Who the Dambusters were and what they did

  • 04/08/2015
Les Munro (AAP)
Les Munro (AAP)

By Dominic Harris

They were one of the most famous outfits of World War II and their exploits have passed into folklore.

On March 17 1943, 617 Squadron was formed at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. The squadron was nicknamed the Dambusters after its first raid, whose last surviving pilot New Zealander Les Munro has died aged 96.

Drawing on hand-picked crews from Britain, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, the squadron's mission was to damage three dams in Germany's Ruhr Valley that provided a vital source of power to the country's industrial region.

The man behind Operation Chastise was aircraft engineer Barnes Wallis.

What made it so dangerous was that, to be successful, the Dambusters had to fly at a height of about 18 metres, so the specially adapted mines they were carrying - codenamed Upkeep - would bounce over the water before hitting the dams' walls and sink 9m.

The mines would then explode, causing the dams' walls to be breached and release millions of tonnes of water into the valleys below.

The Dambusters trained by flying over the Derwent reservoir and dam in England's Lake District.

On the night of May 16 1943, 19 Lancaster bombers, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, set off for Germany with the aim of destroying the Mohne, the Eder and the Sorpe dams.

Their mission was hailed a success after two of the dams, the Eder and the Mohne, were breached, releasing 300 million tonnes of water. The parapet of the Sorpe dam was damaged, although there was no breach.

A total of 53 servicemen lost their lives and another three were taken captive.

The squadron's bravery earned it 33 decorations, including the Victoria Cross for Wing Commander Gibson.

It was also credited with providing a major boost for the morale of Allied troops and in 1955 led to the film The Dam Busters, starring Sir Michael Redgrave.

Current members of 617 Squadron flew Tornado GR4 warplanes during the second Iraq conflict, earning them the nickname "the Saddam Busters".

The squadron, based at RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, was disbanded in April last year as part of the planned draw-down of the Tornado force, in a process that is common for RAF squadrons.

But 617 Squadron will reform next year, taking delivery of the Lightning II fighter to be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk with both RAF and Royal Navy personnel, continuing the proud history of their illustrious forebears.