MORE than seven decades ago, Lancaster bomber crews carried out top secret training flights over the Derwent reservoir in preparation for one of the most daring operations of the Second World War.
Back then the only spectators were military top brass, but yesterday thousands gathered to see the iconic aircraft swoop over the dam once more to mark exactly 70 years since the Dambusters raids.
The famous operation which took place overnight between May 16 and 17, 1943, was dependent on the new bouncing bomb invented by Barnes Wallis, and the dam, near Sheffield, was perfect for test flights.
Daring officers from 61 squadron, including operation leader Wing Commander Guy Gibson, flew just 60ft above the ground in total darkness to carry out the attack, and several practice runs were needed.
Yesterday, the Lancaster Bomber of the Battle of Britain memorial flight flew just a little higher across the surface of the water, but still drew gasps of awe from the crowds who witnessed it.
Many gathered on the reservoir banks, while others climbed the valley sides to gain a vantage point as first a Spitfire, then the Lancaster, and finally two modern Tornado GR4s from today’s 617 squadron, carried out a flypast.
Both amateur and professional photographers jostled for position, with some setting up tripods in the water, while whole families laid out blankets and ate picnics ahead of the excitement at 1pm.
Jim Marsh, 64, said he had travelled for four hours from his home near Southampton to witness the flypast, which saw the aircraft make three passes of the dam, but said the journey was “worth it”.
He added; “It really was an awesome sight, and makes you realise just how daring those pilots were and how dangerous the mission to drop those bombs would have been. The noise was amazing.
“We set out very early, have been stuck in traffic several times getting here, and we were worried that we weren’t going to make it, but we did, and it was worth every minute of the wait.”
Huge traffic jams did build up on the roads around the reservoir, and although some people’s tempers were frayed, most were content to enjoy the sunshine and the stunning views of the valley.
Paul McDonnell, 46, and his son Jamie, nine, from Cheshire, had spread a blanket on the eastern bank of the reservoir and had cameras and mobile phones at the ready to capture the moment.
After the flypast Mr McDonnell, a mechanic from Macclesfield, said: “We have been excited about it for days and I knew it would be fantastic. I just hope the pictures do it justice.”
Television crews had gathered beneath the dam, where the noise from the Lancaster’s engines was loudest, and Peak District rangers said a German team was among the British broadcasters.
The crew arrived earlier this week to film a piece about the 100th anniversary of the Mohne Dam, which was finished in 1913 and breached by the Dambusters, and coincidentally found themselves at the commemoration.
After the Derwent flypast the four aircraft went on to nearby Chatsworth, where the public had been advised to gather to avoid the crowds at the reservoir.
Yesterday’s events in Derbyshire were among several which have been organised this month to mark the 70th anniversary of the raids.
In Staffordshire, the Royal British Legion created a Field of Messages at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas.
More than 10,500 cardboard crests carrying written messages from supporters were displayed at the memorial throughout the day.
Last night a sunset ceremony also took place at RAF Scampton, near Lincoln, the airbase from which the Dambusters heroes took off, some never to return.
Veterans and invited guests gathered for the event, which included a further flypast by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster bomber and the Tornados of 617 squadron.