Back in 1943 at the height of the 2nd World War a daring plan was hatched by the chief
designer at Vickers-Armstrong's Aviation Section to attack Germany’s industrial heartland. That man was Dr Barnes
Wallis and his plan was simple in conception – to destroy the main dams that provided hydro-electric power and
water for steel production in Germany’s armaments factories – but extremely challenging to execute. The dams were
massive constructions surrounded by difficult terrain high in the German mountains. Dropping torpedoes into the
waters was out of the question as the Germans had installed torpedo nets to prevent such an attack. The solution,
the infamous “bouncing bomb”, presented Dr Wallis with numerous challenges, but perhaps his greatest was getting
bomber command to take him seriously. Only by conducting numerous trials and presenting films of the tests did he
get approval to develop the weapon – and then there was the not insignificant challenge of getting it delivered to
its targets. In order to be successful, the bomb had to be dropped directly in line with the centre of the dam at
a speed of 240mph and an altitude of just 60ft. The bomb, weighing 9,250lbs, had to be spinning in a reverse
direction at 500rpm requiring modifications to the only aircraft capable of carrying it – the AVRO Lancaster.
The task of delivering the bomb under such circumstances required the establishment of a new specialised squadron.
That task fell to wing commander Guy Gibson an already very experienced and decorated pilot. He was just 24 years
old and had already been awarded a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross). He
had just 8 weeks to form the new squadron, including not just selecting the 20 crews required to fly the mission
but also all the ground crew required to support the squadron. The mission had to take place in mid-May when the
waters in the dams would be at their highest, essential if the bombs were to succeed in breaching them. At that
stage not even Guy himself knew of the target as security was paramount to the success of the operation.
The new squadron formed at Scampton in Lincolnshire and the officers had their mess at Woodhall Spa. They trained all over the UK with each crew flying around 1,000 hours in training. None of the crews knew what they were training for, only that it was a very important mission and required low flying at night over water. They assumed the target was the Tirpitz, a very heavily armed German battleship, the idea of an attack in the dams not even being considered, despite some of their training flights including a flight over the Derwent Dam in the peak district.
Now I’m not a history buff by any means, but when someone on the Adventure Bike Rider internet forum suggested a tour to mark the anniversary of the raid, I jumped at the chance to join them. So I planned a route to the meeting point at a campsite in Germany that would start with some of the key locations in the UK, starting with the Derwent dam. So on an overcast Wednesday morning I rode over Snake’s Pass up to the Derwent Valley and walked up the trail to the dam.
This dam was chosen as it has 2 main towers like the primary target, the Möhne dam, which could be used for bomb-aiming practice. Inside one of the towers is a simple memorial to the squadron to mark the dams involvement in the raid.
From here I rode over the remainder of the pass and across to the small village of Scampton, home to RAF Scampton where 617 squadron was created and flew from on the night of 16th May 1943. The village pub pays tribute to the village’s famous sons…
However, as I was riding I didn’t stop for a pint and continued on past the entrance to the airbase and on to Woodhall Spa. In the centre of the town where the officers had their mess is the official memorial to the squadron. It is on the site of the Woodhall Spa Royal Hotel and Winter Gardens which was destroyed by the Germans in August 1943 (after the Dambuster’s raid) and is in the shape of a breached dam. It lists the names of the members of the squadron and their major missions – including of course the Dams raid.
I camped at the recently reopened Jubilee Gardens campsite right in the heart of town and then went for a walk. Almost directly opposite the entrance to the campsite is the Potwood Hotel, an imposing country house that during the war served as the officer’s mess for 617 squadron. With the weather now warm and my riding done for the day it seemed like a good idea to sample the bar and a pint of a very appropriate ale…
Thwaites’ Lancaster Bomber Ale… sampled in the gardens where 68 years previously none other than
Guy Gibson himself would have been drinking following the raid.
Dinner that evening was supposed to be a campsite meal but I’d inadvertently forgotten to bring an essential ingredient and the shops were shut, so I retired to the very nice Thai restaurant to enjoy a delightful meal of soft-shell crab followed by fried chicken with cashew nuts and chilli. Washed down with a couple of singha beers it was probably not the sort of meal served in the officer’s mess!
Thursday morning dawned bright and sunny and I woke early and was on the road south before 8am. I decided to take a ride over to the Norfolk Broads on the way down to the evening ferry at Dover. This had nothing to do with the raid, though. The Adventure Bike Rider forum also has another interesting excuse for riding, called the Nature Rally. This consists of 20 nature park waypoints scattered all over mainland UK with the idea being to ride to each and take a picture of your bike at the waypoint, which “awards” for riders bagging 10, 15 or all 20 points. As one was in Norfolk and I was unlikely to be riding there again this year, it seemed like a good excuse to extend my day’s riding. It certainly made the ride more interesting than the more direct A1, M11, M25, M20 alternative!
By the time I arrived at Dover the weather had taken a turn for the worst and the wind was howling at gale force. This delayed the ferries as they were only allowing one at a time to enter or leave the harbour, so despite being bumped onto an earlier ferry it left later than my original departure time. It was also the first time I’d been on a ferry that had to be towed away from the berth by a tug due to the heavy seas.. which didn’t bode well for a smooth crossing. I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually fairly uneventful and I enjoyed the chance to read more of my book – Dambusters: A Landmark Oral History – which recounts the events leading up to and beyond the raid as told by the people involved, including not only the squadron but also survivors who witnessed the terrible devastation caused.
Disembarking the ferry into a torrential storm for the short ride to my hotel at Dunkirk meant that when I finally arrived my gear was saturated. The F1 chain offers cheap rooms but leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to heating and drying out wet motorcycle clothing…
Friday morning didn’t start much better as it was still raining as I loaded up the bike and set off on the long motorway ride into Germany. Navigating by GPS is usually simple, but on this trip I discovered a problem. When it comes to negotiating motorways around major cities, where they resemble spaghetti junction, seems to confuse it. It didn’t seem able to tell which of the various parallel roads I was on, and twice caught me out sending me on an unplanned detour. These added some 40 miles to my journey, all of which were in pouring rain. Nice.
Before setting off I’d spent some time researching the route to the campsite where I’d meet the rest of the riders, and I’d found a biker café just half an hour away. This seemed like a good place to head for and to rest up before the last leg of the journey. As I arrived and went inside the Café Hubraum the rain stopped. Typical.
A couple of cups of good coffee were called for whilst I studied the menu. Only to be told the kitchen was closed. But all was not lost as they could serve me the local delicacy, Currywurst. Or as it was described to me “a curry sausage with chips”. Sounded delicious…
But in reality was just as it looks. An acquired taste, no doubt!
With food, of sorts, in my belly and feeling refreshed I rode the remaining half hour under clearing skies to the campsite chosen by the tour organiser, Nick. It was on the hillside above the Bever dam, one that it is believed was mistaken for the Ennerpe Dam and hit but not breached during the raid. On arriving I met my fellow travellers and setup camp before riding into town for supplies (beer) and sending a relaxing evening chatting.
The following morning we packed up and then Nick led us on a ride around the surrounding area. I rode tail-gunner at the back of the group whilst we adopted the 2nd-man drop off system to enable us to stay together, which gave me plenty of time to take in the wonderful scenery. This area of Germany was chosen by the Kaiser to produce electricity around the turn of the 20th century and there are some 80 dams scattered amongst the hills. The natural terrain forms biking paradise as the roads twist and turn up and down the hillsides and across the plateaus that crop up surprisingly affording long-range views across the green landscape.
Despite all of us belonging to the Adventure Bike Riders forum, not all the bikes were what would traditionally be called adventure bikes. Barry was riding his Triumph Rocket III cruiser, a huge bike with an equally huge 2.3litre engine and the wheelbase of a small bus. It looked a real handful on some of the mountain hairpins, but he rode it very well and was still smiling at each of the frequent stops to admire the views. The main dams were on the plan for Sunday, with today’s ride being more concerned with exploring the area and some of the other dams, including the Lister dam, which was on the secondary target list but escaped attack.
Whilst hanging around here I contacted Dustin, who is stationed with the American Air Force a few hours south of where we were. We arranged to meet at a hilltop café and I separated from the group to go and meet him. When the rest of the group arrived we set off together towards our campsite, the group now including a Fireblade making the mix even more eclectic. When we arrived at the campsite in bright sunshine Nick went to sort out the arrangements whilst we stood about chatting, and a group of 6 identical Harley Davidsons rolled past disturbing the peace. Nick returned with good and bad news. The good news was we were booked in, the bad news was we’d be sharing the campsite with a group of Harley riders. We laughed and said we knew, we’d just seen them. Only as we rode into the campsite we were greeted by a somewhat larger group – around 300 or so!
The odd thing was that they all looked exactly the same. It was apparently a meeting of the Harley “Fat Bob” (I kid you not) owner’s club of Germany. The site was full of Germans sporting Harley Davidson branded clothing, leather waistcoats and I even saw a guy with a peaked leather cap and matching ‘tashe. Very Village People!
They were very quiet, though, and even the band they warned us about didn’t disturb our campfire conversations. I even got chance to put my collapsible “fire pit” to the test…
Sunday dawned colder and overcast as we woke early and started to break camp. Dustin and I were heading off on our own as he had promised me a Japanese curry at his home and I was keen to meet his wife and family. We bade farewell to our fellow riders and headed off to the Eder dam, at the opposite end of the lake to the campsite. This was the 2nd of the dams attacked and breached during the raid and the one that posed the greatest challenge in terms of terrain. Situated in an area surrounded by high hills the Germans felt it was impenetrable and hadn’t bothered establishing any additional protection. This allowed the attacking aircraft the chance to perfect their approach before releasing the bombs, but each attempt required significant skill and bravery. The approach involved lining up on a monastery on a hilltop at around 1,500ft then dropping down to the required 60ft skimming across the top of the water at 240mph before releasing the bomb at exactly the right point then accelerating and banking hard right to avoid the rockface above the valley on the far side of the dam. Just riding the road round the dam as the hills loomed high above us sent shivers down my back as I thought about the huge Lancasters lumbering through these manoeuvres carrying their heavy bomb load as their crews fought to get lined up for the attack.
Three aircraft attacked the dam during the raid, the first hit the target but had no effect. The 2nd bomb overshot the dam wall and damaged the plane when it exploded on the other side, the crippled plane eventually being shot down over Germany on the way home. The 3rd plane scored a direct hit and caused a huge breach in the dam, sending the contents of the massive lake hurtling down the valley destroying everything in its path.
From here we rode north to the Möhne dam. This was the first primary target attacked during the raid and is simply enormous. The reservoir formed by its huge walls is simply massive and capable of holding 135 million cubic metres of water. I had been expecting something similar to the Derwent dam, given that’s use during training for the raid, but the Möhne is simply in a different league.
A week before the raid the Germans had redeployed some of the anti-aircraft guns that had been on the surrounding hillsides in the mistaken belief that the dam was not under real threat. Leaving just 2 batteries of guns protecting the dam from the towers, this still didn’t make it a soft target. The first aircraft to attack was that of Gibson himself and during his attack the German defences were caught off-guard. His bomb exploded close to the wall but didn’t cause any real damage. However by the time the 2nd plane lined up to attack the Germans were now prepared and as the attacking Lancaster was using 2 bright searchlights mounted underneath to help judge the altitude (when the beams met they were flying at exactly 60ft) it was an easier target. It had also been hit on the outbound journey and when its bomb bounced over the dam, destroying the power station below, it was shot down and crashed with loss of all crew on the surrounding hills. The bravery of the men attacking now really shone through as Gibson flew alongside the 3rd attacking plane to draw away the enemy fire whilst his gunners did their best to put them out of action. This bomb also missed the target. With both Gibson and Martin (pilot of the 3rd plane) providing support the 4th plane was more successful, its bomb exploding close to the dam and creating a small breach. The 5th plane finally causing a massive breach and flooding the entire valley, causing extensive damage and wiping away houses from the many villages in its path.
We walked across the dam and reflected on the heroism involved in the operation, and the terrible loss of life that resulted from it – including over 1,000 prisoners of war, mostly women working in the area and housed in barracks in the path of the waters.
With time pressing on we left the final dam attacked during the raid – the Sorpe, a huge earthen dam, which proved too difficult to breach – for another trip and headed down the autobahn towards the Mosel valley. We stopped for a bite to eat in the picturesque town of Cohcem, where I discovered my camera had developed a fault and the shutter wouldn’t open. That was a real shame as the town was beautiful, with a large imposing castle sat on a hillside overlooking the valley in which the pastel-coloured houses stood. In the bright sunshine that caused us to shed as many layers as possible we sat outside watching the thronging hordes of tourists wander by while we enjoyed a plate of pork with sauerkraut and creamy mashed potatoes. Careful not to overeat with the promise of my first Japanese curry later, it wasn’t long before we were riding out of town and along the side of the Mosel passed endless rows of vines covering the surrounding hillside. This was my first visit to this part of Germany and I am very keen to return as it is stunningly beautiful. With parking for motorhomes all along the river, perhaps this could be on the agenda for a trip in Polly soon!
Dustin and his wife Kendall and sons Colton and Miles made me feel very welcome and we ate a delicious meal whilst chatting about their latest news. Dustin had heard on Saturday morning that his next posting would be to Okinawa, Japan for 4 years from December. He has previously been stationed in Tokyo and speak Japanese so was naturally very excited, and the thought of living near the ocean seemed to appeal to the rest of the family as well.
A great night’s sleep in a proper bed (complete with Disney’s Cars bedding!) meant that I woke fresh and early for the ride back up to Calais. Selecting a route that would keep me off the autobahns for as long as possible I spent the first 4 hours of a long day winding my way over hills through Germany and Luxembourg into Belgium, the warm sunshine and rolling curves once again reminding me how good riding a bike is. Even the 4-hour slog up the motorways that followed failed to affect my mood and I arrived at the F1 at Coquelles feeling very good indeed. A short trip to the supermarket and I was set for a traditional meal in the room, cheese and pate washed down with a half bottle of red wine!
After a disturbed night’s sleep courtesy of some noisy residents down the corridor I woke to dull grey skies and a light drizzle, loaded up and rode to the ferry terminal. As usual I was put on an earlier ferry and was soon up in the food court tucking in to a huge English breakfast before settling down to read my book. Back in Blightly I took a different route home, passing via Seaford on the South Coast to collect another “Nature Rally waypoint”, finally arriving home just before 6pm after another long and enjoyable day in the saddle.
My journey home was much less eventful than the crews of 617 squadron. Of the 19 crews that left Scampton on the night of 16th May, 8 didn’t return, with the loss of 53 lives (there were 7 crewmen for each Lancaster, 3 men managed to bail out and were captured). Their heroism had a significant effect on morale during the war in addition to inflicting a severe blow to German wartime production and German morale. It left us with an enduring story of great ingenuity and bravery that is only enhanced by a visit to the area to see just how challenging the raid must have been. But attacking the dams was not without some damaging consequences, particularly the loss of so many civilian and prisoners of war. So much so that in 1977, Article 56 of the Protocol I amendment to the Geneva Conventions, outlawed attacks on dams "if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces from the works or installations and consequent severe losses among the civilian population”.