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Hit and miss

Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943
By Max Hastings
William Collins £25

By 1943, after nearly four years of war ‘ameliorated [only] by a thin gruel of successes,’ Britain and her western allies had little to boast in terms of their offensive victories; the lion’s share of the burden was very clearly being shouldered by the Soviet Union; and even the notably (not to say uniquely) busy Royal Air Force had not grabbed headlines since the Battle of Britain, three years previously.

Then, on the night of the 16th/17th May, the RAF launched a surprise attack on half a dozen dams in north-west Germany, the (secretly) avowed intent of which was to unleash billions of cubic feet of water and land a single, knock-out blow to the Ruhr industries, thereby crippling the Nazi war machine and proving – as the jargon goes – ‘decisive’.

The attack was most surprising because it was basically impossible. Indeed, the Germans had identified the threat before the war (and likewise eyed up British dams), but dismissed such operations as unworkable. The Möhne valley was so quiet that German troops were sent there for recuperation.

By night, meanwhile, Britain’s Bomber Command could currently identify no target smaller than a city, so even at the conceptual stage the technical demands of breaching a dam were assessed by the RAF as ‘highly problematic’. Big enough bombs – ‘bouncing’ or otherwise – did not exist, nor did the planes to carry them. Said bombs (depth charges, codename: ‘Upkeep’) would also have to be dropped from extraordinarily low levels (100 times lower than usual, in fact, at heights that would usually see pilots court-martialled) and in bright moonlight.

The ‘madman’ Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, was – not alone and not unreasonably – flatly against this as a hopelessly speculative waste of unaffordable resources. But the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, signed off on Operation Chastise as ‘a good gamble’. Only a single squadron of bombers was authorised, however: what Max Hastings calls ‘a niche operation’, indicative of British ‘gesture strategy’.

The recruitment of 617 Squadron began just weeks before the dams were set to reach their fullest, and though several of the crews were quite experienced, many others were extremely raw or had not flown before as working teams. Their Avro Lancaster bombers needed to fly almost at ground level over the lethal terrains of occupied Europe, which meant that mishaps of any kind would almost certainly entail the deaths of everyone on board. The new planes were strained by the technological requirements of the operation, and full of jury-rigged modifications. The frantic training schedule did not go well, and by the time the operation was launched most crews had not flown planes with even full-scale dummy Upkeeps. Whatever Portal said, the odds on Chastise making a decisive impact were frankly miserable.

It was, at best, partly successful.

There were immediate repercussions from the lack of navigational technology, inexperience, and other issues, once they reached the Dutch coast. Only one plane in the Sorpe wave even made it to the target. Many pilots and crews were simply not up to the intimidating task: eight planes out of 19 went down, and 56 out of 133 pilots and aircrew died.

Two dams, the Möhne and the Eder, were breached, unleashing a biblical horror for which (of course) the Germans coined a new word (‘Möhnekatastrophe’); but almost all the approximately 1,400 victims were civilians and more than half of them were POWs – our allies. There was significant infrastructure damage, knock-on effects on gas and coal production, and diversion of resources. But this did not curtail ‘a quarter’ of the Reich’s industry, Barnes Wallis’s promised ‘disaster of the first magnitude,’ and the dams were repaired within a few months (a process with which, astoundingly, the RAF did not attempt to interfere). The secret weapon of the bouncing bomb, once used, could not be used again, either inland or – as had been the Navy’s fervent hope – at sea.

But the aircrews – men barely out of school who ‘still thought it the best joke in the world to pull off a man’s trousers after dinner’ – were heroic in a more than usually tough, physical sense, exemplified and led by the hard-driving, amply-decorated 24-year-old bombing veteran Wing Commander Guy Gibson (to say nothing of his dog). There were also the heroic feats of engineering (and politicking) by Barnes Wallis, the ‘white-haired evangelist’, and his team.

And so Chastise was fundamentally – if not unimportantly – a propaganda victory. It represented an ‘amazing example of team-work and co-operation’, and was billed as ‘a turning of the tide’ to the advantage of the Allied powers. In Hastings’ estimation it inflicted a ‘trauma’ on Germany, and demonstrated to Germans that their homeland was not invulnerable. It was, he notes, also ‘unmentioned in Allied warlords’ private diaries.’

Hastings is a ‘big picture’ narrative historian, who tackles head-on the not inconsiderable task of making a compelling narrative out of a time-honoured national myth. In all, Chastise is a calm but forthright reappraisal, not prepared to swallow the triumphalist (and ‘victimless’) impressions of, e.g, the 1955 film version, nor to have any truck with flimsy modern notions of winning ‘a war of national survival’ without the taking of lives.

And not just German lives, of course. One of the last remaining Dambusters died only this year; but it was a sad, blunt statistical inevitability that, for all their heroism, the vast majority of Chastise men, including Gibson, did not live long enough to see VE Day.

For The Oldie

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