Bouncing bombs and revising revisionism

What motivated those who sought to bust the Dam Busters? Documentary evidence or fashion?

How many history books have you seen emblazoned with the words, "a new history"? A lot, I'll warrant, certainly many more than those which claim to be old histories. In fact, Amazon lists 189,973 history books that feature the words "new" and "history" in their titles, and even accounting for histories of New Zealand and New York, we can assume that many thousands of these books claim to be new interpretations of their subjects.

Of course, the whole point of any history is that it should shed new light, or present new evidence that supports an existing interpretation. History that does neither is little more than the historian's version of churnalism, in which secondary sources are simply digested, their sentences rephrased one notch below copyright infringement, and then chucked onto the shelves in time for Fathers' Day.

There's a lot of this junk history about, and the easiest way to spot it is to look for primary sources in the endnotes. If there are none, then the chances are the book should be left on the shelf. That's not always the case, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb.

The pressure on conscientious historians -- especially those writing for the trade, rather than the academic, sector -- is therefore to be revisionist. It's not enough to say to one's publisher that you have new material that will confirm an existing thesis. Instead, you have to offer something that can be called "a new history". Existing theories must be debunked, subjects turned on their heads, the house totally rebuilt.

All this is understandable, and I make no bones that I do the same thing myself. Next year, I shall publish a book on the Great Escape that will certainly be a "new history", because what I found in the archives tells a very different story to the one we all know from the movie and Paul Brickhill's book.

However, does there come a point in which history is needlessly revised? Is historical revisionism sometimes a product of commercialism and political fashion rather than research?

I think it is. Take the case of the famous Dam Busters raid, which is the subject of an excellent documentary by James Holland to be shown tonight on BBC2. (Declaration: James is a friend, but despite that, he's no idiot. It's a good programme, and no, you don't have to watch it.)

For many years, we have been told that the raid on the dams on the Ruhr and the Eder has been wrongly celebrated, and that despite the ingenuity of the bouncing bombs and the undeniable bravery of the RAF aircrew, the operation was more of a propaganda coup than something that really hurt the German war effort. The dams were quickly rebuilt, industrial output wasn't that badly affected, German morale was not dented - so the argument goes.

Such an analysis was doubtless a reaction to the tub-thumping presentation of the raid, especially that conveyed in the 1955 film, starring Michael Redgrave. For some historians, such as Max Hastings, the raid 'contributed little of substance and a great deal of moral force to the Allied cause at a hard and bitter time'.

This is the fashionably revisionist view, but as you shall see tonight, Holland argues that the Dam Busters revisionists have got it wrong. The raid was in fact a triumph, and did an enormous amount of damage. After studying the German archives, Holland shows that:

...not only were two major dams completely destroyed, so too were seven railway bridges, eighteen road bridges, four water turbine power stations and three steam turbine power stations, while in the Ruhr Valley alone, eleven factories were completely destroyed and a further 114 damaged, many severely. Vast tracts of land had also been devastated by the tidal waves that had thundered up to eighty miles from the dams.

Such damage can hardly be considered "little of substance".

Furthermore, Holland completely skewers the argument that as the dams were quickly rebuilt, the damage was therefore not that great. The whole point of their swift reconstruction "underlines just how important they were to Germany", and the men and material required had to be diverted from elsewhere.

Holland also argues that the destruction of the dams struck a huge psychological blow against the Germans, as these were structures that were venerated as triumphs of the country's might and technical knowhow. In short, the raid was indeed a catastrophe for Nazi Germany, and a triumph for the British.

Holland's analysis will no doubt draw its detractors, perhaps inspired by a politically fashionable thinking that seeks to denigrate just about every British success during the Second World War. Of course, there was much that we got wrong, but we also got many things spectacularly right

What Holland has done is to revise the revisionists, and as a result, put this historical episode back where it started. If he is correct -- and for what it's worth, I think he is -- then we must ask why were we so often told that raid achieved so little.

What motivated those who sought to bust the Dam Busters? Documentary evidence or fashion?


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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood