Confronted by the dead Athenian heroes of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles gave voice in his funeral oration to an idea that explains better than any other why we are so obsessed by our military past. The freedom intrinsic to democracy, he said, made the unconstrained decision of its citizens to risk their lives in war more honourable than the choice forced on the soldiers of a militaristic system such as the Spartans’. ‘The man who can most truly be accounted brave,’ Pericles concluded, ‘is he who knows best the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out determined to meet what is to come.’
This definition of courage as a readiness to enter into mortal danger freely and knowingly makes it easier to understand the extraordinary hold exerted on the national imagination by the Dam Busters. In strategic terms, the raid by 617 Squadron in May 1943 to breach the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams was not especially effective — the dams were rebuilt by the following autumn — and within the general scope of Bomber Command’s delivery of more than one million tons of ordinance on Germany, the 60 tons of explosive dropped by the Dam Busters was nothing. But, measured on the Periclean yardstick of courage, Operation Chastise, the action’s official name, could hardly score higher.
The plan depended on the clear-eyed, well-practised commitment of the bombers’ aircrew to undertake manoeuvres that would maximise their risk of death. In the face of concentrated fire from enemy gun emplacements, the 36-ton Lancaster bombers had to dive steeply into narrow, corkscrewing valleys, level out and fly at exactly 220 mph just 60 feet above the lake’s surface before releasing the spinning dustbin-shaped bombs at precisely 425 yards from the targets. Of the 133 participants, 53 were killed and three more captured.
Of course, the 1954 film ensures the continuing immediacy of the drama. Year after year, new audiences are introduced to the clenched-jaw calm of Richard Todd’s Group Captain Guy Gibson, as he practises flying at tree-top height; they share the anguish of the inventor, Dr Barnes Wallis, portrayed by Michael Redgrave, as prototypes of his bouncing bomb explode prematurely; and they hum the triumphant theme tune composed by Eric Coates as the dams collapse and water cascades into the valleys below.
Undoubtedly part of the appeal lies in the schoolboy nature of Wallis’s invention — every child knows about skipping stones — and his own brilliant, driven and vulnerable personality. But it’s Pericles who accounts for the torrent of memoirs, histories, websites and blogs that have appeared since Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead in 1946, and Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters in 1951, not to mention an attempted remake of the film, scripted by the determinedly unmilitary Stephen Fry, that has been hanging fire since 2009. And to war-battered Britain, the pictures of Germany’s flooded, devastated land, and the story of how it was achieved, lifted morale extraordinarily, not least because it showed that the democratic kind of courage must eventually succeed.
Holland’s book is notable for its detail about the departmental infighting that arose over the diversion of resources. The way that the Navy’s requirement for a bouncing bomb to attack the Tirpitz was used to lever an unenthusiastic RAF into backing Wallis’s conception is genuinely interesting. And the three-month timetable to build, test and practise with the spinning bomb seems barely credible now.
Unfortunately, the courageous heart of the operation is told in a blokeish, cliché-strewn style in which resolve is always steely, administrative officers are ‘desk-wallahs’, and ‘demur’ is thought to mean ‘give way’. Its crudity makes subtle analysis impossible, nowhere more obviously than when Holland tries to disentangle the fascinating character of Guy Gibson himself, a maelstrom of pugnacity, insecurity, narrow-mindedness and commitment that coalesced into heroism.
The enduring popularity of Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, in which Pericles’ words appeared, suggests that the Athenians shared our fascination with a stirring military past. But it is arguable that Athens’ pride in its own achievements, at the expense of its allies, contributed to its subsequent decline. The other message from the funeral oration is that history has to be made as well as celebrated.
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