cover image Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II

Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II

Max Hastings. Harper, $35 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-295363-6

Hastings (Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975) recounts the May 1943 British bombing raid that breached the Möhne and Eder dams in Germany’s Rühr Valley, knocking out power stations and unleashing deadly floods, in this thorough, character-driven history. Though Royal Air Force officials recognized the vulnerability and strategic value of Germany’s water supply as early as 1937, Hastings writes, they lacked the firepower to destroy such massive structures. Civilian aircraft engineer Barnes Wallis learned that a relatively small charge could achieve the desired result if it were detonated underwater and close to the target. After experimenting with marbles skipped across the surface of a washtub, he developed “bouncing bombs” that, if released from a low height, could breach the German dams. Nineteen bombers were modified for the mission, and Hastings details the experiences of crewmembers including squadron commander Guy Gibson, whose memoir is one of the book’s key sources. (Only 32 of Operation Chastise’s 130 airmen survived the war.) Hastings skillfully describes the hazards of flying at low altitudes through enemy territory and solemnly accounts for the loss of life caused by the flooding: nearly 2,000 people—many of them female forced laborers from Poland, Russia, and Ukraine—died. Though technical details occasionally slow the narrative’s momentum, military history buffs will prize this definitive account of the RAF mission. (Feb.)