Daring ‘dambuster’ WWII mission remembered with vintage flight

Grant Burningham
The Sideshow

Aviation enthusiasts and military veterans crowded together outside Sheffield, England, to mark the 70th anniversary of one of World War II's most memorable air assaults—Operation Chastise, more popularly known as the "dambusters" mission.

Vintage airplanes, including a Lancaster bomber, recreated a daring run Thursday that combined courageous flying with ingenious military creativity.

On the night of May 16, 1943, a squadron of modified British Lancasters took off for a secret, overnight mission into the heart of Nazi Germany. Their payload was a top-secret bomb designed to target dams.

Germany's Ruhr basin dams held back water above some of Hitler's prime industrial heartland. It was hoped destroying them would cripple the Nazi war machine and bring a speedy conclusion to the war. The problem was, how to do it? Dams are tiny and tough targets for planes carrying regular bombs, and the Germans had installed nets to prevent torpedo attacks.

Sir Barnes Wallis, a scientist, thought he had a way of tackling both problems. He proposed hurling explosives with a tremendous backspin out of a plane, bouncing them over the lake and sinking them in the nets next to the dam, to detonate at depth where the structure was most vulnerable. Planes would have to approach the dams low and fast, 60 feet off the water. Instruments failed at that altitude, so planes were equipped with crossing spotlights that converged at 60 feet.

The execution of this daring mission fell to the 617 Squadron, a group of pilots which had hosted an American, the broad-chested Joseph C. McCarthy, a Bronx kid who was so eager to fight he joined the Royal Air Force before the U.S. entered the war.

A year after the mission, its Wing Commander, Guy P. Gibson, recalled the preparation. "We trained for it for months," he said. "We knew that our losses would be high but that what we were going to do had such high military value that our losses would be worth it."

In the dead of night, harried by anti-aircraft fire, the specially-trained squadron of Avro Lancaster pilots dropped its strange payload of bouncing bombs over the lakes behind four dams, two of which burst.

As predicted, losses were high—53 of the 113 airmen died in the mission, three taken prisoner. Gibson survived the mission but not the war.

The skipping bombs' effect was devastating. More than 1,400 people drowned, including hundreds of slave-laborers. But the hoped-for death blow to Germany's industrial production never came. The country repaired the damage in months, though historians agree a psychological blow had been struck against Germany.

The raid lives on as a testament to British derring-do and in military histories as an example of ingenuity and courage.

The bombing run inspired a movie, 1955's "The Dam Busters," which George Lucas in turn borrowed from liberally to depict the rebel Death Star attacks in "Star Wars."