Damn… busters! Stripping the myth from truth

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”.

Today, in terms of the 1977 Protocols to the Geneva Convention, deliberately creating a catastrophe such as the breaching of the Möhne and Eder dams would be regarded as a war crime, says Hastings. But in 1943 Britain was in “a desperate national predicament”.

In Chastise – named after the operation to breach the dams – Hastings first provides the context of the time. Bomber crews were, by all accounts, not very good at hitting targets, partly because of a lack of intelligence. In December 1941 a report submitted to prime minister Winston Churchill stated that “the average RAF crew on an average night was incapable of identifying any target smaller than a city”.

However the idea of Operation Chastise was to destroy three dams – the Möhne, the Eder and the Sorpe – and deal a devastating blow to the Nazi industrial heartland.  In the late 1930s Britain didn’t have a bomb capable of doing such damage. Enter Barnes Wallis, an engineer who believed he could build a bomb that could be made to skip along a body of water and then hit the dam wall, destroying it.

It would mean a two-and-a-half-hour below-treetop-height flight in lumbering Lancaster bombers over hostile Europe, bristling with air defences, on a moonlit night, the location of the dams, and the careful low runs in over the water and the release of the top-secret Upkeep bombs. The task demanded skill and courage of the highest order.

The first section of the book, the context, the relationship and rivalries between various leaders including the politicians, the top brass of the RAF and Bomber Command, and Wallis’s attempts to have his bombs accepted, built and tested, was both necessary and a touch tedious.

I nearly gave the book up at that point. I’m glad I did not, because the narrative moved on to the selection of the 130 men who made up the bomber crews, the creation of the squadron, thumb sketches of some of the leaders including the leader of the raid, 24-year-old RAF veteran Guy Gibson, who won a VC for his efforts that night but failed to survive the war.

The descriptions of the raid itself, the flights, the failures, the successes, the devastating results in the valley below the Möhne as hundreds drowned and a few people were able to race to higher ground – is gripping stuff.

The raid was a success in that two of the three dams were breached, and yet the Allies failed to build on it. Albert Speer’s biographer Joachim Fest said the Germans expected follow-up incendiary raids over the Ruhr which would have been a major problem as firemen had no water with which to douse flames. While the dams were being repaired, no bombers were sent to destroy the vulnerable wooden scaffolding covering the walls for the rest of 1943.

We can look back with our 20-20 vision and admire or condemn, but we have to remember that 1943 was a different time. Hastings writes: “In my 70s, I muse constantly upon the privilege of having attained old age, whereas the lives of most of those British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and American fliers became forfeit before they knew maturity, fatherhood, or in many cases, love or even sex”.

This is a book thoroughly worth reading.






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