Op-Ed: It Happened Seventy Years Ago - Today
In just under four weeks, on May 16th and 17th, Britain will be hosting ceremonies up and down the country to memorialise one of the most daring Royal Air Force raids ever carried out against Nazi Germany, using one of the most ingenious bombs designed during the Second World War.
According to the Gregorian calendar, the 70th anniversary will be in just under a month. In the Jewish calendar, however the 70th anniversary of that famous – almost legendary – raid falls this week, on Sunday 11th of Iyar and Monday 12 Iyar (April 21st and 22nd)
Seventy years ago, on the night of May 16th-17th 1943, nineteen Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron flew to the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland, where the bulk of the Nazi war materiel was being produced.
The British aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis had invented the bouncing bomb specifically for use against dams. Barrel-shaped, spinning at 500 r.p.m., they were dropped from the Lancaster bombers flying at 240 mph (386 km/h), skimming just 60 feet (18.3 metres) above the artificial lakes created by the dams. The 4.2-ton bombs bounced across the surface of the water for 425 yards (389 metres) like pebbles on a pond, hit the dam, and sank to a depth of 30 feet (9 metres) when a hydrostatic fuse ignited the bomb.
617 Squadron targeted three dams, the Moehne, the Eder, and the Sorpe. The Moehne and the Eder were destroyed, and the Sorpe was badly damaged.
The damage caused was immense. Factories, roads, railways, bridges, and farmland as far as 50 miles (80 km) away from the dams were destroyed. More than that: the German method of steel production demanded 150 tons of water to produce one ton of steel, so the factories which depended on the water in the dams for steel production were rendered useless until the dams were rebuilt and the valleys refilled with water, which took another month.
Hydroelectric generation also ceased for about two weeks.
Though the overall effect on the war was fairly small, the famous Dambusters raid was probably the single most devastating blow against the Third Reich caused by a small attacking force.
(Incomparably greater damage was caused by bomber raids in Cologne, Hamburg, Bremen, Dresden, Berlin, and other German cities, but the forces there were also incomparably greater – 1,000 or more bombers. The 1943 Dambusters raid was carried out by just 19 aircraft.)
Just four hours before the Moehne Dam was breached and some 150 million tons of water swept in uncontrolled fury to flood the Ruhr Valley, another equally famous and far more desperate battle was finishing.
515 miles (825 km) almost due east, the SS and police of the Third Reich were levelling the Warsaw Ghetto. SS Bigadefuehrer (Major General) and Generalmajor der Polizei (Major General of the Police) Juergen Stroop y”sh reported on Sunday night, 12th Iyar 5703 (today on the Hebrew calendar, which that year, fell on 16th May 1943) that “the former Jewish Quarter of Warsaw no longer exists. With the blowing up of the Warsaw Synagogue, the grand operation was terminated at 20:15”.
Two epic battles, two totally different battlefields, two seemingly unrelated narratives, which happened almost simultaneously.
The Royal Air Force had among the best-trained personnel in the world, and the Avro Lancaster is almost universally acknowledged as the best bomber aircraft of the Second World War. Guy Gibson, who commanded 617 Squadron, hand-picked his air-crews for the Dambusters raid from the best that the Royal Air Force had.
The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were fighting against desperate odds. They knew that they were destined for death, and their hope was but to die fighting, to sell their lives as dearly as they could. The Armia Krajowa, the Home Army (the Polish resistance) refused to aid the Jews or even to recognise them as part of the Underground, and consequently the Allies (primarily Britain) refused to supply the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto with weapons or ammunition (as they armed other underground resistance and partisan forces across occupied Europe).
Yet with the few weapons that they managed to buy and steal, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto held the Nazis off for as long as Poland had done in September 1939, longer than Greece (which was reinforced with British Commonwealth forces).
There is a seemingly immutable law of history: when Jews are persecuted, they have no mortal allies to rely on apart from other Jews.
The Third Reich was eventually defeated by a military coalition of the three mightiest armies in the world – Britain, the USA, and the Soviet Union. In that conflict there can be no argument that the Allied Powers were on the side of the angels.
But let there also be no mistake: none of those three went to war because of the Holocaust. Britain has the distinction of being the only country in the entire world which voluntarily declared war on Nazi Germany; but they did so because of a treaty obligation to Poland and fear that Germany would eventually attack Britain, not because of the persecution and systematic murder of Jews.
When the USA was attacked by Japan on 7th December 1941, they responded by declaring war on Japan the next day. Even at that stage the USA did not declare war on Germany. However on 8th December Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Operations Staff of the Wehrmacht High Command, ordered the German Navy to attack American ships wherever they found them. Three days later Hitler formally declared war on the USA and within hours, President Roosevelt declared war on Germany.
The USA, left to their own devices, would not have declared war on Germany. When they did, it certainly was no to defend the Jews of Europe.
And the Soviet Union had earlier been a military ally of Nazi Germany – indeed it was the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 23rd August 1939 that gave Hitler y”sh the confidence to invade Poland nine days later. Only when his erstwhile ally launched his attack on the Soviet Union on 22nd June 1941 did Joseph Stalin mobilise the Red Army to fight against the Nazis.
For sure, the Allied victory over Nazi Germany was a day for every Jew to celebrate. But it is a testament of the poverty of the Jewish nation that we had no army of our own at our hour of most desperate need. The best we could hope for was to die fighting as in the Warsaw Ghetto (and as in so many other ghettos, concentration camps, forced-labour camps, and extermination camps throughout the Third Reich), or that powerful foreign countries’ interests would somehow coincide with our own, and sometimes to fight in the ranks of those armies (as did some 1,500,000 Jews in the British, American, Soviet and other Allied armies).
As the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto finally succumbed to overwhelming force, they could not have known that just a few hours later Britain would deliver a mighty blow to the Third Reich. And we can but wonder: would it have lifted their spirits had they known? Would they have felt themselves brothers in arms to those brave airmen of the RAF? Or would they have felt bitterly betrayed by a country which parachuted materiel to partisans and underground fighting groups throughout the Third Reich, but refused that lifeline to the Jewish fighters?
And they could not possibly have dreamt that within five years, we would be fighting in our own independent state, Israel reborn on its own ancestral soil. Five years to the day after the Warsaw Ghetto was vanquished, one of the more important battles occurred in Israel’s War of Independence. Today, on 12th Iyar 5708 (that year 21st May 1948) a combined force of the Arab Legion (Trans-Jordanian army) and Moslem Brotherhood attacked Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, just south of Jerusalem.
The battle flowed back and forth. Three times the Arab forces captured the Kibbutz, and each time Jewish forces (the Irgun, the Palmach, and the Etzioni Brigade of the Haganah) recaptured it. The cost was high: 40 soldiers and thirteen Kibbutz members were killed in those battles.
But such is the difference between fighting in exile, fighting to die, and fighting in our independent Land, fighting to live.