Page last updated at 10:41 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 11:41 UK

WWII Dambusters raid revisited

Members of the 617 squadron were honoured after the raid
Members of the 617 squadron were honoured after the raid

On the 65th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, a re-enactment watched by the last living pilot from the operation took place. It marked perhaps the most famous operation ever carried out by the RAF. BBC North of England Correspondent Danny Savage was there.

The event was marked by a flypast by a Lancaster bomber over the Derwent Dam in Derbyshire - used as a practice target for training the crews.

It was an operation which the cynics thought would probably never succeed.

Not only were aircrews asked to fly ridiculously low but the bombs they were using had performed with mixed results during practice.

Tricky execution

The idea was simple: fly a plane low over a German reservoir and drop a single bomb which would bounce on the water and sink against the dam wall.

The resulting explosion would shatter the dam and disable a key supply of water and electricity. But executing it was far from simple.

Exactly 65 years ago, 19 Lancaster bombers from 617 squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire on the mission.

Many of the young men were aged just in their early twenties and had spent the hours beforehand sitting on the grass in the sunshine at Scampton playing cards or kicking a football around.

Surprisingly little has changed at the airfield.

The runways have been concreted, but the hangars the Lancasters were kept in are now Grade II listed buildings. The wild flowers still grow.

Fifty three of the 133 men who set out on the raid didn't come back.

The operation made Sqn Ldr Guy Gibson a household name and outside one of the hangars is the grave of his equally famous black Labrador - Nigger - who was run over on the day of the mission and buried at midnight just as his master was over his target.

Take a big plane like a Lancaster and try to fly that down to 60ft at night - you have one of the most incredible pieces of flying skills you will ever see.
Sqn Ldr Al Pinner

For weeks beforehand the crews had flown countless flights over lakes, reservoirs and dams in England and Wales.

With just days to go before the mission they were told they would have to approach the target at just 60ft (18m) above the water.

Altitude meters of the time were just not accurate enough, so two spotlights were fitted to each aircraft. When they matched up side by side, the plane was at the right height.

Their targets were dams close to the river Ruhr in Germany.

Not only did they hold back millions of gallons of water vital for the German war machine, they also produced power.

If the dams could be broken then vast areas would be flooded, and it would also put a dent in the enemy's war machine.

Several targets were selected but because the RAF suffered heavy losses, only two of the dams were destroyed.

But it was still regarded as a huge success and the crews, from across the Commonwealth, were hailed as heroes. A real wartime propaganda coup.

Muhne Dam after the raid
The Muhne Dam was one of two dams destroyed

In the 1950s the mission was immortalised in film.

The Dambusters starred Richard Todd, was filmed on location at RAF Scampton and re-enacted the training missions over the Derwent reservoir.

The memorial to a daring raid finishes with Todd, playing Wing Cdr Guy Gibson, walking across the airfield at Scampton to write letters to the families of the men who didn't return.

Thousands of people were at the Derwent reservoir to see the flying tribute to a mission that has captured the imagination of millions of people over the years, including the last surviving Dambusters pilot, Les Munro.

Sqdn Ldr Al Pinner, the commanding officer of the commemorative Battle of Britain Memorial Flight said: "In peacetime nowadays, operational fighter aircraft are occasionally cleared to fly as low as 100ft and they are very small, manoeuvrable aircraft.

"Take a big plane like a Lancaster and try to fly that down to 60ft at night - you have one of the most incredible pieces of flying skills you will ever see.”

Several dams were targeted and two of them were breached.

Civilians killed

It shouldn't be forgotten that hundreds of civilians died that night as floodwaters washed down the valleys below the dams, sweeping aside farms and villages.

That sentiment is reflected by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight marking the occasion over the Derwent Dam.

The flight's motto is "Lest We Forget". The Lancaster bomber made a series of passes over the dam followed by Tornado aircraft from today's 617 squadron.

The names of those who died in the raid are on a special memorial at in the centre of Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.

The memorial is shaped like a broken dam and often draws crowds of visitors.

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