Book Review: Dam Busters: The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the German Dams in 1943

Dam Busters: The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the German Dams in 1943 by James Holland is the story of one of the more interesting innovations of World War II and the brave men who carried out the mission. James Holland was born in Salisbury in 1970 and educated at Durham University. He is the author of Fortress MaltaItaly’s SorrowThe Battle of Britain and The Sergeant Jack Tanner series of historical fiction.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking, “Where have I read this before?”: long distance bombing mission, nearly impossible target, near seat of the pants navigation, and British fliers. Then I remember reading Vulcan 607 (the 1982 bombing mission of the Falkland Islands) and the parallels are remarkable. I am beginning to think these types of missions just might be a RAF tradition. This story takes place in World War II and involves the newly formed 617th Squadron. 

Britain is looking for a way to bring the war to an early close. Germany is stalled in Russian and the tide is beginning to turn. In Germany, the population is suffering from seemingly endless bombings from the British and American bombers. They are beginning to doubt Hitler and his leadership but something needs to be done to give the German people the final push and break their spirit and their will to continue the fight. Factories have been bombed, oil reserves have been bombed, coal mines have been bombed, the last source of power is “white coal.” White coal was water power: hydroelectric dams. Holland takes time in the book to give a brief history of German hydroelectric and dam building. Barnes Wallis, Assistant Chief Designer at Vickers-Armstrong,has and idea how to bring and early end to the war by attacking the dams. 

“The commander-in-Chief of the RAF’s bomber force could not have been clearer. No matter what was being discussed in the corridors of the Air Ministry and the MAP, there would be no such operation taking place if he had anything to do with it. His machines – and his bomber boys – were too valuable to be wasted on mad schemes cooked up by half-baked scientists.”

Holland takes time to introduce the major players the story and relate some information of their personal lives. Many people have seen the movie and most recall only Wallis, Gibson (wing commander), and his dog. The lives and history of the other pilots and crews are discussed in some detail. Wallis’ battle to bring his bomb into the war is a major part of the book. Like most great ideas, it takes a serious effort to bring the bomb from the design stage to put on planes flying over Germany. 

Dam Busters is a very worthwhile read. Holland writes an excellent history and documents his as well as the introduction players from higher ups in the government and military to all the pilots and crew members of the nineteen planes. Recommended to anyone interested in World War II, the RAF, and secret war time missions.

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