Return of the Dambusters
The Exploits of World War II’s Most Daring Flyers after the Flood
Overlook Press, New York, 2016, 384 pages
Book Review published on: March 3, 2017
Most baby boomers will remember the famous Dam Busters, even if they are not particularly interested in military history. The 1955 movie was a regular staple of late night television for many years. Very few, however, know much about the exploits of the 617 Squadron following the raid on the Ruhr Valley dams in May 1943. The war in Europe would continue for two additional years. During those years, the 617 Squadron continued to contribute, putting its special skills—low level, night operations, extreme accuracy, and delivery of highly specialized weapons—to work. Astute historians may recall that the 617 Squadron was the force that finally destroyed the German battleship Tirpitz, but the rest of the squadron’s contributions have remained obscure. John Nichol has accomplished the valuable service of resolving that deficiency, and filling in the blanks for the rest of us with Return of the Dambusters.
For those unfamiliar with the famous Dambusters raid, using Barnes Wallis’s unique water-skipping bomb, Nichol provides a synopsis of the operation in the first chapter. In this prequel chapter, he also introduces readers to several characters who played key roles in later operations and appear throughout the book. A few—very few—survived the war. In the attack on the dams, the 617 Squadron lost eight of nineteen aircraft—42 percent casualties. It would get worse before it got better. The next major operation, an attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, resulted in a loss rate of 62.5 percent. Such losses were not sustainable, and they caused a reassessment of the tactics and employment of the squadron. The most significant change was a shift to high-altitude operations, largely for survival, but also to use Wallis’s next generation of specialty bombs, the 12,000-pound “Tallboy” and the 20,000-pound “Grand Slam,” both designed as hard target and earth penetrator weapons.
While the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) “Main Force” conducted primarily nighttime carpet-bombing operations with large numbers of aircraft on each operation, the 617 Squadron focused on precision strikes with relatively small forces. Although Main Force suffered larger total numbers of casualties, the 617 Squadron’s loss rate continued to exceed that of Main Force. The RAF never employed the bouncing bomb again; instead, the 617 Squadron became the operational test bed for employment of Wallis’s Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs against high value, heavily defended targets. These weapons, and their employment by the 617 Squadron, sometimes in conjunction with other squadrons, were responsible for the destruction of V-1 and V-2 rocket manufacturing, storage, assembly, and launch sites. They also destroyed viaducts, railroad tunnels, aircraft factories, super-hardened submarine pens, and a V-3 “supergun” site, and they ultimately sank the Tirpitz.
Throughout the book, Nichol weaves in personal narratives from the Squadron’s survivors, particularly those few who remained as of the writing of the book. In so doing, he provides an intimate look at the human dimension of war in the air—its triumphs and tragedies, and how the war affected its participants. This is a must read for any student of the air war in Europe.
Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas