Daniel Swift

The Dambusters raid was great theatre — but almost entirely pointless

One of the two dams breached wasn’t even connected to the Ruhr network, and the operation was too small-scale to have any significant effect

The great bomber pilot Guy Gibson had a black labrador with a racist name. This shouldn’t matter, except Gibson loved the dog, and its name was used as a codeword during the bombing raid which made Gibson famous, upon the Mohne and Eder dams in Germany in May 1943. The 1955 movie The Dam Busters retells the story of the raid in thrilling melodrama, and inevitably includes repeated mentions of the troubling name. Nowadays, when the film is broadcast, it either features a warning about offensive language or is shown in an edited version, with the dog’s name changed to ‘Trigger’.

The raid on the German dams is an old and much loved military episode. In it, a crack team of exhausted airmen are assembled for an almost suicidal operation, using the unlikely technology of bombs which bounce on water, breaching the dams and flooding the Ruhr, which was the heart of German industry. In his new book about the raid and its aftermath, the military historian Max Hastings describes it in slightly Boy’s Own terms:

The bombers attacked Hitler’s dams, flying straight and level at 220 mph, much lower than the treetops and less than a cricket pitch’s length from the lakes below, to unleash revolutionary four-and-a-half ton weapons created by the brilliance and perseverance of Barnes Wallis, a largely self-taught engineer.

That cricket pitch is a nice touch. Who could resist this story?

It is also, of course, a myth. This is not to say that it didn’t happen, but rather that some details have been romanticised and  some, such as the dog’s name, simply left out. With Chastise — which was also the slightly prissy codename for the operation — Hastings wishes to give a full and rounded reckoning. Despite its occasional purple flourishes (and, again, who could resist?), the story he tells is a remarkably unsentimental and often technical one.

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