May 14, 2012

The Dam Busters: Their Place in (Economic) History

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Written for Warwick's Knowledge Centre in preparation for Wednesday night's sixty ninth anniversary of the dam raids.

The dams of Germany’s industrialized Ruhr valley were an obvious target for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command in World War II. The dams supplied hydroelectric power and water for cities, steel making, and canal transport. In turn, these provided the means to supply Germany with the tanks, aircraft, guns, shells, and ships required for Hitler’s war.

Operation Chastise, the Dam Busters’ raid, took place on the night of May 16/17, 1943. Tactically, it was a partial success. The Möhne and Eder dams collapsed, but the Eder reservoir was of secondary importance and the dam on the Sorpe was not seriously damaged. Some small towns and industrial facilities were flooded, and some roads were washed away. There was a temporary loss of water production and electric power. At least 1,300 civilians died; more than half were Ukrainian forced labourers. Eight of the 19 aircraft were lost and 53 of the 133 aircrew killed.

What were the effects of the dam raids on Germany’s war economy? From the beginning of 1942 through May 1943, German war production expanded at about 5 per cent a month. At the time of the dam raids it was already more than twice the level of two years previously when Germany had been about to launch the greatest land invasion of all time, its attack on the Soviet Union. In the month of the dam raids, however, the increase of German war production was halted and the German economic mobilization marked time for nearly a year.

How much of this was due to the Dam Busters? In 1943 British and American bombers dropped 130,000 tons of bombs on German cities and factories, and ten times that quantity in 1944 (Zilbert 1981). Up to a million German civilians lost their lives (Falk 1995). In this context the dam raids were a pinprick. Thus, while the raid was mounted at an important moment, it would be hard to identify any particular effect of the Dam Busters’ skill and heroism on the German war effort.

The dams were quickly rebuilt and water supplies were restored. Were these indirect costs important? Albert Speer, the minister of armament, had to divert 7,000 forced labourers from building German fortifications in occupied France and Netherlands to rebuild the dams (Speer 1970, p. 281). It has been suggested that this contributed to Allied success in the 1944 D-Day landings (McKinstry 2009), but the claim seems far-fetched. In May 1943 the Germans still had a year to complete their coastal fortifications. Much more important to Allied success on D-Day were numbers, surprise, and the German lack of air cover.

When Operation Chastise was planned, RAF Bomber Command did not take into account either D-Day or the indirect cost to Germany of diverting scarce labour from the fortification of occupied Europe. In fact, the RAF hoped to bomb Germany into defeat before D-Day became necessary. In this way, the operation expressed the persistent belief in a powerful knock-out blow that would somehow disable the German war economy and deprive its armed forces of the means to fight. Somewhere, they thought, if only it could be found and attacked, was a critical weak point of the German war economy that could cause it to collapse. Perhaps the dams were such a weak point.

Speer later suggested that the direct effects of the raid would have been greater if the RAF had organized follow-up raids to disrupt the rebuilding. But the lack of follow-up also expressed the mistaken belief of the time in the efficacy of a single knock-out blow. Two centuries of experience of economic warfare and sanctions (summed up by Olson 1963) have taught us that this belief is generally unfounded.

Bombing Germany did not win the war, but it did bring forward the moment of German defeat. Bombing was highly disruptive and made mobilization ever more costly (see Overy 1994 and Tooze 2006). For a long period the German leaders were able to restrict the consequences to the civilian economy, so that conditions of life, consumption, and work deteriorated but war production could still expand. Civilian life was maintained by the human capacity for adaptation to difficulties and habituation to fear. Disaffection was kept in check by an effective police state, growing hatred of the Allied bombers, increasing awareness of Germany’s own war crimes, and rising fear of the possible consequences of defeat. Requisitioning food and slave labourers from the occupied territories also helped. That was the basis on which Germany was able to fight on against economically more powerful enemies for years.

Only when German territory was directly attacked did the war economy finally unwind. The indirect effects of Allied bombing also helped to bring that moment nearer. Allied bombing weakened the German ground forces because it distracted German air power away from the Eastern Front (against the Red Army) and France (against the 1944 Allied landings). Defending against air attack was very costly for Germany. At the peak of war mobilization, one third of German war production took the form of night fighters, anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and radar.

Bombing Germany was costly to both sides. On one side the German economy was disrupted and a million civilians died. On the other side 18,000 Allied bombers were lost, along with 100,000 highly trained and educated aircrew.

The Dam Busters were one small element of a total war. They did not provide a breakthrough, but they added to the slowly growing burdens on the German economy, which arose through channels that were largely unintended and unforeseen. The Dam Busters also boosted Allied morale and Churchill’s status with the Americans and the Russians. Without them, the book (Brickhill 1951) and the film of the book could not have been made. These gave a sense of heroism and past glory to many a British schoolboy. I don’t know what the girls thought; we never asked them.


  • Brickhill, Paul. 1951. The Dam Busters. London: Evans.
  • Falk, Stanley L. 1995. Strategic Air Offensives. In The Oxford Companion to the Second World War, pp. 1067-1079. Edited by I. C. B. Dear. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Milward, Alan S. 1965. The German Economy at War. London: Athlone.
  • McKinstry, Leo. 2009. “Bomber Harris thought the Dambusters’ attacks on Germany ‘achieved nothing’.” The Telegraph, August 15.
  • Overy, Richard J. 1994. War and Economy in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Speer, Albert. 1970. Inside the Third Reich. London: Macmillan.
  • Olson, Mancur. 1963. The Economics of the Wartime Shortage. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Tooze, Adam. 2006. The Wages of Destruction: The Making and the Breaking of the Nazi Economy. London: Allen Lane.
  • Zilbert, Edward R. 1981. Albert Speer and the Nazi Ministry of Arms: Economic Institutions and Industrial Production in the German War Economy. London: Associated University Presses.

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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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