Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Dambusters Raid – an example of British technological 'try-hardism'

War, among other things, is a great stimulus to technology. WWI saw the invention of the tank, aerial bombardment, and the use of gas as a weapon; while WWII brought a host of innovations that were equally applicable in both wartime and peacetime, like radar, jet-powered flight, and nuclear power.

While any military power is interested in new technologies that can give it the edge, the British in the WWII period felt a particular impetus to try new things. Partly this was because Britain was the old, established power in decline, with a society that retained antiquated elements. Faced by more modern and up-to-date states, like Republican France, the USA, Communist Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, the British felt somewhat out-of-date, and as consequence felt a need to overcompensate by throwing their weight behind daring innovations.

This spirit of try-hard modernity certainly helped the Dambusters project get green lighted, resulting in the daring attack on three dams in Germany’s Ruhr area on the night of the 16th and 17th of May, 1943.

The attack used large, spinning, cylindrical bombs, designed by the military scientist Barnes Wallis. These were impressive-looking projectiles designed to skip across the surface of water until they met an obstacle, like a dam wall, whereupon their spin would carry them down below the water to the detonation point near the base of the dam.

Barnes Wallis
In order to get the correct bombing altitude, the planes shone lights from the rear and front of the planes that converged on the water in a V-shape when flying at the exact required altitude.

In direct terms, the attack was relatively successful, despite 40% casualties to the air crews – 53 dead out of 133. Two Ruhr dams were breached, causing flooding and disruption to power supplies. Ironically, the raid killed more Russians than Germans, with an estimated 1,000 Russian labourers among those washed away by the flood, as opposed to around 600 German civilian fatalities.

But considering the high expense involved in developing a unique, new bombing technology for an attack that was never repeated, the material success of the attack was marginal at best. The main benefit, however, was to morale. The attack was a boon to British propaganda and boosted British self-confidence by maintaining the myth that the British Empire was a modern, successful, go-ahead nation, on the right side of history. Sadly, it wasn't.

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