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The 16/17th May marks this most famous raid of WW2, the destruction of the Ruhr dams with the bouncing bomb. The story is so well known and has been told so often I do not think I could do it any more justice than has already been written so many times.

Instead, I propose to concentrate on the three leading characters of the story. They are 617 Squadron, RAF, its squadron leader, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC. and Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the bouncing bomb.

617 squadron, better known as The Dambusters Squadron, came into being on 21st March, 1943 at Scampton in Lincolnshire, specifically at the direction of Air Marshall “Bomber” Harris, Commanding Officer of Bomber Command. Harris personally appointed Gibson to command it and gave him carte blanche in selecting the personnel from any squadron in the RAF or attached Dominion air forces. At the time of his appointment and for some time afterwards Gibson was not allowed to be told the target, only that it was a very secret mission requiring very low altitude flying against a critical target.


19 May 1967: Members of the original Dambusters crew in front of a WWII Lancaster bomber

Harris had previously been in deep negotiations with Barnes Wallis who had to convince Harris of the viability of his plan. Once convinced Harris left no stone unturned to get the project underway. The project was given top secret priority, known only to Harris, Wallis, Churchill and the War cabinet. Wallis was given authority to co-opt any technical facility that he needed without explanation be it civil or military.

In his first meeting with Gibson, Wallis quickly realised that Gibson was not on the authorised list which made discussion very difficult but they succeeded. In subsequent meetings Wallis had to convey the needs of the aircraft after his various failed attempts to trial the bouncing bomb. The development of the special bomb sights and spotlight altimeter were all developed before Gibson was made aware of the target.

Sir Barnes Wallis

The personnel Gibson selected were aircrew who were well known to him personally or by reputation. It was the absolute cream of the RAF yet they were having to train for an operation they knew nothing about. They were briefed on the target about one month before the raid when intense low level flying over dams in England & Wales was undertaken daily and nightly. The raid was to be at night.

Wing Commander Peter Ward-Hunt (right) with fellow 'Dambusters' John Searby and Guy Gibson

The squadron was equipped with Lancaster bombers. The raid took place with 19 Lancasters and 133 crew. They took off in three waves starting at 9.28pm on 16th May. En route, the winds were stronger than predicted and the bomber stream was blown south of the intended course. Gibson adjusted for this and two of the three dams were breached. During the course of the raid, 8 Lancasters were lost with 53 crew killed and 3 taken prisoner.


The effect on German industry was not as long lasting as hoped. It took the Germans 3 months to restore production but what is not generally acknowledged is that thousands of acres of farmland were inundated and rendered unproductive for almost a year causing critical food shortages.

On return to England the crews were sent on a recruiting and bond raising tour of North America. Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross and the other crew members DFC or bars where they had already been awarded from mother theatres.

Harris did not want this outstanding collection of talent to be disbanded and kept it intact for “Special Operations”. Gibson was withdrawn from flying duties due to the very large number of missions he had flown; well beyond the Bomber Command policy of rotation.

Command was taken over by George Holden who was shot down in September, 1943 on his fourth mission, an unsuccessful raid on the Dortmund Canal. His place was taken over temporarily by Micky Martin, one of Gibson’s original crew, until a new CO was appointed. This was Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, VC. In his own way, Cheshire was probably just as famous as Gibson but less spectacular. Cheshire pioneered the technique of special target marking which eventually morphed into a special force known as PATHFINDER FORCE. In the early days, 617 became the target marker for the main bomber force to the point that Cheshire lead the marking forces flying a Mustang fighter once that aircraft became available.

Under Cheshire’s command, 617 undertook operations regarded as being in the “too hard” basket for other squadrons due either to the degree of precision required or the effort needed to carry out the mission.

It’s most notable mission was the sinking of the battleship TIRPITZ. Tirpitz had been a constant source of worry for Churchill She was the biggest battleship in the world stationed in a Norwegian fjord beyond the range of any British air base. A plan was devised for Lancasters from 617 squadron to use the Russian air base at Archangel as a staging post and dropping another Wallis invention, the Tallboy blockbuster bomb. This was a 10 ton bomb that only the Lancaster could carry. 


The raid was carried out and the ship hit on the foredeck rendering it unseaworthy but not sunk. 

She was then towed to Tromso fjord which was within Lancaster range from Scotland.

Cheshire was succeeded as CO by Wing Commander Willy Tait who then led a second raid of two squadrons with Tallboy bombs. The first two bombs missed but the third penetrated the deck, entered the forward turret magazine which exploded capsizing the ship and killing 1,000 of the crew.


617 Was continually engaged during the war on targets requiring precision bombing. The power of the Tall boy and its later big brother the Blockbuster was instrumental in destroying U-boat pens and other vital targets on and before D-Day.

The squadron still exists as part of the RAF today. It is no longer equipped with Lancasters but it is still called The Dambuster Squadron.


Wing Commander Guy Gibson:

Guy Gibson was a career RAF officer. He was born in India, his father being employed by the Indian Forestry Service. His parents divorced and with his mother, Gibson returned to England where he went to St. Edwards School, Oxford in 1932. This was the same school where Douglas Bader attended and he was Gibson’s house captain. His ambition was to become a civilian test pilot but when he applied to Vickers was told to join the RAF and learn to fly first. His first application for the RAF was rejected on medical grounds because his legs were too short. On the next attempt he was accepted after doing a special leg length test.

His commission began in November, 1936 and following that he undertook various training programmes and qualified for multi-engined flying in August, 1937. His report stated that his flying ability was “average” but his rating as a companion was below average. His behaviour towards junior ranks and ground crew was described as “rude and condescending”.

He moved to No.83 (Bomber) Squadron where his behaviour was still deemed to be ”unsatisfactory” and earned him the nick-name of “Bumptious Bastard”.


In 1939 he successfully completed a conversion course to Hampden Bombers and a navigation course, neither of which produced results worth mentioning. He was due to leave the RAF but was retained due to Italy’s attack on Abyssinia. At that stage, he had never landed a plane at night.

He was promoted to Pilot Officer and for the first year of the war his squadron was seconded to Coastal Command where he led his flight with great vigour and determination so much so that it brought him to the attention of “Bomber” Harris, then AOC of No.5 Group, who described him as “the most full-out fighting pilot” under his command. His last operation was on 23rd September, 1940 when he took part in a raid over Berlin. He was then rotated in accordance with RAF policy to various Operational Training Units (OTU) as an instructor.

Gibson was not content at an OTU and when Fighter Command decided to form a night fighter force it asked Harris for a list of his pilots with night flying experience to form the new group. Harris provided a hand-picked list at to top of which was Gibson who Harris described as the best.

Gibson transferred to Fighter Command flying Bristol Beaufighters where he had considerable success until December when he completed his tour of duty and was sent to another OTU. About the same time Harris was promoted to head Bomber Command. One of his first acts was to arrange a transfer for Gibson back to bombers and appointed him CO of 106 Squadron, Bomber Command and promoted him to Wing Commander.

Gibson undertook his new role with great determination and ruthless discipline. He was very close to those aircrew who he considered to be superior but his attitude to lower ranks and ground crew never changed. He was extremely unpopular and attracted nicknames of “The Boy Emperor” and “Arch Bastard”. He was accused of suffering from Little Man Syndrome given his small stature. He did not exude the loveable friendly CO as depicted by Richard Todd in the Dambusters movie. However, everybody wanted to fly with him because of his aggression, determination, and sheer leadership skills.

In January, 1943, he had completed 172 sorties and was again rotated to an OTU but in March 617 squadron was formed and Bomber Harris immediately appointed Gibson as its CO.

After the Dambusters Raid and the investiture at Buckingham Palace, Harris was determined that Gibson was to be rested from operations and sent him with his wife on a speaking tour of Canada and the USA. This tour did nothing to help his ego and when he returned home he was posted to a position in the Air Ministry to write a book. That did not go down well and he returned to operations on 5th July, 1944 as staff officer of No.55 Base at East Kirby.

On 19th September, 1944, Gibson appointed himself as the controller of the marking group on a raid over Germany much to the dismay of every person on the base. He flew in a Mosquito, a type on which he had only 9 hours of experience. His regular navigator was ill so he took the station navigation officer who had never flown in a Mosquito before. The raid was a disaster of errors and on the return journey, Gibson’s Mosquito crashed killing him and the navigator. The cause of the crash is unknown but thought to be that he ran out of fuel. The crashed wreck had no signs of flak or fighter damage. An eyewitness said that she saw the plane coming down with the cabin lights on. It is thought that Gibson and the navigator were trying to find the tank switch but were unable to do so as they were unfamiliar with the type.

The bodies of Gibson and Warwick, the navigator, are interred at Steenbergen in Holland where there is also a memorial built on the site of the crash. The city council has established The Gibson Walking Route and there is also the Dambusters Memorial Park which was opened by Cheshire, VC, in 1990.



Gibson’s book Enemy Coast Ahead was serialised in the Sunday Express in December, 1944 and published in February, 1946. It is still in print. A new edition was released by Greenhill Books in 2019.


Barnes Wallis:

I doubt if any one person could lay claim to personally contributing so much the successful conclusion of WW2 as Barnes Wallis. Wallis was personally the inventor of the R100 airship, the Wellington Bomber, the bouncing bomb and the array of blockbuster bombs used so effectively in the latter stages of the war. His invention of geodetic design provided a fuselage of great strength and resilience. The Wellington bomber was the front line aircraft of Bomber Command until the introduction of the bigger four engined types.

Wallis had a fascination with bombing and its effects. His invention of the bouncing bomb was revolutionary, took much patience to perfect and even greater patience to convince the air ministry of its viability but in the end he prevailed

Wallis was a civilian throughout the war. He was chief engineer and designer at Vickers Aviation. At the outbreak of war, Wallis saw immediately a need for strategic bombing to prevent the enemy from being able to wage war. He wrote a paper entitled " A Note on a Method of Attacking the Axis Powers". He proposed that huge bombs could concentrate force and destroy targets that could not be destroyed by other means. A single bomb of 10 tons will be far more destructive than 10 bombs of 1 ton each through the concentration of force.

Wallis’ first proposal was a 10 ton bomb but the problem was that there was no plane that could carry it. Wallis’ solution was to build one. He designed what he called “The Victory Bomber” a six engined plane capable of carrying a pay-load of 22,000 pounds. At that time Bomber Command did not even have a four engined bomber so after due consideration of the aircraft design and the merits of the 10,000kg bomb the Air Ministry abandoned the project. Fortunately the Lancaster bomber was in its advanced stages of development from the unsuccessful 2 engined Manchester into the outstanding bomber of WW2.

The bouncing bomb was largely a side issue designed for a specific role but Wallis still persisted with his theories about the effect of huge bombs of 10 tons dropped with utmost accuracy. His theory was that the initial shock of an exploding bomb or depth charge was not the most serious injury inflicted on the target. He concluded that the shock waves resulting from a bomb explosion was far more damaging than the initial blast. And the ideal for this was for the bomb to detonate underground. He concluded that the conventional bombing methods used by Bomber Command were ineffective, a theory borne out by the constant lack of success from bombing raids over industrial targets.


He designed a bomb of 22,400 lbs. If dropped from a height of 40,000 feet it would penetrate to a depth of about 135 feet and cause an earthquake with a radius of 29 acres. On impact the bomb would be travelling at more than the speed of sound. He argued that five such bombs dropped simultaneously would destroy an area of roughly 4,000 acres.

The adverse decisions of the Air Ministry were based on a consideration of available resources rather than disputing the viability of Wallis’ theories. As the Lancaster development proceeded so did the work on the big bombs.

The work on developing the bombs continued and the first was the Tallboy, a 12,000 lb bomb followed by the larger Grand Slam bomb of 22,000 lbs. The bigger bomb was made possible by advances and modification of the Lancaster. The proof of his puddings was in their eating. The successes of bombing raids using his Tallboy and other earthquake bombs are a matter of record. He was proved correct at every step of the way.

After war’s end he continued with Vickers until his retirement. He produced many revolutionary designs and ideas which have been largely consigned to pigeon holes or museums.



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