Book review: Dambuster by Robert Radcliffe

The British Dambusters Raid on key hydroelectric dams which powered the German industrial area of the Ruhr was an iconic event in the history of the Second World War.

Using the famous bouncing bombs developed by Barnes Wallis and under the leadership of legendary Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the RAF’s 617 Squadron launched a series of spectacular air attacks in 1943.

It was a proud moment in British history, with the crews displaying outstanding bravery, endurance and fighting spirit, and one that has been superbly recaptured in Robert Radcliffe’s meticulously researched novel, Dambuster.

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Radcliffe, an experienced pilot, has made air conflict his speciality – Under an English Heaven and Across the Blood Red Skies also featured breathtaking battle sequences – and now he brings us another pivotal wartime drama.

Alongside real-life characters like the charismatic and volatile Gibson, Radcliffe includes a fictional crew whose emotions and experiences mirror the true toll of Operation Chastise. Eight aircraft were lost and 53 flyers were killed.

Buried within the action is a hidden narrator – Credo, a horribly injured pilot, who presents his own personal story in parallel to the bigger picture and gives us a fascinating insight into the work of the groundbreaking plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead.

The story opens in May 1943 in Lincolnshire where 20 Lancaster bombers stand poised to fly out on the daring and dangerous Dambuster mission.

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Success could shorten the war, the crews are told, but will inevitably come at a cost. Many of them will not be coming back.

After two tours of duty and 59 missions, combat-seasoned pilot Peter Lightfoot and his loyal crew are already on borrowed time.

The seven men narrowly escaped death on a disastrous final operation over the Alps, a flight which ended when they were forced to ditch their wrecked Lancaster into the Atlantic.

Job done, they were finally relieved from operational flying but, haunted by a face from his past, Lightfoot cannot rest and, unknown to his crew, applies to join Gibson’s squadron and fly out to the Ruhr.

It’s a mission that many see as certain suicide.

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Radcliffe is a gripping storyteller and Dambuster takes the reader high into the skies and into the cockpit of the Lancasters as they wing their way into the heart of enemy territory.

The tensions, the terror, the background romances and the sheer humanity of all those involved spring vividly to life in this riveting retelling of an awesome wartime operation that still has the power to thrill and amaze.

(Little, Brown, hardback, £16.99)