Jul 2, 2023
3d illustration. British Lancaster bomber from WW2. Image: iStock

The famous World War II “Dambusters” raid in 1943 killed many more Ukrainians and other civilians than the collapse of the large Kakhovka dam in Ukraine in June.

According to the Ukrainian officials, that collapse killed 41 people on the Russian occupied side and 17 on the Ukrainian side. However, the Australian War Memorial has unveiled a new exhibition of an artefact from the Dambusters’ attack that fails to mention any civilian casualties. A German historian, Ralf Blank, estimates that at least 1,650 people were killed in the raids. Other estimates range from 1,200 to 1,600.

The AWM’s media release says the bouncing bombs in the raid were the result of an “audacious engineering feat” intended to damage three dams in the Germany’s Ruhr valley, the Mohne, the Elder and the Scorpe. Only two suffered any significant damage.

The AWM said the “ingenuity required to breach the dams was surpassed only by the skill and courage of the crews chosen to undertake the daring raid”. There was not much skill on display in the failed attempt to breach the Scorpe dam, which suffered only minor damage. The display features a model of a diorama used by pilots and aircrew to prepare for the operation against this dam.

The media release said the overall cost was high. Of the 19 Lancaster bombers used, eight were lost, along with 53 aircrew. There were 13 Australians in the squadron that conducted the assault on the dams, but none were killed.

Why the AWM made no mention of the civilian casualties is unclear, particularly as the British historian Max Hastings notes the Dambuster raid generated more civilian deaths than any previous RAF attack on Germany.   It can be argued that, even by the standards of time, this raid was a war crime. The AWM is entitled to reject this interpretation, but it should have published figures for the toll on civilians. It was aware that estimates existed – when I asked, it sent me a range of figures.

Hastings has written, “The power of water in human affairs, both for good and evil, is almost beyond imagining. The breaching of the Mohne unleashed a tidal wave, sometimes 40 feet high, which swept the Sauerland with primaeval force, creating floods that eventually extended 100 miles.”

According to Hastings, ”At least half who died, were not Hitler’s people. Instead, [they were] his foreign slaves, almost all women, drowned in the Biblical flood unleashed by the bouncing bombs.” He said, “It is fascinating that Guy Gibson [the Wing Commander who led the raid] afterwards reflected uneasily about this, as his senior officers never did. Gibson wrote in 1944, ‘The fact that people might drown had not occurred to us … No one likes mass slaughter … and we did not like being the authors of it’.”

A common figure is that over two million Ukrainians were forced into slave labour in Germany in WW 2, along with high numbers from other east European countries. German figures for the Mohne area collected soon after the dam was bombed state that 593 Ukrainian and Dutch slave labourers and French and Belgian prisoners of war had died and 156 were missing.

Responsibility for the collapse of the Kakhovka dam has not been authoritatively established. Although Russia had the means do so, the American commentator, Scott Ritter, says it had had a lot more to lose, than gain, from what happened. He says the released water flooded Russian fortifications and mines intended to frustrate Ukraine’s counter-offensive. Ritter, who acknowledges that he often gives a Russian perspective, says the destruction of the dam will also make it harder to maintain a water supply to Crimea, earlier annexed by Russia with much of the local population’s acquiescence. Ukraine, which is the victim of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, denies responsibility and says it has made its counter-offensive more difficult.

Some engineering sources claim the Soviet-era dam collapsed from structural failure due to poor Russian maintenance and operational practices. They note that a concrete wall separating the dam and the hydroelectric plant collapsed 44 days before the destruction of the dam itself. Others say structural problems were reflected in the way the road, which ran along which ran along the top of dam, was washed away 3-4 days before the major collapse.

We should all be grateful that the loss of human life is much smaller than occurred in the Dambuster’s assault on three dams in Germany in 1943 – despite the Australian War Memorial failure to mention these deaths in its current display about that atrocity.

Article updated July 11, 2023.

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