617 Sqd… A lot more than just “Dambusters”…


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For those of you who the 617 Sqd name does not ring a bell, 617 was formed at RAF Scampton on 21 March 1943, and was allocated the unit identification code MZ for the period April to September 1939, (even though, the unit didn’t technically exist at the time.) and was the squadron that would go on to bomb the Ruhr valleys dams in Germany, later known as “The Dambusters”.

Handpicked By Wng. Cmdr. Guy Gibson (whom was awarded a Victoria Cross for his part in the raid), it included amongst its ranks contingents of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force and was formed for the specific task of attacking three major dams in Germany: the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe. The plan was given the codename Operation Chastise and was carried out on 17 May 1943.

largeWng Cmdr. Guy Gibson, VC, DSO (bar), DFC (bar) and his crew of Lancaster AJ-G-George before the raid

This is usually the extent of knowledge people usually have about 617 Sqd., but outside of the UK, this is not the case. Volker Schürmann, an amateur historian who grew up in Haldern, Germany, has sought to put this straight by commemorating the raid with a plaque on the crash site of AJ-E-Easy.

The Dambusters are not well known in Germany. Growing up in Haldern, I did not know about his crash,” he said.

I don’t think many people from this area know the story. Perhaps just a few old people who lived near the crash site – but there are now many of them left now.

It is just a small field with a lake in the background and there is nothing there to tell anyone what happened there.

There are plaques at other places. A few miles away there are memorials for German soldiers who died in the war, but not for these men.

I’m from two generations after the war. It was a dirty time, but why not remember these people? It is good for people to know what happened.

In Germany, it is difficult to celebrate or commemorate the war, but it is a little easier for those like me from the second generation after it happened. We can handle the topic less self consciously.

but after Op. Chastise (the dams raid) 617 went on to play a key role in precision bombing in the second world war, as well as sinking the Turpitz with another Barnes-Wallace weapon, the “Tallboy”.

Tirpitz had been moved into a fjord in northern Norway where she threatened the Arctic convoys and was too far north to be attacked by air from the UK. She had already been damaged by an attack by Royal Navy midget submarines and a series of attacks from carrier-borne aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, but both attacks had failed to sink her. The task was given to No. 9 and No. 617 Squadrons, which operated from a staging base in Russia to attack Tirpitz with Tallboy bombs.

They damaged her so extensively that she was forced to head south to Tromsø fjord to be repaired. This fjord was in range of bombers operating from Scotland and from there, in October, she was attacked again, but cloud cover thwarted the attack. Finally on 12 November 1944, the two squadrons attacked Tirpitz. The first bombs missed their target, but following aircraft scored three direct hits in quick succession. Within ten minutes of the first bomb hitting the Tirpitz she turned turtle. All three RAF attacks on Tirpitz were led by Wing Commander J. B. “Willy” Tait, who had succeeded Cheshire as CO of No. 617 Squadron in July 1944.

After the end of World War II, the Squadron replaced its Lancasters with Avro Lincolns, following those in 1952 with the English Electric Canberra jet bomber. The squadron was deployed to Malaya for four months in 1955, returning to RAF Binbrook to be disbanded on 15 December 1955.

Reformed at RAF Scampton on 1 May 1958 as part of RAF Bomber Command’s V-bomber force maintaining the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent, the Squadron was equipped with the Avro Vulcan B1 from Aug 1960. By 23 May 1961 its aircraft were the upgraded Vulcan B1A fitted with the ECM tailpod. The Squadron’s assigned role was high-level strategic bombing with a variety of free fall nuclear bombs. Both the B1 and B1A types were equipped with various free-fall nuclear weapons. These may have included Blue Danube, Red Beard, Violet Club the Interim Megaton Weapon, Yellow Sun Mk.1 and certainly Yellow Sun Mk2. American bombs were also supplied to the RAF V-bombers for a short period under the Project E arrangements.

The Squadron began almost immediately to upgrade yet again to the Vulcan B2, taking delivery of the first on 1 September 1961, although its high-level strategic bombing role remained unchanged until the advent of effective Soviet Surface-to-Air Missiles forced Bomber Command to re-assign V-bombers from high-altitude operations to low-level penetration operations in March 1963, when the Squadron’s Vulcans adopted a mission profile that included a ‘pop-up’ manoeuvre from 500–1,000 ft to above 12,000 ft for safe release of Blue Steel.

Vulcans were configured for the Blue Steel stand-off bomb and 617 Squadron was the first to be declared operational with it in August 1962, until in January 1970 the squadron’s eight Vulcan B2 aircraft were re-equipped with the new strategic “laydown” bomb, WE.177B which improved aircraft survivability by enabling aircraft to remain at low-level during weapon release.

Following the transfer of responsibility for the nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy, the Squadron was re-assigned to SACEUR for tactical strike missions. In a high-intensity European war the Squadron’s role was to support land forces on the Continent by striking deep into enemy-held areas beyond the forward edge of the battlefield, striking at enemy concentrations and infrastructure, with WE.177 tactical nuclear weapons, should a conflict escalate to that stage. The Squadron’s eight aircraft were allocated eight WE.177 nuclear bombs and as the Vulcan bomb bay was configured to carry only one and assuming that RAF staff planners had factored in their usual allowance for attrition in the early conventional phase of a Continental war, leaving sufficient surviving aircraft to deliver the full stockpile of nuclear weapons, it is a reasonable conclusion that the Vulcan force was held in reserve for nuclear strike duties only. The squadron’s Vulcan B2s served mainly in that low-level penetration role until disbandment on 31 December 1981.

The Squadron reformed on 1 January 1983 at RAF Marham re-equipped with twelve Tornado GR1 aircraft and eighteen WE.177 nuclear bombs, and the Squadron’s role assigned to SACEUR remained one of support for land forces on the Continent. Its Tornado aircraft were each able to carry two WE.177 bombs and the ratio of weapons to aircraft at full strength increased to 1.5 : 1, with an allowance now made for attrition in the conventional opening phase of a Continental war. The Squadron continued in this role until the WE.177 weapons were retired and No. 617 Squadron relinquished its nuclear delivery capability.

In 1993 No. 617 began the changeover to anti-shipping and by 1994 was operating from RAF Lossiemouth assigned to SACLANT flying the Tornado GR4B with the Sea Eagle missile. The Squadron also routinely deployed in support Operation Resonate and Operation Bolton, the RAF contribution to Operation Southern Watch, the last time being in the spring and summer of 2000 to Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait.

The Squadron continued its pioneering heritage by becoming the first RAF squadron to fire the MBDA Storm Shadow cruise-missile, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, ensuring Gibson’s legacy continues into the modern day.

800px-Tornado_GR4_617Sqn_RAF_Iraq_Jul2007Pavia Tornado GR4 617 Sqn. Iraq July 2007

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them…

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2 comments

  1. Well worth remembering, thanks for this one.

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