The triumph, and horror, of the Royal Air Force’s 1943 ‘Dambusters Raid’

Sebastian H Lukasik

THE WASHINGTON POST – On the night of May 16, 1943, 19 Avro Lancaster bombers of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) No 617 Squadron executed one of the most daring air operations of World War II. Flying at treetop level to escape detection and interception by German air defences, they headed toward the Ruhr Valley to target several dams whose hydroelectric output, British analysts believed, was essential in powering Hitler’s industrial complex. Each of the massive, four-engine airplanes carried a single bomb: a large, cylindrical weapon that had been designed and produced specifically for this mission.

By the time the raiders reached the target area, their total number was smaller, because of accident, enemy action or mechanical malfunction. It didn’t matter. The survivors, taking turns approaching the targets at the near-suicidally low altitude required for their novelty bombs to work, released their payloads. Though some bombs missed, enough of the deadly cylinders fulfilled their designer’s expectations. Skipping across the surface of the dam reservoirs, they sank to the bottom of the concrete structures before exploding with a force that, when combined with the pressure of millions of cubic feet of water, generated catastrophic breaches in the Möhne and Eder dams. At the cost of eight bombers and 53 crew members killed – three others were taken prisoner – British aviators struck an apparently spectacular blow against Germany’s industrial heartland, laying the foundations for what remains a legendary episode in Britain’s national memory of war.

In Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II, Max Hastings examines the intersection between the legend of what is known as the Dambusters Raid and the sombre historical realities that underpin it. For decades, accounts of the mission dwelled on two points: the technical ingenuity that made Operation Chastise possible, and the courage of the RAF aircrew – mostly young men barely out of their teens – who carried it out. To be sure, Hastings does justice to both. His account of the development of Upkeep, the cylindrical depth charge conceived to destroy targets such as heavily defended battleships and dams that no existing weapons could successfully engage, is a fascinating study in technological ingenuity and improvisation. Similarly, Hastings’ description of the terrifying realities of war in the skies over Europe stands as a testament to the quiet heroism and remarkable airmanship of ordinary RAF bomber crew.

As one who came of age in postwar Britain, Hastings grew up admiring the heroic narrative that depicted Chastise as a triumph of British engineering coupled with British pluck, a sentiment that the passage of years has not substantially reduced. Yet, while professing to “retain the awe of my childhood for the fliers who breached” the dams, he also argued that “in the 21st Century it also seems essential to confront – as many past British writers have been reluctant to confront – the enormity of the horror that the unthinking fliers unleashed upon a host of innocents”.

Accordingly, he depicts the Möhnekatastrophe, the cataclysmic flood that swept through the Ruhr Valley after the attacks, as an integral part of the Chastise story. Anywhere from around 1,300 to nearly 1,600 civilians were estimated to have perished in the disaster, according to Hastings. In a tragic paradox, the majority of those who lost their lives “were not Hitler’s followers, nor even his citizens, but instead his slaves” – many were young Eastern European women who had been abducted from their home countries to perform forced labour in support of the German war effort.

At least as tragic, Hastings argued, was that the brilliance of Barnes Wallis, the self-taught engineer who designed Upkeep, and the courage and skill of No 617 Squadron and its heroic but flawed leader, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, ultimately availed little. In a departure from established interpretations, Hastings posits that the destruction of the dams did, in fact, have the potential seriously to disrupt German war production had it been exploited by conventional air attacks designed to complicate efforts to repair the structures. Such follow-up attacks never took place, however. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, the officer who led RAF Bomber Command, agreed to Chastise only grudgingly, believing it represented a distraction from what he thought was the best method of bringing the Third Reich to its knees: area bombing of German cities. In consequence, he saw little reason to divert precious aircraft and aircrew to attack what he saw as “panacea” targets. This did not prevent him from publicly claiming credit for Chastise, though he privately scorned it, writing in one letter to British command, “I have seen nothing…to show that the effort was worthwhile, except as a spectacular.”

Operation Chastise is a remarkable book, well in keeping with the impressive track record that Hastings long ago established as an astute chronicler of the human dimension of 20th-Century conflict.

Combining formidable narrative power with equally potent explanatory insight, it situates the Dambusters Raid in the broader strategic context of World War II as a whole, while serving as an illuminating entry point into the ethical debates concerning the Allies’ air war against Germany. Insofar as Hastings passes judgement, he directs it at senior commanders and decision-makers. For those who paid the price for their decisions and policies – RAF airmen and the civilian victims of the operation – he has only admiration and compassion.