No. 617 Squadron (RAF) "The Dambusters"

About This Unit

No. 617 Squadron and  Operation 'Chastise' - The Dams Raid May 16/17 1943

No. 617 Squadron RAF is included on this site because many RAAF personnel served and died in this very famous squadron.

No. 617 Squadron was raised to conduct one operation; Operation Chastise' more commonly known as 'The Dams Raid' in May 1943.

'Operation Chatise' 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 very obvious reasons.

Thirteen Australians, including one who was a member of the RAF rather than the RAAF,  were among the 156 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 targetsin three waves; the first of nine aircraft the second and third each of five.

'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.

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


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

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 himself a year later) with other units.

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

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.

A detailed account of this raid can be found in a Home Page article HERE

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.

Australians on the raid.  13 Australians (12 RAAF , one in the RAF) took part in the Dams Raid.  Many more followed.

Flying Officer 'Micky' Martin (/explore/people/1766868), Pilot of AJ-P third in the first wave of five aircraft.

407074 Flight Lieutenant Bob Hay DFC* (/explore/people/511519)Bomb Aimer in Mick Martin's crew.  KIA 1944 on a 617 Sqn raid to Antheor Viaduct Italy 13 Feb 44.

408076 Flight Sergeant T. D. 'Tammy' Simpson (/explore/people/1649386) DFM Rear Gunner in AJ-P, Martin's aircraft

402367 Flight  Lieutenant  Jack. F. Leggo DFC and Bar (/explore/people/800359) Navigator of Martin's 'AJ-P for 'Popsie'.  

404595 Pilot Officer Toby Foxlee, DFM, (/admin/units/1181/404595%20Pilot%20Officer%20Toby%20Foxlee,%20DFM,%C2%A0%20Front%20gunner%20Mick%20Martin's%20AJ-P.)  Front gunner Mick Martin's AJ-P.

021979 Pilot Officer Tony Burcher, DFM (/explore/people/1149266).  Rear gunner of AJ-M, second aircraft first wave, and one of only two survivors of it.  PoW

407729 Flying Officer  (Later Squadron Leader) David Shannon, DSO* DFC* (/explore/people/510222)Pilot of AJ-L (for Leather' - a play on words) sixth aircraft first wave.

407380 Pilot Officer Fred Spafford, DFC, DFM (/explore/people/510126) Bomb Aimer of AJ-G, flown by the raid leader, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC. Gibson was detached on duty when his entire crew including Spafford, were lost in September 1943 on the Dortmund Ems Canal Raid.

401449 Flight Lieutenant Les Knight (/explore/people/635396)DFC MiD Pilot of AJ-N, ninth aircraft in the first wave.  Lost in September 1943 on the Dortmund Ems Canal Raid after sacrificing himself to enable all his crew to parachute to safety.

411453 Flight Sergeant Bob Kellow, DFM (/explore/people/1666632) - Wireless Operator of AJ-N. Survived the Dams raid but their aircraft lost on the subsequent Op Dortmund Ems Canal raid Sep 1943. Kellow bailed out and became the first RAAF evader to escape from Holland via the Underground to Gibraltar.

Flight Lieutenant Robert Barlow (/explore/people/619077)DFC Pilot of AJ-E leading the second wave, lost with his entire crew en route to the target.

405224 Flying Officer Charles Williams, DFC (/explore/people/652398%20),  Wireless Operator, lost with 'Norm' Barlow's AJ-E, 

411453 Pilot Officer Lance Howard (/explore/people/800592)  - Navigator AJ-'O' for Orange.  Founded Bull Creek in WA a major RAAF Heritage and welfare centre.

More to follow

Compiled May 2018 Steve Larkins - Updated April 2023



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

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

Burgess, Colin, 2021.'Australia's Dambusters - Flying into Hell with 617 Squadron'.  Simon and Schuster, Sydney ISBN: 9781760859237

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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