On 14 May almost 70 years after Operation Chastise, the eight man, four Mini team left RAF Henlow. The sun was shining and the winding roads of Bomber County made the journey an enjoyable one. The first port of call was the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirkby. The Lancaster bomber ‘Just Jane’ provided an excellent backdrop for some PR photos before the run began in earnest. The team East Kirkby went out of its way to help and it was also possible to get video of the Lancaster carrying out a fast taxi run alongside the Minis, which certainly inspired us ahead of the long drive.
After a wreath had been laid at the 617 Squadron memorial at Woodhall Spa it was off for lunch at the Dambusters Inn in Scampton village (well worth a visit!). At RAF Scampton, the team was given a guided tour of Guy Gibson’s office and the other Dambuster exhibits. The station was extremely busy preparing for the 70th anniversary events that were held that Thursday live on the BBC. After a brief from the Station Commander (discovering that he also used to have a Mini), we left for Hull, just as the rain started, to board the overnight ferry to Rotterdam.
Initially it would be a sight seeing tour, although the run soon materialised into something far more challenging. In true respect to the raiders, we set a goal that would test not only the cars but also the drivers. The route followed that of the original waves and a mission was initiated to deliver two commemorative wreaths to the Möhne dam in remembrance of the 617 Squadron aircrew and the civilians lost as a result of the devastating flood.
Our aircrew member Tim was given the task of route planning. We decided to go without sat navs or GPS – just good old fashioned map reading. Tim’s experience in Mini rallies and aerial navigation gave us a fantastic route, close to 1000 miles across five countries in less than 48 hours. It would be a demanding task for many modern cars, let alone a classic Mini.
We began with a maintenance day to prepare the cars for the task ahead. A rolling road was booked with Peter Baldwin so the cars could be tuned for economy on the European motorways and to get us out of any sticky situations if needed. A problem with the silver Mini’s camber was soon rectified by the team, and a quick brake adjustment and coolant change on my own car meant all the Minis were ready for the detailing and commemorative decals.
The first leg was a 180 mile journey out of the Netherlands and into the heart of Germany, but the schedule was hampered only four miles in, as a lorry caught fire on the motorway and caused a lengthy delay. After negotiating this, progress improved.
In the midst of the Dutch section, however, just like 617 Squadron, the RAFMC had its first ‘down-bird’. A misfire was causing problems on the silver Mini. A look under the bonnet didn’t reveal any obvious reasons, several components were changed, but without much success. Making the Möhne dam was now under threat and the return ferry could well have been missed if we went off schedule. The car limped further down the route to a layby but thankfully regained power and we continued unharmed.
INow over two and a half hours behind schedule, the team pushed on. Navigation became more difficult around the Ruhr industrial area due to the quantity of Autobahns and the sheer volume of traffic. To put a scale to the task, driving around the northern and eastern edge of the Ruhr is the equivalent of driving from London to Birmingham. After seven hours driving, the team finally got onto the local roads, crested a hill and were faced with the glorious sight of the Möhnesee lakes. A short drive down the hill and there it was, the huge Möhne Dam. The team walked across the top of this immense structure and the scale of 617 Squadron’s mission hit home. Wreaths were laid and we stopped for some photos.
With little time for sightseeing, it was time to mount up for the charge to Calais. With the time lost on the journey so far, making the last ferry was probably no longer possible. Being lead driver, I tried to keep the pace going, luckily the silver Mini behaved itself and progress was good through Germany and back into Holland. Tim kept on top of the navigation and amazingly the Minis didn’t need as many fuel stops as had been planned.
Dan was suffering though in his modified Mini, sitting only four inches above the road on stiff suspension, he felt every rut and the heat in the car was intense without wind-down windows. The other three crews had an evil snigger when the team crossed the Belgian border – the road surface felt like it hadn’t been maintained in 70 years!
The sums were completed and it now looked possible we could reach the ferry in time. Now it felt more like a Top Gear Challenge than a Mini run! Then the team were thrown a lifeline – a text from P&O with news of possible delays due to poor weather. After what seemed an eternity, the Minis crossed into France and we arrived in Calais only an hour and a half late.
We were just in time for the last ferry, although there was one final event, as Dan’s car ran out of fuel 50-metres short of the ferry check-in booth! Once refuelled it was onto the ferry, back to Dover and then the final 120 miles slog back to the start point at RAF Henlow.
So was it worth it? Definitely! The distance involved in the Dambusters raid was felt by all involved, and to stand on the dam in person put a real perspective on things. The team had left the UK at 2100 hours for Holland, around the same hour that the first 617 Squadron Lancaster was started up for the raid, and we arrived at Henlow at 0415 hours, the same time that Guy Gibson’s Lancaster landed back at Scampton. In all, the Minis covered the distance in around 24 hours of driving over two days, and we certainly knew it!