On May 16–17, 1943, the Royal Air Force’s 617 Squadron flew on a mission to destroy dams in Germany’s Ruhr River Valley. Twenty-nine of those 133 men, nicknamed “dam busters,” were Canadian. While the raid is well known to history buffs, celebrated historian Ted Barris feels that the Canadian perspective has gone missing from the story. His new book aims to redress that omission.
Barris starts in the late 1930s, when the idea first arose to target German infrastructure. Once war was declared, plans and training for the Ruhr River Valley attack began. While some of the technical details are difficult to follow, Barris makes the complexity of the situation for the engineers and crew abundantly clear.
Every aspect of the raid is described in Dam Busters, including the heavy losses. Barris does such a good job of introducing the individual airmen that the reader feels each death acutely. The ruin inflicted on Germany, including 11 factories destroyed and 41 others severely damaged, is presented as evidence of the raid’s success. The British government’s loud celebration makes it clear that a morale boost was also a very tangible benefit of the mission.
The surviving crew continued to play a role in the war, participating in a failed raid on a German canal and an operation in advance of D-Day during which they used their flying skills to fool the German high command into expecting an invasion to the east of the actual Normandy landing sites.
The Canadian perspective is most fully realized in the last chapters of the book. These pages focus on such matters as the creation of the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta, and how some of the airmen’s descendants fought to regain precious war memorabilia from an unscrupulous collector. It does feel like a lot of information to digest after the extensively detailed retelling of the raid itself.
Barris provides a clear narrative and excellent character sketches. The names, ranks, and engineering specifications sometimes threaten to overwhelm the reader, but for the most part the story remains exciting for a layperson, who can choose to ignore the more technical details. And Barris’s fierce advocacy for the respect we owe Canadian veterans and their families continues to inspire.