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Dams Raid
Dams Raid

During the early 1990’s I took part a number of times in a flying competition called ‘Dawn to Dusk’. The summary of the competition was to pick a project with an interesting flying dimension, and then fly it very accurately.

I won the competition outright in 1993 with an entry that took me to the dams in Germany attacked by 617 Squadron 'Dam Busters' of the RAF with the novel bouncing bombs in the famous ‘Dams Raid’ or officially 'Operation Chastise' of 16-17 May 1943.  As a theme for my competition entry, it was perfect because:

  • My Father had flown in Lancasters so I felt I had a personal link to the subject
  • It was topical – at the time there was a lot of ‘fifty years later’ style media coverage
  • There was a level of controversy about how effective the raid had actually been
  • It had enough challenge in it to fully occupy a ‘Dawn to Dusk’ time period
  • It was flying about flying and so bound to resonate with the judges

The objective I defined for my competition entry was:

Some post-war analyses of the famous 'Dambusters Raid' of May 1943 have cast doubt on both the effectiveness of the attack and its execution. Fifty years later the objective of the entry is to carry out basic research into the attack and to look at the dams today to see if such criticism has any foundation.

I wanted to do more than just regurgitate the popularly held Dam Busters story, and I wanted to fly the Dawn to Dusk competition very accurately.  At the time there were also mounting questions about what the officially named Operation Chastise achieved and what it could have achieved.  Some commentators have taken the view failure was inevitable right from the outset and that the whole Dambusters story was a huge public relations exercise to damage morale in Germany and bolster it in the UK.

As somebody who likes to get to the bottom of things, that took a great deal of research.

The 'Dambusters Raid' is considered to be one of the greatest epics in the history of the RAF in terms of technical ingenuity, imaginative planning and the courage of those who carried out the operation.  The basic facts are well known.  On the night of May 16/17, 1943 nineteen Lancaster aircraft of 617 Squadron left RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack a number of strategic dams in Germany on Operation 'CHASTISE'.  The resulting success of the raid in breaching two major dams gave rise to a legend, created at the time by the official publicity machine for a nation and its allies ready and eager to hear about the heroic acts of its forces.

The economic significance of the German dams had been recognised before the Second World War.  As early as September 1937 the Air Ministry was aware of the dams as potential targets, the Möhne and Sorpe even being named.  Interest in the dams was such that a meeting of the Bombing Committee held on July 26, 1938 was devoted specifically to the subject.

In 1939 within the catchment area of the River Ruhr five large dams held back a total of 254,000,000 m3 of water.  Seven smaller dams together controlled a further 12,000,000 m3.  The five major Ruhr dams were the Möhne, the Sorpe, the Lister, the Ennepe and the Henne.  The primary function of these dams was to provide both domestic and industrial water supplies to the Ruhr district.

In March 1943 the Air Staff circulated a report which looked at the potential effects of the destruction of the Möhne Dam.  Extracts from their report follow to illustrate their view of the potential economic and moral effects of the dam's destruction.

The Diemel and Eder differed from the other dams it was planned to attack in CHASTISE.  Rather than serving the Ruhr valley, their prime purpose was to store water for protection against flooding and for controlling the water flow of the Fulda and Weser rivers.  In 1939 these two dams held back a total of 222,000,000 m3 of water.

There were two types of dam in the Sauerland; the 'gravity' type and the 'earth' type.  The Ennepe, Henne, Lister, Möhne, Diemel and Eder were of the gravity type, whilst the Bever and the Sorpe were of the earth type.  Whilst the novel 'bouncing bomb' had the potential to destroy a gravity type dam, it is highly unlikely it had the potential to destroy an earth type dam.

One thing that doesn’t come through from the way the popular ‘Dambusters’ story is told today is that Operation CHASTISE had a wider objective than just the three big dams – the Möhne, the Sorpe and the Eder. In fact, the Operation Order for CHASTISE included a total of six dams that were to be attacked.

The Operation Order for CHASTISE identified the Möhne Dam as 'TARGET X' and as the primary target for the attack.  The dam was attacked from the east, heading west south west along the Möhne arm of the reservoir, before crossing a spit of land to turn onto a north westerly heading for the final attack.

The Operation Order for CHASTISE referred to the Sorpe Dam as 'TARGET Z' and considered it next in importance after the Möhne.  It was attacked differently to the other dams because it was an earth dam.  Rather than attacking at right angles to the dam, the Sorpe was attacked by flying along its length, releasing the mine (which was not rotating) to fall in the water next to its centre point.  This entailed flying a south easterly heading, descending steeply over the church spire in the village of Langscheid into the valley, releasing the mine, and then climbing steeply whilst turning onto a north easterly heading.

The Lister Dam was included within the Operation Order for CHASTISE as a secondary target.  As the dam only had one tower which rendered it impossible to attack, it is unclear why the dam was ever included as a potential target.  In the event, the Lister was only attacked by one Lancaster, but that was shot down on its way to the dam.

The Ennepe Dam was included within the Operation Order for CHASTISE as a secondary target only to be attacked after the primary targets had been destroyed.

After the raid the Ennepe Dam disappeared from the post operation reporting to be referred to as the Schwelme Dam.  As no such dam exists, it is widely thought to be a cover up for the fact that the Bever Dam (not part of the operation) was actually attacked instead.  Given the very misty conditions prevailing at the time, it would have been an easy mistake to make.

Whilst originally a target for the operation, The Henne was removed from Operation CHASTISE before the attack because it was considered to be too difficult to attack for what was one of the smaller dams.

The Bever Dam was never planned as a part of Operation CHASTISE, and was attacked by mistake in the very misty conditions prevailing at the time.  After the operation, the 'Schwelme' Dam was introduced as a cover up for the fact the Bever Dam was attacked mistakenly instead of the Ennepe Dam.

The Eder Dam was a primary target for Operation CHASTISE.  At the time, it was the largest dam in Germany.  Right from the outset there were questions about the validity of the Eder Dam as a military target, but if the real intent of CHASTISE was to drive morale down in Germany and up in the UK, then the Eder Dam was the perfect target.  Attacking the Eder Dam was especially difficult requiring flying skills of the very highest order.  The dam was breached on the third attempt.

The Diemel Dam was only ever a secondary target for Operation CHASTISE, but had it been attacked, there was no chance of success because the dam wall had no towers the crew could use to know their precise distance from the dam wall.  Only one Lancaster was sent to the Diemel Dam, and this was diverted to the Sorpe in flight.

Following Operation CHASTISE, two of the dams were breached.  These were the Möhne and the Eder.  The damage to the dams, the consequential damage downstream from them and their subsequent rebuilding are described in this section.

I flew The Dawn to Dusk Competition entry solo in a Piper PA-28-140 aircraft. This section describes the aircraft and the pilot.

To give myself every possible chance of success, I planned every detail of the flight meticulously.  I wanted to be on top of everything so that on the day I could enjoy the view and fly the aircraft as accurately as possible.  This section describes how the flight was planned.

The Dawn to Dusk Competition flight was flown on Saturday May 22, 1993.

In summary, the planned and actual times and distances achieved were as follows (all times UTC):

The first stage was intended to follow a significant part of the route to the dams used by 617 Squadron.  They used two routes; one for the first and third waves of aircraft which crossed the Dutch coast at the Schelde estuary, the other used by the second wave which crossed the Dutch island of Vlieland north of the Zuider Zee.  This meant the southern of the two routes was to be preferred for the purposes of my Dawn to Dusk competition entry.

The objective of the second stage was to get round the eight dams as expeditiously as possible, finishing with a refuelling stop at Dusseldorf before leaving Germany for the return stage.  This resulted in a series of relatively short legs between dams - the longest being the 35 nm from the Eder Dam to the Henne Dam.  At the planning stage careful attention was paid to the height of the ground in the area - for a section of the stage the SSA was as high as 4,200 ft.

The final stage returning to Shoreham was planned with convenience in mind as it would be the end of the day.  As such it made maximum use of radio-navigation aids.  After take-off from Dusseldorf, the route followed one of the prescribed VFR/CVFR routes to the Dutch border at Venlo; across the Netherlands to the VOR 'NIK' in Belgium;  across Belgium to the VOR 'KOK'; south to the NDB 'ING' on the French coast; crossing the English Channel to the VOR 'LYD' and from there direct to Shoreham.

After the operation a report on CHASTISE was prepared by Air Vice-Marshall R.A. Cochrane.  This deals with the formation of 617 Squadron, the selection and training of the crews, the planning of the operation, its execution and the known results.  His summary of the operation is short and to the point.

I Won!

Written by Mike

I won the Dawn to Dusk Flying Competition! At a ceremony in London I was presented with two fine trophies, the Duke of Edinburgh Trophy for being overall winner, and the Icarus Trophy for being the best solo entry. I was delighted.