The Real Story of the Royal Air Force’s World War II ‘Dambusters’ Raid
The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II
By Max Hastings
“Operation Chastise,” about the so-called Dambusters raid, carries the subtitle “The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II.” In terms of sheer daring, and in terms of the inventive power that went into the famous bouncing bombs, this cannot be denied. Yet the tale told by Max Hastings, a renowned military historian and journalist, is more complex and less celebratory than the book’s cover implies. His account of the events of May 16-17, 1943, will keep you on the edge of your seat, but his analysis of their causes and consequences is equally deserving of attention.
As early as 1938, British planners had determined that Germany’s reservoirs and dams were a potential weak spot in the Nazi war machine. But it took the inventor Barnes Wallis — vegetarian, Christian and campanologist — to devise the weapon that could exploit this vulnerability. He faced the skepticism of Sir Arthur Harris, commander in chief of Bomber Command, who believed that large-scale bombing could end the war by destroying civilian morale, and who therefore had little interest in precision targeting.
However, Hastings turns the conventional wisdom — that Wallis faced a lonely battle against uncomprehending officialdom — on its head. What is remarkable, he suggests, is that in the midst of the maelstrom of war and in the face of limited resources, both Whitehall and the military seized upon an unproven idea and quickly tried to put it into effect. Why? Because Wallis, just like Harris, was overpromising. He argued that the destruction of Germany’s natural resources offered “a means of rendering the enemy utterly incapable of continuing to prosecute the war.” It didn’t turn out quite like this in practice, of course, and in fact a better choice of targets might have created a longer-lasting impact on German industry.
Having concluded that May 26 was the last date in 1943 on which the selected dams could be attacked, the British faced a race against time to perfect the technology, produce specially modified bombers and ready the aircrews. It was all a huge extravagance and essentially a gamble, a piece of military theater, Hastings suggests, rather than serious strategy. Even if it worked, it could be done only once because after the Germans had become aware of the threat, they could easily devise countermeasures.