The Sunday Magazine

Canadian airmen were key to the WWII Dam Busters

Historian Ted Barris recounts the little-known story of the Canadian airmen who took part in the secret air raid against hydroelectric dams on Germany's Ruhr River. It's a tale of bravery and ingenuity, which had a defining impact on the outcome of the war. Ted Barris’s latest book is called Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid Against Nazi Germany.
There were 133 airmen in 617 Squadron, which completed the Dam Busters mission on May 16th, 1943. About a quarter of them were Canadian, many of whom lost their lives. (Bomber Command Museum of Canada/Gordon Robertson)

The 1943 Dam Busters mission that destroyed three hydroelectric dams on the Ruhr River in Germany is one of the best-known missions of the Second World War. 

A Brit hatched the plan, Britain's Royal Air Force led and executed the endeavour, and the Associated British Picture Corporation popularized the story in the 1955 film The Dam Busters.

But what many people don't know is that about a quarter of the 133 airmen involved were Canadian.

Author, journalist and military historian Ted Barris has written about their critical contribution in his new book, Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid Against Nazi Germany.

A 'bouncing bomb'

The highly-secretive mission was dubbed Operation Chastise. After it succeeded, the headline in the Illustrated London News read, "A Titanic blow at Germany; RAF smash Europe's mightiest dams."

Each of 13 Lancaster bombers had seven airmen aboard, along with a 4,500-kilogram bomb. They had to fly at an unusually low level – about 18 meters or about six storeys – for three-and-a-half hours across the North Sea, and back.

One of the key components of the mission was the "bouncing bomb."

The "bouncing bomb" was key to the success of the Dam Busters: it weighed more than 4,000 kg and rotated backwards as it was dropped from Lancaster bombers at an extremely low altitude, less than 20 meters. (Graphic by Rikyu Watanabee, courtesy of Bomber Command Museum of Canada)

"Barnes Wallis, who's the designer of the bouncing bomb, realizes that concrete is vulnerable. In the 1930s, he read some engineering analysis of a problem they were having with pylons at Waterloo Bridge in London, a big tourist attraction today. It was being strengthened and widened, and as they drove the concrete poles into the River Thames bed, the vibration back up the concrete poles shattered them," said Barris.

"And so Barnes Wallis senses, 'what I need is an earthquake bomb,' not a bomb that will explode the dams but shake them down."

He devised a bomb that would spin at a high rate of speed and bounce across the water before hitting the dam.

Successful breach of the Mohne, the first of three dams destroyed in WWII by the Dam Busters in Germany's Ruhr River valley. (Bomber Command Museum of Canada)

At first, Wallis was unable to convince the government his plan would work.

"A Canadian opened the door for Barnes Wallis," explained Barris. "Everybody thought this guy was nuts. Arthur Harris, who was head of Bomber Command said, 'This is tripe! I'm not going to risk the lives of seven men in a Lancaster crew on this nonsense!' But what happened was Wallis, who was essentially answering to the minister of aircraft production, a man we all know as Lord Beaverbrook, Max Aitken, was a friend of Winston Churchill's."

Wallis and Lord Beaverbrook did an end run around the RAF to appeal to the British Prime Minister, who gave the Dam Busters scheme his blessing.

Dr. Barnes Wallis proposed the Dam Busters mission as a way to cripple industrial infrastructure that was important to the Nazis. He also invented the ideal weapon, the "bouncing bomb." (Bomber Command Museum of Canada)
Barnes Wallis spoke to a CBC Television program called Close Up in 1963. 2:28

Considered a suicide mission

The mission was highly secretive. The airmen of 617 Squadron trained for almost two months without any idea what their target was until the night they set out for the Ruhr River, under a full moon.

Operation Chastise was so challenging that most of the Lancasters had to make several "dummy runs," approaching the target then circling away, before achieving the precise conditions to drop their bombs.

Many considered this a suicide mission, and for good reason. Eight of the planes and 53 of the airmen were killed in action, including 14 Canadians.

The last surviving Dam Buster is Fred Sutherland of Rocky Mountain House, Alta.

The last surviving Dam Buster is Fred Sutherland of Rocky Mountain House, Alta., who was 20 years old at the time of the mission. The airmen of 617 Squadron were given details just a few hours before they departed on what was called "Operation Chastise." (Elinor Florence)

"It was his job, in the front gun turret, to let his pilot know when they were approaching low-strung, high-tension wires – because that knocked down two Lancasters without expectation. He was scared spitless," said Barris.

When the war ended, four Lancaster bombers were saved for use in the British film, Barris said. "Then most of the planes were cut into pieces, sold to an aluminum company and melted down as scrap metal."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 

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