THE daring Dambusters raids on Nazi Germany were met with jubilation by Allied forces during World War Two.
Flying at just 60ft above water, under enemy fire and with only the moon to light their perilous way, the bravery of the 19 Lancaster bomber crews has never been matched in the history of air warfare.
He tells how poor planning led to the unnecessary deaths of two crews dispatched in a “third wave” of Lancasters — which failed to destroy a third target, the Sorpe dam.
And more than 1,400 civilians were killed by the flooding from the destroyed Möhne and Eder dams — including children and at least 800 women, many who were among 1,000 prisoners and forced labourers.
The bravery of the 133 RAF aircrew — including 53 who perished — was turned into the 1955 movie The Dam Busters, starring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave.
The young men on each Lancaster had just one shot at hitting each of the three dams with the revolutionary bouncing bombs.
‘GENERATED A CATASTROPHE’
It would require immense skill, judgment and good fortune for the top secret mission — code-named Operation Chastise — to succeed.
The bomb’s inventor, Barnes Wallis, had made grand claims for the mission, telling the top brass it could bring the war to a halt.
However, Hastings reveals in his new book Chastise that in reality the 30ft waves that dispersed 50 miles from the Möhne reservoir did not wreck Nazi factories as the Chief of the Air Staff Charles Portal had hoped.
The 73-year-old author concludes: “The bomber offensive generated a catastrophe but failed to inflict the crippling blow upon the Nazi industrial machine, the ‘disaster of the first magnitude’, that Portal and Barnes Wallis had sought and promised.”
The version of events recounted in the book, which goes on sale next month, is certainly very different from the 1955 movie. Redgrave portrayed Wallis in The Dam Busters as a boffin stifled by bureaucrats.
In fact he had huge resources placed at his disposal by a cash-strapped military once he had demonstrated the science behind his bouncing bomb.
vertshoecare.com was assembled before the bomb — code-named Upkeep — had been properly tested. Fifteen days before the planned raid they were still not hitting dummy targets.
Wallis calculated pilots would need to make their final run at a slower speed of 232mph and just 60ft above the water. No one had dared attempt such a low level before, but wing commander Guy Gibson, 24, was not averse to dangerous manoeuvres.
He told 617 Squadron: “If I tell you to fly through a hangar, then you will have to go through that hangar even though your wing tips might hit either side.”
Gibson finally made the bomb bounce in a dummy run. At 8.30pm on May 16 he announced it was “time to go”.
If I tell you to fly through a hangar, then you will have to go through even though your wing tips might hit either side
Wing Commander Guy Gibson
Facing enemy fire, he was the first to take a run at the Möhne dam at 0028 — but the bomb was dispatched too early and missed. It was to be 23-year-old David Maltby who proved Wallis’ invention worked by breaching the dam wall.
The remaining bombers now had to attack the Eder dam. Commander Joe McCarthy hit the target but the bomb didn’t do enough damage. The third assault was just as ineffective and two crews were shot down.
Hastings writes that it was “a serious mistake, which cost lives, to schedule the Reserve Wave’s take-offs so late, so that they encountered thoroughly awakened German defences and also, within a few hours, the beginnings of daylight.”
It would take 18 weeks to seal up the Möhne dam, at a cost of £6billion in modern money.
Water shortages affected “shaft mines, coking plants, smelting works, power stations and armament factories” and there was a fall in coal production.
But the Ministry of Economic Warfare in London reported that “the Möhne damage did not touch the main industrial centres”.
The misery fell on civilians. Hastings, who has been fascinated by the mission since he was a boy and interviewed the main players in 1977, writes: “That night 617 Squadron killed by inundation around 1,400 to 1,500 civilians, more than had any earlier RAF raid on Nazi Germany.
A parish priest described how his church, which stood above the flood, was designated as a mortuary.
‘It soon held some 200 bodies: Men, women and children, from infant to greybeard, were laid out . . . some with clen-ched hands and faces distorted with fear’.”
Among the dead were around 800 female slaves brought in from Poland, Ukraine and the Soviet Union. Hastings points out that under the 1977 Geneva Convention such an assault on civilians could be considered a war crime.
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But the historian does not think the military planners should be judged by 21st century morals. In his memoirs, Gibson wrote the raids had a “legitimate industrial objective”.
He added: “The fact that people were in the way was incidental. The fact that they might drown had not occurred to us. Nobody likes mass slaughter, and we did not like being the authors of it.”
- Chastise: The Dambusters Story, by Max Hastings, published by HarperCollins, is out now, £25.
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