The legendary Dambusters raid on the Ruhr dams in May 1943 is one of the most famous raids of World War Two. The Dambusters raid commander, Guy Gibson, became a national hero and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the raid. Authorised by the head of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, the success of the Dambusters raid was a huge morale lift for Britain and her allies.
However, documents found in the archives at the museum at RAF Hendon show that Harris was privately very dismissive of the raid and claimed that it “achieved nothing” and was a waste of aircraft and men. This was the opposite of what Winston Churchill publicly stated when he claimed the raid brought “unparalleled destruction” to Nazi Germany.
Harris based his criticism on the fact that the Nazi regime quickly restored the flooded region to its full industrial capacity within months. This is not what he had expected. The raid had been sold as a means of destroying the Ruhr industrial base thus bringing World War Two to an early conclusion. Albert Speer, Armaments Minister for Nazi Germany, did later state that the success of the raid had been a “disaster for a number of months” but the use of 20,000 slave labourers did restore the heartland of Nazi Germany’s industrial base by the end of 1943. Therefore, in the mind of Harris, the raid did not achieve what he had been told it would achieve.
The issue obviously rankled Harris as he even referred to it in a private letter written in January 1945 to the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal. In this letter Harris stated that a concentrated raid on a “small area attack” achieved more than the Dambusters raid.
In fact, while he gave the raid the go-ahead, the documents show that Harris was sceptical of the raid even before Gibson and his men took off. In a letter to his second-in-command at Bomber Command, Robert Saundey, Harris called the bouncing bomb developed by Barnes Wallis as “tripe beyond description” and that “there is not the smallest chance of it working”. Harris warned even before 617 Squadron was created that the whole idea was “a wild goose chase” and that “it never will (work)”. This letter is dated February 1943. In the same month he wrote to Portal that the bouncing bomb was “just about the maddest proposition as a weapon we have yet to come across”. Harris hoped that those who supported the idea would be given one aircraft to “go away and play with”. He told Portal “I am prepared to bet my shirt…….. that the bomb will not work when we have got it.”
However, Barnes Wallis did have the support of Portal and Harris had to bow to this and give the raid his public support despite his private misgivings.
Why was Harris so unsupportive of the raid? It seems that the source of his angst was his belief that Bomber Command could not afford to lose any Lancaster bombers and, more important, their experienced crews. The one thing about 617 Squadron was that it was made up of the very best bomber crews in the RAF. In this sense, Harris may well have been right. Though the raid was a huge morale boost, 53 highly skilled crewmen were killed and eight Lancaster bombers were destroyed. This was a loss Harris believed Bomber Command could not afford. Statistically 42% of 617’s Lancaster fleet was lost. Harris believed that these aircraft could have been better used in attacks against German cities. This is where he believed Bomber Command would break Germany’s resistance. Newly created crews on the very dangerous flight path to Nazi Germany could only gain experience the hard way. This is one of the reasons why Harris privately urged that the raid should not go ahead as Bomber Command simply could not afford to lose experienced crew, especially given the attrition rate that Bomber Command faced on a daily basis. However, the carrot that German industrial might in the Ruhr would be devastated bought Portal’s support. Hence the misgivings of Harris were consigned to the archives. The raid went ahead, Gibson became a national hero and the British public had something to celebrate