The dambusters’ story has spawned such a flood of books, it’s a wonder there is anything new to say. But Max Hasting’s Chastise is a virtuoso performance from a veteran military historian. It is a white-knuckle narrative that brings clarity and insight to a much-loved tale, as well as offering a vital corrective to the drum-thumping conclusions of earlier books ... It is thought-provoking indeed to read a book about the Second World War in which the victims are Germans and the chief villain is British. In Chastise, Hastings has written a page-turner with attitude, retaining his childhood exuberance for the Dambusters’ story but tempering it with the grim reality of lost lives and questionable sacrifice.
With Chastise— which was also the slightly prissy codename for the operation — Hastings wishes to give a full and rounded reckoning. Despite its occasional purple flourishes (and, again, who could resist?), the story he tells is a remarkably unsentimental and often technical one ... Perhaps Hastings’s most striking argument is that the raid was largely pointless ... The dams raid was, he suggests, a PR exercise — and in retrospect it often looks amateurish ... In truth, not much of this is new, and there is a tiredness to the writing ... But what is at stake in this revision of the old glorious narrative is something important. The debate over whether this particular raid mattered is, in miniature, the wider historiographical debate over the morals and efficacy of the whole bombing war ... This in turn is the backdrop to the great ethical and legal debates about warfare today: about the relation between technology and human heroism, about collateral damage and proportional loss, and the role of publicity stunts in terror war. The dams raid was a romantic episode as well as, in Hastings’s telling, a slightly grubbier affair. But perhaps more than either of these it is a powerful parable which might instruct us in our own confused times.
...the tale told by Max Hastings, a renowned military historian and journalist, is more complex and less celebratory than the book’s cover implies. His account of the events of May 16-17, 1943, will keep you on the edge of your seat, but his analysis of their causes and consequences is equally deserving of attention ... Hastings writes movingly of the suffering inflicted on those who lived in the path of the floodwaters: It is possible that as many as 1,600 people died, many of them non-German forced laborers. He does not dismiss the attack’s economic impact as comprehensively as some have done, even if it did not have the decisive effect that had been hoped for. But he sticks to his view, first articulated over 40 years ago, that the costs of the wider bomber offensive outstripped its results.
Military history is populated with too many narrow minds, writers who know everything about weapons, but understand little about war’s tragic consequences. Max Hastings, in contrast, can recite the military minutiae, but is also motivated to ask difficult questions about the victims of slaughter — those shot, blown apart, or in this case swept away by a wall of water ... War is ugly; war is sublime. Hastings belongs to a select group of scholars who recognises this terrible dichotomy and attempts neither to disregard nor resolve it. The beauty and the sorrow sit like perpetually feuding brothers, hopelessly irreconcilable.
Hastings examines the intersection between the legend of what is known as the Dambusters Raid and the somber historical realities that underpin it...To be sure, Hastings does justice to both. His account of the development of Upkeep, the cylindrical depth charge conceived to destroy targets such as heavily defended battleships and dams that no existing weapons could successfully engage, is a fascinating study in technological ingenuity and improvisation. Similarly, Hastings’s description of the terrifying realities of war in the skies over Nazi-occupied Europe stands as a testament to the quiet heroism and remarkable airmanship of ordinary RAF bomber crews ... a remarkable book, well in keeping with the impressive track record that Hastings long ago established as an astute chronicler of the human dimension of 20th-century conflict. Combining formidable narrative power with equally potent explanatory insight, it situates the Dambusters Raid in the broader strategic context of World War II as a whole, while serving as an illuminating entry point into the ethical debates concerning the Allies’ air war against Germany. Insofar as Hastings passes judgment, he directs it at senior commanders and decision-makers. For those who paid the price for their decisions and policies — RAF airmen and the civilian victims of the operation — he has only admiration and compassion.
Hastings goes beyond a traditional unit history to not only tell the tale of the British engineers and aircrews, but the German civilians living below the dam and their tales of survival during the attack. His sympathetic weaving of all these individual experiences show the wide range of effects this battle had on the survivors from both sides ... Hastings provides a harrowing tale of the death and destruction metered out by the breached dams, with entire German villages virtually swept away ... This is truly an incredible tale of technology and heroism. More importantly, it is a story of combat and its effects on ordinary people trying to survive during the costliest air campaign of the 20th century.
... fascinating and immensely readable ... Mr. Hastings writes in understandable awe ... [Hasting] is a supremely good writer, has a journalist’s nose for drama and has always been forthright and highly opinionated ... Mr. Hastings’s emotional allegiance is firmly with the latter, which is why his sympathy here for both the aircrew downed in the raid and those killed on the ground in Germany is so clear, and why his descriptions of the aftermath are so moving. His revulsion—and anger—at the destructive power of the floods unleashed by the breach in the dams is strikingly evident; his details of the carnage that ensued are among the most compelling and upsetting descriptions in the book ... This emphasis on the officers at the very top and the masses at the bottom means Mr. Hastings’s focus lies firmly at the strategic and tactical levels of war. There is, however, a third, operational, level. At its crudest, operations is the nuts and bolts of warfare, an explanation of how and why nations fight in the ways they do. It’s a level in which the author is less interested, and because of his sympathy for those at the tactical level, his judgment about the low value of the dams raid is a little impaired. He sees the battered and drowned faces of the 1,500 killed in the raid and not the wider operational context ... a fine account, rich in human drama and tragedy, told by a historian whose new books are always to be welcomed.
Following a superb rendering of the attack, Hastings addresses two uncomfortable consequences: many civilians and, ironically, enslaved laborers were killed, and the operation failed its strategic ambition since the destroyed dams were quickly rebuilt. Hastings has composed a fitting memorial to Operation Chastise’s participants.
Hastings...recounts the May 1943 British bombing raid that breached the Möhne and Eder dams in Germany’s Rühr Valley, knocking out power stations and unleashing deadly floods, in this thorough, character-driven history ... Hastings skillfully describes the hazards of flying at low altitudes through enemy territory and solemnly accounts for the loss of life caused by the flooding ... Though technical details occasionally slow the narrative’s momentum, military history buffs will prize this definitive account of the RAF mission.
The master of military history takes on Britain’s celebrated May 1943 Dam Buster air attack ... As his latest skillful history demonstrates, Hastings is still on top of his game, showing once again that the preparations, participants, and consequences of a military action are as fascinating as the fireworks ... Many historians look unfavorably on the results, but Hastings maintains that the raid was among the most damaging of the war ... Another Hastings must-read.