Finest Hour 189, Third Quarter 2020
Review by Mark Klobas
Max Hastings, Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II, Harper, 2020, 400 pages, $35 ISBN 978–006295363X
Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale College.
Max Hastings’ newest book, a history of the British effort to destroy three dams in the Ruhr Valley in May 1943—codenamed Chastise—allows him to draw upon the interviews he conducted for his 1979 classic Bomber Command. Building on new archival labors and recently published studies, Hastings provides a more detailed examination of the attack than in his previous book.
The basic facts are familiar to viewers of the 1955 film The Dam Busters, which dramatized the attack on the Möhne, Sorpe, and Eder dams. Breaching these three structures, it was argued, would cause enormous devastation in a region important to Germany industry. At the time, however, the airborne munitions capable of destroying the dams did not exist. Enter Barnes Wallis, a brilliant engineer employed by Vickers, who created a weapon called Upkeep, designed to explode in the reservoirs just behind the dams and collapse them under hydrostatic pressure. The attack on 16–17 May partly succeeded. The Möhne and Eder dams were both breached and much death and destruction inflicted in the communities downriver.
Hastings provides a readable overview of the attack from conception to legacy but focuses on three people in particular. The first is Wallis, a driven and eccentric individual whose postwar public persona as a “boffin” obscured his skills as a bureaucratic infighter. He came to the project by way of his work on the never-realized “Victory Bomber,” which he envisioned could be equipped with bombs larger than what RAF aircraft of the time could carry. This led Wallis to explore means for destroying dams and other large structures, moving from his initial vision of deep-penetration “earthquake” bombs (later to be realized with the development of the Tallboy and Grand Slam ordnance) to the idea of employing what amounted to enormous depthcharges. These would be skipped or “bounced” across the water in a way that would avoid torpedo nets and other underwater defenses so as to detonate close to a dam’s base.
In 1942 Wallis tested the concept of bouncing bombs, proving their practicality. While the concept had many supporters, others saw it as a wasteful distraction. Foremost in this view was Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command and the second person of Hastings’ three principals. Harris disdained Wallis’ advocacy of precision bombing as a distraction from his own focus on area attacks, which he believed would win the war. In this Harris diverged from Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister saw the value of strategic bombing as a way to weaken the German war effort, but he never believed that it would in itself bring about the enemy’s surrender. Harris’ commitment to area bombing made him the primary obstacle to making the vision of Wallis a reality. Once, however, RAF chief Charles Portal lent his support to the project in February 1943, Harris ended his opposition.
Hastings notes that once Harris supported the mission to destroy the dams, he only had one significant decision to make: choosing who would lead the attack. The bomber chief’s selection of Wing-Commander Guy Gibson, the third major figure in Hastings’ account, was crucial. Though only twenty-four, Gibson was an experienced squadron commander with dozens of missions under his belt. The driven Gibson was more admired than loved by his men, but he possessed the skills necessary to organize and train the crew of 617 Squadron for their special mission in the mere two months available before water levels behind the dams reached their spring peak and would be too high for the Wallis plan to succeed. Hastings shows a group often portrayed as a collection of elite flyers to have been in fact a mishmash thrown together with only the barest understanding of what they were being asked to do. Yet in the end Gibson succeeded in training a squadron that enjoyed remarkable success, albeit at a disproportionately high cost in the lives of the men involved.
Hastings ends his book with a description of the Möhnekatastrophe caused by the destruction of the dams and an extended consideration of the strategic air offensive in general. While reaffirming his earlier conclusion that the bombing campaign’s costs were greater than its value to Britain’s war effort, Hastings pays generous tribute to the young airmen who risked their lives. Nowhere does he make his point more effectively than in his criticism of Harris, who failed to follow up on Operation Chastise. Subsequent attacks on the repair efforts to the dams would have required less effort than the initial raid, compounded the damage, and disrupted the Third Reich’s war effort far more effectively than the continued pounding of German cities. While Hastings regards the aircrews as victims of the war rather than war criminals, he makes it clear that Harris’s own crime was in failing to exploit to the fullest the sacrifices made by the men of 617 Squadron.