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A Tribute to the Dambusters in Artwork

Part 1 - From Preparations to the Dutch Coast

Before the raid begins.

The audacious raid had been planned and trained for and was finally ready to be undertaken. The ingenious weapon designed by Barnes Wallis - the bouncing bomb codenamed Upkeep - was ready to be slung under the modified Lancaster bombers of No.617 Sqn. The crews, hand picked by the leader of the raids Guy Gibson, were ready for their briefing. The 16th of May would be the day they took off to attack the dams of the Ruhr valley, intent on crippling the industry vital to the German war machine.


Figure 1 : Bombing Up the Lancasters at Scampton

Main Image : Bombing Up by Ivan Berryman
Watched by keen eyes, an Upkeep bomb arrives on the threshold to be loaded onto the special cradle beneath a Lancaster of 617 Dambusters Squadron on the eve of their perilous journey to the Ruhr Valley on the night of 16th May 1943 when the Möhne and Eder dams were breached under the codename Operation Chastise.

Inset : The Secret Weapon by David Pentland
RAF Scampton, 16th May 1943. Ground crew deliver the top secret bouncing bombs to the Lancasters of 617 Squadron in preparation for Operation Chastise.

21 crews were prepared to embark on Operation Chastise, and their Lancasters were fueled and loaded with their unique payload at Scampton on 16th May 1943. (Two of the crews were subsequently unable to take part).


Figure 2 : Preparing the Lancasters

Main image : Tractor Girl by David Pentland
Lancaster AJ-T of No.617 Sqn being towed by tractor to its dispersal slot by a Women's Auxiliary Air Force driver at Scampton, May 1943, in preparation for Operation Chastise.

Inset : Topping Up by David Pentland
Lancaster of 617 Sqn refueling at Scampton, May 1943, in preparation for Operation Chastise.


Figure 3 : Ready to Go
Main image : Final Briefing by Anthony Saunders
RAF Scampton: 16 May 1943 20.55 hrs. Everyone at Scampton suspected that something big was about to happen. The crews of the recently formed 617 Squadron, hand-picked by their CO Wing Commander Guy Gibson, had been training hard for weeks and the rumour on the grapevine suggested it might be the Tirpitz they were after. But then, late in the afternoon of 16 May 1943 came the call over the station tannoy that they had all been waiting for: 'All crews of 617 Squadron to report to the briefing room – immediately.' The buzz of excited conversation dropped into silence as Gibson addressed them, and the secret was shared: their small force was about to attack the major dams of western Germany. It was what they had been waiting for and they would go that night. Final Briefing is the first in Anthony Saunders' pair of prints to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Dambuster Raid and depicts the moment at dispersal as Guy Gibson readies his crew to climb inside their waiting Lancaster – AJ-G 'George'. A red flare will soon curl skywards, burning brightly against the sun's fast-fading rays; it is the signal to start engines and at 21.39 G-George will get airborne, leading the first wave of three aircraft. For the crews of 617 Squadron the weeks of intensive training were now over – Operation Chastise was underway

Inset : Gibson's Lancaster AJ-G over the Mohne Dam later in the raid.

Leaving Scampton

The 19 Lancasters on the raid were split into three groups, or waves. The 1st wave consisted of 9 Lancasters, and took off from Scampton in three groups of three, starting at 21:39. The second wave of 5 aircraft, taking a slightly longer route took off slightly earlier in order to cross the Dutch coast simultaneously with the 1st wave, leaving at 21:28. The third (or reserve) wave took off just after midnight and also consisted of 5 aircraft.


Figure 4 : Taking off from Scampton

Main image : The Dambusters by Ivan Berryman
Lancasters of 617 Sqn Dambusters get airborne from their Scampton base at the start of their journey to the Ruhr Valley on the night of 16th May 1943 under the codename Operation Chastise. These are aircraft of the First Wave, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the Second Wave having already departed some ten minutes earlier to negotiate a more northerly route to their targets. On this momentous night, both the Möhne and Eder dams were successfully breached, whilst the Sorpe was also hit, but without serious damage. Of the nineteen aircraft that took part in the mission, eleven returned safely

Inset : Dambusters Setting Off by Simon Atack

The sight and sounds of the deafening Lancasters as they leave their airfield against the late evening sun provide great scope for beautiful artwork now, but one can only imagine the trepidation and determination of the crews of the aircraft, knowing the enormity and danger of the task ahead of them. 




Figure 5 : Lancasters Outward Bound

Main Image : Tonight We Make History by Keith Aspinall
Guy Gibson, Micky Martin and John Hopgood outward bound from Scampton on the evening of 16th May 1943.

Inset : Dambusters Outward Bound by Simon Smith
Guy Gibson leads the first wave of Dambusters out over Norfolk on their way to attack the Mohne and Eder.

To the Enemy Coast

Having left the safety of England behind, the Lancasters began to cross the sea towards the Dutch coast, and the danger of enemy flak. The relative safety of the sea crossing would be in sharp constrast to the dangers facing them from enemy fire and the constant dangers presented by flying at such a low level. On the other hand, the crews knew that once they returned over this coastline safely, they were all but home. Now with ever darkening skies, it is worth remembering that the night of the raid was lit by a bright full moon in a relatively clear sky. The artwork depicting the aircraft after this point often varies greatly in terms of lightning. Artistic license allows for the aircraft to be well seen in some pieces, while shadowed greatly in others. It is down to the opinion and preference of the viewer as to whether the paintings are as historically accurate as they can be, or whether an artistic approach to the event has been taken.



Figure 6 : Crossing the Sea

Main image : Enemy Coast Ahead by Simon Atack
Lancaster of 617 Sqn carrying its cargo of the Barnes-Wallis bouncing bomb on its way to its target of Germanys western dams. The Dambusters raid was to become one of the most celebrated missions ever carried out.



Figure 7 : Approcahing the Coast

Main image : 617 Squadron Outbound to the Ruhr by Ivan Berryman.
Viewed from the cockpit, Lancasters of 617 Sqn Dambusters form up at the beginning of their perilous journey to the Ruhr Valley on the night of 16th May 1943 when the Möhne and Eder dams were breached under the codename Operation Chastise.

Inset : Enemy Coast Ahead - The Dambusters by Philip West
Lancasters of 617 Squadron, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson begin their low level cross channel dash towards the enemy coast on the way to the heart of the Ruhr. The aircraft were arranged in three waves. The first wave comprised three groups of three aircraft at 10 minute intervals and headed towards the Mohne, Sorpe and Eder dams. The second wave of five Lancasters headed direct to the Sorpe whilst the third wave of five, would act as backup. Eight Lancasters failed to return from the raids, a high cost indeed, but the courage and determination displayed by the crews were in the best tradition of the RAF.

The First Incident

The stage between leaving Scampton and crossing the enemy coast did not pass without incident. The first of these involved the Lancaster ED936 AJ-H, piloted by Geoffrey Rice. The aircraft flew so low it hit the sea, losing the Upkeep mine and scooping up seawater. Remarkably, Rice managed to rescue the aircraft as it pitched forward after clipping the wave. As the aircraft climbed away from the water to return to base, the rear turret and gunner were almost swept away by the water. The mission was aborted and the damaged aircraft made a safe return to base. Crew : Pilot Officer Geoffrey Rice (Pilot), Sergeant Edward Clarence Smith (Flight Engineer), Flying Officer Richard MacFarlane (Navigator), Warrant Officer Chester Bruce Gowrie (Wireless Operator), Warrant Officer John William Thrasher (Bomb Aimer), Sergeant Thomas W Maynard (Front Gunner), Sergeant Stephen Burns (Rear Gunner)


Figure 8 : The First to Return

Main Image : A Lucky Escape by Ivan Berryman
Flying low across the North Sea en route to the Sorpe Dam on the night of 16th/17th May 1943 as part of Operation Chastise, Flying Officer Geoff Rice's Lancaster ED936(G) clipped a large wave, ripping the Upkeep bomb from its mountings and pitching the aircraft into the sea. Somehow, in just a split second, Rice managed to haul AJ-H back into the air, but the aircraft had ingested a huge amount of water and, as Rice put his Lancaster into a climb to head back to Scampton, rear gunner Sgt S Burns and his turret were almost swept away as the water rushed to the back of the aircraft. AJ-H returned to Scampton otherwise unscathed and took no further part in the Dams Raids.

The Tragic Side of the Story Begins

The danger involved in Operation Chastise was known to all the crews. Defence of the aircraft had been lessened - internal armour had been removed along with the mid upper gun turret in order to allow the weight of the Upkeep mine to be carried. No-one expected a strike to the heart of the German war machine like this would allow the return of every aircraft. And so it was that the tragic side of the story began with the loss of ED934 AJ-K off the island of Texel, shot down by flak. The crew became the first seven casualties of the raid, but would not be the last.

With 2 of the 19 Lancasters now unable to get to the target, the remaining 17 had reached the enemy coastline, but would now face a real challenge - crossing many miles of enemy territory at dangerously low level.

More information :
Full list of No.617 Sqn Artwork
No.617 Sqn in our Aviation Directory - here you will find links to many prints signed by the men who flew on the Dambusters raid.


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