F-35 “trigger alert”. If mentions of the F-35 offend you, please retreat to your safe space now!
No. 617 Squadron of the Royal Air Force was one of the most legendary fly units to have served during the Second World War, aptly nicknamed for their unique mission- to attack and neutralize three hydroelectric damns that supplied power to the Ruhr region, an area of significant industrial importance to the Nazi German war machine. Today, 617 still flies, albeit in newer, faster and more capable aircraft than ever fielded in the squadron’s storied history. To commemorate Operation Chastise, 617’s most famous mission, the RAF released a number of hauntingly fantastic composite images, placing 617’s current pilots and crew with members of the squadron’s past; a major contrast between the unit’s previous and present incarnations.
Known as the Dambusters, the squadron was composed of pilots and aircrew from a variety of nationalities outside the United Kingdom, including Americans, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders who were qualified to operate the Avro Lancaster heavy bombers assigned to 617 Squadron. Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the man who would lead the Lancs on their fateful mission to destroy the Mohne, Edersee and Sorpe dams, ensured that the aircraft under his command were refitted with the latest and greatest in technology, increasing the effectiveness of the bombers while on-mission. This included the addition of VHF radios for communication between aircraft, and a specialized underslung turret, which deployed the infamous “bouncing bomb” developed by Sir Barnes Wallis for low-level attacks on the three dams.
Operation Chastise didn’t go off without a hitch, though the mission was ultimately fairly successful. The dams on the Mohne and Edersee dams were breached, causing major flooding in the Ruhr valley, tragically killing over 1500 civilians, many of whom were Soviet prisoners of war used as forced-laborers. Sorpe was damaged lightly, though all three ceased to produce power, at least until September when the dams were returned to a reduced operational capacity. Factories, mines and industrial complexes were heavily damaged, if not destroyed, by the flooding, and their main power sources were shut off. Of the nineteen Lancs that were deployed on the night of the 16th, eight would not return home on the 17th, and 53 airmen would perish by the mission’s end, with three surviving crew taken prisoner by the Germans. 617 would go on to serve throughout Europe during the remaining years of the war, using massive Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs to great effect against German naval bases and fortifications; its Lancs were also instrumental in the attack on the Tirpitz.
Chastise is still rightfully commemorated as one of the most daring wartime aerial raids in history, unique in purpose and incredibly difficult in concept; though 617 Squadron somehow pulled it off against overwhelming odds. Today, 617 receives fourteen new F-35B Lightning IIs, the first RAF squadron to utilize the F-35. In a way, the F-35 fits in line with the squadron’s use of next-level technology to get the mission done. However, instead of VHF radios to maintain a communicative link between aircraft, the F-35 uses a more modernized method of relaying information without the pilots having to even utter a word. Its datalinks automatically share information gained from its advanced sensors between other F-35s operating in the area, as well as other aerial, ground and naval units operating in the area, granting friendly forces a competitive edge over whoever they face in combat. The aircraft’s stealth negates the need for the dangerous low-level flying 617’s Lancs were put through 73 years ago today on their way to deal German wartime industry a decisive blow.
617 will be functioning as a joint operations unit between the RAF and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, and will deploy aboard the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers with its sister unit, 809 Naval Air Squadron of the Royal Navy. Both squadrons will be stationed at RAF Marham between sea-going deployments.