Book Review: “Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid Against Nazi Germany,” by Ted Barris
Published by Harper Collins, 434 pp., $34.95
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
A few days before Christmas of 1941, with the United States still reeling from the shock of the Admiral Yamamoto’s attack just two weeks earlier, President Franklin Roosevelt informed the Joint Chiefs of Staff of his desire to see the Japanese mainland bombed as soon as such an action would be feasible. Roosevelt’s wish was fulfilled a few months later when, on a Saturday afternoon in mid-April, a force of heavily modified B 25 bombers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J.H. “Jimmy” Doolittle suddenly and unexpectedly appeared in the skies over Tokyo. Of the 80 U.S airmen who participated in this seemingly suicidal mission, miraculously all but a handful lived to tell the tale, and Doolittle himself earned the Medal of Honor for his leadership.
The impact of the Doolittle Raid, as it would become known in popular lore, was largely psychological, in that it provided a huge boost to the Americans’ morale and galvanized their will to fight back and seek vengeance for the humiliation of Pearl Harbor. From a military point of view, however, apart from catching the Japanese by complete surprise, the raid itself accomplished little of any real significance. A handful of civilians perished, and the damage to infrastructure was negligible. Viewed from that perspective, the Doolittle Raid was a rather tepid harbinger of the far more devastating bombing raids that would later begin in the summer of 1944, and carry on until the Japanese capitulation.
It was not until a year after the Doolittle Raid, at a time when the tide of war was slowly beginning to turn in the Allies’ favour, that the Royal Air Force would mount an operation that would be equally bold, but which would inflict far greater damage on the enemy. This was Operation Chastise, whose overall purpose was to deal a knockout blow to German war production in the industrial Ruhr Valley. The RAF top brass correctly surmised that by taking out the Ruhr Valley’s hydroelectric dams, the resultant loss of electricity and massive flooding would cause crippling damage to the many armaments factories located in the region. The story of this extraordinary mission and the men behind it is recounted in spellbinding detail in a new book by veteran journalist and author Ted Barris.
It was clear from the outset that Operation Chastise would be a difficult and extremely dangerous undertaking. For one thing, the Ruhr Valley was heavily defended, and attacking the dams would require bomber crews to fly straight into a seemingly impregnable phalanx of searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, and night fighters. Compounding the problem was the need to find some way of delivering a massive explosive charge to a point where it would be likely to cause the dams to rupture. The solution to this latter dilemma was provided by Barnes Wallis, a British scientist and inventor who had previously made a name for himself designing the R 100 dirigible. Wallis came up with an ingenious solution in the form of a 9,000 pound cylindrical bomb designed to bounce when dropped at high speed on the reservoir surface, before descending close to the dam itself, and detonating like an enormous depth charge.
Next order of business was to muster the bomber crews that would be charged with taking the fight to the enemy. Tapped to lead the endeavor was Guy Gibson, who at just 25 years of age was a Wing Commander with nearly 175 combat missions under his belt and two DSO’s to his credit. Immediately after Gibson was given his orders in mid-March 1943, he set to work assembling the hand-picked crews of experienced airmen who would take part in the mission. Over the next two months, the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, flight engineers, wireless operators, and air gunners of what would become RAF 617 Squadron trained relentlessly, under a cloak of total secrecy, in preparation for the epic adventure that was to take place on the night of May 16, 1943.
Apart from the sheer audacity of the objectives it was intended to accomplish, Operation Chastise was a mission that demanded a remarkable level of flying skill. For one thing, in order to be able to deliver the bombs in such a way that they would bounce properly before sinking to the right depth close to the dams, it was determined that the bombers would need to fly a mere 60 feet above the surface of the reservoirs. It was also decided that on the three-hour trip required to reach the targets, the bombers would fly at treetop levels. This was done mainly in order to give the attacking force a better chance of evading German air defences, which had been designed to combat bombers typically flying at much higher altitudes. While this gave the crews of 617 Squadron a certain element of surprise, it also meant that their navigators had to rely almost exclusively on dead-reckoning, an extremely challenging task in a 20-ton aircraft hurtling along through the darkness at 250 miles per hour.
Opening night eventually came, powerful Merlin engines roared to life ,and soon thereafter nineteen Lancasters carrying a total of 133 airmen departed in three waves for Germany Their targets were the Möhne, Sorpe, and Eder Dams, all located in the heart of the Ruhr Valley. Almost immediately, problems began to arise, and lives began to be lost. One aircraft was spotted by German anti-aircraft gunners who opened fire. The Lancaster managed to remain aloft, but with its communications system destroyed, it was forced to abandon the mission and turn back, to base.
Other crews weren’t so lucky. Vernon Byers and his men came under enemy fire just as they cleared Texel Island in the North Sea. Their aircraft exploded and plunged into the depths, sending up a huge plume of water, and making them the first of the more than 50 members of the squadron who would eventually die before the raid was over.
Notwithstanding the misfortunes that befell some of their comrades, the gallant warriors of the 617th pressed on, resolute in their determination to accomplish the mission they had been entrusted with. Shortly after midnight, Guy Gibson and his crew arrived over their target, the Möhne dam, and delivered the coup de grâce. The Eder dam proved to be a more difficult target to locate, but a couple of hours later, Dave Shannon and his crew dropped their bomb with a similar effect. The attackers had less success with their third target, the Sorpe dam. Due to its different design, and the fact that a bomb failed to spin as it was intended to, comparatively minor damage was sustained.
Even though only two of the intended three targets were successfully breached, the resultant flooding was torrential, and the accompanying damage and loss of life was massive. The breaching of the dams unleashed a tidal wave that immediately knocked out power to the Ruhr Valley and blazed a trail of destruction that extended for the better part of 40 miles. Over 50 German factories were either completely destroyed or seriously damaged, and another 33 suffered lesser damage. Some 1,300 people perished in the flooding; sadly, the casualties included significant numbers of POWs and civilians who had been brought to Germany as forced labourers.
The men of 617 Squadron paid a heavy price for their efforts. Fifty-three of their number lost their lives in the mission; three more were taken prisoner by the Nazis. However, those who did make it back to base safely were deservingly feted as national heroes by the British. For his leadership on the mission, Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross, and 34 other members of the squadron received lesser decorations. Caught up in the euphoria surrounding the success of the raid, and British government and media were quick to turn the survivors into celebrities. The Dambusters would later learn that their heroics would continue to be remembered long after the war’s end; in 1955, their exploits would be chronicled in a classic film of the same name starring actor Richard Todd, who himself had served as an officer in the Parachute Battalion and had been one of the first British soldiers to land in Normandy during Operation Overlord.
The Germans, for their part, scrambled to contain the damage caused by the raid. They also rushed to condemn the raid as an “act of British aerial terror”, but at the same time to downplay the significance of its impact on the overall war effort. In the aftermath of the flooding Albert Speer, Hitler’s wartime production czar, was put in charge of a massive reconstruction effort. Thousands of workers were diverted from building coastal fortifications to help clean up the damage and repair the dams. As a result, by early October, both the Möhne and Eder dams were newly rebuilt – and this even more heavily defended than ever before – and Speer was crowing about the “exemplary efforts” of the workers, many of who in reality had been forced labourers driven mercilessly by their masters during punishing eleven-hour shifts.
Now viewed 75 years in retrospect, it is debatable how much of an influence Operation Chastise had on the subsequent course of the war. Notwithstanding the extensive material damage and loss of life caused by the collapse of the two dams, it paled in comparison with the mauling the Germans had just endured at Stalingrad, or with the widespread devastation and 25,000 fatalities caused by the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945. Still, there’s no denying that the Damsbusters’ achievements gave a much needed boost to the morale of a war-weary British public, and their derring-do served as an impressive and compelling testimonial to the bravery and flying skill of the Commonwealth’s airmen, many of who had been trained in Canada.
In typical Ted Barris style, Dam Busters is a book that manages to be easy to read, but at the same time meticulously researched, and an utterly compelling page-turner. It’s a must-read for any Ex-Cadet with an interest in the remarkable mission that was Operation Chastise.