The Geometry of the Dambusters


It was still early on the morning of Saturday 20th January, with the frost of the previous night still on the ground and fresh snow just beginning to fall, when Flight Sergeant Peter ‘Kidnap’ Ransom assembled his team of 48 Maths Teacher Training Scholars for their latest, and most daring mission.  

It was in fact the second Maths Teacher Training Scholars event at Aston University and the session was The Geometry of the Dambusters led by Peter Ransom of the Mathematical Society.  

The session began with scholars being asked to plot the course the Dambuster squadron navigated on the night of the 16th May 1943.  On an A3 map we used a protractor and ruler to draw out the intended route.  With the rise of the smart phone and the constant access to Sat. Nav. that comes with it, it can be difficult to get across to pupils in the classroom the importance of three figure bearings and why they need them.  A task like this, although not solving the second half of the problem, certainly addresses the first, showing how important they have been in the past.  I taught bearings just before the Christmas break and had pupils plotting a course through a made-up treasure map, when I come to do it again I intend to switch to the Dambusters’ context, the task may very well be the same but the impact, especially if I can use PowerPoint and other resources to really build a sense of history, I feel, will be much increased.  

Once we had plotted our course and had it verified by Flt Sgt Ransom we were given our daily pay in the coinage of 1943, it was then up to us to convert it to the money of today.   This introduction to ‘the old money’ would make nice task for any class working on inverse proportion (comparing the value of a coin to how many of them are needed to make a £1 note) and, like above, it would be improved all the more if we could build that sense of history and take in some of the old coins for them to handle.  Hopefully, it will also make them appreciate how easily they have it with the decimal system – it certainly did me.

The two activities we completed were challenging but accessible and could both be used easily in a classroom with varying degrees of scaffolding.  I found the session useful and thoroughly enjoyable, and didn’t come across anyone who disagreed.  The only downside was that we only had time for the first hour of what is usually a two and half hour session, there was much left undone that I had been particularly looking forward to doing.  However these resources are available in the Dropbox and next week a class of year 10s in Chorley will be using their newly learned trigonometry skills to keep a Lancaster Bomber exactly 60 feet above the ground!

Thank you Flight Sergeant Ransom.

By Ben Mercer.