Sunday, 9 August 2015

Who ya gonna call: Dam Busters!

Dam of Doom
I don't normally write posts about the Second World War: nothing sinister, just a personal preference. I am particularly beguiled by the Great War; have you noticed? I've always considered the second war to be a continuation of the first, with an armistice of 19 years, interposed. Therefore, from a historical context, to understand the first war is to understand the second. But on this occasion I have decided to comment about a man and an incident which occurred during the later conflict. May the Gods of War forgive me.  

On the 4th of August, John Leslie Munro died in an Auckland, New Zealand hospital. Nothing much to say you might ask. The man was 96 and had enjoyed a long and eventful life. The difference on this occasion is that 'Les', as he was known, was a pilot during the famous Dam buster raid of May 1943. In fact, Les was 'one of the few' and last surviving member of this hazardous mission.

The Ruhr Dams had been identified by the British as a strategic target before the war. If the Eder, Mohne and Sorpe dams could be destroyed the Ruhr valley would flood causing immense damage to the heavily industrialised region.
The Dam buster mission was the inspiration of Barnes Wallace, a gifted aero-engineer. Destroying enemy dams is a difficult task. They present a relatively small profile and are protected by a buffer of water. From a practical and logical perspective, a torpedo strike appears to offer the best means of attack. The Germans had anticipated this approach and had installed anti-torpedo netting on their important dams. However, the Germans had failed to take into account Wallace's insight and genius.

Every school kid is familiar with 'Ducks and Drakes'. In essence, it involves skimming a suitably shaped stone (usually flat) across a relatively calm body of water. Usually the stone (for it is it) can be induced to skip several times before slipping unconcerned into the watery depths. Tis all a matter of height, angle and skill. Wallace designed a bomb which would act in this way. A drum filled with high explosive dropped at a specific height and at a specific speed and imparted with backspin would skip across the water bouncing over obstacles before finally planting itself against the wall of the dam. The backspin enabled the bomb to hug the dam wall and a hydrostatic fuse would ensure that  3 tonnes of high explosive would detonate at the optimum depth designed to cause a breach. The concept was a wonderful application of minimum force to cause maximum damage. By destroying the dam, the pent up energy inherent in the released water would cause mayhem. Well, that is the theory, what about the reality?

In reality it is a good idea to consider the enemy response. The Germans were well aware of the vulnerability of their dams and consequently planned accordingly. The dams were protected by batteries of anti-aircraft weaponry. These weapons were particularly effective against large, low-flying planes and therefore, the mission was always going to be costly in lives.

The British modified their Lancaster bombers to accommodate the unconventional bomb. Most of the armour was removed together with the upper gun turret in order to reduce the weight of the plane. The bomb itself was positioned to protrude from the belly of the bomber.  

The mission was planned for the 16th May to coincide with the highest water levels confined by the dams. The British formed a special squadron to undertake this mission and 30 modified Lancasters became available to the 150 aircrew. The bombs would be dropped at night, from 60 feet, at 240 mph. Nineteen planes took part in the attack and were organised into three formations. Initially, the planes flew at 100 ft to avoid radar detection.  It demanded the highest flying skills to pilot the heavy Lancaster bombers as they flew at night and low through enemy territory. During the approach, three Lancasters were lost due to accidents and enemy fire. While two planes had to return to base due to damage.

The first formation arrived at the Mohne and successfully breached the dam at the cost of a downed aircraft. The Eder dam was undefended as the Germans surmised that the difficult terrain mitigated against enemy attack; they were wrong. The Eder dam was also breached although one of the Lancasters was severely damaged by the blast of its own bomb. The attack on the earthen Sorpe dam caused damage to the crest but did not cause a breach. The return flight was not without event and a further two Lancasters were lost. Nine planes survived the mission out of the nineteen which took part in the raid. of the 133 men who took part, 53 were killed and two taken prisoner.  

The Aftermath
The greatest damage accrued due to the loss of hydroelectric power which had a negative affect on arms production, but only in the short term. In addition, 11 factories were destroyed and a further 114 were damaged. Roads and bridges were swept away and at least 1,650 folk lost their lives, many of them foreign workers drafted to work in German industry. Furthermore, many thousands of workers were diverted from the construction of the channel defence works to work on the reconstruction of the dams and devastated region. However, the raid did not have the hoped-for impact on German industrial output. By June 27th, full electric power had been restored and in the final analysis, the raid amounted to a minor inconvenience for the Germans. Its main influence was on the morale of the British public. It occurred at a time just as the war was tipping in favour of the allies and the propaganda engendered was a welcome lift for the British spirit.  

In the popular British film of the raid, Dam Busters (1955), there is a memorable scene where Wing Commander, Guy Gibson plays with his dog, 'Nigger'. In later screenings the dog inexplicably becomes Digger (Trigger in the American version). Sadly, not only does this represent an assault on the truth and an affront to all decent folk who abhor censorship, but in real life, 'Nigger' became the first casualty of the mission as he was run down and killed on the day before the raid.  

Nigger and his master

For an overview of the raid, consider this: 

Bugger! I'm not very adept at this sort of thing. Where is Dioclese when I need him? Another bloody holiday, lazy sod. Anyway, copy the link and put it into Google images. The second image is the 'infographic' I'm thinking of- a good summary of the operation. Arse.

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