Operation Chastise was different from the strategic bombing of German cities.

The strategic bombing of German cities remains to this day one of the most controversial aspects of World War II. Relentless, round-the-clock assaults on the German people resulted in the deaths of between 350,000 and 500,000, among them huge numbers of POWs and imported slave workers. The firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg and the reduction of Berlin to rubble are the best-known examples of this misbegotten campaign, but dozens of other German cities suffered equally. And, though the strategy was an Allied effort involving the Americans as well as the British, the man most closely identified with strategic bombing was the head of RAF‘s Bomber Command, Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris. Harris pursued the decimation of the German people with ruthless single-mindedness. History has not dealt kindly with him.

Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II by Max Hastings (2020) 400 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In Operation Chastise, British journalist and historian Max Hastings (1945-) assesses Harris’s role in the war with his usual refusal to accept the conventional wisdom. He is unsparing in his view of Harris as a thoroughly unpleasant and often wrong-headed obsessive who should have been sacked by his superiors. Yet, in considering the value of strategic bombing of German cities from the perspective of the war years, Hastings is more charitable. Unlike other observers, he takes pains to point out the considerable resources the Nazis diverted from the battlefront to protect themselves against the attacks on their cities. On balance, he finds sounder reasoning behind the strategy than others tend to do, although with evident distaste for the horrific loss of life.

An operation apart from the strategic bombing of German cities

Yet Operation Chastise highlights a mission executed by Bomber Command that was not consistent with the strategic bombing program. In fact, Air Marshall Harris fought its adoption at every stage with fierce resolution, regarding it as a wasteful diversion of resources from his cherished strategy. And when at length it succeeded, Harris adroitly managed to take credit for the operation. For years after the war, he was incorrectly credited with the operation, which had come to be regarded by the British people as the greatest success of the RAF since Fighter Command‘s triumph in the Battle of Britain three years earlier.

Bouncing bombs used to destroy the Ruhr dams

Operation Chastise was, in fact, nothing short of brilliant. It was the brainchild of Barnes Wallis (1887-1979), an engineer working for the Vickers aircraft company. Beginning in 1938, even before Britain entered the war, he was one of many who contemplated the potential strategic importance of bombing Germany’s dams. As Hastings portrays him, Wallis was a genius. His was the inventive mind behind improvements in several of Britain’s most important aircraft and munitions. But he is best known for inventing the “bouncing bomb” used to destroy two strategically significant dams in Germany’s Ruhr region in May 1943.

The bouncing bomb represented a departure from the strategic bombing of German cities.
Wallis’s bouncing bomb affixed to Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s specially fitted Lancaster B-III heavy bomber before leaving on Operation Chastise. Photo credit: RAF archives.

In recounting the story of Operation Chastise, Hastings relates in detail how Wallis struggled for years to advance his idea for the bouncing bomb in the face of a company preoccupied with other priorities and Bomber Harris’s relentless resistance in favor of strategic bombing. On its face, the idea seemed insane. Each plane would be fitted with a nine-ton cylindrical bomb mounted sideways on the bottom of the plane and spinning at hundreds of revolutions per minute. Wallis required bomber pilots to fly at a dangerously low altitude, skimming along the water as they approached each dam, and dropping the bomb a precise distance. If the pilot and bombardier got everything right, the bomb would literally skip along the water like a stone, climb the dam, slide back down, and detonate at exactly the right spot to punch a hole in the dam’s most vulnerable spot.

The facts about Operation Chastise came to light only gradually in the years following the war. Hastings has done an admirable job, digging through diaries and long-suppressed official records as well as interviews with relatives of those who were involved. His account focuses on the men of Squadron 617, which carried out the attack. Harris highlights many of the more than 500 men (and a few women) who took part — ground crew, support staff, and upper-echelon brass as well as the 130 courageous men who took to the skies in May 1943 to deliver on the chancy promise of Operation Chastise. The squadron commander, Wing Commander Guy Gibson (1918-44), comes in for special attention, but he is far from alone.

The enormous human toll of Operation Chastise

Appropriately, Hastings reports not just on the loss of life among the airmen who raided the Ruhr that fateful night but on the Germans living in the vicinity as well:

  • One hundred thirty airmen in nineteen specially-constructed Avro Lancaster Type B-III heavy bombers left England in three waves, following separate paths to the three dams targeted in the operation. Eight of those planes were lost, ending the lives of nearly half of those who flew in the operation. But many of those who survived the operation, including Guy Gibson, perished on later missions. “Less than a quarter of those men who attacked the dams survived to see VE-Day: of seventy-seven who returned safely . . . on that fateful morning two years earlier, just thirty-two remained alive in May 1945.” Operation Chastise had proven to claim casualties even higher than those of Bomber Command generally.
  • For Germans living in the region where the planes dropped their bouncing bombs, Operation Chastise was a catastrophe. Estimates of the number of dead range as high as 1,400 from the flood waters released by the destruction of the Möhne and Eder dams. Tens of thousands more lost their homes. The operation “killed by inundation far more civilians than had any earlier RAF raid in Sir Arthur Harris’s ‘Battle of the Ruhr’, or indeed any operation since the British strategic air offensive began.” And, as in so many attacks on cities, a great many of those who died were Allied POWs and foreign slave workers.

Assessing the impact of Operation Chastise

Like the strategic bombing of German cities, Operation Chastise proved to have limited impact on Nazi weapons production and the morale of the German people. Hastings quotes the German journalist Joachim Fest‘s (1926-2006) explanation: “‘the next few days [after Chastise] revealed how little Harris had thought the programme through . . . he never carried out the expected incendiary raids in the Ruhr which would have wreaked havoc because the fire brigades had no water . . . The same lack of method in Allied [air] strategy manifested itself time and again.” Thus, writes Hastings, “Sir Arthur Harris must be cast as the wicked fairy of Chastise. . . [H]is failure to mount operations to impede repair of the dams seems to reflect a petulance and stubbornness that were characteristic of his tenure of command.”

The historical context

In the spring of 1943, when Operation Chastise was organized, the Allies had turned the corner. In June the previous year, the US Navy had won a decisive victory at Midway. In November 1942, Field Marshal Montgomery had won the Second Battle of El Alamein, reversing Allied defeats in North Africa and setting the stage for the invasion of Italy. And, most significantly, the USSR had forced the surrender of Field Marshal Paulus at Stalingrad in February 1943. Yet, the British people hungered for their armed forces to execute a breakthrough closer to home. Victory in the Battle of Britain had come nearly three years earlier. Morale was lagging on the home front, and Operation Chastise helped boost spirits, whatever the ultimate judgment about its strategic importance. In the final analysis, Hastings suggests, “The launching of Chastise reflected the turning of the tide; it represented a small but symbolic step towards passage of the initiative in the historic struggle against Nazism to the Allied camp.”

For further reading

I’ve also reviewed a more ambitious book about World War II by Max Hastings: The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, reviewed at A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II.

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