Persistence and Courage: Operation Chastise

The Möhne dam the day following the attacks. Wikipedia

Sometimes the wildest ideas turn out not to be so wild after all. Like designing an aerial bomb that skips across the water like a flat stone and blows up dams.

That would be World War II’s Operation Chastise. On the night of May 16-17 1943, lumbering four-engine Lancaster strategic bombers of the Royal Air Force’s specially assembled 617 Squadron, flying at insanely low levels, breached the Mohne and Eder dams in north-west Germany. It’s one of the most fascinating stories of the war.

Max Hastings, author of 27 books, including Bomber Command, chronicles the complete operation in Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943 ( By complete, I also mean he describes the raid’s impact on the German population: about 1,400 civilians died in the floods that swept through the Mohne valley, more than half of them Russian and Polish women who were slave laborers.

Did the success of this operation shorten the war? No, the impact was not as decisive as first hoped, which leads to an analysis of what went wrong. Perhaps if the attack on the third Sorpe Dam had been given a higher priority (this dam was hit by two bombs but not breeched) or if conventional bombing had followed up to disrupt the Nazi’s frantic repair efforts, the disruption of the enemy’s war machine would have been more than temporary. The entire episode invites discussion of the effectiveness of strategic bombing, especially when noncombatants are involved, during World War II.

But that should take nothing away from the accomplishment. Despite the high cost — of 19 launched aircraft, eight (with 56 crewmembers) didn’t come home — the story demonstrates the single-minded determination and perseverance to sell the idea to a skeptical high command and overcome myriad technical and logistical problems, then unbelievable airmanship and courage to execute the plan. If nothing else, the mission’s (limited) success gave a much-needed boost in Allied morale, and showed what can be accomplished when you have the guts to try.

The story is also told in the 1955 movie The Dam Busters (

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