617 Squadron
617 Squadron Badge (The Dambusters)
Copyright of the Royal Air Force and produced here under fair use guidelines.

Yesterday evening at 21:55 UTC I made contact with Amateur Radio Station GB5DAM in Lincolnshire, next to RAF Scampton. The call-sign of the station recalls Operation Chastise in 1943 and is operated on the night of the 16th/17th of May which is the anniversary of what became known as the Dambusters Raid. It was from Scampton that three formations of Lancaster bombers took off on the raid with the first departing at 21:39. The intention of the raid was to breach three large dams and to flood German industry in the Ruhr region. The dams concerned were the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe, of which the Möhne and Eder were actually breached whilst the Sorpe was slightly damaged.

In our modern world where technology has allowed the production of weapons that can be dropped with a precision of a few metres, the indiscrimate broadbrush tactics commonly used for bombing in the Second World War seem primitive and excessive though it was almost certainly the only possible way to attack at the time. Modern military commanders often refer to a small number of civilian deaths as Collateral Damage. I cannot think of a term to adequately describe the huge numbers of civilian casualties caused by the massed raids of WWII. And, it’s fair to say that, the Dambusters Raid was planned in the full knowledge that it would cause significant loss of civilian life. At the time of the start of the Second World War, the philosophy behind bombing was still entrenched in the 1930’s belief that the bomber would always get through and that taking the war to the opponent’s civilian population would force a rapid end to hostilities as they turned against their own government. That was wearing a little thin by 1943 and of course, the lesson from WWII is that such ideaology was false – civilians, both British and German, bore up under the assault and tried to carry on as normal.

However, looking back to that raid in the early hours of 17th May, we can see the dawning of the idea of precision bombing. The methods used were crude but efforts to provide accurate bombing enabling more precise targetting were rapidly coming on line in 1943. The dams raid was a strange mix of an attack requiring extreme accuracy with an outcome that would be widespread and indiscriminate. I doubt that we will see its like again – the modern military commander is as aware of flak from public opinion as he is of anti-aircraft missiles.

Returning to GB5DAM – The station is operated by the Lincoln Short Wave Club to remember the RAF Aircrew and the German Civilians who lost their lives in the famous raid on the Ruhr Dams of Northern Germany. To quote from their entry on QRZ.com “Sixty Nine years ago tonight we could have stood outside our shack and counted the Lancasters out and back in again next morning.” 40% of the aircrew were lost and over 1600 civilians and pow’s died on the ground. Whatever else we may think about the actions that night there is no doubt that the attack was pressed home bravely. There must certainly be many untold tales of bravery on the ground that night too.

And so to the present morning of 17th May – my first contact just before starting work was with German station DK0YLO. The Young Lady, Mareike, was talking from Sundern – right beside the Sorpe Dam that was attacked on that night 69 years ago. The station was one of several on the air this morning to highlight the mining activities of the area. A number of mines were flooded after the dams were breached but there was no mention of wars, bombing raids or flooding today. Just a friendly Amateur Radio exchange of call-signs, names and signal strengths. The pain of the past has healed over the intervening years just as the dams were repaired in a few short weeks. Whilst Amateur Radio can’t take credit for the present friendly relations enjoyed between British and German people, it is a force for friendly contact between the peoples of the world regardless of race, colour, age, gender or creed.

In the shack
Operating in the Shack in 2008 – photo by Alasdair Addison

You can read a detailed account of Operation chastise , including an analysis of its overall effect on the war, on Wikipedia.