The Dam Busters!


UPDATE: There are nice pictures of the new Lancaster tooling at Scale Model News.

The news that Airfix is releasing a new tooling of their 1/72 scale Avro Lancaster has me thinking several thoughts: the ingenuity of mankind; the cruelty of war; the ugliness of the Lancaster; the progress of race relations; and how much I want to a build this.

Avro Lancaster with Upkeep bomb
Avro Lancaster with Upkeep bomb

Why all these thoughts? Well, my husband and I recently watched The Dam Busters, a 1955 movie about Operation Chastise, the British plan to blow up dams in the Ruhr Valley. These dams provided hydoelectric power to factories crucial to the Nazi war effort, but how exactly do you blow up a heavily defended dam? The solution was the bouncing bomb developed by Barnes Wallis (later Sir Wallis). The spinning bomb would be released on the approach to the dam and it would skip along the water, hit the dam and then roll down to a specified depth and explode.


The movie goes through Wallis’ many trials and tribulations in developing the bomb and convincing Bomber Command that it could actually work. It’s not the most exciting movie by today’s standards—it‘s kind of plodding. And it has the unfortunately named dog Nigger, the pet of the Wing Commander Guy Gibson. The dog is accidentally killed just before the mission. So you find yourself very upset about the death of the dog and very upset about the choice of name for the black Labrador. The dog is renamed Digger in a movie remake being written by comedian Stephen Fry. When we’ll ever see the remake is a mystery.

The 1955 movie also shows the Upkeep bomb with a round casing, reflecting Wallis’ belief that the bomb needed to be a sphere, but my memory from other documentaries is that the casing was eventually dropped because it exploded upon hitting the water.

There were several different technologies and workarounds developed for the mission. The planes were flying so low (to avoid detection, anti-aircraft fire and to prevent the bomb from disintegrating when it hit the water) that the altimeter and bomb sight were useless. To solve the height problem, they trained two spotlights on the water and when they intersected they knew they were at the right altitude. And they jury-rigged something that looked like it was made from a coat hanger to tell them when they were at the proper distance from the dam.

The 1955 movie has some very nice air footage and some very cheesy special effects, including seeing the little scale model dam exploding and flooding the valley. But for some reason, the very cheesiness of the effects made me realize that real people—civilians, not soldiers—would be in the path of those floodwaters, far more than any computer generated spectacle might.

A Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster B Mark I (Special) (PB996 ‘YZ-C’) of No. 617 Squadron RAF, flown by Flying Officer P. Martin and crew, releasing a 22,000-lb (10,000 kg) MC deep-penetration bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword ‘Grand Slam’) over the viaduct at Arnsberg, Germany. The viaduct was attacked on 15 March with one bomb in poor weather, with no hits. It was destroyed four days later, using 6 “Grand Slam” and 13 “Tallboy” bombs.


And finally, I really want to build a Lancaster. It really is a butt ugly plane compared to a B-17, but it really defined the term heavy bomber. The maximum bomb payload of a B-17 was something like 17,000 pounds, but the Lancaster’s maximum payload was 22,000 pounds. I had built a Lancaster as a kid, and was fascinated by the oil drum-shaped bomb.


Watch Bombing Hitler’s Dams on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: