70 Years Since the Dambusters Raid

The Möhne Dam after the Raid © Crown Copyright
The Möhne Dam after the Raid © Crown Copyright

This week is the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, one of the most celebrated military operations of World War II but not very well known outside the UK. All week here in the UK there have been special documentaries about the attack, as well as news features, and showings of the 1955 movie. This afternoon my home city is celebrating with a special service at the cathedral and a flyover by a Lancaster bomber, the plane that performed so spectacularly in 1943.

The story of the Dambusters is familiar to almost every Brit but always worth retelling. During WWII, the German Ruhr Valley and its dams was identified as a strategic target. This was a heavily industrialised area and the dams supplied hydro-electric power, pure water for steel-making, and water to feed the canals–not to mention drinking water for the thousands of workers. It was calculated that repeatedly bombing the dams would breach them.

However, the degree of accuracy required was too much to maintain under enemy fire. A smaller explosive would work if it could be detonated below the surface of the water right beside the dam wall, but the dams were protected by heavy torpedo nets to prevent such an attack. Barnes Wallis (who was later knighted) had developed a bomb that when dropped from just the right height and at just the right speed, would skip across water for a significant distance in just the same way that children skip stones across a lake. The residual spin when the bomb finally reached the dam would cause it to run down the side of the bomb to its base under the water.

Trials were run on plaster models and a disused dam in Wales and were successful enough for 30 Lancaster Bombers to be assigned to the mission with just eight weeks to train.

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British POW Uses Morse Code to Stitch Hidden Message During WWII

Major Casdagli's Hidden Message © David Fearn
Major Casdagli’s Hidden Message © David Fearn

Many of us geek love codes, cyphers and other types of hidden messages, and there are few more famous codes than Morse Code. Developed in the 1800s, Morse Code is simple and easy to learn, it’s also easy to write down once you know the correct sequence of dots and dashes that represent each letter. It was this ease of writing down and reading the code without the need of any special equipment that allowed a British prisoner of war to use it to create a subversive piece of art during his time in a Nazi prison camp.

Comparison of Historic & Current Morse Code © SpinningSpark via Wikimedia
Comparison of Historic & Current Morse Code © SpinningSpark via Wikimedia

Major Alexis Casdagli was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1941 and sent to a series of prison camps where he whiled away the long hours by sewing. A piece he created in December 1941 looks innocent enough, indeed it looked so innocent that guards allowed him to hang it on the walls at all the camps he stayed in. However the piece contains two subversive messages coded into the borders, messages that if they had been discovered by guards would have put his life at risk. The outer border spells out “God Save the King” and the inner border, the decidedly more risky “F**k Hitler”. To create the piece, Casdagli used threads taken from a disintegrating pullover that belonged to a fellow prisoner, a Cretan general.

For the four years the piece hung on the walls of the prison camps until his release, the Germans never spotted the secret message of defiance hanging in front of them. In fact the Germans were so impressed with the officer’s skills that they had him give classes to other prisoners. Major Casdagli’s defiant stitching has even recently been on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The major continued stitching until his death in 1990 and his son, a retired Royal Navy officer, continues the habit today.