Chastise - The Dambusters Story 1943

Chastise - The Dambusters Story 1943

Max Hastings
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Max Hastings turns his talents to Operation Chastise, Wallis and Gibson. Love him or loathe him Hastings seems to cut through the legends created by depth of time and using resources comes up with a narrative that is likely very close to the truth, destroys the mythology, and at times can be an unsettling destruction of perceived facts.

He starts by laying the strategic position in late 1942; while it had improved for Britain and the first victories over the German Army in North Africa had taken place, in the grander scheme of things it was a drop in the ocean of the millions involved in the world wide conflict. The British Army was still chaffing against a string of defeats that had gone from 1940 to 42. The RAF from its victory in the Battle of Britain had bogged itself down in a war of attrition over the Ruhr and Germany's cities. The Royal Navy had maintained British pride with the sinking of the Bismarck and the continued war against the U-boats and had more or less secured the Atlantic bridge. Against all this was the reality that it was the Russian mincing machine on the Eastern Front that was going to result in the defeat of Germany with fronts consisting of millions of men and battles with casualties in their hundreds of thousands.

Sir Arthur Harris is introduced as Commander in Chief Bomber Command; surly, argumentative and single minded; Hastings shows the many flaws in his character which came together with the ephemeral quality of 'grip' with which he managed to turn Bomber Command into a major weapon of war capable of sowing great destruction on the enemy. However, his single mindedness precluded him from co-operation with other arms and even branches of his own service; he could see little beyond the concept of area bombing and was openly hostile to the Upkeep bomb and Operation Chastise.

While the famous film of which most of us are aware shows Wallis as a voice in the wilderness crying about the strategic importance of the Ruhr valley dams, the RAF had long identified those water and hydro-electric supplies as valuable targets; however, it was realised that a means of attacking them was absent.

Wallis is introduced as an engineer who had already had brushes with fame. He was the designer of the R100 airship; a pioneer of colour coded electrical wiring, and the geodesic design of the Wellington bomber. With his Christianity, willingness to put himself out for others and to do unpaid research Hasting labels him and his family as 'good people; Barnes inability to grasp the death and destruction his plans would wrought on civilians and forced workers with the success of Chastise shows the naivety with which he faced warfare. Especially his belief that Upkeep and the later Tallboy and Grand Slam would wreak such economic damage that Germany would be forced to sue for peace. That naivety was also shared by those who should have known better in the RAF - except Harris of course, whose naivety was about area bombing. What is amazing is that much of his work on Upkeep was done in his spare time as his employment with Vickers cantered round the Warwick and Windsor aircraft.

Guy Gibson; young, handsome, heroic, leader of men. Well… leader of his own class of men. Hastings identifies that he was the upper-class man of his time, and looked down upon NCOs erks and non-flying staff. Awkward outside his own company he mistook leadership for brashness, bullying and coercion through rank. However, there is no doubt that Gibson used those qualities, a no-nonsense manner and his own flying skills to train and wield the newly formed 617 Squadron into the well trained and skillful unit he wanted in a comparatively short time. As a dog owner I wholly understand his affection for his dog ‘n***er’ and the no doubt devastation he felt at the loss. I want to warm to the man at that point; however, his bad handling of the burial alienates me and I feel I have lost a ‘boys own’ hero over the matter. However, I have no doubt that for his time, he was the right man with the right qualities at the right time.

Hastings covers in depth the technical and training matters and the flights that were made in preparation for the raid. Low level flying by day; by day with night goggles on; by night. He introduces the crews, ‘Dinghy’ Young, Hopgood, Maundsley, McCarthy. Also many personalities not mentioned in ‘The Dam Busters’ as there are too many for a two-hour film to introduce. We are introduced to their way of life; some racy, others quiet, wives of varying periods of time – often short.

The raid itself with the season, weather and moon phase are all covered. The tactics are discussed and various flaws are brought out; it was not a perfect plan especially the timings. There was a Lancaster still over Holland as dawn was breaking on 17 May. Hastings tells this story well, and I especially felt the tension of the take offs. The actions over the Mohne, Sorpe and Eider are well told; the Mohne Dam was defended and the flak crews view of the raid is covered. From their point of view, they did a credible job scoring hits on some of the Lancasters and a shoot down. The bravery of the Chastise crews who did multiple approaches to ensure that they gave their bombs the best chance to do their damage is scarcely believable. While the Sorpe and Eider were undefended, there was always the possibility of German night fighters intercepting the bombers. What is incredible was that no night fighters were scrambled that night. Eyewitness accounts of local civilians is also covered.

The ‘MohneKatastrophe’, the immediate aftermath of the breach of the Mohne dam is easily ignored but is neccesarily and deservedly covered. Air raid shelters that became traps; civilian houses and their occupants washed away; forced labour camps demolished and the occupants drowned; crops and livestock destroyed. Here and there glimpses of bravery and gallantry that war, and post war, propaganda would not allow to be shown. For the victors the spoils, and the sense of jubilation at surviving, completing the task given and the award of decorations for what may be considered the RAF’s first pin-point mission. The arch pessimist Harris reflects in the glory his crews brings. Hastings lambastes the allied air force leaders for not carrying out conventional bombing raids against the repairs. I tend to agree; there may be experts out there who disagree. What follows is the fate of the main protagonists of the story; Gibson, as most of us know, dying in a Mosquito crash after a master bomber sortie, of which Chastise was the precursor, in mysterious circumstances.

Hastings places the story within the great drama of World War two; lauds it as the great feat of arms it was, but denigrates the lack of follow up by those who should have had the vision. He also points out that the civilian leadership, Churchill, did not do enough to direct his hounds.

The book has three sets of monochrome photographs and three appendixes, covering the crews and their fates that night, land mark dates and a chronology of the raid. For the studious of you there are notes, references and an index. The endpapers are Gibson’s flight log covering 7 to 16 May.

A good story, well told within its place of a huge story where the technical aspects enhance the human stories within. Five Mr Mushroomheads from me.

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