The Dam Busters raid has entered military folklore. Dr Peter Gray from the University of Birmingham, a former Air Commodore and Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies looks at the myths surrounding the mission.
This week sees the 70th Anniversary of the famous Dam Busters Raid mounted against the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams at the heart of the German industrial complex.
The Dam Busters have their own movie, their own march past, which is even played by British army bands, and just as importantly, have given rise to a host of myths, legends and stories. A Google search for their squadron commander, Wing Commander Guy Gibson will produce as many images of Richard Todd who played Gibson in the movie as it will of the man himself.
The same can be said of Michael Redgrave playing Barnes Wallis. By the time of his death on 19 September 1944, Gibson had been awarded the Victoria Cross, as well as bars to his Distinguished Service Order and his Distinguished Flying Cross.
When the bar to the DSO was first proposed, the staff officers looked doubtfully at the recommendation so soon after the award of the first DSO, but were overruled personally by Bomber Harris.
After Operation CHASTISE, Gibson became a media star, writing Enemy Coast Ahead, appearing on Desert Island Discs as well as accompanying Churchill to America and Canada.
He also won the nomination to become Conservative MP for Macclesfield in March 1944 (but backed out shortly thereafter).
But as with all myths and legends, the hype has a darker side; Gibson was not popular with his groundcrews and was something of a womaniser. There is still debate as to how much of Enemy Coast Ahead he actually wrote himself.
The myths and legends, and certainly debate in academe, extend beyond the charismatic leader. By the time of the Dams raid, Bomber Command had developed into ‘an effective bludgeon’.
The night of 16/17 May 1943, however, showed that there was potential for Harris’s Command to become a rapier. But the success against the dams did not come cheap.
Out of the 19 crews who set out that fateful night, only eleven returned and even of those that made it back five had to do so in badly damaged aircraft. And these were no ordinary crews; they represented the ‘best of the best’ in a very genuine sense.
They were all highly experienced, decorated and outstandingly capable aircrews. The loss rate was huge even by Bomber Command standards and the dilution of experience in the Command was significant.
This then begs the question as to the cost benefit analysis of Operation CHASTISE. This may seem a particularly harsh approach when we all know from the film just how successful the raids were.
But what effect did they actually have on Germany and its war economy?
Figures vary and assessments of impact differ depending on the point of view of the proponents. The raids on the Mohne and Eder were clearly successful, but ironically the Sorpe was the dam most likely to cause significant damage to German industry.
The attacks on the dams have to be seen in the context of the wider Battle of the Ruhr.
This took place over the spring of 1943 at a time when Hitler and his armament master, Albert Speer, aimed to generate a surge in steel production to help boost weapons production.
Among the raids on Cologne, Dusseldorf and Essen, there was considerable damage to the fabric of German society, many thousands were killed and coke, steel and many components’ production lines were disrupted. The Ruhr was raised to the same status as a war zone because of its importance.
The Luftwaffe had to concentrate its resources eventually leading to its defeat and the establishment of air superiority over Normandy. Speer himself admitted that the RAF had identified the right target.
On the opposite side of the fence, the attacks on the dams were a huge propaganda success on the home front. Gibson’s appearances on the newsreels and the visible evidence of hitting back at Germany had a real impact on domestic morale.
In the attritional battle against Germany it was a focus – something that people could talk about and marvel at. This was true abroad as much as it was at home. Many of the crews were from Australia, Canada and New Zealand and the dams raid was a clear measure of the success of the campaign; it helped offset the casualties.
The sage decision by Churchill to take Gibson to America also highlighted that Bomber Command was capable of precision attacks as opposed to just the bludgeoning at area bombing. Equally importantly, the raid had a huge effect on the morale of the aircrews in the face of steady and significant losses.
The morale issue remains as valid today and 617 Squadron and the legacy of the dams raid has become an important part of RAF ethos. The recent [unconfirmed!] reports that the squadron is to be the first to fly the new F35 Joint Strike Fighter are significant.
No other squadron would warrant such headlines. And the potential impact of its disbandment on morale, public opinion and the RAF’s reputation would be unthinkable.