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The story of the Dam Busters is one which brings out several features of the British - the sophistication of their engineering innovation, the bravery of their armed forces, the incompetence of their leaders and their unerring ability to be first in a technical field and then leave it to others to make money out of it (for example, see Babbage and Turing...or Whittle...)
At the beginning of WW 2, the great engineer (then not yet Sir) Barnes Wallis pointed out that bombs rarely did much damage to hardened military installations unless they hit them right on the button (and often not much even then). What you needed was a way of transmitting ALL of the bomb's energy into the target rather than spending most of it on the air. Barnes Wallis proposed that bombs should be designed so that they penetrated the ground AROUND the target rather than hitting it directly, and then went off UNDER it, causing a local earthquake and hole, into which the target would fall. The idea was brilliant and would work perfectly, so it was ignored by all the Air Ministry officials he took it to. Of course the fact his proposal called for a new six-engined monster bomber built specifically to carry the bomb and useless for anything else could have had something to do with it.
Finally, when he was allowed to work for the war effort, a targeting committee took him at his word when he said that dams were a good example of a target, and suggested that he take out the main Ruhr dams, at night, when precision bombing would be out of the question, and when the Germans were defending against torpedoes with a series of nets.
Barnes Wallis came up with the idea of making a 5 ton spinning bomb which would skip across the water, hit the dam wall, then sink to the bottom before exploding. These were duly made in a tearing hurry and delivered by a crack team flying Lancasters in pitch darkness 60ft over water, nearly half of whom did not come back. The bombs worked, though the most important dam survived.
Having suffered almost 50% losses for disappointing results, the British mothballed the bouncing-bomb concept and never attacked the dams again, letting the Germans rebuild them. Barnes Wallis was allowed to develop his 'earth penetrator' bombs which were staggeringly effective - taking out bridges and viaducts, sinking the Tirpitz, stopping the V2 and V3 developments, destroying U-boat pens at Brest with 33ft reinforced concrete roofs and in one attack, and blowing up a railway line which ran under a mountain by dropping the bomb THROUGH the mountain and into the tunnel beneath.
Such a weapon would be of inestimable value for precision attack against individual targets of the kind we have had in the many small wars since 1945. So it figures that the British establishment promptly forgot about all the oily rag theory that Barnes Wallis had worked so carefully on, and just kept making airburst bombs which remain inefficient. The British people, on the other hand, remember the astonishing sight of 5-ton bombs bouncing along the surface of a reservoir, and think to this day that that was the whole purpose of the mission.
617 Squadron, the RAF unit tasked with all this, still exists and flies Tornadoes today.
Paul Brickhill wrote a novelised history of 617 Squadron's WWII action, called The Dambusters, they made a movie about it, released in 1954. A remake is planned for
2010 2011 or maybe 2012.
The movie is a classic and contains examples of:
- Airstrike Impossible
- Awesome but Impractical: The weapon itself, though the film downplays this. It was a very effective piece of technology but almost suicidally dangerous to deploy, requiring a heavy bomber to fly in a perfectly straight line at treetop height, a painfully easy target for Anti-Air or passing fighters. Neither were the British able to devise a casing strong enough to withstand a ground impact yet light enough to be carried by the Lancaster, and the bombs had a nasty habit of rebounding unpredictably when used over even mildly choppy water, so they were only really useful for this one specific job.
- The Big Board: A few of them.
- Big Dam Plot
- Captain Obvious: One of Gibson's crew: "This is bloody dangerous!"
- Casual Danger Dialog: "Power lines." The film has them climb over them; in reality, some crews flew under them.
- Deadpan Snarker: One of the planes clips a tree, ending up with foliage in its undercarriage. "You don't suppose we should take it back?"
- Did Not Do the Research: There are some historical inaccuracies. The ones concerning the bomb's size and shape don't count though as the details were still classified at the time so they had to leave out many of the details, including a mechanism used to give the bomb "backspin" to ensure it bounced properly.
- When it says classified, it means as in 'Would not tell the writer'.
- Additionally the film makes it look as if it was Wallis's idea. In fact the Government had been looking at ways to destroy those dams since 1936 - The British Government had known for at least 3 years before Poland that war was coming.
- The two search light method for determining height was worked out by a Civil Servant, not by Gibson going to the ballet.
- Downer Ending
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: Wallis encounters a few in the film's first act.
- Politically-Correct History: The name of Gibson's black Lab is well... not exactly PC and in 1999, the movie was shown in TV with "Trigger" dubbed over. It's intact on the DVD.
David Brent: Well don't keep saying it!
- Strolling Through the Chaos: Gibson during the aformentioned riot. Avoids a chair, a pair of pants and several airmen.