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On this night seventy years ago, 19 specially modified Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton. The now famous Operation Chastise had begun. Commanded by 24-year-old Wing Commander Guy Gibson, their mission was to attack the major dams of the Ruhr and Weser valleys in Germany's industrial heartland.
Each Lancaster bomber carried a single huge mine newly-designed specifically for this mission. Codenamed 'Upkeep', this ingenious weapon had to be dropped over water from an exacting low height and short distance from the target. It would then skim across the surface of water, hit the dam wall and sink to a certain depth before exploding. The 'bouncing bomb' using 500 rpm of back-spin kept close to dam wall while it sank. The combined pressure of the explosion and most importantly the force of the water should be enough to crack open the dams. The resulting tidal wave would cause severe flooding of the Ruhr Valley area, knock out power stations, destroy buildings and factories and disrupt road and rail communications.
And so it was by the early morning of 17 May 1943 a hundred metre breach had been smashed through the Mohne dam following five separate bouncing bomb strikes against its thick walls. The Eder dam was also breached in two places. Eight of the 19 aircraft failed to return and 53 of the aircrew were killed, a staggering loss rate of forty percent. It is estimated over 1,500 Germans and foreign workers died in the ensuing flooding.
As well as striking a severe physical blow to the war making capabilities of the Third Reich, the morale effect of the raid was also of prime importance. Not just the depressing of enemy morale but also bolstering the people of Occupied Europe and on the home fronts, to show to the world that the British Commonwealth was fighting back and had the means and will to defeat the Axis.
News of the Dambuster raid immediately filled the front pages of the world's press detailing the events of the night, showing its success complete with aerial photographs of the flooding Mohne dam and offering an analysis of the likely short term and long term effects on Germany's industrial production in the Ruhr. Wing Commander Guy Gibson became an international celebrity.
The principle means of getting news and propaganda messages into Europe was through the foreign language radio broadcasts of the BBC; miniature newspapers and other leaflets air-dropped by the Allied air forces; and through various underground methods including clandestine freedom radio stations and the development of whispering or rumour-mongering networks.
Air-dropped Leaflet Newspapers
Of all the occupied countries, France was the principle target for Allied airdropped newspapers. Numerous newspapers and illustrated magazines were produced in the French language by the British Political Warfare Executive and the US Office of War Information for dropping over the country by the Allied air forces. The longest running title was "Le Courrier de l'Air", which had originally been developed by British propagandists in the First World War and was resurrected for the Second. The issue of Courrier for 20 May 1943 carried news of the dams raid as its main story under the highline: "Immense Damage to the Ruhr: A Blow to the Heart of the German War Machine". News of the raid covered two of the four pages of the newspaper including large before and after photographs of the Mohne dam and a picture of Gibson. These leaflet-newspapers were printed using the high quality and expensive photogravure printing process which allowed for excellent reproduction of photographs. The news report was an accurate record of events with supporting quotes from Air Marshall Harris, the Commander in Chief of Bomber Command, and quotes from the aircrew. It reflected the reports also being published in the British and American domestic press.
Here is an English translation of the full Courrier article:
In the early morning of Monday, May 17th, a formation of Lancasters carrying mines destroyed the great dams of the Mohne and Sorpe, tributaries of the Ruhr, and the Eder dam.
Carrying all before it in its flow, a wall of water flowed down the valleys of the Ruhr and the Eder. Railways and bridges were broken or destroyed, and power stations flooded and broken up. A shunting yard was completely submerged.
In a message addressed to the officer commanding the group of bombers which took part in this operation, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Commander in Chief, Bomber Command said:-
"By this remarkable operation, your crews have won a victory of the first order in the battle of the Ruhr, a victory whose efforts will be felt until the day when the enemy will be carried away on the flood of final disaster."
This victory cost 8 Bomber Command aircraft.
Wing Commander G. P. Gibson, 25 years old (sic), already decorated with DSO with bar and DFC with bar, and who has more than 175 sorties to his credit, led the operation.
He was the first to attack the Mohne dam. Having dropped his mines he flew over the objective to draw on himself enemy fire and to facilitate his comrades' operations. At the fourth attempt the dam was broken over a length of 100 metres.
A Flight Lieutenant who was the third to drop his mines was able to observe what was happening and reported his impressions as follows:-
"When the Wing Commander's charge exploded, a column of water, a 100 metres high sprang into the air.
"With the same precision, another Lancaster attacked, but the dam did not break. Then I dropped my mine. It exploded against the wall of the dam without result.
"It was only by the fourth attack that the dam was at last breached. By moonlight I saw clearly a powerful waterfall rush through the breach."
The British bombers often come down to within less than 30 metres of their objectives, in spite of AA fire. With unbelievable calm and perseverance, the crews carried out repeated attacks until the final destruction of the dam.
The Eder dam was broken in two places. Through a breach of about 10 to 12 metres under the top of the dam and another to the east of the dam, a torrent of water ten metres high rushed on the valley.
The Power House built just below the Mohne dam was completely destroyed and carried away by the deluge.
Ruhr industry paralysed
The three dams were full at the time of their destruction and the whole of the Ruhr industry will feel the effects of this disaster.
It has already been announced that the coal and coke traffic has been stopped in this region.
Even if these dams could be repaired in a few months - which is hardly probable - the flow of the rivers would not be sufficient to make them even partly fit for use by Spring 1944. In fact, two years were necessary to fill the Sorpe reservoir, after its construction.
The Eder reservoir, near Hemfurth, is the biggest in Germany. It has an area of seven square kilometres; a capacity of 202 million tons of water. It supplied several important power stations.
The Mohne dam, near Soest, about 800 metres long, was constructed before the last war, and its reservoir contains 134 million tons of water. It was the most important source of energy of the Ruhr industries. It supplied energy for the coke ovens and foundries of the Ruhr.
The Sorpe dam, situated about 10 kilometres to the south of the Mohne dam, served the same use.
The breaking of the Ruhr dams is a sure omen of the day when the barriers put up by Hitler and by Mussolini to protect their slavedom will be broken by the armies of liberation.
The Office of War Information also produced a regular airdropped newspaper for France under the title of "Le Amérique en Guerre". It was of the same size and quality as Courrier but offered news from a more American point of view. Regardless of this, the next day OWI produced a beautifully illustrated 2-page special edition of Le Amérique en Guerre. The whole front side consisted of an aerial photograph of the breached and flooding Mohne dam with a brief caption overlaid "The Mohne Dam, after the devastating RAF attack through a gap 100 yards wide the waters of the reservoir rush down, taking with them in their terrifying course the electric power house and the houses which were situated below the great artificial lake. The white spaces on the woody shores of the reservoir are made by mud and sand left behind by the subsiding waters."
The back side gave a similar account of the raid perhaps in a more sober and accurate style than used in the British Courrier:
London, May 18 - Last night British bombers destroyed two great dams of the rivers Mohn and Eder in the Ruhr, in an audacious raid. Audacious - yet carefully planned and executed, the operation has inflicted possibly the greatest disaster of the war on Industrial Germany.
The formation of Lancaster bombers carried deadly mines and was manned by crews especially trained for the mission.
Great breaches in the dams caused a gigantic flood of more than three million cubic meters of water which pushed down the valleys of the Ruhr and Eder and may well deprive this vital industrial region of water and electricity.
In its wake the flood water has destroyed bridges, factories, power sites and communication lines.
The flood caused by the break in the Eder dam is even greater than that in the Ruhr valley, the country being flatter and the water stretches over a larger surface.
The Air Ministry published the following communiqué:
"In the early hours of this morning, a force of Lancaster bombers, led by Wing Commander G. P. Gibson, attacked with mines the dams at the Mohne and Sorpe reservoirs, which control two-thirds of the water storage capacity of the Ruhr basin.
"Later, reconnaissance planes established that the Mohne dam had been breached over a length of 100 yards, and that the power station below had been swept away by the resulting floods.
"The Eder dam, which controls head waters of the Weser and Fulda valleys and operates several power stations, was also attacked and was reported as breached.
"Photographs show the river below the dam in full flood.
"The attacks were pressed home from a very low level with great determination and coolness in the face of fierce resistance.
"Eight Lancasters failed to return."
The Eder dam is situated 40 kilometres from Cassel. It is 400 meters long and 41 meters high. The overall surface of the reservoir is about 12 kilometres square. The Mohne dam is 70 kilometres further up the Ruhr than Dortmund. It is 604 meters long and 41 meters high. The dams of Mohne and Sorpe control about 70% of the controlled water supply of the Ruhr basin. Before they were built the Ruhr basin ran the continual risk of being short of water during dry periods.
The effects of the raid might be disastrous for the economy, industry and agriculture of the Ruhr basin.
The crews of the Lancaster bombers chosen for this operation spent weeks in special training. They worked in the uttermost secrecy, isolated from the outside world and from the rest of their friends. Only half a dozen people knew about this unprecedented operation that they were preparing.
Wing Commander Gibson, who directed operations, led his formation in the attack on the Mohne dam. After having dropped his mines, he flew to and fro up and down the reservoir to draw the A.A. fire from the ground defences, and so give his comrades a chance of placing their mines more easily than he did. The second Lancaster saw an immense jet of water of at least a hundred meters high thrown into the air as a result of Gibson's mines.
He let go his load. It was not until the fourth Lancaster had dropped its mine that the breach was made in the dam. A pilot said: "I saw the first jet of water very clearly. The breach was about 50 meters wide." A member of the crew of a bomber who was returning from a simultaneous attack on the Sorpe dam said: "It was difficult for me to recognise the right end of the reservoir, because the shape had already changed. I saw already a new river 12 kilometres long flowing from the dam. The water bounded ahead with great speed."
Repeatedly attacking to complete their work of destruction, each crew attacked with great coolness and an extraordinary courage. The planes came down to within 30 meters of their objective. "When it was our turn to attack," said one of the pilots, "we saw the wall had already fallen in. Our explosives threw mud and water 300 feet into the air."
The Eder dam was breached in two places of about 10 meters wide. Torrents of water escaped, and a wave 10 meters high began to rush down the valley.
Air Chief Marshal Harris, after congratulating all those who contributed to the success of the operation, said: "I want to say to the crews, that their enthusiasm, the conscientious way they trained, and their courage and skill in delivering the attack, will always remain as an example for the RAF.
"In this memorable operation you have won a major victory in the Battle of the Ruhr, the effects of which will last until the Boche is swept away in the flood of final disaster."
A slightly extended version of this text was included in the next day's regular 4-page edition of Le Amérique en Guerre.
A fortnight after the raid leaflets in German, Italian, Greek and Serbian were also disseminated across the Balkans. The leaflets were again illustrated with the dramatic aerial photograph of the breached Mohne dam with the title beneath “The Destruction of German War Industries Goes On”. The main text varied on each language version of the leaflet but was much more direct than those disseminated over Western Europe. The non-German versions bluntly highlighted the results: “Ruhr industry paralysed – 4,000 drowned – 120,000 homeless – Total destruction of electric power plant – Miles of land flooded and laid waste – Canals rendered useless – State of siege declared”. The reverse featured a large cartoon of people being washed away in the massive flooding, accompanied with the caption “Those poor wretches who escape from the fire of the RAF bombs are destroyed by the flood”.
While the open, "white" propaganda to occupied countries stuck as close as possible to the truth, clandestine or "black" propaganda could be much more creative in the way and style it commented on the execution of the war.
The Political Warfare Executive maintained a Special Operations unit directed by Sefton Delmer, the famous foreign correspondent of the Daily Express, to conduct propaganda to Germany using secret methods. The principle means was through clandestine radio stations that purported to be of German or other origin, anything but being seen as a tool of the Allies.
At this time, perhaps the most creative clandestine station was called Gustav Siegfried Eins. Produced in a sleepy Bedfordshire village, this station pretended to be operated by a patriotic German officer known as der Chef - 'the Chief' - deep within the Third Reich. Heading up a supposed organisation of disaffected German troops, he hated the enemy British led by the stinking Churchill, almost as much as he hated the Partei Kommune. The Kommune was the loose organisation of low and mid-ranking Nazi bosses who were mostly concerned with their own welfare to the detriment of the war effort. They feathered their own nests, shirked their civil and military duty and profiteered from the war. According to der Chef as long as they were comfortably housed, continued to make money, were safe from Allied bombing and were well fed, they were happy to see the German people dying in a fruitless and mismanaged war.
Gustav Siegfried Eins was quick off the mark with commenting on the Dambusters raid in its afternoon broadcasts of 17 May 1943. Der Chef acknowledges that the attack on the dams was the greatest catastrophe so far to befall the German homeland in this war. But he directs his greatest fury against Nazi boss Josef Terboven, the President of the Rhine Province and currently the Reichskommissar for Norway. Der Chef squarely blames Terboven for the terrible damage inflicted against the Mohne dam because it was he, who just four nights previously, had ordered all mobile anti-aircraft guns protecting the valley to be moved to his personal country estate in Kettwig. This was done on the pretext that the AA guns were needed to protect his valuable nationally-important art collection from future air raids. Without the mobile guns the Mohne dam was practically defenceless and "only one shitpot Englishman was brought down". Contrast this with the Sorpe dam were the anti-aircraft guns had yet to be removed and seven enemy aircraft were brought down and only slight damage inflicted on the dam.
Der Chef goes on to criticise the SS and police authorities for not being up to the job of containing the flooding and evacuating the towns and cities under immediate threat. And what with the damage to the water supplies and filtration plants with carcasses of drowned citizens and cattle floating in the flooded fields and meadows, diseases like Typhus and dysentery will soon be rampant. Der Chef calls for the immediate mobilisation of Wehrmacht Engineers to sort out the mess that the Party Kommune is neither capable or interested in fixing.
The same broadcast was given the next day with updated news about the raid. Der Chef came back to the subject on May 28th. This time his broadcast was mostly concerned with the spread of disease amongst the population as a result of the damage inflicted to water supplies and the inaction of Nazi authorities to improve sanitation by the issue of extra soap rations. Because of the damaged sewers and water filtering plants and the corpses floating in the "shitty" floodwater there is prospect of a terrific dysentery and typhus epidemic across the region with 1 in 4 people in the lower Ruhr valley already suffering from diarrhoea.
Der Chef contests that much of this disease could be prevented as long as the authorities issued more soap so that the germ-infected water could be effectively washed from body and clothes. But despite the Army medical services requesting for the issue of more soap rations, the Nazi bosses refuse and prefer to hoard their soap stocks for a later emergency. Der Chef offers a simple solution to solve the soap rationing problem. Take the floating carcasses of cattle and instead of turning them into sausages as is currently happening, use them instead to render fat for soap production. But it is nearly too late as the carcasses are already stinking and will soon be good for nothing.
The same ideas used in the Gustav Siegfried Eins radio broadcasts were also developed by the Underground Propaganda Committee. This committee was formed out of representatives of PWE, the Special Operations Executive, Secret Intelligence Services and the service departments with the task of formulating subversive oral rumours which could be spread by rumour-mongering networks around the world and planted into the international press. On the 21st May the UPC issued the following directive to take advantage of the Dambusters raid:
Confusion should be exploited to the maximum. Authorities should be blamed for unpreparedness, and the opportunity should be taken of emphasising that the police are now so diminished in numbers that they were absolutely unable to cope with the situation. The Party also broke down on the job, and the army had to be called in. We should spread stories of widespread sabotage, getaway of suspect persons, etc., under cover of the confusion. Back up stories already appearing that the success of the raid was due to pre-arranged signals by foreign workers. Point out that cholera, typhoid and dysentery are absolutely inevitable within a very short time.
This line is primarily for Germany, but should usefully back up the white directive for Italy, which is to discuss Italy's dams without saying that they are going to be bombed.
This directive led to the formation of several rumours, for instance this one intended for occupied France:
The Germans are at once starting to harness all electric power in the east of France to compensate their loss caused by the smashing of the dams.
A more general rumour took away the credit for the raid from the RAF and suggested it was actually the work of an active resistance inside Germany:
The RAF bombing of the dams was really camouflage for the most successful inside sabotage job of the war.
(For more examples of subversive rumours concocted by the Underground Propaganda Committee, see my book "Whispers of War".)
It is almost impossible to analyse what effect, if any, the black propaganda approach had on the morale of German troops and citizens and the wider people of occupied Europe. It certainly allowed more imaginative ways of capitalising on the success of the Dambusters raid when open methods were limited to the factual reporting of news. Ultimately, however, it could equally be argued, the straight, factual and impartial news reporting as practiced by the BBC news broadcasts and in the airdropped leaflets is perhaps the most powerful propaganda of all.