Marking the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters Raid
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular fortnightly look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. Whilst our previous blog happily marked the start of the British Airshow season by reviewing the Season Premier show at Old Warden, we will not be following this up with a similar review, even though we already have IWM Duxford’s first event of the year in the bag – you will have to wait a couple of weeks for this treat. With thousands of aviation enthusiasts now heading for Airshows all over the country, the full force of this year’s significant centenary of the Royal Air Force commemorations are about to be unleashed, with the huge events at Cosford and Fairford now just around the corner. Aviation is going to be big business over the coming few months and many aerodrome readers will be hoping that 2018 turns out to be one of the most memorable Airshow seasons for many a year.
As important as the current RAF 100 commemorations undoubtedly are, the subject of this latest edition of Aerodrome is yet another notable aviation anniversary, one which marked what most people would consider to be the most audacious and quite possible the most significant bombing raid of the Second World War - Operation Chastise and RAF No.617 Squadron’s efforts to destroy the great German dams of the Ruhr Valley. Wednesday 16th May marked the 75th anniversary of when nineteen specially modified Avro Lancasters took off from RAF Scampton and headed in three waves towards the Ruhr Dams - the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight intended to mark this significant occasion by flying their Lancaster down the Derwent Valley and over Eyebrook Reservoir and the lure of this historic occasion proved simply too much to for this enthusiast to resist. In this latest edition of Aerodrome, join me on my endeavours to mark the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters raid in some style, as we head for the steep hills that surround the picturesque Derwent Dam and the tantalising prospect of a date with aviation history.
Operation Chastise and ‘Upkeep’ practice
Dambusters attack route map. This image is being used with the kind permission of Mark Postlethwaite GAvA, www.posart.com & www.wingleader.co.uk
The story of the RAF’s Dambusters is one which has stirred immense national pride over the years and serves to underline the skill and mental fortitude of the young men and women who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. As this raid is perhaps the most famous single bombing mission in the history of warfare, the story of Guy Gibson and his famous Dambuster Squadron is familiar to most people, but this latest landmark raid anniversary has only served to renew interest in these brave men and their unique bombing mission. Despite most people’s awareness of the raid, many of the actual details are even more astonishing than we allow ourselves to consider, particularly when understanding just how little time the crews had to train for what was a highly technical and extremely hazardous ‘first use’ of this unique weapon and delivery system. Wing Commander Guy Gibson had only started assembling his ‘Specialist Squadron’ in March of 1943 and at the time, had no idea of the nature of the mission for which he and his crews would be training. Selected crews were assembled at RAF Scampton under the utmost secrecy and began their intensive flying training immediately, using a collection of mission hardened Lancasters from various Bomber Command Squadrons around the country.
The flying training would be extremely intense and would prove to be both physically and mentally demanding for all the airmen involved. The crews would be required to fly their Lancasters at low level by both day and night and over some of the most demanding and inhospitable terrain in the UK, including the steeply protected approaches to three specific reservoir sites around the country – Eyebrook in Leicestershire, Abberton near Colchester and Derwent Dam in Derbyshire. These locations were selected to prepare the crews for their impending ‘Special Mission’, although neither crews nor their Wing Commander were aware of their intended targets at that time.
This fascinating picture shows the Upkeep bomb and spin inducing drive mechanism underneath Gibson’s Lancaster ED932 AJ-G
On 8th April 1943, the first of the Squadron’s specially modified Lancasters arrived at Scampton, followed by 56 of the unusual ‘Upkeep’ mines over the course of the next few weeks, however, it would not be until the 12th May, less than FIVE days before the proposed raid, that the first 617 Squadron crews had the opportunity to practice delivery of these strange new weapons. As the intense training continued apace, Gibson was briefed on the mission and its intended targets the day before the raid, with the rest of the Squadron only finding out in the hours leading up to take off on the 16th May. When considering the success of the raid and how the exploits of the Dambusters are now familiar to a great many people, it is certainly sobering to realise just how little time these young men had to prepare for this extremely technical raid and how the operation must have relied on Gibson’s steadfast leadership and the undoubted flying prowess of the men under his command, if they were to have even the slightest chance of success. It is no wonder that the Dambusters continue to inspire and fascinate to this day.
Just so I could say, ‘I was there!’
Having spent my entire life living in the North of England, you might expect, with good reason, that I had made several visits to the famous Derwent Dam over the years and may even have been present at one of the special Lancaster flyover events which had taken place previously. I am rather embarrassed to say that this is not the case and I had never actually been before, much to my shame, however, working on a number of Dambuster related projects over the past few months, I was determined that this was going to be the year I was going to break this particular duck. As news began to circulate amongst enthusiasts about the intention of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight to fly their precious Avro Lancaster PA474 over the Derwent Dam in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Operation Chastise, this seemed to offer the opportunity I had been waiting for and I started to make my plans.
Keen to make sure I ended up at the perfect spot, some prior preparation was required for this operation
An early morning start and some hard yards were required if I was going to record this occasion in style
The one major factor which deters most people from doing something slightly out of the ordinary, particularly when involving aviation photography, is not having any prior experience of where to head for and not having anyone you trust to call upon for guidance. I think this is perhaps the main reason why I have never ventured into the low fly areas in the Welsh mountains, because not knowing when and where to head for means that you could be heading for a monumental waste of time and significant disappointment. Those concerns were also valid when planning my first Derwent trip, so a few constructive hours on the internet looking at maps, proposed flightpaths and videos of previous events proved to be extremely valuable research. Having viewed footage from similar events which had taken place in previous years, I knew exactly which position I wanted to be in to obtain the perfect picture of the flypast, now all I had to do was get myself there.
The days leading up to the event were blessed with excellent weather and as details of the local authority’s plans to administer the day began to circulate, it was clear that they were expecting many thousands of people to descend on the area, all intent on doing exactly the same thing as what I was hoping to do. With severe parking restrictions promised, there was only one thing for it, an extremely early start.
I am fortunate enough to have a good friend who lives in the Derbyshire area and who just happened to be a Derwent regular and was also intending the be present for the flypast event. Arrangements were made for me to arrive at his home by 4am, at which time we would transfer all our gear into the one car and immediately set of for the dam. In truth, we both felt that this early start was being a little over cautious, but the potential benefits of securing the right picture far outweighed the comfort of an extra hour or two in bed, so we set off with a clear conscience. We soon discovered that we would not be alone in this thinking and the closer we got to the vicinity of the Derwent Dam, the more cars joined the happy throngs heading in the same direction. As we turned off the A57 Snake Road and up towards the dam itself, we saw a group of lads sitting outside their tents, finishing their breakfast and suddenly realised we were already late – some of these organised devils had spent the night here in preparation. As we approached the Fairholmes Visitor Centre, we were already struggling to find a suitable parking spot, due to the many vehicles already in position, many of which were acting as temporary B & B’s for their aviation loving owners. It was already clear that we were going to have to get a move on.
My first glimpse of the Derwent Dam and what an impressive sight it was
Quickly grabbing everything we could possibly need for a day clinging to a steep hillside overlooking a huge reservoir and awaiting the arrival of a Lancaster, we loaded ourselves up like pack mules and set off on our voyage of discovery, knowing exactly the vantage point we were hoping to secure, but would we already be too late? There did seem to be a surprising number of people about at this ungodly hour, most with exactly the same determination that we had ourselves. The walk took us past the impressive base of the dam wall, my first glimpse of this imposing structure, which only served to increase my goal of finding ‘the spot’ and resulted in a distinct quickening of pace. An extremely helpful Park Ranger gave us instructions on how to find the location I described to him and we began our difficult climb up the steep hillside. At first, the climb didn’t seem all that bad, but as the incline started to get a little steeper and the ground under foot became a little less firm, the combined weight of camera gear (too much brought, yet again) and other items soon began to have an effect. I became convinced that the stupid sheep (which had the good sense not to venture this far) were looking at me in particular and thinking I was a total idiot. After what seemed like an absolute eternity and having negotiated what was beginning to feel like a near vertical climb, we finally arrived at the perfect location, although I was in no fit state to enjoy the view, what I needed more than anything was a paramedic!
A view worth the effort, although the direct route we took proved not to be the sensible option
We were not alone – some of the other early morning photographers further down the ridge
The climb definitely confirmed to me that I had been spending far too much time sat at my computer over recent months and that an immediate course of exercise was very much called for. Despite the spectacular views and securing the exact location I had been hoping to find, the only thing I could think about was how embarrassing it would be if the mountain rescue had to come to my aid – imagine the ignominy. It was only after catching my breath that I noticed a rather pleasant looking path, snaking its way up to our very position, which whilst undoubtedly taking us a little while longer to negotiate, would have been much easier on the legs and lungs. I will certainly remember that path for next time.
The best laid plans
The perfect spot. Everything had worked out as planned, all we needed now was a certain Avro Lancaster
Although the weather leading up to the event had been pretty good, as you may well imagine with this delightful country, the day itself was grey and damp, albeit nowhere near as bad as had been forecast. The potential problem for the planned flyover was not so much the weather in the vicinity of the dam, but at RAF Coningsby, home of the BBMF Lancaster. The previous evening, the BBMF had issued a press release warning that the forecast wind speeds at Coningsby on Wednesday were a cause for concern and made the possibility of cancellation a very real one. The Lancaster is not permitted to operate above a certain wind speed, but despite this eleventh our worrying development, the chance of seeing the Lancaster flying over the Derwent Dam on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters raid was just too historic an occasion to miss, no matter how great the risk. Can you imagine planning to attend and allowing yourself to be put off by an adverse weather forecast, only to see the event take place after all – this was most definitely not worth thinking about. I, like many thousands of others, crossed my fingers and headed for the hills, making sure my camera was ready to record history.
As the morning passed, more people started to arrive on the far side of the dam, in preparation for this historic event
As the morning passed and many more people started arriving in the area, it soon became clear that the weather would not be coming to our rescue and the exceptionally helpful Park Rangers made their way to our lofty position and informed us that the Lancaster was unable to take off from Coningsby and would not now be coming. This was obviously very disappointing news, but she is far too valuable an aircraft to risk and most of us were fully understanding of the situation. They went on to inform us that the RAF would be sending a Typhoon to perform the flypast instead and some of the chaps stood near us who were ‘in the know’ told us that it would be this year’s RAF 100 display jet. Although not quite a Lancaster, this was still an interesting development and one which everyone was now very much looking forward to – with vantage point secured, there was still every chance that I could obtain some memorable pictures of the occasion. As the time for the Typhoon flypast neared, everyone prepared to take the pictures they had been rehearsing all morning to take and we scoured the skies for the tell-tale sight and sound of Britain’s premier air defence fighter. As the allotted time came and went, there was no sign of a Typhoon and the weather had conveniently started to close in again. Amongst the gathered masses, a sense of resignation began to set in and the re-appearance of the Park Rangers once more, approximately 20 minutes after the Typhoon was due to arrive, confirmed the fact that regrettably, the Typhoon had been forced to turn back and the event had been cancelled – nothing now was scheduled to be flying.
Fortune favours the brave (and the indecisive)
As this news began to spread, many hundreds of people began to slowly trudge their way back down the hills and to their cars, but at least having been present on the actual 75th anniversary of the Dambusters raid. As I also started to think about calling it a day, one of the more tech savvy enthusiasts amongst us told us not to move and that a single Typhoon was in the area at low level and had requested a flyover of the dam Sure enough, a Typhoon soon appeared through the mist on the horizon and began its approach to the dam. For the majority of the crowds who had been gathered with us just a few minutes earlier, the sound of the Typhoon caused a frantic rush back towards their previous positions, but it was all in vain and they were to suffer a cruel second disappointment. Almost as soon as they heard the aircraft’s engines, the Typhoon made one solitary, relatively high level pass, before heading off back to its base, although those who managed to capture its arrival were extremely thankful that he made the effort and were extremely complimentary about the pilot.
Proof that I was there for the Dambusters 75th anniversary flyover and still a highly prized capture
Just a single pass from the Typhoon only enabled me to get some wider shots of the entire scene
It pays to have mates. My companion for the day, Mr John Bagot was able to grab a closer shot of the Typhoon as it left the area
The single pass is also my opportunity to apologise for the standard of the pictures I managed to take. I had been led to believe that most aircraft which had taken part in similar events had made at least two passes over the dam and it was my intention for photographing either the Lancaster of the Typhoon in two distinctly different ways. One the first pass, I would use a wider angle lens to capture the aircraft as it passed over the dam wall, thus obtaining the all-important historical perspective to the occasion. For the second pass, I intended to isolate the aircraft against the densely wooded backdrop of the valley, hopefully producing an equally appealing shot and highlighting more of the aircraft’s detail – at least that was the plan. In the end, I only managed to get the wider shot of the Typhoon passing over the dam wall, but nevertheless came away with a memorable record of my day spent overlooking the Derwent dam on the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters raid.
The Dambusters Museum
View of the dam wall on our way down, showing the towers which proved significant for the practising Dambusters
This Dambusters information plaque overlooks the overflow side of the dam wall
Even without an overflying Lancaster, the Derwent Dam is an impressive sight
As we began our descent, which proved to be much more civilised that on the way up and using the path most normal people had used in the first place, everything was now much quieter around the dam walls and as this was the first time I had visited the location, I decided to try and take a few pictures from different positions around the reservoir, whilst all the time trying to imagine what the view would look like with a Lancaster flying over it. The afternoon also offered the opportunity to enjoy the delights of the Dambusters Museum, which is located in the west tower of the dam wall and boasts an impressive collection of associated artefacts, images and information from Britain’s most famous bombing raid. This turned out to be a really fortuitous treat, not only as I managed to speak to the interesting and knowledgeable people who own the museum contents, but also as this was the first time the museum had opened to the public in 18 months and this was only because of the 75th anniversary commemorations. The family who own the museum are currently looking for a more suitable, permanent home for their impressive collection, which is a significant tourist attraction in this area and definitely deserves to be open to public inspection on a regular basis. The owners are determined to resolve their current situation as quickly as possible and have promised to keep us fully informed of developments, so we can advise our readers accordingly.
This moving memorial to the Dambusters is positioned along the dam wall and is a sobering reminder not just of their achievement, but also their significant sacrifice
This simple device was intended to assist the bomb aimer in releasing his ‘Upkeep’ mine at the optimum moment
The Dambusters Museum has a replica of the prototype ‘Upkeep’ mine on display, which allows an appreciation of the size of this unique weapon
A Lancaster mainwheel is also amongst the exhibits in the museum
The only Lancaster we managed to see on the day was this model replica hanging from the ceiling of the West Tower Dambusters Museum
As we finally made our way back to the car at the end of an eventful, if slightly frustrating day, the weather did its damnedest to induce a feeling of depression and actually began to improve markedly. In fact, by the time we had arrived back in Glossop, it had turned into a glorious early summers day – only in Britain!
With much better weather forecast for the following day, it would have been an ideal opportunity to postpone the event for one day and take advantage of the more favourable conditions, apparently as the RAF had initially requested. Unfortunately, the local authorities did not have the manpower to put on standby for both days, due to the significant visitor numbers expected and required the RAF to choose a single day for the event. For all the right reasons, the actual anniversary date of the 16th May was chosen, a decision which I suspect every person in attendance on the day would have agreed with, no matter how disappointed they were. As it transpires, the better weather on the following day did allow the Lancaster to make its commemorative flight over the Derwent Dam, with relatively few people there to witness it, but with one very important passenger on board. Squadron Leader George ‘Johnnie’ Johnson MBE,DFM is the last surviving British Dambuster and he was seated in the bomb aimer’s position as the Lancaster flew over the dam, the same station he occupied during Operation Chastise on the night of 16th/17th May 1943.
A view of the famous dam towers from the west side of the reservoir
Had this flight taken place the previous day as planned, the gathered masses would have taken some pictures which possessed real historical provenance, with many surely holding them amongst their most treasured possessions. As it was, the safety of aircrew and the well being of Europe’s only airworthy Avro Lancaster must always take precedence over the pictures of aviation enthusiasts and those who made the journey on that fateful day will still be able to boast that they were at Derwent Dam on the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters Raid – our own little piece of personal history.
617 Squadron reborn
Much can change over the course of five years, especially in the volatile world of historic aviation and there is nothing to say that Avro Lancaster PA474 will be serviceable to take part in any potential Dambusters 80th anniversary commemorations, however there have been some extremely positive recent developments concerning the future of RAF No. 617 Squadron, the famous Dambusters. Over the course of the next few weeks, the re-formed Squadron will be taking delivery of Britain’s first Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II aircraft, which represent the future of our modern Royal Air Force. Surely this significant development in RAF history will soon see 617 Squadron aircraft once again passing between the towers of the Derwent Dam and have us all scrambling up those steep valley walls once more, hoping to secure our lofty vantage points from where to witness the spectacle – watch this space!
One final look back at the Derwent Dam on the 75th Anniversary of Operation Chastise
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back with more aviation related news in two weeks’ time, as we march inexorably towards our own significant centenary – the 100th edition of Aerodrome, currently scheduled for publication in early August. This might be a good time for readers to let us know what you think of our blog, how it could be improved and what you would like to see covered in future editions. Please send any suggestions to our regular contact e-mail addresses at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, where we will be only too pleased to hear from you.
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