Review: Vivien Horler
Chastise, by Max Hastings (William Collins/ Jonathan Ball)
Do you remember the book The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill? The movie of the book, made in 1955, has been described as the most popular British war film of all time.
It celebrated the destruction of two dams in the Ruhr valley in May 1943 by the use of Barnes Wallis’s “bouncing bombs”, a project designed to wreck Nazi Germany’s industrial heartland and hasten the end of World War II.
But Max Hastings, prolific British writer and former editor of the Daily Telegraph, says much of what we think we know about the Dam Busters is wrong.
People who embraced book and film – who included the young Hastings himself – loved the story because the raid seemed victimless, “save for the 53 dead among the gallant young men who carried it out. In truth, however, something approaching 1 400 people – almost all civilians and more than half French, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian mostly female slaves of Hitler – perished… more than in any previous RAF attack on the Reich.”
Many of those who died below the dam walls had heard the Lancaster bombers approaching and were taking shelter in cellars, only to drown as the water from the breached Möhne dam swept through their homes.
The raid on the dams took place on the night of May 16-17 1943. At this stage Britons were war weary, sick of austerity, separation and poor food. The tide of war was turning after the humiliation of Dunkirk, the Blitz, the earlier real threat of a German invasion and the loss of Tobruk. The victory at El Alamein in November 1942 was a major boost, later to be followed by the 8th Army’s landings in Italy (September 1943), but the D-Day landings were still a year away. The dam raid, says Hastings, lifted Britons’ spirits.
But at what cost? Hastings reminds us that most of the air crews of 617 Squadron (motto: Après moi le déluge – after us, the flood) were of the same age as gap-year students today, and most did not survive the war.
“They were unformed in almost everything save having been trained for flight and devastation: many still thought it the best joke in the world to pull off a man’s trousers after dinner.”
But amid 21st century unease about the widespread bombing of civilians, we have to remember that Britain was literally fighting for her life. As an old man, Australian Dave Shannon of 617 Squadron referred to “sanctimonious, hypocritical and grovelling criticism about things that were done in a total war”.