Dams

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July 30, 2010

The fourth attempt for the North Weald Flying Group to fly out and visit the Great Dams of the Ruhr Valley in Germany – the previous attempts all being scuppered by bad weather and poor forecasts.

The story of the famous ‘Dambusters’ of 617 Sqn RAF attacking and successfully destroying both the ‘Mohne’ and ‘Eder’ Dams on the night of the 16/17th May 1943, in just moonlight, over water, at 200kts and at just 60 ft with Dr Barnes Wallis’s ingenious ‘bouncing bomb’ captured my imagination many many years ago. A further dam, the ‘Sorpe’, was also attacked without success. The raid itself is very well documented and of course was made famous by the film of the same name. There are several books on the subject and analysis of the raid throws open many differing opinions on the success (or not) of that night. I don’t intend to discuss those aspects other than to say that what is not in doubt is that this is a story of amazing flying skill coupled with incredible bravery from the RAF crews who flew that night from RAF Scampton. The Squadron sustained very heavy losses on their way to the targets, during the attack, and then on the way back. Eight of the original nineteen Lancaster’s were lost, two of them during the actual attack on the dams themselves. What must not be forgotten is that not only did the RAF suffer the loss of some of its best bomber crews but when the two dams collapsed the ensuing floods killed some 1500 people on the ground.
This visit was planned to visit both the Mohne and Eder dams by road and then to fly over them the following day to try and appreciate from a pilot’s perspective the RAF’s task and achievement that historic night.

 

Day 1

The participating crews of our six aircraft from the North Weald Flying Group and guests assembled in ‘The Squadron’ at North Weald on the Friday morning for the latest briefing on routings, weather and notams. There was an atmosphere which was a combination of excitement, nervousness and perhaps slight trepidation from some quarters about what was about to be undertaken. This was a big trip which would take us across the Channel and after stopping at Calais for customs was to route through France, Belgium and into Germany itself. The route took us through various areas of controlled airspace and if the plan went as expected would have us crossing through the overheads of the major regional airports of Lille and Charleroi and into Leige’s airspace before routing into the Ardenne Forest to land at Spa airfield for lunch. Three of our fourteen participants were on their first NWFG fly out and two had never ventured across the Channel before so this was to be a baptism of fire for them.

All the weather reports looked good for the weekend and with the aircraft prep’d and fuelled, flight plans and Gen Decs filed the group walked out to their individual aircraft. There is normally a black Labrador at the Squadron on many mornings seeing pilots off, but unfortunately not today as it would have nicely set the scene for those of you who have seen the film.

 

The sky was clear but with some lowish cloud lingering as the engines came to life. Routing was straightforward for the first leg, out towards the north Kent Coast and then to the Dover VOR for a direct crossing straight to Calais. All very straightforward and after calls to Farnborough and Manston Radars we were coasting out with the cloud disappearing as we routed out over Dover harbour with the French Coast coming quickly into view in the clear air.

A call to Calais tower had us joining right hand downwind for R24. However with three aircraft all joining within a few minutes of each other and incoming ILS traffic this resulted in three of us carrying out simultaneous orbits over the wide beach before getting landing clearance. With all safely on the ground we met up in the departure hall with a friendly but somewhat harassed fireman trying to keep up with the wave of pilots trying to pay their landing fee and file the next leg’s flight plans.

Calais was really quite a depressing airfield in the past with absolutely nothing to go there for other than Customs formalities when routing onwards. This has changed with the old cafe being fully refurbished and recently re opened. Apparently this will be followed by a restaurant in early September. The cafe is very nice and was really quite busy which was very refreshing to see and worth avisit if you fancy a short Channel hop.

The next leg took us a slightly circuitous route to avoid the Dutch FIR boundary. Routing into Dutch airspace would have required a mandatory fitted ELT in the aircraft rather than the PLB required for France so we had to go around it to avoid this bureaucratic nonsense. This was a long leg, around 1hr 50 min, routing via the VORs at Lille, Charleroi and Liege before the SPI VOR and into Spa airfield.

 

The visibility was very good and passing through all the controlled airspace presented absolutely no problem at all apart from having to listen that much more closely due to some rather strong accents. The French and Belgium ATC were extremely accommodating, routing us through on our planned route which took us straight through the overheads of Lille and Charleroi whilst the commercial traffic arrived and departed below.

Approaching the Ardennes the rising ground was very evident in the distance, covered in thick forest and looking very picturesque. Spa sits at 1542ft amsl and had parachuting taking place so joining was a little more complex due to the surrounding danger area and the non overflying of Spa town below 4000ft. Approaching the airfield it was as pretty as the website pictures showed. Cut out in a clearing of very high pine trees it has an excellent 800 metre hard runway. It seemed a bit strange to be flying at 2600ft QNH and being at the correct circuit height!

The famous Spa motor racing circuit was on our right wingtip as we positioned downwind over the forest and then turned final low over the trees for runway 23 which was a great picture through the windshield.

Parking was on the steepest ramp I have ever seen and the tower reminded us on several occasions to use the chocks supplied. At the side of the very tight parking area are a complete rack of chocks of varying sizes and with the angle of the slope I wouldn’t trust the handbrake. In fact I held the aircraft on the toe brakes whilst Phil leaped from the plane to get the chocks in position before I tentatively released them. With the other aircraft quickly arriving we stood by to get them chocked as they shut down to avoid an unfortunate incident. Malcolm did also mention that he didn’t remember a hill start being part of the PPL skills test!

 

With the very reasonable landing fee of about 10 euros and the flight plans filed for the next leg we adjourned to the very nice cafe/restaurant to partake of a well deserved lunch on the terrace looking out over the Ardennes and Eifel mountains. There were also lots of people with brightly coloured parachutes throwing themselves out of perfectly good aeroplanes to keep us amused. What was a little surprising was the close proximity of a R44 helicopter with rotors running and in fact hover taxying whilst the jumpers were in the air. Spa is a great airfield and if you have the opportunity give it a visit.

After successfully managing our first hill starts in a light aircraft we departed Spa taking us out over the forest to head northeast toward the German FIR boundary only some 10 minutes flying time away. The weather was still nearly perfect as we said goodbye to Spa and called Langen Information. Our routing took us on a direct track north of Cologne and south of Dusseldorf’s airspace to approach VFR reporting point ‘Sierra’ at our overnight stop, Dortmund airport. Approaching the Rhine and the heavily industrialised areas the view was in steep contrast to the rolling mountains and forests behind us. The Langen controllers were absolutely excellent. Their English was perfect and very easily understood and they gave very clear instructions and advice with regard to the surrounding quite complicated airspace. After just over an hour we were speaking to Dortmund and joining via ‘Sierra’ for a left base onto a very long R24. There is always something a little more exciting about flying into a full ATC airport with all the runway and approach lights on and large passenger jets around and this didn’t disappoint. ‘Follow Me’ cars were in position to lead us to the GA terminal and we were parked very efficiently in a line adjacent to the terminal. Our contact Tobias Pasing was extremely helpful and brought out a large airport bus to take us down to the main terminal to pick up our hire cars, a big thank you to him.

Despite being a major regional airport Dortmund could not have been more welcoming to our six aircraft and what was even better, the landing fee plus two nights’ parking came to the princely sum of 24 euros, something quite a few of our UK airports would do well to note. The fuel price was also very competitive. With our hire cars picked up from Avis in the main terminal we headed off for the Ibis Hotel in Dortmund. Avis for cars and the Ibis chain for the hotels are ideal as they can be cancelled up to and on the day of arrival which as we have found in the past is very important in any flying trip to avoid unnecessary cancellation costs.

The hotel was well situated and after a quick freshen up it was off to the centre of town to find a suitable establishment that could take our 14 now very hungry intrepid aviators in for dinner. We soon had tables arranged in a nice restaurant in a buzzing square in the city centre. A very nice meal coupled with the systematic working through of the local beers list resulted in a jolly night for all as I seem to remember.

 

Day 2

After breakfast we regrouped and headed to our hire cars for the 30 minute or so drive down to the Mohne Dam which sits at the western end of the Mohnesee, a huge lake set in gently rolling wooded hills. Approaching the lake one is presented with this huge dam nestling in the valley below and the peaceful surroundings coupled with the many water leisure activities on the lake made it difficult to imagine that it had experienced an historic and extremely violent 30 minutes or so all those years ago.

Parking the cars and walking onto the huge body of the dam those difficulties in imagining vanished. Standing midway between the two towers which had been used as the aiming points and looking out over the lake it was only too easy to picture the sequence of events that had happened that night and caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. The reaction of the German gunners in the towers as Wing Commander Guy Gibson made the first attack run, straight towards the dam at sixty feet with lights glowing on the still water. The clatter of heavy machine guns as both the defences and Gibsons nose gunner opened fire, the smell of cordite drifting on the cool night air as the ‘bouncing bomb’ skipped across the water and sank below the water at exactly the point where we were standing.

Gibson’s Lancaster roaring over the dam; the tail gunner spraying the towers with machine gun fire. The huge explosion and the torrent of water it produced. The next attack by Flt Lt Hopgood whose Lancaster was hit on the run in. The bomb bouncing over the dam and exploding on the power station below as Hopgood’s aircraft roared overhead, flames pouring from the left wing, crashing some three miles down the valley.

The further attacks with aircraft flying alongside the attacking aircraft to draw fire and then finally the resulting collapse of a large centre section of dam wall. It was a bit of a jolt back into real time as looking the other way across the dam it was possible to imagine the millions of gallons of water cascading into the long valley below taking with it all in its path.

On that sobering note we headed off for lunch in the very nice lake side restaurant and enjoyed the view over a now very calm Mohne Dam. It was then another 90 minute drive to the Eder Dam located in a National Park some 70 miles east of the Mohne. This dam is the one that really sets the scene as to the difficulty of the raid surrounded as it is by such steep hillsides. Before the raid the Germans believed it to be immune from attack and as such it was undefended due to the terrain and standing on it one can see why. Once again it was very easy to imagine the scene with the Lancasters diving into the dark valley to make their attacks. Due to the difficulty in losing height and speed into the valley in such a big aircraft Sqn Ldr Maudsleys bomb was released late and exploded on the dam wall crippling the aircraft as it flew over the explosion, causing it to crash shortly afterwards. When Pilot Off Knight’s bomb breached the dam the resulting flood was even more severe given the narrow steep sided valley beyond.

All this seemed almost unimaginable as we sat drinking coffee close to the dam but gave us a taste of what to look for in the area as we planned the following day’s flights. After a very interesting day it was back to Dortmund with another very pleasant group meal close to the hotel.

Day 3

With the hire cars returned and landing fees paid we loaded up the aircraft and made the long taxy out to R24 in a loose stream. With a slight delay due to an incoming Air Berlin B737 we routed out to fly over both the Mohne and Eder dams. Once again speaking to Langen Information each aircraft made anti clockwise circuits around the lakes to ensure we were all going in the same direction and sensible heights were maintained to avoid upsetting the locals’ peace and quiet.

One can only imagine what the RAF crews thought that night as they saw the dams for the first time. Looking at the terrain from above especially at the Eder Dam one can appreciate the enormity of their task and the sheer raw flying skill required to carry it out, and that’s without several heavy machine guns firing at you as in the case of the Mohne. Circling around the Eder Dam it would be difficult enough to get a PA28 down to sixty feet and stabilised for a run into the dam let alone a four engined Lancaster at night in slightly misty conditions.

Reluctantly we left the Eder and routed directly towards Dahlemer Binz, an even higher airfield at 1896ft amsl, which was to be our lunch stop, again nestled in the Eifel Mountains but this time on the German side of the border of the Ardenne. Stunning scenery all the way with just a couple of isolated showers popping up here and there to spoil the view. Passing Bonn and crossing the Rhine again it was quite difficult to spot the airfield amongst the trees and fields but we all arrived over a period of twenty minutes with various tales to tell of the last leg, including Pete McDonalds fly by of the Sorpe Dam.

The restaurant was a long walk from the tower and unfortunately was incredibly slow in taking the orders and then even slower in delivering them which put us a fair bit behind schedule.

Departing Dahlemer Binz we picked up the outbound route which was to be flown in the reverse direction and once again we got the routings we requested from the various very helpful ATC units, although I will say the previously calm and charming sounding lady controller at Lille did get in a serious strop when the group aircraft seemed to appear en mass and resulted in a few orbits for some of us before entering controlled airspace.

Time was getting on and it was a bit of a race to ensure we returned to North Weald before the 19.00 closure especially as we had to pass through Customs at Calais again and we were being seriously slowed down by a strong headwind.

A very brief stop at Calais and flight plans filed in record time had us lining up very close to the airfield closure time and I am very grateful to the female controller in Calais Tower who let the stragglers out and stayed beyond their usual closing time until all our group aircraft had reported changing to London Info at the FIR boundary.

No dramas on the way back and with slightly less of a headwind the last were finally all in to North Weald with a full ten minutes to spare!

A great trip and one that was well worth pursuing even after all the previous cancellations due to weather. Apart from being a very sociable weekend it brought to life for all of the group members that took part one of the most famous episodes in the RAFs long history. From a pilot’s perspective especially it was but a small insight into what those crews must have gone through that night and the skill and bravery required to achieve their objective.

For anyone who is interested in that period of history and the ‘Dambusters’ raid in particular I would highly recommend it. Our North Weald Flying Group has pilots of all levels of experience and they coped with the trip admirably. Looking at the charts it’s probably not for the faint hearted but with lots of planning, some careful research and of course kind weather it’s a trip that I’m sure you wouldn’t ever forget. We certainly won’t.

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Contact us

North Weald Flying Group operate out of the Squadron at North Weald Airfield.

The airfield is 10 miles south of Stansted and can be seen from the M11. Follow signs from the A414 and on entrance to the field, follow the perimeter track all the way around the field until you arrive at the distinctive Squadron building.

email: paul.bazire54@gmail.com
phone: 01992522090