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Film / The Dam Busters

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Official: You say you need a Wellington Bomber for test drops. They're worth their weight in gold. Do you really think the authorities will lend you one? What possible argument could I put forward to get you a Wellington?
Barnes Wallis: Well, if you told them I designed it, do you think that might help?

The Dam Busters is a 1955 British film starring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave. The story of the Dam Busters is one which brings out several features of the British — the sophistication of their engineering innovation, the bravery of their armed forces, the incompetence of their leaders and their unerring ability to be first in a technical field and then leave it to others to make money out of it (for example, see Babbage and Turing...or Whittle...)

At the beginning of WW2, the great engineer (then not yet Sir) Barnes Wallis (played by Redgrave) pointed out that bombs rarely did much damage to hardened military installations unless they hit them right on the button (and often not much even then). What you needed was a way of transmitting ALL of the bomb's energy into the target rather than spending most of it on the air. Barnes Wallis proposed that bombs should be designed so that they penetrated the ground AROUND the target rather than hitting it directly, and then went off UNDER it, causing a local earthquake and hole, into which the target would fall. The idea was brilliant and would have worked perfectly, but his initial proposal called for a bomb so large that no aircraft then in existence could carry it and the six-engined "Victory" bomber Wallis designed to do the job would have been little use for anything else and hideously expensive besides, so the Air Ministry were less than enthusiastic.

Finally, when he was allowed to work for the war effort, a targeting committee took him at his word when he said that dams were a good example of a target, and suggested that he take out the main Ruhr dams, at night, when precision bombing would be out of the question, and when the Germans were defending against torpedoes with a series of nets.

Barnes Wallis came up with the idea of making a 5-ton spinning bomb which would skip across the water, hit the dam wall, then sink to the bottom before exploding. Thus the water itself would focus the force of the blast against the dam's wall, in much the same way that a good torpedo hit causes more damage to a ship's hull than would an equivalent amount of explosives in a bomb or artillery shell. These were duly made in a tearing hurry and delivered by a crack team flying Lancasters in pitch darkness 60ft over water, nearly half of whom did not come back. The bombs worked, though the most important dam survived and the impact on the German war effort from destroying the others was somewhat underwhelming.

Having suffered almost 50% losses for disappointing results, the British mothballed the bouncing-bomb concept and never attacked the dams again, letting the Germans rebuild them. Barnes Wallis was allowed to develop his 'earth penetrator' bombs which were staggeringly effective — taking out bridges and viaducts, sinking the Tirpitz, stopping the V2 and V3 developments, destroying U-boat pens at Brest with 33ft reinforced concrete roofs and in one attack, and blowing up a railway line which ran under a mountain by dropping the bomb THROUGH the mountain and into the tunnel beneath.

Such a weapon would be of inestimable value for precision attack against individual targets of the kind we have had in the many small wars since 1945. So it figures that the British establishment promptly forgot about all the oily rag theory that Barnes Wallis had worked so carefully on, and just kept making airburst bombs which remain inefficient. The British people, on the other hand, remember the astonishing sight of 5-ton bombs bouncing along the surface of a reservoir, and think to this day that that was the whole purpose of the mission.

617 Squadron, the RAF unit tasked with all this, still exists and flies F-35 Lightnings today.

Paul Brickhillnote  wrote a novelised history of 617 Squadron's WWII action, called The Dambusters, they made a movie about it, released in 1954. A remake is planned for 2010 2011 or maybe 2012.

Notable for its influence (along with 633 Squadron) on Star Wars: the trench run was heavily inspired by the climax of the film. Several lines of dialogue are actually re-used, nearly verbatim. It's also known for having several clips used in the 1982 film version of Pink Floyd's The Wall.

A young Patrick McGoohan has a bit part as a guard.

The movie is a classic and contains examples of:

  • Airstrike Impossible: One of the classic examples. The climax of the movie involves a series of low-altitude bombing runs, with the bombers flying in the face of heavy anti-aircraft defenses.
  • Artistic License – History: Partially justified as it wasn't until many years after the film that many of the facts were declassified. Planning to hit the dams had actually started in 1936, when war was inevitable. The '2 search light' technique was invented by a long forgotten civil servant who was working on the height problem.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The weapon itself, though the film downplays this. It was a very effective piece of technology but almost suicidally dangerous to deploy, requiring a heavy bomber to fly in a perfectly straight line at treetop height, a painfully easy target for Anti-Air or passing fighters. Neither were the British able to devise a casing strong enough to withstand a ground impact yet light enough to be carried by the Lancaster, and the bombs had a nasty habit of rebounding unpredictably when used over even mildly choppy water, so they were only really useful for this one specific job.
  • Bar Brawl: A mess room brawl. While waiting for conditions to be perfect for the raid, 617 Sqdn members got teased a lot by the members of other squadrons at RAF Scampton. After Gibson allows them to let off steam, one of these occurs.
  • The Big Board: A few of them.
  • Big Dam Plot
  • Black Dude Dies First: Gibson's black dog with the problematic name is run-over half-way through the film, shortly before the crew start the mission. (No one of African descent appears in the film).
  • Captain Obvious: One of Gibson's crew: "This is bloody dangerous!"
  • Casual Danger Dialog: "Power lines." The film has them climb over them; in reality, some crews flew under them. This wasn't to show off; trying to climb too suddenly would cause a loss of speed, and hence increase in angle of attack, which would lead to the aircraft "mushing" into the lines. If there was space it was safer to go under.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: The book makes it quite clear: This only worked because nobody had ever tried anything like this before, so none of the generally simple and easy to build defenses that would have made it completely impossible were in place.
  • Dated History: The mission is portrayed as a great success, with a Giant Wall of Watery Doom washing away the Ruhr industry. In truth the operation had more success as a propaganda victory than on German war production, and many of those killed were Soviet forced laborers.
  • Deadpan Snarker: One of the planes clips a tree, ending up with foliage in its undercarriage. "You don't suppose we should take it back?"
  • Mad Scientist: Barnes Wallis, whilst not actually mad (even though some of his inventions were seen that way), was certainly as prolific as the archetype — he invented geodetic frames for aircraft, designed airships and aeroplanes, the bouncing and earthquake bombs, and after the war worked on swing-wing and supersonic aircraft, rocket-propelled torpedos, and even came up with designs for cargo submarines that were faster and more efficient than comparable surface ships.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Barnes is visibly shaken when he hears how many men were lost during the raid... although not the German civilians who perished when the dams burst. It was that sort of war, and numerous British civilians were undoubtedly dying to German bombs that same night.
    Wallis: [almost tearfully] Fifty-six men. If I'd known it was going to be like this I'd never have started.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Wallis encounters a few in the film's first act, because the RAF is short on bombers at the point in the war.
    Civil Servant: You say you need a Wellington Bomber for test drops. They're worth their weight in gold. Do you really think the authorities will lend you one? What possible argument could I put forward to get you a Wellington?
    Barnes Wallis: Well, if you told them I designed it, do you think that might help?
  • Politically Correct History: The name of Gibson's black Lab is well... not exactly PC and in 1999, the movie was shown in TV with "Trigger" dubbed over. It's intact on the DVD.
    • In recent (as of 2020) screenings on British TV, the dog's name (and the subsequent codeword based on it) are skilfully edited out of the audio. At one point Gibson can be seen saying the real name while the words "my dog" are substituted on the soundtrack.
    • The original scene is in The Wall when Pink is freaking out in his hotel room.
      • Roger Waters remarks on the censorship in the DVD commentary for The Wall, because "Trigger" was the name of Roy Rogers' horse.
    • Referenced in The Office (UK).
      David Brent: Well don't keep saying it!
    • The difference is between the British and US releases. In the UK at the time of the events, that wasn't an unacceptable word. By the time the film was made, it was an unacceptable word in the US. (Not necessarily for the obvious reason today. It would have counted as a very vulgar swear word.)
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Taken as read - it is a British war film after all.
    • One of the more heartbreaking examples, in the final line of the movie. Wallis and Gibson discuss the deaths of the crews in the night's mission (see My God, What Have I Done? above), and as they part ways Wallis asks Gibson if he's going to go and get some sleep. His answer? "No. I... I have to write some letters first". That little crack in his voice is about the only indication you have of his grief over the death of 56 of his men.
      • The letters he has to write, of course, are to the wives and parents of those men telling them of the death of their loved ones. He didn't have to do it, especially not right at that moment, the War Office would inform them by telegram - but he wanted to ensure that the families got something more personal as soon as possible.
    • Subverted by Wallis, who is too artless to hide his feelings. The film shows him on the verge of tears on two occasions, once when the mission's success is reported, and the second time in the above-mentioned conversation with Gibson.
  • Strolling Through the Chaos: Gibson during the aforementioned riot. Avoids a chair, a pair of pants and several airmen (though he does stop to deck a man who's double-teaming one of his own men).


Video Example(s):


The Death Star Busters

As shown in this comparison by YouTuber The Starkiller, the attack against the first Death Star is an almost shot-for-shot homage to two films about World War II's Operation Chastise: The Dam Busters, and 633 Squadron (not shown). Creator George Lucas in fact used both films as reference material for his film crews during the production of the film.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (14 votes)

Example of:

Main / Homage

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