On 16 May 2013, the Royal Air Force commemorated the 70th anniversary of Operation Chastise – the raid against the dams in Germany’s industrial heartland – with a series of flypasts over some of the locations used to prepare the crews for one of the most outrageous bombing missions of World War 2, if not ever.
Tom Gibbons reports from Derwent Reservoir in Derbyshire, with Karl Drage reporting from Eyebrook Reservoir on the Leicestershire/Rutland border; additional 617 Squadron pictures courtesy of Geoff Hibbert who was at RAF Coningsby.
With the exception of Avro Lancaster PA474 – the aircraft type that famously carried out the Dambusters Raid – all of the aircraft taking place in the flypasts over Derwent and Eyebrook operated from RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire. At their controls were:
Avro Lancaster PA474 – RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
Flt Lt Tim Dunlop & Flt Lt Roger Nichols
Supermarine Spitfire PRXIX PM631 & Supermarine Spitfire LF XVIe TE311 – RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
Sqn Ldr Andy “Milli” Millikin & Flt Lt Antony “Parky” Parkinson MBE
Panavia Tornado GR4s – ZA412 & ZA492 – RAF No 617 Squadron
‘Gibson 1’ – Flt Lt Stewy Campbell & Flt Lt Mahmoud Abdallah
‘Gibson 2’ – Cpt Erik Snel (Royal Netherlands Air Force) & Flt Lt Christopher Whitehair
Derwent Reservoir Dambusters 70th Commemorations – Words by Tom Gibbons, additional pictures from Glenn Beasley
16 May 1943. RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire and 617 Squadron RAF embarked on the mission that was to cement their place in history; Operation Chastise, the famed raid on the Mohne, Edersee and Sorpe dams in Germany’s industrial Ruhr valley.
Execution of the attacks on the dams came only after extensive training had been carried out by the crews of 617 Squadron using a number of locations around England. From late-March through into early-May of 1943, 617 Squadron’s crews spent the bulk of their time working on their low-level flying skills over water, with the reservoirs at Derwent, Abberton and Eyebrook (then referred to as Uppingham Lake) and the Wash weapons ranges being the particular venues of choice. Of the four venues, only Derwent and the Wash ranges saw bomb releases against targets positioned on the water.
The Derwent Reservoir is the middle of the three reservoirs in the Upper Derwent Valley and for six weeks prior to the raids Lancaster after Lancaster flew down the valley initially heading south then reversing their course as the southern route proved less and less challenging as their low level flying skills improved. Due to the secrecy surrounding the planned raids, local residents were unaware of the significance of the increased activity levels with rumour rife as to what was actually taking place. It would not be long before they would know.
The Derwent Reservoir has been the focal point for a number of anniversary events in commemoration of the dams raids. The last major commemoration at Derwent in 2008 saw the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster, Spitfire, Hurricane and Dakota all making an appearance along with a pair of Tornado GR4s from 617 Squadron. The squadron is now based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland and is commanded by Wing Commander David Arthurton.
Five years on from that event and the 70th anniversary of the raid took the form of a number of events commencing on Monday 13 May with the departure of a single Tornado GR4 from Lossiemouth, one of two specially marked anniversary aircraft, ZA492 “Gibson 1”, which departed for RAF Coningsby. By the evening of Wednesday 15 May, three GR4s, both specially marked aircraft and a single aircraft in standard squadron makings, had positioned to RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, in preparation for the commemorative flypasts.Thursday 16 May saw many veterans and their relatives and friends; current serving RAF personnel, visitors and a large proportion of the enthusiast community descend on the area surrounding the Derwent Valley to witness the 70th anniversary event.
At 1300hrs a single RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire, PR.XIX PM631, appeared to the north and commenced the first of three runs over the Derwent Dam; the Spitfire was significant in that an aircraft of this type from 542 Squadron at RAF Benson and flown by Flying Officer Frank ‘Jerry’ Fray, performed critical post-raid reconnaissance flights to bring back valuable photographs for analysis. ‘Jerry’ later described the experience:
“When I was about 150 miles from the Möhne Dam, I could see the industrial haze over the Ruhr area and what appeared to be a cloud to the east. On flying closer, I saw that what had seemed to be cloud was the sun shining on the floodwaters. I looked down into the deep valley which had seemed so peaceful three days before [on an earlier reconnaissance mission] but now it was a wide torrent. The whole valley of the river was inundated with only patches of high ground and the tops of trees and church steeples showing above the flood. I was overcome by the immensity of it.”
The Spitfire was followed by the Flight’s Lancaster PA474, a sight which brought a shiver down the spine for many of those assembled by the dam; the Lancaster had earlier taken off from RAF Scampton, from where the dams raids were launched 70 years ago. Like the Spitfire, the Lancaster performed three flypasts, two from north to south and a single pass from south to north.
For many the day brought the first opportunity to see the new anniversary markings applied to the pair of 617 Squadron Tornado GR4s. ‘Gibson Flight’ of two Tornados ran through the valley a total of three times, in a salute to the veterans and to those who made the ultimate sacrifice seventy years ago.
Eyebrook Reservoir Dambusters 70th Commemorations – By Karl Drage
Eyebrook Reservoir was formed between 1937 and 1940 when the Eye Brook was dammed by Stewarts & Lloyds in order to ensure a water supply to support the company’s nearby Corby steel works.
Although Wing Commander Guy Gibson, Officer Commanding 617 Squadron for the raid, was not given the precise details of what the squadron he’d been charged with forming would be destined to attack, Eyebrook’s suitability for preparing the crews ahead of it had already been noted some months before with several visits from RAF personnel having been made.
In his book “Enemy Coast Ahead,” Gibson makes due reference to Eyebrook. “…. I’ve got some trials on a certain reservoir to find out if we can do this thing at all. Half an hour later we were on our way to the reservoir. This lake is in Leicestershire, surrounded by higher ground which makes it ideal for the job.”
Visually, of the targets that 617 Squadron would be ultimately tasked to attack, Eyebrook’s dam most closely resembled the Sorpe Dam. However, with the addition of some scaffolding towers covered with hessian, it started to look more like the dams at Eder and Möhne and therefore provided excellent means for practising bomb aiming.
For the locals, once the initial fear that the gut-wrenching drone of the Lancasters flying overhead were not enemy aircraft preparing to attack had subsided, the sight and sound of up to twelve of them at a time operating at extremely low-level in both daylight and at night became the norm, though no-one appreciated just what they were up to at the time.
The Northamptonshire Telegraph ran an article after the cessation of hostilities where witnesses described how the aircraft “circled around, coming in lower and lower, until they almost touched the roofs of the cottages,” before, “roaring low over Eye Brook Reservoir and heading off after repeating the action several times.” After dropping purple flares and then skimming the top of the dam, the aircraft were said to “dive skywards.”
Such was the regularity of these flights that groups of people could often be found watching proceedings after dark from the nearby road.
It is said that on the night of the raid, not only did the aircraft disappear, but so too did the scaffolding towers. It was not until Gibson’s memoirs were published and a radio broadcast identified “a dam near Uppingham” as being one of the sites used in preparation for the mission that the purpose of this intense aerial activity became clear.
When “The Dambusters” film was made in 1954, the sound of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines once again filled the Welland Valley.
Today, Eyebrook Reservoir serves as a trout fishery – as it has done since 1942 – and is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Driving up to the fishing lodge, it’s immediately apparent how important the venue’s heritage is considered to be, with signs and plaques in various places proudly acknowledging the role it played in the build-up to Operation Chastise.
To mark the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters Raid, and to commemorate the vitally important role that the Eyebrook Reservoir played in the success of the mission, Eyebrook Trout Fishery hosted a fantastic event for around 200 invited guests.
Live music, birds of prey and classic vehicles were among the attractions served up ahead of the main course, a series of flypasts by the aforementioned aircraft.
Arriving right on schedule were the attention-grabbing Spitfire pair, followed 30 seconds behind by the aircraft everyone was there to see, Lancaster PA474. After completing a first pass directly over the dam, she came right, circled around and flew a line parallel with the dam before coming left, and commencing a second run from the top of the reservoir.
This time, instead of carrying on, she banked to starboard and was chased as she did so by the two Spitfires, providing some really lovely images. A final 180 degree turn to port and all three once again exited parallel to the dam, but instead of returning, they carried straight on and set course for RAF Coningsby.
The final element, the Tornado GR4 pair, soon appeared from the northern end and flew straight down the lake towards the dam with wings fully swept. After entering a fairly-sustained right-hand turn, they returned once again from the same place, this time with a mid-ranged sweep. Again the turn was maintained through 270 degrees, but as with the BBMF element, they were complete and on their way.
It was a fantastic tribute to the incredibly brave crews from 617 Squadron who had taken part in the Dambusters Raid 70 years ago. The only thing I would dearly have loved to have seen – and I completely understand why we didn’t – was a pass at 60 feet, as the Dambusters had flown when they released their Upkeep bombs. Only then, do I believe that we could begin to truly appreciate the virtually incomprehensible level of airmanship that was required in order to achieve their mission.
Après moi le deluge.
Karl Drage extends sincere thanks to Marion Sweeney, Group Captain Steve Lloyd of the Air Historic Branch and all of the staff and volunteers at Eyebrook Trout Fishery for their assistance and hospitality.
The modern-day 617 Squadron
Wing Commander David Arthurton is the current Officer Commanding of 617 Squadron and is acutely aware of the importance of the squadron’s heritage:
“I took over as Officer Commanding 617 Squadron in Oct 2012. It’s an absolute honour and a privilege. On a daily basis I get to work with top quality people who are dedicated to their profession and strive for excellence in all that they do. The brave acts of 617 Sqn personnel in May 1943 epitomises the spirit and ethos of the RAF which endures to this day. As we worked towards the anniversary activities I was amazed by the weight of the public interest; we have had messages of support on a global scale.”
Wg Cdr Arthurton is also of the belief that the achievements of his forebears have had a significant impact on the lessons learnt by the Royal Air Force as a whole to date:
“I think three things stand out.
“1. The importance of technical innovation. From the scientists in devising a new weapon to overcome specific problems, the integration of the weapon by modifying Lancasters and then the ingenuity that led to the use of converging spotlights to accurately determine aircraft height.
“2. The specialist training for a role. Once the weapon was ready to deliver, what would happen when the crews reached the dams? They had faith in the command chain, with their targets unknown until the day of the mission.
“3. The courage of the crews. You have the innovation and training in place but it is courage that wraps it all up and achieves the end result.”
Today 617 Squadron is one of five front-line Tornado GR4 units providing Combat Air Power to support government objectives.
“In recent times 617 Sqn participated in Operation TELIC over Iraq in 2003 where they fired the first Storm Shadow stand-off missiles in support of the coalition operation.
“We regularly deploy in support of Operation HERRICK, the UK contribution to the coalition operation in Afghanistan.
“We also deployed crews in support of Operation ELLAMY over Libya.”
For Wg Cdr Arthurton, 617 Squadron’s participation in these commemorative events was essential:
“The spirit and ethos from the dams raids is a thread that runs through the RAF and is alive and well today. We share a common bond and it is an honour to be a Dambuster today.”
Lest We Forget.
Further commemorative flypasts will continue until Sunday 19 May. For further details please see the Dambusters70.com website.