Some of those people who know the story of the specially formed 617 Squadron and the daring night-time mission may be familiar with it not through the book but from watching the famous British film of 1955, starring Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd. But the book is difficult to top and we rate it as the best we have read about aerial warfare since “By Jove, Biggles!”, a biography of Biggles author Captain W.E. Johns and his World War One flying exploits, when his fellow pioneer pilots found new ways to die just about every single day.

The “Dam Busters” story begins with Barnes Wallis, the epitome of the eccentric scientist, except that his way-out inventions proved to be well-thought-out and they tended to work. As the war began in September 1939, Wallis was an aircraft designer and engineer at Vickers, the prominent British engineering company that produced aircraft, armaments and ships. He “was a little insulated from the rough and tumble of ordinary life by a mind virtually on another plane, immersed in figures and theories”, as Brickhill describes him.

Wallis’ one thought as the war got under way was what could he do to shorten it? He was designing bombers and bombs, and he wondered where and how bombing could hurt Germany the most. He decided the best way would be to hit the dams that were the source of Germany’s hydroelectric power. Without them there could be no production and no transport. No weapons. No war.

Three dams stood out – the Moehne, the Eder and the Sorpe. All in the Ruhr, they were vital in supplying water to the German steelworks and in allowing transport to and from the foundries. But dropping a bomb on top of a solid concrete dam that was 300 feet thick at the base wouldn’t be effective. The RAF did not have a bomb big enough for the job, and if they did, no bomber could carry it.

Wallis devised theories but first had to overcome bureaucratic minds that had more pressing wartime needs to deal with than a wild scheme to bomb seemingly indestructible dams. Eventually he got important people to listen to his ideas and he began to experiment with a new kind of barrel-shaped bomb designed – like a skipping stone – to bounce along the surface of the Ruhr lakes and sink deep just before the dam wall before exploding – the right spot to provide a seismic shock against the thick foundation.

The heavy Lancaster aircraft had to be adapted to carry the huge bombs, one each, partly sticking out of the fuselage. Special steel had to be forged for the bomb casings, a new bomb-sight had to be improvised and two spotlights were added to the aircraft to shine on the surfaces of the lakes: when the lights merged together on the water, the bombers were at the correct altitude.

The bombs had to be dropped at a sufficiently low altitude at the correct speed and distance from the dams. They also had to be spinning backwards at over 500 revolutions per minute – requiring another small innovation aboard the Lancasters – so as to start skipping for a significant distance over the surface of the water – and defensive torpedo nets – in a series of diminishing bounds before reaching the dam wall.

The bombs were essentially specially designed, heavy depth-charges. The residual spin would run them down the side of the dams toward their underwater base. A hydrostatic fuse would enable the bomb to explode against the dam some distance below the surface of the water, creating an “earthquake” effect.

The special 617 Squadron Bomber Command led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson was formed from among the best pilots and crews throughout the RAF. Nineteen Lancasters set out on May 16-17, 1943, on the dangerous mission. The brave airmen flew repeatedly at deadly low altitude through thick flak. Two dams were breached and one was slightly damaged, unleashing nearly 350 million tons of water that swept away factories, roads, railways and about 1600 civilians, including 1000-plus prisoners and forced labourers, mainly Soviet.

Eight aircraft were shot down and 53 aircrew killed. Three were taken prisoner. Wallis was distraught at the human losses but the damage to the German war machine was great.

The “Dam Busters" raid occupies about the first half of the book, so the story doesn’t end there. 617 Squadron developed a reputation as a suicide squadron, undertaking further dangerous attacks against prime targets such as factories, rail and canal networks, coastal defences and the Tirpitz destroyer in a Norwegian fjord.

Colossal new “earthquake” bombs such as “Tallboys” and the monstrous 22,000lb “Grand Slam” allowed further successful strikes against previously invulnerable U-boat pens and rocket weapon sites protected by thick concrete.

Again and again, the young men used their flying skills, their tremendous courage and Wallis' highly accurate and innovative bombs to deal devastating blows to the enemy. They experimented with new bomb sights and target marking techniques on specialist precision operations designed to minimise civilian casualties.

Paul Brickhill was born in 1916 in Melbourne, Australia. He volunteered in 1940 and for five years was a fighter pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force. He flew Hurricane bombers at El Alamein, was transferred to Spitfires and was shot down in Tunisia in 1943. In a German prisoner-of-war camp he worked on “X” Escape Organisation.

After the war, he became a Fleet Street journalist. He also wrote the true war books “Reach for the Sky: The Story of Douglas Bader”, the legless fighter ace who fought in the Battle of Britain, and “The Great Escape”, two other stirring tales of World War Two.

Written less than a decade after the raid, Brickhill incorporated material from “Enemy Coast Ahead”, the wartime memoir by Guy Gibson VC, DSO, DFC.

“The Dam Busters” is one of the classic episodes of the Second World War, expertly and thrillingly written.

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