A SPECIAL THREE-PART HISTORY of the RAF's brilliant attack on the Ruhr Dams in May 1943, immortalised by the film The Dambusters. These articles have been written on the basis of interviews and released official British and German documents, arid particularly on the private papers and diaries of Barnes Wallis -- the British scientist who invented the unique "bouncing bomb" that smashed the dams.
Judge Gray on David Irving: "As a military historian, Irving has much to commend him. For his works of military history Irving has undertaken thorough and painstaking research into the archives. He has discovered and disclosed to historians and others many documents which, but for his efforts, might have remained unnoticed for years. It was plain from the way in which he conducted his case and dealt with a sustained and penetrating cross-examination that his knowledge of World War 2 is unparalleled. His mastery of the detail of the historical documents is remarkable. He is beyond question able and intelligent. He was invariably quick to spot the significance of documents which he had not previously seen. Moreover he writes his military history in a clear and vivid style. I accept the favourable assessment by Professor Watt and Sir John Keegan of the calibre of Irving's military history and reject as too sweeping the negative assessment of [Regius Professor of History Richard "Skunky"] Evans.
The Night the Dams Burst
by David Irving
First published in The Sunday Express, London, May 1973
Chapter Three: In which the Ruhr Dams are breached
"Good God," he thought. "I'm still alive!" Echoing round the valley he could hear the familiar sound of Lancaster bomber engines. He wondered what had happened to his own aircraft, M-Mother; not so many minutes ago, he had been crouching in its rear gun-turret, watching the sheet of water flash past sixty feet beneath him and the streams of tracer shells streak by on either side.
He felt hungry. Instinctively, he thrust his hand inside his blue polo neck sweater and felt for the bottle of Horlicks tablets. His mother, back in Goulburn, Australia, had heard that everybody in England was starving, and every month she sent her boy Tony a supply of the tablets to keep him going until he could return to the outback. His locker back at Scampton was full of them. Hell, he was glad of the impulse that had made him pick up a box of them on his way over to the briefing hall.
The briefing hall . . . in a rush it all came back to him. His Lancaster had been one of nineteen sent out by 617 Squadron with the task of destroying five vital barrage dams that supplied the Ruhr arms factories with all their water. M-Mother had been the second to attack the first target, the biggest dam of them all -- the Moehne dam. But they had been hit by flak and blown up, right over the dam, only about a hundred and fifty feet up. How had he survived?
With a dull sense of inevitable disaster, Tony Burcher realised that somewhere up the valley from where he lay, there was the dam, which even now his comrades-in-arms were trying to breach. In a few minutes he was going to get very wet indeed, unless he could run. But his back felt as if it were broken.
Man's instinct, if he has to die, is to die unseen. With enormous difficulty Burcher dragged his broken body across the field and hid in a culvert, where he lapsed back into unconsciousness. And just a mile away from him the 23,000 souls in the little valley town of Neheim-Huesten waited in their basements and air-raid shelters -- waited for sirens to sound the All Clear, unaware that tonight the RAF was attacking the dams above them.
THE BOMB DROPPED by M-Mother just before she blew up had bounded right over the dam's parapet and crashed onto the roof of the powerhouse below it. Smoke from the burning building mingled with the spray thrown up by the earlier detonations on the lake side of the dam, and obscured the whole target area. It was some minutes before Wing Commander Guy Gibson felt it proper to continue the attack.
A few minutes after half-past midnight, he ordered Flight Lieutenant Mick Martin to attack in P-Popsy, as Martin unofficially dubbed his aircraft. The night air was still heavy with spray, and this clung to the aircraft's windscreens; at first Martin's bomb-aimer could not see the target properly at all -- just the distant blurred glow of M-Mother's wreckage burning in the hills about two miles beyond the dam.
Even as the range closed to just over a mile, he could see only one of the dam's two distinctive valve-towers through the dense cloud of dust and smoke. He need to see both to get the range right.
Wing Commander Gibson realised that Martin's only hope of success was for the enemy gunners' attention to be distracted. He switched on all his own aircraft's lights and flew alongside P-Popsy, blazing away at the defences with the dazzling 100-per-cent night-tracer in his guns.
Martin's bomb-aimer got a sight on both valve-towers only at the very last moment. He pressed the bomb release, and the special bomb skipped across the lake towards the dam. The smoke did not seem to hamper the gunners at all, and Martin felt his aircraft shudder as a row of 20-millimetre cannon shells tore into his starboard outer fuel tank and ailerons. A streak of fast vaporizing petrol shot out behind the plane, but miraculously it didn't catch fire.
A huge waterspout shot up eight hundred feet into the air as Martin's bomb exploded, but the range must have been slightly midjudged as the base of the spout was not quite centred on the dam. The giant blast wave hurled two of the German gunners from their towers, and they lay senseless on the crown of the dam.
Martin radioed Guy Gibson, "Okay -- attack completed."
WHEN THE NEWS of this third unsuccessful attack reached the Bomber Group's headquarters at Grantham, a clammy air of extreme depression gripped the operations room. Barnes Wallis, the special bomb's inventor, buried his head still deeper in his hands so as to avoid the black looks of the two air-marshals pacing up and down.
But the foreman of the Moehne powerhouse, Meister Clement Koehler, could see something that none of the British airmen could yet see. Koehler had got out of the power-house just in time and was now sheltering beneath a larch-tree halfway up the valley. And what he could see was this -- fine cracks were forming, branching and spreading along the dam's parapet, and silver jets of water were issuing from them, glinting in the moonlight. He thought of his six nephews and cousins asleep in their house by the sawmill down the valley -- they never paid any attention to air-raid warnings; he thought of the gamekeeper, old Wildening, and the thirty old-age pensioners that he boarded; he thought of the villages of Himmelpforten -- "The Gates of Heaven" and Niederense and the town of Neheim-Huesten. Nothing could save them now.
BARELY TWO MINUTES after Flight Lieutenant Martin's bombing run, Gibson sent in "Dinghy" Young. "Be careful of the flak," Gibson warned him. "It's pretty hot."
Again Gibson deliberately drew the enemy gunners' fire; he flew his Lancaster up and down the valley on the dry side of the dam with his landing lights blazing, taunting the gunners and firing his guns at them.
Young got in his bomb run unhampered while the gunners' backs were turned. Gibson thought that the bomb must have been accurately placed, because the column of water was far taller than after Mick Martin's attack.
Hundreds of tons of water slopped over the crest of the dam, and Young shouted exuberantly, "I think I've done it, I've broken it!" But as the spray cleared, Gibson saw that the enormous wall of masonry was still intact -- but was his imagination playing tricks, or had it bulged slightly since the last two attacks?
With fresh confidence, he called up the fifth aircraft on the radiotelephone, Flight Lieutenant Dave Maltby, and ordered him in to attack.
Maitby's aircraft closed in fast. His bomb-aimer saw the dam very early, and got good sightings on both valve-towers when still two thousand feet away. In the centre of the dam, there seemed to be something happening already -- Maltby swung his aircraft to port a little. At the precise moment that the towers lined up on the bomb-aimers's two sighting wires he released the bomb.
It bounced three times, smacked into the dam's parapet and settled, still spinning furiously, down the dam's submerged face. At a depth of thirty feet, the charge went off -- four tons of the most powerful explosive the British had yet devised.
It looked perfect.
The dam was out of Gibson's sight for some minutes as he careered his Lancaster round the valley; his windscreen was still partly obscured by spray. But time was running out. Certain that the fifth attack too had failed, he called up the sixth, Dave Shannon, and told him to go in.
IN THE MEANTIME, between 12:50 and 12:55 a.m., the Lancasters had radioed to England the coded results of these last three attacks. "Dinghy" Young reported that his weapon had exploded in contact with the dam, Martin radioed that his had exploded fifty yards short, and Flight Lieutenant Maltby believed that his bomb had also failed to breach the Moehne Dam.
ONE MINUTE LATER, Guy Gibson's aircraft thundered over the dam again, and an aweful, spinechilling sight met his eyes. The centre of the dam had vanished -- it had rolled over, and a tidal wave had pushed aside the thousands of tons of masonry and was pounding down the valley. One German gunner on the rest of the dam, but only one, was still firing. Gibson swiftly called up Shannon and told him not to attack.
The Moehne dam had ceased to exist. From the side of the valley Clemens Koehler had watched, paralysed, as the masonry wall had solemnly bulged and then burst with terrible ferocity between the two valve-towers. A mighty wave of water had spilled out of the breach and plunged to the the valley floor, striking the ground with a colossal crash -- a sight without parallel in most men's lives. The remains of the power-house vanished in a fraction of a second, and then the tidal wave settled down, the angry vortices and whirlpools vanished, and a wall of water began tearing down the moonlit valley at twenty feet a second, ripping everything with it. Shortly afterwards, a cloud of spray and water-vapour rose, and mercifully obliterated the rest of this infernal spectacle from Koehler's sight.
At four minutes to one a.m., the 'phone rang for the signals officer at Grantham. He listened briefly, then shouted: "Gibson has signalled NIGGER, Sir -- they've done it."
Gibson had already diverted his remaining aircraft to the second main target, the Eder dam. This contained even more water than the Moehne, 202 million tons, making it the biggest artificial reservoir in Europe. This dam was 139 feet high, 1,310 feet long and built of masonry like the Moehne dam. As Gibson's aircraft reached it, small rivers of water were running out of the dam's overflow channels, so it could not have been fuller. The only anti-aircraft guns on this dam had been removed after the defeat at Stalingrad five months before. It was virtually undefended. Only sentries with rifles patrolled the road running along the dam's crest.
At 1:32 a.m., the telephone rang in the local Air Raid Defence controller's office. An officer in SS uniform answered: "Lieutenant Saahr speaking."
"This is the Warnzentrale! There are several enemy aircraft circling the Eder dam!"
An hour earlier, the local authorities in the valley below the Moehne Dam had refused to believe the similar warning telephoned to them by Clemens Koehler. But this SS officer did not hesitate. He shouted to the Warnzentrale to clear the line, and at once telephoned the SS unit closest to the Eder Dam, the third Company of 603 Regional Defence Batallion at Hemfurth. The duty corporal there confirmed that there were three enemy aircraft circling overhead.
"I'll call you back in a couple of minutes," said Saahr. "If an attack starts before then, sound the alarm!"
Then Saahr telephoned through to SS Colonel Burk, the commanding officer of the SS Flak Training Regiment nearby, and warned him that a flood disaster was imminent. Within minutes, Colonel Burk had told one hundred men and lorries to stand by.
Almost at once, Lieutenant Saahr telephoned him again, and the news was even more alarming: "The local battalion says the planes are releasing flares -- and they have switched on searchlights!"
The roar of lorry engines and motorcycles on the grobund mingled with the noise of aircraft engines in the air, as the Germans prepared for the biggest flood-disaster operation of the war.
IT HAD TAKEN Guy Gibson some time to find the Eder lake: there was mist in the valleys, and this made each of them look not unlike a reservoir from the air. When he found the right valley he flicked on his microphone switch and called up the other aircraft: "Can you see the target?"
Dave Shannon's voice came faintly into his earphones: "I can't see anything -- I can't find the dam."
Gibson fired a red Verey light over the dam, and Shannon's voice came immediately:
"Okay, I'm coming up."
Shannon was a perfectionist. At 1:39 a.m., he attempted his first bombing approach but his bomb-aimer was not satisfied and they circled back to the other end of the lake. He tried again, but again the bomb run was not quite right. On the third run-up, the bomb-aimer released the special bomb: it bounced twice, and scored a direct hit on the dam's narrow parapet. Sixty seconds ticked past as the bomb sank, then a mighty explosion rent the air and a pillar of water shot up hundreds of feet into the air, followed by a blinding blue flash as the blast-waves shortcircuited the 60,000-volt power-lines leading across the valley from the generator house.
But the dam was still standing.
The generator-house foreman, Meister Karl Albrecht, later described: "At first we had assumed that the bombers were only using the lake as an assembly point, as they had done so often before. The first bomb fell at about half-past one, but it did not damage the wall much, though it did cause damage to the Power House No.1. I went to the No.2 Power House, on the right-hand side of the valley by the dam. There were two brilliant flares burning on the little island between the two plants, presumably as an aiming guide for the bombers.
"The aircraft continued to circle ..."
Gibson called up the second of the three Lancasters: "Hello Z-Zebra -- you can go in now."
It was 1:50 a.m.. Squadron-Leader Henry Maudslay dived his Lancaster steeply down over the castle which marked the beginning of the bombing run at the far end of the lake, and closed in towards the dam.
During their bombing trials a few days before, this quiet, athletic English officer had totalled one of these irreplaceable Lancasters when he had dropped the special bomb from so low that the water had damaged the fuselage. There appeared to be no defences on the Eder dam at all, but luck seemed to be against him: as Z-Zebra thundered across the moonlit lake, Gibson and his other pilots could see that besides the dambusting bomb, there was some other large object dangling from beneath the plane -- it must have been damaged by the enemy defences on the flight out.
Something else must have been wrong, because Maudslay's Lancaster released the spinning bomb far too late from the callipers. The bomb volleyed into the Eder Dam's parapet at 250 miles an hour and blew up instantaneously, right beneath the bomber that had just dropped it.
A few of the dam's huge masonry slabs were blown off the parapet like confetti, and a yellow glare lit the whole valley as bright as day for several seconds. Out of the darkness, somebody's voice on the radiotelephone said quietly what everybody was thinking, "He blew himself up."
Guy Gibson called up the aircraft. There was no reply. He tried again: "Z-Zebra, Z-Zebra, are you okay?"
This time, there was a faint, tired reply. "I think so," it said. "Stand by."
But the voice was very weak. Maudslay was doomed. His radio operator performed one more duty. At three minutes before two a.m. he sent back to England a coded wireless signal signifying: "Special weapon released, overshot dam, no apparent breach..." But that was the last that was ever heard of this aircraft or its crew.
THIS LEFT ONLY one aircraft ready to attack. A third wave of 617 Squadron's aircraft was now invading German territory, as an airborne reserve to fill in the gaps. But by 2 a.m. there were more gaps than aircraft in this reserve: seven minutes earlier, S-Sugar had exploded in mid-air over Tilburg in Holland -- the other aircraft could not see why, but German records suggest that it was flying so low that it fouled electric power lines. Its captain, Canadian Pilot Officer L.J. Burpee had just got married to an English girl, and they had been hunting for a house near Scampton. Now she was already a widow.
In any case, there was already a glow in the East where the dawn was coming up. The last aircraft in Gibson's immediate force, piloted by an Australian, Les Knight, swept in towards the dam, made one dummy run, and then attacked, using the flares that had been dropped beyond the dam as a rough guide. Guy Gibson, flying alongside Knight and just above him, saw the bomb bounce three times, roll up to the dam wall, sink and detonate perfectly, throwing up an eight-hundred-foot water-spout.
A huge hole suddenly appeared about thirty feet below the dam's parapet, as though a giant fist had punched through the masonry. Barnes Wallis's special four-ton bomb had started a collapse that would push aside twenty-four thousand tons of masonry.
Five minutes later, the telephone rang in SS-Colonel Burk's office, waking him out of a fitful sleep. "This is Lieutenant Saahr again, Herr Colonel! Arolson Post Office has just phoned through a report from the 603 Regional Defence Batallion. The dam has been destroyed. I have tried to contact them myself, but all the lines are dead."
The villagers closest to the stricken dam needed no telephone to know what had happened. A motorcyclist rode through the main street of Affoldern, screaming at the top of his voice, "The dam's been hit -- the water's coming. Everybody out of the cellars!" Within seconds, the streets were full of scores of people, clutching children and suitcases and scrambling for the higher ground. There was a noise like a hundred express trains coming from up the valley -- 8,500 tons of water a second were cascading out of the dam, and the breach was getting wider every moment.
As the people reached the higher ground, they turned round and looked at Affoldern -- within minutes it had vanished into the flood. The steel suspension bridge at Hemfurth collapsed with an enormous rumble into the torrent.
The villagers could hear the bellowing of cattle chained and trapped in their stalls, and the screams of those people who had not been able to escape in time.
Colonel Burk did not underestimate the size of the catastrophe. Within minutes, he had telephoned emergency flood warnings to the major city of Kassel, forty miles away, and to the Luftwaffe's big airfield at Fritzlar. By 2:30 a.m., the Army Command at Kassel had alerted an engineer battalion, and within half-an-hour troops were being rushed by the lorry load to the disaster area.
At 4:15 a.m., a Major Emergency was proclaimed. The Royal Air Force had succeeded in doing what the Germans had believed to be impossible, and now the Germans were paying the price.
It was at about this time, four in the morning, that "Bomber" Harris, listening to the final signals filtering in to No.5 Bomber Group headquarters at Grantham, finally said: "Well, that's all we can do here. Let's go over to Scampton and meet them as they come back."
His expression as he turned to the bomb's inventor was softer than it had been earlier that night. "Can I give you a lift, Mr Wallis?" he asked.
Wallis accepted gratefully, because Harris's black limousine was one of the very few yet fitted with a heater -- and the early hours were chilly.
© David Irving 1973