What is the significance of the Dambusters legend?

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MHM Editor Neil Faulkner analyses the RAF’s controversial strategic bombing campaign.

What is the real significance of the Dambusters legend? James Holland and I clashed on this question on the BBC radio air-waves on 17 May 2013, the 70th anniversary of Operation Chastise, the famous bouncing-bomb raid on the Möhne, Eder, and Sorpe dams.

We both agreed about the ingenuity of Barnes Wallis, the skill and courage of Guy Gibson and 617 Squadron, and the extraordinary success of the operation. We perhaps differed a little in the attention we gave to the cost – 40% of the aircrew failed to return, and some 1,300 civilians were killed in the flooding, almost half of them foreign slave-labourers. But this was not the main point of disagreement.

Photograph of the breached Möhne Dam taken by Flying Officer Jerry Fray of No. 542 Squadron from his Spitfire PR IX. Six Barrage balloons are above the dam.


The Dambusters have become a legend, and historians are duty-bound to unpick legends, for they are invariably cultural constructs with hidden purpose.

The purpose can be a noble one. Military legends are sometimes deployed to inspire effort in defence of a good cause. Equally often, they are deployed in the service of a bad one. Legends must be evaluated in relation to the wider cause they serve.

The Dambusters Raid was atypical. It was a precision attack on key installations by hand-picked, highly trained aircrew using a specially designed weapon. The Bomber Command norm was the precise opposite: area bombing of enemy cities on a mass scale using crude air-dropped munitions. The legend is the gloss on a mad, murderous reality.


RAF Bomber Command absorbed up to a third of British military resources. The rate of aircraft production was four or five times that of tank production (the Russians produced approximately equal numbers of each). Bomber Command’s 56,000 wartime casualties represented one-seventh of all British deaths in action by land, air, and sea during the Second World War.

A key question arises: did this represent economy of force, or would scarce resources have been better deployed in other ways?

The issue has been given added piquancy by the recent rehabilitation of Bomber Command implicit in official commemoration. At the end of the war, Air Chief-Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the head of Bomber Command from February 1942 onwards, was snubbed in the distribution of honours and left embittered by the fact that his men were denied a campaign medal.

Only in 1992 was a statue to Bomber Harris erected. Paid for by an RAF veterans’ organisation, it stands outside the RAF Church of St Clement Danes in London. When it was unveiled by the Queen Mother, she was jeered by protestors, one of whom shouted ‘Harris was a war criminal’. The statue had to be guarded for a while because it became a target of iconoclasts.

Statue of Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur Harris outside the central church of the RAF, St. Clement Danes.


Hardly less controversial has been the Bomber Command memorial unveiled in London’s Green Park in 2012. This is dedicated to the aircrew who lost their lives, but some see it as a monument to the destruction of some 600 German cities and the killing of up to 600,000 German civilians in the strategic bombing offensive.

The men of Bomber Command

One thing should be clear. Bomber Command aircrew who lost their lives were victims of war as deserving of remembrance and respect as any others. They did what they were ordered to do and they paid a terrible price. The casualty rate was astronomical.

617 Squadron (Dambusters) at Scampton, Lincolnshire, 22 July 1943.


The Bomber Command norm was area bombing of enemy cities on a mass scale using crude air-dropped munitions.

A standard tour was 30 operations. But standard losses on a raid were one aircraft in 20. So the odds were that you would not survive a tour. At the height of the Bomber Offensive, in the middle of 1944, Harris lost half his entire aircrew in just three months. Overall, of the men who flew Bomber Command operations during the Second World War, two out of three were killed.

Little wonder the stench of human fear filled the cockpits when ground-crew cleaned up after a raid. ‘People were dead scared all the time,’ recalled one veteran. ‘You became a hero just because you stood it.’

The aerial attrition was unlike anything experienced in other Second World War operations. It was comparable with that suffered by British soldiers on the Somme and at Passchendaele during the First World War.

Economy of force?

But whether the Bomber Offensive was (a) militarily effective and (b) morally defensible are completely separate questions. And it is the job of the historian to ask such questions.

Some defend the strategic bombing offensive on the basis that the Second World War was a total war in which the deliberate destruction of German infrastructure, industry, and manpower was necessary to defeat the Nazi regime. No-one celebrates the destruction of cities or the mass killing of civilians. But some do argue that there was no alternative.

I think this argument is false, and for three reasons. First, the resources dedicated to the Bomber Offensive would have been better dedicated to other ways of war – that is, the strategic bombing campaign represented a failure to apply the military principle of economy of force.

Second, despite its massive claim on resources, Bomber Command’s preferred strategy of area bombing failed either to cripple the German war economy or to break German civilian morale.

Third, area bombing turned German civilians (mainly the working-class communities of industrial cities that had never supported the Nazis) into targets and enemies, making it less likely (not, as Harris maintained, more likely) that they would turn on the regime in the way that ordinary Germans had done at the end of the First World War.

Clausewitz and the strategic bomber

The most effective way to win a modern industrialised war is to engage in a battle of attrition with the armed forces of the enemy and to grind them down until they are no longer capable of effective resistance. The truth of this simple Clausewitzian dictum has been proved in practice again and again.

The implication is not that battles must take a form like Passchendaele, Stalingrad, or Normandy: they need not be head-to-head pitched battles between conventional armies. An ‘asymmetrical’ guerrilla insurgency – a way of war that deliberately avoids protracted combat and the attendant risk of heavy casualties – might be equally effective in grinding down a conventional army. What matters is that it is the armed forces of the enemy that are the primary object of military action.

Using military power to destroy German aircraft, tanks, and artillery on the battlefield would have been a far more targeted – and therefore effective – way of destroying German military capacity than area bombing of industrial cities. The Russians proved this. It was the massive losses suffered in the fighting on the Eastern Front between late 1941 and mid 1944 that broke the power of the Wehrmacht.

Lies, damned lies, and Bomber Command statistics

Harris and his staff at Bomber Command’s High Wycombe HQ pored over air-reconnaissance photos of bombed cities. Inflated statistical claims for damage and destruction streamed forth. In Max Hastings’ words: ‘Seldom in the history of warfare have attempts been made to measure victory or defeat by such remarkable mathematical yardsticks as those conceived in the huts and bunkers under the beech trees at High Wycombe… Harris and his staff were guilty of the same error as those earlier generals in Flanders who were so awed by the magnificence of their own barrages…’.

Bomber Command statisticians conjured a mathematical relationship between the areas of devastation visible on photos and loss of German war production. In February 1944 it was being claimed that a million man-years of production had been lost, representing an average return of 20,500 man-hours lost for every ton of bombs dropped. It followed, according to Harris’s statistical witch-doctors, that ‘a Lancaster has only to go to a German city once to wipe off its own capital cost, and the results of all subsequent sorties will be clear profit…’.

The politics of airpower

The fixation with strategic bombing was political. Again, Clausewitz is our guide, with his insistence on the relationship between society, policy, and war.

The interwar period was the great age of airpower prophets. These were leading airmen like the Italian Giulio Douhet, author of The Command of the Air ; Hugh Trenchard, the first commander of the RAF; and Billy Mitchell, the father of the US air force, who proclaimed the supremacy of the new arm in future warfare. Here is Trenchard:

‘It is not… necessary for an air force, in order to defeat an enemy nation, to defeat its armed forces first. Airpower can dispense with that intermediate step, can pass over enemy navies and armies, and penetrate the air defences and attack direct the centres of production, transportation, and communication from which the enemy war effort is maintained…’.

It was the brash confidence, the bragging certainty, of a johnny-come-lately military vested interest: if the airmen could win a future war on their own, why, surely they should have first claim over army and navy on the nation’s resources?

What of the politico-military top brass? What of Churchill, the leader of an embattled island-nation fighting on alone against a Nazi empire straddling Europe? He could ill-afford boggle-eyed hype about the potential of the bomber when resources were so scarce and the dangers mortal.

The evidence is that Churchill was never wholly convinced, but that he had priorities of his own that bound him in a close embrace with the deranged leadership of Bomber Command. After the defeat of France, Britain was under direct attack, yet seemed to lack effective means of hitting back. The Churchill government, moreover, was new and insecure – it was that of a bellicose maverick foisted on the nation in a dark hour of defeat and foreboding. The politics of the moment demanded military retaliation, and the bombers offered Churchill a way to strike at Germany itself.

A USAAF air-photo of bomb-damaged Hanover in October 1943.


Area bombing

That the bomber could win the war singlehanded was a constant refrain. ‘I am certain,’ wrote Harris to Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, in August 1943, ‘that given average weather and concentration on the main job, we can push Germany over by bombing this year…’.

Then to Churchill, in November the same year: ‘We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF [United States of America Air Force] will come in on it. It will cost between 400 and 500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.’

What did change, despite the consistent rhetoric, was the focus of aerial attack. Pre-war claims about the accuracy with which bombers could strike targets evaporated in the darkness of the night once operations were under way. Many bomber crews missed the city they were looking for, never mind specific industrial installations within it. Rival teams of scientists were soon engaged in a techno-war that continued until 1945, on one side devising navigational aids, target markers, and bomb sights to increase accuracy, on the other developing the jammers, decoys, and air-defence systems to protect key targets.

Eventually, as German airpower degraded towards the end of the war, the balance of advantage shifted to the Allies, and precision bombing of ball-bearings factories, synthetic oil plants, and electric power stations showed real promise.

Harris remained obdurate, however. From his High Wycombe bunker he railed against those who would divert him from area bombing. ‘…in the past 18 months,’ he wrote to Portal, ‘Bomber Command has virtually destroyed 45 out of the leading 60 German cities. In spite of invasion diversions [sic] we have so far managed to keep up and even to exceed our average of two and a half cities devastated a month… There are not many industrial centres of population left intact. Are we going to abandon this vast task… just as it nears completion?’

The ugly truth is that the German working class had long been Harris’s primary target. His conviction was that ‘it is the population which is the joint in the German armour’. The 40,000 burnt to death in Hamburg in July 1943, the similar number or more consumed in the destruction of Dresden in February 1945, the total of around two-thirds of a million German civilians in all who were killed in the strategic bombing campaign, these were not ‘collateral damage’; they were the targets. Area bombing could have no other: Bomber Command could hit a city, but it could not hit specific targets within a city, and that meant that mainly what it hit was people’s homes.

Air supremacy

None of the arguments holds up in the bright light of post-war analysis. Nor did they at the time. But the few who spoke out during the war met with a cold reception, and most soon lapsed into silence.

Only towards the very end of the war did collapsing German production lead to serious shortages of fuel, munitions, replacement hardware, and spare parts. But by then the war was being won anyway, and the degradation of German military power on the battlefield was on a far greater scale than that inflicted by the bombers. Indeed, the RAF and USAAF bomber fleets, larger than ever before, and increasingly unimpeded as the Allies established more or less complete air supremacy, were running out of targets.

Why was Dresden attacked so late in the war, in such force, and with such terrible effect? Perhaps simply because the warlords of the air felt impelled to use their thousands of bombers somewhere. Why else did they exist?

What made Dresden possible was that virtually all of the German air defence had been destroyed, with anti-aircraft batteries overrun and home-defence fighters shot down – often by the swarms of Mustangs that now covered Allied bombing raids. Bomber Command losses plummeted in the last year of the war – as a direct consequence, of course, of the advance of the Russian and AngloAmerican armies on the ground and the destruction of German military capacity in attritional warfare.

Balance sheet

Airpower is best used in tactical support of operations on land and sea, not as a strategic force in its own right. The single most sustained attempt to win a major war by airpower alone was the RAF Bomber Offensive of 1940-1945. It was a comprehensive failure.

German war production held up until the end of the war. When it collapsed, this had more to do with loss of German territory than with the effects of aerial bombing. And even at the end, the degradation of German military power was greater on the battlefield than through air-raids. At the same time, the diversion of Allied airpower into strategic bombing was at the expensive of tactical air support for land and sea operations.

There is no credible evidence that the diversion of German military resources into air-defence justified the Allied expenditure on bombers. The evidence is to the contrary: that the cost to the German war economy of the searchlights, AA guns, and home-defence fighters necessary to defend the homeland against air-raids was far less than the corresponding Allied expenditure on strategic bombers.

German morale did not crack. On the contrary, the bombing seems to have fostered a sense of national solidarity, even at times defiance, or at least grim determination; and the main beneficiary was, of course, the Nazi regime.

Ian Kershaw has analysed the extraordinary resilience of the dying regime in the last year of the war in his recent study The End: Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45. The SS terror was a key component of this resilience: most Germans knew the end was coming, desperately wanted to survive, and preferred to keep their heads down until the Allied armies arrived.

In the East, on the other hand, such was the storm of murder, rape, and robbery unleashed as the Red Army broke into German territory that a despairing resistance continued, in the hope, perhaps, that the Russians could be held up until the Americans arrived or the war ended.

What is clear is that the bombing was largely irrelevant. When you attack an entire nation, you drive people together. When you bomb civilians, you foster anger and demands for retaliation. You cannot bomb people into revolution. This was perhaps the most absurd of all the wild claims made by the prophets and practitioners of strategic bombing in the first half of the 20th century.

Further information

The two best books on the Bomber Offensive are Noble Frankland’s The Bombing Offensive against Germany (1965) and Max Hastings’ Bomber Command (1979). The two best Bomber Command memoirs are probably Leonard Cheshire’s Bomber Pilot (1943) and Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead (1946). Giulio Douhet’s The Command of the Air (1921) is the bible of interwar strategic-bombing doctrine.

This article appeared in issue 36 of Military History Monthly.

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