LIKE so many schoolboys of my generation I was captivated when I watched The Dam Busters shortly after the film came out in 1955. There was so much to enjoy. Not least the charismatic Richard Todd playing Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the commanding officer of 617 Squadron, and the distinguished Michael Redgrave’s brilliant portrayal of Barnes Wallis, the aeronautical engineer who devised the “bouncing bomb”.
It was the end of the film that I found most moving, capturing as it did the poignant mix of emotions of those returning from the raid. While the crews had a sense of achievement, having inflicted a vital blow against the enemy, their joy was tempered by the realisation that so many airmen had perished during the attack.
I watched the film more than 60 years ago at a cinema in British Honduras (now Belize), where my family was living as a result of my father’s overseas posting. I remain as gripped today by the courage of the Dam Busters’ aircrew as I was when I first saw the movie aged just nine or 10.
Now, on the 75th anniversary of the famous raid to attack dams deep in Nazi Germany, I am delighted to pay tribute to those who risked – and in many cases gave – their lives to carry out one of the most daring assaults of the Second World War.
Even before war had broken out in 1939 the British Air Ministry had identified the industrialised Ruhr valley, including its dams, as a potential target of major strategic value.
The Eder Dam is breached during the Dam Busters
However the mission to attack the dams grew out of a concept devised by Wallis, who worked as assistant chief designer at Vickers, the engineering firm. Initially his design was intended as an anti-shipping bomb but its potential value for dam destruction was soon identified.
An immense amount of research swiftly took place and by early 1943 Wallis had devised a drum-shaped bomb, similar to a depth charge but with a hydrostatic fuse, that could be spun backwards at 500 rpm. He calculated that if dropped at the correct low altitude and from the right release point the bomb would skip along the water and strike the dam wall before running down to its base where it would explode. In December 1942 and January 1943 testing was undertaken at Chesil Beach, Dorset.
Final tweaks were then made to the plans before it was decided that up to six dams should be targeted in May 1943 when water levels would be at their highest and breaches of the dams would cause the most knock-on mayhem. Soon afterwards the newly established 617 Squadron started training for a top-secret assignment codenamed Operation Chastise.
HM King George Vi visits 617 Squadron (the Dam Busters), Royal Air Force Scampton
By the end of April 20 specially modified Lancasters had gathered at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson. During intense training, often at night, they practised flying at the required 60ft as stipulated by Wallis. As an added pressure they had to fly at exactly 232mph, with the bomb aimers trained in precisely how and when to release the bombs.
It was eventually decided to conduct the attack at night with the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams chosen as primary targets, while three others (Lister, Ennepe and Diemel) were identified as secondary targets for any surviving aircraft that were still armed with their ingenious weapons.
The bombs necessary for the secret raid were delivered to the squadron on May 13 after repeated tests and refinements.
Three formations were chosen, with the aircraft using two different routes to reach their targets. A total of 19 aircraft took off, each with a different call sign. Gibson, just 24-years-old but already a veteran of more than 170 sorties, was given the call sign G-George.
Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar
The first aircraft took off at 9.28pm on May 16 and the others soon followed with the intention of striking the dams shortly after midnight. For much of the time the bombers flew low – at around 100ft – to avoid radar detection.
Several aircraft did not make it to the target area, either being shot down en route, having to return home damaged or crashing into power lines due to flying at such dangerously low altitudes. Those that did make it faced other hazards quite apart from enemy fire: the Eder Dam, for example, was shrouded in heavy fog.
However, 617 Squadron pressed ahead with its attack and the raid was highly successful: both the Möhne and Eder dams were breached, while the Sorpe dam was damaged but not breached. The Ennepe dam was struck but not seriously damaged.
On the return journey two more Lancasters were lost to flak but 11 of the 19 bombers made it back to RAF Scampton, with the last aircraft – which had been badly damaged by enemy fire – landing at 6.06am on May 17. This meant that a total of eight aircraft had been lost.
Altogether 133 aircrew had taken part in the raid. Of these 53 were killed, a casualty rate of almost 40 per cent. A further three men were captured as prisoners of war.
The raid had left the Ruhr under an estimated 330 million tons of water. Roads, railways, bridges and an important military aerodrome were all washed away. It was initially believed that 1,294 men, women and children died from the floods.
The front page of the Daily Express after the raid
The Daily Express‘s front page headline after the attack read, Floods Roar Down page, May 1943 Ruhr Valley, and the success of the audacious raid provided a much-needed public relations boost for the war effort.
The government captured the mood of the nation by rushing through a number of gallantry awards for the aircrew. Decorations were announced in The London Gazette as early as May 28 and 34 of the survivors were decorated at Buckingham Palace on June 22.
Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), Britain and the Commonwealth’s highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy. There were also the awards of five Distinguished Service Orders (DSOs), 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs) and four Bars, two Conspicuous Gallantry Medals (CGM), 11 Distinguished Flying Medals (DFMs) and one Bar.
After the raid 617 Squadron was kept together as a specialist unit and adopted a squadron motto of “Après moi, le Déluge” (“After me, the Flood”).
My personal interest in the Dam Busters raid has now lasted more than six decades. After making some money as an entrepreneur I have amassed several gallantry medal collections, including the largest VC collection in the world.
Barnes Wallis, creator of the bouncing bomb with Michael Redgrave who plays him in The Dam Busters
My collection of medals for gallantry in the air now includes not one, but two, medal groups awarded to Dam Busters’ crew: those of Charles Ernest Franklin and Leonard Joseph Sumpter.
Flight Sergeant (later Flying Officer) Franklin was awarded the DFM and Bar, the latter for his part in Operation Chastise, when as the bomb aimer for O-Orange he took part in the attack on the Ennepe Dam.
Flight Sergeant (later Flight Lieutenant) Sumpter was awarded the DFM and DFC, the former for his role in the raid. As part of the crew of L-Leather he took part in the attack on the Eder Dam. I am immensely proud to be the custodian of these medal groups.
Furthermore, I have always admired the bravery of men from Bomber Command and so I became a major donor to the Bomber Command Memorial that was unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen in Hyde Park in 2012 as a tribute to more than 55,000 airmen who died during the Second World War.
In 2015, I was touched when Squadron Leader Les Munro, then 95 and the last surviving Dam Busters pilot, offered to sell his medals to pay for the upkeep of this memorial. My solution to this issue, which Les went along with, was to offer £75,000 for the medals on the basis that the money would go to the RAF Benevolent Fund.
However I did not take possession of Squadron Leader Munro’s medals, logbooks and other memorabilia. Instead these were given to the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland. Squadron Leader Munro, a New Zealander, sadly died later in 2015, aged 96.
Today, as the RAF celebrates its centenary year, I hope that the nation will join me in saluting 133 participants from a unique raid that richly deserves its place in British folklore. The Dam Busters were the bravest of the brave and their sacrifice must never be forgotten.
• Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. He is the author of six books on bravery including Heroes Of The Skies (heroesoftheskies.com). For details about his VC collection visit lordashcroftmedals.com. For information on his work visit lordashcroft.com. Follow him on Twitter@LordAshcroft