Such was the secrecy in which Operation CHASTISE was mounted, the first anyone other than those directly involved knew about it was on the afternoon of Monday, 17th May, 1943. Some nine hours after the last Lancaster had touched back down, a carefully worded BBC communiqué announced that the giant Möhne and Eder Dams in Germany had been destroyed. The following day, and with aerial photographs of the devastating flooding and gaping holes in the dams issued to the press, the Dams Raid was headline news in newspapers across the free world. ‘DAMS WERE BURST OPEN BY ONLY 19 LANCASTERS,’ ran the Daily Express. ‘DEVASTATIONS SWEEPS DOWN RUHR VALLEY – BRIDGES AND POWER PLANTS ENGULFED – ADVANCING FLOODS STILL SPEADING FAST’ was the headline in the Daily Telegraph. The headlines were much the same in America and elsewhere. No-one could doubt the huge public relations coup these photographs provided, or doubt the brilliance of the daring low-level raid using a rotating bouncing bomb.
Unfortunately, however, in recent times, it is this press coverage that historians have tended to focus on. The Dams Raid, it has been said, was undoubtedly courageous and daring, and provided Britain with a much-needed morale boost, but otherwise achieved little. After all, eight of the nineteen crews never made it home, an unacceptable loss rate of more than 40%. In any case, all three dams were rebuilt by that autumn, just five months later.
There were many reasons for writing this new narrative history of the raid, and setting the record straight on the value of the Raid was high on the list. Seventy years on, it is time the value of the Dams Raid was given its proper credit. To begin with, the damage caused was enormous. Not only were two major dams completely destroyed, so too were seven railway bridges, eighteen road bridges, four water turbine power stations and three steam turbine power stations, while in the Ruhr Valley alone, eleven factories were completely destroyed and a further 114 damaged, many severely. Vast tracts of land had also been devastated by the tidal waves that had thundered up to eighty miles from the dams.
For the Germans this was a ‘katastrophe’ – and the smashing of the dams is today still described as such. It was true that in 1943, Germany still had enough reserves of water to ensure steel production was not unduly affected that summer, but were the dams to remain broken the following year, then war production would be seriously affected. It was therefore absolutely essential that they be rebuilt by the autumn, in time to catch the winter rainfall. And even then, they had to pray they would not have a drier than usual winter.
But to rebuild them in that time was a gargantuan task. It is much to the credit of the Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, that this was achieved, but it came at a huge cost – not just financially, (and it cost £5.6 billion in today’s money), but also in terms of manpower, materials, and sheer logistic effort. On Speer’s request, a staggering 70,000 men from the Organization Todt were transferred to the area, including a large number of Dutch and French labourers from the Atlantic Wall. New temporary timber framed railway and road bridges were hastily erected, whilst entire railway lines were constructed alongside enormous walls of scaffolding to bring stone and materials to the dam walls. On top of that, at both the Eder and Möhne Dams, entire new barracks blocks were built for the thousands of labourers. Even the Sorpe Dam, damaged but not destroyed, had to be emptied and rebuilt. The effort and vast expense of repairing the dams in such a short time was astronomical, and that was before they had then begun building elaborate anti-aircraft defences, not just on these three but on every single dam of any substance in Germany – defences that had to be supplied and then manned.
It is also true that those destroyed and damaged factories were up and running again in comparatively short time, but many of the components required were not readily available and had to be taken from elsewhere; the Ruhr’s gain was at the expense of other factories elsewhere in the Reich.
In other words, the speed with which the dams were rebuilt underlines just how important they were to Germany, rather than undermining the effect of the raid, and especially at such a critical time in the war; historians have been looking at the wrong way round.
The wider picture also needs to be taken into consideration. In February 1943, Germany had suffered the surrender at Stalingrad; three days before the Raid, a further 250,000 men had capitulated in North Africa; and in July, at the height of the reconstruction, Germany was facing the invasion of Sicily and the catastrophic counter-attack at Kursk. If there was ever a moment when they needed to avoid diverting resources from the front, it was during that summer of 1943.
Furthermore, the Dams Raid, carried out by just a handful of aircraft, played on the Nazi High Command’s worst fears – that the Allies could achieve similar kind of destruction at will with a small force. Moreover, the dams, giant feats of engineering, were known and admired throughout Germany. The adverse psychological blow was far greater to Germany than the positive effect the raid had achieved in Britain and America.
The Möhne Dam was reinaugurated on 3rd October the same year. A month later, Field Marshal Rommel was given command of Army Group B in the West, with the specific task of protecting the Channel coast. He was appalled to discover that the much-vaunted Atlantic Wall was more a concept than reality. Perhaps, however, he should not have been surprised when so many of the Wall’s workers had been transferred to repair the dams. It was a diversion of resources that would cost Germany dear in June the following year.
It is right we should commemorate the Dams Raid. Not only was it a brilliant feat of ingenuity, daring, skill and breathtaking courage, it was also disaster for Nazi Germany – which was precisely why it was mounted.