…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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
Will it? Won’t it?
I must admit, I’m slightly surprised that they have released these particular sequences, as they answer the above questions quite emphatically!
Channel 4 has now announced that its documentary about the recreation of the Dams Raid will be aired on Monday 2 May at 8pm.
in May. No exact date has yet been given, but my guess that sometime around the raid’s anniversary on 16/17 May will be a good bet.
The story has been carried in this week’s Broadcast magazine. The content is behind a paywall, but I have reproduced extracts here:
Channel 4 has recreated the WWII mission to destroy two German dams that was immortalised in classic film The Dam Busters.
The Return Of The Dambusters (working title) is a 1 x 120-minute special from Windfall Films in which a team of experts attempt to use replicas of the famous ‘bouncing bombs’ to destroy a purpose-built, 130ft by 30ft concrete dam.
The film uses a modified Douglas DC4 aircraft built in WWII, which is a similar size and reaches the same top speed as the Lancaster bombers that gained notoriety [sic!] for obliterating the dams in Germany’s industrial heartland.
Cambridge engineer Dr Hugh Hunt, who has appeared as an expert on a stunt special of Channel 5’s Fifth Gear, led the mission, co-ordinating engineers, explosives experts, mechanics and aircrew.
The team behind the recreation of the 1943 mission also had fewer resources and less time than the WWII team.
Ian Duncan, director of Windfall Films, said: “By attempting to recreate a near-impossible WWII mission, this encompasses everything from ingenious resourcefulness to high-octane suspense.
“The Return Of The Dambusters will give viewers a vivid insight into a momentous part of our history, with a fascinating approach into reconstructing the bouncing bomb and building a model of the Möhne Dam.”
Below you can see a picture of the bomb attached to the
Dakota DC4 (thanks dg!) before it was dropped:
Those involved went to ground for a while but recently the project’s chief engineer, Dr Hugh Hunt, from the University of Cambridge, surfaced and gave a lecture on the engineering principles behind the bomb. (Hat tip, Stephen Cooke)
I’d welcome a report from anyone in the Cambridge area who attended the lecture.
The Dambusters Declassified documentary shown on BBC a couple of weeks ago wasn’t widely reviewed in the national press, but has been the subject of debate on a number of internet forums. One of these discussions, on a forum widely frequented by modern day pilots, had a surprising intervention from the film’s producer, Ian Cundall. Posting under the pretty cool name of ‘TVflyer’ he explained that they only had a short time to fix up the camera shots, so couldn’t get an exterior view of what it felt like to fly only 100 feet above the ground.
He countered the grumbles from some quarters that there was ‘nothing new’ in the programme:
Some of the stories told in the film are well known to aviation historians but – I’d suggest – not to most general viewers who base their knowledge of the raid on the movie.
That’s my view now, some time after transmission. When the programme finished my immediate conclusion was exactly that – there was nothing in it that I hadn’t read or heard about already. But some of the material which was used has only been previously published in pretty obscure books. One example is the story of how shot-down bomb aimer John Fraser was interrogated by the Germans, which to the best of my knowledge has only been discussed in detail in Helmuth Euler’s The Dams Raid through the Lens. It took a certain degree of bravery for his daughter Shere – a doughty defender of her father’s memory – to stand in front of a camera and say that he did reveal some details of how the weapon worked.
The only bit of the documentary which got picked up in the national press was the interview with Margaret Masters, the woman Guy Gibson was seeing in the run up to the Dams Raid. Again, this is well known to aficionados, as she was interviewed at length by Richard Morris for his 1994 biography of Gibson. But she has never spoken on camera before, which led the Mail on Sunday to cobble together a predictably sensationalist story based entirely on quotes from the programme.
What I think didn’t work was the use of Martin Shaw as a front man for the film. He’s a good enough actor, and has a private pilot’s licence, but I don’t think this necessarily qualifies him to ‘investigate’ on our behalf. There are real experts who could have fronted the programme – one, John Sweetman, appeared as an interviewee – but, of course, they are not as good box office as a hunky middle aged actor in serious spectacles, which he was able to take off several times with a theatrical flourish.
Shaw was also absent for some parts of the film – a woman’s voice could be heard during one of the interviews – and this betrays the fact that some parts were cobbled together from other BBC projects. Long term readers of this blog will know that as far back as June 2009 a BBC South West researcher had contacted me looking for information about the youngest Dambuster, rear gunner Jack Liddell. The last 15 minutes or so of Dambusters Declassified appeared to be made up of this material, tacked onto the end of Martin Shaw’s description of the difficulties of low flying.
Ultimately, it was a serious programme, with some interesting material, and well worth catching again if you can find it on iPlayer or other sources.