With the celebrations this week of the seventieth anniversary of the Dambusters Raid, I have special reason to remember one of the other dambuster raids carried out by RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War - the attempt in December 1944 to breach the Urft and Schwammenauel Dams on the Ruhr River, directly in the path of the US 9th Army as it fought through the Hürtgen Forest into Germany. The raid had been requested by commanders who feared that German troops would open the dams to stall American progress and cut them off, and had the strong support of Eisenhower himself. Just as the 1943 Ruhr raid was carried out by elite Pathfinder Lancasters, from 617 Squadron, so the December 1944 raids were also spearheaded by Pathfinder aircraft, in this case from 35 Squadron flying from Graveley in Cambridgeshire.
Unfortunately, the bouncing bombs that had breached the Ruhr valley dams in 1943 were not practicable, and both the weather and resilience of the dam structures were against them. The first raid, on the afternoon of 4 December 1944 to the Urft Dam, included all eighteen Lancasters of 35 squadron. One of the flight commanders on that mission was my great-uncle William Norman Cook, pictured opposite with the ribbon of the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Pathfinder badge on his tunic. His experiences, and those of other RAF crews as they prepared the following year to join ‘Tiger Force’ for the expected British air offensive against Japan, form the basis for several chapters in my novel The Gods of Atlantis in which a bomber crew undergoing conversion training have one last encounter with their Nazi enemy.
The squadron Operational Record Book lists Bill Cook’s crew that day and show his report on the bombing. Despite a payload that included a 4,000 pound ‘Cookie’, the bombing was ineffective. One of the accompanying Mosquito fighter-bombers was piloted by none other than Air Vice-Marshall Don Bennett, commander of the Pathfinder Force, who wanted to see the raid himself. In a later raid, on 18 December, even the 12,000 lb ‘Tallboy’ bombs dropped by the specially adapted Lancasters of 617 squadron did little more than damage the lip of the dam, and with bad weather thwarting each raid the attempt was called off.
Bill Cook and his crew had already flown many missions by the time of the Urft Dam raid, from their first sorties over Normandy in support of Allied troops to raids against U-boat pens, V-1 rocket sites, industrial targets and German cities, and continued to do so after the dams raid, completing the Pathfinder tour of 48 missions by the time the bombing campaign wound up in April 1945. They had survived against the odds; 35 Squadron lost the equivalent of its entire operational strength from July 1944 to April 1945, with twenty aircraft destroyed and 121 aircrew killed.
The failure to breach the Urft Dam meant that there can have been few if any civilian casualties as a result of the raids. But it also meant that the Germans retained control of the dams and were able to release the floodwaters as the Americans advanced in February 1945, holding back one arm of a pincer movement that left the British and Canadian troops in the Reichswald and Hochwald forests suffering thousands more casualties than might have occurred had the dams been destroyed and the Americans been able to advance unimpeded. Such is the calculus of war.