Dams and Dambusters

Hundreds of people make the most of the sunshine as they wait on the shores of the Derwent Dam for the Dambusters fly past - 16th May 1988
Hundreds of people make the most of the sunshine as they wait on the shores of the Derwent Dam for the Dambusters fly past - 16th May 1988
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As it’s the Easter holidays, the Retro A to Z of Sheffield and surrounding areas is taking a detour to the Peak District.

We’ve been here recently and looked at the villages that were submerged under the Derwent Valley dams, so this time we’re going to concentrate on the building of the dams and the Dambuster Squadron’s wartime operations in the valley.

The building of the Howden and Derwent Dams to provide water for Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Leicester was such a massive undertaking that the workers’ village of Birchinlee, nicknamed ‘Tin Town’, was built for the dam builders and their families to live in.

There was also a narrow-gauge railway built between Howden Dam and the station at Bamford to aid the construction at Derwent and Howden, which took place between 1901 and 1916. Traces of the railway line can still be found on the hillside.

During the war the famous Dambuster Squadron, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, practised for the task of flying Lancasters to bomb the dams of the Ruhr Valley in Germany by flying over Derwent because it had towers like the German dams.

The mission was very hazardous as the pilots involved in Operation Chastise had to fly as low at 60 feet over enemy territory at night.

Their task was to drop the famous bouncing bombs devised by Barnes Wallis.

Apparently locals in the Derwent Valley complained because the vibrations caused by the aircraft dislodged roof tiles and was blamed for causing egg and milk production to drop.

Eventually the Operation Chastise mission was declared a success as the bombs breached the Mohne and Eder Dams, sending millions of tons of water pouring down the valley, but bringing short-term disruption to 16 factories working towards the Nazi war effort.

The operation was a huge boost to British morale, though, and it was immortalised in the 1954 film The Dambusters.

Film star Richard Todd, who played Guy Gibson, visited Derwent in 2008 for Dambusters’ 65th anniversary commemorations.

Vic Hallam’s little museum, situated on the west tower of Derwent Dam itself, is a great place to visit on a trip to the area. It’s open on Sundays and Bank Holidays.

As well as housing many items associated with the 617 Squadron, including a life-size replica of a bouncing bomb, it also traces the history of the drowned villages of Derwent and Ashopton and looks at Birchinlee.