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Publisher's Summary

One of the most lauded historians of our time returns to the Second World War in this magnificent retelling of the awe-inspiring raid on German dams conducted by the Royal Army Force’s 617 Squadron.

The attack on Nazi Germany’s dams on May 17, 1943, was one of the most remarkable feats in military history. The absurdly young men of the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron set forth in cold blood and darkness, without benefit of electronic aids, to fly lumbering heavy bombers straight and level towards a target at a height above the water less than the length of a bowling alley. Yet this story - and the later wartime experience of the 617 Squadron - has never been told in full. 

Max Hastings takes us back to the May 1943 raid to reveal how the truth of that night is considerably different from the popularized account most people know. The RAF had identified the Ruhr dams as strategic objectives as far back as 1938; in those five years Wing Commander Guy Gibson formed and trained the 617 Squadron. Hastings observes that while the dropping of Wallis’s mines provided the dramatic climax, only two of the eight aircraft lost came down over the dams - the rest were shot down on the flight to, or back from, the mission. And while the 617 Squadron’s valor is indisputable, the ultimate industrial damage caused by the dam raid was actually rather modest. 

In 1943, these brave men caught the imagination of the world and uplifted the weary spirits of the British people. Their achievement unnerved the Nazi high command, and caused them to expend large resources on dam defenses - making the mission a success. An example of Churchill’s "military theatre" at its best, what 617 Squadron did was an extraordinary and heroic achievement, and a triumph of British ingenuity and technology - a story to be told for generations to come.

©2020 Max Hastings (P)2020 HarperCollins Publishers

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Wish He Had Stuck to the Core Story

Most readers are generally familiar with the story of the RAF "dam busters" attack on German dams either from prior books or film. This book purports to offer a complete and "balanced" view of Operation Chastise, the name for the attack.

Hastings does a great job in profiling the main characters, particularly Barnes Wallace, the inventor of the weapon, and Guy Gibson, the 24 year old Commander who led the raid. The story of the development of the bomb and the political and military intrigue is well done. The story of the mission is gripping.

Where the book gets a little off track, at least to me, is in its effort to add "balance." The story of the aftermath of the flooding in the wake of the destruction of the dams is important and should be told. It confirms that war--particularly total war such as World War II--is indeed hell. Hastings makes a point of noting that many of the approximately 1500 who died in the aftermath were not Germans, but were slave laborers. Hastings seems to think that the RAF should somehow have known this, but with little seeming consideration of who enslaved them and put them there.

Another place where the book loses its impact--and arguably contradicts itself--is in its assessment of Chastise. Although noting the immediate impact on the Ruhr and German war production, Hastings tends to conclude (as others did) that the operation had fairly minimal (although some) impact on the war. However, Hastings earlier notes in great detail that the failure was that of Arthur Harris Bomber Command to follow up on the raid--basically, the Germans were allowed to rebuild the dams without any follow-up bombing efforts, as Speer and others in Germany feared.

What really appears to get Hastings' goat is Bomber Command's carpet bombing operations and its widespread destruction of German cities, which he finds appalling. But that is a different subject. Ironically, Hastings lumps Chastise into this criticism, when in fact it involved (and largely achieved) a discrete tactical objective.

At one point late in the book, Hastings offers the view that Bomber Command could have spent its resources in other more efficient ways than bombing ... such as? Hastings has no answer, particularly considering the resources available at the time. Commander Gibson probably offered a more correct view in a speech that is quoted in the book. Gibson did not think--contrary to the view of Arthur Harris--that bombing alone could win the war, but, as he said, it could soften them up.

And what Gibson said is exactly what happened. If not for air superiority that had been achieved by June 1944, the D-Day invasion would probably have been a failure, or, at a minimum, thousands more lives would have been lost. The bombing, horrific as it was, played an important role--although not the only role--in defeating the Luftwaffe and achieving air superiority.

This is a good book. It's too bad the author gets sidetracked by after the fact analysis--much of which appears dubious and some of which seems internally inconsistent.

The narration is OK--just OK.

3 people found this helpful

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Beautifully written and read.

A beautifully written, anti-triumphalist description of this brilliant feat of arms and the doomed characters who both accomplished it and suffered the consequences. Exciting and soul searching. Listeners will mourn the pilots and their till now unconsidered victims equally.
A remarkable accomplishment, to produce both a breathtaking adventure and heartbreaking tragedy.

3 people found this helpful

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Moving Gripping & Beautifully Written

Having read a favorable review of this title in the Wall St Journal (for me personally, a remarkably reliable source for book reviews), I bought Operation Chastise for Audible. I was instantly drawn in to the telling of this amazing story, both scientific, leadership and execution. Shout-out to Peter Noble for his emotive and perfect execution of the narration.

For historical, WWII stories, this was one of my favorite books in a long time.

The author, Max Hastings, a literary legend himself, peels the onion in storytelling about the concept and development of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs, RAF infighting led by Bomber Command Chief Arthur Harris, and of course the “boy” Guy Gibson and his #617 Squadron airmen who flew the 1943 raid under his youthful command.

The telling of this Great War story, rich with details at every level, was so enjoyable that I found myself looking for every opportunity to take drives, pull out my AirPods, and just listen.

If the Allied air war against Nazi Germany is of interest to you, get this great book! It will not disappoint.

2 people found this helpful

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Hastings preoccupied with moral pronunciations

The story is amazing. However, 1/2 of the way through I’m sick to death of Hastings’ constant questioning of the moral-rightness of war in general and the air-war in particular. Max, nations from the beginning of time have had to fight. They’ve called on their sons to kill and die. There, it’s said... can we get on with THIS story?

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A thorough, balanced historical narrative

This is but another gem of accurate, balanced military history from a highly respected historian.

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The story behind the myths and propaganda

A fain and interesting insight into a mythical part of the highly destructive but now clearly seriously devalued bombing offensive by the allies in WW2 and this mission. A great insight for any student of air warfare.