On the May 16th 1943 the RAF launched a daring night time attack on dams in the German Ruhr Valley. Code named Operation Chastise and now known as the famous Dam Busters raid, the attack was made up of three waves of nineteen special Lancaster bombers loaded with a single Upkeep bomb. Invented by Barnes Wallis, these bouncing bombs were designed to skip across the water of the reservoir, over defensive torpedo nets and explode against the Dam wall. Breaching the Dams would flood the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany.
To accurately deliver these bombs while flying over water at extreme low level, at night, and under intense enemy fire required the formation of an elite squadron. This responsibility was given to Wing Commander Guy Gibson who formed, trained and led 617 Squadron.
The first wave of nine Lancasters, led by Gibson, targeted the MoÌˆhne Dam. Lancaster AJ-M (‘M for Mother’), piloted by Flight Lieutenant John â€˜Hoppy’ Hopgood, Gibson’s Second in Command, would be the second aircraft to attack. Flying at tree top height to avoid enemy radar, an hour from the Dam, AJ-M was caught in a searchlight and raked by gunfire. Burcher, the rear gunner was hit in the groin and stomach, Minchin, the wireless operator was wounded in the leg and the front gunner Gregory, was either killed or seriously wounded and could not be raised on the intercom. Hopgood was also wounded in the head and Brennan, the flight engineer was heard to exclaim â€œChrist, look at the bloodâ€, as he tried to staunch the bleeding, to which Hopgood responded â€œI’m OK, carry on and don’t worryâ€. No thought was given to turning back and they pressed on with their mission.
On reaching the target Gibson made his bombing run with his Upkeep exploding as planned against the Dam wall. With the defenders of the Dam now fully alerted, AJ-M made its bomb run as John Fraser the bomb aimer recalled, “Gibson got away with it because he had the element of surprise. They (the guns in the towers) crossed up on us and the light flak battery came in on the side. We had to fly through the middle of it. I released the bomb. We were put on fire in the starboard wing. The one engine came on fire immediately.â€ Released slightly late, AJ-M’s Upkeep bounced over the top of the Dam and exploded on the far side.
With his aircraft ablaze, Hopgood fought to gain the altitude that would allow his crew to bail out, but unable to do so and knowing that they had only seconds remaining, at 500ft Hopgood ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft.
Realizing that there was little chance of their parachutes opening in time, Fraser and Burcher opened them inside the aircraft and jumped, and although Burcher broke his back when he struck the aircraft’s tail plane, both men survived. Unable to help himself, the wounded wireless operator Minchin was pushed out by Burcher but, as was feared, his parachute was unable to open and save him. Immediately after this the blazing starboard wing collapsed and the Lancaster crashed to earth killing Hopgood and those who remained on-board.
Gibson, who would receive the Victoria Cross for his actions that night, continued with the attack. Flying alongside the remaining Lancasters with lights ablaze to attract the defenders fire, he led three further bomb runs on the Dam until finally it was breached and floodwaters cascaded down the valley.
In 1985 the crash site of AJ-M was located and excavated by aviation archeologists and a few small pieces of Merlin engine casing were recovered. It is from these fragments that the centrepieces of the cufflinks are made.