“Operation Chastise: The RAF’s most brilliant attack of World War II, by Max Hastings, Harper Collins, NY, 2020. This 364-page hard back tells the story behind the bombing of dams in Germany as told in the 1955 movie, “Dam Busters.” The event, May 17, 1943, came about when Britain had little good news from the war other than Dunkirk. Other successes like penicillin, microwave radar, and cracking Germany’s enigma code were not public. Hence, Brits regard Dam Busters as their favorite war movie.
The author interviewed many participants and provides biographical sketches of all players. Most important is Barnes Wallace, the technical genius who envisioned a heavy bomb skipping across the water like a stone to sink, explode and destroy a dam. He spent years convincing authorities to invest in his scheme. That required testing in scale models and modification of Lancaster bombers to carry the huge 6600 lb cylindrical bomb. That included a mechanism to spin the bomb backwards to make it skip. And they developed the optimum height 60 ft, speed 180 mph, and rotation speed 500 rpm. German night fighter planes were death to Lancaster bombers. To avoid them, the routes taken were varied; they flew in moonlight at 100 ft, below German radar. Two planes flew into high tension power lines.
Second most important is Guy Gibson, leader of the 617 Squadron. He was in charge of crew selection and training. Nineteen Lancasters participated in the raid each with a crew of seven. Eight planes were lost, a heavy loss rate even for the war.
Seven dams in Germany were identified as targets. They provided power and water to Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr river valley. The Mohne masonry dam was the main target. The Sorpe dam was also attacked but its earthen structure made it more difficult. The Eder dam was also destroyed. Multiple planes attacked the Mohne until it gave way. Reserve planes were then directed at the other dams.
The author also interviewed Germans who were there. Most devastating was the rush of water from the Mohne dam. Germans went to underground shelters as the planes approached, but many drowned there. In addition, Germany imported slave laborers to work in its factories. Young women from France, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine were killed, many unable to escape their locked quarters. The chapter describing the damage reminds one of a modern day Johnstown Flood.
Although the dam attack was good PR, its impact on German war production was less than anticipated. Germans were able to make repairs and continue production. The Mohne dam was repaired over about 18 months. Scaffolding used for the repair could easily have been attacked with conventional bombs, but authorities decided it was not a worthy target.
Hastings delves into discussion of whether war time bombing of civilians and cities should be considered a war crime. And whether anyone expected bombing could cause surrender without invasion and occupation of German territory. (Of course the atomic bombs did result in surrender in Japan.)
This is a thorough telling of the story. The author includes much detail. An appendix lists the crew members and their position in each plane. Time tables are provided for the development of the bombs and for the attack. References. Maps. Photos. Index.