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The ‘Dambusters’ Fly Again Famous Bombing Raid Reenacted

Allied bombing, for all its lethal ferocity, was not an exact science. When the Royal Air Force set its sights on the heavily defended hydroelectric dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, the technical challenges were especially immense. But legendary aircraft engineer Barnes Wallis set to it.

His ingenious bomb design, its dangerous delivery method, and the fact that the RAF pulled it off, made the “Dambusters” raid an instant legend. The raid was the subject of a 1951 book and a popular 1955 movie; a Hollywood remake is even in the works. But the splashiest tribute to the raid so far took place last fall, when a team of scientists recreated the distinctive bomb and the bombing—exploding dam and all. The project culminated in a British documentary, Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb, released last May.

Dams in the Ruhr Valley, an important industrial center for the Nazi war machine, were critical resources because they provided not only hydroelectric power, but drinking water and water for canal transportation. They were protected by torpedo nets, which shielded them from conventional bombing raids.

In order to maximize the chances of hitting and destroying a dam, Wallis developed a drum-shaped bomb that was slung under a specially modified Lancaster bomber, with a motor that spun the drum backward at a speed of 500 revolutions per minute. The plan was to drop the bomb from an altitude of 60 feet so it would skip across the water like a stone, bouncing over torpedo nets until it hit the wall of the dam, spun down the wall underwater, and exploded.

The plan, codenamed Operation Chastise, was carried out on the night of May 16–17, 1943, by a squadron formed for the mission—617 Squadron—flying 19 modified Lancasters. It succeeded spectacularly. The Möhne and Eder dams were breached, and the Sorpe dam damaged Although 53 men of 617 Squadron lost their lives, eight RAF bombers were destroyed, and the Germans were able to quickly make repairs, the impact on German industry and the local population was significant. The daring raid became one of the RAF’s finest hours.

While memory of the raid still shines brightly, the specifics of how it was conducted have grown less clear with time. Most of Wallis’s project notes have been lost, many in a flood in the 1960s. To better understand the accomplishment, engineers from Cambridge University spent two years building a replica bomb, then in October 2010 dropped it on a specially constructed dam in British Columbia, Canada.

The reenactment bomb run veered from the original in a number of ways: The dam constructed for the project was one-third the size of the original targets, with the replica bomb proportionally downsized. And because Canadian authorities prohibited the use of live incendiaries, explosive devices inside the dam itself were detonated at the bomb’s point of impact.

The team also used a vintage DC-4 aircraft to drop the bomb instead of one of the rare surviving Lancasters. The design of the bomb— in particular, getting its spin just right—proved to be the biggest challenge. “Our pilots had no one shooting at them, the engineers could use things like bowling machines to test their theories, and the whole thing was only at one-third scale—and even then it was hard enough,” said Dr. Hugh Hunt, the head of the engineering team. “You compare that with the original challenge—for Barnes Wallis and for the pilots—and you realize what an amazing achievement it was.”

One British newspaper, however, called the lost records explanation a “rather thin excuse” for executing the project, implying that it might have been just plain fun to perform the reenactment.“There’s no massive mystery in a theoretical sense,” Hunt concedes. “The question was really finding out whether anyone could do it again.”

Hidden Portrait of Hitler Discovered in French Stained Glass Window

A French historian revealed earlier this year that a stained glass window in a church in Saint-Jacques de Montgeron, a small town near Paris, appears to have been an artfully constructed symbol of defiance. The window, created by two prominent French artisans, depicts a figure with Hitler’s distinctive sharp side part and an upraised arm concealing where his even more distinctive mustache would be, in the act of slaying the church’s namesake, Saint Jacques. The name Jacques is derived from Jacob, father of the 12 tribes of Israel.

It’s not surprising that the artists, two brothers, would depict the German leader obtusely. The window was created in 1941, during the Nazi occupation, and the glass-crafting brothers would have been subject to harsh, even fatal, reprisals. And it’s understandable that it has gone unnoticed for 70 years, historian Renaud Arpin says, since visitors to the church are generally unaware of when the window was made. According to a woman who lived in the town at the time, the priest who commissioned the window was strongly opposed to Nazi rule. Arpin calls the work “a message of hope and resistance.”

Groundbreaking Law Requires French Company to Disclose Its Role in the Holocaust

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley waded into one of history’s more treacherous areas this summer when he signed legislation requiring France’s state-owned SNCF railway company to thoroughly disclose its role in deporting people to Nazi death camps before its subsidiary company bids on rail contracts in his state. No small matter, as the state is home to one of the busiest rail corridors in the country, between Boston and Washington, D.C.

The SNCF’s role in the deportation of as many as 77,000 Jews and other prisoners while under German occupation is well known; the company’s archives have been open for over a decade, and the French government has paid nearly $1 billion in reparations to Holocaust survivors and relatives of the victims, including some who were transported in SNCF rail cars.

In a scathing editorial, the Washington Post wrote that the law “must qualify as among the strangest and most self-defeating to emerge” from the state capital. It noted that because of the law’s wording, the state archivist—a historian—rather than a prosecutor or transportation official will have the final say over the bid for the $250 million contract to operate a train line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Even worse, by imposing a possibly arbitrary condition on a single company in the bidding process, the state may have violated federal law and imperiled its chances to receive additional federal funding for transportation projects. “That would be a steep price to pay for a showy bit of legislative posturing intended to make the point that Maryland lawmakers stand unalterably opposed to the Holocaust,” the Post said.

Top Lawyer Hid Evidence Asserting Japanese Americans No Threat to U.S.

‘Sorry” is always the hardest word—and it took the U.S. Justice Department decades to admit a doozy. Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal revealed this May that one of his predecessors, Charles H. Fahy, deliberately hid from the Supreme Court reports concluding that Japanese Americans on the West Coast did not pose a military threat. As a result, in 1943 the court upheld the 1942 presidential order that led to the detention of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during the war years.

Although evidence of Fahy’s misconduct emerged in the 1980s, it was not widely known and Katyal’s unusually candid statement, posted on the Justice Department’s blog, was taken as a significant admission. Solicitor General Fahy, an FDR appointee, died in 1979. “This admission of misrepresentation by the government should quiet the naysayers who have used this false information to proclaim the justification of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans,” said Floyd Mori, head of the Japanese American Citizens League. “The justification has all been based on a lie, which today is exposed as a senseless act.”

“There have been dark times in our office,” Katyal said, speaking in the Justice Department’s Great Hall to mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May. “Ultimately it harmed our commitment to those magnificent words carved on the front of the Supreme Court, at the top: Equal Justice Under Law.”


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.