‘A shot in the dark’

Tyne Val­ley air­man dropped bomb in dam bust­ing raid – Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise – over Ger­many dur­ing the Sec­ond World War


It was a shot in the dark mis­sion.

“There is re­ally no need to feel over anx­ious to know that I am back again for my sec­ond tour…” wrote Vin­cent MacCaus­land, 75 years ago.

The air­man penned the sen­tence shortly be­fore what would be the last flight of his life. The then 29-year-old bomb aimer from Tyne Val­ley, P.E.I., of the 617 Squadron was pre­par­ing for a dan­ger­ous mis­sion – given the co­de­name Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise – dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. It was a mis­sion that he hoped, along with other mem­bers of his crew, would de­liver a hard blow to the in­dus­trial re­gion in the Ruhr Val­ley in Ger­many.

“I had the priv­i­lege of join­ing a well-ex­pe­ri­enced crew and on an air­craft that one dreams about,” the let­ter to his mother read. “We are on re­vi­sion and con­ver­sion for the next month be­fore go­ing over with a few bun­dles… I know that you will be feel­ing most anx­ious… but the time will soon pass, and I know that God will be es­pe­cially with us, as we were blessed in that first tour.” MacCaus­land, along with the other mem­bers of the crew in his mod­i­fied Lan­caster bomber, would nearly make it out, but were given flak at the border of Hol­land and crashed.

“The men­tal­ity among the men, like Vin­cent, was that they weren’t go­ing to come home. It’s why a lot of sol­diers, sea­men and air­men had a knack for telling their fam­i­lies what they were do­ing dur­ing the war, with­out re­ally telling them any­thing,” ex­plained Ted Bar­ris.

Bar­ris is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and au­thor. His most re­cent pub­li­ca­tion is about the Cana­dian pres­ence in Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise: “Dam Busters: Cana­dian Air­men and the Se­cret Raid Against Nazi Ger­many.”

Bar­ris’ book out­lines the weeks prior and post raid as well the events of the moon­lit night that saw 19 Lan­cast­ers and 133 air­men fly from the squadron base in Scamp­ton, Eng­land, to the Ruhr Val­ley on May 16, 1943.

“Eight air­crafts were lost, 53 men were killed and three were taken pris­oner,” Bar­ris writes.

This year marks the 75th an­niver­sary of that bomb­ing raid.

Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise

The Ruhr River Val­ley re­gion housed Ger­many’s in­dus­trial cities and mas­sive hy­dro­elec­tric gen­er­at­ing dams and reser­voirs. Known as “Happy Val­ley,” air­men on the mis­sion wouldn’t know their tar­get un­til just be­fore the raid.

“As early as the spring of 1942, the con­cen­tra­tions of in­dus­trial plants along the Ruhr had be­come ob­vi­ous tar­gets for Al­lied bomb­ings; as much as 10 per cent of the year’s strate­gic bomb­ing was di­rected against those Ruhr Val­ley tar­gets,” Bar­ris ex­plained in his book.

But this mis­sion was dif­fer­ent from the past, as pre­vi­ous at­tempts to de­stroy the dams were not suc­cess­ful; at least not un­til Bri­tish sci­en­tist Barnes Wal­lace in­vented the bounc­ing bomb that would be used in Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise.

Train­ing for the mis­sion was in­tense.

“They were go­ing through seven weeks of low-level fly­ing, day and night. They did some­where be­tween 35 and 50 hours of low-level fly­ing – which was fly­ing a Lan­caster as low as a 60foot tree or a five-story apart­ment build­ing. They were do­ing this con­stantly. The strain and stress of that was trau­matic,” Bar­ris said in an in­ter­view with the Jour­nal Pi­o­neer.

It was com­mon for mem­bers to come back with tree branches in land­ing gear and some crews had in­stances where they’d meet a flock of birds.

Each plane had a seven-mem­ber crew in­clud­ing a pi­lot, which flew them there, a nav­i­ga­tor which guided them to the right lo­ca­tion, flight en­gi­neer, who main­tained the en­gines and made sure they were trav­el­ling the 265 miles per hour needed to drop the bomb, the wire­less ra­dio op­er­a­tor who is in­sur­ing the bomb is spin­ning back­wards 500 rev­o­lu­tions per minute, and bomb aimer, who re­leases the ex­plo­sive.

The mis­sion came a crit­i­cal mo­ment in the war, said Bar­ris, who has writ­ten about other key junc­tures in Canada’s mil­i­tary his­tory. “This had been a very dark pe­riod of the war. The Amer­i­can’s had just come in after the bomb­ing of Pearl Har­bour, the Bri­tish had man­aged to get the men out of Dunkirk, but that was a retreat, and for Canada, there was the dev­as­ta­tion in Dieppe – of­ten re­ferred to as the nine blood­i­est hours in Cana­dian Mil­i­tary His­tory.”

But along comes this this mis­sion - and while it wasn’t a devastating blow to the Nazis - and de­liv­ers a huge mo­ral boost to the Brits, ex­plained Bar­ris.

But the mis­sion was also partly suc­cess­ful with the de­struc­tion of two dams and dam­age to the third, halt­ing the Ger­man’s in­dus­trial hub.

“It was a big breath of fresh air.”

Vin­cent MacCaus­land

Vin­cent S. MacCaus­land was born and raised in Tyne Val­ley. Prior to join­ing the war, MacCaus­land was a prin­ci­pal at Al­ber­ton school. “He was 29 years old when he joined Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise and had al­ready com­pleted enough ser­vice to be re­leased from ac­tive duty. He chose to vol­un­teer,” said Reg MacAus­land, a dis­tant cousin on Vin­cent.

A tour is a se­ries of op­er­a­tions. One tour usu­ally in­cluded about 30 mis­sions. But your term may be mul­ti­ple tours long be­fore you leave the ser­vice. In some cases, the life ex­pectancy for pi­lots was about three weeks.

“The loss of life was some­times as high as 10 per cent among pi­lots,” ex­plained Bar­ris.

In a way, said Bar­ris, MacCaus­land rep­re­sents the mind­set of the time: writ­ing things down to keep as re­minders of one’s jour­ney.

“He was typ­i­cal in that he sug­ar­coated things. Es­sen­tially, they were dis­guis­ing the true peril they faced and the dif­fi­cul­ties in the op­er­a­tions they were fly­ing by say­ing ‘ev­ery­thing’s fine, we’re OK, noth­ing new to re­port here,’” said Bar­ris.

Bar­ris noted MacCaus­land’s let­ters in­di­cate his ded­i­ca­tion to the war ef­fort as well as other emo­tions.

“It showed he was an­gry. That what they would do was de­liver a death blow to the en­emy. He talks about, us­ing the phrase ‘square­heads’, bor­der­ing on a slur re­fer­ring to the Ger­mans.

“His let­ters re­veal an in­ter­est­ing hon­esty, as well as some of the trap­pings of try­ing to sug­ar­coat the kind of life they were liv­ing and the fear they were feel­ing.”

Bar­ris was able to ac­cess the let­ters through Van­cou­ver Is­land Univer­sity in Nanaimo, B.C. His let­ters are some of many. “One thing it points out to me is the propen­sity to write it down. They were thought­ful, and they are re­veal­ing of his com­mit­ment, fear and il­lus­trate that these guys were try­ing to make their loved ones feel safe and not worry their fam­i­lies.”

As a bomb aimer, MacCaus­land had a crit­i­cal role to play.

“On the fi­nal run into the dam, the bomb-aimer is ly­ing on his stom­ach in the nose of the air­craft with a very prim­i­tive bomb site made of wood, which helps him de­ter­mine if they are 1,000 yards from the dam, which means they can drop the bomb.

He is the fi­nal step in the process. If all of the other things are in place, he then lines up the bomb in his Dann Bomb Site and pulls the plunger re­leas­ing the bomb,” ex­plained Bar­ris.

Sto­ries that were never told

Bar­ris says the ex­pe­ri­ence of re­search the book was re­ward­ing. “These were sto­ries that were never told be­fore. We’ve had Dam Busters books pub­lished since the 1960s, but they are very much Bri­tish and tech­no­log­i­cally fo­cused. Some of them read like man­u­als.

But when you’ve got fam­ily mem­bers, and oc­ca­sion­ally the peo­ple that par­tic­i­pated telling their eye wit­ness ac­counts, you’re there with them. And I wanted to trans­late that to the read­ers. This is 30 men, who’s sto­ries have been lost to his­tory. And it’s sat­is­fy­ing to know that the sto­ries will last longer now.”


Bombs dropped by the Al­lies dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise dur­ing the Sec­ond World War breached the Mohne Dam in Ger­many’s in­dus­trial re­gion in the Ruhr Val­ley.


A mod­i­fied Sec­ond World War Lan­caster that was part of the Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise.


A Cana­dian air­man lines up the sight ahead of a bomb drop dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.


Tyne Val­ley’s Vin­cent MacCaus­land was part of the Al­lied Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise bomb­ing squad dur­ing the Sec­ond World War that at­tacked Ger­many’s in­dus­trial re­gion in the Ruhr Val­ley.

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