Hastings recounts the actual raids on the dams with the dramatic intensity of war stories I read as a boy. And that’s a good thing. He brings us into those Lancasters, flying perilously low, straight into flak. Because he allows us to get to know those 130 brave flyers, we feel personally their destruction. Eight of 19 aircraft did not return. Fifty-six men died. “What 617 Squadron achieved against the two dams . . . represented a freak of history, skill, courage — and fortune — such as no responsible commander could ask a similar force to repeat.”...Perhaps 1,400 were killed, making the raid the most destructive carried out by Bomber Command up to that date. Some may justify this slaughter as fitting retribution to followers of an evil regime. But 800 of the dead were female slave labourers — Russians, Poles, French, Ukrainians — who in no sense deserved their agony. “I don’t think we ever gave a thought to the people who would be drowned,” one of those brave flyers recalled. That sentiment echoes ironically through this superb book.
“Operation Chastise,” about the so-called Dambusters raid, carries the subtitle “The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II.” In terms of sheer daring, and in terms of the inventive power that went into the famous bouncing bombs, this cannot be denied. Yet the tale told by Max Hastings, a renowned military historian and journalist, is more complex and less celebratory than the book’s cover implies. His account of the events of May 16-17, 1943, will keep you on the edge of your seat, but his analysis of their causes and consequences is equally deserving of attention... Hastings writes movingly of the suffering inflicted on those who lived in the path of the floodwaters: It is possible that as many as 1,600 people died, many of them non-German forced laborers. He does not dismiss the attack’s economic impact as comprehensively as some have done, even if it did not have the decisive effect that had been hoped for. But he sticks to his view, first articulated over 40 years ago, that the costs of the wider bomber offensive outstripped its results. The Dambusters affair was perhaps more justifiable than wholesale “terror-bombing” of cities, but it reminds us that even the most brilliant military raid has its price in human victims.
Hastings treats him with the sympathy due to a love-starved man-boy, nurtured on the stony soil of public school and service life. The hard casing, though, hid a moral sensibility which he shared with another great 617 sqn leader, Leonard Cheshire.
In his memoir Enemy Coast Ahead, written not long before his death in September 1944, Gibson described his unease about the breaching of the Möhne dam which left 1,400 civilians dead. “The fact that they might drown had not occurred to us… Nobody liked mass slaughter, and we did not like being the authors of it. Besides, it brought us in line with Himmler and his boys.” None of his superior officers showed such feelings.
This is a fine book combining great storytelling with a deep appreciation of the melancholy and waste that march in step with glory.
In truth, not much of this is new, and there is a tiredness to the writing. Even Hastings himself has told much of this story before, in his earlier book Bomber Command (1979). He relies heavily on the official narratives of the air war and published oral histories. But what is at stake in this revision of the old glorious narrative is something important. The debate over whether this particular raid mattered is, in miniature, the wider historiographical debate over the morals and efficacy of the whole bombing war... The dams raid was a romantic episode as well as, in Hastings’s telling, a slightly grubbier affair. But perhaps more than either of these it is a powerful parable which might instruct us in our own confused times.
It is thought-provoking indeed to read a book about the Second World War in which the victims are Germans and the chief villain is British. In Chastise, Hastings has written a page-turner with attitude, retaining his childhood exuberance for the Dambusters’ story but tempering it with the grim reality of lost lives and questionable sacrifice.
So do we need this book? Not really. It provides no major new insights, though Hastings does sprinkle it liberally with interesting titbits that you won’t find elsewhere. Neither is it particularly useful as a reference work: so many quotes are unattributed that there seems little point in having a notes section at all. But will you enjoy it? Darn right you will. It does not matter how many times you have seen the film or heard the story, this book is gripping from start to finish.