75 years ago on the night of 16 May, a dangerous task was undertaken by the Royal Air Force 617 squadron to destroy the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr Valley. These dams were thought to be a significant resource in German war production efforts and were also understood to be highly fortified and invulnerable structures. The mission, codenamed ‘Operation Chastise’, became widely known as the Dambusters raid. The extraordinary feat was featured on front page news around the world, making the ‘Dambusters’ instant celebrities.
The plan to attack the dams in the Ruhr Valley had been considered as early as 1937, but it was not until the development of the so-called ‘bouncing bomb’ in 1942 that the plans became a reality. This bomb was developed by British aviation engineer, Barnes Neville Wallis; it was built in a way which allowed it to bounce across water to avoid obstacles, which meant that its speed and timing of the detonation could be calculated beforehand. The actual outcome of Operation Chastise has long been debated. Some historians argue that the most significant result was the morale boost at home rather than the irreparable blow to the enemy which was envisaged. Wallis himself voiced the opinion that the mission may not have been worth the eight Lancaster bombers which were lost along with their crews.
This month’s featured document is a letter of sympathy from Churchill to the widow of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who was one of the most notorious officers during the war. Gibson, who was 24 years old at the time of the Dambusters mission, led the 617 Squadron. He was killed in September 1944 (along with Jim Warwick, his navigator) when his plane came down over Steenbergen, a town in the Netherlands. The exact cause of Gibson’s death remains unclear, though it has been claimed in recent years that friendly fire brought the plane down.
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