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the Dambusters story 1943

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A masterly history of the Dambusters raid from best-selling and critically acclaimed military historian Max Hastings.

Operation Chastise, the overnight destruction of the Mohne and Eder dams in north-west Germany by the RAF's 617 Squadron on 16/17 May 1943, 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, he urges that we should see the Dambusters in much more complex shades. The aircrew's heroism was entirely real, as was the brilliance of Barnes Wallis, inventor of the 'bouncing bombs'. But commanders who promised their young fliers that success could shorten the war fantasised as ruthlessly as they did about the entire bomber offensive. Some 1,400 civilians perished in the biblical floods that swept through the Mohne valley, more than half of them Russian and Polish women, slave labourers.

Hastings vividly describes the evolution of Wallis' bomb, and of the squadron which broke the dams. But he also portrays in harrowing detail those swept away by the torrents. He argues that what modern Germans call the Mohnekatastrophe imposed on the Nazi war machine temporary disruption, rather than a crippling blow. Ironically, Air Marshal Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris gained much of the public credit, though he bitterly opposed Chastise as a distraction from his city-burning blitz. Harris also made perhaps the operation's biggest mistake - failure to launch a conventional attack on the huge post-raid repair operation which could have transformed the impact of the dam breaches on Ruhr industry.

Here once again is a dramatic retake on familiar history 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.

The RAF's most heroic operation of World War II. The incomparable tale of the Dambusters raid, dominated by three men:

BARNES WALLIS, the brilliant engineer who devised the 'bouncing bomb'.

GUY GIBSON, the lonely, doomed young pilot who won the VC leading Operation Chastise.

'BOMBER' HARRIS, who bitterly opposed attacking the dams as a diversion from burning Germany's cities - then seized the credit for success.

Memories of the attack which burst Germany's Mohne and Eder reservoirs are part of Britain's national legend. But much that we think we know is wrong.

The operation

The idea to attack the dams was first considered by the Air Ministry in 1937 - in the event of a war with Germany - such was their apparent strategic importance at the time. The bombing raids were practiced at various locations in the UK. The attack took place on the night of 16th–17th May 1943, three months after final approval had been given. Bouncing Bombs were used in order to evade torpedo nets placed in front of the dams. The raid involved 19 Lancaster bombers with 133 crew. Within five months or so, the dams had been repaired, although the setbacks caused would have an ongoing impact as the war progressed.

The squadron

617 Squadron was created in 1943, originally based at RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire. Situated just north of Lincoln, the airfield was first used during World War One. As well as UK forces, Australia, New Zealand and Canadian personnel were involved. The Squadron was formed specifically for the purpose of raids on German Dams in the Ruhr valley. In addition to this attack, there were numerous other missions that the Squadron was involved in, around France,Germany,Italy and Norway for the rest of World War 2. The squadron has continued - with a few breaks - to this day, operating in Malaya, The Gulf and Iraq amongst other locations. 617 Squadron is currently based at RAF Marham, in Norfolk.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson was the first commander of the squadron, who personally took part in the raids. After the mission he retired from combat flying and was replaced by George Holden, then followed H.B. Martin and Leonard Cheshire. Guy Gibson did however return to flying duty later in the war but would be killed on one such mission, at Steenbergen in the Netherlands. Guy Gibson would receive the Victoria Cross for his actions on the dam raids. For further reading on the crews involved in the Dambusters raids see this book:

The region

The Mohne Dam is near Dortmund. The Mohne reservoir was formed by the damming of two rivers, the Mohne and the Heve.

The Edersee is located near the town of Waldeck in the Kellerwald. The river Eder runs for approx. 110 miles. When it reaches Hesse it confluences with the river Fulda.

The Sorpe Dam is near the town of Sundern, south east of Arnsberg in North Rhine-Westphalia. The Sorpe river runs into the Rohr, which in turn flows to the Ruhr, before joining the Rhine.

The dams

The Ruhr valley dams that came under attack during the raids were the Mohne, Edersee and Sorpe. Both Edersee and Sorpe were breached, but the Mohne was not. The Mohne Dam was constructed between 1908 and 1913. The Edersee Dam was built between 1908 and 1914. Construction of the Sorpe Dam began in 1926 and continued until it's completion in 1935.

Context in World War 2

There is much debate about how much impact the raids had on the War overall. There was certainly several months of disruption to the industry of the Ruhr region, in addition to the human cost, with the deaths of around 1,400 people.

The film

The 1955 film The Dam Busters starring Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis brought the exploits of 617 Squadron to a world wide audience.

Max Hastings

In addition to being an author who has published 27 books, most about conflict, and between 1986 and 2002 srved as editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph. then as editor of the Evening Standard.

As an author he has received numerous prizes and awards for his work, of which the most recent are bestsellers. Awards he was won include the Somerset Maugham Prize, the Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature and the Westminster Medal amongst others. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of King's College, London, and was knighted in 2002. He has two grown-up children, Charlotte and Harry, and lives with his wife Penny in West Berkshire, where they garden enthusiastically.

As a journalist he covered the Vietnam War and the Falklands War, in addition to several other conflicts. For more information about Max Hastings visit his official home page:

Vietnam : History of a tragic war

An analysis of the tragic wars in Vietnam, first with France in the 1950s and then with USA in the 1970s

The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerillas 1939-45

A wide reaching look at the use of spies, intelligence and resistance in the greatest conflict in history.

All Hell Let Loose

A look at how World War 2 had a devastating effect on many people across the globe, particularly on the human cost of the war.

Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45

A biography of Churchill’s World War 2 years, seen from the viewpoint of those on the outside, soldiers, civilians, the media and the public alike.

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Max Hastings

William Collins



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240 x 159 x 37 mm

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