Dambusters raid: Retrace the daring journey

  • The mission

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    Seventy years ago, a daring World War II raid immortalised the RAF's 617 Squadron as the "Dambusters". Using a specially developed bouncing bomb, the squadron managed to breach two dams in Germany. The attack caused widespread flooding, disrupting industry in the Ruhr valley and was viewed as a great success in Britain. The mission was a dangerous one,133 men set out but only 77 returned. Use this guide to follow the raid as it unfolded on the night of 16 May 1943.

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  • Take-off

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    The crews of 617 Squadron were assembled for their top secret mission in March 1943 under Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a 24-year-old veteran of more than 170 bombing missions.
    Gibson ensured his squadron got the most experienced men. Made up of British and Commonwealth crews, many volunteered for the mission. On the night of 16 May, 19 bombers left RAF Scampton near Lincoln in three waves. The first heading to the Mohne and the Eder Dams, the second and third to the Sorpe dam.

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  • First crash

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    Like all Bomber Command missions the Dambusters raid, codenamed Operation Chastise, was extremely perilous. The first fatal crash occurred over the Dutch coast when a bomber in the second wave was hit by a German shell. To evade enemy radar, the pilots flew low but this brought its own dangers. Two fatal crashes occurred when pilots clipped power lines. Four out of five of the second wave never made it to the dams. It was up to the remaining bombers to ensure the mission's success.

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  • Three dams

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    The raid called for extreme skill and nerves of steel. To successfully destroy the dams, the bombs had to be released at right angles to the dam wall from an altitude of 60ft (18.2m) at a speed of 220 miles per hour (354kmph), 425 yards (389m) from the target. All the while, the bombers were targeted by enemy guns.
    The Mohne dam was the most tactically significant target and the attack on that dam was led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson. The Sorpe and the Eder were the other main targets.

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  • The raid

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    Each plane could only carry one bouncing bomb, so there were no second chances. After Gibson's bomb missed and a plane was shot down, Gibson flew a decoy run alongside the third plane to distract enemy gunners. When four bombs had been dropped with no breach, the Mohne dam mission looked in jeopardy. But the fifth Lancaster made a textbook drop and the dam wall began to crumble. The remaining bombers went on to successfully breach the Eder dam but the Sorpe dam withstood all attacks.

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  • Afterwards

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    The resulting floods destroyed power plants, factories, homes and transport infrastructure. The waters spread for 50 miles along the Ruhr valley killing more than 1,300 people.
    The raid was viewed as a military success by the British, though some historians now argue that the effect was negligible and German industry quickly recovered.
    Out of 19 bombers, eight were lost and 53 of the 133 aircrew were killed.

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The hand-coloured map above is from the official June 1943 British Air Ministry report on the Dambusters raid. The letters on the map represent the call signs for the planes that made it to the targets in Germany's Ruhr valley. The routes show how they reached the dams and how they returned. The location of the planes that crashed is approximate. Each plane flew with seven aircrew. When they crashed it was common for all the men to be killed.

You can read live-tweets of the original wireless telegraphy signals sent back by the Dambusters to RAF Scampton on twitter @RoyalAirForceUK

Production: John Walton, Bella Hurrell, Steven Atherton, Helene Sears

Photos and map courtesy of The National Archives.

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