‘Dambusters raid’: 70th anniversary of the bouncing bomb mission - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 16 May 2013

Seventy years ago today 19 Lancaster bombers took off from an airfield in Lincolnshire, England, on a daring mission that made headlines around the globe and, some argue, helped changed the course of the Second World War.


‘Dambusters raid’: 70th anniversary of the bouncing bomb mission

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 16 May 2013


Seventy years ago today 19 Lancaster bombers took off from an airfield in Lincolnshire, England, on a daring mission that made headlines around the globe and, some argue, helped changed the course of the Second World War.

The “Dambusters raid”, as it came to be known, was designed to inflict major damage on Hitler’s war effort through the precision bombing of crucial dams in Germany’s industrial Ruhr region.

The mission achieved instant worldwide fame because of the bravery and skill required by the bomber crews and the pioneering technology needed to make it a success. Three reservoir dams were selected as targets. They served the heartland of Hitler’s wartime manufacturing drive that was building the new tanks, planes and munitions needed to take on the Soviet Union.

Breaching the dams would cause devastating flooding and lead to a loss of hydroelectric power and, even more importantly, water supplies to vital industry, cities, and canals. But the dam walls were well protected from conventional overhead bombing by heavy nets. The technological solution was the famous “bouncing bomb” designed by British inventor Barnes Wallis to skim along the water’s surface.

When it reached the dam wall the spin of the drum-shaped bomb ran it underwater down the side of the dam to its base, where an explosion could bring the whole structure down. To deliver the bombs accurately the Lancasters had to take huge risks by flying at night just 100ft above enemy territory. Of the 133 men who departed on the mission, 56 did not make it back.

The complexity of the mission has been highlighted by a new video game app. Pilot Bruce Steele originally developed the “Dambusters” app as a faithful re-enactment of the 1943 mission, but told The Daily Telegraph that he was forced to simplify it after finding that it was too difficult to complete.

Despite these challenges, the hits on all three dams, two of them devastating, prompted huge and damaging floods, and the mission was judged an instant success. However, in the decades that have followed a debate has raged over just how effective the operation really was.

Some have pointed out that Germany had all the dams rebuilt in less than five months, in time to store water from the autumn rains.

But others have since pointed out that the labour for this enormous task of rebuilding had to be diverted from constructing defences in France, leaving Germany much more vulnerable when the allies mounted their D-Day offensive on the beaches of Normandy a year later.

This week Clive Rowley, a historian and former commanding officer of the Royal Air Force’s prestigious Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, said the full military and strategic significance of the Dambusters raid had only just been understood.

His research suggests that the loss of water caused by the dams’ destruction had a far greater impact than many realised even at the time, from making firefighters powerless to put out the flames from British and US bombing raids to reducing vital German steel production because of a lack of water for cooling.

And as others have also pointed out, such a high profile success at a crucial point in the war made a huge, if unquantifiable, psychological and propaganda difference to both sides in the world’s greatest conflict.



Questions for discussion or further research:

  • What do you know about the “Dambusters raid” already? Where could you find out more?
  • In your opinion, was the mission a success? Justify your answer.
  • The “bouncing bomb” was a British invention. Can you think of any other British inventions that have had a major impact on historical events?
  • If you could make a video game about one historical event, which one would you pick and why?

Resources for you


World War II timeline display cards

  • Display cards depicting the main events to affect the UK from the end of World War I through to World War II to help students get to grips with key events.

World War II

  • Take Year 2 through World War II with this activity filled termly plan.

People at war

  • Explore the impact of war on children, civilians and on the armed forces with these images and activities.

VE Day

  • Mark VE Day in Europe, the war and its aftermath, with this flashcard activity.


Further news resources


First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week


With her confident personality and wild and woolly red hair, Princess Merida is the star of the 2012 animated film Brave.

Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has revealed that she has had a double mastectomy to reduce her chance of developing breast cancer.

During the five months he has spent on board the International Space Station, astronaut Chris Hadfield has become an internet superstar.

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking is at the centre of an international row after deciding to boycott an event in Israel.



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