Channel 5’s Dambusters pipedream

Presenter Dan Snow uses a pipe to channel the spirit of Guy Gibson while sitting in his Scampton office.

Filmed and put together in the summer and autumn of 2020, the first part of Channel 5’s new three-episode documentary The Dambusters Story was shown on UK television tonight. All in all, it was a competent and well-organised retelling of Operation Chastise, and introduced a few new faces into the normal cast of talking heads.

As it was shot during lockdown, the producers only got limited access to the operation’s real life locations. Fortunately these included RAF Bomber Command’s 5 Group headquarters in Grantham, now a private house, so presenter Dan Snow could describe how Guy Gibson had to wait outside his CO’s office by sitting down himself on a chair in the actual hallway. Much of the rest of the action took place at RAF Scampton, both inside and outside (a Red Arrow could be glimpsed in the distance in some external scenes) and at East Kirkby airfield where a genuine wartime Lancaster is preserved. This gave many different shots for Snow to exploit. He used the aircraft both as a prop – a pat on the fuselage, a push on the propellor – and as a stage from which to address the camera, sitting in the cockpit and the front and rear turrets. The German dams themselves were too far to travel for the rest of the exterior shots, so Snow was reduced to delivering many of his lines from the much smaller British dam in the Peak District which had been used for target practice, and while standing on a beach which frankly could have been anywhere.

There was also plenty of reliance on CGI, especially for the raid itself, and those slow motion reconstructed shots much loved by modern directors of actors doing things – smoking, chatting, lying on the grass, climbing in and out of aircraft, and talking on the intercom while in flight. These were added to with heavily repeated use of the few bits of archive newsreel footage featuring Gibson, and also with stock wartime film of Lancasters in flight and RAF chaps going about their business.

The script stuck heavily to the familiar narrative. Barnes Wallis, a ‘maverick inventor’ (neither word being one which I suspect Wallis himself would be happy with), designed a literally revolutionary weapon which could be used to attack Germany’s great dams. Sceptical civil servants and RAF chiefs were eventually persuaded to back his project, but gave him only about two months in which to get the work finished. A special bomber squadron was set up, given the number 617, and commanded by the young Wing Commander Gibson, who was widely respected even though he could be a tyrannical leader. Almost 150 men were posted to the squadron (the solecism that they were all ‘hand-picked’ by Gibson was fortunately not repeated). The raid was largely successful, but 53 of the 133 men who took part were killed. There was tremendous loss of life on the ground, with hundreds of captured women forced into a labour camp being the most egregious. Wallis was desolated at the loss of life.

There were some things that jarred. We were told about Cyril Anderson and his crew who returned with their bomb and were then sent back to their original squadron, “in disgrace”. No mention, however, of how they had a jammed rear turret and couldn’t see the target because of fog. Or that Anderson’s crew were devoted to him – all six of them never flew with another pilot. The whole crew went on to undertake 14 more operations and they died together when they were shot down by a German night fighter four months later.

There were also some errors, the most obvious being that “bombing-up” took place inside the hangars. Some sort of accident did cause Martin’s mine to fall off his aircraft accidentally during this procedure, but it happened on the hardstanding.

This repetition of the same old narrative of the Dams Raid makes one hanker for the producer who one day will go for its many untold stories, and explore them in a TV documentary.

Some of these were hinted at here, but others were passed over. There were at least four men who had pregnant wives, and two of these died. A number had only flown on a handful of operations – one, on his first, won the DFM for his meticulous navigation. There was also a wireless operator due to get married the following week and a navigator who had been asked by a doctor whether a recent case of VD had been acquired from an ‘amateur’ or a prostitute. The only child of Anderson, mentioned above, and his wife died aged four months just three weeks before he was sent to 617 Squadron. These are the personal stories, but there are questions about the tactics as well. Why wasn’t sufficient thought given to the method of attacking the Sorpe Dam? And why weren’t the post-operation repair works targeted later in the year? The latter was mentioned by Max Hastings in one of his contributions, but the subject deserves a lot more research and the answer may well be buried in files at the National Archives.

A three pipe problem, indeed, for today’s band of TV historians to get stuck into.

There are two more episodes, to be transmitted on Wednesday and Thursday. This review has been compiled after watching all three.

Review on The Arts Desk.
Review on iNews

13 thoughts on “Channel 5’s Dambusters pipedream

  1. Caroline Howell December 2, 2020 / 6:47 am

    The programme was better than expected. Mind you, my expectations of ‘docutainment’ broadcasts aren’t very high! I’m grateful that Dan Snow hasn’t yet joined the arm waving & repeating back what the interviewee just said, brigade.
    I do find the much repeated clips of actors donning their flying helmets & standing around chatting, really frustrating. Their use is pure ‘filler’.
    With less time spent on these banal inclusions, there would have been more time for the ‘human interest’ stories about the airman & their families.

    I had thought I must have missed something when you spoke about the crews returning, until you mentioned that you have seen all three episodes.
    I do hope that the fate of the crews gets an in depth mention. I don’t think most people realise the horrific rate of attrition.

    I’m being picky, but Dan could have mentioned that Joe McCarthy was an American in the RCAF, who joined up before the US entered the war. If they were going to concentrate on an individual pilot, then they could have included some interview footage of Johnny Johnson describing his absolute confidence that Joe would get them home safely, with his exceptional piloting skills. I wouldn’t necessarily expect a new interview with such an elderly man, but he has spoken many times about the raid, and both he and Joe have written biographies to draw upon.

    I wonder if we will see The Petwood House Hotel tonight and the remains of a bouncing bomb, to give an idea of their size.

    While I appreciate that film makers have to choose what to include and what to leave out, less repetition of pretty meaningless snippets would leave room for detail and possibly debate. I’ll be interested to see/hear the final conclusions Dan Snow draws on Operation Chastise. We were at war.

    Just a random thought, but isn’t Scampton due to be turned into a housing estate?

  2. Reuben Holmes December 2, 2020 / 11:06 am

    Having only watched the first episode my impression was it just echoed other similar programs on the subject matter especially the piece which involved trying to replicate how difficult it was to navigate to the target. Nice to see St Vincents given more air time but in general it was pretty Plain Jane viewing, none the more at least it fills a few hours viewing time in these awkward times we are currently living in.

  3. Christopher Leworthy December 4, 2020 / 11:52 am

    I thought that the series was good enough, but a bit of a reiteration of other documentaries, with nothing which was new or surprising, although I hadn’t seen the Maltby flyover shot before.
    Felt it was a bit of a missed opportunity and could have covered the ‘why no follow up’ question more fully, plus an analysis of the true strategic value of the raid.
    It did emphasise the bravery, skill and youth of the crews. Their performance was truly remarkable and that came over.

  4. Neil Turner December 5, 2020 / 4:28 pm

    My father was a Sgt Pilot for PFF on Lancasters. He qualified right at the end of the war, so missed the conflict.
    Im a Lancaster buff, seen and read most stuff. As a boy dad took me to climb jnto Just Jane when it was a gate guardian at Squires Gate airport, Blackpool in the early 70s.
    I enjoyed this documentary but didnt learn much that was new.
    It’s s shame there was some PC box ticking, with some talking heads who stated the obvious. This took something away from the films i felt.

  5. Tony Knight December 7, 2020 / 3:24 pm

    I thought it lacked detail, failed to properly explain why the dams were so important, the detail about the raid was lacking and poor. The attack itself as described was rushed, no mention of Waldeck Castle was made at the Eder, an important landmark that was used to help guide them. The facts relating to the Russian forced labour camp were wrong, it was below the Mohne not the Eder. The script relating to the attack on the Eder were made up by a five year old I think. No people or cars were washed away there, the Eder sits in a beautiful rural valley setting, the main victims were cattle.

    Every documentary on the Dams Raid has the opportunity to improve upon the last. This one failed dismally, the documentaries featuring John Sweetman some 20 + years ago are far, far better.

    • charlesfoster December 10, 2020 / 8:04 pm

      Tony — there were errors in the script and presentation, and I have dealt with this in my later post. However, I’ve checked the video again and I think you are unfair in saying that the documentary said that the forced labour camp was at the Eder. Snow discusses the casualties at both the Möhne and Eder together and doesn’t make it clear at which dam the labour camp was situated. But he never expressly says that it was at the Eder. CF

      • Tony Knight December 10, 2020 / 8:35 pm

        Thanks for the reply Charles, no he doesn’t make it clear but by inference the Eder is implied as the information is delivered towards the end and after the section covering the Eder attack. I’m sure that is how it will have come across to the viewer who knows no better. Considering they are a major TV Channel and have loads of available resources, I think it was poor.

        I’ve just completely by chance come across this 50 minute presentation complete with some excellent computer generated imagery and it’s excellent. It has much better and more accurate detail, not perfect but pretty damn good in 50 minutes.

        All the best.

      • Tony Knight December 10, 2020 / 9:09 pm

        I’ve just watched that piece on the Eder again Charles and it’s plainly wrong. He describes the collapse of the Eder Dam: Quoting Gibson, “As if a giant hand had punched through it and a tidal wave of water poured down the valley sweeping cars, buildings, bridges and people away”. . That is wrong, that was what happened at the Mohne Dam ! He’s mixed the two up !I

      • charlesfoster December 11, 2020 / 1:17 am

        Tony, it’s possible that this text is conflated from various sources. In Enemy Coast Ahead, Gibson described the collapse of the Eder “as if a gigantic hand had punched a hole through cardboard, the whole thing collapsed”. In Knight’s crew, Bob Kellow uses a similar phrase, describing it as a huge fist jabbed against the wall, which caused a large almost round black hole to appear. Edward Johnson then talked about the water pouring down the river and engulfing cars. The exact quotes are in the Max Arthur book.
        In Sweetman’s book, he writes that both Sumpter (Shannon crew) and O’Brien saw cars being engulfed at the Eder.

  6. Clive Smith December 8, 2020 / 4:31 pm

    I thought this three part documentary was generally ok but like others I think it could have gone into more detail about the personnel involved and not just the usual big names, but the lesser known crews. Also I’m sure we don’t really need to know about marbles in a tin bath, torch lights on the surface of the water and the wooden bomb aiming device (no mention of the alternative markings on the Perspex dome that some used) time and time again.

  7. MR MALCOLM E PEEL December 13, 2020 / 2:25 pm

    With regard to the comments about the lack of further raids on the reconstuction work, I read somewhere that the main reason was that the defences on all the dams in the Ruhr had been beefed-up to such an extent that it would be impossible to make a low level attack which ruled out using the bouncing bomb again.
    That meant bombing from altitude and would this be accurate enough to hit a relatively small target?
    Bomber Command were chastised (!) earlier in the war for the inaccuracy of their bombing and had it improved enough for this to work.

    • Tony Knight December 13, 2020 / 5:07 pm

      You wouldn’t have needed Upkeep Malcolm as the Germans couldn’t afford to use the miles of steel scaffold required, so a lattice framework was constructed from wood. Incendiary attacks could have disrupted the rebuild, something Speer feared if you read ‘Inside the Third Reich’ .

      • Malcolm Peel December 13, 2020 / 5:14 pm

        That would have done the trick!
        Thanks for that.

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