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The First Wave

The 19 Lancasters of 617 Squadron that set off on the night of the Dambusters raid on 16 and 17 May 1943 flew in three waves. What was called the first wave actually took off second, but it comprised the main part of the raid, with nine aircraft, including that of the Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

Gibson was piloting Lancaster AJ-G for George and he and the other eight crews headed for the Möhne Dam. If they were successful in breaching the dam they would then carry on to the Eder. They flew in three vics (a v-formation of three aircraft). AJ-B for Baker, piloted by Bill Astell, was lost on the way to the target when the plane hit a pylon and crash-landed in a field.

After the remaining aircraft had arrived at the Möhne, Gibson made the first attack, facing heavy flak as he skimmed just above the surface of the lake, heading for the dam. His bomb aimer Frederick 'Spam' Spafford scored a direct hit but the dam did not breach.

John Hopgood was next to make his run, with Gibson attempting to draw fire away from the attacking Lancaster, but Hopgood's aircraft was hit by flak on the approach and the Upkeep was dropped in the wrong place, hitting the power station next to the dam. Hopgood's Lancaster crashed, but because of his heroics two of his crew bailed out and survived as prisoners of war.

There were three further attacks on the dam, by Lancasters AJ-P (piloted by Harold 'Micky' Martin), AJ-A (Melvin 'Dinghy' Young) and AJ-J (David Maltby) before Gibson saw what he hoped he would see: "I could not believe my eyes. I heard someone shout, 'I think she's gone! I think she's gone!'"

"Now there was no doubt about it – there was a great breach 100 yards across, and the water, looking like stirred porridge in the moonlight, was gushing out and rolling into the Ruhr Valley."

The attack had been a success, and so the first wave, consisting now of seven aircraft, set off to the Eder Dam. The topography was more difficult but there were also no defences and so those with their Upkeeps still not deployed could make their runs unimpeded by flak. Nontheless, the steep-sided valley made it hard to get the aircraft at the precise point to release the mine and it took a number of attempts before Australian pilot Les Knight, flying in Lancaster AJ-N for Nuts that dropped the decisive mine that shattered the dam wall.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Sergeant Guy Pegler, a flight engineer with 617 Squadron on the Dambuster raid, who was killed in action, age 21.

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