Operation Chastise, the overnight destruction of the Möhne and Eder dams in north-west Germany by the RAF’s 617 Squadron, was an epic that has passed into Britain’s national legend.
Max Hastings grew up embracing the story, the classic 1955 movie and the memory of Guy Gibson, the 24-year-old wing-commander who won the VC leading the raid. In the 21st Century, however, Hastings urges that we should review the Dambusters in much more complex shades. The aircrew’s heroism was wholly authentic, as was the brilliance of Barnes Wallis, who invented the ‘bouncing bombs’. But commanders who promised their young fliers that success could shorten the war fantasised wildly. What Germans call the Möhnekatastrophe imposed on the Nazi war machine temporary disruption, rather than a crippling blow.
Hastings vividly describes the evolution of Wallis’ bomb, and of the squadron which broke the dams at the cost of devastating losses. But he also portrays in harrowing detail those swept away by the torrents. Some 1,400 civilians perished in the biblical floods that swept through the Möhne valley, more than half of them Russian and Polish women, slave labourers under Hitler.
Ironically, Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris gained much of the credit, though he opposed Chastise as a distraction from his city-burning blitz. He also made what the author describes as the operation’s biggest mistake – the failure to launch a conventional attack on the Nazis’ huge post-raid repair operation, which could have transformed the impact of the dam breaches upon Ruhr industry.
Chastise offers a fascinating retake on legend by a master of the art. Hastings sets the dams raid in the big picture of the bomber offensive and of the Second World War, with moving portraits of the young airmen, so many of whom died; of Barnes Wallis; the monstrous Harris; the tragic Guy Gibson, together with superb narrative of the action of one of the most extraordinary episodes in British history.
‘A virtuoso performance from a veteran military historian. It is a white-knuckle narrative that brings clarity and insight to a much-loved tale, as well as offering a vital corrective to the drum-thumping conclusions of earlier books.’ Sunday Times
‘Hastings recounts the actual raids with dramatic intensity … He brings us into those Lancasters, flying perilously low, straight into flak … Superb.’ Times
‘Thoughtful and gripping … This is a fine book combining great storytelling with a deep appreciation of the melancholy and waste that march in step with glory.’ Patrick Bishop, Telegraph
‘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 … A powerful parable which might instruct us in our own confused times.’ Spectator
‘Hastings, who is a master of his craft, unfolds the story skilfully … It doesn’t matter how many times you have seen the film, or heard the story, this book is gripping from start to finish’ Keith Lowe, Literary Review
‘A riveting account that also shines a light on the fact that more than 1,400 civilians died in the floods that followed … It’s a monumental read’ Sun
‘A fine book about that moonlit Dambusters’ raid of 76 years ago, a worthy tribute to the men of 617 Squadron – and their hapless victims’ Sunday Express
‘Hastings is still on top of his game, showing once again that the preparations, participants, and consequences of a military action are as fascinating as the fireworks … Gripping … Another Hastings must-read.’ Kirkus, Starred Review