AJ-G THE DAMBUSTERS  (617 Squadron)

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Sorpe Attack

The attack of the Sorpe by the second wave can only be described as cursed from the start, from the moment Joe McCarthy's AJ-Q "Queenie" sprang a coolant leak during the warm up and he was forced to switch to the reserve AJ-T "Tommy". After being delayed by 34 minutes by the problem, McCarthy was determined to make up the time and catch the other four Lancasters in the wave. McCarthy soon went from being late to being the only plane left in the second wave.

The second wave were unable to fly together as the tactics of the raid called for them to depart alone and take a more northerly route over the North Sea. Their attack technique was also going to be different as they were attacking an Earth dam. They would have to explode the upkeep near the crest of the dam rather than the base where the earth would absorb the shock waves. The Upkeep would also not be rotated unlike attacking the other dams. It would be more like a conventional dive bombing manoeuvre. In order to maximise the attack area, the crews of the second wave had practiced attacking the dam along the length rather than perpendicular (at right angles) to it. With the dam located in a steep valley this was going to require exceptional flying skills similar to those employed at the Eder. They would have to drop down over one valley wall and release the weapon before hauling the Lancaster back up the other valley side.

While McCarthy was busy switching to the spare aircraft, the lead of the wave and leading off Operation Chastise fell to Bob Barlow in AJ-E "Easy". He departed RAF Scampton at 2128 and was never seen again.

Vernon Byers in AJ-K "King" was the third aircraft to depart Scampton, again nothing more was heard from him. It appears that over the Dutch coast he strayed off course over the island of Texel which was a notorious flak hot spot. He climbed higher to try to get a fix on his position but the gunners shot him down into the Zuider Zee at 2257. AJ-K was the first aircraft lost in the operation with the loss of all crew.

At about the same time as Byers was coming under fire, Les Munro in AJ-W "Willie" ran into similar trouble. As he roared over the island of Vlieland just north of Texel, AJ-W also became an easy target for land based gunners and a flak ship. It was a miracle that no one was killed but the electrics in the plane were knocked out killing communication with other aircraft and his own crew. In an impossible position to attack the dams having no communication he thought he would only be a menace to other aircraft and reluctantly turned home. He nearly had another disaster when he returned to Scampton, he flew straight in cutting up another Lancaster also attempting to land after aborting its mission. A collision would have been disastrous as Munro had, against orders, returned with his Upkeep armed and dangerous.

The other Lancaster was Geoff Rice in AJ-H "Harry" also of the second wave. He too had been forced to turn back after another mishap. After crossing Vlieland where the crew of AJ-H were witness to Byers' ending in AJ-K, Rice flew dangerously low to the water in an attempt to outfox the gunners. He overdid it somewhat and with the altimeter on zero he clipped the sea. The Upkeep he was carrying was ripped from the belly of the Lancaster and vanished into the water. The Upkeep also damaged the tail wheel as it was torn off. The rear of the Lanc was filled with sea water and the badly shaken Rice struggled to bring AJ-H up with water streaming out of the empty bomb bay. They were all lucky to survive but without an Upkeep their mission was useless so they too turned home.
Rice had to make an emergency landing when he returned to Scampton with a damaged rear landing wheel and having to lower the undercarriage manually after a hydraulics failure. Fearing a rough landing, the crew took up the crash positions as Rice gingerly put the Lancaster down safely but with one final scare as the radioless Munro, unable to warn anyone he was landing shot in below him.

As Rice and Munro were heading home another Lancaster from their wave was falling. Barlow who had departed first had just crossed the German border at 2350 when close to Rees the aircraft came into trouble. The British report that AJ-E had come under fire and was hit by flak. The Germans however reported that the aircraft simply flew into an electricity pylon. However AJ-E met its end, it took Barlow and his whole crew with it. There were no survivors.
Although AJ-E disintegrated, the Upkeep it was carrying did not break free of the aircraft with the result that the self destruct mechanism did not arm. Given that the impact was not severe enough to explode the bomb also suggests that Barlow had tried to land the doomed AJ-E in the few seconds he had left. The Germans now had in their possession the RAF's top secret weapon intact and it would not take them long to figure out how it worked.

By now four of the five Lancasters from the second wave were either shot down or heading home due to problems. McCarthy who had departed 34 minutes late in the spare AJ-T was all that was left of the second wave. He kept as low as possible dodging flak and searchlights which had been alerted by the aircraft that had gone before. McCarthy also noticed that at times he flew below packs of night fighters flying 1,000 feet above him.
He finally reached the Sorpe at 0015 hours with more problems ahead. The approach to the dam looked even worse that on the models and photo reconnaissance. McCarthy had to line up his approach over a church steeple in the village of Langscheid on the crest overlooking the dam before swooping down into the valley. With only a matter on seconds before the aircraft had to pull up to avoid flying into the other valley side at the far end of the dam, bomb aimer George Johnston had no time at all to talk his pilot onto the correct line and height for release.

It was even more difficult as this aircraft was not fitted with the spot lamps due to time problems.

Direction of attack on the Sorpe Dam
Direction of attack on the Sorpe Dam

They tried to line up correctly nine times and every time Johnston was not happy. Finally on the tenth run Johnston released the Upkeep. As the Lancaster climbed the valley on the far side, the Upkeep exploded and a plume of water followed. They turned back to assess the damage and saw that a section of the crest had been blow away. To their disappointment, the dam was still standing.

On the way home McCarthy strayed over some heavy flak positions especially at Hamm. His evening had one more twist when he was forced to land at Scampton on a bullet burst tyre. For some reason McCarthy had failed to relay the signal Goner 79C - Weapon release at the Sorpe dam, exploded on contact with the dam and a small breach made until he was 20 minutes from home. As a result, controllers at Grantham were not aware that the Sorpe which was the second most important target after the Mohne was still standing. Despite this primary target remaining, the reserve wave (third wave) were sent to attack the secondary targets; the Diemel, the Lister and the Ennepe.

Only two aircraft were able to attack the Sorpe, McCarthy being the first and Brown in AJ-F "Freddie" the second and final. Neither managed to breach the dam.


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