Seventy years ago tonight 19 Lancaster bombers took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire for a raid which would become indelibly etched into the British psyche.
It was another raid on the Ruhr region of Germany. The industrial heartland of Hitler’s war machine was straining to produce tanks, ammunition and aircraft for a final assault on the Soviet Red Army on the Eastern Front.
But this raid was different. It was aimed with great precision against a pinch point in Germany’s production chain. It was the ancestor of today’s smart bombs and surgical strikes.
For this was the Dambusters raid which, for a while, would wreak havoc with the Ruhr’s vital water supplies thanks to the brilliant Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb.
The skill and bravery of the pilots who flew at night at 100ft or less over enemy territory is breathtaking. They flew so low that one hit the sea, which tore off the underslung bomb and scooped up sea water into the fuselage, while another was engulfed in flames as it ploughed into electricity cables.
The results impressed the world – two dams breached and a third damaged. It made front-page news around the world and turned the Dambusters into celebrities.
As we report on pages 14 and 15 today Edgar Webb, from Fareham, still marvels at the bravery of those air crews, particularly those of the raid’s leader Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
Mr Webb was part of the ground crew servicing those Lancasters. ‘I will never forget his aircraft landing looking like a colander. When I saw it, it was covered in holes.’
The impact of the raid has been belittled, but the outcome of the war and Europe today might have been so different had it not happened.
Hitler had ordered the construction of a network of defences on Normandy’s beaches against an Allied invasion. But the thousands of workers who should have been building them were diverted to repair the dams.
A year later and allied troops on D-Day would have faced far more significant defences had it not been for the Dambusters raid.