With the sad news over the weekend of the death of The Dam Busters classic film director Michael Anderson, an account of the true events that inspired the film, Dam Busters: 1943 - The Race to Smash the Dams by James Holland, is reviewed by Tony Cross....
The night of 16 May 1943. Nineteen specially adapted Lancaster bombers take off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, each with a huge 9,000lb cylindrical bomb strapped underneath it. Their mission: to destroy three dams deep within the German heartland, which provide the lifeblood to the industries supplying the Third Reich's war machine. From the outset it was an almost impossible task, a suicide mission: to fly low and at night in formation over many miles of enemy-occupied territory at the very limit of the Lancasters' capacity, and drop a new weapon that had never been tried operationally before from a precise height of just sixty feet from the water at some of the most heavily defended targets in Germany. More than that, the entire operation had to be put together in less than ten weeks. When visionary aviation engineer Barnes Wallis's concept of the bouncing bomb was green lighted, he hadn't even drawn up his plans for the weapon that was to smash the dams. What followed was an incredible race against time, which, despite numerous setbacks and against huge odds, became one of the most successful and game-changing bombing raids of all time.
This is an excellent book. It's probably the most comprehensive account of the events before, during and after the raid I've read, although Paul Brickhill's 'Dam Busters' (1951) remains well-worth reading.
What James Holland does well is to pull together all the separate threads: the design and engineering, the strategic and military, the political and administrative and - perhaps most importantly - the personal. He introduces us to the key figures at every level and every so often we're introduced to a new member of 617 Squadron. We get to know a little about a lot of them and a lot about a few of them. We become attached to some of them so that their death or survival matters to us. You also begin to get an idea of the danger these men put themselves through even before they joined 617 Squadron.
Being part of Bomber Command must have been terrifying, but still, these men did it. There's a quote from the book, which is worth putting out here: "...less than half the crews survived their first tour of thirty ops, & only one in five made it through a second twenty." (p278) Each man seems to have dealt with his fears in their own way. I remember reading, in Richard Morris's biography of Leonard Cheshire - Cheshire: The Biography of Leonard Cheshire, V.C., O.M. (2000) - that Cheshire felt there were two types of people when it came to be dealing with fear. There were those who didn't seem to care (and he put himself in that category) and those that were terrified but went on anyway. He thought the latter were the braver men. I don't think I could have done it. And these were young men too. Guy Gibson was only 26 when he died in 1944 for heaven's sake. And Holland does a good job of showing what Gibson was like and the strain he was under.
Eight aircraft and fifty-six crew members were lost in the raid, which has sometimes been portrayed as nothing more than a PR coup with the implication that it wasn't worth it. However, Holland puts the best case I've read that shows the raids success. As he says, 'In no way should the achievement of the extraordinary Dams Raid be belittled.' (509)
I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you want a comprehensive account of the Dam Busters raid, then this is the best place to start. Then go and read Bomber Command (1979) by Max Hastings, Lancaster: The Second World War's Greatest Bomber (2009) by Leo McKinstry, Bomber (1970) by Len Deighton or perhaps most logically Return of the Dam Busters: What 617 Squadron Did Next (2016) by John Nicol.
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Image/synopsis – Amazon.