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Article posted by: White Nation  correspondent Bonn – February 17 2017












BRIGHTLY  colored banners proclaim the centenary of the Möhne Dam. At one end of the great curving structure, a stall offers souvenirs to day trippers enjoying the hot weather — pens, key rings and beer steins imprinted with images of the Möhnesee, the vast man-made lake held in check by this feat of engineering. There is another gift on offer, not heavily promoted, a DVD of an old foreign war film called The Dam Busters. Germans and Britons visit the Möhne for different reasons, the former to admire a miracle of construction, four years in the making, the latter to remember a miracle of destruction, achieved on a single night.

“It was something to remember – the memory will never leave me,” says Elfriede Vogt. “No one ever thought the Möhne could be destroyed. It was simply not possible.”Frau Vogt was 10 years old that night – 70 years ago this coming week – when the war arrived suddenly and catastrophically in a previously untouched corner of the Third Reich. The Dams Raid of May 16-17 1943 was one of the most dramatic episodes of the Second World War, an attempt to cripple a major portion of the Nazi war economy in a series of pinpoint attacks against dams feeding the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany. Code-named “Operation Chastise,”– the raid was audacious in every way, marrying the skill and bravery of some of the best crews in Bomber Command with the genius of one man,- Barnes Wallis.

Upkeep testing

Frantic testing of the Upkeep bomb showed it had to be dropped from 60ft (18.2m)

The bouncing bomb he devised for the operation accomplished the seemingly impossible, skipping over torpedo nets designed to frustrate air-launched weapons before sinking to the depths and exploding with tremendous force. Two dams, the Möhne and Eder, were breached, and one, the Sorpe, damaged. The ensuing torrents engulfed factories and power stations and swept away bridges, while the water supply feeding the armaments industry in the Ruhr was disrupted for months. But the greatest gain to the Allied cause was in the field of propaganda. Seized upon by a press hungry for victories, the Dams Raid rapidly evolved into legend, crystallized in peacetime by the film released in 1955 starring Michael Redgrave as Wallis and Richard Todd as Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, leader of the operation. The Dam Busters is the epitome of the British war film, matching pluck and eccentricity against a dark and monolithic enemy, symbolized by the Möhne and its Gothic, fortress-like towers. In keeping with the essentially triumphalist tone of the film, the human cost of the operation — 1,300 people killed – is downplayed, except in the case of lost aircrew.

German survivors of the raid see no need to glorify its memory (Pic: Geoff Pugh)

The Dams Raid is regarded differently in the towns and villages lying downstream from the Möhne. Here, the attack is referred to on memorials as the  Möhne-Katastrophe, as if the product of an act of God. The Lancaster bombers zooming low over the countryside that night were objects of fear, not admiration. No one here is familiar with Eric Coates’s The Dambusters March. “We were hiding in the cellar and went outside after we heard the roaring sound of the water,” says Vogt, who grew up in Niederense, three miles downstream from the dam. “But we hit the ground when we saw the planes overhead. We thought they would start machine-gunning us.” The roar – everyone mentions the roar – was distant at first but built to an overpowering crescendo. The Möhne held 30 billion gallons of water at bay and 25 billion of those were released when the dam, weakened by repeated hits, gave way. The resulting wave was more than 20ft high. “It sounded like wind, a great wind,” remembers Karl Hennecke, who was eight at the time of the attack. “And then our mother said, ‘No, that’s water.’ The glass in the windows broke and it poured into the cellar where we were hiding.” He and his younger brother Willy had to climb to the top of the family home to save themselves. “My father broke the roof tiles and we went on to the roof,” he recalls. “He said, ‘You will never see anything like this in your life again.’”

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Josef Rochel was 13 at the time and living in Günne, the town nearest to the Möhne. “I saw the face of one of the Lancaster pilots as he made a turn overhead,” he says. “They were flying incredibly low, and we all knew what they were after – there was nothing else in Günne apart from the dam. My father had built an air-raid bunker in the woods and we ran to it but then had to go back to get the goat and pigs out of the cellar. My father shouted, ‘They’ve got the dam!’ None of us could believe it.”

Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who led the mission

The destruction of the Ruhr dams had been an ambition of British contingency planning since 1938, but it was Wallis who made an attack feasible. His solution to the problem was inspired partly by the old tactic of bouncing cannon balls off the sea. In April 1942 he began experimenting with marbles. “We had these lovely summer holidays in Dorset, and my father used to show us how to make a pebble skip across the water,” remembers his daughter, Mary Stopes-Roe.At home, he borrowed my mother’s water tub, about 3ft in diameter, probably. And he and his chaps at work made a catapult that he could lift up and down to try different elevations and distances. My brother used to measure the distances between bounces.” Did she guess what was going on? “I thought, ‘If that’s what he wants to do, no harm in it.’” A critical development in the design of “Upkeep,”-  as the bomb was code-named, was the incorporation of backspin to improve range and stability and keep it close to the target as it sank towards detonation depth. The bouncing bomb solved the problem of placing sufficient explosive force to a dam wall but required a precise airspeed – 220mph – and ultra-low-level delivery – just 60ft.

Teenage auxiliary gun crew - Flakhelfer

Some anti-aircraft guns at the Mohne were crewed by teenage reservists

Formed on March 21 1943 at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, 617 Squadron was created specifically to undertake “Operation Chastise.”–  Its crews – British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander, most in their early twenties – had less than two months to ready themselves for the operation. The Ruhr dams had to be attacked when the reservoirs they contained were full, in order to maximize water pressure on the impact point; and the high levels of spring would not last past the end of May. Weeks of hair-raising training flights followed, but by the night of May 16, the men of 617 were ready. At 9.28pm, the first of 19 Lancasters struggled into the air, weighed down by its lethal four-ton load.

Unto the breach: The Möhne dam, from top, shortly after the raid (Pic: Ruhrverband Essen)

The operation was low-level throughout, in order to evade radar and night fighters, and the attacking force suffered serious losses as it wove its way in three waves towards the targets. Aircraft fell victim to both flak and collisions with power lines. One Lancaster flew so low that its bomb was ripped from its bomb bay. George “Johnny” Johnson is the last-surviving British Dambuster, and one of only three men alive who took part in the raid. He had wanted to be a park-keeper in civilian life, but now here he was, a bomb aimer heading towards the Sorpe Dam in Lancaster T-Tommy, piloted by Joe McCarthy, a New Yorker serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force. “I had such confidence in my Joe,” says Johnson. “I never thought he wasn’t going to bring me back.” The Sorpe, a large earthwork with a concrete core, was recognized as the toughest nut to crack, being less vulnerable to shock waves produced by Upkeep than the masonry of the Möhne and Eder.


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Wallis reckoned it would take sixUpkeeps to breach the Sorpe, not bounced but dropped by Lancasters flying parallel to the dam. In the event, only two aircraft assigned to the Sorpe were able to release their bombs. Johnson insisted on 10 nerve-shattering diving passes before releasing his bomb at an altitude of 30ft. “There was some quite interesting language in the aircraft. I couldn’t see the explosion because it was essential for us to get back up to height quickly before we hit the hills. Dave Rodger, the rear gunner, estimated that the water spout went up 1,000ft. Some of it came into the turret, so he thought he was being drowned as well as blown up.”

There were plenty of drownings. Alerted by air-raid sirens, families downstream of the dams took to their cellars, the worst possible choice of refuge. In Günne, 27 people died, including six members of a single family, the Koehlers. The eldest son of the family was serving with the Wehrmacht in Greece and was later given leave to return home without being told why. The suffering was not confined to Germans. About 600 slave labourers, including a large contingent of female Russian prisoners, were swept away by floodwater.

Modified ‘dam-busting’ Lancasters in flight (Pic: Optimum Releasing)

Back in Lincolnshire, Wallis was digesting the toll taken on the crews, even as he was being congratulated about the success of the raid. Eight of the 19 attacking aircraft had been lost and 53 out of 133 aircrew killed, together with three captured. Five Lancasters had been shot down or destroyed accidentally en route to their targets, one had been downed executing its attack and two more had been shot down on the way home. Two crews had aborted their missions due to damage. “We were quite devastated with the number of people lost, but on the other hand it was so different from anything else that had been attempted by Bomber Command up to that point in the war,” says Johnson. “To this day, I think about the ghastliness of the numbers.” Stopes-Roe was at boarding school when the BBC announced the attack. “When the news came through, I realised what my father had been doing,” she says. “I immediately sent him a telegram and then wrote the most remarkable 14-year-old’s letter to him, full of joy that it had worked. Bless the little marbles!”

Mohne Dam - damage downstream

Most of the casualties and damage was suffered below the Mohne Dam

Wallis, though, was preoccupied with those who had failed to return. “He was devastated by the casualties,” says Stopes-Roe. “He knew life would be lost, but not to that extent. He never got over it actually. Never.” After the war, the Government made awards to inventors who had contributed towards victory, and Wallis was offered £10,000. But he donated the money to the RAF Benevolent Fund, which then used it to create bursaries for children of RAF personnel attending the inventor’s old school, Christ’s Hospital. The bursaries exist to this day. “There was a lot of unpleasant politicking over whether he should be given an award,” says Stopes-Roe. “When he realised he would be getting money, he said he could not take it… he saw it as blood money for the air crew’s lives.”But what of deaths on the ground? Did Wallis ever speak of those?Maybe he did, but he never mentioned it to me. When you think about the carpet-bombing carried out by both sides – he certainly didn’t think that was a good plan. That is why he developed big ‘earthquake’ bombs for precision bombing. In the end, what can you do in war? You fight or you don’t.”

The experimental bomb, the new squadron and the bold plan had worked. A torrent had been unleashed. But at a cost. Of the 133 aircrew taking part, 53 died and three were captured.  Extensive damage was caused on the ground – though the impact on the wider German war effort is still hotly debated. Estimates of the civilian death toll vary between 1,200 and 1,600, with Germans and foreign prisoners sharing the brunt of the water’s fury.

Karl Schütte, Elizabeth Müller, Antonia Ivanovna
Image caption : Witnesses said the shock of the attack and force of the water was overwhelming

Elizabeth Müller, who lived in nearby Neheim and was expecting her first child, remembered: “We were fast asleep when we heard a huge, thunderous noise. “We looked out at the dam, which was lit up, and then there was a terrible bang. As we ran outside, there were shards of debris and bits of the window on the ground. “Then the water rose and rose. “Our house was flooded but remained standing while everything else, trees, roads, gardens, was swept away.” Also in the path of the deluge were  labor camps. One inmate was Russian Antonia Ivanovna, She said: “Suddenly there was lots of noise. People were screaming and we knew we had to get out of there. I ran across the camp with my sister, past people locked in their blocks. We ran to the road into town – we knew the way as we had to use it every day. “Suddenly my sister fell to the ground and she was bleeding. She told me to save myself, leave her but we carried on together.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt
Image caption: News of the raid came while Winston Churchill was in Washington to discuss the future of the war. 
“It was terrifying, foggy and cold. We had taken our bed sheets with us but we didn’t have much on, the water came up as high as our backs. “On the way out, a German woman grabbed my arm tightly. I never saw her again, it was an awful moment.” Antonia and her sister survived the night but had to wait until late evening until the authorities corralled them into an old theater and gave them food. “What did we do? We had to look for the bodies in the mud. We washed their faces and they were photographed. “The German corpses were taken to the church. The Russians were put on to a wagon and taken to a mass grave. “For two to three months we kept finding bodies – they had become fat and swollen with the water. It was awful. I’m sure lots of Russians ended up in German graves and Germans in Russian ones.” Around the world, news of the attacks spread to front pages and radio bulletins. Claim and counter-claim were made about the damage and number of deaths. In Washington for crucial negotiations, Winston Churchill basked in what he called a “gallant operation” causing “unparalleled devastation”. A legend was born.

Imposing: the dam as it looks today (Pic: Geoff Pugh)

Was the Dams Raid a success? The question is still debated. That great damage was caused is not in doubt, and by a force tiny in comparison with the bomber streams, often more than 1,000-strong, dispatched nightly by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, commander-in-chief of Bomber Command, to raze the cities of the Reich. Downstream of the Möhne, 11 factories were destroyed, 114 damaged, 25 road and rail bridges destroyed and water and gas supplies disrupted. The breaching of the Eder caused severe disruption to road and canal communications and destroyed valuable agricultural land. About 27,000 workers and slave laborers had to be diverted from other tasks to rebuild the dams and re-route water supplies, and an additional 10,000 troops were deployed to guard dams for the rest of the war. But it is probably right to say that the raid was only a partial success, chiefly notable for its shock value – not the sledgehammer blow hoped for by Wallis. Serious disruption of the Ruhr water supply required breaching both the Möhne and the Sorpe, which together held three quarters of the region’s water reserves, and the latter was only slightly damaged in the attack. If just another dozen bombers had been allocated to the Sorpe, the story might have been different, but somehow it was demoted to third place. Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister, could not understand why the British had concentrated on the less-critical Eder at the expense of the Sorpe.

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British crews directly after the raid- going for the de-briefing room

Bomber Command also failed to follow up its investment in the Dams Raid with attacks aimed at disrupting repair work, and the gaping 230ft-wide hole in the Möhne was closed by late September 1943. Harris, never a believer in what he derided as “panacea” targets, was happy to get back to leveling Germany’s urban centers, block by fiery block. Karl-Heinz Wilmes is the mayor of Günne. He was five years old as he stared out of a basement window in his house, watching tracer arching through the sky towards the Möhne. A member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, he counts himself a pacifist. “The film made of the attack was not necessary,” he says. “It glorified a mission that did not succeed, and killed nearly 1,400 civilians and lost the RAF valuable crew. It was, perhaps, technologically impressive, but a failure by any other measure.”How does he feel when the British come to Günne to mark the attack? “No one harbours any bad feelings about the British here. It was a long time ago and it was war. Before the Dambusters came, the Germans had laid waste to British cities. Many British people come here each year and we welcome them.”

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Mud, debris and dead animals hampered rescue efforts and polluted water


Today, the Möhne is again a seemingly impregnable rampart. Stand atop it, and the power unleashed by the raid is not difficult to visualize. To the east, the glinting Möhnesee stretches into the distance, dotted with yachts sailing in and out of its numerous forested inlets. The surface of the lake is 120ft above the valley floor on the dry side, a reservoir not just of water but of energy, forever straining to be set free. “I still have a bad feeling when I go to the dam,” says Hennecke, standing in the shadow of the Möhne. “After that night, I will never trust the dam again.” Johnson is 91 now, but the events of 70 years ago are fresh in his mind, and he has relived those low-level passes over moon-flecked water a thousand times. A fierce defender of the raid, he despises those who indulge in hindsight to diminish its value, but he has nevertheless mellowed with the passing of the years. “I visited the Sorpe once,” he says, “and I looked over the side and suddenly I was back there dropping that bomb again. And then I walked over to the other side and saw this lovely valley and I thought, ‘I’m almost glad that we didn’t breach this dam.’ If we had, that valley would have been absolutely ruined. OK, it could have been rebuilt, but it would never have been the same.”





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