Derwent Dam Museum

Derwent Dam, Derbyshire

Royal Air Force 617 Squadron

The Squadron was formed at RAF Scampton on 17th March 1943 under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson for the task of breaching the dams of Western Germany in the Ruhr Valley.

‘Operation Chastise’ was the codename for the dams raid, an operation that would prove not only difficult, but very hazardous as it required very low levels of flying, sometimes below 60 feet over heavily defended enemy territory at night.

The Derwent and Howden dams in Derbyshire provided the ideal training ground for Operation Chastise. Built between 1901 and 1916 they remained at peace in the Upper Derwent Valley, their waters only disturbed by the occasional storm. But for six weeks in 1943 that peace was shattered as the sound of Merlin engines powering Lancaster bombers roared over the dams.

The area was chosen because of the similarity of the dams to the German targets. As the training intensified complaints were lodged by locals, serious vibration and loss of roof tiles were reported and the training was also blamed for a drop in milk and egg production. Many, completely unaware of the top secret mission that was about to unfold, even believed that the RAF were out joy riding at a time of extreme fuel shortage.

The importance of the Ruhr Dams was recognised by the Air Ministry well before World War II but as there was no known means of destroying them at that time, the idea was discarded. At the outbreak of war, Barnes Wallis, who held the post of Controller of Research and Development at Vickers Armstrong, had been thinking of ways of attacking targets including coal production and water storage systems. After studying the effect that German 500lb bombs were having during the blitz on London, Barnes Wallis was certain that a lightweight ‘bouncing bomb’ would be able to breach the German Dams and that the Lancaster would be ideal aircraft for transport and deployment.

As we now know, the raid was a success not only as a great moral booster when it was most needed, but also because some 16 factories were destroyed and 300 million tons of water, much of which was used for steel making, poured down the valley from the breached Mohne and Eder Dams.

On the minus side were the heavy losses of aircrew and aircaft. Of those who attacked the Mohne and Eder Dams only five crews returned. Over the years many armchair critics and so called historians have tried to make these gallant men and women hang their heads in shame and forget the war. During those dark years of World War Two Bomber Command lost some 58,000 aircrew and many raids were the equivalent of a major battle carried out from the first to the last day of the war. This coupled with the losses incurred by the ground crews made sure they really did pay for our freedom. We may never repay that debt, but we must see that it is not forgotten.

The Information for the above article was taken from the book ‘Lest We Forget’ by Vic Hallam which features an in-depth look at the role of the Dambusters in The Upper Derwent Valley.

Packed with over 80 photos, this high-quality 52 page paperback can be purchased direct from the Derwent Dam Museum Shop.

Click here to order