Thursday, 16 May 2013

CELEBRATING THE DAMBUSTERS

Little did I realise when I reported for duty at 1600 hours for the eight hour evening watch on May 16th 1943 what was ahead in the next few hours. Nor did I imagine that I would be part of the Filter Room team at Fighter Command HQ, Bentley Priory, tracking the flight of the Dambusters on their famous raid on the Mohne, Sorbe and Eder Dams on the Ruhr.

The Bomber Command teams, consisting of nineteen aircraft from 617 Squadron, left RAF Scampton on the night of 16th May in three groups. The first group was led by Squadron Leader Guy Gibson and included Mickie Martin, seconded from the Royal Australian Air Force. The second and third group followed at regular intervals. They were carrying the new “earthquake” bouncing bomb, invented by Barnes Wallis, scientist, engineer and inventor. The object was to drop their bombs on the approach to the dam wall so that it would be breached and cause vast flooding throughout the Ruhr area. This was where the majority of the vast manufacturing facilities were, producing Germany’s war weapons.

We picked them up as they left the British coast, heading for Germany and crossing via Holland. Flying low in order to evade German Radar, we were able to track them with our Chain Low Radar units. We had no idea of the importance of this mission. History tells us that the first wave managed successfully to drop two bombs breaching the Mohnesee dam. The following groups were not so successful. However, sufficient damage was done to put many factories out of action for some months and because of the flooding of agricultural land, cripple food production for many years. Sadly, many of the foreign slave workers from Belgian, Holland and France, employed in making armaments, were also killed.

When we picked up the aircraft tracks on their return, it was obvious we had lost a large number of aircraft in this operation. We were always advised of the squadrons operating and frequently several of the Filter Room personnel would have family or boy friends amongst the crews. Yet, they never failed in their duties, continuing to plot, to filter or to tell – the necessary tasks in this vital part of the Dowding System, which defended our shores and tracked our air crews.

Years later in the sixties, when running The Duke Hotel at Bratton, I had the privilege of meeting Mickie Martin and other members of that memorable operation when they called in for a meal during a reunion. On learning that my husband and I were both wartime members of the Royal Air Force, in no time a party developed and we played one of the games the crews indulged when letting off steam after an operation. Everyone would crouch on the floor, blindfolded and clutching a rolled newspaper. The object was to target a fellow player. If we managed to hit him with our paper, they were then out of the game until there was only one left – the winner then enjoyed free drinks for the rest of the night.

And now seventy years later on this special anniversary, the memories all come flooding back.

Eileen

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