Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Dam Busters

Today is the 65th anniversary of the dam busters raid; one of the most successful examples of wartime spin was the story surrounding the dam-busters raid of May 16 –17 1943. RAF Wing Commander Guy Gibson and his pilots of 617 Squadron were carefully selected to carry out a daring and innovative bombing raid on five major dams in Western Germany, ‘essential to that country’s defence capability’.

Using a special ‘water skipping barrel bomb’ two of the dams, the Moehne and the Eder, were breached to their very foundations. As the news broke Britain’s joy was orgasmic. ‘Floods Roar down the Ruhr Valley,’ screamed the Daily Express headlines. The Daily Mirror not to be outdone glossed the story up. ‘Hundreds of square miles of devastation have spread through the Ruhr, Germany’s most densely populated industrial area, by the RAF’s staggering attack on the Moehne and Eder dams.’ It was gleefully reported that 10,000 Germans had died. Wing Commander Guy Gibson became an overnight hero and was awarded the Victoria Cross. It was a welcome addition to his DSO and DFC, and he was further rewarded with a tour of the United States.

A book on the raid, The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill became Britain’s biggest selling war book and is popular to this day. As with the equally ludicrous movie The Great Escape millions have seen the recycled film of the same title. In 1972, after examining newly released Second World War documents, the author and journalist Bruce Page wrote, “the truth about the raid was that it was a conjuring trick, virtually devoid of any military significance, the ‘skipping bomb’ just a gimmick.

The real story of the raid was of sloppy planning, narrow-minded enthusiasm, and misdirected courage.’He added: “Apart from the aircrews, the only people to emerge from the story with real credit are a handful of people in the Ministry of Economic Warfare who tried to calculate in advance whether the raid would damage the German war economy. They calculated accurately that it would not, but they were ignored.” The only dam whose damage would have potentially hit the war effort was the Sorpe Dam. Yet only a token force had dealt with it and the damage was minimal. Certainly the breaching of the Moehne and Eder dams caused flooding but this effected agricultural land, the one asset Germany had in abundance.

After World War 1 800,000 civilians had died of starvation during the 1919 Royal Naval blockade of war ravaged Germany. The new German leader had seen to it that his nation would in future be self-sufficient; in fact Germany was one of the few nations in Europe capable of feeding itself.

Contrary to propaganda the raid did not effect hydro-electricity production because the Moehne Dam had negligible electrical capacity and the Eder had none. The actual loss of life was 1,300. These were working class civilians and the greatest loss of life was that of non-Germans; the displaced Ukrainian civilians, mostly women and children who were housed in camps downstream of the Moehne Dam. 50% of the RAF airmen never returned. 53 died; a number of them Canadians. Guy Gibson later died in action. The official who commented on the raid used the term ‘disappointing’. Own goal might have been a little more apt.