The Battle of the Ruhr and the Dambusters Raid

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur “Bomber” Harris wanted to make sure the German people understood that elections had consequences.

Harris was Douhet’s most dedicated acolyte. Giulio Douhet was an influential interwar Italian airpower theorist that coined the term “the bomber will always get through.” Douhet felt that breaking the enemy’s civilian’s will to fight through strategic bombing was the key to future military victory. Harris was determined to shape the RAF into Douhet’s ideal. If it would have been up to him, Britain would have produced nothing but heavy bombers. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Harris launched the RAF bombers at Germany… and they were promptly shot down by the German 88s. And the ones that got through were wildly inaccurate. British Bomber Command was forced to switch to ineffective night time bombing. By any objective measure, Douhet’s concept of strategic bombing was a complete failure between 1939 and 1942. Directly attacking civilian targets just hardened civilian resolve. But Harris didn’t care, even when confronted with the negligible morale effects of the Luftwaffe terror bombing of the British Isles. He just blamed “distractions” such as the British Army or short range fighters for pulling resources from building bombers. He believed he could break the German people if he just had more. In 1944 and 45, Harris would have his planes, and he would turn the destruction inflicted by the Germans on London and Coventry at the height of the Battle of Britain into a random Tuesday over Germany by the end of the war. But he didn’t have enough bombers in 1943, and even worse, most of those bombers were American.

Fortunately for German cities in 1942, the British bomber industry was still not producing enough for Harris. But the American Eighth Air Force was finally engaged in Harris’ bombing campaign in force. However, the Americans believed that attacking German industry was the key. With the Norden bombsight (which “could drop a bomb in a pickle barrel”), they believed they had the accuracy to do so. After all, the Eighth Air Force was bombing by day, while the British Bomber Command was still mostly flailing about at night.

By early 1943, the Americans were slowly becoming the senior partner in the war and were steadily gaining influence in strategic decisions. Marshall agreed to the British insistence on invading North Africa and Southern Europe instead of an immediate cross channel invasion, but as a compromise, Bomber Command had to switch to an American lead attacking industrial targets in Germany. Albert Speer had finally convinced Hitler that Germany needed to ramp up war production in late 1942. The Americans wanted to stop it. Harris would have to wait a bit.

For a decade, Hitler’s National Socialists had protected the German people from the effects of their policies. Hitler felt that Germany lost the First World War because the blockade forced a collapse of the civilian will to fight, not from military defeat. He vowed not let it happen again. Even the effects of the war on the economy weren’t felt in the early years. The losses of civilian workers to the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine were offset by imported slave labor. And any dip in consumer goods was made up by the outright looting of occupied countries. Many a German child received a slightly used pair of shoes for Christmas; don’t mind the smell of piss and Zyklon-B. Life was much better in Germany in 1941 than in Britain with its severe rationing. But the German economy couldn’t keep with the losses on the Eastern Front. By late 1942, Speer ramped up production of war material significantly – the German economy literally doubled in 1942. And no more so than in Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr.

The Ruhr was Germany’s industrial center because it sat on top of Germany’s industrial center of gravity: the vast coal fields that powered the country and the economy. Up to this point Allied bombers were terror bombing civilian targets, striking synthetic oil factories, or military targets such as u-boat pens and aircraft factories. The intelligence officials wouldn’t figure out the importance of the Ruhr’s coal for several months and the Combined Bomber Offensive didn’t directly target coal (and more importantly: the railroad stations critical to transporting it) until November. So in March 1943 the Combined Bomber Offensive initial objectives for the Ruhr campaign were ammunition factories, synthetic oil plants, iron works, hydroelectric dams, and steel mills, and because Bomber Harris was still in charge of the RAF, the workers who manned them.

Harris believed, correctly as it turned out, that if workers were worried about where to live, they wouldn’t be very effective in the factories (he never really gave up on trying to break German civilian will). He made sure part of the Ruhr campaign was to “dehouse” its German workers, preferably with them still inside. One of the quickest ways to “dehouse” German workers wasn’t to bomb their houses, but flood them. And the Ruhr was packed with dams.

Dams were difficult targets. And in the early war, damn near impossible to damage (hehe). The accuracy wasn’t there and the bombs weren’t big enough. The logical solution was a torpedo but the Germans emplaned heavy torpedo nets. And to actually hit a dam with a bomb dropped from a level bomber such as Lancaster or B-17 required a stroke of luck equivalent to hitting the lottery. And if it did, a 500 lb bomb would just take a small chuck out of the reinforced concrete, and then most certainly above the waterline. The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. The British pioneered a concept of “skipping” bombs like a rock into the dams and over the torpedo nets. It didn’t work: the bombs either bounced off before they exploded, or if they did explode on the dam, the untamped explosion did little damage, and again, the damage was always above the waterline. There had to be a better way.

There was. After extensive testing, British scientist Barnes Wallis found that they could skip bombs in to a target with a “backspin”. When the skipped and backspun bombs hit the target they bounced off and sank directly to the base of the dam (a concept not unfamiliar to basketball players). There the specially produced bombs would explode like a depth charge, and smash the structural integrity of the dam. The problem was that to backspin the bombs the bombers had to drop the specially designed bombs at a specific angle, a specific height, a specific speed, at a specific distance from the dam and at a specific, very low altitude. Any deviation resulted in a failure to backspin, a premature detonation, or even a bomb that bounced back up into the bomber. Moreover, this had to be done at night, without fighter interference, and down the narrow winding trench-like valleys. But if everything happened perfectly, the dams could be destroyed. If.

The mission to destroy the Ruhr Valley dams was given to No 5 Group of Bomber Command who handpicked a squadron from their best bomber crews. The elite crews were comprised of men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, led by 24 year old Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Gibson and 617 Squadron practiced for weeks at night with inert bombs on British dams. (Imagine that risk assessment.) On the night of 16-17 May, 1943, Gibson and 617 Squadron flew Operation Chastise against the Moehne, Scorpe and Eder Dams.

617 Squadron attacked in three waves. Unfortunately the first wave successfully infiltrated but alerted the anti-aircraft crews around the numerous German airfields near the Dutch coast. The second and third waves suffered several planes shot down or damaged so badly they had to return before they even reached their targets. The first wave successfully breached the Moehne Dam but only after one bomber was destroyed by its own bomb and several missed attempts whom then drew flak away from the three successes. The Eder Dam was undefended by flak batteries, but only because the winding and narrow “trench run” (where do you think George Lucas got the idea?) lured the Germans into a false sense of security. Moreover, the valley was filled with thick fog and there was a hitherto unknown church steeple just before the release point, which required even more difficult split second precision maneuvering in order release the bomb properly. But since the valley was undefended the planes just kept doing practice runs until they felt confident enough to release their bombs. One aircraft made six practice attempts. The bomb of the last run by the last aircraft breached the Eder Dam. The aircraft that attacked the Scorpe Dam failed to breach its massive earthen ramparts. One aircraft diverted to Scorpe’s secondary target, the Ennepe Dam but due to the fog ended up attacking the Bever Dam. In any case both dams were structurally sound in the morning.

Not so for the Moehne or Eder Dams. Their destruction unleashed Biblical floods on their respective valleys. And the rising water was felt far downstream. The bomb damage assessment aircraft that flew the next morning reported only the tops of trees and steeples peaking above the water. Most German civilians reached safety before their towns were destroyed, but 1600 were killed, mostly Soviet prisoners of war used as slave labor who were locked up and couldn’t escape. The devastation to the towns and farms was complete though. The “Dambusters Raid” knocked out hydroelectric power to the Ruhr Valley for two weeks, and Speer estimated that coal production dropped by 400,000 tons because of the raid. It would have been more had the RAF followed up with additional conventional attacks on the repair parties. Speer’s “Operation Todt”, a Reich-wide quick reaction repair and construction system, gave the German infrastructure a resilience that American and British planners didn’t expect. The Raid’s greatest effect was on local food production, British civilian morale, and the thinning of the limited German manpower and resources which could be dedicated elsewhere. Every German anti-aircraft crewmember, fireman, or Todt member was one less fighting on the Eastern Front. Every 88 aimed skyward was one less aimed at a Russian tank and ditto for the fighters prowling the Dutch, Belgian, French and German airspace.

The three month Battle of the Ruhr was a “catastrophe” (in the German Armaments Inspectorate’s own words) for the German economy, nearly a million tons of lost production, and more importantly, halted Speer’s upward surge of German economy. By the end of 1943, nearly 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, 10,000 defensive fighters, and almost a million men were dedicated to defeating the Allied bombing campaign. This came at a price though: 50% of all Allied bomber crews were killed in action, and 25% wounded or captured, a 75% casualty rate.

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