The Dam Busters tells the story of how Wing Commander Guy Gibson took his 617 Squadron to the skies over Germany in May 1943 and used an ingenious “bouncing bomb” devised by Dr Barnes Wallis to help them destroy two of Germany’s major dams in the Ruhr Valley.
This spectacular act of heroism became one of the turning points of the war, showing the Allied forces turned the tables on the German war machine by penetrating an area that was supposed to be to be impregnable. Or so the film would have you believe.
Although the film is well-directed and enjoyable, The Dam Busters fails to portray what really happened before, during and after the raid. It is difficult to see what scenes are truth, and which ones are fictional.
When the Lancaster Bombers reach their targets, it takes only a few attempts before the dams are breached. It actually took five bombs to breach the Möhne Dam alone, as opposed to the two shown in the film.
One bomber is known to have tried six to eight times before he achieved the correct height, speed and location in order to hit one of the dams, yet in the film many succeed after their first effort.
Casualties of the bombing raids
After the dams are breached, the cinematic airmen celebrate before heading back to RAF Scampton; what isn’t shown is the aftermath of the attacks.
Due to the heroic efforts of 617 Squadron, 1300 people drowned. Many towns were simply washed away and hundreds were left homeless. Out of the 183 men who flew that night, 53 were killed. Eight of the 19 Lancaster Bombers failed to return to their RAF Scampton headquarters.
Although Dr Barnes Wallis and Gibson briefly discuss this at the end of the film they don’t mention any further losses.
Accuracy v entertainment
The film’s ending suggests that the breaching of the dams was a resounding success, undermining Germany’s war effort. Yet within three days of the raid, the factories which had been swept away were rebuilt and became operational. The dams too, were rebuilt and reinforced with concrete in October 1943.
The Dam Busters is an entertaining and well-made film with its tales of bravado and heroism. But as with many films based on real events, historical accuracy is sacrificed for entertainment.
If The Dam Busters is to be the only remaining ‘document’ of this event, an important historical event will forever be mythologised. If there is ever a remake, at least it will provide an opportunity to redress the inaccuracies of the original film and set the historical record straight.