Bomber Command

Bomber Command No.617 Squadron

No. 617 Squadron

617 squadron badge Motto: "Aprés moi, le deluge" ("After me, the flood").
Badge: On a roundel, a wall in fesse, fracted by three flashes of lightning in pile and issuant from the breach, water proper.
Authority: King George VI, March 1944.

The squadron was formed on 21st March 1943, at Scampton, near Lincoln, under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who had distinguished himself as an outstanding bomber and night-fighter pilot during the early war years. He was granted the unprecedented privilege of selecting crews from other squadrons of Bomber Command to fly Lancasters on a special, highly-secret operation. Gibson himself was not told for some weeks that the task was no less than the breaching of the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams, which stored more than 300 million tons of water vitally important to German industry.

For the dams raid-known as Operation Chastise-No. 617 put up 19 Lancasters, each modified to carry a special mine designed expressly for the purpose by Dr. Barnes Wallis of Vickers-Armstrong. To breach the dams the mines had to be released from precisely 60 feet, at a speed of exactly 220 m.p.h. (or, in the case of the Sorpe Dam, from the lowest practicable height and at 180 m.p.h.). The first Lancaster took off from Scampton shortly before 9.30 p.m. on 16th May 1943, and Wing Commander Gibson's aircraft, the first to attack the Möhne Dam, released its mine at 28 minutes past midnight. Half an hour later, just after the fifth Lancaster had attacked, Gibson radioed back to England the prearranged code-word Nigger, indicating that the dam had been breached. (Nigger was the name of Gibson's black Labrador dog, beloved of all the squadron, who was killed by a car the day before the raid and buried at Scampton.)

The remaining aircraft of the Möhne formation then flew on to the Eder Dam. The first two mines failed to breach the dam, but shortly before 2am, when the third Lancaster had attacked, Gibson signalled the code-word Dinghy, indicating success with the second part of the operation. Other aircraft attacked the Sorpe and Schwelme Dams but did not succeed in breaching them.

Of the 19 Lancasters which took off for the dams raid with their 133 men, eight did not return. Five crashed or were shot down en route to their targets. Two were destroyed while delivering their attacks and another shot down on the way home. Two more were so badly damaged that they had to abandon their missions. For his gallantry in this raid, Wing Commander Gibson-who afterwards wrote a vivid account of the whole operation in his book Enemy Coast Ahead-received the Victoria Cross and 32 other members of the squadron were also decorated. (In August 1943, Gibson relinquished command of the squadron and visited America with Winston Churchill. Gibson failed to return from an attack on Rheydt, Germany, on 19/20th September 1944, when he was flying as master bomber-in a Mosquito of No. 627 Squadron-to direct the bombing of a force of Lancasters.)

In one operation No. 617 Squadron-known from this time onwards as the "Dam Busters" had become famous and the decision was made to keep it in existence as a precision-bombing unit. It was re-equipped with Lancasters of the standard type (B.I and IIIs) and returned to operations on 15/16th July 1943, with a raid on two power stations in Northern Italy. All the aircraft landed at Blida in North Africa. On the return journey, on 24/25th July, Leghorn was attacked.

In August the squadron moved to Coningsby and on 15/16th September 1943, the Dortmund-Ems canal was attacked, the 12,000 lb. HC (high-capacity) bomb being used for the first time. Like the dams raid, this operation cost the squadron very heavy casualties; out of a total force of eight Lancasters despatched, only three returned. On the following night the Antheor viaduct on the French-Italian border was attacked. The viaduct was again attacked in November.

In the early part of 1944, No. 617 made a series of pin-point attacks against factories in France which were reluctantly working for the enemy war effort, where the object was to ensure maximum damage with the minimum loss of French lives. The CO at this time was Wing Commander GL Cheshire and it was through a low-level marking technique which he evolved that the squadron gained a high reputation for accurate bombing at night.

Another remarkable operation undertaken by the "Dam Busters" played an important part in the successful landings in Normandy on D-Day, 6th June 1944. Known as Operation Taxable it was the simulation of a large "ghost" convoy of ships crossing the narrowest part of the English Channel. Eighteen small naval vessels steamed towards France at seven knots, and to make their radar response correspond to that created by a large convoy, the Lancasters of No. 617 flew overhead in a continuous wide orbit, gradually nearing the French coast. Every four seconds throughout the three-and-a-half hours of the operation, bundles of Window (small metal strips which produced a false echo on the enemy radar screens) were thrown out of the aircraft. Meticulous timing was necessary, as an error of only four seconds would have been sufficient to make the "convoy" look suspect. As the last Lancaster turned for home its crew had the satisfaction of seeing the German guns open radar-predicted fire on the non-existent convoy. Meanwhile the real invasion force was nearing the coast many miles away.

A few days later the "Dam Busters" made another notable contribution to the success of the invasion, when the first 12,000lb Tallboy bombs were dropped on the Saumur railway tunnel in Northern France, cutting an important enemy supply line.

In September 1944, the squadron operated from an advanced base in Russia against the German battleship Tirpitz, and a second attack was made in October from an advanced base in Scotland. On 12th November 1944, in conjunction with No. 9 Squadron (which had also participated in the two previous attacks) the ship was attacked for the third time and was capsized in Tromsö fjord, Norway. All three attacks on the Tirpitz were led by Wing Commander JB "Willy" Tait, who had succeeded Wing Commander Cheshire as CO of No. 617 Squadron in July 1944. Further attacks on dams were made in October/December when the Kembs and Urft dams were attacked; the Kembs dam was successfully breached. On 14th March 1945, a Lancaster of No. 617 Squadron (PD112 "S-Sugar", a B.I (Special)) captained by Squadron Leader CC ("Jock") Calder, dropped the first of the 22,000lb Grand Slam bombs - the biggest high-explosive bombs developed by any country during the war - to wreck the Bielefeld railway viaduct in Germany. The last operation by the squadron was an attack on Hitler's famous mountain retreat - "the Eagle's Nest" - at Berchtesgaden.

During its comparatively short period of active service No. 617 won 2 VCs and more than 150 other decorations.

Bases, etc.

Bomber Command WWII Bases:
Formed 21.3.43 as No. 617 (Bomber) Squadron

  • Scampton, Lincs : May 1943-Aug 1943
  • Coningsby, Lincs : Aug 1943-Jan. 1944
  • Detachment at Tempsford in Dec 1943.
  • Woodhall Spa, Lincs : Jan 1944 onwards
  • Detachment in North Russia (Yagodnik) Sep 1944, for an operation against the
  • Tirpitz. Detachment at Lossiemouth in Oct. and Nov. for further ops against the Tirpitz

Bomber Command WWII Aircraft:

  • Avro Lancaster B.I, B.III in standard and modified versions : Mar 1943
  • onwards
  • (A single Mustang III and a small number of Mosquito FB.VIs were used for
  • low-level target marking in 1944)

617 squadron Lancaster B Mk III Special

Code Letters:

  • "AJ", "KC" and "YZ" (B.I (Special) aircraft for Grand Slam ops only)

First Operational Mission in WWII:

  • 16/17th May 1943 : 19 Lancasters despatched to attack Ruhr dams. 5 aircraft
  • attacked Möhne Dam (dam breached but 2 aircraft FTR.); 3 aircraft attacked Eder Dam (dam breached but 1 aircraft FTR.); 2 aircraft attacked Sorpe Dam (dam not breached but damaged); 1 aircraft attacked Schwelme Dam (dam not breached but possibly damaged).

Last Operational Mission in WWII:

  • 25th April 1945 : 8 Lancasters bombed targets at Berchtesgaden and 3 other
  • Lancasters bombed alternative targets.

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