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Before 617 low-flying Lancasters meant a court-martial

Lancaster bomber on a training run. Photograph used by permission of the Imperial War Museums.

"I enjoyed low-level flying a great deal," said New Zealand pilot Les Munro in a recent, exclusive interview with the RAF Benevolent Fund.

"Most of the crews did, in fact, as it was normally a court-martial offence unless you had been specifically authorized. It was exhilarating."

As 617 Squadron was formed at RAF Scampton in March 1943 in preparation for Operation Chastise – the famous Dambusters raid of May 16/17, 1943 – the air crews were told that they would have to practice low-level flying.

However, nobody in the squadron at this time knew the reason for this – it was only on the day of the raid itself that the targets were revealed.

At the start of the training the pilots were told to train at 150 feet – less than 50 metres. However, over the next few weeks they were asked to reduce their altitude to just 60 feet – less than 20 metres.

They also had to master doing this in low-light conditions. The Lancaster was a large aircraft with a wingspan of 30 metres, so flying at this altitude was extremely challenging.

In order to simulate flying in moonlight the cockpit of the planes were covered in blue Perspex and the crew wore yellow goggles. Cross-country training runs took place across the north of England, often following rivers and canals, and flying over lakes and reservoirs as the crew were also told that they had to get used to flying over water. Navigation, as much as the actual flying, was also a significant challenge.

In an historic interview Flying Officer Harold Hobday, a navigator with 617 Squadron, said: "It was very difficult to navigate with maps, but we got used to it by the end. It got us used to the real thing."

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Sergeant Jack Gutterman, a wireless operator in 617 Squadron, who was killed in action on May 17, 1943, age 23. Make your own tribute to those who lost their lives.

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