‘Après Moi, Le Déluge’ [1]: Redressing the Wartime and Postwar Mythologization of Operation Chastise in Britain

‘Germany started a foul war, and we’ve got to show them we can be as foul and a lot more foul.’

Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s blunt reflection on the culmination of Operation ‘Chastise’ – better known as the ‘Dambusters’ raid – perfectly encapsulates its most sparkling achievement: reinvigorating Britain’s fighting spirit as the tide of war began to turn. Undertaken in the tense early hours between 16-17 May 1943, nineteen Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, based at R.A.F. Scampton in Lincolnshire, cracked open the Möhne and Eder dams located within Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley (Ruhrgebiet) in North-Rhine Westphalia. This ‘disaster in the West’, as Adolf Hitler put it, unleashed 336 million tonnes of water from both dams onto the communities below.  Reconstructing the two major reservoirs required the diversion of 20,000 Organization Todt labourers away from building the Atlantic wall – a German coastal defence system closing off occupied Europe from the Allies – and halted the production of electricity within the Waffenschmiede des Reiches (‘armoury of the Reich’) for two weeks.  This constituted a considerable militaristic victory for the weary British, but more importantly shook the Nazi leadership to its core and substantially boosted Britain’s home-front morale.

VICKY PICTURE

Fig 1: ‘Edertalsperre, Zerstörung’: The Eder dam and surrounding areas lie in ruins after being destroyed by 617 Squadron, 17 May 1943 (Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons)

Its protagonists were quickly immortalised in the wartime press and became firmly stitched into the fabric of British mythology. The story of 617 Squadron’s astounding low-flying prowess, combined with Sir Barnes Wallis’ ingenious Upkeep mine (‘bouncing bomb’), proved exceptionally popular when the nation harped back to its wartime identity during the Cold War. An emergence of gripping personal histories recounting the raid – such as Gibson’s posthumous autobiography Enemy Coast Ahead (1946) and Paul Brickhill’s lively narrative account The Dam Busters (1951) – particularly captured the post-war public’s imagination. The Times even described the latter’s work as having ‘endowed a single air raid with a mythological status it has never lost’ in his obituary.  Brickhill’s best-selling account soon inspired Michael Anderson’s cinematic portrayal of the operation in The Dam Busters (1955). Purporting to recount the raid ‘as it happened’, the historical inaccuracies peppered throughout the classic film do not appear to have diminished its continued popularity among the British public.  Its iconic ‘Dambusters March’ has featured in everything from Proms in the Park to the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, and the media hype which surrounds Peter Jackson’s recent pledge to re-make the 1955 film illustrates our country’s enduring fascination with the Dambusters.

The main historiographical debate on the raid revolves around its genuine impact on the Nazi war machine. Intriguingly, its most vocal critics have often been men of airpower. One of the R.A.F.’s official historians, Noble Frankland – a former Navigator with 50 Squadron during the war – described its results as having been ‘neither of ‘fundamental importance nor even seriously damaging’.  His reasoning pointed to the delay in customising the earmarked Lancasters with Wallis’ Upkeep technology; the restriction of the force to twenty bombers; and, most crucially, the disregarding of the Ministry of Economic Warfare (M.E.W.)’s advice to prioritise the Sorpe dam over the Eder.  Wing Commander Tim Webster suggested that wartime propaganda ‘may have led to overstatement of [the raid’s] success’, and the retired U.S. Air Force colonel Doug Dildy deemed the loss of 53 men to have been ‘prohibitively high’.  The nation’s immediate perceptions of the raid, however, are often rooted within the work of military enthusiasts and popular TV historians. Dan Snow has claimed that the failure of ‘Chastise’ to stop German war production indefinitely was its only drawback, whilst James Holland asserted that critiquing the significance of ‘Chastise’ is ‘absolute nonsense of the first order’.

Nevertheless, a lack of academic moderation has arguably elicited several historiographical issues to be addressed. Firstly, ‘Chastise’ historians rarely engage with the arguments of their colleagues. Holland, for instance, simply claimed that there have been ‘only two significant works on the Dams Raid in the past thirty years’ without specifying them.   Secondly, the raid’s cultural history remains barely discussed: from satirical cartoons to humorous adverts, many fascinating post-war sources documenting how the mythology of the raid was established have been underutilized. The raid’s social repercussions are also often forgotten, with historians having overlooked the immense distress of the families of missing or killed Dambusters caused by post-war rumours that the Nazis had murdered them.  Thirdly, the neglection of German historiography has meant the disagreement of certain German historians on how many drowned in the resulting Flutblitz (flash flood) has gone undiscussed: 1,579 according to Ralf Blank, 1,069 (and 225 missing) for Helmuth Euler, and 1,300 dead for Jörg Friedrich.  Rarely do British historians note that the German newspapers which claimed that ‘Jews [were] behind the attacks on the dams’ –another opportunity for Joseph Goebbels to justify ‘taking [the] Jews into custody’ – stemmed from an English newspaper’s false claim that a German-Jewish engineer was behind the raid.

Yet even German historians have critiqued the less palatable aspects of ‘Chastise’ whilst retaining admiration for- as even Friedrich, a highly vocal critic of Allied bombing, has claimed – ‘the most brilliant operation ever executed by an air force’.  So, what has prevented their British counterparts from doing the same thing? My research does not venture too far into the long-standing debate regarding the raid’s militaristic value. The continued national fondness towards the operation is testimony to its success in boosting British morale, whilst the fact that Albert Speer’s post-raid report ‘made a deep impression on the Führer’ illustrates that ‘Chastise’ lived up to its name.  Rather, it aims to determine whether the wartime and post-war mythology of Operation Chastise has hindered the objectivity and research interests of its British historians. Jonathan Falconer, for instance, noted that Brickhill’s narrative history instilled ‘a passion for the exploits of Guy Gibson and his dam busters’ within him and many other boys of his generation.  Yet it appears that focussing solely on its operation minutia has simplified the complex – and often tragic – repercussions of this legendary raid. I wish to ask, as a proud “Bomber County” native myself, whether it is time to set our selective memory straight.

Victoria Taylor

MRes History student, University of Hull.

For any questions or feedback, you can find me on Twitter at @SpitfireFilly or e-mail me at v.e.taylor@2013.hull.ac.uk.

[1] ‘Après Moi, Le Déluge’ (‘After Me, The Flood’) was chosen by King George VI to be 617 Squadron’s official motto after a Royal visit to R.A.F. Scampton on 27 May 1943.

 

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4 thoughts on “‘Après Moi, Le Déluge’ [1]: Redressing the Wartime and Postwar Mythologization of Operation Chastise in Britain

  1. Ross says:

    Victoria,

    An interesting post and good luck with the research. As I noted on Twitter, you should talk 617 Squadron’s Official Historian, Rob Owen, who recently finished his PhD on what the unit did after the raid.

    What follows are a few rambling thoughts for you to ponder. First, Gibson’s quote is interesting but to me, there are two issues. First, it needs to be placed into its wartime context and, second, given this, how does it compare to similar opinions at the time? Specifically, here I am thinking of Harris’ comment about ‘British Grenadiers.’ As such, how does the development of the mythology fit in the emotions and memory of the time?

    Concerning Brickhill. There has recently been published a biography of Brickhill that might be a useful source to read. Similarly, you should have a read of Frankland’s autobiography, which provides useful context to the writing of the official history and the issues he faced. Also, to support this, there is an excellent chapter by Seb Cox on writing the official history of the strategic air offensive against Germany and the associated debate over this publication. Much of this will provide some useful context.

    Your comments on the views of Snow and Holland are interesting, and I wonder whether it is helpful to consider how this special operation – that is what it was after all – compares to other ‘spec ops.’ Here I am thinking about operations by commandoes etc., which have received near mythological status amongst popular historians and the public; however, much like CHASTISE, there are valid criticisms to be made about what they actually delivered to the war effort. Nevertheless, the mythology of these operations remains because of concepts such as courage and honour that tend to be linked to this style of warfare.

    On popular versus academic perceptions, I think the point to be made is perhaps how does the work of these popular historians compare to what is probably the only academic account of the raid – Sweetman. You can add Owen’s PhD here even though his focus is not strictly the raid but the Squadron’s role afterwards. Similarly, how do these works, which clearly fit a myopic and nationalistic need for heroes, compare to scholarly treatments of strategic bombing generally? Here consider the important work by Pete Gray, Richard Overy, Phil O’Brien and Tami Biddle as well as the German official history.

    Finally, one angle that has always interested me in the mythology of the Dams raid is the role the RAF has played in the process. In particular, as a squadron, 617 should never have survived the downsizing of the RAF in the post-Second World War period. However, it has avoided the policy particulars linked to squadron seniority in the RAF, and except for a couple of periods of temporary disbandment’s, it continues to exist. Indeed, a running joke is that if the RAF ever gets to two squadrons, one will be 617. There is clearly an issue of mythology and identity going on here.

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  2. larryzb says:

    Britain committed many war crimes against German civilians in its terror bombing campaign. But, we do not see many objective analyses of that by Anglo-American historians.

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  3. larryzb says:

    A C Grayling addressed the Allied terror bombing campaign against civilians in his Among The Dead Cities (published some years back). Worth checking out. The Allies were guilty of war crimes and there can be no sugar coating or downplaying of these.

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    • Victoria Taylor says:

      Dear Larryzb,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read this piece & leave a comment – it’s very much appreciated, and you’ve touched on an interesting point!

      Having done my BA dissertation on the legality of the bombing Dresden, I am very familiar with the Grayling book you’ve mentioned & concur that it is worth checking out – its unique historical & philosophical blend and willingness to tackle the more dubious aspects of Allied bombing policy during the war is very admirable. I do agree with you that certain Allied raids were excessive even in time of war, though naturally driven by what had preceded them.

      What I would say, however, is that Grayling’s morality arguments regarding the carpet bombing of German cities such as Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin etc. are not quite so relevant when discussing a precision raid like ‘Chastise’. Whilst British historians have sometimes underplayed its protagonists’ recognition that the ensuing flood partially targeted civilian morale, it has to be said that the Dams raid was, first & foremost, an attack on industrial and military targets in a rural region, and thus strongly justified.

      I absolutely agree with you that Allied historians should demonstrate objectivity regarding the historical stains against their reputation, but I would very much like to make clear that “Chastise” was perfectly legitimate – particularly when it followed Joseph Goebbels’ call for ‘Total War’, made only several months prior to the raid!

      Thank you again Larry for having taken the time to read this post & also for the scholarly recommendation. Best wishes!

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