Dambusters – The Politics Behind the Raid

Dambusters - The Politics Behind the Raid

On Thursday, 4th February, 1943, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, received a new directive, originally drawn up a couple of weeks earlier during the Joint Chiefs of Staffs’ Casablanca Conference. ‘Your prime objective,’ the Directive instructed, ‘will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.’

As far as Harris was concerned, it was a ringing endorsement of all that he had been pressing so hard for since taking over the Command the previous February. It was a Directive designed for the tools that he had: increasing numbers of heavy bombers and larger bombs and improving navigational aids. And that meant the area bombing of Germany’s major industrial cities.

Harris had spent the best part of a year building up his Command to carry out precisely what the Directive was demanding, and although it was still not the force he hoped it would become, and although early use of two new navigational aids, Oboe and H2S, had proved disappointing, he was sure that performance would improve. They key, now, was for both the Chiefs of Staff and the Air Ministry – indeed all of Britain’s war leaders – to give him the kind of focussed support he needed. It had, in truth, been a frustrating first year of command: not enough heavy bombers, having to give up larger airfields to the newly arriving Americans, and only slowly improving navigational technology; but this Directive now gave him the official backing, from the very top, to let him launch his all-out strategic air offensive against Germany. This, he had already decided, would begin in March, with a series of onslaughts against the Ruhr, Nazi Germany’s industrial heartland. So long as there was no more meddling, and no more diversion of resources, Harris was certain he could deliver what the Chiefs had asked.

At this time, Harris knew nothing about a new weapon that was being developed, capable of bouncing across water. He had little truck with mad-cap boffins who wasted everyone’s time, not to mention money, trying find a cure-all for the limitations of area bombing and God knows what else besides. They were what he called ‘panacea-mongers,’ and he wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. As far as the bouncing bomb was concerned, it seemed, in these first few days of February 1943, that he need never know either.

The weapon in question had been designed by Barnes Wallis, Assistant Chief Designer at Vickers Aviation. He had conceived it as an anti-shipping bomb that could be dropped from an aircraft some distance from the target – such as the German Tirpitz skulking deep inside a Norweigan fjord. The idea was that it could bounce over the steel torpedo net protecting the battleship, hit the side of the vessel, sink, then explode right underneath it. He had begun first primitive testing the previous April and had initially found enthusiastic support from the Admiralty. Indeed, it was thanks largely to Admiralty support that funding had been found to carry out a series of scale tests at the ship tanks at the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington. It was also the Navy, under Admiral Renouf, the Director of Special Weapons at the Admiralty, who had agreed to then fund the development of a prototype so that full-scale trials might take place.

But while these Admiralty-funded tests were going on throughout the summer and autumn of 1942, Wallis had come to realise that his bouncing bomb might be used against the German dams too. These had been on his mind since the beginning of the war, and indeed on the minds of those at the Ministries of Aircraft Production and Home Security too. Since the start of the war, Wallis had believed that the key to winning the war was not to flatten cities but to destroy their power sources: oil depots, coal mines, and dams, the latter of which provided not only drinking water and sanitation but also was used in key industrial processes. The boffins at the Ministries’ research and development departments agreed that destroying the massive dams that fed the Ruhr and industrial areas of Northern Italy would be more than worthwhile and so had been working hard on experiments to achieve just that. The problem was that it believed that the amount of explosive required to achieve would be too great for any aircraft currently in existence and that there was no obvious way of getting it accurately to these dams in any case. The breakthrough had come in May 1942, however, when scientists at the Road Research Laboratory in west London discovered by accident that when detonated below water against the dam wall, a much smaller amount of explosive was needed than had previously been thought in order to destroy the model dam they were using. Since the proportions of gravity dams are the same, it was possible to upscale accordingly the amount of explosive required to destroy a real dam. This they did, successfully, in July, on a disused dam in Wales.

Article Written By James Holland