What the Dam Busters Really Left in Their Wake; 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 around the Mission

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Gray

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? …