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617 Squadron takes shape

617 Squadron, the Dambusters, at RAF Scampton in 1943. Image: Ministry of Defence, Air Historical Branch.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson faced the immense logistical task of forming a new squadron and getting them trained and operational in just a couple of months before the Dambusters raid.

The squadron was eventually named 617 Squadron, but at the beginning it was known simply as 'Squadron X'.  Crews of seven, each comprising a pilot, navigator, bomb-aimer, flight engineer, wireless operator and two gunners, front and rear, were selected in a number of different ways.

Gibson requested a number of his favourite pilots, who each brought their own crews with them. He said of these men that:

"I believed them to be the best bomber pilots available. I knew that each one of them had already done his full tour of duty, and should really now be having a well-earned rest; and I also knew that there was nothing any of them would want less than this rest when they heard that there was an exciting operation on hand."

However, not all the crews were personally picked by Gibson. Some, such as New Zealand pilot Les Munro and his crew, were given the opportunity to volunteer. Munro, now 93 and living in New Zealand, said in an interview with the RAF Benevolent Fund that:

"I flew 20 operations for 97 squadron when I read a circular from 5 group HQ to volunteer for a new squadron being formed.

"Gibson may have selected some crews, some pilots that he knew, but he wouldn't have known me from a bar of soap. I volunteered, myself and the crew, though I gave the crew the opportunity to pull out if they wanted to. My rear gunner decided not to carry on, but everyone else came with me."

When everyone came together at Scampton in Lincolnshire, there were 21 crews in all – a total of 147 men. 133 of them, in 19 planes, would eventually fly in the Dambusters raid on May 16/17.

When Gibson finally got all of them together, he gave them a speech, which he later gave an account of:

"My speech to them was short. I said, “You’re here to do a special job. You're here as a crack squadron – you're here to carry out a raid on Germany which, I am told, will have startling results. Some say it may even cut short the duration of the war. What the target is, I can’t tell you. Nor can I tell you where it is. All I can tell you is that you will have to practice low flying all day and all night until you know how to do it with your eyes shut."

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Warrant Officer Abram Garshowitz, a wireless operator with 617 Squadron on the Dambuster raid, who was killed in action.

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