Of all the events from WWII to capture the imagination of the British public, few remain as compelling as the ‘Dambusters’ raid of 1943. Dubbed Operation Chastise, it saw the destruction of the Möhne and Eder dams in north-west Germany by 617 Squadron of the RAF. Their daring exploits and their bouncing bombs – known as ‘Upkeep’ – were made famous by the iconic 1955 film Dambusters.
Max Hastings, noted historian and journalist, is a titanic force in British history, with 27 books to his name – many of which cover conflict. In Chastise, he brings his expertise on warfare to bear on this critical episode in WWII history. The raid has generated significant debate amongst historians, with disagreement particularly over whether it had a lasting impact on the German war machine.
Hastings’s aim is less a rigorous reappraisal, and more a search for the middle ground. This is not a text of British military triumphalism. Rather, we are taken on a sweeping journey through the many human actors in this story, meeting a slew of scientists, commanders, and pilots along the way.
He is also careful to not make Chastise too Anglo-centric, and engages with the ‘enormity of the horror’ unleashed in the nightmarish floods created when the dams were breached. In the cauldron of total war, it is right and proper that both the 1,400 civilians killed in these floods and the 53 crew members from 617 Squadron lost in the attack have their place in the narrative.
Hastings begins Chastise by describing the British war effort in 1943. Whilst the nation no longer faced imminent danger of invasion, Britain was still firmly on the defensive. Ordinary people heard reports of the Soviets starting to win great victories against the Nazis on the Eastern Front, but they saw little evidence of Britain truly ‘taking the war’ to the Germans.
Here we are introduced to the concept of military theatre: a chance for a symbolic victory over the enemy, even if it had little tangible impact on the war. Through this ‘impatient’ mindset, the decision to pursue a highly dangerous operation like Chastise begins to make sense.
The intellectual vision for the Dambusters raid came from a man named Barnes Wallis. His frenzied white hair could easily make him seem like another scientific heavyweight exploited by the British war machine. But as Hastings makes clear, Wallis was a ‘Whitehall warrior’, who was able to navigate the many clashing priorities of British officialdom to convince them of the value of his project.
It seems extraordinary to the 21st century reader that, at a time when bombs were falling from above on Britain in 1940, men like Wallis had any time to pursue futuristic weapons. Yet, as we quickly learn, Wallis engaged in a frenetic search for bombing methods to target German hydro-electric dams.
The book here is a wonderful intellectual journey, guiding the reader through Wallis’s key discoveries, like the iconic bouncing effect and the disproportionate explosive impact of a bomb detonated underwater close to a dam. In this manner, much as they had for Wallis, the pieces begin to fall into place for the final shape of the operation.
That operation involved 23 modified Lancaster Mark III Type 464 aircraft. They had been altered to accommodate the rotating machinery that would provide the backspin for the Upkeep bomb and its 6,600lb explosive charge – a wonderful diagram of the aircraft’s interior accompanies the textual descriptions.
Hastings’s human approach is crucial here, to stop the narrative veering towards myth-making about British heroism. The process was far from perfect, with the weapon altered at the last minute from spherical to cylindrical.
Wallis’s scientific exploits are balanced with discussion of the bureaucratic limitations in which he operated. The figure that stands out is Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, commander-in-chief of RAF Bomber Command.
He is famous for his role in leading the bombing campaigns against German cities in the later war. A man of great bombast, Harris was quick to see his own place in the British war effort, jumping to get his own ‘stamp’ on Chastise when it became clear it had the full weight of the British military establishment behind it.
Harris’s coming in behind the project, after initial scepticism, is in many ways symptomatic of a duality in thought amongst British military commanders about Chastise. At one point, says Hastings, they harboured deep doubts about whether it could be pulled off , but simultaneously held ‘extravagant hopes for the impact of such an assault upon the Nazi war machine.’
Before the fateful flight to the German dams, the narrative takes time to introduce us to some of the men in 617 Squadron. Led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, this group of mostly young men formed tight bonds as they prepared for the most daunting of wartime operations.
Hastings’ familiarity with the close-knit world of 617 Squadron is self-evident here – he interviewed several of them when he was commissioned in 1977 to write Bomber Command .
The men completed an intensive training programme, including flights at very low altitudes, precise manoeuvres at speed, and bombing tests over water. These low-level flights were particularly alarming for civilians below, with the pilots low enough that observers could see ‘flashes of the crews’ pink features’.
Only on the morning of 16 May, the ‘Big Day’, were the 133 men told the purpose of all their training: a fast, low-altitude operation to Germany to bomb the Möhne, Eder, and Sorpe dams.
The flight to Germany is rendered with typical flair and confidence by Hastings. Their initial flight over the North Sea is captured in beautifully calm prose, as the planes quietly soared towards the coast. This shifts dramatically when we arrive on the European continent.
Flying below 100ft to avoid German radar, the men’s own Gee navigation system became erratic at this extremely low altitude. The operation relied, therefore, on intense concentration from all involved, particularly from the human navigators, to steer clear of the principal threats to life: flak on the ground and power lines.
Even a ‘split-second loss of concentration’ could be deadly: Norm Barlow and his E-Easy flight hit power lines in Holland, killing all seven of his crew instantly.
The tale of bouncing bombs destroying two out of three of the targeted dams is familiar territory for many interested in WWII history. Hastings is careful to add the human thread that holds this formidable book together. He works hard to add introspection to this critical piece of narrative, noting how as Gibson approached the Möhne dam in the first bombing run ‘he felt almost overwhelmed by the vastness of the dam looming before his Lancaster, suddenly so small.’
Hastings ends with a clinical reflection on the realistic impact of the bombing raid. He includes numerous translated German testimonials of the ‘Möhnekatastrophe’, the German word to describe the devastating impact of the torrent of floodwaters unleashed by the two dam breaches.
After the accounts of bravery from the British airmen, it is sobering to read of the dire consequences of their actions. We hear of whole families swept away, children clinging onto branches for dear life, and 100 French POWs locked in an air-raid shelter that became their tomb.
This catastrophic impact has to be part of conclusions about the operational success or failure of Chastise. Hastings is clear that this was a ‘damaging’ operation on German capabilities in their industrial heartland of the Ruhr.
However, opportunities were missed by Bomber Command to follow up Chastise with bombing raids to hamper the repair operation. The impact on German industry ultimately proved temporary, and Chastise failed to deliver the ‘decisive’ hammer-blow promised upon its conception.
Chastise is a worthy text, ideal for anyone looking for an engaging and nuanced history of the famous Dambusters operation in WWII. It is full to the brim with stirring narrative, beautiful pictures, and detailed maps of the operation.
The text does not provide much in the way of new research, with Hastings being very upfront in his deference to the expertise of past historians of this subject. Its true value is to, perhaps, shift debate away from British myth-making and into a murkier world of the brutal decisions made by the human beings who lived through this era of total war.
It is sobering that Hastings’s overwhelming emotion at the end of Chastise is sympathy for those who flew, those who died, and the British commanders forced to make decisions that led to such loss of life on both sides.
Every word from this period drives home this sombre conclusion. Gibson, watching from above, wrote how cars tried in vain to escape ‘in front of the great wave of water which was chasing them and going faster than they could ever hope to,’ as he witnessed the ‘water overtake them.’
Review by Alexander Izza
This article was published in the March 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.