The early days
The story of 617 Squadron cannot begin without a mention of Barnes Wallis, who worked for Vickers Aircraft at Weybridge in Surrey. He had an idea that if the oil, electric and water supplies to the munitions factories in Germany could be destroyed the war would be cut short. One of the main sources of water used in the manufacture of arms was held in the upper part of the Ruhr Valley. This water was fed from Möhne, Sorpe, Eder, Lister and Ennepe Dams to the towns of Dortmund, Hagen, Wuppertal, Gladbach and the famous Krupp works at Essen. All of these dams were surrounded by high ground and would therefore be difficult to attack with any great accuracy. To add to his many problems there were no bombs available to destroy these very large targets. After many weeks’ research he came up with the idea of a bomb which bounced across the surface of the water. The principle was accepted by the Air Ministry and the go-ahead given by Bomber Command for the formation of a special squadron to carry out the attack.
A squadron is formed
It was decided that 5 Group, under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal The Hon. Sir Ralph Cochrane, CBE, KCB, AFC, would be responsible for setting up the entire operation. Cochrane decided he would require someone with very good leadership and experience in bomber operations to form the squadron and lead the raid. He chose Wing Commander G. P. (Guy) Gibson, DSO (Bar), DFC (Bar), who had just completed 99 operations. He was at this time flying with 106 Squadron at RAF Syerston. He was called to Cochrane’s office in 5 Group headquarters at St. Vincent’s on the outskirts of Grantham. With only very little information given to him he accepted the challenge.
RAF Scampton was the airfield chosen for the squadron. They were called X Squadron in the early days as no number was allocated at that time. It was some time later they were given the number 617.
The first thing Gibson had to do was to select his crews. He was given free choice of any aircrew from within 5 Group.
Needless to say he chose very wisely and picked the crews, which, in his opinion, were most suited to the operation. A total of 21 crews were formed but only 19 aircraft went on the actual raid. Aircraft and crew began to arrive with their ground crews and back-up equipment. The aircraft were specially modified Lancasters. To save weight the mid upper turret was removed, along with the bomb doors. The bomb weighed 5 tons and was similar in shape to a 40 gallon barrel, but much larger. To stop the bomb sinking immediately it hit the water, it was spun backwards in vee type supports, suspended from the underside of the aircraft. Wallis found out during trials that the best height to drop the bomb was 60 feet above the water, with the bomb rotating at 500 r.p.m. The standard Lancaster altimeter would be unsuitable for such a difficult operation, so the aircraft were fitted with two Aldis lamps under the fuselage. The lamps shone down on the water and when the circles formed a figure of eight, the aircraft was at the correct height.
During April and the early part of May the crews trained for the raid. The water levels in the dams would be at their highest during the latter part of May. It was decided that the raid would take place on the 16/17 May.
The aircraft took off in three waves, the first and third waves taking the southern route, with the second wave taking the northern route. The crews, flying Lancasters with the code AJ, had one or two problems to and from the targets. The raid was a great success, however, and a large amount of damage was done: the most serious damage being the breaching of the Möhne Dam. Of the 19 aircraft that took off for the raid, 2 returned before reaching the target, due to damage, and 8 aircraft failed to return at all. In all 53 aircrew died in the raid and 3 were taken prisoners of war. It was a sad day when the full details of the losses were revealed, and Barnes Wallis was heartbroken at the loss of so many young aircrew. For his contribution, Guy Gibson was awarded the V.C. Many of the remaining aircrew were awarded medals for their efforts during the attack.
After the dams
Following the loss of so many aircrew and aircraft it took some weeks to build the squadron back up to its full operating strength.
During this build-up period, Bomber Command decided to keep 617 Squadron as a special operating squadron. In late August 1943 they moved to RAF Coningsby. This was to allow the old grass runways at Scampton to be replaced by concrete runways. At this time the squadron was led by Wing Commander G. W. Holden who took over from Gibson soon after the dams raid. He led an attack on the Dortmund Ems Canal during the night of 16th September 1943. Due to bad weather the squadron lost over 60% of their aircraft along with the aircrews. Commander Holden was also lost, with most of Guy Gibson’s dams raid crew. Squadron Leader H. B. “Mick” Martin took over as temporary CO until a new one could be found. A young Group Captain by the name of Leonard Cheshire was looking for an operational squadron, but to take the job he had to agree to drop down a rank to Wing Commander.
The final move
Leonard Cheshire had completed a full tour of operations on Halifax bombers at Marston Moor. Soon after his arrival at 617 Squadron he was sent to RAF Bottesford to be checked out on the Lancaster bomber. It was not long after Cheshire took over that it was decided by 5 Group headquarters to move the squadron yet again, this time to a much smaller airfield four miles north of Coningsby at RAF Woodhall Spa. The squadron was slowly building up its crews and aircraft to operating strength for a second time. They were becoming known in 5 Group as the “Suicide Squadron”.
During this time the aircraft had been fitted with a new type of bomb sight called the Stabilising Automatic Bomb Sight. This required a great deal of skill to operate. The aircraft now carried new code letters KC, on their Lancaster. The surviving aircraft from the dams raid still carried their AJ code.
Cheshire learned a great deal about low flying from Mick Martin and from this developed a new marking technique. In the early raids of 1944 Cheshire used his Lancaster, but decided he would like to have a smaller, lighter and faster aircraft. After some talks with 5 Group headquarters he was given a Mosquito from the night fighter base at RAF Colby Grange. This proved so successful that he acquired several more. This enabled the squadron to mark its own targets and, in the event of a problem, have back-up support.
Many raids were carried out during the period January 1944 to April 1944. The squadron began training in May for the D Day Spoof Raid, known as Operation Taxable. This operation was the dropping of “Window” (long thin strips of silver paper, which, when picked up by radar, looked like a large fleet of ships) at regular intervals. This was to give the impression to the German land forces that a large seaborne attack was taking place, when in fact the actual attack was on the Normandy beaches.
Two nights later saw the squadron again in operation, this time on the Saumur Tunnel. The Germans were moving large quantities of ground troops by rail to the Normandy beaches. Most of this rail traffic went through a tunnel about one mile west of the town of Saumur. This raid was very successful in two ways – firstly the tunnel was destroyed, and secondly it used the Tallboy bomb for the first time. The Tallboys were the brain-child of Barnes Wallis and had a total weight of 12,000 lbs. The special design of the nose gave them a great deal of penetration when dropped from 16-20,000 feet. They became known as the Earthquake Bomb, due to the large amount of damage they caused.
Soon afterwards, and no doubt as a result of the Saumur Tunnel damage, the squadron were called upon to attack E-Boat pens in Le Havre and Boulogne, with their new Tallboys. During the rest of June and July the Squadron attacked V2 (A4) sites at Watten and Wizerns. A V1 site at St. Pol called Siracourt was successfully attacked on the 4th July. The squadron attacked the only V3 site in Europe at Mimoyecques.
A change takes place
In mid July Cheshire was taken off operations along with the Flight Commanders. A new CO arrived in the person of Wing Commander P. B. Tait, known to his friends as “Willie”. He appointed new flight commanders and carried on with the well-proven methods. He carried on with raids on the V1 and V2 sites. During August the squadron went over to attacking the U-boat pens in Brest, La Pallice and Ijmuiden.
The final change
In late December 1944 Willie Tait, who was sometimes now called “Tirpitz Tait”, was taken off operations and a new CO took office. He was a Canadian called Johnny Fauquier and had a rank of Group Captain. He led raids on shipping and several viaducts in the following months.
The third weapon designed by Barnes Wallis, the 22,000 lb. Grand Slam, was introduced in March of 1945. 617 Squadron received special Lancasters with the code letters YZ and a new daylight camouflage. These special Lancasters had many modifications to enable them to carry this, the largest bomb carried by any air force in World War II. The bomb doors were removed, together with the turrets, and the aircraft were fitted with special heavy-duty undercarriages. The first Grand Slam was dropped on the Bielefeld Viaduct on 14th March 1945.
The final raid of the war was on Berchtesgaden. This was known to be the holiday home of Hitler, and it was thought that he was there at the time of the raid.
So ended the operations of 617 Squadron during World War II. Guy Gibson left the squadron and went on a tour of America. On his return he found himself sitting behind a desk. After many requests, he was posted to 54 base RAF Coningsby, and during September 1944 went on a raid to Rheydt, as the master bomber. After giving his final instructions over the target, nothing was ever heard from him again. His Mosquito, from 627 Squadron, crashed on the way home in Holland. His navigator, Squadron Leader Jim Warwick, DFC, was also killed, and they are buried side by side in the cemetery at Steenberg in Holland.
During the twenty-four months the squadron operated they took part in over 100 bombing operations and lost 204 aircrew.
They still carry with pride, as they did during the war, their famous name: “THE DAMBUSTERS”.
A memorial in the Royal Square at Woodhall Spa serves as a permanent reminder of those who gave their lives for our freedom.
Researched and written by JIM SHORTLAND and displayed in 2002.