Breaking the Dams by Mark Barnes

They had been attempting to drop a new 12,000lb at low altitude in the face of heavy flak…


Sixty-five years ago a lanky middle class twenty-three year old named David Maltby became something of a celebrity. In May 1943 he flew to Germany in Lancaster ‘J-Johnny’ and dropped the mine that broke the Mohne Dam. He lived through four months of fame before meeting an untimely end returning from an abortive raid on the Dortmund Ems canal.

He was not alone, of course; there were six others with him in the Lancaster on that famous night in May: Vivian Nicholson, navigator; John Fort; air bomber; William Hatton, flight engineer; Antony Stone, wireless operator; Victor Hill, front gunner and Harold Simmonds, rear gunner. They were with him when he died. Only Maltby has a grave, the others are commemorated at Runnymede. No one knows for sure, but it is possible their Lancaster collided with a Mosquito off the Norfolk coast on the flight home from Germany.

Pen & Sword published this book, and, rather confusingly, have recently released The Dambuster Who Cracked The Dam by Arthur G Thorning, which claims it was Melvyn ‘Dinghy’ Young’s plane and not Maltby’s who did the deed. Charles Foster retains an even handed approach when dealing with the issue. To my mind it hardly matters whether it was his uncle, Maltby, or the hapless Young; who crashed on the flight home. It’s safe to assume that neither would have claimed the success for himself.

Claims aside, this book is a welcome addition to any Dam Buster library. It keeps away from much of the old ground covered in definitive works by John Sweetman or in the ever-popular accounts by Guy Gibson and Paul Brickhill. The aim is to bring David Maltby, his family and crew, to life and correct errors in the others’ works. The author succeeds on all counts. It is like enjoying a pint of mild on a late summer afternoon. There is no bitter aftertaste.

The Dams Raid is rightly considered to be the most famous operation carried out by the RAF. In May of this year the BBMF’s Lancaster returned to Derwent reservoir to commemorate the training flights carried out before the raid. Surviving pilot Les Munro, relatives, dignitaries and an adoring public were joined by a ‘Dam Buster’ imposter ‘outed’ in one of the red tops by his daughter following a dispute over money. Such is the allure, history and mythology of the raid that it continues to attract the learned, the enthused, romantics and the occasional scoundrel.

Charles Foster attempts to put all the hype into perspective and in the penultimate chapter looks at the making of Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead, Brickhill’s Dam Busters and the subsequent film with the script by RC Sherriff who also gave us Journey’s End; Goodbye Mr Chips and Mrs Minever. We learn that Eric Coates’ famous march was adapted from an original piece he had written in honour of the victory at El Alamein. This is all incidental to the sad reality that so many heroes of the raid had such a short time to ‘enjoy’ their achievements. Perhaps it was difficult to fill a book with the somewhat sketchy life of someone so young.

The day after Maltby was lost, 617 went back to the Dortmund Ems canal with catastrophic consequences for the squadron. They had been attempting to drop a new 12,000lb at low altitude in the face of heavy flak. Several planes were lost killing many of the men who breached the dams, including most of Gibson’s crew. They were expendable. Gibson himself lasted another year.

David Maltby is buried in the churchyard at Wickhambeaux in Kent. If you’re passing, take time to pay your respects to a true British hero. He is ours to cherish.

Published by Pen & Sword.
ISBN: 97818 4415 6863

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.