German survivors of the Dambusters Raid remember the human cost 70 years on

German survivors of the Dambusters Raid remember the human cost 70 years on


While the effects of the Dambusters Raid have crystallised into legend in Britain, particularly with the release of the 1955 war film The Dam Busters, they are remembered very differently by the German people who lived through them in the rural towns and villages in the shadow of the dams.



The Dambusters Raid of 16-17 May 1943 was one of WW2’s most audacious and dramatic operations.  The bravery and skill of the RAF’s best bomber crews, armed with the ingenious bouncing bomb devised by Barnes Wallis, breached the seemingly impregnable Möhne and Eder dams.

The destruction of the dams that night engulfed the Ruhr region with 330 million tons of water.  The resulting 33-foot high tsunami wave which swept through the valleys destroyed or damaged 25 roads and bridges, 125 factories and power stations, and over 1,000 homes, out to a distance of 50 miles.

At least 1,650 people were killed.  Around 70 perished in the Eder Valley, and at least 1,579 bodies were found along the Möhne and Ruhr rivers, with hundreds more missing.  Over a thousand of the dead were prisoners of war and forced-labourers, mainly Russian men and women.  Of the 133 RAF aircrew who carried out the raid, 53 were killed.

While the effects of the Dambusters Raid have crystallised into legend in Britain, particularly with the release of the 1955 war film The Dam Busters, they are remembered very differently by the German people who lived through them in the rural towns and villages in the shadow of the dams.

On the night of the raid, the air-raid sirens led them to take refuge in their cellars – and many drowned there as a result, including 6 members of a single family, the Koehlers

Karl Hennecke, an 8 year-old at the time, remembers the roar of the advancing wall of water:  “It sounded like wind, a great wind.  And then our mother said, ‘No, that’s water.’ The glass in the windows broke and it poured into the cellar where we were hiding.  My father broke the roof tiles and we went on to the roof.  He said, ‘You will never see anything like this in your life again’.  I still have a bad feeling when I go to the dam.  After that night, I will never trust it again.”

Josef Rochel was 13 at the time and living in Günne, the village closest to the Möhne Dam.  He recalled: “I saw the face of one of the Lancaster pilots as he made a turn overhead.  They were flying incredibly low, and we all knew what they were after – there was nothing else in Günne apart from the dam.  My father had built an air-raid bunker in the woods and we ran to it but then had to go back to get the goat and pigs out of the cellar.  My father shouted, ‘They’ve got the dam!’ None of us could believe it.”

Elfriede Vogt, who was a 10 year-old living in Niederense, 3 miles downstream from the Möhne Dam, said:  “It was something to remember – the memory will never leave me.  No one ever thought the Möhne could be destroyed.  It was simply not possible.  We were hiding in the cellar and went outside after we heard the roaring sound of the water, but we hit the ground when we saw the planes overhead.  We thought they would start machine-gunning us.”

Flooding following the Dambusters raid - 17 May 1943
Flooding following the Dambusters raid – 17 May 1943

Niederense’s 700-year-old Himmelpforten (Heaven’s Gate) monastery was swept away by the torrent, taking the priest, his housekeeper and sister with it.  Only a ruined stone wall remains today, along with its old, inset iron bell, which started to ring on the night that the walls collapsed.

Johannes Sörries was a teenage boy in Niederense in 1943; his family had owned the Schulten-Hof farm there since the 16th century.  At the time, Johannes was recovering from influenza and unable to walk.

When the sirens went off after midnight on 17 May, he was carried down to the cellar by his family. He recalled hearing the loud bangs of the exploding, bouncing bombs in the distance, and then the roar of the wall of water.  The electricity failed and they were plunged into pitch darkness.  His brother Paul leapt into action and carried Johannes outside, leaving him on the grass.  Paul ran off, shouting: “I have to check on the cows!”  As Paul let the screaming cattle out of the stables, panicking townsfolk began running up the hillside towards them.  They put Johannes in a handcart and pulled him along with them to the safety of the high ground.  In the moonlit valley below, Johannes could just make out the floating bodies, animals and debris, before the catastrophic scene was covered by fog.  For years after, he would vividly recall the sound of trains crashing together at the station, of roofs collapsing, of pigs and children screaming. “How could I ever forget this?” he said.

Luckily, the water only reached the garden of the Sörries farmhouse, but many others lost their homes and their loved ones.  One mother placed her 4 children on a barn door as a makeshift raft.  It could not hold her weight too, so she swam in the floodwater alongside it.  When her strength finally faded, she slipped under the water and drowned. The children survived.

When dawn broke, the waters retreated to reveal a scene of devastation: houses reduced to rubble and broken beams, twisted metal train tacks, and mud-covered bodies stuck in trees.

Even 70 years on, the high-water mark of the flood is still etched into the plaster of the region’s surviving old buildings.  The Dambusters Raid is not remembered here as a triumphant feat of military daring, but is referred to on memorials as die Möhne-Katastrophe.  Every year on 17 May, villagers walk silently with torches to the ruins of Himmelpforten for an open-air memorial service.

The Niederense village museum displays some of the artefacts salvaged from the ruined monastery after the raid.  Missing pieces still turn up years after the war ended.  Johannes Sörries’ son-in-law dug out half of an alabaster statue of St Peter, while ploughing his field.  Another statue of a saint, missing his arms, was described by Johannes as, “Our best swimmer.  He was carried down the river for 50km and only found after the war.”

Unsurprisingly, the locals are preferring to focus on the centenary of the completion of the Möhne Dam in 1913, rather than the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters Raid.  A souvenir stall at one end of the dam offers pens, key rings and beer steins with images of the Möhnesee to German tourists who come to marvel at a feat of engineering.  The stall also offers a DVD of The Dam Busters war film to cater for the British tourists who come to marvel at a feat of destruction.

The mayor of Günne, Karl-Heinz Wilmes, is not a fan of the film.  He was 5 years old on the night of the raid and recalls seeing the tracer fire from his basement window.  He said:  “The film made of the attack was not necessary.  It glorified a mission that did not succeed, and killed thousands of civilians and lost the RAF valuable crew.  It was, perhaps, technologically impressive, but a failure by any other measure.”

However, he added:  “No one harbours any bad feelings about the British here.  It was a long time ago and it was war.  Before the Dambusters came, the Germans had laid waste to British cities.  Many British people come here each year and we welcome them.”

View of the destruction of the Möhne Dam from the air
View of the destruction of the Möhne Dam from the air
The aftermath of the Dambusters raid on the ground
The aftermath of the Dambusters raid on the ground
The town of Hattingen in the Ruhr Valley - 17 May 1943
The town of Hattingen in the Ruhr Valley – 17 May 1943

Sources:  Telegraph, NZ Listener



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