He was honoured for his actions as a bomber pilot in Papua New Guinea during March 1943 when, despite intense anti-aircraft fire, he pressed home a series of attacks on the Salamaua Isthmus, the last of which saw him forced to ditch his aircraft in the sea. Newton was still officially posted as missing when the award was made in October 1943. It later emerged that he had been taken captive by the Japanese, and executed by beheading on 29 March.
Born in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda on 8 June 1919, Bill Newton was the youngest child of dentist Charles Ellis Newton and his second wife Minnie. His three older half-siblings from Charles’ earlier marriage included two brothers, John and Lindsay, and a sister, Phyllis. Bill entered Melbourne Grammar School in 1929, but two years later switched to the nearby St Kilda Park Central School as the family income was reduced through the impact of the Great Depression.
In 1934, aged fifteen, he was able to return to Melbourne Grammar where, despite struggling with his schoolwork, he completed his Intermediate certificate. He gave up further study when his father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of fifty-one, and began working in a silk warehouse.
He had earlier attempted to enlist when he turned eighteen in 1937, but his mother refused to give her permission; with Australia now at war, she acquiesced. His brothers—dentists by profession, like their father—also enlisted in the armed forces, John as a surgeon lieutenant in the Royal Australian Navy and Lindsay as a Captain in the Army Medical Corps.
Newton undertook the first of his fifty-two operational sorties on 1 January 1943, under the leadership of his commanding officer, Squadron Leader Keith Hampshire. During February, Newton flew low-level missions through monsoon conditions and hazardous mountain terrain, attacking Japanese forces ranged against Allied troops in the Morobe province.
Newton gained a reputation for driving straight at his targets without evasive manoeuvre, and always leaving them in flames; this earned him the nickname “The Firebug”. The Japanese gunners, however, reportedly knew him as “Blue Cap”, from his habit of wearing an old blue cricket cap on operations. In spite of the hazards of the air war in New Guinea, he was quoted as saying,
“The troops on the ground should get two medals each, before any airman gets one”.
Attacks on Salamaua
Douglas Bostons of No. 22 Squadron over New Guinea, c. 1942–43
On 16 March 1943, Newton led a sortie on the Salamaua Isthmus in which his Boston was hit repeatedly by Japanese anti-aircraft fire, damaging fuselage, wings, fuel tanks and undercarriage. In spite of this he continued his attack and dropped his bombs at low level on buildings, ammunition dumps and fuel stores, returning for a second pass at the target in order to strafe it with machine-gun fire.
Newton managed to get his crippled machine back to base, where it was found to be marked with ninety-eight bullet holes. Two days later, he and his two-man crew made a further attack on Salamaua with five other Bostons. As he bombed his designated target, Newton’s plane was seen to burst into flames, raked by cannon fire from the ground.
Attempting to keep his aircraft aloft as long as possible to get his crew away from enemy lines, he was able to ditch in the sea approximately 1,000 yards (910 m) offshore.
The Boston’s navigator, Sergeant Basil Eastwood, was killed in the forced landing but Newton and his wireless operator, Flight Sergeant John Lyon, survived and managed to swim ashore. Several of the other aircraft in the flight circled the area; one returned to base straight away to inform Hampshire, and the remainder were later forced to depart through lack of fuel. Newton and Lyon originally made their way inland with the help of natives, aiming to contact an Australian Coastwatcher, but subsequently returned to the coast. There they were captured by a Japanese patrol of No. 5 Special Naval Landing Force.
The two airmen were taken to Salamaua and interrogated until 20 March, before being moved to Lae where Lyon was bayoneted to death on the orders of Rear Admiral Ruitaro Fujita, the senior Japanese commander in the area. Newton was brought back to Salamaua where, on 29 March 1943, he was ceremonially beheaded with a Samurai sword by Sub-Lieutenant Uichi Komai, the naval officer who had captured him.
Komai was killed in the Philippines soon after, and Fujita committed suicide at the end of the war.
Revelations and reactions
It was initially believed that Newton had failed to escape from the Boston after it ditched into the sea, and he was posted as missing. Squadron Leader Hampshire had immediately dispatched a sortie to recover the pair that were last seen swimming for shore, but no sign of them was found.
Two weeks later, he wrote a letter to Newton’s mother in which he described her son’s courage and expressed the hope that he might yet be found alive. Hampshire concluded:”.
The details of his capture and execution were only revealed later that year in a diary found on a Japanese soldier. Newton was not specifically named, but circumstantial evidence clearly identified him, as the diary entry recorded the beheading of an Australian flight lieutenant who had been shot down by anti-aircraft fire on 18 March 1943 while flying a Douglas aircraft.
The Japanese observer described the prisoner as “composed” in the face of his impending execution, and:
“unshaken to the last”.
After the decapitation, a seaman slashed open the dead man’s stomach, declaring :
“Something for the other day. Take that.”
General Headquarters South West Pacific Area, while releasing details of the execution on 5 October, initially refused to name Newton. Aside from the lack of absolute certainty as to identification, Air Vice Marshal Bill Bostock, Air Officer Commanding RAAF Command, contended that naming him would change the impact of the news upon Newton’s fellow No. 22 Squadron members “from the impersonal to the closely personal” and hence “seriously affect morale”.
News of the atrocity provoked shock in Australia. In an attempt to alleviate anxiety among the families of other missing airmen, the Federal government announced on 12 October that the relatives of the slain man had been informed of his death.
Newton was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 16–18 March, becoming the only Australian airman to earn the decoration in the South West Pacific theatre of World War II, and the only one while flying with an RAAF squadron.
The citation, which incorrectly implied that he was shot down on 17 March rather than the following day, and as having failed to escape from his sinking aircraft, was promulgated in the London Gazette on 19 October 1943:
Newton c. 1942–43
Air Ministry, 19th October, 1943.
The KING has been graciously pleased, on the advice of Australian Ministers, to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —
Flight Lieutenant William Ellis NEWTON (Aus. 748), Royal Australian Air Force, No. 22 (R.A.A.F.) Squadron (missing).
Flight Lieutenant Newton served with No. 22 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, in New Guinea from May, 1942, to March, 1943, and completed 52 operational sorties.
Throughout, he displayed great courage and an iron determination to inflict the utmost damage on the enemy. His splendid offensive flying and fighting were attended with brilliant success. Disdaining evasive tactics when under the heaviest fire, he always went straight to his objectives. He carried out many daring machine-gun attacks on enemy positions involving low-flying over long distances in the face of continuous fire at point-blank range.
On three occasions, he dived through intense anti-aircraft fire to release his bombs on important targets on the Salamaua Isthmus. On one of these occasions, his starboard engine failed over the target, but he succeeded in flying back to an airfield 160 miles away. When leading an attack on an objective on 16th March, 1943, he dived through intense and accurate shell fire and his aircraft was hit repeatedly. Nevertheless, he held to his course and bombed his target from a low level. The attack resulted in the destruction of many buildings and dumps, including two 40,000-gallon fuel installations. Although his aircraft was crippled, with fuselage and wing sections torn, petrol tanks pierced, main-planes and engines seriously damaged, and one of the main tyres flat, Flight Lieutenant Newton managed to fly it back to base and make a successful landing.
Despite this harassing experience, he returned next day to the same locality. His target, this time a single building, was even more difficult but he again attacked with his usual courage and resolution, flying a steady course through a barrage of fire. He scored a hit on the building but at the same moment his aircraft burst into flames.
Flight Lieutenant Newton maintained control and calmly turned his aircraft away and flew along the shore. He saw it as his duty to keep the aircraft in the air as long as he could so as to take his crew as far away as possible from the enemy’s positions. With great skill, he brought his blazing aircraft down on the water. Two members of the crew were able to extricate themselves and were seen swimming to the shore, but the gallant pilot is missing. According to other air crews who witnessed the occurrence, his escape-hatch was not opened and his dinghy was not inflated. Without regard to his own safety, he had done all that man could do to prevent his crew from falling into enemy hands.
Flight Lieutenant Newton’s many examples of conspicuous bravery have rarely been equalled and will serve as a shining inspiration to all who follow him.
Newton’s medals on display at the Australian War Memorial
Buried initially in an unmarked bomb crater in Salamaua, Newton’s body was recovered and re-interred in Lae War Cemetery after Salamaua’s capture by Allied troops in September 1943.
In early 1944, the recently constructed No. 4 Airfield in Nadzab was renamed Newton Field in his honour. For many years, the story of Newton’s death was intertwined with that of an Australian commando, Sergeant Len Siffleet, who had also been captured in New Guinea.
A famous photograph showing Siffleet about to be executed with a katana was discovered by American troops in April 1944 and was thought to have depicted Newton in Salamaua. However, no photograph of the airman’s execution is known to exist.
Newton is also commemorated on Canberra’s Remembrance Driveway. In the 1990s, his friend Keith Miller successfully fought to ensure that the Victoria Racing Club abandoned a plan to rename the William Ellis Newton Steeplechase—run on Anzac Day—after a commercial sponsor. Later in the decade, Miller also publicly questioned Australia Post‘s exclusion of Newton from a series of stamps featuring notable Australians such as cricketer Sir Donald Bradman.
A plaque dedicated to No. 22 Squadron was unveiled at the Australian War Memorial by the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston, on 16 March 2003, the sixtieth anniversary of Newton’s attack on Salamaua.
A day before the auction, they were bought by British peer Lord Ashcroft for £75,000 ($117,000). He donated them to the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland.
While Sqn Ldr Munro was the last living Dambusters pilot, he is survived by two crew members – Canadian former front gunner Fred Sutherland and British former bomb aimer George Johnson.
On the night of 16 May 1943, 19 bombers left RAF Scampton near Lincoln in three waves
The first headed to the Mohne and the Eder Dams, the second and third to the Sorpe dam
Out of the 133 crew that set off, only 77 returned, including Sqn Ldr Munro, who made it home after flak destroyed the internal and external communications in his Lancaster bomber over the Netherlands
He had been briefed to attack the Sorpe Dam by flying parallel to its wall and releasing the bomb from the lowest possible height, while flying at 180 mph (290 km/h)
The Sorpe Dam was damaged but the Mohne and Eder Dams were destroyed, flooding the Ruhr valley and killing an estimated 1,300 people, mostly civilians
Dambusters Declassified Documentary
Operation Chastise was an attack on German dams carried out on 16–17 May 1943 by Royal Air ForceNo. 617 Squadron, subsequently publicised as the “Dam Busters”, using a specially developed “bouncing bomb” invented and developed by Sir Barnes Wallis. The Möhne and Edersee Dams were breached, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr valley and of villages in the Eder valley; the Sorpe dam sustained only minor damage. Two hydroelectric power stations were destroyed and several more were damaged. Factories and mines were also either damaged or destroyed. An estimated 1,600 German civilians drowned. The damage was mitigated by rapid repairs by the Germans, with production returning to normal in September.
Prior to World War II, the British Air Ministry had identified Germany’s heavily industrialised Ruhr Valley, and especially its dams, as important strategic targets: in addition to providing hydro-electric power and pure water for steel-making, they also supplied drinking water and water for the canal transport system. The methods used to attack the dams had been carefully worked out. Calculations indicated that repeated air strikes with large bombs could be effective, but required a degree of accuracy which Bomber Command had been unable to attain in the face of enemy defences.
The mission grew out of a concept for a bomb designed by Barnes Wallis and developed by his team at Vickers. Wallis was Assistant Chief Designer at Vickers. He had worked on both the Vickers Wellesley and Vickers Wellington bombers. While working on the Vickers Windsor he had also begun work, with support of the Admiralty, on a bomb designed initially for attacking ships, although dam destruction was soon considered.
Wallis’s initial idea was to drop a 10 long tons (10 t) bomb from an altitude of about 40,000 ft (12,200 m). This idea was part of the earthquake bomb concept. At that time no bomber aircraft was capable of flying at that altitude with such a heavy payload. A much smaller explosive charge would suffice, if it could be exploded directly against the dam wall below the surface of the water, but the major German reservoir dams were protected by heavy torpedo nets to prevent such an attack.
Wallis’s breakthrough overcame this. A drum-shaped bomb — essentially a specially designed, heavy depth charge — spinning backwards at over 500 rpm, dropped at a sufficiently low altitude at the correct speed, would skip for a significant distance over the surface of the water in a series of bounces before reaching the dam wall. Its residual spin would run the bomb down the side of the dam to its underwater base. Using a hydrostatic fuse, an accurate drop could bypass the dam’s defences and enable the bomb to explode against the dam.
Using two spotlights to adjust altitude, a modified Lancaster dropped a backspun drum-bomb which skipped over torpedo nets protecting the dam. After impact the bomb spun down to the dam’s base and exploded.
Initial testing of the concept included blowing up a plaster model dam at the Building Research Establishment, Watford in May 1942 and then the breaching of the disused Nant-y-Gro dam in Wales in July 1942. The first full-scale trials were at Chesil Beach in January 1943. This demonstrated that a bomb of sufficient size could be carried by an Avro Lancaster rather than waiting for a larger bomber such as the Windsor to be built. Air Vice-Marshal Francis Linnell at the Ministry of Aircraft Production thought the work was diverting Wallis from the development of the Windsor. Pressure from Linnell via the chairman of Vickers, Sir Charles Worthington Craven, caused Wallis to resign. Sir Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command from a briefing by Linnell also opposed the allocation of his bombers. Wallis had written to an influential intelligence officer, Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham. Winterbotham ensured that the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal heard of the project. Portal saw the film of the Chesil Beach trials and was convinced. Over-riding Harris, Portal ordered on 26 February 1943 that thirty Lancasters were to be allocated to the mission and the target date was set for May, when water levels would be at their highest and breaches in the dams would cause the most damage. With eight weeks to go, the larger bomb, code-named ‘Upkeep’, that was needed for the mission, and the modifications to the Lancasters had yet to be designed.
The operation was given to No. 5 Group RAF which formed a new squadron to undertake the dams mission. It was initially called Squadron “X”, as the speed of its formation outstripped the RAF process for naming squadrons.
The targets selected were the two key dams upstream from the Ruhr industrial area, the Möhne Dam and the Sorpe Dam, with the Eder Dam on the Eder River, which feeds into the Weser, as a secondary target. While the loss of hydroelectric power was important, the loss of water supply to industry, cities, and canals would have greater effect. Also, there was the potential for devastating flooding if the dams broke.
The aircraft were modified Avro Lancaster Mk IIIs, known as B Mark III Special (Type 464 Provisioning). To reduce weight, much of the internal armour was removed, as was the mid-upper machine gun turret. The size of the bomb with its unusual shape meant that the bomb-bay doors had to be removed, and the bomb itself hung, in part, below the fuselage of the aircraft. It was mounted on two crutches, and before dropping it was spun up to speed by an auxiliary motor.
“Upkeep” bouncing bomb mounted under Gibson’s Lancaster B III (Special).
Barnes Wallis and others watch a practice Upkeep bomb strike the shoreline at Reculver, Kent
Bombing from an altitude of 60 ft (18 m), at an air speed of 240 mph (390 km/h), and at a pre-selected distance from the target called for expert crews. Intensive night-time and low-altitude flight training began.
There were also technical problems to solve, the first one being to determine when the aircraft was at optimum distance from its target. Both the Möhne and Eder Dams had towers at each end. A special targeting device with two prongs, making the same angle as the two towers at the correct distance from the dam, showed when to release the bomb. (The BBC documentary Dambusters Declassified (2010) stated that the pronged device was not used due to issues related to vibration and that other methods were employed, including a length of string tied in a loop and pulled back centrally to a fixed point in the manner of a catapult.)
The squadron took delivery of the bombs on 13 May, after the final tests on 29 April. At 1800 on 15 May, at a meeting in Whitworth’s house, Gibson and Wallis briefed four key officers: the squadron’s two flight commanders, Squadron Leader Henry Maudslay and Sqn Ldr H. M. “Dinghy” Young; Gibson’s deputy for the Möhne attack, Flt Lt John V. Hopgood and; the squadron bombing leader, Flight Lieutenant Bob Hay. The rest of the crews were told at a series of briefings the following day, which began with a briefing of pilots, navigators and bomb-aimers at about midday.
The squadron was divided into three formations.
Formation No. 1 was composed of nine aircraft in three groups: (listed by pilot) Gibson, Hopgood and Flt Lt H. B. “Micky” Martin (an Australian serving in the RAF); Young, Flt Lt David Maltby and Flt Lt Dave Shannon (RAAF), and; Maudslay, Flt Lt Bill Astell and Flying Officer Les Knight (RAAF). Its mission was to attack the Möhne; any aircraft with bombs remaining would then attack the Eder.
Formation No. 2, numbering five aircraft, piloted by: Flt Lt Joe McCarthy (an American serving in the RCAF), Pilot Officer Vernon Byers, Flt Lt Bob Barlow (RAAF), P/O Geoff Rice and Flt Lt Les Munro (RNZAF), was to attack the Sorpe.
Formation No. 3 was a mobile reserve consisting of aircraft piloted by: Flight Sergeant Cyril Anderson, Flt Sgt Bill Townsend, Flt Sgt Ken Brown (RCAF), P/O Warner Ottley and P/O Lewis Burpee (RCAF), taking off two hours later on 17 May, either to bomb the main dams or to attack three smaller secondary target dams: the Lister, the Ennepe and the Diemel.
Two crews were unable to make the mission owing to illness.
The Operations Room for the mission was at 5 Group Headquarters in St Vincents Hall, Grantham, Lincolnshire. The mission codes (transmitted in morse) were: Goner, meaning “bomb dropped”; Nigger, meaning that the Möhne was breached and; Dinghy meaning that the Eder was breached. “Nigger” was the name of Gibson’s dog, a black labrador retriever that had been run over and killed on the morning of the attack. “Dinghy” was Young’s nickname, a reference to the fact that he had twice survived crash landings at sea where he and his crew were rescued from the aircraft’s inflatable rubber dinghy.
The aircraft used two routes, carefully avoiding known concentrations of flak, and were timed to cross the enemy coast simultaneously. The first aircraft, those of Formation No. 2 and heading for the longer, northern route, took off at 21:28 on 16 May. McCarthy’s bomber developed a coolant leak and he took off in the reserve aircraft 34 minutes late.
Formation No. 1 took off in groups of three at 10 minute intervals beginning at 21:39. The reserve formation did not begin taking off until 00:09 on 17 May.
Formation No. 1 entered continental Europe between Walcheren and Schouwen, flew over the Netherlands, skirted the airbases at Gilze-Rijen and Eindhoven, curved around the Ruhr defences, and turned north to avoid Hamm before turning south to head for the Möhne River. Formation No. 2 flew further north, cutting over Vlieland and crossing the IJsselmeer before joining the first route near Wesel and then flying south beyond the Möhne to the Sorpe River.
The bombers flew low, at about 100 ft (30 m) altitude, to avoid radar detection. Flight Sergeant George Chalmers, radio operator on “O for Orange”, looked out through the astrodome and was astonished to see that his pilot was flying towards the target along a forest’s firebreak, below treetop level.
The first casualties were suffered soon after reaching the Dutch coast. Formation No. 2 did not fare well: Munro’s aircraft lost its radio to flak and turned back over the IJsselmeer, while Rice flew too low and struck the sea, losing his bomb in the water; he recovered and returned to base. Both Barlow’s and Byers’ Lancasters crossed over the coast around the island of Texel. Byers’ bomber was shot down by flak shortly afterwards, crashing into the Waddenzee. Barlow’s aircraft hit electricity pylons and crashed 5 km east of Rees, near Haldern. The bomb was thrown clear of the crash and was examined intact by Heinz Schweizer. Only the delayed bomber piloted by McCarthy survived to cross the Netherlands. Formation No. 1 lost Astell’s bomber near the German hamlet of Marbeck when he flew his Lancaster into high voltage electrical cables and crashed into a field.
Attack on the Möhne Dam
Möhne Dam after the attack.
Formation No. 1 arrived over the Möhne lake and Gibson’s aircraft (G for George) made the first run, followed by Hopgood (M for Mother). Hopgood’s aircraft was hit by flak as it made its low-level run and was caught in the blast of its own bomb, crashing shortly afterwards when a wing disintegrated. Three crew members successfully abandoned the aircraft, but only two survived. Subsequently Gibson flew his aircraft across the dam to draw the flak away from Martin’s run. Martin (P for Popsie) bombed third; his aircraft was damaged but made a successful attack. Next, Young (A for Apple) made a successful run and after him Maltby (J for Johnny) when, finally, the dam was breached. Gibson, with Young accompanying, led Shannon, Maudslay and Knight to the Eder. In the attack on the Möhne one of the bombers made a running commentary on the attack, relayed to base by an airborne TR. 1142 (Transmitter Receiver) manufactured by GEC, the distance being too great for direct VHF transmission.
Attack on the Eder Dam
Eder Dam on 17 May 1943
Eder Dam in 2004: the destroyed sluice-gate channels on the left were not replaced after the attack.
The Eder Valley was covered by heavy fog but not defended. The tricky topography of the surrounding hills made the approach difficult and the first aircraft, Shannon’s, made six runs before taking a break. Maudslay (Z for Zebra) then attempted a run but the bomb struck the top of the dam and the aircraft was severely damaged in the blast. Shannon made another run and successfully dropped his bomb. The final bomb of the formation, from Knight’s aircraft (N for Nan), breached the dam.
Attacks on the Sorpe and Ennepe Dams
The Sorpe dam was the one least likely to be breached. It was a huge earthen dam, unlike the two concrete-and-steel gravity dams that were attacked successfully. Due to various problems, only three Lancasters reached the Sorpe Dam: Joe McCarthy (in “T for Tommy”, a delayed aircraft from the second wave) and later Brown (“F for Freddie”) and Anderson (“Y for York”), both from the third formation. This attack differed from the previous ones in two ways: the “Upkeep” bomb was not spun, and due to the topography of the valley the approach was made along the length of the dam, not at right angles over the reservoir.
McCarthy’s plane was on its own when it arrived over the Sorpe Dam at 00:15 hours, and realised the approach was even more difficult than expected: the flight path led over a church steeple in the village of Langscheid, located on the hillcrest overlooking the dam. With only seconds to go before the bomber had to pull up, to avoid hitting the hillside at the other end of the dam, the bombardier George Johnson had no time to correct the bomb’s height and heading.
The crew of “T for Tommy”
McCarthy made nine attempted bombing runs before Johnson was satisfied. The ‘Upkeep’ bomb was dropped on the tenth run. The bomb exploded, but when he turned his Lancaster to assess the damage it turned out that only a section of the crest of the dam had been blown off; the main body of the dam itself was still functional.
Meanwhile, three of the reserve aircraft had been directed to the Sorpe Dam. Burpee (“S for Sugar”) never arrived, and it was later determined that the plane had been shot down while skirting the Gilze-Rijen airfield. Brown (“F for Freddy”) reached the Sorpe Dam: in the increasingly dense fog the bomb was dropped hastily and also failed to breach the dam. Anderson (“Y for York”) arrived last, but by then the fog had become too dense for him even to attempt a bombing run. The remaining two bombers were then sent to secondary targets, with Ottley (“C for Charlie”) being shot down en route to the Lister Dam. Townsend (“O for Orange”) eventually dropped his bomb at the Ennepe Dam without harming it.
Possible attack on Bever Dam
There is some evidence that Townsend might have attacked the Bever Dam by mistake rather than the Ennepe Dam. Townsend reported difficulty in finding his dam, and in his post-raid report he complained that the map of the Ennepe Dam was incorrect. The Bever Dam is located only about 5 mi (8 km) southwest of the Ennepe Dam, and its reservoir has a similar topography. The Bever Dam is located on the southern edge of the reservoir while the Ennepe is located on the northern edge of its reservoir. With the foggy mists filling the valleys during the early morning hours, it would be understandable for him to have mistaken the two lakes. The War Diary of the German Naval Staff reported that the Bever Dam had been attacked at nearly the same time that the Sorpe Dam was. In addition, the Wupperverband authority responsible for the Bever Dam is said to have recovered the remains of a “mine”. Paul Keiser, a 19-year-old soldier on leave at his home close to the Bever Dam, also reported a bomber making several approaches to the dam and then dropping a bomb that caused a large explosion and a great pillar of flame.
John Sweetman, author of the book The Dambusters’ Raid, suggests Townsend’s report of the moon’s reflecting on the mist and water is consistent with an attack that was heading to the Bever Dam rather than to the Ennepe Dam, given the moon’s azimuth and altitude during the bombing attacks. Sweetman also points out that the Ennepe-Wasserverband authority was adamant that only a single bomb was dropped near the Ennepe Dam during the entire war, and that this bomb fell into the woods by the side of the dam, not in the water, as in Townsend’s report. Finally, members of Townsend’s crew independently reported seeing a manor house and attacking an earthen dam, which is consistent with the Bever Dam rather than the Ennepe Dam. The main evidence supporting the hypothesis of an attack of the Ennepe Dam is Townsend’s post-flight report that he attacked the Ennepe Dam on a heading of 355 degrees magnetic. Assuming that the heading was incorrect, all other evidence points toward an attack on the Bever Dam.
On the way back, flying again at treetop level, two more Lancasters were lost. The damaged aircraft of Maudslay was struck by flak near Netterden and Young’s “A for Apple” was flayed by flak north of IJmuiden. That bomber crashed into the North Sea just off the coast of the Netherlands. On the return flight over the Dutch coast, some German flak targeting the planes was aimed so low that shells were seen to bounce off the sea.
The nine surviving bombers began landing at Scampton at 03:11 hours, with Gibson returning at 04:15. The last of the survivors, Townsend’s bomber, put its wheels on the ground at 06:15. It was the last to land because one of its engines had been shut down after passing the Dutch coast. Air Chief Marshall Harris was among those who came out to greet the last crew to land.
Damaged by anti-aircraft fire over the Dutch coast. Returned without attacking a target.
Could not find the target due to mist. Landed at Scampton with an armed mine.
Mine hit the target – no apparent effects.
Ennepe or Bever Dam
Mine hit the target – no apparent effect.
Shot down over the Netherlands outbound.
Shot down over Germany outbound. Frederick Tees was the only survivor of the crew
Bomb damage assessment
Bomber Command wanted a complete bomb damage assessment as soon as possible, therefore the CO of 542 Squadron was informed of the estimated time of the attacks. One of the squadron’s photo-reconnaissance Spitfires, piloted by Flying Officer Frank “Jerry” Fray, took off from RAF Benson at 07:30 hours and arrived over the Ruhr River immediately after first light. Photos were taken of the breached dams and the huge floods. The pilot later described the experience:
When I was about 150 miles from the Möhne Dam, I could see the industrial haze over the Ruhr area and what appeared to be a cloud to the east. On flying closer, I saw that what had seemed to be cloud was the sun shining on the floodwaters. I looked down into the deep valley which had seemed so peaceful three days before [on an earlier reconnaissance mission] but now it was a wide torrent. The whole valley of the river was inundated with only patches of high ground and the tops of trees and church steeples showing above the flood. I was overcome by the immensity of it.
After the raid
Memorial to Operation Chastise members at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire
Three aircrew from Hopgood’s aircraft bailed out successfully, but one later died from wounds and the others were captured. One of the crew in Ottley’s aircraft survived its crash. In total, therefore, 53 of the 133 aircrew who participated in the attack were killed, a casualty rate of almost 40 percent. Thirteen of those killed were members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, while two belonged to the Royal Australian Air Force.
King George VI speaks to Flight Lieutenant Les Munro while visiting 617 Squadron after the raid, 27 May 1943
Memorial to the dead in Neheim, 7 kilometres (4 mi) from the Möhne dam
Initial German casualty estimates from the floods when the dams broke were 1,294 killed, which included 749 French, Belgian, Dutch and Ukrainian prisoners of war and labourers. Later estimates put the death toll in the Möhne Valley at about 1,600, including people who drowned in the flood wave downstream from the dam.
After a public relations tour of America and time spent working in the Air Ministry in London writing the book which was later published as Enemy Coast Ahead, Gibson returned to operations and was killed on a Mosquito operation in 1944.
Following the Dams Raid 617 Squadron was kept together as a specialist unit. The squadron badge was chosen and a motto “Après moi le déluge” (After me the flood). According to Brickhill there was some controversy over the motto, with the original version Après nous le déluge (After us the flood) being rejected by the heralds as having inappropriate provenance (having been coined, reportedly, by Madame de Pompadour), and après moi le déluge having been used by Louis XV in an “irresponsible” context. The motto having been chosen by the King, the latter was finally deemed acceptable.
The squadron went on to drop Wallis’s massive Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs, including an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz, using an advanced bomb sight which enabled the bombing of small targets with far greater accuracy than was routinely obtained with conventional bomb aiming techniques.
In 1977, Article 56 of the Protocol I amendment to the Geneva Conventions, outlawed attacks on dams “if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces from the works or installations and consequent severe losses among the civilian population”.
The two direct mine hits on the Möhnesee dam resulted in a breach around 250 feet (76 metres) wide and 292 feet (89 metres) deep. The destroyed dam poured around 330 million tons of water into the western Ruhr region. A torrent of water around 32.5 feet (10 metres) high and travelling at around 15 mph (24 km/h) swept through the valleys of the Möhne and Ruhr rivers. A few mines were flooded; 11 small factories and 92 houses were destroyed and 114 factories and 971 houses were damaged. The floods washed away about 25 roads, railways and bridges as the flood waters spread for around 50 miles (80 km) from the source. Estimates show that before 15 May 1943 water production on the Ruhr was 1 million tonnes; this dropped to a quarter of that level after the raid.
The Eder drains towards the east into the Fulda which runs into the Weser to the North Sea. The main purpose of the Edersee was then, as it is now, to act as a reservoir to keep the Weser and the Mittellandkanal navigable during the summer months. The wave from the breach was not strong enough to result in significant damage by the time it hit Kassel (approx. 35 km downstream).
The greatest impact on the Ruhr armaments production was the loss of hydroelectric power. Two power stations (producing 5,100 kilowatts) associated with the dam were destroyed and seven others were damaged. This resulted in a loss of electrical power in the factories and many households in the region for two weeks. In May 1943 coal production dropped by 400,000 tons which German sources attribute to the effects of the raid.
According to an article by German historian Ralf Blank, at least 1,650 people were killed: around 70 in the Eder Valley, and at least 1,579 bodies were found along the Möhne and Ruhr rivers, with hundreds missing. 1,026 of the bodies found downriver of the Möhne Dam were foreign prisoners of war and forced labourers in different camps, mainly from the Soviet Union. Worst hit was the city of Neheim (now part of Neheim-Hüsten) at the confluence of the Möhne and Ruhr rivers, where over 800 people perished, among them at least 493 female forced labourers from the Soviet Union. (Some non-German sources erroneously cite an earlier total of 749 for all foreigners in all camps in the Möhne and Ruhr valleys as the casualty count at a camp just below the Eder Dam.)
After the operation Barnes Wallis wrote, “I feel a blow has been struck at Germany from which she cannot recover for several years”, but on closer inspection, Operation Chastise did not have the military effect that was at the time believed. By 27 June, full water output was restored, thanks to an emergency pumping scheme inaugurated the previous year, and the electricity grid was again producing power at full capacity. The raid proved to be costly in lives (more than half the lives lost belonging to Allied POWs and forced-labourers), but was no more than a minor inconvenience to the Ruhr’s industrial output. The value of the bombing can perhaps best be seen as a very real boost to British morale.[dubious– discuss]
In his book Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer acknowledged the attempt: “That night, employing just a few bombers, the British came close to a success which would have been greater than anything they had achieved hitherto with a commitment of thousands of bombers.” He also expressed puzzlement at the raids: the disruption of temporarily having to shift 7,000 construction workers to the Möhne and Eder repairs was offset by the failure of the Allies to follow up with additional (conventional) raids during the dams’ reconstruction, and that represented a major lost opportunity. Barnes Wallis was also of this view; he revealed his deep frustration that Bomber Command never sent a high-level bombing force to hit the Mohne dam while repairs were being carried out. He argued that extreme precision would have been unnecessary and that even a few hits by conventional HE bombs would have prevented the rapid repair of the dam which was undertaken by the Germans.
The effect on food production was more significant, with many square kilometres of arable land being washed away and effectively unusable until the 1950s. There was also a great loss of farm animals bred for food.
The Dams Raid was, like many British air raids, undertaken with a view to the need to keep drawing German defensive effort back into Germany and away from actual and potential theatres of ground war, a policy which culminated in the Berlin raids of the winter of 1943–1944. In May 1943 this meant keeping the Luftwaffe and anti-aircraft defence forces’ effort away from the Soviet Union; in early 1944, it meant clearing the way for the aerial side of the forthcoming Operation Overlord. The very considerable labour and strategic resources committed to repairing the dams, factories, mines and railways could not be used in other ways – the construction of the Atlantic Wall, for example.
The pictures of the broken dams proved to be a propaganda and morale boost to the Allies, especially to the British, still suffering under German bombing that had peaked roughly a year earlier.
An associated, but equally major effect was that Barnes Wallis’s ideas on earthquake bombing, which had been rejected before, now became accepted by ‘Bomber’ Harris. Prior to this raid, bombing practice had been to ‘area bomb’ with many light bombs, in the hope that one would hit the target. Work on the earthquake bomb theory resulted in the Tallboy and Grand Slam weapons, which caused unprecedented damage to German infrastructure in the later stages of the war. They rendered the V-2 assembly building unusable, buried the V-3 guns, sank the Tirpitz and destroyed many bridges and other hardened installations. Notable amongst their successes were the U-boat pens at Brest, where they penetrated 20 ft (6.1 m) thick roofs of reinforced concrete, and the Saumur Tunnel.