15% DISCOUNT

617 Squadron

The daring mission that gave 617 Squadron the nickname that’s known the world over

ARGUABLY the most famous RAF squadron, 617 (Dambusters), epitomised the bravery of RAF crews during the Second World War, their most famous mission an attack on strategic German dams using Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs. A total of 53 aircrew were killed during the raids, eight aircraft being destroyed and three crew captured. 

Fast forward 80 years and the Lancaster bombers have been replaced by F-35B Lightnings, the first unit based in the UK to be equipped with the advanced V/STOL (vertical and/or short take-off and landing) aircraft, the squadron made up of both RAF and Royal Navy personnel: Lightnings operating from land bases and from HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carriers.

Now based at RAF Marham in Norfolk, 617 Squadron began life at Scampton in March 1943, created under great secrecy with the specific task of carrying out raids on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams. The Dambusters included Royal Canadian, Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel, under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, working alongside inventor Barnes Wallis on the tactics that would allow them to deploy his ground-breaking bouncing bomb.

Training involved repeated low-altitude dummy runs over dams across the UK, most notably the Upper Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, with Operation Chastise launched on May 16, 1943: the Möhne and Eder dams were breached causing devastating flooding of the Ruhr and Eder valleys, with the Sorpe dam sustaining only minor damage. The Squadron badge features a breached dam, with their motto, Apres Moi Le Deluge, translated as: After me, the flood.

The Möhne dam the day following the attacks

(The Möhne dam the day following the attacks)

The squadron continued their bombing raids during the war, and were even considered for the specific task of an assassination attempt on Benito Mussolini: a low altitude mission to destroy both the Italian dictator’s home and his headquarters. Military chiefs believed Mussolini’s death would hasten the country’s surrender to Allied forces, however, before the plan could come to fruition, Mussolini was ousted by his opponents. 

Many more specific operations were undertaken by the Dambusters, taking advantage of the squadron’s precision flying skills; one of those was on the Tirpitz, the German battleship that was a constant threat to the Artic convoys. Before taking part in its final sinking in a mission from Scotland, 617 and IX Squadrons were relocated to Yagodnick in north west Russia to attack Tirpitz, the damage they caused making the ship unseaworthy, and forcing the Germans to take her to Tromso for repairs. The location in northern Norway meant the battleship was within range of bombers flying from stations including Lossiemouth, IX and 617 leading the follow-up attack – Operation Catechism seeing two tallboy bombs make direct hits, the Tirpitz capsizing in a matter of minutes.

The attacks on the Tirpitz were led by James ‘Willie’ Tait, the CO who replaced Leonard Cheshire in charge of 617, and in total Dambusters carried out 1599 sorties during WW2, losing 32 aircraft in the process. 

No. 617 Squadron Avro Lancaster B.I EE146 at RAF Woodhall Spa with her crew (including OC Wg. Cdr. J. B. Tait) the day after the successful attack against Tirpitz.

(No. 617 Squadron Avro Lancaster B.I EE146 at RAF Woodhall Spa with her crew (including OC Wg. Cdr. J. B. Tait) the day after the successful attack against Tirpitz.)

Post-war the squadron were one of the first to be issued with English Electric Canberra bombers, before they formed part of V-force, the three aircraft models that carried the UK’s nuclear deterrent: Dambusters were equipped with the iconic Avro Vulcan until the early 1980s.

Following the transfer of Britain’s nuclear deterrent to naval forces, 617 was reassigned to SACEUR, Supreme Allied Command Europe. With the Cold War at its height, the Dambusters were trained for the role of carrying out precision strikes beyond the battlefield in the event of a conflict between NATO and the forces of the Warsaw Pact. 

In 1983, No, 617 Squadron were equipped with Tornados, and a decade later they moved to RAF Lossiemouth, with 1995 seeing the squadron declare Britain’s first female fast jet pilot, Ft Lt Jo Salter, was officially combat ready, flying missions from Saudi Arabia and Turkey in protection of the no-fly zone over Iraq.

2 Tornados from 617 Sqn fly over the Derwent Dam

(2 Tornados from 617 Sqn fly over the Derwent Dam)

The squadron flew operations in support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and they were also deployed in Afghanistan in 2009 as part of Operation Herrick, providing support for No 12 (Bomber) Squadron.   

In 2016, No. 617 Squadron started their training for conversion to the Lightning, two years after they were disbanded as a Tornado force, the squadron spending an extended period at time at Beaufort, South Carolina before a quartet of their new jets headed back over the Atlantic destined for their new home at Marham; the Lightnings were joined on the eight-hour trip by three Airbus Voyagers and an Airbus Atlas C1.

The Lightnings were involved in patrols over Syria as part of Operation Shader, and in October 2019, three of the aircraft headed back to Beaufort ahead of their deployment aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, working alongside No. 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron.

617 Sqn F-35B Lightning II Jets landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth

(617 Sqn F-35B Lightning II Jets landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth)

617 had their most-famous mission made into a 1955 film, The Dam Busters, based on the book of the same name by Paul Brickhill. The place of the squadron in popular culture is probably best epitomised by an award-winning advert that put a particular twist on Operation Chastise: the Carling Black Label commercial of 1989 is seen by many as one of the greatest ads ever created – in the days when some were better than the programmes they ‘interrupted’.

Other Articles You May Also Enjoy

83 Squadron
83 Squadron
Missing crew members from No. 83 Squadron finally found as Lancaster bomber is recovered
Read More
Gloster Javelin
Gloster Javelin
The short-lived jet that was the last to bear the famous Gloster name
Read More
RAF in Hertfordshire
RAF in Hertfordshire
For a county that skirts the northern sector of England’s capital city, Hertfordshire could be described as being a litt
Read More
RAF Leeming
RAF Leeming
Leeming still key to the nation’s air defences more than 80 years after its first squadrons arrived
Read More
42 Squadron
42 Squadron
Déjà vu as ‘Roxy’ takes command on the return to duty for No. 42 Squadron
Read More
RAF Waddington
RAF Waddington
Waddington welcomes its first Protector as the station expands its ISTAR force
Read More
RAF in Buckinghamshire
RAF in Buckinghamshire
Buckinghamshire had great military significance during WW2, both in flying and strategic terms, due to its location clos
Read More
Gazelle
Gazelle
RAF Shawbury among the sites privileged with a flypast as the Gazelle says a final farewell
Read More

Leave a comment