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.