May 17, 1943, seventy years ago today. British Lancasters, iconic airplanes of World War II, bombed Germany’s Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams.
On May 17, in 1955, 12 years to the day after the raid, the famous movie premiered.
There is a Lancaster model airplane among my DVDs. When I watch The Dam Busters, I bring the airplane with me to the couch.
Few stories about World War II are as fabled as the ‘Dam Buster’ raid. The Ruhr dams of Germany were tempting targets. They supplied water and power to the industrial heartland of a country at war. Britain’s Royal Air Force was determined to attack them.
To hurdle anti-torpedo nets that protected the dams, Barnes Wallis, who designed airplanes and other useful gadgets for the RAF, invented the bouncing bomb. It looked like a drum. A motorized drive put a back spin on it. The bomb was designed to skip over the anti-torpedo nets, smack into the dam, sink against the dam wall and detonate 30 feet down.
To skip the bomb properly, the pilots had to fly exactly 60 feet above the lake, at exactly 220 miles per hour. They released the bomb exactly 425 yards from the dam wall. At night. Under intense anti-aircraft fire.
Today, few pilots can fly 4-engine airplanes that precisely without an autopilot.
The German gunners could see them clearly — each Lancaster had two spot lights ingeniously affixed so that from a height of exactly 60 feet the spots aligned on the water below. More precise than using altimeters.
Eight of 19 aircraft failed to return. Shot down over the target, downed en route or on the way home. They flew below treetop height most of the way, and at least one Lancaster crashed after running into Dutch power lines.
Squadron Commander Guy Gibson led the raid, which earned him the Victoria Cross. He was 24 years old. He was shot down and killed 16 months later.
Two dams were breached and 1,600 people on the ground lost their lives, including hundreds of prisoners-of-war used as forced labourers. The Germans repaired the dams within the year. Today the reservoirs are quiet recreation sites, and few of the people who live, sail or hike there know about the raid.
The 70th anniversary of the Dam Busters raid is spawning articles, model airplanes and documentaries.
I bought these magazines at a bookstore in Köln Hauptbahnhof, in Germany. The model airplane came from a Bangkok hobby shop.
In the 1955 movie The Dam Busters, Richard Todd starred as Guy Gibson. A former theatre actor, Todd was a paratrooper in World War II and jumped into Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944 on the ‘Pegasus Bridge’ mission. Later, he played the role of his D-Day commanding officer in another famous movie, ‘The Longest Day’.
Michael Redgrave did a delightful performance as Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb.
A young Robert Shaw played a supporting role.
Of course for aviation enthusiasts the stars are the airplanes. They used five Avro Lancasters in the movie. One actually came from 617 Squadron.
In 1955 there were no computer graphics. The airplanes were actually flown at hair-raising ultra-low altitudes. There is an absolutely gorgeous scene, shot in low light from a hilltop, of a Lancaster skimming a lake and then climbing just above the slope of the hill toward the camera.
Right after the shooting was over, all the Lancasters were sold to British Aluminum and melted down to scrap.
Many scenes were later copied in Memphis Belle and other WWII movies. Engine starts, chocks being pulled off the wheels, airplanes taxying out.
But the real gem is this: George Lucas ‘borrowed’ entire lines of dialogue from the film. Star Wars fans will spot them right away.
“How many guns do you think there are, Trevor?”
“I’d say there’s about ten guns, some in the field and some in the towers.”
“My goodness. It’s… It’s big, isn’t it? Can we really break THAT?”
“Let me know when you’re in position, I’ll draw the flak for you!”
“Down a bit, steady, 225, steady, 230, 225, steady, steady, … bomb gone!”
The scenes of Hopgood’s Lanc going down, the action switching back to Harris, Cochrane and Wallis waiting back at the base for reports… . The only thing Lucas didn’t do was make Princess Leia look like Michael Redgrave.
You can enjoy the dialogue and the attack scene here.
Today most pilots don’t know the difference between a Lancaster and a Diet Coke. These pretenders should throw their wings into a lake. I bet they can’t even make them skip.
Posted from Manila, May 17, 2013
70th Anniversary of the Dam Busters raid
Of the 133 flight crew who flew on the raid, only 80 survived that night. Today, only 3 are still alive – one in the UK, one in New Zealand, one in Canada.
Someone finally did it. The soundtrack of Star Wars’ attack on the Death Star, overlaid on The Dam Busters! George Lucas was a big fan of the 1955 movie.
René, a Private Pilot, flew a Piper Cherokee over the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams a few weeks ago. Here are interesting photos of his aerial tour.
Christopher Toh, a Singapore writer, wrote a blog on Christmas Eve, 2009, on George Lucas’ liberal shoplifting of entire lines of dialogue from The Dam Busters into Star Wars.
Eric Coates’ “Dam Busters March” from the movie has become a British icon – even played at football matches in the UK.
And then the infamous Carlin Black Label TV commercial, with the German sentry goalkeeper on the dam.