If Britain’s war films of the 1950s are anything to go by, the evil ‘Bosch’ were single-handedly defeated by the stiff-upper-lipped officer classes, the role of the ordinary working-class Tommy limited to serving drinks in the mess or polishing a wind shield with an oily rag, while aimlessly splitting their infinitives and double-negativing their way through the day. Except one.
The Dam Busters, released on 24 May 1955, told the remarkable story of Operation Chastise, led by the remarkable, Wing Commander Guy Gibson and utilising the innovative ‘bouncing bomb’ created by the equally remarkable, Dr Barnes Wallis. Gibson and Wallis were played admirably by Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave.
The film still serves as an ever popular reminder of the astonishing achievements of thousands of crew that served with Bomber Command during the Second World War, too many of which are forgotten and overlooked. They say, ‘lest we forget’, well, if it takes the likes of Richard Todd to give us a nudge occasionally, when The Dam Busters gets yet another Sunday afternoon rerun, on yet another TV channel, then that’s fine by me.
The films popularity is due, in no small measure, to its accuracy, in particular the bravery of the crews who came from all sections of society and from many different nations around the Commonwealth. The screenplay was written by RC Sherriff and was based on the books The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill, published in 1951 and Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead, which was first published as a book in 1946. Paul Brickhill’s book was published long before many of the details of the raid had made it into the public domain.
However, despite the source material, the film did take some dramatic licence with the facts. In the film Wallis suggests that he designed the Wellington, where in fact RK Pierson was the chief designer. Wallis contributed the geodetic construction method that was used in the fuselage and wings. Also, it was suggested that all of Gibson’s former crew from 106 Squadron volunteered to come with him to 617 Squadron, where in fact only his wireless operator, Hutchinson, volunteered.
The film implies that the idea for using spotlights to help the Lancaster pilots to gauge their height accurately came to Gibson while he visited a variety show at the theatre. In fact, the “spotlights altimeter” was put forward by Benjamin Lockspeiser of the Ministry of Aircraft Production; the principle of the system was to use two spotlights that come together at a pre-determined height, which was a method that had been used successfully by RAF Coastal Command for some time. Finally, original footage of the prototype Upkeep bombs being tested was used in the film, but because the bomb was still classified the footage was altered to show the final version as spherical, rather than cylindrical.
However, despite these and a number of other variances, the film was a faithful representation of one of the RAF’s most daring and acclaimed raids of the war and thankfully endures on our TV screens because of that, helping it to remain a lasting testament to the bravery of our servicemen.