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Dam Busters: The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the German Dams in 1943 by James Holland, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, $28

Dozens of books have been published about the epic 1943 RAF raid on the Ruhr dams, beginning with Paul Brickhill’s 1951 The Dam Busters, written when most of the technical and operational information was still classified. None are as painstakingly researched and splendidly told as James Holland’s narrative. Between an in-depth description of the weapon and its development, Holland skillfully interweaves interesting anecdotes and previously unrevealed details about the main characters. For example, Wing Commander Guy Gibson outwardly conveyed the image of the tough and imperturbable “stiff-upperlip” Briton, continuing to fly bombing raids regardless of the odds. In truth, having flown 173 missions when the average bomber crew didn’t survive a tenth of that number, he was utterly exhausted, both physically and mentally. In private he was often afflicted with uncontrollable shaking. Instead of taking a necessary rest, he was faced with having to form a new squadron, train the crews and lead them on what promised to be a suicide mission. Against all regulations, he found solace in the arms of a corporal WAAF nurse, a relationship that continued for a year, even after she married.

Holland describes engineer Barnes Wallis’ struggle to convince the RAF high command that their current strategy, even when directed at industrial targets, was ineffective and wasteful of aircrew lives. Instead, he said, vital fixed infrastructure should be attacked with much larger weapons. When a study of 600 aiming-point photographs showed that after two years of operations no more than a third of all bombs dropped by Bomber Command had fallen within five miles of their targets, Wallis was taken more seriously.

Dam Busters reveals that, almost up to the date of the dams mission, the Royal Navy was also meant to use the “bouncing bomb” to attack warships. Given the impracticality of making simultaneous raids, and the risk of a premature ship attack revealing the weapon’s secrets, that idea was dropped. Holland notes as well the Germans’ surprise at why less effort was given to destroying the Sorpe dam—as important as the Möhne—and the absence of follow-up raids during the Möhne’s repair. He details, more than any previous account has, the material damage caused, and its effects on war production (especially coal, which dropped by more than 800,000 tons a month after the raid), and effectively repudiates claims that the operation had little significant long-term effect on the war.

The narrative is replete with quotations and data, meticulously annotated. Altogether, this is the definitive book on the subject, deserving a place in the library of any student of the famous raid.