London, England—The last British Dambuster has received an MBE. George ‘Johnny’ Johnson received the MBE, one Britain’s highest awards, by Queen Elizabeth II. At 95 years, he’s the last surviving Briton of the group that achieved the unachievable in one of World War Two’s more peculiar special operations.
Operation Chastise aimed to destroy three dams in the Ruhr valley, Germany’s industrial heartland. To achieve this, 617 Squadron was formed. It was a special operations unit with 133 members. They flew the four-engine Avro Lancaster heavy bomber.
The operation took place on the night of 16-17 May 1943. With 19 Lancasters, the men of 617 Squadron flew at 100ft (30m) to avoid detection and to make their unique payload work. They were using barrel-shaped bombs, which were specially designed for Op Chastise. The bombs were meant to bounce in the water before they lodged in the dams. They were the closest thing you’d get to WWII precision-guided ordnance–they offered they only way to accurately destroy the dams without carpet bombing.
The barrel-looking bombs looked like “glorified dustbins,” according to Johnson, who was a bomber during the raid. He flew 50 missions and retired in 1962 as Squadron Leader (the equivalent of an O-3).
Although Op Chastise didn’t destroy the dams, the damage was sufficient enough that the Germans had to empty and repair them. The mining of coal and the production of Panzers, aircraft, and ammunition was frustrated for many months.
Of the 19 Lancasters, only 11 made it back; of the 133 men, 53 died and three were captured. Close to 2000 civilians were drowned by the surging waters that rushed from the damaged dams. Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the 617’s commanding officer, received the Victoria Cross.
In 1955 a movie immortalized the raid. I highly recommend it for a weekend’s relaxation (on a side note, Sir Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame is planning a remake in the future). In 2014, the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (RAF BBMF), a unit doing historical representations, did a re-enactment of the raid using two preserved Canadian Lancasters.
Fred Sutherland, a Canadian gunner, is the only other survivor of the raid.
RAF’s Bomber Command, alongside its American 8th Air Force counterpart, brought the war to Germany well before Allied troops had landed on the Continent.
Commonwealth squadrons flew in the night and American squadrons flew in the day. Germany was literary being bombed around the clock. In the process, the Allied aircrews suffered terrible losses–Bomber Command lost 55,573 men, the 8th Air Force 47,000.
It’s nice to see that veterans of old wars are still remembered for their sacrifices.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons