Associated British-Pathe, 1955, 124 minutes
Cast: Michael Redgrave, Richard Todd, Bill Kerr, Basil Sydney, Stanley Van Beers and Ursula Jeans
Screenplay: R. C. Sheriff
Based on: The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill and Enemy Coast Ahead by Wing Commander Guy Gibson
Production Supervisor: W. A. Whittaker
Director: Michael Anderson
Although victory during the Battle of Britain had prevented a German invasion, the Luftwaffe continued to bomb Britain at night. Retaliatory raids were launched against military targets in Germany and Occupied Europe, but the small size of the bombs and the inaccuracy of the bombers meant that little damage was caused. Barnes Wallis, a designer with the Vickers Aircraft Company, developed bombs that were both more powerful and more accurate. The most effective target for these bombs would be three huge German dams in the Ruhr Valley, the Moehne, the Eder, and the Sorpe, because they controlled the levels of the waterways that carried the endless flow of barges to the foundries in the Ruhr Valley. Destroying these dams would not only deprive the foundries of both power and water, but also wreck the transportation network of roads, bridges, and railways that supplied the German military machine with tanks, guns and planes. The largest British bomb at the time was 1,000lbs but Wallis calculated that when a bomb was dropped in water the shockwave greatly magnified the power of the bomb, therefore he calculated that a 9,500lb bomb would do the job.
Resources were scarce, so the decision-makers in the Royal Air Force (RAF) naturally had little time for revolutionary yet theoretical ideas. However, Wallis proved to be an extremely persistent individual, who gradually won the support of key figures in the military and the government, in particular Air Marshal “Bomber” Harris, Chief of Bomber Command. Even so, the practical challenge of dropping the bombs with pinpoint accuracy so that they hit the water at the precise angle needed to skip over the nets protecting the dams from torpedoes required a great deal of thought and very well-trained pilots. Formed specially for the mission, 617 Squadron practiced for months with Lanncaster bombers in order to master low-level flying at night.
Although victory during the Battle of Britain had prevented a German invasion, the Luftwaffe continued to bomb Britain at night. Retaliatory raids were launched against military targets in Germany and Occupied Europe, but the small size of the bombs and the inaccuracy of the bombers meant that little damage was caused. Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave), a designer with the Vickers Aircraft Company, developed bombs that were both more powerful and more accurate. The most effective target for these bombs would be the destruction of three huge German dams in the Ruhr Valley, the Moehne, the Eder, and the Sorpe, which would wreck the transportation network of roads, bridges, and railways that supplied the German military machine with tanks, guns and planes. The largest British bomb at the time was 1,000lbs but Wallis calculated that when a bomb was dropped in water the shockwave greatly magnified the power of the bomb, therefore he calculated that a 9,500lb bomb would do the job.
Resources were scarce, but Wallis wins the support of a committee of experts that had been formed to evaluate new weapons, which enabled him to carry out large-scale testing. Unfortunately, he hits a wall of bureaucratic resistance, but perseveres until Prime Minister Winston Churchill intervenes on his side. A squadron of bombers commanded by Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) is assigned to prepare for the raid but numerous practical issues need to be solved, so the pilots train for months while Wallis struggles to find solutions to the remaining technical issues. Finally, the mission achieves success but at a heavy cost.
Although the script achieves an astonishing level of accuracy, and explains Wallis’ theories in great detail, some facts were altered to make the story more interesting. Screen scientific geniuses are expected to be so driven that they forget to sleep, but the real Wallis did actually sleep.
Wallis had made presentations to a number of committees but they are streamlined into a single committee to simplify the story. The head of the committee is very supportive, while the members of the committee are extremely patient, so Wallis is given the use of a ship testing tank after one demonstration.
Bureaucrats had considered the real Wallis to be a nuisance but they never actually told him and he did not resign from Vickers. Instead, they simply refused to deal with him, and he existed in bureaucratic purgatory until a chance encounter with a key official to discuss a different idea won him permission to build a half-dozen prototypes. He had not used all six before he gave a presentation to a room full of admirals, who were not that interested in dams, but were bursting with excitement, as much as senior admirals can be, at the prospect of putting the German super-battleship, the Tirpitz, out of their misery.
Although Prime Minister Churchill is given credit in the movie for restarting the mission, he only made the decision that the dams would be bombed first, then the Tirpitz. The admirals’ support had been key, but they do not appear in the movie. Neither does the book-long ‘note,’ explaining his theories in a manner that could be understood by laymen, that Wallis sent to roughly seventy influential men in science, politics and the military. Bomber Harris had played a vital role in restarting the mission, and a meeting with Harris is shown, but there is no mention that Harris backed Wallis because he knew that the current bombing offensive was not working and was wasting crews.
The movie keeps the awkward first meeting between Wallis and squadron commander Guy Gibson where Wallis could not tell him the mission’s target because Gibson was not on the tiny list of need-to-know.
The problem of maintaining 150 feet was not solved by Gibson while watching spotlights converge during a show. Other pilots had had the idea during a show but did not mention it until after the problem had already been solved. However, it would be hard for a scriptwriter to resist it.
Although the actual bombs were shaped like barrels, the screen versions are large balls because the design was still secret at the time.
The pilots did not have to bear criticism from other squadrons because the squadron had its own base to ensure secrecy. The scene where they drunkenly take off the pants of the pilots in another squadron that mocks them is likely based on a drunken train ride to London to see the king. The pilots did drink heavily to cope with the pressure of relentless training for a dangerous mission. Later in the war, the pilots were issued with Sten machine guns and grenades in case of an attack by German paratroopers, but the weapons were reclaimed three days later due to drunken target practice on the lawn near the mess and grenade-throwing competitions.
The screen raid on the dams is extremely faithful to the facts. Several excellent scenes show the pilots trying to ignore their nerves right before the operation, joking that they will pay their mess bill tomorrow. Wallis and Air Vice-Marshal Ralph Cochrane, overall commander of the operation, did have an agonizing wait. The movie presents the view from the cockpits to show how low they were flying, and flak appears as streams of light coming out of nowhere in the dark. Following a great shot of the hole in the dam made by the bomb, the movie shows the huge waves destroying trains and flooding factories but ignores the destruction of villages. 1,294 people drowned, mostly Russian POWs.
While both the screen Wallis and the real Wallis had the same reaction to the heavy casualties suffered by the pilots, the real Wallis was in tears, even though he was surrounded by cheering, heavily-intoxicated pilots. The producers must have felt that it would be disrespectful to show the survivors getting drunk to celebrate. Instead, there is a quick scene of empty chairs and tables in the mess, as well as empty rooms. Gibson did spend the next two days writing letters to the next-of-kin.
The movie was made with the active support of the RAF, so only one scene refers to the wall of bureaucratic resistance, polite and unbending, that ignored Wallis.
The script explains the scientific concepts and technical needs very well.
The movie has caused a bit of controversy over the years because Gibson’s pet Labrador was named Nigger, and his name is said frequently, so he is called Trigger in the version that was released in the United States.
If the dialogue during the raid on the first dam seems familiar, it is because George Lucas is a fan, and based much of the dialogue during the attack on the Death Star during Star Wars on this movie.
The first half of the film with Wallis and the training is interesting, while the second half with the actual raid has an impressive tension.
Simply an excellent film.