Thursday, 17 May 2018

75 Years ago (cont) ...

17 May 1943

00.15 Astell's plane collided with high tension cables north of the Ruhr. There were no survivors.

00.36 The first plane returned to RAF Scampton. Munro was forced abort as his Lancaster was badly damaged when it was hit by flak.

Rice arrived a short while later. Flying low, his aircraft hit the surface of the sea. The Upkeep mine was ripped free, the back flooded with water, and the men were lucky to be alive.

Of the first wave of planes to take off, none reached their target.

00.28 Gibson ran the first attack on the Möhne. He approached the water so low his crew warned he was about to hit the trees. He turned on his spotlights so his navigator could tell him when he was flying at exactly 60ft and, flying at 230mph and the bomb was released. Flying the 30 tonne plane fast and low whilst illuminated to become the target for every gun in sight, Gibson admitted he was incredibly frightened as he kept the plane steady.

The mine bounced three times and sank. A great spout of water surged up and over the dam wall, and the men thought it had collapsed. But as it subsided they realised that it had sunk short.

The water settled and Hopgood was called in to attack.

Now the German gunners knew what to expect and he was hit. He dropped the bomb too late and it bounced over the dam, destroying the power house as it exploded at the foot of the dam wall.

Other pilots watched on as the plane “crashed into flames”. The men bailed out, but only the rear gunner and bomber aimer were successful, the other crew members perished.

00.38 Martin flew round and dropped his bomb as Gibson flew on his wing to distract the gunners. The bomb veered to the left and exploded near the bank of the reservoir twenty yards from the dam.

Young was called up and made the perfect approach and drop, shielded by Martin, and his bomb hit the centre of the dam, which appeared to stay intact.

00.39 Martin and Gibson both acted as decoys as Maltby made his approach. He saw the centre of the dam was already crumbling and dropped the mine. Sgt Vivian Nicholson, wrote in his log: “‘Bomb dropped. Wizard.’ They successfully struck again and the dam collapsed.

00.56 Gibson sent a signal to base using morse. The Möhne had been breached. He used the name of his beloved pet Labrador as a codeword.

One target down, the men headed to the Eder, but as the mist thickened even finding it was difficult. At the dam Lancasters, with a wing span of 102ft, dropped down from over 1000ft to the lake and flew a curving approach, hopping over a spit of land which rose to 50ft less than a mile from the target.

They lined up at the correct height and speed and dropped their mine then pulled up steeply to avoid the 300ft hill which rose precipitously immediately behind the dam.

They fell under heavy fire and signals became confused.

01.54 Gibson sent his signal: Dinghy. The second dam, Eder, had been breached. As Knight's mine hit the dam it crumbled and collapsed, sending 202 million tons of water cascading down the valley and beyond.

02.30 Ottley's plane was given the signal to attack the Lister dam, and the message was acknowledged by the aircraft.

02.32 Ottley was told to attack the Sorpe instead. No acknowledgement was received. He had strayed over the heavily defended town of Hamm and his aircraft was hit and caught fire, crashed, and the fuel tanks and then the mine exploded. Sergeant Tees, the rear gunner, was blown clear from the plane and survived, badly burned, to become the third PoW.

The crash was witnessed by other crews, including that of Gibson who was passing on his return journey and who hoped, in vain, that the exploding aircraft was a night fighter.

Burpee also strayed off course, and flew over a German airfield at Gilze-Rijen near Tilburg where the plane was hit by flak, caught fire and exploded, before crashing on the edge of the airfield, killing all on board.

Of the nineteen which left Scampton, eleven had completed their bombing runs. Two had returned early, five had been lost on the outward journey and one at the Mohne dam.

At this point the men had no idea what had happened to the other crews. Byers and Barlow were logged as ”missing without trace”.

The surviving aircraft, including one crew which could not find its target, still had to make their way home across hundreds of miles of hostile territory

Maudslay’s aircraft, possibly damaged by its own bomb when attacking the Eder, strayed too close to the oil refineries at Emmerich on its return journey and was shot down.

02.58 Young's Lancaster was the last to be lost on the mission. The men were shot down by enemy fire on the coast of Holland and crashed into the sea. There were no survivors.

03.00 McCarthy sent a signal to say that he had launched the attack on the Sorpe. The attack had been weakened by the loss of four planes from the mission, with two crews dead and two back on British soil. McCarthy arrived first, but had to approach nine times before he could drop his bomb as they had to clear a high hill and avoid a church steeple.

Brown joined him, and also managed to drop his bomb close to after flying at the dam six times.

The Sorpe was badly damaged, but never breached.

03.14 The first aircraft to have completed the mission, piloted by Maltby, landed back on British soil.

There was no signal given to the men to pull off the mission. Instead, each aircraft had to make its own decision. Gibson told his men: “This squadron will either make history or be completely wiped out.”

03.28 Gibson joins other members of his crew back at RAF Scampton.

06.15: The last surviving plane landed. The Dambusters raid was over.

Of the 133 men who left RAF Scampton 53 were killed and three captured. Eight of the original 19 Lancaster bombers were damaged or shot down.

The pencil ticks on the right mark the aircraft that returned. 8 did not. 53 crew were killed. 3 became PoWs. Lest We Forget.

Pictures of 7 of the 8 Lancaster Captains who did not return from the Dambusters raid. Sqn Ldr Young’s photo missing.

 Excerpt from the 617 Squadron logbook.

On the ground 1,294 people were killed, including 749 Ukrainian prisoners of war based in a camp just below the Eder dam.

Some 92 factories were damaged and 12 were destroyed. Several power plants were destroyed or shut down, 8 bridges were damaged and 25 were destroyed.

Gibson, who was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery, said: “Normally you don’t know when you’re going to die, you see. You always think that ‘it will not happen to me.’

“But, that raid on the dams was the one time in… when you… when we knew that we were going to die. Or not die as the case may be. You know, the hair which was hanging on our life was very thin. And then there’s just a feeling of… a funny empty feeling in the stomach, but not frightened.”

617 association historian Robert Owen said that the raid had gone down in history because of its sheer bravery.

"There is almost a Boy's Own element to it,” he said. “You have this slightly eccentric engineer who claims that he can make a four tonne bomb that can bounce over water, you have got the skill and bravery of the crew.

“It is like David and Goliath, this small number of aircraft against this massive impregnable target in the heart of Germany with all its defences, and they were successful.”

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