Pilots Shannon and Maudsley tried time and again to position their laden bombers correctly before managing to release their weapons – but the dam still held. Now success depended solely on Knight carrying the last bomb! With time and fuel now a concern, Knight’s first effort to position, like Shannon and Maudsley before him, failed, but his second run favoured the brave. Knight released his bomb with absolute precision, striking the wall at precisely the crucial point. With a tremendous explosion the Eder Dam collapsed before their eyes. Robert Taylor’s sensational new painting vividly shows the dramatic moment of impact. In the cockpit Knight and flight engineer Ray Grayston fight the controls to clear the dam, combining their physical strength to haul the lumbering Lancaster up and over the dam and to clear the high ground that lies ahead. Below and behind them, the second of Germany’s mighty western dams lies finally breached.
Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the wartime head of Bomber Command, privately dismissed the Dambuster air raids on German dams were a waste of men and aircraft, it has been revealed.
By Leo McKinstry
It has gone down in history as the most daring RAF operation of the Second World War. With its mix of heroism and technical ingenuity, the Dambusters Raid became a lasting symbol of Britain’s gallant fight against the Nazi regime.
In Winston Churchill’s words, the destruction of two key dams in May 1943 brought “unparalleled devastation” to Germany’s western industrial heartland. The success of the mission brought widespread public acclaim.
Yet it has now emerged that Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, one of the chief architects of the raid, was privately scathing about its effectiveness.
Research in the archives of the Harris papers, stored in the RAF Museum at Hendon, has revealed that he privately thought the assault on German dams was a waste of men and aircraft.
In one letter to the Air Staff, written in Dec 1943, just six months after the raid, Harris said: “For years we have been told that the destruction of the Mohne and Eder dams alone would be a vital blow to Germany.”
But, he continued, “I have seen nothing in the present circumstances or in the Ministry of Economic Warfare reports to show that the effort was worthwhile.”
Even as the legend of the Dambusters grew, Harris kept up this disparaging theme.
In a private letter to Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, written in Jan 1945, Harris complained: “The destruction of the Mohne and Eder dams was to achieve wonders.
“It achieved nothing compared with the effort and the loss.”
He concluded: “The material damage was negligible compared with one small area attack.”
The correspondence shows that Harris was just as sceptical about the raid when the plans were initially put forward.
It was Barnes Wallis, the inventor and aeronautical engineer, who in 1942 had come up with the idea that each dam could be breached by a bouncing bomb.
Carried by a specially-modified Avro Lancaster, the RAF’s new four-engine heavy bomber, the unconventional bomb would leap over the water, reach the dam’s thick wall, sink below the surface and then detonate at the optimum depth, thereby unleashing a colossal flood tide into the surrounding area.
Early tests on the bouncing bomb, conducted at Chesil Beach in Dorset, revealed that the scheme was practical. The Air Ministry was quickly won over.
But, as the unpublished documents reveal, Harris was outraged. He thought his precious Lancasters should be allowed to concentrate on Bomber Command’s primary task of reducing Germany’s cities to rubble.
When first informed of Wallis’ proposal by Robert Saundby, his deputy at Bomber Command, in Feb 1943, he produced a scathing denunciation.
The bouncing bomb was “tripe beyond the wildest description. There are so many ifs and buts that there is not the smallest chance of it working.”
Harris urged that Air Staff should be stopped from “putting aside Lancasters and reducing our effort on this wild goose chase”. The war, he warned, “will be over before it works and it never will”.
A few days later, his opposition to the plan had only intensified. In a letter to his superior, Sir Charles Portal, he described the bouncing bomb as “just about the maddest proposition as a weapon we have yet to come across”.
Deprecating “any diversion of Lancasters at this critical moment”, he told Portal that “I am prepared to bet my shirt” that the bomb could not be produced within six months and “will not work when we have got it”.
He hoped that the new weapon’s enthusiasts would be “given one aeroplane to go away and play while we get on with the war”.
Harris, however, was overruled by Portal, the RAF’s chief, who was determined to press ahead with the plan. For all his doubts, the bomber commander had no choice but to obey his orders from the top of Air Staff.
To carry out the raid, he formed a new Lancaster squadron, named 617, under the leadership of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a dynamic, brave and highly experienced pilot.
Meanwhile, the Lancaster aircraft were adapted by the Avro company to carry the special equipment for the bouncing bomb.
The raid took place in bright moonlight on the night of May 16 and into the early hours of May 17.
Harris’s claim that the bouncing bomb would fail proved hopelessly unfounded, as the successful breaches of the Mohne and the Eder led to the widespread destruction of homes, factories, bridges, railways, farmland and energy supplies, though a third dam, on the Sorpe, remained intact.
Contrary to Harris’s later arguments, Albert Speer, the German Minister for Armaments, said that raid was “a disaster for us for a number of months”.
Germany had to divert 20,000 labourers from building defences in France and Holland into repairing the dams, something that had a significant impact at D-Day.
Gibson won the Victoria Cross and his squadron became national heroes. The raid gave an enormous boost to British morale.
The triumph came at a heavy price, as eight out of 19 Lancasters on the raid were lost and 53 crew men were killed. But, unlike Harris, most of the RAF and the British public believed the sacrifice was worthwhile.
* Leo McKinstry’s book Lancaster: The Second World War’s Greatest Bomber is published in September by John Murray