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This Day in History

World History

Monday, May 17, 1943. :   The Day of the Dam-Busters: During WW2, Britain carries out strategic bombing attacks on crucial dams in Germany's industrial region

     The Ruhr Valley in northwestern Germany was Germany's main industrial region during the first half of the twentieth century. Bordered by the Ruhr, Rhine and Lippe Rivers, it holds three major dams, the Möhne, Sorpe and the Edersee Dams, which were key producers of hydroelectric power during World War II. The industrial area was also central to the manufacture of Germany's war munitions.

During World War II, the dams became the target of a series of bold bombing raids by Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF). The "bouncing bomb" was invented and developed by Barnes Wallis, Assistant Chief Designer at British engineering firm Vickers. When dropped from the correct angle and height, the bomb was designed to skip over the surface of the water, thus avoiding obstacles such as torpedo nets. After executing a series of bounces, it would reach the dam wall, where its residual backward spin would cause the bomb to run down the side of the dam to its underwater base, exploding and damaging the dam wall.

Codenamed Operation Chastise, the raid was carried out over the night of 16-17 May 1943. It was a dangerous assignment as the aircraft dropping the bombs had to avoid German anti-aircraft fire while flying low enough to deploy the bombs. 53 of the 133 aircrew who participated in the attack were killed. The dam walls of the Möhne and Edersee were destroyed, while the Sorpe received minor damage. With an estimated two-thirds of the area's water supply compromised, massive flooding inundated the Ruhr Valley. Several underground mines were flooded, numerous factories were destroyed and over a hundred damaged, along with over a thousand houses. Many roads, railways and bridges were flooded in a radius of about 80km from the breaches. Two hydro-electric powerplants were destroyed and seven others damaged, causing massive disruption to the industrial region for at least two weeks. At least 1,650 people were killed, and hundreds more were never found: over one thousand of these were foreign prisoners of war and forced-labourers, mostly from the Soviet Union prison camps.

Although later analysis indicates the operation was not the military and strategic success it was believed to be at the time, it proved to be a tremendous morale-booster for the British. An interesting, although unexpected, result was the development of improved bombing technology as a result of acceptance of Barnes Wallis's ideas. His concept of "earthquake bombing", which had been previously rejected, was now accepted. This involved dropping a large, specially designed heavy bomb at supersonic speed so it penetrated underground and exploded, with the resulting shockwaves producing the equivalent of a small earthquake. Nearby structures such as dams, railways, viaducts and other crucial infrastructure would be destroyed, especially as any concrete foundations served to magnify the effects of the bomb. Ultimately, this led to the development of the Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs, which caused catastrophic damage to German infrastructure in the latter part of the war.

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