Seventy years ago last week, Fred Sutherland and the 617 Squadron flew a hellaciously dangerous bomber mission over German territory in World War II. Dubbed Operation Chastise, the Royal Air Force was attempting to destroy important industrial centers in the Ruhr Valley.
Sutherland, 90, is the last surviving Canadian member of the multinational May 16-17 mission. The Allies planned to diminish the German capacity to wage war by destroying strategic dams to flood the manufacturing region and disable hydroelectric power plants. To accomplish this, the bombing crews would have to fly perilously low over hostile territory and unleash a bizarre new weapon known as a “bouncing bomb.”
The dams were protected by steel-mesh nets that theoretically safeguarded them from a torpedo attack. These defensive measures necessitated a new type of weapon. British engineer Barnes Willis specialized in devising new bombs and found a way to circumvent the torpedo nets protecting the dams. He developed a drum-shaped bomb that could be dropped over water, where it would skip like a stone until it hit its target. It would then sink to a depth of 9 meters before exploding, ideally breaching its target.
The operation was planned in total secrecy. During mission briefing the 19 bomber crews learned their true target. Sutherland recounts:
“We all thought we were going to bomb the German U-boat pens. But then we went to the briefing the night of the mission and we saw a mock-up, a model of the Mohne dam. There were two gun placements on the dam. And the mission was to come straight in at it, with our lights on — at 60 feet — and to drop our bouncing bomb and then get out of there. It looked like a real suicide run. Everybody, I think, was pretty apprehensive walking out of that briefing.”
Johnnie Johnson, who passed away in 2001, was also a member of the 617 Squadron. In this video he recounts his experience during the operation. The details of how the crews had to determine their altitude are both fascinating and absurdly low-tech. (For those who can’t watch the interview, each plane had two spotlights angled at the ground. The pilots could determine if they were at the correct altitude when the two lights overlapped.)
Two primary targets, the Mohne and Eder dams, were successfully breached. A third, the Sorpe dam, was also damaged in the raid. Twelve factories and 25 bridges were destroyed. However, the mission proved exceedingly dangerous. Eight of the bombers never returned home, with 53 casualties among the 133 crewman involved. Another three were captured behind enemy lines.
The mission was initially hailed as a success, although history has been less kind to its strategic importance. An estimated 1,300 people were killed as a result of the attack and the subsequent flooding, although more than half of those were Axis-held prisoners of war. The Allies failed to follow up on Operation Chastise with additional bombing runs, and as such the Germans were able to swiftly rebuild the destroyed dams. By June 27 the region was producing the same amount of electricity as it was before the bombing.
The nighttime attack did provide a boost for British morale, desperately needed after the 1940-1941 Blitz left the country reeling after 37 consecutive weeks of German bombardment. The stories of the daring RAF crews were featured in a popular 1955 film, The Dam Busters. Interestingly, the final attack on the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope is allegedly based on the film’s depiction of the famous Allied assault.
This story and its proximity to Memorial Day got me thinking. Although there are a scant scattering of WWI vets still attempting to live forever, the number of WWII combatants is also dwindling swiftly. Anyone old enough to have been of age during the war would theoretically (plenty of people have lied about their age in order to join the armed forces) have had to have been born before 1927 and be at least 86 or so years old. If anyone out there knows someone that served during World War II, or any war for that matter, I urge you to find out as much as you can as long as you still have a primary source on the matter.
My father remembers meeting his grandfather, who departed this world decades before I was even conceived as a possibility, who fought in World War I. The details of his involvement and his recollections are largely a mystery to the family, as my father and his father before him never really questioned him about the experience. My dad is still upset with himself about that failing.
Differences in generation, health and personality often make it difficult for me to talk to my surviving grandfather. To get around that inherent awkwardness, when I talk to my grandfather I try to find out everything I can about his life during wartime. He was stationed in Burma as part of the 69th Flying Tigers. He recalls with absolute disdain the six-week voyage across the Pacific. His most memorable duty was transporting aircraft parts over the utterly insane Burma Road. He never saw combat or even heard shots fired. He had malaria most of the time. He had a beautiful, pearl-gripped revolver as a war souvenir that was taken from him by a commanding officer on his trip back to the States.
My mother’s father, since passed on, probably had the most fun of any private in the US Army. He arrived after Paris was liberated and was briefly stationed there. He and two other men were once tasked with climbing to the very top of the Eiffel Tower to install a long-distance radio antenna. After the war he was in Nuremberg during the famous Nazi war crime tribunals. By his account he spent most of his time dancing with German girls and having a blast.
I implore you: Talk to vets. Try to preserve more firsthand accounts of the war. It’s one of the most (if not the most) important event in the last 200 years, and perhaps in all of human history. Your opportunity to glean primary information about it is fleeting and should not be squandered.
Besides, the stories are badass as hell.