Professor Richard Morris Professor Richard Morris

On the 75th anniversary of the famous RAF raid, historian Professor Richard Morris explores its significance then and now

AS part of the 75th anniversary commemorations of the famous Dambusters raid, the University of Huddersfield’s Professor Richard Morris – a leading authority on the mission and the men behind it – has written a special appraisal for the UK’s most popular history publication.

His article is headed How successful was the Dambusters raid? and it appears on Historyextra, which is the official website for BBC History Magazine.

Richard Morris – who is Emeritus Professor at the University – is writing a biography of Barnes Wallis, the brilliant engineer who developed the “bouncing bomb” that was carried by the squadron of Lancasters that attacked a series of German dams in May, 1943.

The article includes an account of Wallis’s anguished reaction to the death toll among members of 617 Squadron: “At the final briefing late on the Sunday afternoon, Wallis had addressed 19 crews.  The next day, only 11 of them came back.  Fifty-six of the faces into which he had looked just a few hours before were gone, and all but three of them were dead.”

The raid did succeed in breaching two dams, causing considerable chaos and loss of life.  But Professor Morris asks if Operation Chastise – as it was codenamed – was truly successful.

“It is not as if Chastise succeeded on its own terms,” he writes.  “For all the raid’s audacity and courage; the technical brilliance behind it; and despite the widespread destruction and adverse repercussions for the German war economy that it certainly caused, it did not bring about the long-term crisis for which planners in the Air Ministry and Ministry of Economic Warfare had hoped.”

The article describes the jubilant reaction in Britain when news of the raid was reported and this would lead to “wishful thinking” about its success.  The legend of the Dambusters would be secured by the 1955 film, starring Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis and Richard Todd as Wing Commander Guy Gibson.  The film received a gala screening at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 75th anniversary commemorations.

“It is fair to ask why an event with such heart-breaking consequences for almost all concerned should still stir fulsome national feelings,” writes Prof Morris, whose online article also compares the fictionalised version of Barnes Wallis – as “a softly-spoken, slightly abstracted genius” – with the real man.

He adds that: “The film’s version of events nonetheless endures and, with it, a narrative of daring imagination versus dull officialdom leading to an outstanding feat of arms that has gripped the nation ever since”.