Operation Chastise: The Dambusters of WWII Explored in a New Documentary

Eder Dam on 17 May 1943. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-C0212-0043-012 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Eder Dam on 17 May 1943. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-C0212-0043-012 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

As WWII veterans age into their 80s and 90s their often untold stories are being lost forever as they pass away. Fortunately, some have told their stories while they are still alive as in the case of 96-year-old George Johnson who participated in Operation Chastise in May of 1943.

Called the “Dambusters,” the 617th Squadron of the Royal Air Force had one task – the bombing of German dams to flood industrial locations supplying the Nazis with tanks, aircraft, and ammunition.

Johnson, who goes by the nickname, “Johnny,” and 132 others were assigned to bomb three dams in the Ruhr Valley: the Möhne, the Eder, and the Sorpe. The last one proved to be the most difficult for the Avro Lancaster heavy bombers.

They were dropping bouncing bombs, designed by British aviation engineer Barnes Neville Wallis. Barrel-shaped they rotated so they would jump across the water over rocks and other impediments and then slide down the walls of the dam to explode underwater. The pilots had to fly at night at sixty feet, dodging heavy flak and searchlights with a full moon to help them find the waterways leading to the dams.

Edersee Dam
Edersee Dam

The first bombing wave took off from Scampton, Lincolnshire at approximately 9:39 pm with three groups of three aircraft taking off every ten minutes. On reaching the Ruhr Valley, one plane was trying to avoid the flak by flying low but flew into high tension wires. It exploded detonating its payload and killing everyone on board.

The next plane’s bomb exploded near the center of the Möhne dam but failed to destroy it. The third attempt resulted in a Lancaster being hit and crashing near the village of Ostonnen just upriver of the dam. Three of the crew survived the crash and two were captured, becoming POWs.

Another attack succeeded in hitting the dam but, again, it was undamaged. A fifth attempt dropped a bomb which did not appear to cause any damage. While the sixth attack was being ordered the dam suddenly collapsed pouring millions of gallons of water into the valley submerging everything in its path including German factories, civilian homes, farms and vehicles traveling on the roads below.


Möhne Dam after the attack. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-637-4192-20 / Schalber / CC-BY-SA 3.0.
Möhne Dam after the attack. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-637-4192-20 / Schalber / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Three of the remaining planes headed for the Eder reservoir arriving about twelve minutes later. The aircraft had difficulty getting into the correct position because of Waldeck Castle’s location in the valley. After two attempts a bomb was dropped which bounced twice and exploded but with no damage to the dam. A further successful drop hit it, causing the central wall to break, flooding the valley.

So much flak hit the second wave headed for the Sorpe dam that several aircraft had to abort and two more crashed. Although two bombs were released, the dam was barely damaged.

Two airplanes in the third wave crashed with only minor damage to the dam.

In all, nineteen aircraft took off from England on Operation Chastise. Eight were destroyed; fifty-three soldiers killed and two taken by the Germans as POWs.

Johnny Johnston’s role in Operation Chastise was as a bomb aimer on one of the planes that attacked the Sorpe Dam. He and filmmaker Andrew Panton are in the process of making a documentary about the attack on that dam. They have previously unknown facts regarding training the crews and the events of the attack.

The film, scheduled for release in the summer of 2018, will use advanced special effects to demonstrate the attack in 3D animation showing a more precise record than ever before from someone who was there. Johnson is the last living Dambuster and is very active in keeping the memories of Operation Chastise alive. He appears in several documentaries with his war medals proudly fixed on his coat, still cutting a dapper figure despite his advanced age.

Actress, game show host, entrepreneur and brilliant mathematician Carol Vorderman, member of the Order of the British Empire and Ambassador to the Royal Air Force Air Cadets, has mounted a campaign to have Johnson awarded a knighthood from the Queen while he is still alive to accept the honor.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE