No. 617 Squadron (RAF) "The Dambusters"

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617 Squadron and  Operation 'Chastise' - The Dams Raid May 16/17 1943

617 Squadron RAF is included on this site becasue many RAAF personnel served and died in this very famous squadron.

'Operation Chatise' is more famously known as "The Dams Raid" and is arguably one of the most famous single operations of WW2.  Audacious in concept and execution, high risk, technically almost abstract and demanding the highest levels of airmanship and flying skill, the crews were handpicked for a very obvious reason.

Nineteen Australians, including some who were members of the RAF rather than the RAAF,  were among the 133 aircrew who flew on the raid on the evening of 16/17 May 1943.

The raid entailed nineteen specially modified Lancaster B1 bombers with their mid-upper turrets removed and their fuselages modified to carry the purpose-designed 'Upkeep' bouncing bomb - more correctly described as a depth charge or mine. Taking off from their base at RAF Scampton they were to fly at very low level to their targets.

A 617 Squadron Lancaster releaseing an 'Upkeep' mine in testing

'Upkeep' was designed to attack and breach three key dams in the Ruhr valley supplying energy and water to the Nazi war machine.  Destruction of power generation, water supply and industrial capacity was the objective. Anticipated flood damage would be a second order bonus.

Much of the RAF top brass – including Head of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris – felt the bouncing bomb concept was impractical. But Chief of Air Staff, Chief Marshal Charles Portal was convinced by tests of the bomb in Dorset, and overruled their objections.

'Upkeep' was carried in an external frame with a drive that imparted a reverse rotation so that when dropped at the correct height (60 feet above the surface) established by convergent spotlights under the aircraft, the bomb would skip across the surface of the dam, avoiding torpedo nets suspended in defence across the lake.  It would then hit the dam wall and sink to a depth of 30 feet, when hydrostatic pistols would detonate the bomb.  The resulting hydaulic pressure effect would in theory rupture the dam wall.   

An 'Upkeep' mine loaded abord WCDR Guy Gibson's Lancaster, AJ-'G for George'.  Note the chain drive to impart reverse rotation on the bombing run

The conception of the raid owed much to Professor Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the 'Upkeep' bomb and the principles it embodied.  He had played a key role in the design of the ubiquitous Vickers Wellington bomber with its unique geodetic construction.  He later went on to design the two 'earthquake' bombs, the 12,000lb 'Tallboy" and the ten ton "Grand Slam", with which 617 Squadron was to attack and destroy a range of high value targets from viaducts to 'V' Weapon sites and the German battleship 'Tirpitz' through the remainder of the War.

The cost / beneft equation? 

Eight aircraft failed to return, five of which were lost on the way to the target, and a total of 53 aircrew were killed.  Three aircrew were captured as PoW.  One of the aircraft lost at very low level, killed all of the crew when it crashed, but the Top Secret 'Upkeep' bomb broke away as the aircraft impacted and was recovered intact by the Germans.  

A staggering testament to the high rate of attrition among Bomber Command crews was that of the 80 aircrew who survived the raid, 22 were killed in subsequent 617 Squadron operations including the CO's (Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC) entire crew (Gibson was detached on duty at the time) and another 10 (including Gibson himslef a year later) with other units.

Only 48 men of the 133 who took part in the raid survived the war.

The effect?  The resulting floods sent a 30-foot wall of water into the Ruhr region, killing 1,600 and destroying power stations, factories, roads and rail lines. The Mohne and Eder dams were breached but only three Lancasters were able to make bombing runs against the earthen Sorpe dam, a more difficult target to access and breach; it was damaged, but not destroyed.

The Mohne Dam the day after the raid with the breach and water continuing to flow into the valley below clearly visible

The raid's impact was relatively short-term – in spite of the success of the raidsuccess, the dams were repaired and power restored by the end of June.

Revisionist commentators have questioned the actual effect of the raid almost from the outset. 

Frankly in this author's opinion, debates about actual / marginal impact on industrial capacity etc matter less than the morale effect for the Allies in general and the RAF and Britain in particular. Morale is a key combat multiplier whichever way analysts choose to do the numbers and in that dimension alone this raid was a triumph of conception, planning, training and execution.  

It attracted world wide attention at the time, when the tide of war had yet to turn in favour of the Allies.  671 Squadron's continuing contribution to the war effort was incontrovertible, albeit costly in terms of the lives of the aircrew that flew with it.


Australians on the raid (a work in progress)

Flying Officer  (Later Squadron Leader) David Shannon, DSO* DFC* (/explore/people/510222)(pilot) was the youngest pilot on the raid, a few weeks short of his 21st birthday at the time of the raid.  He subsequently became the most highly decorated RAAF airman flying at the time.  He survived the war with more than 80 missions to his credit.  He remained in Britain after the war taking up a career as an excecutive with the Shell Oil company.  He died in London in 1993.

Flying Officer Micky Martin, (pilot) (VWM entry pending) known more formally as Air Marshal Sir Harold Brownlow Martin KCB, DSO DFC,  originally from Sydney, was a member of the RAF and the squadron's low flying specialist in the lead up to the raid. He survived the war and continued a career in the RAF raising to the rank of Air Marshal in 1970, knighted and awarded a DSO, DFC and bar during the War.  He retired fom the RAF in 1974, and worked until 1985 as a consultant with Hawker Siddley Aviation.  He died in the UK in 1988.  

407074 Flight Lieutenant Bob Hay (/explore/people/511519) DFC*(bomb aimer) of Malvern SA lost in 1944 in Italy with 617 Squadron.

Pilot Officer Fred Spafford, DFC, DFM (/explore/people/510126) (bomb aimer) of Wayville, SA lost in September1943 on the Dortmund Ems Canal Raid.

George Clark (bomb aimer).  Survived the war. (VWM entry pending)

Flight Lieutenant Les Knight (/explore/people/635396)DFC MiD (pilot) lost in September1943 on the Dortmund Ems Canal Raid.

Flight Lieutenant Robert Barlow (/explore/people/619077)DFC (pilot) killed on the raid

408076 Flight Sergeant T. D. Simpson DFM of Hobart, Tas(VWM entry pending)

406248 Pilot Officer C. L. Howard DFC of Perth, WA;(VWM entry pending)

402367 Flt Lt J. F. Leggo DFC and Bar of Lake Macquarie, NSW;(VWM entry pending)

More to follow

Compiled May 2018 Steve Larkins



Brickhill, Paul (1951). The Dam Busters (Hardback). London: Evans Brothers Ltd. ISBN 0-330-23618-0.

Cooper, Alan W. (2013). The Dam Buster Raid: A Reappraisal, 70 Years On (Hardback). Barnsley: Pen & Sword Aviaton. ISBN 978-1-78159-474-2.

Australian Dictionary of Biography






Effect of the Raid - debate continues long after the event. Rail against the Revisionists?


Article in the New Statesman in which Guy Walters argues that Holland completely counters the “revisionist” view that the Dams Raid actually achieved very little. According to Walters:

The raid was in fact a triumph, and did an enormous amount of damage. After studying the German archives, Holland shows that: “…not only were two major dams completely destroyed, so too were seven railway bridges, eighteen road bridges, four water turbine power stations and three steam turbine power stations, while in the Ruhr Valley alone, eleven factories were completely destroyed and a further 114 damaged, many severely. Vast tracts of land had also been devastated by the tidal waves that had thundered up to eighty miles from the dams.”
Such damage can hardly be considered “little of substance”.

Furthermore, Holland completely skewers the argument that as the dams were quickly rebuilt, the damage was therefore not that great. The whole point of their swift reconstruction “underlines just how important they were to Germany”, and the men and material required had to be diverted from elsewhere.

Holland also argues that the destruction of the dams struck a huge psychological blow against the Germans, as these were structures that were venerated as triumphs of the country’s might and technical knowhow. In short, the raid was indeed a catastrophe for Nazi Germany, and a triumph for the British.

Holland’s analysis will no doubt draw its detractors, perhaps inspired by a politically fashionable thinking that seeks to denigrate just about every British success during the Second World War. Of course, there was much that we got wrong, but we also got many things spectacularly right.

In my view, Holland’s programme was a well researched and presented documentary. There were interviews with three of the four surviving Dambusters – Les Munro, Grant McDonald and George “Johnny” Johnson – and a good use of far flung written source material, such as Charlie Williams’ letters, which are in archives in Queensland, Australia.

Perhaps the point that came across most strongly was the airmanship involved. Flying a 30 ton aircraft a thousand miles through hostile territory just 100 feet above the ground required enormous concentration, exceptional skill and tremendous luck. When you consider the odds it is no real surprise that eight of the 19 aircraft failed to return. And no surprise, either, that this tactic was only used sparingly in the rest of the war.

With so much already written and broadcast about the Dams Raid it is not surprising that little new information emerged. But that shouldn’t detract from what was a thorough film, mercifully lacking most of the frills and tricks which many documentary directors nowadays feel it necessary to add.

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