Dambuster Guy Gibson VC DSO DFC

Posted on Wednesday 16th May 2012

The man Behind the Mission
When Guy Gibson’s leave was cancelled he was dismayed to discover that he had been posted to HQ No 5 Group. He had been hoping that he would be given duties linked with operations during thus time as he was to be rested from operational flying. It now seemed that this would be unlikely.
This dismay was, however, short-lived as he was soon summoned to the office of Air Vice-Marshal the Hon Ralph Cochrane, AOC No 5 Group, who asked him if he would be prepared to do one more trip. He, of course, agreed but soon began to wonder if he hadn’t been a little hasty in his agreement. Although he was not told what the target would be, he began working things out in his own mind from the scant information available and decided that he had probably just volunteered to attack the Tirpitz, a task not relished by anyone.
Guy was surprised to learn that he would not take command of an existing squadron but would be instrumental in forming a new one, specifically for the purpose of carrying out this one raid. This was more like it; more than even he had dared to hope. At least it showed that his hard work and excellent results with 106 Squadron had been noticed.
He was told that he would have complete control over the formation of the squadron and that he had the authority to request anything or anyone that he needed. Of the actual raid he was told nothing, only that he would need crews able to fly at low level over water.
The squadron was to be based at RAF Scampton, which had been home to Guy during his days with 83 Squadron, and was under the command of Group Captain J Whiteworth. The new squadron, which initially was known as Squadron X, was to share the station with 57 Squadron. At the end of March Squadron X was given its proper designation and 617 Squadron was born.
The aircraft which would be used for this special task were Avro Lancasters which had to be quite extensively adapted to accommodate the bomb, which had been designed specifically for the raid.
As the crews began arriving at Scampton they found that conditions were somewhat primitive. 49 Squadron, who had previously been at Scampton, had moved out because the airfield was about to be equipped with concrete runways and they had taken almost everything with them. There were no chairs or tables and not enough beds for the hundreds of men that make up a squadron. At first everything had to be scrounged or borrowed and the men themselves made a game of spotting and ‘requisitioning’ necessary items. The other squadron on the station had to look out for its own equipment. Left alone for even a few minutes it might easily disappear.
Guy picked for his two Flight Commanders Squadron Leader H M Young, DFC and Squadron Leader H E Maudslay, DFC. Squadron Leader Young was a former Oxford rowing blue and had already completed two tours. He came from 57 Squadron. Twice he had had to ditch into the sea and this experience led to him being given the nickname of ‘Dinghy’. Squadron Leader Maudslay was an old Etonian and arrived at the new squadron from 50 Squadron.
Squadron leader Melvin 'Dinghy' Young.

Guy was also pleased to have with him three pilots from 106 Squadron, Burpee, Shannon and, of course, his old friend ‘Hoppy’ Hopgood. Guy's own wireless operator, Flight Lieutenant Hutchison from 106 Squadron, rejoined him shortly after his arrival at Scampton. The Australian low-flying expert, Micky Martin, was also included, as was the tall blond American, Joe McCarthy. Other crews came from Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
From the start it became clear that many questions would be asked about the formation of this new squadron and that no answers would be given until the mission, for which they had been
This omission was quickly rectified after Guy went down to Surrey to meet the man who would be providing the crews with the special weapon needed for this raid, Barnes Wallis. Barnes Wallis had been expecting to talk completely freely with the Wing Commander chosen to undertake this project and was amazed when he discovered that Guy had not been informed of the target. Guy’s lack of information made it more difficult for the scientist to discuss the finer points of his invention, but he did show Guy a film of the trials that had already been carried out. For the first time Guy saw a film of the amazing weapon that his squadron would use: the bouncing bomb.
Shortly after his first meeting with Wallis, Guy was informed, by AVM Cochrane at No. 5 Group HQ in Grantham, that the target would be the dams of the Ruhr, at the heart of Germany’s industrial area.
An original diagram showing a cross-section of the dam and the release point of the bomb.

Returning to visit Barnes Wallis at his office in Weybridge, Surrey, Guy was now able to discuss the project from an informed viewpoint and pilot and inventor set about the task of ironing out the difficulties that they would each, no doubt, encounter.
Back at Scampton the Squadron was training hard. Guy was still the only one to know the target, but he told the others enough for them to guess that the raid would be made over water and at a low level. Speculation was rife, the most popular view being that the target was either the Tirpitz or, perhaps, U-boat pens.
Whenever he was at Scampton Guy trained just as hard as the others, but much of his time was spent with administration work, planning the most daring raid yet to be undertaken by the RAF. His own crew found that they were flying every evening because it was generally the only time available to Guy for training. They decided that they didn't really mind as it kept them off the ‘booze’.
Gibson was also involved with the trials still being carried out on the bomb which was code-named Upkeep. Security was so tight that whenever Guy went down to visit Barnes Wallis he used different modes of transport and different routes so that no one would know where he had been. Although the bomb worked in theory and small practice bombs had worked in reality, there were still a lot of tests to be carried out before Barnes Wallis was satisfied that it would work properly on the day. Many test drops were made at Chesil Beach in Dorset and at Reculver Bay in Kent. Whenever it was possible Guy attended these trials and, at first, witnessed the disappointing results, as the casings of the bombs broke up when they hit the water.
Barnes Wallis had asked Guy if it was possible for the pilots to fly the aircraft at a height of 150 feet and this they managed to do. However, when it became obvious that the casing was breaking each time because the bomb was being dropped from too great a height, Wallis revised his calculations and Guy was requested to fly at a height of 60 feet. Guy took this news back to his Squadron and they set about trying to devise a way of accurately measuring their height. The crews found that, during the day, this request was not too difficult to fulfil but at night, with the ground almost entirely obscured from view, it was practically impossible. Micky Martin was the expert on low flying, but even he did not have the answer. Aircraft were landing back at Scampton after low flying trials with bits of tree branches and leaves stuck in their undercarriages. The problem was even worse when flying over water as there was no way of judging the height at all, but the problem was finally resolved by a man from the Ministry of Aircraft Production.
His solution was quite simple. He suggested that two lamps be fitted to the underside of the aircraft. If these were placed at the correct angle their beams would converge at the exact height that Barnes Wallis required. Hurriedly the lamps were fitted to an aeroplane and it was sent off on a test flight. It worked and the problem had been solved.
For most of the crews training took place during the day as well as in the evening and there arose the problem of simulating moonlight whilst flying in daylight. Someone suggested using sunglasses but that did not work as it was almost impossible to see the instruments whilst wearing them. Then it was discovered that there was a system of simulating moonlight by painting the screens blue and wearing yellow goggles. Once again an aircraft was modified in this way and a successful test was carried out.
There remained a problem with navigation. Since tile aircraft would be flying really low, they would appear to be moving faster across the ground than if they were at a higher altitude. This meant that they would need large-scale maps and there arose the problem of how to cope with many maps during the flight without getting them all in a muddle. For some the answer was to stick them all together and then roll them. In this way the section already used could be wound up, leaving exposed the part currently being used.
A similar simple solution was found to the problem of a suitable bomb sight. Not only did the aircraft have to be flown at a specific height but the bomb had to be dropped at an exact distance from the target. A bomb sight was made which meant that this was possible. It was a Y shaped device with pins on each of the open ends. When these were lined up with the towers on the dams the aircraft was the exact distance away from the target for the bomb to be dropped. Although this was a very simple device it did not suit all the bomb aimers in the Squadron and some of them made their own arrangements by drawing parallel lines on the clear panel in the nose of the aircraft.
The specially adapted Lancaster releasing the oil drum shaped bomb. This was not the original design planned for the bomb by Wallis.

While all these problems were being solved and the crews were perfecting their low-flying techniques at night, Guy was still very busy. The tests were still being carried out on the bomb and one day Guy took the Squadron bombing leader, an Australian Flight Lieutenant named Bob Hay, with him when he went to watch one of these tests in Kent. After it was over the two men climbed into their Magister to fly back to base. They had only been airborne for a few minutes when the engine cut out and Guy frantically searched for an empty field in which to land. This proved to be quite difficult as most of the available space had been made unserviceable by various devices such as poles and barbed wire in case of a German invasion.
Eventually, however, he did manage to find a small piece of ground but the aeroplane crashed on landing. Luckily both Guy and Bob Hay were unhurt but were very amused when a man ran up to see if they were all right and, looking at them both, stated that he thought the RAF made people as young as they were fly too early.
As if a crash at this stage was not bad enough Guy had developed a carbuncle on the side of his face which was very painful. Using his oxygen mask made it even worse and he went to the doctor to see what could be done about it. The doctor said that he thought Guy had been working much too hard and that the carbuncle had appeared because he was run down. The solution was simple. He prescribed a complete rest for a couple of weeks. Guy could only laugh at this suggestion and put up with the pain and inconvenience.
Guy had very little relaxation at all during this period. Sometimes, when time permitted, he would go for long walks with his dog, Nigger. He had been given permission to use the grounds of a nearby country estate for these walks and sometimes he took Nigger out in a boat on the lake which formed part of the estate. He enjoyed this time spent away from everyone as it gave him time to think without being distracted by the pressures of life on the Squadron. As he had discovered with his last command, it was sometimes a lonely job being a squadron commander. Although he had friends on the Squadron, there was really no one to whom he could turn without being accused of favouritism. So he began to regard Nigger as his best friend and the quiet moments he spent in the countryside with his dog were very precious to him.
When he did allow himself a few hours for a party, he always enjoyed himself, although, as Squadron Commander, he remained more sober than he had in the past. He liked nothing more than a riotous party but his work still came first; nothing was going to stop him from making the best possible job that he could of this assignment.
It has been said of Guy that he did not have anything to do with the NCOs on the Squadron. This was not true. He simply did not have much time or opportunity to mix with anyone. He had, however, discovered that two Squadron members were keen swimmers. These were the Canadian pilot Flight Sergeant Ken Brown and his English Flight Engineer, Sergeant Basil Feneron who, on the night of the raid, bombed the Sorpe dam. On a few occasions Guy accompanied them when they went into Lincoln to the swimming baths and was able to forget his responsibilities for an hour or two while they all messed about in the water. Guy was just as active in the horseplay as were the other two and on one occasion sneaked up behind Ken Brown, who was wearing a smart bathing robe that he had borrowed from Basil Feneron, and pushed him into the pool.
At the beginning of May Guy was dismayed to discover a serious breach in security. The armament officer, Pilot Officer H ‘Doc’ Watson, had spent three weeks at Mansion in Kent during April in connection with the bombing trials. When he returned to Scampton, he told Guy that three days after his arrival at Manston he had been shown a file which contained diagrams, maps and other secret details connected with the forthcoming raid. Guy was furious when he realized that
The flying training continued during the first part of May without any mishaps. The only people who really felt they were suffering were the local farmers. A number of them considered that the Squadron’s low-level flying, was disturbing their animals and some complaints were received at Scampton. Nevertheless the low-level flying continued. Much of it was done over water at Uppingham Lake, Colchester Reservoir and the Derwent Dam.
Gradually the numerous problems were ironed out and there remained only the problem of the bomb itself. After a number of tests, these problems were also resolved: the actual bomb used on the raid was slightly different in appearance from the one first envisaged by Barnes Wallis. The outer casing, which
The date set for the raid on the dams was around 19 May, 1943. This depended on the level of the water in the reservoirs and photo-reconnaissance aircraft had been regularly sent out to photograph the dams in the weeks leading up to the raid. The crews were briefed to ascertain the water level and to note any changes being made at the dams, so ensuring that the Germans were not expecting an attack. There was a moment of concern when it was discovered that the Germans had placed some tall, pointed objects along the top of the Möhne dam, but these were later found to be ornamental conifers used to beautify rather than defend the structure.
Although the day was fast approaching when the raid would be carried out, the men of 57 Squadron were beginning to wonder if 617 Squadron would ever do anything. They had spent such a lot of time training while the other Squadron at Scampton had been making many operational flights, so it was not surprising that they were teased for being armchair pilots. Very soon, however, that all changed.
Micky Martin, recalling the week before the raid, remembered how they all tried to fit in as much living as possible during that week. Although they had not been told what the target would be, they all knew that it was a very special raid and most believed that it would be so dangerous that the chances of returning were probably quite slim. In these circumstances it seemed a shame to leave anything undone and even more of a waste to leave any money unspent. Guy himself spent some money that week in buying a birthday present of a gold and enamel brooch for his young cousin Janet. He never forgot her at Christmas time or on her birthday and had no intentions of doing so now, just because he had only one week to go before the raid. Janet was thrilled to receive the gift, her first piece of real jewellery, for her ninth birthday.
Unlike his crews. Guy knew, rather than surmised, that the target would be a dangerous one. It was obvious that the dams were very important to the Germans and they would not let them be destroyed without a good fight. Worse still for Guy was the fact that he would be leading the raid and would be the first to discover just how strong these defences were.
16 May 1943
Even when he was given the date of the raid as the night of Sunday, 16 May Guy could not relax for a moment. There were still little last minute problems which occurred and he had to write out the operation order in great detail. This task was completed on 15 May, the day after the full dress rehearsal at Uppingham Lake when Guy was accompanied by the Station Commander, Group Captain Whitworth. It was a complete success.
Since it had been decided that Guy would co-ordinate the entire operation by radio, one of the first instances of using a ‘Master bomber’, certain code words were devised to simplify the procedure. Words such as ‘Dinghy’ and ‘Nigger’ would signify that the targets had been destroyed.
It was, perhaps, a horrible irony that the word ‘Nigger’ should have been chosen to mean the destruction of a target, for, on the night of 15 May as Guy was writing out his operation orders, his beloved dog, Nigger, was killed by a car outside the main gates at Scampton. Group Captain Whitworth brought Guy the awful news and told him that Nigger's body had been brought into the guard room.
It is not hard to imagine how Guy must have felt at that moment. Nigger had been his faithful companion since he first came to live with him as a puppy down in Kent. They had shared so much and, when times were hard for Guy, Nigger had always been there with a friendly greeting for his master. The dog’s death was a devastating blow for Guy, and coming, as it did, the day before the most important mission he had ever flown, was a disaster. He was, however, a true professional in his work and was determined not to let this personal tragedy affect the raid. His time for grieving would have to wait until the raid had been satisfactorily carried out. Knowing that some of the crews might regard Nigger’s death as a bad omen, Guy asked that they should not be told until after their return.
The next morning Guy arranged the burial of his dog. He did not want to do it himself but asked that it be carried out at midnight that night, which was the time he was due to be over the target. He spoke to a Flight Sergeant in the station workshop and asked him to build a coffin for Nigger but the man refused and a row ensued. Guy, perhaps understandably, completely lost his temper, but did not get the coffin for his dog. He left the details of the burial to Flight Sergeant Powell, 617’s disciplinary NCO. The burial was carried out exactly as Guy had requested, and at midnight his little friend was laid to rest. Marked much later by a proper stone, the carefully tended little grave remains to this day on the grass outside the original 617 Squadron offices at RAF Scampton.
Sunday, 16 May was a hot day and the forecast for the raid remained good. During the day the crews were told what their targets would be and they spent some hours examining the models of the dams and fixing the details in their minds.
When the time came to leave, there was great excitement and almost the entire station turned out to wave 617 on their way. As Guy was climbing into his Lancaster a photographer drove up to take a photo of the departing crew. Guy, in shirt-sleeves, stopped at the top of the ladder and turned. His crew, still on the ground, turned also and the photo was taken. Guy told the photographer that ‘just in case’ he had better send a copy to his wife and his crew laughed. As they disappeared into the aircraft, their laughter could still be heard. They obviously thought Guy’s statement to be ridiculous. They would be coming back; there was no doubt about that in the minds of any of them.
Guy in his Lancaster, AJ-G, took off at 21.39 hours accompanied by Hoppy Hopgood in AJ-M and Micky Martin in AJ-P. They were followed minutes later by six more aircraft, including those of the two Flight Commanders. These nine aircraft would make the attack on the main targets of the Möhne and Eder dams. Then came five more crews heading for the Sorpe dam. The remaining aircraft, out of the total of nineteen, would be used wherever they were needed and could be contacted by radio to be given their orders.
Much has been written about the raid and its consequences. It was, of course, a great success, although in terms of crews lost it was an expensive operation. Of the nineteen aircraft which left Scampton that May evening only eleven were to return. From the eight aircraft lost, only three men would survive.
The outward flight for Guy and his two companions was relatively peaceful, at least until they reached the Dutch coast. As they approached the Möhne dam they flew over the Rhine and down towards the Möhne Lake which was calm and still and looked like a mirror in the moonlight.
Guy made a dummy run over the dam and then came in to line up for his attack. The flak was quite heavy but the attack was successfully made and the aircraft was not damaged. The bomb dropped in the correct place and as it exploded a huge wall of water was thrown into the night air. It took several minutes for the spray to subside and when it did the dam was seen to be still intact.
Guy then called in Hoppy to make his run. As he approached the wall his aircraft was hit and his bomb was released a little too late. Instead of bouncing up to the dam wall and then sinking it dropped over the top of the dam and landed on a power station on the other side, exploding immediately. This explosion may have destroyed one of the flak guns. Hoppy called for the crew to bale out and tried to climb while they were doing so to give them a better chance of survival. It was no good. Only two members of the crew managed to bale out and live to tell the tale. A third left the aircraft, but did not survive the fall. Seconds later the aircraft crashed with a huge explosion and the subsequent fire burned for a long time, a constant reminder to the other crews of the dangers they were facing.
Guy, circling around and watching this, was helpless to do anything. He told his uncle and aunt later that when he saw his friend shot down something inside him snapped and all he could think of was to get whoever had been responsible for Hoppy’s death.
As he called Micky Martin in to make the third attack, Guy decided to fly along with him in order to try to divert the flak from the attacking aircraft to his own. This worked and although Martin’s aircraft was hit he was able to make a successful attack and, ultimately, return to England.
When Guy flew in alongside the other aircraft, the gunners in AJ-G fired furiously at the gun emplacements on the dam. In spite of their efforts the man credited with shooting down AJ-M was not killed. He was Corporal Karl Schutte, 23-year-old commander of the North Tower flak gun, who survived the attack to be decorated, a week later, with the Iron Cross, 2nd class.
It took two more bombs before the dam was finally breached by the one dropped from David Maltby's aircraft. As each aircraft made their bombing run Guy flew alongside diverting the flak. Then on they went to the Eder dam where Guy, once more, directed the attack. After it was hit by the third bomb, delivered by Les Knight and his crew, the Eder dam also collapsed with a huge hole across its middle. It had not been necessary to use diversionary tactics at this dam. There were no flak positions on its walls as there had been at the Möhne. The Eder dam was in a difficult position to reach at low level with a large aircraft and the Germans had obviously thought an attack to be impossible. They had not reckoned with the tenacity of the men of 617 Squadron.
The return journey was filled with a mixture of elation and sadness. The task had been completed but at what cost. In a misspelt entry in his logbook Guy said simply of the raid;
Led attack on Möhne an[d] Eder dams. Successful.’
Guy Gibson.

617 Squadron crest.

'Guy, always a strict disciplinarian, now issued dire threats to anyone who spoke out of turn or breached any security regulations.'

617 Squadron's objectives.

Canadian pilot Flight Sergeant Ken Brown who, on the night of the raid, bombed the Sorpe dam.

'They had only been airborne for a few minutes when the engine cut out and Guy frantically searched for an empty field in which to land.'

The target, Mohne Dam, pictured in use before the war.

IIn addition to its size and shape, the bomb was also unique in that, to perform correctly, it needed to be spun backwards before being released.'

Guy and his crew climbing aboard their Lancaster before leaving to bomb the Mohne Dam.

'When the time came to leave, there was great excitement and almost the entire station turned out to wave 617 on their way.'

For more information on the many different aspects of Operation Chastise, see this commemorative magazine on the Dambusters Raids, available via the Pen and Sword website. Looking at the training of Bomber Command aircrew, the formation and development of the plan for the raid on the dams, how the weapon was designed and tested and how the Lancaster was adapted to carry the weapon, as well as focussing on several pilots and crew members who took part in the raids.

'Guy then called in Hoppy to make his run. As he approached the wall his aircraft was hit and his bomb was released a little too late. Instead of bouncing up to the dam wall and then sinking it dropped over the top of the dam and landed on a power station on the other side, exploding immediately.'


Above and below: the aftermath. Pictures taken by the Germans and the RAF show the true extent of the bomb damage.


Further Reading

(Paperback - 196 pages)
ISBN: 9781844156054

by Susan Ottaway
Only £12.99

Few men have a better claim to be called a legend in his own lifetime than Guy Gibson. Leader of the famous Dambuster Raid of May, 1943 which became part of the popular folklore of the Second World War after the film in which Richard Todd took the part of the hero, he himself was tragically in an air crash in 1944.

Born in India in 1918 and brought up in England, Guy Gibson joined the RAF in November, 1936. Thereafter his career can be seen…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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