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The Dambuster Raid... Part Two

Guy Gibson's Lancaster
Guy Gibson's Lancaster fitted with a practice "Upkeep" bomb (United Kingdom Public Domain)

The Eder Dam was difficult to find once the surface fog had rolled in. According to British intelligence, the Germans felt the Eder did not require gun protection because the surrounding 1,000-foot-high hills formed a natural defense for the structure.

Ten days shy of his 21st birthday, David Shannon made 5 attempts on the Eder, but was unable to lineup his bomber properly on the run before he had to clear the hills with a steep climb. Impatient, Gibson ordered Henry Maudslay to give it a go. But on his third trip in, Maudslay was going too fast as he released the bomb. It burst as soon as it hit the wall, catching his bomber above it. Another airplane lost as it crashed on the other side of the wall. Gibson ordered Shannon to try again, and this time he had it right. Bomb dropped, a great funnel of water, but no breach. The last hope was Les Knight, an Australian. On his second run, he hit the jackpot. The wall burst and a great torrent of water rolled down the valley at 30 feet per second. Gibson and the remaining aircraft headed home to Scampton.

The Sorpe Dam was similar to the Eder--fog, no guns, and surrounded by hills. But unlike the larger, Eder, it was an earth-work embankment that had a solid core and earth on either side. Very difficult to breach. Joe McCarthy, the sole survivor of Formation Two, found the dam at 15 minutes after midnight. Bomb-aimer Sergeant George “Johnny” Johnson (married just 2 weeks before) dropped his Upkeep after 10 tries, then McCarthy headed home. No breach, but they did manage a 10-foot crack that had to be repaired later by the Germans.

Meanwhile, Formation Three, the mobile reserve that took off last was now over Germany. One of these aircraft was commanded by Ken Brown, with my relative, Steve Oancia, aboard. On the way into enemy territory at low level, Brown faced the same dangers that everyone else before him had--flak and high-tension wires. He found 3 trains that his gunners opened up on. One of them had ack-ack gunners aboard, and the bomber took some hits, but continued on. Further into Germany, Warner Ottley’s Lancaster took a direct flak hit and went down at Brown’s one o’clock position, in sight of Brown’s crew. Ottley’s objective was an alternative, a fourth dam called the Lister. The bomber blew up and the whole valley below was one orange fireball. Back in England Ottley’s wife was about to have a baby. Years later, on vacation in Germany, Brown received a piece of Ottley’s bomber. It was no bigger than a clenched fist. Lewis Burpee was alerted to the Sorpe, but he didn’t answer. No one knew at the time that he had crashed near Hamm. Gibson, on his return run home, did report seeing an aircraft hit by flak and heading to a fiery death in about the same vicinity.

In F-Freddy, Flight Sergeant Brown first went to the Mohne, saw it breached, then arrived at the Sorpe at 0323 to find it covered in fog. In order to bomb an earthen dam, Steve Oancia had to drop the bomb parallel--not at a right angle--to the dam structure without any backspin and at the mid-point of the upstream side of the dam. It was hoped that the bomb would roll down the sloping bank, away from the concrete section, and detonate at its predetermined depth. It was decided that if the bomb was dropped at right angles to the structure, it would bounce over the sloping earth bank. Brown tried 8 runs. Each time, Steve could not judge the target in the mist--although the spinning propellers did help to disperse some mist--with the wall and hills fast approaching. On the ninth attempt, Steve dropped a bundle of incendiaries in the trees near the approach to the dam. The next time Brown came around to line up, Steve saw the fire despite the mist, and he knew exactly when and where to drop the bomb. He let it go and Brown thundered over the hills. The bomb exploded and the crew watched as a circular shock wave of air surrounded an impressive, towering blast of water about a thousand feet high. But no breach.

Brown’s action that night didn’t stop there. He headed back to the Mohne. One flak tower was still in operation and it was throwing 20mm and 37mm shells at Brown’s bomber. Brown flew in low over the water. “Below the towers, straight at them,” Brown said 50 years later in a speech at the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta. “We opened up at about 500 yards and carried in over the tower and the rear gunner depressed his guns and we raked the thing as we went through. Well, there was no firing coming from that tower when we left. We figured we’d done him in.” The rear-gunner was Flight Sergeant Grant McDonald, a Canadian from Grand Forks, British Columbia, who passed away in 2012.

Heading back to base, Brown flew so low over the flak at the Dutch coast that the German gunners had to fire down at his aircraft. No crew member was hit, but the bomber had severe damage on the starboard side. Upon landing at Scampton at 0533, Brown’s wireless-operator said, “Hey, skip. Come on back and crawl in and out of the holes.”

As for the last 2 aircraft in the reserve formation, Flight Sergeant Anderson flew to the Sorpe after Brown left the scene, but found it covered completely in fog. He turned back with the bomb intact; while Flight Sergeant Townsend dropped his load at an alternative fifth dam, the Ennerpe, without success. Along with Brown, they made it back safely.

Ten of the 19 Lancasters returned in the morning. The 11th, Dinghy Young’s bomber ditched in the North Sea after taking flak over Holland. It was Young’s third sea rescue in his RAF career. I guess they didn’t nickname him Dinghy for nothing. Of the 133 men who set out the evening before, 53 were killed in action and 3 became POWs. Exactly half of the 30 Canadians did not come back--14 killed and one became a POW. Upon meeting the returning aircrew the morning of 17 May 1943, engineer Barnes Wallis burst into tears at the shocking losses that he never would have believed were possible. One of the airmen, speaking for all who survived, said, “We were just relieved to get back in one piece. But no one felt like celebrating.”

Wing Commander Guy Gibson received the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. Ten officers received a DSO (Distinguished Service Order), another 10 officers and warrant officers the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross). In the ranks, 10 DFMs (Distinguished Flying Medal) were handed out and 2 CGMs (Conspicuous Gallantry Medal), second only to the Victoria Cross. Steve Oancia received a DFM and Ken Brown a CGM for their efforts that horrendous night.

The damage in Germany was enormous. The Eder and Mohne lakes were drained. Along a span of more than 50 miles, immense destruction had fallen upon the Ruhr Valley region. Towns and cities were flooded. Roads, canals, bridges, power stations, and railways were swept away. Factories were without water and electricity. Steel production came to a standstill. Livestock losses reached into the thousands. The Germans sent hundreds of German flak gunners to the remaining dams for protection against more attacks, while 20,000 workers from the coastal Atlantic wall were diverted to repair the Eder and Mohne Dams before the autumn rains. Along with the industrial losses, more than 1,000 people drowned in the floods. Unfortunately, about half of those were from a Russian POW camp located a few miles below the Eder.

The surviving Dambuster Canadians.
The surviving Dambuster Canadians. Sergeant Steve Oancia is at the far left. His pilot, Flight Sergeant Ken Brown, is standing fourth from left. Brooklyn-born Flight Lieutenant Joe McCarthy is standing second from right. Beside Oancia is Fred Sutherland, the only Canadian still alive. (United Kingdom Public Domain)

Following the raid, Gibson sent his aircrew on a week’s leave, his ground crew on 3 days leave, then stayed behind for 2 days to write the parents of those killed in the raid. He could have had his adjutant type the usual appropriate form letters, but Gibson insisted on notifying the parents in his own handwriting. Then he proceeded to Cornwall to spend time with his wife, who by this time was surprised and proud to see her husband’s picture across the newspaper front pages. All along, she had been under the impression that he was resting up at a RAF training school.

The King and Queen of England came to Scampton to inspect 617 Squadron on 27 May. Beforehand, Wing Commander Gibson let the King know that Flight Lieutenant David Shannon was celebrating his 21st birthday on the same day. As the crews stood at attention in front of their individual bombers, the King stopped at Shannon and said, “You seem to be a very well-preserved twenty-one, Shannon. You must have a party tonight.”

That was all Shannon needed to hear. A few hours later, in the thick of the ensuing nocturnal celebrations, a 617 Squadron officer turned to the birthday boy. “Shannon, I think you are drunk.” To which Shannon replied, “If so, sir, it is by Royal Command.”

July 1944 Wing Commander Gibson and England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill left for America on a “show the flag tour.” Later, back in England, Gibson wrote his biography. For a time he considered politics. Then he took an RAF desk job. By the summer of 1944, he wanted back flying. In September, as a Master Bomber for 5 Group RAF, he was shot down over Holland following a raid in the Ruhr Valley. The Dutch buried him there, along with his navigator, Squadron Leader JB Warwick.

Surviving the war and returning home to Saskatchewan, Steve Oancia (according to details my mother had received from Steve’s brother, Dave) was on ‘edge’ for quite a while. There were times when he’d hear an airplane, such as a crop-duster fly over, and he’d dive for cover.

The last time my mother saw Steve was in the winter of 1946 on a train going to Broadview, Saskatchewan, where my mother had been working. She was 17 at the time and was leaving the family farm after spending Christmas with her parents outside Assiniboia. Accompanying her was my father. “We were engaged at the time and Steve was in full uniform going back down east somewhere to get his papers for leaving the RCAF. {He was a Flying Officer by then}. There were many uniformed men on the train that day doing the same thing as Steve. Steve noticed my diamond ring and said, ‘Is that an engagement ring on your finger? When is the big day?’”

After studying at the University of Alberta, Steve received a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and one of his later projects was a hydro dam in Quebec. How ironic. Steve’s brother, George, took over the family farm. When George died, his land was bought out by my uncle, Clarence. My uncle has since passed on just this last October, leaving his son, Blair, to run the farm with his son, an operation that involves almost 10 sections of land. Steve died in Chicago in 1999…his pilot, Ken Brown, 4 years later.

The only American flier, Joe McCarthy, was an interesting character. When the war began in 1939 and before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to get the US into it, McCarthy tried several times to join the US Air Corps but was rejected because he didn’t have a college degree. Fed up, he and a friend took a bus trip to our nation’s capital in Ottawa and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. By the time the Dambuster Raid came about, he had already flown 33 bombing operations. After the war, he took out Canadian citizenship. He died in 1998 at the age of 79.

Today, only three of the original 133 Dambusters aircrew are still alive--Englishman "Johnny" Johnson, Joe McCarthy's bomb-aimer; Canadian Fred Sutherland, Les Knight's front gunner; and New Zealander Les Munro, the only remaining pilot.

It’s safe to say that the Dambuster Raid was the most daring Royal Air Force raid of World War II. It was also in a class by itself.


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