Everyone knows about the Dambusters raid. Everyone has seen the film. Later this week it will be the 77th anniversary of that epic raid. I have been reading about it.
It was hailed at the time as a great success, and huge booster for morale, but the reality was that it didn’t significantly dent the industry of the Ruhr, as there was enough water remaining in the third dam which they had failed to breach.
What can we learn from all this? Well, we have plenty of bravery and heroism to applaud and celebrate. Young men gave their lives in what they knew would be a highly dangerous operation. If the airmen were not killed in the attack itself, few of them were to survive the war.
Some of them were motivated by a sense of duty, even religious duty. One of the airmen had written to a friend: It is a happy, healthy life while it lasts, and I have found some old friends and made many new ones… I am not frightened of dying if that is God’s will, and only hope I may die doing my duty as I should.
Another wrote in praise of a Church sermon he had heard: the theme was that the greatest gift of God to mankind was the inability to see the future, and that to face the future we need God.
Then there is the typical messiness of human affairs amid all the heroism. Guy Gibson, for example, who led the raid, had been reared in a highly dysfunctional family, and seemed to love his black Labrador (who was run over 24 hours before the raid) far more than his wife from whom he was estranged after 2 years of marriage. He was not popular with his men.
And let’s not forget the human suffering caused by the raid. About 1400 people died in the flooding following the breaching of the two dams, most of them forced labourers trapped in wire mesh compounds. On the (restored) Mohne dam wall a plaque records in German and English: ‘A trail of devastation was left throughout the valley… Men, women and children died… This strategic action did not have the military effect expected. This memorial is also a symbol of peace’. Those last 8 words are pretty uplifting.
(Based on information in Max Hastings’ EXPLODING THE DAMBUSTERS MYTH The Times Saturday Magazine 4th September 2019)