Dam Busters: The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the German Dams in 1943

Dam Busters: The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the German Dams in 1943

by James Holland

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The night of May 16, 1943. Nineteen specially adapted Lancaster bombers take off from an RAF airfield in Lincolnshire, England, each with a huge nine-thousand-pound cylindrical bomb strapped underneath it. Their mission: to head deep into the German heartland and destroy three hydroelectric dams that power the Third Reich's war machine.

From the outset it was an almost impossible task, a suicide mission. First the men had to fly extremely low, at night, and in tight formation over miles of enemy-occupied territory. Then, just sixty feet above the water and at some of the most heavily defended targets in Germany, they had to drop with pinpoint precision a complicated spinning cylindrical bomb that had never before been used operationally.

More than that, the entire operation had to be put together in less than ten weeks, while the water levels in the dams were still high enough for the bombs to be effective. When the visionary aviation engineer Barnes Wallis's concept of the bouncing bomb was green-lighted, he hadn't even drawn up the plans for the weapon that was to smash the dams. What followed was an incredible race against time that, despite numerous setbacks and against huge odds, became one of the most successful and game-changing bombing raids of all time. James Holland's Dam Busters is meticulously researched and brilliantly told, sure to be the definitive history of this incredible raid.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802122780
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 11/11/2014
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 296,337
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

James Holland was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and studied history at Durham University. A member of the British Commission for Military History and the Guild of Battlefield Guides, he also regularly contributes reviews and articles in newspapers and magazines and appears on radio. His books include Fortress Malta, Italy's Sorrow, The Battle of Britain and his fictional World War II series featuring Sergeant Jack Tanner. He lives near Salisbury with his wife, son and daughter.

Read an Excerpt


Signs of Progress

WEDNESDAY, 27 JANUARY 1943. Speeding along the quiet country Chiltern back roads at just after 8.30 in the morning was a black two-seater Bentley sports saloon, with a lighted sign on the front that said 'Priority'. Despite the speed with which the Bentley was travelling, there was no especial reason for its driver to be making such haste, but that was how Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris liked to drive, whether it was him at the wheel – which it often was – or his chauffeur, Maddocks. He enjoyed driving and at a furious pace, and the Bentley, especially when handled skilfully, was happy to oblige.

The route from Springfields, the C-in-C's house, to Bomber Command Headquarters was just a shade over four miles, so that at 8.35 a.m., just a few minutes after leaving his wife and young daughter at home, Harris was tearing through the village of Walter's Ash, and moments later, turning into the main entrance of RAF High Wycombe and then accelerating once more, along the road towards his office at No. 1 Site, various staff officers and WAAFs hurriedly moving off the road and out of the way of the speeding black beast.

No. 1 Site consisted of a number of buildings, purpose-built in the 1930s and completed by 1940, when it became Bomber Command HQ, and it was outside one of these, a three-storey building of little charm but considerable functionality, that the Bentley finally came to a halt. Stepping out, Harris passed into the Air Staff Block, and straight to his office, which was on the ground floor, along with those of his other senior staff. Waiting for him was his personal secretary, Assistant Section Officer Peggy Wherry, a WAAF known to be almost as formidable as her boss. Handed a folder of the night's most important signals, he then pulled out a cigarette, quickly read through them, then, just before nine, stepped out of the office again and back to his Bentley for the daily conference.

This was held in the deep underground bunker that was the Headquarters Operations Room. It was only a few hundred yards away, but Harris always drove. He hated walking anywhere. As a young man in Rhodesia, he had fought with the 1st Rhodesian Regiment against the Germans in South-West Africa and during the campaign had marched some 500 miles across the Kalahari Desert in pursuit of the enemy. Poorly equipped, and poorly fed and watered, they had all struggled with extreme fatigue and even hallucinations, and it was then that the 23-year-old private vowed to never again walk a single step if he could get any form of vehicle to carry him. It was one of the reasons he had headed back to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps once the campaign was over.

At home, 'Bert' Harris would be witty and jocular, talkative, tender towards his wife and daughter, and a considerate host to the many hundreds of luminaries and VIPs that made their way to Springfields. The life and soul, in fact. At the office, however, he could not have been more different. He had a bull of a face – square, with piercing pale eyes and light, greying, gingery hair and a trim moustache, and the kind of immediate presence that pullulated with authority. At the office, he might allow himself an occasional smirk, but he was altogether more serious, more austere. A man who never played for popularity, who suffered no fools and wasted none of his valuable time on unnecessary words or civilities.

By the time he had walked down the long steps into the 'Hole', as the Ops Room was known, he expected all those who were toattend the daily conference to be there. He had no truck whatsoever with those who were late. Rarely did he raise his voice; he did not need to. A terse comment or even a stony glare was enough to show his displeasure.

The Ops Room was rectangular with an ops board on the facing wall, and a large map covering the far end wall, and all overlooked by a viewing gallery above. At this morning's 'High Mass', however, a chair and desk had been placed in the centre of the room, around which stood the C-inC's senior staff. There was a pronounced hush as he entered the room, took off his cap, sat down, and took out and lit another of his American cigarettes. Next to him stood the ruddy-faced and moustachioed Air Vice-Marshal Robert 'Sandy' Saundby, his Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO), as well as his deputy, the Air Commodore Ops, the Deputy SASO, his naval and army liaison officers, his Intelligence Officer, Senior Engineer Staff Officer and Armament Officer, and, last, but by no means least, Dr Magnus Spence, his Chief Meteorological Officer.

'Did the Hun do anything last night?' he asked.

The Intelligence Officer briskly told him then handed him a list of priority targets, most of which had come from the Air Ministry in London, staff officers of lower rank than Harris, and whom he instinctively disliked; he did not think it was their role to try and tell him his job, however indirectly.

Harris studied the list, then, after conferring with Saundby, announced that the night's raid would be directed at Düsseldorf. He then turned to Dr Spence. This particular conversation was always a critical part of the conference. Mounting a raid required no small amount of investment in terms of fuel, bombs, aircraft, and, of course, men's lives. It was imperative that as far as possible every operation should have the greatest possible chance of success, and Harris always grilled Spence deeply; the C-in-C reckoned he had a good nose for weather. Even so, he always deferred to Spence's final word on the matter, although on this occasion it was straightforward enough: the weather looked promising, Spence told him. He forecast clear skies over the target. Harris was satisfied with that.

Next came the allocation of aircraft. It looked as though there would be under 200 available, of which only 120 or so would be Lancasters. Crews were not expected to fly two nights in a row, and 157 bombers had been sent to attack the U-boat pens at Lorient on the French Atlantic coast the previous evening. Nor was Bomber Command, in January 1943, a large force. Harris had just over 500 aircraft of all types, of which little more than 300 were 'heavies' – that is, four-engine bombers such as the Lancaster, Stirling and Halifax. In fact, he could call on fewer than a hundred more aircraft than he had had when he had taken over as Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command just under a year before. Of the three RAF home commands – Fighter, Coastal and Bomber – it was Bomber Command that remained the smallest, even though Harris's bomber force remained the primary weapon of attack against Hitler's Germany.

Almost a year in office and yet Harris still could not launch his all-out bombing offensive against Hitler's war machine. Expansion had been painfully slow. It was all very frustrating and largely due to factors beyond his control. Not only was Bomber Command a small force, but he had been obliged to use what crews and aircraft he did have for a number of other purposes besides the strategic bombing of the Third Reich. The biggest threat to Britain had been seen to be that posed by the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, but in the first half of 1942 further resources had been sucked up by the escalating and worsening war against Japan in the Far East and then, in June, by the near-annihilation of the Eighth Army in North Africa, the only place where Britain was actively engaging German troops on land. Not only were bombers needed in the Mediterranean and Middle East, but Harris was expected to repeatedly attack U-boat pens, and to use vast amounts of his meagre forces laying sea-mines.

In addition to the diversion of resources, there were also issues of training crews and rebuilding morale after the mauling the Command had received in the first years of the war, while the failure of the Manchester bomber had also hugely delayed expansion. Much of the Command's hopes in 1941 had rested on this twin-engine bomber designed by Roy Chadwick at A. V. Roe, but the engines had proved under-powered and completely unsuitable for the airframe. The Lancaster, powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, had been developed out of the failure of the Manchester, but this all took time, as did the production of increasing numbers of the four-engine wonder-bomber that Harris believed the Lancaster was; in this new bomber, he at last had an aircraft that would be able to carry not just a handful of lightweight incendiaries, but really big bombs – bombs weighing as much as 10,000lb, possibly even bigger than that. Bombs that could cause really large amounts of destruction.

Nor had Harris had enough airfields, or even airfields that could handle four-engine heavies – stations which were needed not only for the operational squadrons but for the Heavy Conversion Units where crews were trained to operate these bigger bombers. Back in October 1941, the Air Ministry had accepted that airfields needed to be built with runways adequate for heavy bombers, but not until more than a year later was this policy actually implemented, by which time many of them had to be given over to the American bomber units which were starting to arrive in England. No one was grumbling at the arrival of the Americans, least of all Harris, but this still had consequences for the speed of expansion of Bomber Command.

Yet perhaps the biggest stumbling block of all was the lack of effective navigational aids. A device codenamed GEE had been tested over Germany in 1941 and had started being fitted into aircraft by early 1942. This was a radar pulse system that enabled a navigator on board an aircraft to fix his position by measuring the distance of pulses from three different ground stations in England. It was hoped that this would allow accurate navigation to targets, especially in the Ruhr industrial heartland in western Germany. GEE had helped, but in practice it had proved nothing like as accurate as the scientists had hoped, its range was short – the Ruhr was about the limit of its reach – and it was certainly not good enough to aid blind flying. This meant that Harris's bombers were still dependent on clear skies and preferably a decent moon, which in turn made the bombers an easier target for the German flak guns and night fighters. Furthermore, by the summer, the enemy had already worked out how to effectively jam GEE.

But, at last, two potentially exciting new radar devices had been developed – devices which, it was hoped, would finally allow Harris's crews to navigate both blind and accurately to the target. The first was codenamed 'Oboe'. This relied on a radio signal pulse repeater in the aircraft linked to two ground stations back in the UK. In other words, it was in effect a development of GEE. It still had limited range and could only cope with the signals from no more than six aircraft per hour, but tests had repeatedly proved its accuracy and it was also seemingly impervious to enemy jamming.

There were neither enough sets nor the capacity for Oboe to be used with an entire bomber force, but it could be employed with Harris's small numbers of Mosquitoes. These were very fast, lightweight twin-engine aircraft and part of Harris's Pathfinder Force, or PFF as it was known. The idea was that the Mosquitoes, using Oboe, would fly ahead of the main bomber stream, then over the target lay down ground markers, flares that would burst in a cascade just above the ground, and far more accurate than the parachute flares that had originally been used by the PFF Mosquitoes. These would then show the bombers following in their wake where to drop their bombs.

And that night's raid against Düsseldorf was to be the first time PFF Mosquitoes would be using Oboe. It was, as Harris was well aware, potentially a major step forward.

Satisfied that the bomb loads and time over target had been agreed, Harris stood up without a further word, replaced his cap and left. Details of routes and squadron allocations were for Saundby and his other senior staff officers to sort out; Harris's job was to lead, to provide direction, not trouble himself with the kind of details that could be perfectly well handled by others.

Harris drove back towards his office. Back in 1940, when he had been Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, he had been watching the Blitz one evening from the roof of the Air Ministry with Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal, then only newly appointed Chief of the Air Staff. Bombs were falling and London was burning and aglow with flames. 'Well,' Harris said, turning to Portal, 'they are sowing the wind.' A year and a half later, he was commander of Bomber Command and the man given the task of leading the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. The decision to carry out area bombing of German cities was not his – that had been made higher up the chain of command, and was one that Portal, as Chief of the Air Staff, was perhaps the biggest proponent. Yet Harris was an unwavering bomber advocate. He believed, quite zealously, that the best way to win the war was by destroying German cities. Destroy the cities, he believed, and Germany's capacity to produce war materiel would be destroyed as well. With no war materiel, Hitler would no longer be able to continue the war. Such a policy would cost the lives of many aircrew, but the losses would be nothing compared to the great slaughter of men lost in another drawn-out land war like that of a generation earlier – a war in which Harris fought. Whether such a bombing campaign would break the morale of the German people on whom these bombs would inevitably fall was, to his mind, neither here nor there. 'It was not necessary,' he noted, 'to take these possibilities into account; bombing, there was every reason to suppose, would cripple the enemy's war industries if it was carried out for long enough and with sufficient weight.'

It was the 'sufficient weight' that was the crux of the matter. For all the damage the Germans had caused during the Blitz, it had not been carried out with sufficient weight – Coventry and one or two other raids being the exceptions. The Luftwaffe had only had twin-engine bombers, capable of carrying no more than comparatively light payloads of bombs. A Dornier 17, for example, one of the mainstays of the Luftwaffe bombing fleet, could carry just 2,205lb of bombs; the Heinkel 111 could manage just over 4,000lb. In sharp contrast, the current Lancasters could manage 14,000lb. Nor had the Germans had anything like enough aircraft. They had invented the Blitz, Harris reckoned, without ever appreciating its strategic possibilities. And as for morale – in Britain, this had improved with the Blitz; the German bombing campaign had helped forge a unity of purpose among the British people and a determination to fight on, to never surrender. It might be possible to break the morale of a people, but only when cities lay totally devastated.

No, it was perfectly clear to Harris. The best way to win the war was to divert as many resources as possible into the strategic bombing campaign. To build more and more heavy bombers, with bigger and more destructive bombs, and to wipe as many cities as possible from the face of the earth.

The advent of Oboe was an important step forward, and in a few days' time a further blind navigation aid would be used on an operation too: H2S, which was effectively the first ever ground-mapping radar. The 'echo map' created by the radar pulse returns on board the aircraft was crude, and target identification required considerable skill, but it was not limited by range and had the potential to be accurate up to just a little over a mile. It was known as 'Home Sweet Home', a nickname which suggested the high hopes held for it. These two tools, at long last, would give his bombers the chance to bomb with the kind of accuracy that had simply not been possible before.

The past eleven months had been a time of rebuilding and retraining, of experimentation. But now, after nearly a year in the job, Harris believed his bomber force was almost ready to start the strategic bombing campaign in earnest. What was important was to maintain that resolve and not be diverted from the task and method of achieving that aim. Singleness of purpose; that was the key. And that meant lots of heavy bombers dropping lots of bombs on German cities. As far as Harris was concerned, it was as simple as that.

Some 150 miles north, in the largely flat Lincolnshire countryside, the crews of 97 Squadron were readying themselves for another day. The airfield was still only a year old, built as a satellite of the much larger RAF Coningsby a few miles down the road, and although it lay to the south of the little spa town, on specially cleared open ground in the middle of nowhere, for the officers RAF Woodhall Spa had one very big advantage: the mock-Tudor Edwardian mansion, Petwood House, which had been requisitioned the previous year and now served as the Officers' Mess. Not only was the house itself extremely comfortable, but it had extensive grounds complete with croquet pitches, tennis courts and a swimming pool.


Excerpted from "Dam Busters"
by .
Copyright © 2012 James Holland.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps and Figures ix

Author's Note xi

Cast List xiii

Prologue 1

Part I Towards Greenlight

1 Signs of Progress 21

2 A Method of Attacking the Axis Powers 36

3 Bouncing Bomb 51

4 Sink the Tirpitz 63

5 Sitting on the Fence 69

6 Bomber Boys 77

7 Panacea Mongers 91

8 Portal Power 100

9 Greenlight 112

Part II The Race to Smash the Dams

10 The Main Offensive 123

11 Special Squadron 135

12 617 Squadron 149

13 Certain Dams 161

14 The Conquest of Nature 170

15 Low Level 182

16 Trials and Tribulations 197

17 A Matter of Height and Speed 211

18 Scampton and Reculver 227

19 Bottomley Sets the Date 236

20 Air Ministry versus the Admiralty 250

21 Countdown 266

Part III The Raid

22 Final Day 281

23 Outward Journey 295

24 Goner 311

25 The Hardest Target 328

26 Homeward Bound 336

Part IV Legacy

27 After the Raid 349

28 Katastrophe 363

29 Damn Busters 374

Postscript 384

Abbreviations 399

Operation CHASTISE Timeline 400

Operation CHASTISE Codewords 404

Notes 406

Sources 415

Acknowledgements 421

Picture Acknowledgements 425

Index 427

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Dam Busters: The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the German Dams in 1943 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
fivekids More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. It reads like a novel. But it's all true. The most interesting thing to me was the tracing of concept to execution of the raid in less than two months. All this with no computers or simulators. Just pencils, paper, brainpower and slide rules to design the bombs and plan the mission. Not to mention the guts to pull it off.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
New facts, I did not know about. Good research. Plane crews names and what happen to them. Different story lines about others; not just about Gibson.
marathonerjack More than 1 year ago
Rather slow paced but much better than the plodding movie. The Germans managed to restore the dams and their electrical output in a very short period of time. So, was it worth the lives of all those British aircrews? Sadly this entire mission is lost in the history of WW II.