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.