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?

 

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.