The Dambusters: following the flightpath of 617 Squadron

Alun Davies

Alun Davies and a group of ABRs check out the flight paths of the famous 617 Squadron in a little-known region of Germany

NB. This feature reads a whole lot better if you hum the Dambuster’s theme tune…

Barnes Wallis and Squadron Leader Guy Gibson would have doffed their caps and raised a G&T in appreciation alright. It was 10am, a monsoon storm was lashing Belgium and I’d been fortunate enough to glance in the mirror at the precise moment my GPS paid homage to the Dambusters on the motorway leading up to Germany.

I’ll leave it to the photo below to show the results, but man was I proud of that little oblong-shaped piece of plastic and electronic wizardry as it skimmed from puddle to puddle down the Belgian tarmac in what appeared to be a brave attempt to take out a truck with ‘Deutche Transport’ written on the side.


Unfortunately, despite a plucky showing from the Garmin, the truck won the battle and sped off towards the Rhine throwing up a thick, obscuring spray in its wake. There would be consequences. I now considered myself on a war footing, but the immediate problem was trying to answer the question: where the hell am I going?

GPS can be a godsend when you’re overseas and want to find the nearest hotel, garage or pie shop. Equally so they can be a bit of a pain when the only record you have of your destination is programmed in to a unit that decides to self-eject and throw itself under a German road train on a Belgian motorway. But then if Guy Gibson and his dambusting 617 Squadron could fly from Lincolnshire over a blacked out Germany in wartime conditions, navigating by sticking a wet finger out of a Lancaster Bomber window, then I reckoned that maybe there was a good chance I’d find those same dams in daytime with the aid of a mobile phone, detailed road maps and asking friendly locals for directions.

Dam interesting

I was heading for a campsite on a thin spit of land poking into the Bever Dam Lake, near the town of Huckeswagon on the western edge of the region known as The Sauerland, the largest tourist trap in the North Rhine Westphalia state of Germany. The Sauerland is not that well known outside of Germany, so I’d better tell you that as I rode into the region, with a moist index finger protruding overhead, it struck me that I was entering the sort of landscape that would emerge if the Cotswolds and Derbyshire Dales were to ever get hot between the sheets.

This northern edge of the Rhine Escarpment is a rolling, tree-covered upland topping out at 843m and cut with deep wooded valleys. And, if you could cast yourself in the roll of a pre-war Germanic civil engineer just for a moment, it wouldn’t take you long to come to the conclusion that the quickest way to get the tanks rolling into Poland would be to take advantage of the natural lie of the land and build a host of dams to fuel the epicentre of coal and steel in the Ruhr Valley 30 miles down the road.

In fact, they built over 80 dams in the region, founding the industrial heartland of Germany and the infamous Nazi war machine workshops started to take shape, powered by the hydro electric stations of The Sauerland. It was those very same dams that were the reason both Guy Gibson, and more lately I, had the region on our metaphorical radars.


Test of metal

A few months previous, Nick O’Neill, a member of the ABR forum and ex serviceman living in Germany, had posted up an open invite to join him on a Dambusters Run. The plan was to tour the area by motorcycle checking out the region and more specifically the dams put out of action by the famous Barnes Wallis creation, the ‘bouncing bomb’.

Me and nine other ABRs had taken Nick up on his offer and now found ourselves pitching up in the smaller of two fields beside Bever Lake. Tents up and stoves blazing away we looked on as other campers started to fill the field to our right. It wasn’t long before a German woman strolled towards us, stopping at the low fence which separated our field from theirs and asked in a heavy northern European accent: “why are you camping in the car park?’”

The answer, of course, was obvious. We were hardcore adventure bikers, unlike the tourists in the lush grass over the fence who turned out to be members of a German heavy metal forum society and worshippers of bands called Blind Guardian, Grave Digger and Sodem.

As it happened, the tattooed rockers with wispy beards were also dab hands at collecting wood and lighting a cracking bonfire so when we returned from the campsite bar we hoisted our creaking and arthritic knees over the fence and joined them.

What followed was the inevitable Eurovision campfire song contest where a group of middle-aged men with paunches, jowls and dayglo jackets took up the challenge of a group of young Germans with body art, piercings and leather waistcoats and delivered a slightly inebriated, distinctly out of tune, though thoroughly raucous version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. If you need to know, we won, again.


Who are you calling fat?

Day one of our tour (Saturday) was an exercise in getting to know one another with handlebars rather than a pint in our hands. Nick took pole position, leading at a pace which kept those with a lesser tendency to cut loose with the right wrist happy, while those who would usually ride at a faster pace had time to take in the hilly, wooded delights of The Sauerland.

Both lakeside and refreshment stops were legion which gave me chance to check out a curious set of lumps that had appeared on my front tyre and had the effect of turning our relaxed pace in the twisties into something that felt like I was pushing the Tiger to its outer limits on the TT course. With no garage open until Monday this was how it would be for a couple of days.

Our route took us up and over the highest summit in the region, which was also home to the most northern winter sports resort in Germany, complete with bobsleigh run and a ski jump, and then on to our second campsite within striking distance of the Eder Dam. On arrival we were told that there was another group of bikers booked in for the weekend and we were soon confronted with a field full of identical Harleys.

At a guess I’d reckon there to be around 300 Fatbobs, each and every one of them indistinguishable from the other save for the odd custom seat here and the occasional set of ape hangers there. Never the less, the assembled Fatbob owners were deep in to the ritual of checking out each other’s bikes while expressing the sort of curiosity and interest you’d normally reserve for a UFO sighting.


Eder Dam will do

There comes a point in any trip to Germany when you realise that no matter where you ride you’re never more than 5ft away from a Schnitzle. These pork steaks enshrined in breadcrumbs are surely destined to make it on to the national flag at some momentous day in the near future. Choice and succulent they may be but to live a life where every day starts and ends with a Schnitzel must have some bearing on the national psyche and may go some way to explaining why there was a poster on the Eder Dam that appeared to be a celebration of the bombings. I wonder if the good folk of Coventry would reciprocate by pasting up banners promoting the grand work of the Luftwaffe?

The Eder Dam and the lake of the same name are set in a steep, dog- legged, picturesque valley overlooked by a prominent fairytale castle perched up high on the skyline ridge. The morning’s ride to the dam had been fantastic on traffic-free roads that swept through thick forest, zigzagged up and over hills and ambled through quaint villages. For a region that’s within shouting distance of Germany’s most populous area (18 million live in the Bonn-Cologne-Dusseldorf metropolitan region) that in itself was a surprise but it didn’t come close to the stunned realisation that hit me when I viewed what a 24-year-old squadron commander named Gibson and his crews were confronted with 43 years previous.

When viewed from both the walkway across the dam and from up high on the castle battlements, the skill and courage demonstrated by those young men is palpable. The flight path to line up for the drop zone would be difficult if strapped into a slow-moving hang glider on a clear sunny afternoon let alone in a loaded Lancaster Bomber in the middle of night where low cloud and fog were features. Gibson and his team had to swoop in low over the castle and immediately dive into the dogleg valley to position themselves at 18m above the lake at a speed of 240mph before they could release their oversized baked bean tins stuffed with explosives. It was only the last remaining bomb from the final plane that eventually breached the dam.


A schnitzel too far

In the afternoon we set our sights on the Mohne Dam and rode north west through more hilly, wooded countryside. The roads were entertaining and we passed by numerous dams which were not on the Dambusters’ hit list. On our approach to the Mohne Dam I tried to visualise what it would have been like the night 617 came on tour with German ack ack peppering the sky as eight Lancasters skimmed across the calm waters.

Once again it was the bravery of those young men which featured top most in my thoughts, especially that of Gibson and his crew as they flew low over the dam with the specific intention of drawing enemy fire away from the incoming aircraft. The Mohne was breached by Maltby’s crew on the fifth run with one Lancaster shot out of the sky and another seriously damaged. Of the 19 aircraft that took part in the Dambuster mission eight were shot down. We paid our respects.

We took the fast route back to the campsite at Bever Dam along a not-so-rapid, clogged-up motorway through the industrial heartland of the Ruhr Valley. In between spells of lane splitting I cast my eye left and right and thought of the words penned by reconnaissance Flying Officer Frank Frey, who piloted a Spitfire over the area at first light following the night of the bombing raid…

When I was about 150 miles from the Mohne Dam, I could see the industrial haze over the Ruhr area and what appeared to be a cloud to the east. On flying closer, I saw that what had seemed to be cloud was the sun shining on the floodwaters.

I looked down into the deep valley which had seemed so peaceful three days before [on an earlier reconnaissance mission] but now it was a wide torrent.

The whole valley of the river was inundated with only patches of high ground and the tops of trees and church steeples showing above the flood. I was overcome by the immensity of it.

When we arrived back at the campsite our thrash metal buddies in the next field had departed, no doubt returning to suit-wearing day jobs in multinational companies with Celine Dion whining away in the elevator. With the tents up we walked in slow formation towards the bar and the inevitable confrontation with a beer and schnitzel.

That night, as I lay in my tent reflecting on the past couple of days, I came to the conclusion that if the allies had had better intelligence back in 1943, Gibson and his team would have over shot the dams and taken out the major pork abattoirs further to the north. The war would have ended far sooner and the restaurants and bars of Germany would now have a far more varied menu.


10 things you never wanted to know about schnitzel

  • Schnitzel is a very tender thin slice of meat, battered, breadcrumbed and deep fried.
  • Traditional schnitzel is made of veal, but it’s now more often made of pork. Chicken schnitzel is a popular in Australia
  • When made of pork, it is often called Schnitzel Wiener Art in Germany. In Austria, by law, it has to be called Wiener Schnitzel vom Schwein to differentiate it from the original veal schnitzel
  • There are also regional versions of schnitzel, such as ‘Salzburger Schnitzel’, which is stuffed with mushrooms, bacon, onions, and herbs
  • Parmo is a popular Teeside alternative to the Friday night kebab. Much like schnitzel, it’s made from flattened, breadcrumbed pork or chicken but this variation is topped with white sauce and grated cheese, then grilled…
  • Parmo is also available with all sorts of pizza-like toppings, including pepperoni, onions, jalapenos and peppers. Anyone fancy a blast up to Teeside?
  • There is a debate as to where schnitzel originated. Some claim Milan, northern Italy, as cotoletta alla milanese, though others say it appeared in Vienna during the 15th or 16th Century
  • In Austria the dish is traditionally garnished with potato salad and a slice of lemon
  • There are around 750 calories in one serving of Wiener Schnitzel
  • Vegetarian options are available, though we’re struggling to see the difference between a veggie schnitzel and a veggie burger… which is probably tantamount to sacrilege in the schnitzel world. We’ll get our coats, shall we?



The bouncing bomb

The bouncing bomb (code name Upkeep) was designed by British engineer Barnes Wallis in 1942. At around 60 inches in length and 50 in diameter, the bomb resembled a large baked bean tin. With a muzzle velocity of 250mph, the bomb was developed to bounce across the surface of the water towards its target, avoiding underwater obstacles. On arrival at its target with its momentum spent, the bomb would then sink and detonate at a pre-determined time. The most famous bouncing bomb mission was the RAF’s Operation Chastise of 16-17 May 1943, better known now as the ‘Dambusters’ mission, in which 19 specially modified Lancaster Bombers of 617 Squadron carried out an attack on the dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. A total of 120 bouncing bombs were built during WWII but only 19 were used operationally.


Dambusting 2012

Nick tells me he’ll be running another Dambuster trip in 2012. Check out the forum on for the latest info.

Who’s riding?

The 2011 Dambusters, lead by squadron Leader Nick

Dambusters02 Dambusters01