How many people out there don’t know the story of the ‘Dam Busters?’ Despite the fact that 617 Squadron’s heroic, nickname-providing, World War II mission to blow up several German dams happened over six decades ago and that the hugely influential The Dam Busters movie, which outlined the events of Operation Chastise for so many wide-eyed boys and girls, is only a decade or so younger, the basic plot of the Dam Busters’ story still seems to be known to most.
It’s still popular enough of a tale that blockbuster-director Peter Jackson is now hard at work on a remake of the 1955 film, after buying the rights from Mel Gibson. While the world waits for that large-scale production to be released, BFS offers up a more modest set of work on the operation, The Ultimate Dambusters Collection, an uneven set of three documentaries which contains some chesnuts for the real history buffs.
The three features in the set are Last of the Dam Busters, Dambusters: The True Story (for some reason, no one can agree on whether it’s ‘Dam Busters’ or ‘Dambusters’) and Night Bombers. I’ll start with the second documentary Dambusters: The True Story because it really should have been placed first on Disc One. It gives an overview of Operation Chastise, from the first sprouting of the idea that a strike against large, electricity-providing dams in the industrial heartland of Hitler’s Germany could possibly cripple the Nazi war-effort; to the development by Barnes Wallis of the “bouncing bomb”, a unique weapon that was designed to skip like a stone across the water towards its intended target after being dropped; to the formation of ‘Squadron X’ (soon to be renamed 617) and the training that forced the RAF pilots to learn how to pilot their massive Avro Lancaster bombers at treetop levels in preparation for their dam-attacks; and finally to the mission itself, a shocking deadly exercise that cost almost half the aircrews their lives, but did succeed in destroying two major dams and flooding miles and miles of the surrounding countryside.
It’s not a particularly illuminating documentary in and of itself. It tells the Dam Busters’ story in it’s most simple, bullet-pointed form, and will likely be a bore to any viewer with more than a cursory knowledge of the operation (and honestly, it seems unlikely that any other type of viewer would actually buy a three-DVD set on the subject). Aside from some decently put-together CGI sequences, there’s nothing new in this appraisal, and in fact much of the feature’s length is actually filled by showing scenes from the 1955 film.
This documentary also spends no time on more recent analysis of the mission that suggests the damage done to the German war-machine was minimal and that the major goal achieved by the raid was a morale-boost for the war-weary British public, which feels like a significant omission. It could have served as a tolerable introduction to the rest of the set, but for whatever reason the planners have decided to place it second in-line.
The only possible reason I can see for this is that the producers were trying to lead with their strongest piece. Last of the Dam Busters is the most arresting of the three features, mostly because of the human-interest factor. The production values on this Stephen Fry-narrated documentary about a team of archaeologists searching for lost Operation Chastise Lancaster’s in the German countryside are decent, but it’s the main subject, Sgt. George Johnson, a bomb-aimer on the dam-raids, who is its greatest asset. The filmmakers lucked out in finding a protagonist like Johnson who, despite his advanced aged, is thoughtful and incredibly eloquent.
When Johnson is first interviewed, he expresses nothing but pride over the accomplishments of his Squadron over Germany on 16t and 17 May 1943. He also expressed his desire to knock the lights out of any revisionist historian who says the raid was anything but an unqualified success. But as he travels to Germany and digs up the remains of friend’s aircraft, lost with all hands on the night of the raid, and visits the graves of aircrew who did not make it back to England that night, his opinions begin to change.
He eventually gets to stand on the Sorpe Dam, which he himself tried to blow-up the night of the raid, and comes to the conclusion that perhaps the goal of flooding a beautiful piece of architecture and part of the countryside — and killing hundreds of civilians and Allied war prisoners in the process — was not worth the lives of so many of his friends. It’s a sentiment not often expressed in public by surviving veterans of the British bombing campaign, especially one who has for years so firmly held the opposite to be true. The DVD comes with some additional interviews with Johnson, about the mission itself and his new-found view of it, which are just as interesting as the main feature.
The final piece of the trilogy, Night Bombers, will probably be the most fascinating to the history buffs. It’s a narrated reel of archive footage (in color!) of an actual day in the life of a typical RAF Bomber squadron during WWII. The film shows us everything, from the morning weather forecasts and operation-planning at squadron headquarters, through a mission over occupied-Europe (a camera is taken aboard one of the Lancasters) and the crew’s final reports once they land back in England. Though there are some suspenseful moments, such as a flak-hit to the camera-carrying bomber which damages the landing gear, it’s a very dry affair for the most part.
To casual viewers, the step-by-step detailing the ground-crew’s daily tasks may be an incentive to doze off or get-up and do something else, but I suspect that avid collectors of WWII-related info will be thrilled by the minutia revealed here, which was apparently very rarely allowed to be captured on camera. It may not be as visually arresting as the Peter Jackson version will no-doubt end up being, but it’s probably the purest glimpse many of us will ever get into that strange world that existed in the middle of the British countryside and over Europe during the long years of World War II.