96 – Bridge Busters: The Dortmund-Ems Canal Raid

In this episode we’re looking at an RAF raid in 1940 against the Dortmund-Ems canal. The canal was a vital trade route with huge amounts of supplies and raw materials passing along it daily.

With the fall of France and the build up to Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, interrupting the traffic on the canal would aid in upsetting the German timetable. But to undertake the task a level of accuracy was needed from the RAF which was hitherto unheard of… It was very much a proto-dambusters raid.

The Bridge Busters: The First Dambusters and the Race to Save Britain
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August 1940. Britain faces German invasion. A race is on to wreck Hitler's plans led by RAF Bomber Command's No. 5 Group, commanded by the famous 'Bomber' Harris. Two aqueducts, huge water bridges on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, along which the Germans are bringing invasion barges and supplies to the Channel coast, are identified as crucial to stopping Hitler. Can they be destroyed? A motley collection of daredevil British and Australian airmen are ordered to try, including Guy Gibson of later Dambusters fame. They are in a race against time, for every day that the aqueducts remain standing, the Germans gather to invade. At the same time, the British race to develop a new kind of bomb that can be dropped on the aqueducts, and scientists face almost insurmountable technical and obstacles. By mid-August 1940 eleven aircrews, flying old, slow and poorly armed Hampden bombers, have completed training for the raid. On the night of 12 August they launch from Lincolnshire, split into an attacking and diversionary force. They face desperate odds against a huge concentration of German flak guns, enemy night fighters and searchlights, and must fly suicidally low, slow and level to release the new bombs. In a raid with many similarities in personnel, target and weapon to the much more famous Dambusters Raid of 1943, the plucky band of outnumbered and outgunned airmen press home their assault on the aqueducts. If they fail, the Germans will probably be landing on the coast of southern England within a few weeks, but if they succeed, they may change the course of history and help to save their country from invasion and occupation. This is the untold and completely forgotten story of 'The Bridge Busters', the first Dambusters and their suicide mission just before the Battle of Britain began.

Joining me to discuss the raid is Dr Mark Felton, author of The Bridge Busters.

We’ve spoken to Mark before, we looked Operation Cowboy, where some elements of the Whermacht joined with the Americans to save the world famous Lipizaner horses at the close of WWII. In episode 49, we discussed British VIP POWs held by the Italians. If you’ve not heard it, dig it out. I think it’s my favorite episode of the WW2 podcast so far.

You can also find Mark on YouTube here.