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The true story of the Dam busters.
Guy Penrose Gibson

Illustrations by Benjamin Freudenthal -
reproduction forbiden without authors' permission

version française


This story relates the unique and unforgettable attack of the Möhne and Eder dams by squadron 617 in May 1943. The raid was conducted by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, an old hand of Bomber Command, who had been in command of squadron 106, equally equiped with Lancaster, before creating Squadron 617 composed of bomber aces only. Before the raid on the dams, Guy Gibson had completed three operational terms totalizing 173 bombing missions. Aged 25, he had been awarded DFC and DSO*. He disappeared piloting a Mosquito as master bomber during an attack on Rheydt in September 1944. (After Paul Brickhill's book "The Dam Busters", ed. Flammarion, Paris).

Guy Penrose Gibson
Guy Penrose Gibson

Gibson felt like scening the scale model : the same basin filled with water, the same fields around, the same massive wall crowned with two towers closing the end of the lake.
Faintly lighted, the rampart looked like a hideous floating fortress, a battleship fastened between two moorings.
"Good Lord", somebody murmured. "Do you think we can demolish that one ?". Suddenly the dam livened up. Beams of tracer bullets spouted from the towers sweeping across the sky in all directions.
"Rather agressive, those Fritz !" Trevor Roper remarked. The three pilots skillfully cleared off and started to round the lake, making sure they stayed out of reach of the flak. Gibson tried to count the guns. There were at least one at each side of the lake close to the dam and at least four in each tower. He called the machines of the next wave and they answered one after another except for Astell.
Gibson repeated his call again and again

but Astell was dead since an hour. Finally, seeing that insisting was useless, Gibson told his crew, "let's go !". Then switching to the radio, he called the others saying :
- "Take care everybody, I'm attacking, be ready for charging. Hello Mother, take command if something happens to me.
- OK chief, good luck !" went the calm voice of Hopgood. Gibson flew away as far as the hills at the east end of the lake. Then, turning gradually, he rushed with the full power of his four engines. Slowly the machine lined up till, straight ahead, at some 5 km, the dam with its towers suddenly appeared. Emerging over the water at 400 kph, Gibson bellowed his last order : "Check altitude ! Control speed ! Ready machine guns, lights on !"
The navigator turned on the searchlight under the belly of the machine and waiting for the light beams to cross at the water surface, started his refrain : "lower, lower, a bit higher, good, perfect..."
When the Lancaster stabilized at exactly 20 meters above the lake, the German gunners saw the lights. Immediately, beams of tracers focused the target previously invisible. The bullets seemed slow at first, but increasingly faster while the machine closed in on the dam.
Gibson, perfectly calm, piloted the Lancaster straight between the two towers. Spafford, looking through the hole in the plywood visor, waited with his hand on the launching button.
Suddenly, a terrible noise bursted from the nose when the front gun opened fire on the two towers. Gibson felt like the dam, giant wall with scattered will'-o'-the-wisp, was going to crush him. The smell of powder and overheated metal got in his throat and he thought : "in a minute we're all dead".
Then Spafford cried out "Bomb launched", the machine entered between the two towers and Hutchinson launched a red flare signaling the others they were safe.

The attack of Gibson
Gibson, perfectly calm, piloted the lancaster straight between the two towers... Illustration : Benjamin Freudenthal - 70 x 50 cm poster avalaible - To order, click here

A moment later, Trevor Roper, from the back-turret sprayed the German gunners with fourfold bursts. They regained self-control while the Lancaster dived staggering along the valley, skimming the floor for dodging the Flak. When out of its reach, Gibson pulled up over the hills, turned sharply and looked at the dam. At first he didn't see anything. Then, suddenly, the water surface, cut by the towers outline, lifted. An enormous white cone broke the surface and spouted skywards. The lake bubbled and while the column reached its highest point and hovered like a ghost over three hundred meters high the rumbling of the explosion catched up with the plane. Terror stricken, the men saw a waterfall spill over the dam. A moment they thought the wall had burst. Little by little the water quietened and they noticed that the dam was still in place. Had it been shaken only ?

Some minutes later, while the Lancaster was circling over the hills, Gibson thought the water sufficiently calm to give it a second try.
-"Hello Mother, your turn and good luck.
-Ok chief, here we go" sounded the always nonchalant voice of Hopgood.
Emerging from a gap in the hills, he piloted straight to the dam. The other creaws observed him anxiously. The searchlights under the machine belly went on, and two light circles slided over the water till they united. Hence, Hopgood had reached the right height but at the same time, the Flak started firing. Unruffled, he continued the charge. At 500 meters from the wall, the machine got into a swirl of tracers ; a red glow appeared around the tank of the interior starboard engine, and next the tail emited a long flame. The bomb was launched a split second too late and fell over the parapet on the power station at the base of the dam.
"Mother" got over the dam and immediately nosed up. Hopgood tried to pull up so the crew could parachute. Suddenly the tanks exploded, a wing broke off and the condemned Lancaster spinned down in a rain of white-hot debris. While it crashed, the powerstation blew up in a profusion of lights. 10 seconds later it was all over. "Poor Hoppy !" murmured some voice. Gibson, his face rigid like a mask, called Martin :
"- Hello, Popsie, you're ready ?
- Fully ready chief, I'm going".
- While you attack, I'll fly over the dam to lure away the Flak.
- Ok Chief, thanks a lot !"
When Martin appeared from over the hills Gibson rushed over the lake parallelly aligned with the dam but outside Flak's range. The six beams of tracers that focused the towers distracted the Germans who didn't remark Martin's machine before it was at 800 meters from the dam. Nevertheless, three guns managed to draw an iron curtain between the towers, a deadly curtain that Martin inevitably had to clear. Exactly when Bob Hay pronounced "bomb launched !", the machine gave a sudden jolt. Two shells had hit the port side wing, and one had exploded in the interior tank.

The machine cleared the dam and dived down the valley. The crew anxiously observed the damaged wing. Suddenly, noting the absence of flames, the navigator started to scream : "That was a lucky strike, the tank was empty !". Martin smiling, rubbed his chin before crying into the mike : "bomb launched, chief ! ".
-"Well done, Popsie. hello "Apple", are you ready ?
- Yes sir.
- So go ahead ! Warn me when you're in position so I can divert these Flak people. Hello Popsie, are you hurt ?
- Yes, two holes in the port side wing, but everybody unscathed. We'll make it back I think".

The victorious attack of Malby
The victorious attack of Maltby

The lake started bubbling again, the same white column spouted hundreds meters high, the same waterfall spilled over the dam. But when the water furor quietened, the dam was still there. Even after a third bomb launched by "Apple" with wonderfull precision, it was still standing.
Again Gibson waited for the white column to subside, then ordered Maltby to give a try. This time, both Gibson and Martin rushed simultaneously from opposite sides over the lake, firing with all their guns and turning on their sidelights to distract the Flak. Once more, the enormous eruption shook up the black surface of the Möhne. Once more a geyser spouted from close to the wall. Presently, the water vapor covered the entire valley and it was difficult to judge the result of the explosion.
Gibson, slightly unnerved, just ordered Shannon to lauch his bomb, when a rapturous voice screamed in his headphones : "that's it ! The dam is down ! look at that !
It was martin, who, turning over the valley, had assisted in the collapse of the rampart. The huge mass of concrete had suddenly exploded, and an entire section had collapsed under the water pressure. A gap measuring 100 meters wide by 30 meters high opened the middle of the construction. And a wild flood of 134 millions cubic meters entered between its ragged flanks. Gibson had to rescind his order to Shannon. One after the other, the machines flew over the defeated dam. Under the indifferent moon light a liquid wall 7 meters high gushed down the shope. A German, possibly the sole survivor of the towers, started suddenly firing at the bombers ; a few well targeted bursts silenced him quickly. Little by little, their common emotion transformed into unbriddled joy ; Hutchinson was the only one not participating in the lively, rather desultory and very loud exchange. Sitting at his manipulator he sent by morse, very slowly and clearly a significance - weighty words : "Nigger", the name of Gibson's New Foundland terrier, And also the code word signifying the complete success of the operation. In the meantime the water and vapor wisp rendered the valley unrecognizable. Gibson ordered Martin and Maltby to go home. Then he lead the other crews to the east over the Eder. They were going to try finishing the job they just started.


Barnes Wallis

The extraordinary weapon that enabled the Lancasters of Squadron 617 to break the Ruhr dams had been conceived by a civil engineer, Barnes Wallis. despite the lack of enthusiasm at the staff during preliminary studies, Wallis continued to experiment and demonstrate the feasibility of his project. The process included a variety of tests like catapulting marble blocks encased in metal containers in the water, shooting blazing projectiles at a lake or blasting small charges along the inlet of a water reservoir. During the 1942-1943 winter a Wellington bomber equipped with a special dropping mechanism made a series of tests with dummy

cylinders at Chesil Beach, near Weymouth. A real charge was tested afterwards and the RAF got the famous bomb in April 1943. Unfortunately, the exercise bombs broke at impact or veered off course.

Then Wallis reinforced the outer casing, making the bombs operational. Code named Upkeep, the final version was a 4190 kg cylinder, 1,52 meter long and 1,27 meter in diameter.The explosive charge consisting of 2290 kg torpex was set off by three hydrostatic guns triggered at 9 meter water depth. A self-destructive device started 90 seconds after dropping. The Germans analysed one of theses weapons recovered from a downed Lancaster qualified it as a "spinning depth bomb". This label is rather pertinent, yet the invention of Wallis entered history as the "Bouncing Bomb".

Upkeep bomb


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