Thursday, 21 June 2012

Barnes Wallis first thinks about destroying dams

The chain of events that led up to the famous Dambusters Raid began the day before war was declared. Aircraft designer Barnes Wallis, who had designed the Wellington bomber for Vickers, decided to search for a way in which bombers could cripple Germany’s industrial might and so shorten the war. He quickly came to the conclusion that this could best be achieved by destroying either the sources of power or the means of transport. He turned to power first.

The Romanian oilfields were too distant for bombers to reach from Britain and coal mines were too deep underground to be affected by bombs. That left dams. Germany was fortunate in having mountainous regions close to her industrial centres. These mountains had high rainfall and deep valleys, which made them ideal for building dams. These dams provided hydro-electric power, but they also stored the vast quantities of water needed by 1940s heavy industry. And they were often used as reservoirs for the canal system as well. Destroy a dam, reasoned Wallis, and you could badly hit power, industry and transport in one go.

There were three dams that stood out as being key to Germany’s industry, all of them in the range of hills between the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. The Moehne Dam  held 134 million tons of water. The Eder held 212 million tons of water and also fed water into the Mittelland Canal, Germany’s busiest industrial waterway. The Sorpe held around 180 million tons of water and fed drinking water to the surrounding cities. Together the three provided getting on for half the electric power of the vast Ruhr industrial metropolis.

That the destruction of the dams would be a huge blow to Germany, nobody could doubt. The question was how to go about destroying them.

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