The Dam Busters and The Möhne Catastrophe

“M Mother” was past the dam, nose up, straining for height, so the crew could bale out, when the tanks blew up with an orange flare, a wing ripped away and the bomber spun to the ground in burning bouncing pieces. …. A voice said over the R/T “Poor old Hoppy”.

Gibson called up: “Hello ‘P, Popsie.’ Are you ready?”

“O.K. Leader Going in.”  

I would challenge anyone to read these lines from Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book, The Dam Busters, without feeling a slight lump in the throat. It sums up 617 squadron and their famous attack on the Ruhr Valley dams better than anything else: their sheer pluck, their dedication, and their absolute focus on the task at hand.  

The book goes on to describe the numerous other raids the precision bomber squadron went on to make, against viaducts, factories, against the V3 guns, and against the 52,000-ton battleship Tirpitz. Indeed if there is a criticism to made of it, it’s that after the umpteenth daring raid, and the umpteenth medal awarded it begins to feel a little repetitive, and that in itself is a tribute to the squadron and its war time service. It was, in the words of one Air Marshall quoted at the beginning of the book “The most effective unit of its size the British ever had.” 

It was of course the raid on the dams, that was immortalised with the most rousing score of film music ever committed to manuscript paper, and it is not hard to see why – it is the perfect ‘ripping yarn.’ Apart from the vivid aesthetic of a bouncing bomb, we have, in Barnes Wallis, the archetypal genius with the ingenuity in coming up with the idea and designing the weapon, and the perseverance to convince cautious military top brass. In Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar we have the dauntless war hero, ready to take on this job and any other. And in the specially chosen members of 617 squadron we have the piloting skill, seldom seen, in dropping the bomb spinning at 500 rpm at exactly 60 feet over the water, while flying at 240 miles per hour and a tremendous spirit of service and sacrifice: 8 of the 19 aircraft were shot down, 53 of the aircrew were killed.  Truly, it was one of history’s heroic feat of arms, and if it hadn’t actually happened, the tale would surely have been told  as a “boy’s own” war story.

There, is however, as always, another side to the story, most readily apparent in visiting the Möhne reservoir; the dam of which was the key target of the raid. Situated near Soest in north-west Germany, it a pleasingly pleasant and peaceful place, which, on my spring afternoon visit, was replete with cyclists, dog-walkers, and day-trippers. The dam is enormous, and looking at it in the flesh, one cannot help but be impressed, yet again, by the feat of breaching it by 80 yards.  

The Möhne Dam Memorial

This is not, however, what is remembered in this  place.  Walking around the reservoir, I came across a small memorial commemorating, the information panel explained, the Möhne Catastrophe, the night in which the attack on the dam had caused a flood wave which had killed 1,579 people, most of them civilians and forced labourers.

The theme tune playing in my head stopped, and I thought again of the story in  Brickhill’s book of the nearby village of Himmelpforten, which was flooded that night. The priest, Father Berkenkopf was awoken by the explosion, and guessing the meaning. He ran to the church to ring the bell in warning to village. He was still pulling the bell as the flood crashed through the gates of heaven destroying the church, and carrying its ruins and many lives, off down the valley. The church’s chalice, christening font and crucifix was found some 60 miles away.  It is so easy to read of the great attack, so successfully carried out, to breach the dams, and so flood the industrial valley in a major and rightly celebrated victory. It is also easy, in so doing, to forget the human consequences of a brutal act of war.


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