They knew the odds of them coming back were not good.  But they went anyway.  Seventy-nine years ago on the 16th of this month of May, at 1.30am, eight Lancaster bombers began an attack on the Möhne dam in the industrial heartland of Hitler’s Germany.  One thousand- five-hundred-pound bouncing bombs against reinforced concrete a hundred feet thick.

In the half-light the dam looked like a battleship, only less vulnerable.  The leader of the raid, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, called out to the other aircraft, ‘I’m going in to attack’.  He turned his Lancaster, G-George, wide and accelerated until the rampart of the dam with its short towers was three miles dead ahead.  The throttles were wide open as the crew blasted across a lake at two hundred and forty miles an hour.

Sitting ducks

Lights were switched on underneath the aircraft.  When they met the altitude would be just right.  ‘Down … down … up a bit … steady … steady’.  G-George was now flying at exactly sixty feet.  But the price of using lights to give a precise height was that the numerous German gunners in the fields had a sitting duck to aim at.  Streams of glowing shells rushed straight at the crew’s eyes like snowflakes.  And the Lancaster plunged into them.

Four hundred and twenty-five yards from the dam the bomb aimer shouted, ‘Bomb gone!’  The deadly cylinder had been given backspin until it reached five hundred revolutions a minute.  Now, as it hit the water, it skipped across the lake three times like a pebble while the aircraft rocketed over the dam between the towers.

A huge white core of water erupted in the middle of the dam and hung a thousand feet high in the moonlight.  But the Möhne dam was still there.

The cost

The next attacks were made in identical fashion.  Lancaster number two, M-Mother, was doing well when a port wing tank was hit.  The bomb shot over the parapet.  The huge aircraft  strained for height as it passed the dam and then exploded in an orange fireball.

Lancaster number three, P-Popsie, made the same run despite what its crew had just seen.  Asking for trouble, Guy Gibson flew straight across the dam to draw some of the fire away.  The same column of water was spewed into the air.  But when it cleared the dam remained.

A few minutes later the water boiled and erupted again as A-Apple did its job.  Barnes-Wallis’s bouncing bomb was working beautifully.  Its accuracy was phenomenal. But so too was the strength of the dam.

Into the breach

When David Maltby came in across the water he had company.  Guy Gibson and a previous attacker, Micky Martin, came in with him, one on each wing.  They too put on their navigation lights and fired everything they had so that the German gunners didn’t know what to shoot at.

The bomb dropped.  The spray from the explosion misted up the whole valley so that it was hard to see what was happening.  Gibson had just ordered in bomber number six when Micky Martin’s voice rang out in his earphones, ‘Hell, it’s gone!  Look at it!’

The concrete face of the dam had suddenly split and crumbled under the weight of water.  Gibson was staggered.  There was now a ragged hole in the dam, one hundred yards across and one hundred feet deep.  And the lake was pouring out of it.  A hundred and thirty-four million tons of water crashed into the valley in a jet two hundred feet long, smooth on top, foaming and boiling at the sides.  A twenty-five feet high wall of water rolled down the valley at twenty feet a second.  As they watched, the aircrews were silent.

Father Berkenkopf

Silent too was the sleeping village of Himmelpforten, three kilometers down the village from the dam.  Himmelpforten means ‘Gates of Heaven’.  But the explosions had woken the parish priest, Father Berkenkopf.  And he guessed instantly what was happening.  He had been frightened for three years that it would happen.  So he had arranged a signal for his villagers.  He ran to his small stone church, Porta Coeli, which also means ‘Gate of Heaven’, and he began desperately pulling on the bell-rope.

The clanging of the bell echoed all round the valley in the night.  Then it was swallowed up by a noise like thunder. Father Berkenkopf must have known what it meant and he, like us, wasn’t sure how many people had been warned in time.  All he knew was that he had to keep pulling the rope.  And pull it he did until an avalanche of water crushed his church along with the entire village of Himmelpforten – and swept them down the valley.

That part of the Dambusters story is not so well known.


This is a story of many things, among them self-sacrifice and courage.  Fifty-three aircrew from the famous 617 Squadron had died by the time that night was over.  As had Father Berkenkopf.

What might we say about self-sacrifice?  Why are some people prepared to sacrifice their lives for other people?  In fact, why does anyone ever make any sacrifice of any kind for someone else?

Well, for certain individuals self-sacrifice seems to come almost naturally.  Then one thinks of parents who will often sacrifice themselves for their child.  They love another person more than themselves.  Then there are those who have been brought up with a strong emphasis on putting others first.  Also there are people who are motivated, presumably like Father Berkenkopf, by an external principle such as religion and a saying like ‘Greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.

For others, it may be a question of honour.  For others still it may be about a need to test themselves – what’s known as counter-phobia or running towards danger.  For some individuals, including perhaps many of the Dambusters crews, self-sacrifice may come from an identification with greater things such as an entire nation – a nation which may represent, among other things, an extended family.  For a few, self-sacrifice may even spring from less healthy and perhaps unconscious motivations like self-destructiveness or emotional masochism.  The list of possible motivating factors for self-sacrifice goes on.


As for courage, what can we say about that?  Many words have been written about what Churchill called ‘the first of human qualities’ and we can’t begin to do it justice here.  All I would suggest is that courage is not necessarily something we’re born with.  It can be learnt.  Churchill himself told of how, as a boy, he once ran away from some other boys and hid up a tree.  Shortly afterwards he resolved never to run away from anything again and he ended up in the position of being able to advise from experience that we should never be afraid of anyone.  So bravery can spring from a decision to be brave.  And thereafter it’s something that can be practised and strengthened.

From the words of Winston Churchill to the words of Tom Petty:

‘Well, I won’t back down

No I won’t back down.

You can stand me up at the gates of hell

But I won’t back down.’


Sometimes you first have to go through the gates of hell to get through the gates of heaven.