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617 'Dambusters'


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617 SQUADRON " The Dambusters"

Derwent & Ladybower Dams | 617 Squadron ' The Dambusters'

** 70th Anniversary - Royal British Legion - information **


written by Vic Hallam (the following is an extract from his book )

The Derwent and Howden Dams were built between 1901-1916, and for many years they remained at peace in the Derwent Valley, their waters only disturbed by the occasional storm, then the peace and tranquility of the valley was shattered and their waters flurried as the roar of Merlin engines powered a Lancaster bomber over the dam walls, as 617 Squadron began their training runs for that amazing attack on the Great Dams of Western Germany in World War II.

derwent dam

Derwent Dam (pictured) was chosen by the Lancaster bomber pilots as one of the areas for practising their intensive low level flying and bomb aiming techniques as it was very similar to the  Germany dams they were going to attack.  They needed to practice as it was a new " bouncing bomb" (invented by Dr Barnes Wallis) The idea was to drop the spherical bomb onto the water as one would skim a pebble, sending it bouncing along until it reached the dam wall, then it would sink to a certain depth and explode, breaching the dam wall. The practice raid was actually carried by a RAF Officer called Guy Gibson and he got the Victoria Cross for his efforts - our highest award for military gallantry. So over the next six weeks the valley had to endure this kind of disturbance as Lancaster after Lancaster roared down the valley at low level. It soon became evident that a southbound flight path over the Derwent Valley proved to present insufficient challengers for the aircrews, so they used Bamford Church Tower as a turning point and returned northbound to face a much harder exit from the valley.

Many complaints were lodged by locals. Serious vibrations and loss of roof tiles, while the Lancasters were also blamed for a fall in milk and egg productions, some people even envied the aircrews, since many thought the pilots were out joyriding at a time of a serious fuel shortage.

I remember a time at Derwent when a local farmer was telling Johnnie Johnson (D.F.C., A.J.N.), that his hens stopped laying when the training was on, Johnnie just smiled and said "Small price to pay for a few eggs!' Of course after news broke of the dams raid everyone realised why the Lancasters had been in the Derwent Valley.

After those long dark war years the Derwent Valley returned to its peace and tranquility, until once again it reverberated to the roar of Merlin engines, this time however only one Lancaster appeared, and although it was wearing its wartime camouflage flight this time was for remembrance, and not the perfection of a wartime technique, as it paid tribute to the, its men who laid down their lives on that ~ famous dams raid

Over the years, many armchair critics and so-called historians have tried to make these gallant men hang their heads in shame and forget about the war. During those dark years, Bomber Command lost some 58,000 British Commonwealth and Allied aircrew. 8,000 were killed in training, many raids were the equivalent of a major battle carried out from the first to the last day of the war, this coupled with the massive losses incurred by the ground crew; made sure they really did pay for our freedom. We may never; repay that debt, but we must see that it is never forgotten.

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ALTHOUGH the war finished in 1945, this was not the end of the Derwent Valley's association with The Dambusters.

In february 1946, Lady Frances Riverdale (a resident of nearby Grindleford) suggested to the Derwent Valley Water Board that, in memory of Guy Gibson who had been killed in September 1944, it might be 'possible to name one of the lakes, embankments or roads by his name as a fitting memorial gesture to one of the most outstanding exploits of the war...! The Board did consider the idea sympathetically, but felt unable to identify anything that could form a suitable memorial to Gibson.

It was the 1954 filming of 'The Dambusters' - starring Richard Todd as Guy Gibson and featuring the stirring theme tune composed by Eric Coates - that really brought back memories for local people. After originally failing to seek permission from the Water Board, the Associated British Picture Corporation filmed for two weeks in August using one Lancaster and two Shakleton bombers from R.A.F Waddington in Lincolnshire. Filming took place in daylight, with the film itself being over-exposed to create the night-time effect.

By its producer's admission the film is a simplified and dramatised version of the story, and sharp-eyed viewers will catch sight of the Ladybower Reservoir which although the dam was being completed in 1943 - did not actually hold much water when 617 Squadron were training. Furthermore, the tower of Derwent Church was demolished in 1947, so the landmark that was so well-known to the original crews did not appear in the film. Also at the end of the film, long after Guy's dog was dead and buried, Richard Todd is talking to Michael Redgrave (Gibson, Wallis) a black Labrador can be seen running around the airfield, over Todd's left shoulder. 'The ghost of Guy's dog lived on!

No filming of ground level action was needed in the Derwent Valley, but Richard Todd - who, along with other cast members, closely resembled the airmen they were portraying - has visited the area on a number of occasions.

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derwent planes

AFTER THE 45th, we knew we must do something at Derwent to mark the 50th, unfortunately, so did everyone else. Invitations to the 617 Association and Squadron poured in. Each one was looked at and a programme of events drawn up. Derwent's was to be held on 19 May. Because most of the events were in Lincolnshire, the members were based in Woodhall Spa which meant a long bus trip over in time for the luncheon at 12 noon in Bamford. All the worlds media, even a Japanese film crew were present at the Dam, and Central TV chose to do a live broadcast which was great, but when that happens all your times have to fit in with the TV schedule and not when you want them, but with all that said, the Central team were so professional and great people to work with, and luckily we met all their times without a hitch. With so many people wanting to attend the event, for security reasons a Park and Ride system had to be put in place, the main problem was the Derwent Valley has only one road in and out and it was always going to be a no win task. A massive grandstand was built to seat the VIP's, and the area in front of Derwent Dam was made into an arena, with displays, stalls and exhibitions.

A small airshow was arranged with the main flypasts coming later in the day. After the Memorial Service, the arrival of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster brought the usual lump to the throat and tears to the eyes. The original  members were stood on the west wall walkway doing their TV interviews when the Lancaster came into view; the look on their faces is something I will never forget. Les Munro, told me he remembered turning over a golf course in Bamford, before making his return run up the Valley. Joe McCarthy was feeling a little tired and anything I asked of him was always met with the t1How far do I have to walk?". After the interviews the guests and visitors settled down to watch what can only be described as the finest Red Arrows display ever seen in the UK, breathtaking, but surely there cannot be a better setting for it.

The following day was to have been one to enjoy, plus a chance for all the helpers and their families to look round the static displays, but rain soon spread into the valley and really put paid to that idea. A grand fireworks display and reception was a tremendous success in the evening. The centre piece of the display was a fire drawing of a Lancaster with a 50 foot wing span set up on the east bank at Derwent, the whole display was brilliant and all credit to 'Theatre of Fir& who produced it. After the last glittering firework had long since fallen back to earth, now it was my turn, the valley was hung in a damp mist, the visitors had gone home and the only sounds now were the voices of the wet and tired workers who had performed miracles over the two days of the event and were now going home for a welcome break.


Memorial Plaque [back to top]

After locking the gate at Derwent, I stood on the giant purpose built grandstand, overlooking the valley, the emergency floodlights were sending beams of light skyward resembling the search lights which hunted out the Lancasters during the war, and it was hard not to let your mind run wild as you recall not only the event days, but the months before when there seemed to be more flak about than on the raid, and most seemed to be aimed at yours truly The problems on the main day seemed to be with the toilets and the very long delays with the Park and Ride which was always going to be at risk, when you are holding something like the Cup Final in a small valley with one main road in and out. So many people wanted to attend 85,000 was the estimate, on the plus side it had been a great reunion for the members and guests. The TV programme passed without a hitch, Richard Todd had to be flown in and leave straight after the live broadcast to get back down south to appear on stage that same evening.

Total credit for this must go to Brian Jones, Peak Park Ranger. Brian loaded Richard into his Land Rover and managed to get through the crowds to the helicopter waiting to whisk Mr. Todd away Within two days the valley had returned to normal, with no lasting damage, and although many had a long wait to get home, I know not one person would have missed the occasion. Those who were there witnessed history being made at first hand. 50 years earlier, a group of very brave men flew out of Scampton airfield to breach Dams and became legends, now all those years later, The Dambusters had returned to the Derwent Valley.....


617 badge

many thanks to Ken Harris of for his information on

"617 Squadron "Dambusters"


silent valley book

Silent Valley at War (Vic Hallam) tells the story of the raid that created The Dambusters and of the last years of Ashopton and Derwent, now lost beneath the waters of the Ladybower.

(this book can be ordered from Waterstones, Meadowhall,Sheffield)


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   ...updated November 2017...

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