Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Operation Chastise The Dambusters Story 1943
Max Hastings Wm Collins, 5 September 2019
The most iconic Allied bombing mission of WW2 described in detail by the master historian. The book’s strength is Hastings’ vast experience in writing about the Second World War. Indeed it borrows heavily from the research, particularly the aircrew interviews, that the author carried out for one of his first works – Bomber Command. This is especially useful since almost all the aircrew involved in this raid are now dead (with the notable exception of the last survivor resident in Britain - the indomitable and likeable ‘Johnny’ Johnson). However this has echoes of an end-of-career tome: there are no fruits of a team of researchers having burrowed in German or Soviet archives, such as we have come to expect from the likes of Beevor. Indeed the book was completed in the most leisurely of surroundings – one of the world’s best hotels (in the author’s experience) the Datai in Langkawi!
A fruitful source is of course Guy Gibson’s autobiography, Enemy Coast Ahead, and Hastings makes use of its earlier drafts before Government spinners had their evil way. This soon shines a light on the less than heroic aspects of his character, describing Lincoln, for example, as “full of dull, unimaginative people”.
Hastings puts his great grasp of WW2 strategy to good use and the reader benefits from his placing of the Dams raid within the broader context of Harris’ bombing campaign, and indeed the political battles being fought within the Air Ministry and Whitehall. Wallis’ unquenchable faith in his new weapon, and his struggles to receive funding and support, are well documented.
Hastings being Hastings, the reader is never left in any doubt about the author’s opinions. A deft adjective about Mountbatten – “frisky” – is sufficient to infer a negative! He clearly admires Gibson’s intellect and freedom of thought – rare in a junior leader at that time. Hastings also deserves credit for justifiably spreading praise for the raid’s success so widely: from ground crews at Scampton to the Avro and Vickers factory staff. Chastise was the result of the effort of a very large team indeed.
The short timescale of the raid’s planning and execution is well known; Hastings underlines how many senior staff officers in the RAF severely underestimated the amount of training the aircrew would require. When they finally mounted the raid, they would not have been in peak physical or mental condition.
Hastings also makes the reader clear about his views on Bomber Harris: initially he was extremely dismissive, then obstructive about Wallis’ idea. Once he saw that he had been over-ruled (by Portal as CAS), and that the weapon looked as though it had a chance of succeeding, he was quick to claim credit and bask in the reflected limelight. Portal also does not emerge from this tome with distinction. Chastise, if it had less impact on the Ruhr’s war-making capacity in ensuing months than had been hoped for, was very important in convincing the US that Britain could wage war successfully.
There is of course mention of the death and burial of Gibson’s Labrador, Nigger. Yet Hastings does not mention that no remains were found when the supposed grave site was later examined (before relocation).
The difficulty of the flying necessary to drop the bombs in the right place at the three dams is well highlighted. Having flown over 2 of the 3 dams myself (albeit, of course, at a greater height than Gibson’s Lancs!), one can only have the greatest admiration for the skills and courage of those involved. One learns that there was no model of the Eder available beforehand: the pilots had to concoct their own tactical routing on the spot.
Hastings uses a clever ploy to raise the emotional tension whilst describing the mission itself: where possible he inserts the aircrew’s current relationships into the narrative, so one is always aware of who is sitting at home waiting for these heroes-to-be to return.
In the concluding pages Hastings sets out the aftermath, and evokes the reader’s sympathy of the hundreds of German civilians and foreign slave workers who were killed by the deluge. There was a high cost for the RAF – less than a quarter of the aircrew survived the war. This included Gibson himself, who, it would appear, having had a tangled love life beforehand, completely lost his moral compass after the raid.
So, overall, whilst the book contains little fresh research, it does provide a masterful overview and narrative of this fascinating mission, and is a fitting use of the author’s great knowledge about WW2.
Could not help but laugh when Hastings mentioned one pilot, Micky Martin, “hurtling towards the heavily-defended island of Over Flakee [sic]”. There is indeed an island south of Rotterdam by the name of Overflakkee, but why an RAF pilot believed it would be anything other than heavily defended, I have no idea!
One criticism: the work is poorly referenced. Hastings makes many interesting or contentious statements that have no reference at all. At other times the reference may well be to one of his previous works, rather than to his original source material – irritating!