by skipping children’s marbles across the surface of a bathtub at his home in Effingham. Only his persistence had convinced the authorities to endorse what seemed like a hare-brained scheme to attack invincible structures.
The notion of a handful of young men with a makeshift bomb flying against the mightiest targets of the Reich gave the mission a David-and-Goliath quality which was later to seize the public imagination and give the raid an enduring drama.
For the role of David, Hollywood central casting could not have selected better than the boyish commander. Guy Penrose Gibson was, at 25, the most experienced and decorated pilot in Bomber Command. Born to British parents in India, educated at Public School and having volunteered repeatedly for operations long after he had flown his required quota of missions, Gibson represented everything the Few were imagined to be.
Guy Penrose Gibson, RAF
The men of 617 Squadron who took off with him that night might have been selected by Central Casting too. They represented the last muster of the British Empire: of the 133 young men who took part in the mission, 90 were Britons, 28 were Canadians, 12 were Australians and 2 were New Zealanders. And one, to complete the Hollywood stereotype, was an American flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force: he would be the only pilot in his wave to complete an attack.
Although it seems too improbable to be true, there was nevertheless a dog in the story to provide the appropriate pathos. Gibson had a beloved black Labrador who, as fate would have it, was run over and killed the night before the mission. The grief-stricken Gibson decided that while each unsuccessful bomb run would be signaled as “Goner”, the call sign for successfully destroying the dams would be his dog’s name.
But drama needs an audience and history provided one. Signals would be sent as the mission proceeded to the HQ of 5 Group at Grantham, where Barnes Walls and RAF Bomber Command chief Arthur Harris would be following the flight as it unfolded.
John Sweetman in his book The Dambuster’s Raid describes the atmosphere in 5 Group ops room. “Nobody relaxed … Wallis paced up and down in a state of acute anxiety. … When the first signal of `Goner’ came in, Wallis muttered in despair `No, it’s no good!'” The senior officers and scientists of Bomber command waited in suspense as bomb after bomb was dropped by Lancasters over Germany flying at 60 feet altitude over 240 miles per hour to no effect.
But by this time the Fates had too good a story to spoil with the wrong ending and just a little after midnight, first one signal of success came and then another. The dams had broken and deluged millions of tons of flood water into the Ruhr. The impossible had been achieved.
But the jubilation at 5 Group HQ was cut short when they saw how few of the aircraft returned. Of the 19 Lancasters that set out 8 had been destroyed. Fifty three of the 133 aircrew had been killed. Three had bailed out to be taken prisoner. Thirteen of 29 Canadians died. In true cinematic fashion, the sole American returned alive. Sweetman’s book recalls the scene at Squadron: “it was a very sad sight to see the empty chairs … Barnes Wallis was in tears.”
An RAF photoreconnaissance flight the next day confirmed the mission’s success and, unusually, photos were provided to the newspapers which gave them full play. The dramatic news was flashed across the Atlantic to Winston Churchill who inserted a reference to the feat in his speech before the US Congress.
The Dam Busters, as they were now known, were received at Buckingham Palace where Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross and others received lesser decorations. Newspapers across the Atlantic recorded the gigantic figure of the American Joe McCarthy, standing to attention a full head taller than King George VI, receiving the monarch at RAF Scampton. Gibson was given the privilege of choosing 617 Squadron’s motto. He thought over the suggested choices and selected the phrase Apres Moi Le Deluge, which is the Squadron’s motto to this day.
It was not the day on which the war ended but in dramatic terms it was the day it should have. The story of the attack on the Mohne and Eder dams was made into a hit movie in 1954. It captivated a young Peter Jackson, later to become a successful movie director. Jackson who plans to remake it, described the epic quality of the story to the BBC, “there’s that wonderful mentality of the British during the war – that heads-down, persevering, keep-on-plugging-away mentality which is the spirit of Dam Busters.”
The epic story is so compelling one almost forgets that it is not entirely true.
One color photograph that distills the legend is that of Gibson recumbent on a field of red poppies after the raid, casually reading a book of poetry. It is the last surviving portrait of the British Public School Boy; a being supposed capable of rising to effortless greatness as imagined by the generation which betrayed them; the idealized picture of young men calmly able to return to the consolations of verse after grappling with Hitler’s infernal legions in the vault of blue.
It is a beautifully romantic counterfeit, but a counterfeit for all of that, which hides the real fear and courage of men who had to die in war because an earlier generation of political leaders were too cowardly to preempt it.
Richard Morris, in his biography of Gibson, tells how different the truth was from the legend. Gibson was no romantic figure, no transcendent youth of great gifts. Gibson was simply a man of extraordinary bravery and stubbornness whose principal skill was to survive long enough to learn his business and use that knowledge to serve his country. The schoolboy hero on the field of poppies was in reality a man driven by ambition and capable of fear and error. And matchless courage.
The life expectancy of an airman in British Bomber Command was as low as six missions. A Lancaster bomber itself might last no more than 10. So great were the casualties of Bomber Command that by the end of the Second World War some units had been wiped out five times over. During Gibson’s public relations tour of the United States a lady member of the audience asked him, at a time when the USAF “tour expired” milestone was 25 missions, how many combat operations he had flown over Germany. A stunned silence followed when Gibson answered one hundred and seventy four.
Fate brought the Dam Busters to their separate ends. Barnes Wallis lived to a long and honored old age. The sole American, Joe McCarthy passed away in 1998 after a distinguished military career, with an obituary in the London Times.
Gibson, worried that he–and his fame–were being eclipsed in inactivity, lobbied his superiors to be returned to active duty. But Fortune, which had held him in its palm through many perils finally let him go.
Eight months before VE-day, flying in an unfamiliar Mosquito type as a Pathfinder marking a bomb-drop, Gibson went missing over Holland. At first he was presumed landed at another airfield. No one could believe he was lost. But as Allied armies finally advanced in Holland they were led to a field in Steenbergen en Kruisland where a Mosquito had crashed. Subsequent analysis suggested that Gibson might have died when a bomb-marking pyrotechnic went off in the aircraft or because his navigator forgot to transfer the fuel feed from one tank to the other.
The Allies were shown the grave of two Royal Air Force pilots who were later identified by rings and articles of clothing. England’s hero and his companion had been buried by Dutchmen at considerable risk to themselves. They did not know their names; only that they were allies in the cause against Hitler and flew for England. They were unrecognized but interred as one of their own with a Dutch flag over the coffin and the Lord’s Prayer having been read over them in English. There, under a marble headstone a little worn from the sun and wind of the Europe he helped free, lies Guy Penrose Gibson, VC, DSO and two bars, DFC and two bars, died aged 26. The captain of the Dam Busters.
The almost accidental death of Gibson highlights the mythical appeal of Dam Busters saga. Amidst the random senselessness of war for one night on May 17, 1943 the world almost seemed right. That evening against the dams, courage and determination ruled events before cruel chance and absurdity could intervene. The nineteen Lancasters flew against the dark forces of the Third Reich and prevailed.
Richard Fernandez is the Sydney editor of Pajamas Media. His writings can also be found at The Belmont Club.