The science and scientific legacy of Operation Chastise

Cockell, C.S. (2002). The science and scientific legacy of Operation Chastise. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 27(4) pp. 278–286.



Operation Chastise, more often known as the 'Dambusters raids', was one of the most audacious aerial military operations of the Second World War, in that it made use of operationally untested technical innovations under extreme logistical constraints. Of particular interest is the scientific environment in which the mission was implemented. Here I review the principal scientific innovations that were necessary for the realisation of the mission. These went beyond the rotating depth charge itself. Simple but nevertheless ingenious methods for altitude and range finding were devised for low altitude flying, and the new system of two stage blue day–night flying was implemented for simulated night flying. Even drugs to combat airsickness during low altitude flight in turbulence were tested. The diverse technical expertise that was necessary for the original idea to be transformed into a logistical reality in less than three months provides a particularly lucid instance of effective scientific management in a framework of rapid technological change. I also describe an expedition inspired by these developments, which fifty years on used a dedicated low altitude night flying microlight aircraft (the Barnes Wallis Moth Machine) to catch insects over a rainforest canopy, illustrating the legacies that such missions can leave.

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