‘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.
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.
MRes History student, University of Hull.
For any questions or feedback, you can find me on Twitter at @SpitfireFilly or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 ‘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.