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

New Channel 5 documentary airs this week, starting tomorrow

If you live in the UK — and have access to Channel 5 — you can catch a new three part TV documentary this week. Airing on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 9pm each night it is presented by Dan Snow with contributions from Max Hastings, Robert Owen and Victoria Taylor amongst others.

The series was filmed in lockdown conditions earlier this year. Come back to this website tomorrow at 9pm for an exclusive review!


Tune in tonight…

What The Dambusters Did Next
…to the UK’s Channel 5 at 9pm, to watch a documentary presented by John Nichol called “What the Dambusters did next”. 77 men returned from the Dams Raid and all continued to serve in 617 Squadron or other parts of Bomber Command for the remainder of the war. Such were the dangers they faced, that a staggering 31 more would die in active service before peace arrived.
This film, directed by Matthew Wortman, looks at what the squadron did between June 1943 and May 1945 when they took on some of the war’s toughest targets, such as the Antheor and Belfield viaducts and the Tirpitz, and became the first squadron to drop the giant new bombs devised by Barnes Wallis.
Several of the squadron’s wartime veterans took part in this documentary, and there are also contributions from German combatants, and modern day historians amongst whom, I might modestly add, is myself.
It should be available online afterwards, and I will post a link later.

Bouncing bomb reaches US screens

If you haven’t yet caught up with the Windfall Films documentary Building the Bouncing Bomb, screened last May in the UK and later in Canada, you now have a chance to see it, if you live in the USA. It’s being screened on PBS’s Nova documentary channel on Wednesday 11 January at 9pm (not sure which time zone that applies to). The title has been changed to Bombing Hitler’s Dams.

The background to the documentary was extensively covered in this blog at the time it was shot, in October 2010, and when it was released in the UK, in May 2011. Go back to the posts from those two months if you want further information.

My favourite picture from that time is the shot of Dambuster Grant MacDonald (rear gunner in Ken Brown’s AJ-F) visiting the site of the shoot. Here it is again!

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!

Another date for the diary

BBC2 is to screen yet another documentary about the Dams Raid next Tuesday, 8 November at 9pm. Subtitled “The Race to Smash the German Dams”, this promises to be a less superficial film than last autumn’s effort, which was fronted by an actor rather than a historian.

The writer and presenter James Holland would appear to have done a lot of research, even flying to New Zealand to interview Les Munro, and has only just finished the final editing, according to this entry on his blog.

The two main thrusts of the film would seem to be the speed at which the operation was put together – something which is covered well in John Sweetman’s seminal book on the raid – and the fact that not all the crews were as experienced as some accounts would suggest. The myth that Gibson “hand picked” the crew is something that has crept into the story from his book, Enemy Coast Ahead, but as this section of the book is based on an article in the Sunday Express which was ghost written for him, it is not a reliable account.

In fact, many of the pilots were pretty experienced, having done a full tour or the best part of one. But their crews may not have been. David Maltby, for example, had just come back to 97 Squadron to start a second tour, and had been allocated a new crew, not long out of training. They then moved as a unit to 617 Squadron, and for some, including navigator Vivian Nicholson, the Dams Raid was their first operation.

James Holland has also posted a transcript of his interview with Les Munro on his website. It is a very rough transcription, full of mishearings and typing errors, but interesting if you want to hear Les’s words first hand.

Meet the bomb-bouncers at Cheltenham

If you enjoyed the ‘bouncing bomb’ documentary on Channel 4 earlier this month then you will be pleased to know that the engineers involved, Hugh Hunt and Hilary Costello, will be speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival on Sunday 12 June. Details here. Apparently it will cover extra material that didn’t appear in the documentary itself, so it could be well worth the six quid it will cost you to attend!

Hello, good evening and welcome

If this is your first visit to the only Dambusters blog on the interwebnet, you are very welcome. You may well have arrived here after watching the Channel 4 documentary on Monday 2 May, in which modern engineers rebuilt a working ‘bouncing bomb’. This was previewed in various articles, one of which you can see here from the Daily Telegraph.
This blog tries to keep people up to date with Dambusters news from around the world. And because WordPress tells me the search questions which people have asked to arrive at the blog I know that there are two subjects which are likely to be uppermost in your mind.

1. What is happening to the remake of The Dam Busters?
Back in 2006 the producer Peter Jackson announced that he was to remake the classic 1955 film, The Dam Busters. A director, Christian Rivers, was assigned to the project, and a script was commissioned from British national treasure Stephen Fry. Jackson and several other sources have said several times that the project is still ongoing. The script is finished, at least one full size model Lancaster has been built, and test filming has been undertaken. But the Jackson team, based in his native New Zealand, are currently preoccupied with several other projects, notably The Hobbit, and it is now quite obvious that The Dam Busters is lower down the schedule than they have let on.

Lancaster full size model, shown to the press in July 2009

2. How many of the original Dam Busters are still alive?
I am happy to report that four of the aircrew who took part in the raid in May 1943 are alive and well. One, Grant MacDonald, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, visited the Windfall Films/Channel 4 team while they were making the documentary last October. He was the rear gunner in Ken Brown’s crew in AJ-F. Also living in Canada is Fred Sutherland, front gunner in the crew which dropped the bomb which broke the Eder Dam, Les Knight’s AJ-N. The only pilot still with us is Les Munro, who captained AJ-W on the raid. He lives in his native New Zealand, and has been reported as being involved in the Jackson remake project as a technical advisor. And finally, of course, there is George (“Johnny”) Johnson, bomb aimer in Joe McCarthy’s AJ-T, who lives in Devon and who was interviewed for the C4 documentary..

My own involvement in the Dambusters story is that my uncle, David Maltby, was the pilot of AJ-J on the raid, and dropped the fifth ‘bouncing bomb’ which made the final breach in the Möhne Dam. He and his entire crew were killed four months later, returning from an aborted attack on the Dortmund Ems Canal. David is buried in St Andrew’s Church in Wickhambreaux, Kent. You can read more about David and his crew on my other website, or in my book, Breaking the Dams, which was published in May 2008.