The Dams Raid is truly an incredible story. Really. An amazing weapon, and 133 men and nineteen Lancasters heading out at tree-top height, at night, over enemy territory and dropping their bouncing bombs to smash the German dams. It’s a fabulous tale of daring, ingenuity and raw courage.
The idea for writing the book was that of my old friend, Rowland White, himself an author as well as a publisher at Penguin. My immediate response to him was, ‘Haven’t there been hundreds of books about this already?’ As he pointed out, however, the answer is no. There have been only two significant works on the Dams Raid in the past thirty years, and only ever one narrative history and that was Paul Brickhill’s The Dambusters, written in 1951, and written before the files relating to the raid had been declassified. Mostly, our knowledge of the raid comes from the film, starring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave, which is regularly repeated on television, and deservedly so; it’s a great film, but as is often the way with movies, accuracy is not the prime concern, and in ninety minutes much detail has to be necessarily left out.
Last summer, in between writing the book, I was also involved in making a BBC film. People often stopped and asked what we were doing. When we tell them, nine times out of ten, the response has been the same: ‘What are you going to call the dog?’ It seems sad in a way that from this extraordinary raid there are just three names that people remember: Barnes Wallis, Guy Gibson and Nigger, the dog. What about all the others involved? All those young men who flew the raid, most of them now gone and forgotten?
The dog, of course, was the least important figure in the story, yet it is a homage to the power of Hollywood that the offices of No. 2 Hangar at Scampton, from where 617 Squadron was formed and flew the Dams Raid, now lie derelict and forlorn, while, out front, Nigger’s grave is surrounded by freshly painted iron railings, the grass is kept trim, and flowers bright and watered. The slab marking the spot mentions the raid against the ‘Mohne and Eder Dams’ – the two featured in the film. There is no mention of the Sorpe, also attacked that night.
As I have been uncovering the often forgotten details behind the Dams Raid, I have been struck by what a difference they make to the story. The bare bones are much the same, but add the flesh, and an even more remarkable tale quickly emerges – a story of politics and personalities as much as science and ingenious engineering, a story of very special but ordinary men rather than the ‘Top Gun’ of Bomber Command. Gibson and Wallis were real people rather than caricatures – more complex, more contradictory. More interesting. The timing of the raid and its place in the wider war effort, and Second World War as a whole, adds another layer. This was a far more complex, more nuanced episode than perhaps we might think.
To my very best ability, this is as accurate a portrayal as I have been able to make it, although there are, in the course of official records, documents and personal testimonies, a number of inconsistencies and contradictions. Occasionally, I have made assumptions, which represent my opinion and judgement as to what most likely happened. I have end-noted all direct quotations apart from those with people I interviewed myself, but I have not noted statistics or figures. There is, however, a full list of sources at the back.
The Dams Raid remains a fabulous story – the achievement even more extraordinary, even more daring and full of breathtaking courage than I had first realized. I hope that anyone who reads this new book is swept along – so to speak – as much as I was…