During a clear night on 16 May 1943, a squadron of 19 Lancaster bombers set off from RAF Scampton to attack the dams of Germany’s Ruhr valley in Operation Chastise or what would later become known as the ’Dam Busters’ mission.
A documentary recreating the operation was recently aired on Channel 4. The team attempted to construct a replica of the bomb developed by Barnes Wallis, assistant chief designer at Vickers-Armstrongs, that would bounce on water and explode at exactly the right depth to destroy its target.
In 1943, The Engineer reported on the outcome: ’It has since been announced that the dams were attacked with 1,500lb mines, picked Lancaster crews being specially trained for the work. In the Ruhr basin two dams in the Möhne and Sorpe reservoirs were breached, while the Eder Valley dam was broken down in two places.’
“The dams were attacked by the Lancasters with 1,500lb mines”
As technical details of the operations were withheld at the time, the article moves on to an in-depth exploration of the history and features of the dams, with details drawn from a little-known German publication on the 1930 Second World Power Conference in Berlin.
Assessing the potential damage, it said: ’The Möhne and Sorpe dams control almost three quarters of the water catchment area of the Ruhr basin. There are close upon 300 waterworks and pumping stations in the Ruhr Valley, and the changes in level due to flooding will have a very serious effect on the supply of water for industrial and domestic purposes.’
As the recent television documentary revealed, the technical achievements of Barnes Wallis and his team remain undimmed by the passage of time. Although the Channel 4 team’s effort to recreate the legendary incendiary was made more difficult by the fact that few of the original drawings have survived.