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NOVA | Bombing Hitler’s Dams

2 April 2012

NOVA | Bombing Hitler’s Dams

Operation Chastise was the brilliantly planned and executed mission to bomb hydroelectric dams in the Ruhr River valley during WW II in order to deny the Nazi war machine power to produce arms and equipment. The mission was flown during a dark time for the Allies — Japan was moving at will across the Pacific Ocean, the Wermacht was rolling across the USSR and Great Britain struggled to remain relevant in the strategic planning efforts of the Allies.

Canadians produced a special about the mission’s technical details, about the unique bomb and how it was delivered, which then went to the BBC and finally to NOVA.

This NOVA episode on PBS is outstanding from may view points:

  • Visualizing history, in this case the Operation Chastise mission in WW II flown using Avro Lancasters by No. 617 Squadron
  • The perspective of rotating mass world authority engineer Hugh Hunt as he investigates how Barnes Wallis likely developed the bouncing bomb known by the codename, Upkeep
  • The superlative flying of Arne Schreder, a Buffalo Airways pilot, flying a DC-4 lower than 50 feet (15m) above the water to drop an Upkeep proxy against a proxy dam

The computer graphic effects used to illustrate the physics and engineering challenges are stupendous as well as the visualizing of the thinking of the superlative Barnes Wallis. It is more than three dimensional and filmed on historical era sets — vintage film clips are also used to great effect

Hugh Hunt goes along a path of exploration, which shows the devil is in the details. Yes, it is one thing to understand a concept and sound expert but quite another to make a thing work. Angles, rotation speed, aircraft speed and target depth profile all had to be researched. Wallis’s original notes were lost in a flood so Hunt struck out on his own for the most part. He shows how Wallis originally thought a sphere would be best but found a drum shape was almost as effective but much easier to precisely construct. We also discover how balanced and precise this weapon had to be, as well. The research on angle of entry and height initially using cricket balls was also insightful as well as the historical footage of Wallis with his family performing his research — the differences in equipment are unmistakable.

Then there is the flying of Arnie Schreder which has to be seen to be believed. He takes a DC-4 down low enough that a three story building would not be cleared and serenely maintains altitude, airspeed and course — utterly amazing skill.

The climax of the show is the bombing run using an inert Upkeep proxy against a scale dam built especially for this research effort. If the proxy hits the mark properly then a demolition charge planted in the dam is detonated.

This show has to be seen without doubt by historians, physics majors as well as aviation aficionados — it can be seen online by going to NOVA | Bombing Hitler’s Dams.

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One Comment leave one →
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