The race to smash the German dams

James Holland’s film, shown on BBC2 last Tuesday night, is available for UK viewers to watch again on iPlayer until Saturday 19 November. Follow this link.

So far, I can’t find any reviews posted online, but I have come across an interesting preview article in the New Statesman in which Guy Walters argues that Holland completely counters the “revisionist” view that the Dams Raid actually achieved very little. According to Walters:

The raid was in fact a triumph, and did an enormous amount of damage. After studying the German archives, Holland shows that: “…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.”
Such damage can hardly be considered “little of substance”.
Furthermore, Holland completely skewers the argument that as the dams were quickly rebuilt, the damage was therefore not that great. The whole point of their swift reconstruction “underlines just how important they were to Germany”, and the men and material required had to be diverted from elsewhere.
Holland also argues that the destruction of the dams struck a huge psychological blow against the Germans, as these were structures that were venerated as triumphs of the country’s might and technical knowhow. In short, the raid was indeed a catastrophe for Nazi Germany, and a triumph for the British.
Holland’s analysis will no doubt draw its detractors, perhaps inspired by a politically fashionable thinking that seeks to denigrate just about every British success during the Second World War. Of course, there was much that we got wrong, but we also got many things spectacularly right.

In my view, Holland’s programme was a well researched and presented documentary. There were interviews with three of the four surviving Dambusters – Les Munro, Grant McDonald and George “Johnny” Johnson – and a good use of far flung written source material, such as Charlie Williams’ letters, which are in archives in Queensland, Australia.

Perhaps the point that came across most strongly was the airmanship involved. Flying a 30 ton aircraft a thousand miles through hostile territory just 100 feet above the ground required enormous concentration, exceptional skill and tremendous luck. When you consider the odds it is no real surprise that eight of the 19 aircraft failed to return. And no surprise, either, that this tactic was only used sparingly in the rest of the war.

With so much already written and broadcast about the Dams Raid it is not surprising that little new information emerged. But that shouldn’t detract from what was a thorough film, mercifully lacking most of the frills and tricks which many documentary directors nowadays feel it necessary to add. Catch it again on iPlayer while it is still available!

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5 thoughts on “The race to smash the German dams

  1. Stephen Cooke November 10, 2011 / 11:15 pm

    I found this progamme to be very refreshing in that it didn’t promise “untold stories” or “never before revealed information” as has been proffered by other documentaries. Holland also made the point that the Atlantik Wall construction was severely affected by the effort to rebuild the dams.

    One point I’d like to add that no one since Paul Brickhill seems to make, is that this raid was a massive leap in tactics from carpet to precision bombing, to show it was possible to plonk a bomb pretty much where you wanted it. 617 went on to show up the pathfinders with their precision target marking later on in the war. The Dams Raid paved the way for the Grand Slam and Tall Boy weapons that may have taken years more to gain credibility.

    A great documentary not swayed by the PC Brit bashing nonsense that we see so much of.

  2. philip croft November 11, 2011 / 3:01 pm

    An excellent over view of this most informative and well researched documentary. I will enjoy revisiting it, especially as it was so well packed with new (to me) facts. The idiot wave of falsely based ‘guilt’ that pervades modern historians, seeking to make their mark on a already well trodden litterary path, borders on heracy if not down-right treachery. Their mealy mouthed pathetic attempts to find a ‘new angle’ falsely termed as a new ‘perspective’ is cobbled together by gutless wimps writing from the comfort and safety that nearly seventy years of time has created and to which they will never be asked to emulate. My half brother was killed in the last 5 days of the war, on a pathfinder mission, he was 22yrs old. He is buried in Keil cemetary

  3. Michael Bennison November 22, 2011 / 11:35 am

    I agree that it was a first class, unsensational programme, well researched and informative. I am a few years too young to have been in the war (I trained as a navigator on Wellington T10s in 1951/2), but the details of the navigational problems encountered rang very true. A sincere and valuable tribute to all Bomber Command aircrew.

  4. Richard Hickmott November 24, 2011 / 3:31 am

    Why have Dambuster documentaries over the past 15 years overlooked additional info: No mention has been made of secondary dams earmarked in “Operation Chastise”: Lister, Ennepe, Diemel and maybe Beaver dams? Also, very little is ever mentioned of ‘Highball’ or that even Germany produced a working bouncing bomb, codenamed ‘Kurt’. The German version was rocket powered and was tested in late 43, but by then, priority had been given to the ‘V’ weapons.

    Just passing thought. Cheers, Richard.

    • philip croft November 24, 2011 / 12:51 pm

      Thats a good and relevant question that need to be adressed by docu makers. Fact is though, we are still (and rightly) praising our hero’s achievements, and not our ( former?) foes efforts to thwart them. Without doubt, had Hitler not intervened so much in the development of the Nazi ‘wonder weapons’, many of them, such as their rocket propelled bouncing bomb, might well have extended the war considerably. THIS story is a seperate issue, which has also been written about greatly, and available to those who wish to research it. OUR story benefits from ongoing and further patient research

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