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Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II, by Max Hastings, HarperCollins Publishers, 2020, $35.

Operation Chastise was the codename for the Royal Air Force’s famous “Dambuster” raid against Germany’s Ruhr dams. Executed on the night of May 16-17, 1943, the attack was carried out by specially modified Avro Lancaster heavy bombers using a new weapon created specifically for the purpose, the nearly five-ton “Upkeep” bomb. The pilots were required to fly their heavily laden four-engine bombers all the way to and from their objectives at very low altitude at night, and to press home their attacks at the terrifyingly low level of 60 feet. Considering the harrowing conditions under which the mission was carried out, it is remarkable that it succeeded as well as it did and that only eight of the 19 aircraft involved were lost.

Max Hastings’ new book reexamines the story of the raid: how and why it was conceived, the men who carried it out and the effect it had on the course of the war. He explains how the RAF already recognized the strategic importance of breaching the Ruhr as early as 1937, but that no practicable method of doing so yet existed. Hastings also accessed German sources to recount in detail the raid’s effects on the industrial sites and civilian population below the breached dams, a subject rarely mentioned in most accounts of this story. For example, the author notes that many who lost their lives were foreigners who had been brought to the Ruhr by the Nazi state as slave laborers. Operation Chastise is a fresh look at one of history’s most famous air raids by an acknowledged master of the military history genre.

This article appeared in the July 2020 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here!