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Robert Shaw and Richard Todd in The Dam Busters. Photo/Supplied

Historian Max Hastings on why the Dambusters raid was a strategic flop

Max Hastings goes once more unto the breach of Nazi Germany’s dams by RAF bombers.

It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. In the early hours of May 17, 1943, a small group of Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers flew at very low altitude to Germany, dropped radical, near fanciful new weapons, dubbed “bouncing bombs”, and breached two large dams in the enemy’s industrial heartland.

This was supposed to critically damage Nazi war production. It didn’t. Instead, what became known as the Dambusters raid joined the Charge of the Light Bridge, Gordon at Khartoum, Isandlwana and Dunkirk to become yet another of that most British of institutions: a war story of pluck and courage ending in heroic failure. And, like the others, too, with the release of 1955’s The Dam Busters, yet more flag-waving fodder in a movie that transformed messy fact into romantic myth.

Failure is perhaps too fierce a dismissal of what was officially designated Operation Chastise. What Max Hastings’ Chastise, a steady, undemanding retelling of this much-retold mission, makes quite plain is that although it was a strategic flop, the fact that the weapon was delivered and worked at all was an amazing success for the boffin who conceived it, Barnes Wallis, and the brave airmen, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who made it through to the dams, but not necessarily home.

Hastings breaks his story into broadly three parts: the conception of the raid and the creation of the bomb, actually a mine, code named Upkeep; the hair-raising training and even more hair-raising attack; and the aftermath for the flyers, Wallis, those living below the dams and Britain and Germany’s war efforts.

As with any new book about World War II, you can’t help but be cynical about the author’s reasons for adding yet more words to the vast oceans that have already been written about the conflict. Hastings, a prolific war chronicler, claims he was “moved to retell” the Chastise story in “the hope of offering a new perspective”, while also “retaining the awe” that, since childhood, he’s had for the fliers. The former motive is satisfied, he believes, by his laying out the tragedy caused by the breached dams, principally of the Möhne, which killed up to 1500 people.

The latter motivation, Hastings’ awe for the airmen, is indulged by his detailed, sometimes Boy’s Own recounting of the derring-do of Gibson’s 617 Squadron, of whom 56 died out of a complement of 133. Unsurprisingly, that well-worn story largely tells itself, as it has done since 1943.

But Chastise is refreshingly clear-eyed about the protagonists. Gibson, for example, is a hero, but also an arrogant bastard to anyone he considers his inferior. Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, who dubbed Chastise before the raid as “tripe of the wildest description” with “not the smallest chance of it working”, is seen, post-raid, shamelessly claiming undue credit. Wallis is the purest hero of the piece, though Hastings dismisses the misconception, promoted by The Dam Busters, that he tirelessly fought against mindless bureaucracy to succeed.

It’s a good yarn, although I’m not sure Chastise offers much new on the improvised operation that was, in retrospect, a costly morale booster rather than a potential war winner. Still, it does bear out one thing I’ve often thought: Britain so often makes better war on the page than it does in the field.

CHASTISE: The Dambusters Story 1943, by Max Hastings (HarperCollins, $39.99)

This article was first published in the November 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.