The Dam Busters (1955)





Director:     Michael Anderson.

Starring:     Richard Todd (Wing Commander Guy Gibson, V.C., D.S.O., D.F.C.),  Michael Redgrave (Doctor B. N. Wallis, C.B.E., F.R.S.),  Ursula Jeans (Mrs. Wallis),  Charles Carson (Doctor),  Stanley Van Beers (Sir David Pye, C.B., F.R.S.),  Colin Tapley (Doctor W.H. Glanville, C.B., C.B.E.),  Frederick Leister (Committee Member),  Eric Messiter (Committee Member),  Laidman Browne (Committee Member),  Raymond Huntley (Official, National Physical Laboratory),  Hugh Manning (Official, Ministry of Aircraft Production),  Patrick Barr (Captain Joseph 'Mutt' Summers, C.B.E.),  Edwin Styles (Observer at trials),  Hugh Moxey (Observer at trials),  Anthony Shaw (R.A.F. Officer at trials).

British Lancaster bomber pilots destroy three dams in the Ruhr Valley flooding the huge industrial valley (May 17, 1943)


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

Spring 1942. A medical doctor drives his car over to a friendís place. With the help of his children the friend, named Barnes Wallace, is trying an experiment shooting marbles at a target. The wife is concerned about her husband overworking on this, his latest project.

Barnes shows the doctor a map of Germany. He has marked off the Ruhr industrial valley where Germany produces so much steel. The factories of the valley depend on three enormous dams: the Moehne, the Eder and the Sorpe. When they are full they hold 400 million tons of water. "Just think of the chaos if we could break those walls down". If they could drop a ten ton bomb from 40,000 feet that would seal itself in the roots of the wall. The shockwaves would create a real earthquake.

The doctor asks: Could you hit a target that size from eight miles up? But no carrier can carry a ten ton bomb, not to mention a 30 ton bomb. He has a new idea, but is worried about meeting the bomb committee deadlines. The doctor approves of the project but he asks Barnes not to go at it all day and night. Everyone has to have a rest now and then. Barnes agrees.

Barnes asks committee member Dr. David Pye for time so he can work on his new idea and present it coherently to the committee. The committee members are skeptical if Dr. Wallace can come up with anything really workable. Wallace asks for a week to ten days and is given two weeks.

They have set up dam models. A proportionate explosion is set off at the model equivalent of 50 feet from the dam without doing any damage. The cushion of water between the explosion and the wall almost completely protects the wall. The next explosion is only half as strong as the previous one, but is set next to the dam wall itself. This time a big hole is blown in the dam model and the water starts rushing out. With the new arrangement the cushion works with the explosion and not against it. This way all the shock waves go directly against the dam wall. They figure they will only need 6,000 pounds of a new explosive, RDX, to breach the dam.

The committee members are impressed with the demonstration, but now they want to know how he will deliver the bomb and get it to explode only on impacting the dam wall itself. Barnes tells them that if they give him the testing facilities, he will be able to come up with the delivery solution. He wants a really big testing tank. There are the experimental ship tanks at Tethington. Dr. Pye urges Barnes to keep at it

It has now been five months since Barnes has been experimenting with his delivery system. The director of the tank facilities complains to some of the committee members that Barnes doesnít seem to be getting anywhere and they have very important experiments to be run in the tanks he is using.

Barnes greets the men. Just in time he was able to hit a wall by skipping a golf ball over the surface of the water in the tank. He repeats the experiment for the gentlemen and the golf ball hits the wall for a second time. He asks the director for permission to have the tank for one more week and permission is granted.

Barnes goes up in a Wellington bomber. He is going to drop a model of a bomb onto the water to skip if along the water surface. It is a success. But even with the success Barnes canít get the go ahead to produce his new bomb. He has tried talking with bigwig after bigwig without any luck. Barnes finally decides to take the idea straight to Bomber Command and Harris the fellow in charge. So Barnes and a man named Summers go to see Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur T. Harris. The Air Chief Marshal asks Barnes if he really thinks he can knock down a dam with his invention. Barnes says "yes". The air marshal says all the inventors say the same thing. But Barnes says he has actually tested the idea and it has worked. He shows the Air Chief Marshal the film of the testing.

Barnes comes home to his wife and tells her that Whitehall decided that he had become a nuisance wasting everybodyís time and dropped the whole thing. in response Barnes has resigned. He hasnít thought of what he will do yet, but he thinks he could always get a teaching job.

His wife tells him that the Ministry of Air Craft Production wants to see him first thing in the morning. Barnes says heís not going to go because they probably just want to lecture him about wasting their time. But his wife says perhaps he better go and he says he will go and tell them what he thinks of them for a change.

When Barnes shows up at the Ministry he learns that orders have just come through from Downing Street that the project is to go through right away. The Prime Minister is enthusiastic about it. The dams must be attacked in May when the water levels are the highest. That means they have only two months to get everything ready. Barnes says he will do his best.

The Air Field Marshall puts Cochrane in charge of the actual mission to bomb the dams. They will select special crews with lots of experience. Gibson will command the squadron.

Wing Commander Gibson reports to Cochrane. Cochrane asks him if he is willing to go on one more mission after performing the required thirty. Gibson says yes. Cochrane tells him to select his own squadron for the special mission. He canít tell Gibson the target yet, but can tell him it involves low level flying. His men have to be able to fly low at night as if it was second nature.  Group Captain Witworth comes in to speak with Cochrane and Gibson. Witworth and Gibson already know each other. Cochrane says the operation is to be kept secret.

Cochrane recommends two Australians, Knight and Martin, a New Zealander named Monroe, the blond American Joe McCarthy and Englishmen Bill Astell, David Maltby, Hopgood, Dave Shannon and another fellow. The two flight commanders will be Young and Henry Maudslay.

Gibson tells his old crew that they will have to go on without him. They have picked him for a new squadron. Later two guys from the crew tell Gibson that the crew has decided to do the extra mission with him. And so itís off to Scampton.

Gibson says they will fly over every big lake in England and Wales and photograph them. Their first briefing is held. Gibson doesnít know exactly what it is they are going to do, but he knows itís a big thing. The job has to be done at low level. He says they will practice low flying day and night until they can do it with their eyes shut.

Barnes meets Wing Commander Gibson. He tells him about a very special type of bomb to be dropped at low level. He starts by showing Gibson some film. The bomb will hit the wall drop down and detonate at thirty feet.

It finally comes time to tell Gibson the targets his men will hit. He thought the target was going to be the Terpitz. Gibson tells Barnes that the men are doing fine at day time low level flying, but at night time it is nearly impossible.

Barnes brings Gibson out to the bomb tests, but both bombs explode on first impact. He apologizes and says he will get to work immediately on the casings. Barnes goes out on the tidal flats to pick up pieces of the casings to learn more about what went wrong.

Gibson and one of his men go out to see a musical with plenty of good looking women. Watching the spotlights Gibson gets an idea. On their flights they use two lights and follow them on the ground keeping them constantly close together. So now they can fly at 150 feet with no problem.

And again Barnesís bombs explode on first impact. Barnes now is going to have to come through quickly with a solution or it will be a no good. He now asks Gibson to fly at 60 feet instead of 150 feet so the initial impact on the bombs will be less. Gibson tells Barnes about his success with the lights at 150 feet and Barnes is very much cheered up.

The final test is set up. Gibson is there to see it. He tells Barnes that they can indeed fly at 60 feet. The bomb is dropped and this time it works.

Gibsonís next task is to test an instrument that tells the men when they are within 600 feet of their target. They work that problem out too.

Weather reports are good and the new bombs are arriving so the men will be going tomorrow night. In the morning briefing the men are told the full story. They are going to attack the great dams of western Germany. There will be nine aircraft in three waves to attack the three dams. Itís a full moon so they will have to fly at zero feet all the way there and back. Barnes talks to the men. He wishes them all good luck.

Itís time to go. The men get into their vehicles and drive out to the planes. Cochrane comes out to wish Gibson good luck. The men get into the airplanes. A flare gun is fired into the air and the motors are turned on. The planes take off one after another.

They fly over the Dutch coast then they find the canal and follow it. The next target they will see is the Rhine River. They come under anti-aircraft fire. One of the planes is hit and crashes, exploding in a ball of fire. The light from the spots lights on the ground often temporarily blind the men.

The first wave reaches its dam. Ten anti-aircraft guns fire at them. One of the bombs explodes but doesnít punch a hole in the wall. The next bomb jumps over the dam and explodes below on the dam plaza. The airplane explodes in the air. The next bomb explodes at the wall but there still is no breach. Another hits and finally the dam is broken. Water starts pouring out of the dam. The news is sent to headquarters and everyone there is ecstatic. Barnes is congratulated by the men.

The second dam is attacked. There are no anti-aircraft guns firing at them this time. The first guy comes in too high and canít drop his bomb. The second bomb hits and goes off but doesnít break the dam. The next bomb hits also and the second dam collapses in a huge section.

The release of the waters leads to terrific flooding. Trains are washed off their tracks, factories are inundated by water, air fields are under water. The airplanes start returning to base. The men are pretty subdued due to the fact that many planes never made it back.

This is London: The Air Ministry has just issued the following communiquť: In the early hours of this morning a force of Lancasters of Bomber Command led by Wing Commander G. P. Gibson attacked with mines the dams of the Moehne and Sorpe Reservoirs. These control two thirds of the water storage capacity of the Ruhr Basin. Reconnaissance later established that the MŲhne dam had been breached over a length of 100 yards and that the power station below had been swept away by the resulting floods. The Eder dam which controls the headwaters of the Vaser and Fulnor Valleys and operates several power stations was also attacked and was reported as breached. Photographs show the river below the dam in full flood. The attacks were pressed home from a very low level with great determination and coolness in the face of fierce resistance. Eight of the Lancasters are missing.

Barnes is upset about the 56 lost men. He tells Gibson that if he knew it was going to be this bad he never would have started the project. Gibson tells him he must not think that way. "If all these fellows had learned from the beginning they wouldnít be coming back, they would have gone for it just the same. There isnít a single one of them that would have dropped out. I knew them all. I know thatís true."

Gibson tells Barnes to go to the doctor and get some sleeping pills. Gibson himself has to write some letters before he gets some rest.


Good, straight forward telling of the story of the dam busters.  There are no love stories in this film.  Just the facts about overcoming a great many obstacles  in order to make the mission possible and successful.  The challenges were interesting enough to keep one's interest in their solution. Interest really picked up when the actual mission began.  It was a lot harder to accomplish the mission than I originally thought.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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