With the resources available to the RAF in 1940 it is understandable why these two aqueducts were chosen as targets. However, as this aerial picture shows, they can hardly be considered as "straightforward".
This photograph is taken looking south with the original aqueduct on the left and the later 1930s construction on the right.
Following initial raids in 1940, photographs show damage having been caused to the canal. This pair of 'before and after' photographs are dated 18th July 1940 and show the water drained from the 'new' channel.
Unfortunately, neither the Bomber Command War Diary or any other publication mention a raid on this date. The photographs are also confusing (overly optimistic) as they fail to show the undamaged 'old' aqueduct which has been cropped off the bottom of each picture. The top of the picture is direction north west.
Several accounts refer to a raid by twenty four aircraft from Hemswell where 61Sqn & 144Sqn were based and that air reconnaissance on the 29th July showed "severe damage" to the newer aqueduct. It therefore seems likely that the date of the mystery raid was the 25-26th July 1940.
Ten Hampden crews spent several weeks practising 'attacking' canals in Lincolnshire and many hours were spent examining plasticine models of the target area. Finally, five of the crews were chosen to attack the original stone aqueduct and the 'rejects' (which included a young bomber pilot called Guy Gibson) were to carry out a diversionary raid.
A view through an arch of the old aqueduct looking towards the new aqueduct.
Some accounts of the raid say that Flt Lt Learoyd from 49 Sqn made a solo reconnaissance of the target area on the night of 11-12th August but the operational records of his squadron make no mention of this flight.
However, at around 21:00hrs on Monday 12th August eleven Hampdens (5 from 83Sqn and 6 from 49 Sqn) took off from their Scampton base.
The five crews designated to attack the canal aqueducts were:
Sqn Ldr Pitcairn-Hill (83 Sqn)
Flt Lt Learoyd (49 Sqn)
P/O Matthews (49 Sqn)
Flt Lt Mulligan (83 Sqn)
F/O Ross (83 Sqn)
Descriptions of the raid vary greatly but it is accepted that Sqn Ldr James Pitcairn-Hill attacked first and, although badly damaged by the intense light flak, placed his bombs in the correct area.
F/O Ellis Ross is then said to have attacked at very low level but failed to pull out of his dive. However, Chorley's Bomber Command Losses for 1940 indicate that F/O Ross and his crew were lost without trace and are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
Flt Lt Mulligan was hit repeatedly by intense light flak but reportedly managed to climb high enough for his crew and himself to bail out. Burial records show however, that only Flt Lt Mulligan and one other crew member (Sgt Younger) survived. Sgts Abel and Hill were killed and are buried in the Reichswald War Cemetery.
P/O Matthews, with one engine immediately put out of action, pressed on through the intensifying flak and successfully dropped his bombs very near to the target. Nursing his one remaining engine he managed to struggle back to base.
The remaining Hampden, piloted by Flt Lt 'Babe' Learoyd, now alone, faced the full intensity of the defences. With searchlights almost blinding him he flew along the canal at an altitude of 150 feet and tried to ignore the maelstrom of cannon shells and machine gun bullets.
His bomb-aimer concentrated intensely on the task in hand and dropped their bombs exactly on target. Learoyd immediately banked away from the target.
His aircraft, M-Mother (P4403), was very badly damaged but both engines were still going strong. Learoyd made it back to Scampton where he circled until daylight. Even with severe hydraulic damage he managed to make a safe landing.
A short time later, in Air Ministry Orders No 256/1940 F/Lt 'Babe' Learoyd was awarded the Victoria Cross. This award was the first to be earned by Bomber Command in WW2.
Two days later a photo reconnaissance aircraft flew over the target area. The bend in the River Ems clearly identifies the target area and the damage to the old aqueduct (yellow circle) is clearly visible. Although the newer, wider aqueduct is undamaged (red circle), the raid was hailed as a major success.
The 'old' aqueduct was badly damaged but it would take the German's less than two weeks to make a full repair. Although the other aqueduct was unaffected the attack did hinder the movement of war material to the invasion ports at a most critical point in the war.
Access to the site today is straightforward although investigators should be warned that this is now an area for nude sunbathing. Anyone exploring the location with a camera should be aware of this!
Today, the repairs to the damage caused in August 1940 can easily be seen on the side of the old aqueduct.
However, the old aqueduct is no longer used and the stretches of canal on either side have been left as a nature reserve or have been filled in. The actual aqueduct itself has been left drained but otherwise is unchanged.
The barge traffic now only uses the newer of the two aqueducts.