Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Don't mention the Dambusters

The best view is from the battlements of the castle perched on a thrust of rock at Waldeck. High up on the ramparts, half a euro buys you a turn on a telescope that looks as though it was taken from a gunner's position on a Second World War bomber.

The best view is from the battlements of the castle perched on a thrust of rock at Waldeck. High up on the ramparts, half a euro buys you a turn on a telescope that looks as though it was taken from a gunner's position on a Second World War bomber.

The terrain is spectacular. A battalion of hills gains colour and definition on the long march in from the south. In the middle distance, the landscape looks as though it has been engineered to create an idealised tract of still lakes and rugged heights. The hillsides are camouflaged with splashes of grass and tidy thickets of woodland. Even the sightseeing boats rehearse with naval precision; their choreography ripples across the placid see.

This word applies to any body of water: a sea, a lake or – crucially – a reservoir.

From see-level, the castle looks equally magnificent: a confection of turrets and towers, reflected in the steely water. But your attention keeps being drawn to the elegant curve of stone that was traumatised 60 years ago.

Shock and awe: in the grisly, but inevitable, entanglement of tourism and war, the 21st-century Dambusters tour of Germany resonates with the belligerent phrase beloved of US military top brass. At 9.30pm on 16 May ,1943, the first wave of Lancaster bombers took off from RAF Scampton, five miles north of Lincoln. Their targets were three dams that controlled the unruly rivers feeding Germany's industrial heartland.

On a fine morning in late spring, as the early risers begin biking and boating around the Edersee, it is difficult to conceive the mood among the 133 air crew on that fateful May night. Eighty men survived, to be anointed heroes.

THE PRIDE of the RAF made their final, tight turns on this mission of destruction. Two lamps – one in the nose, the other in the tail – pointed down at oblique angles. When their beams coincided, the crew knew they had attained the critical height of 60 feet.

Dr Barnes Wallis's theory was about to be tested. The bomb, packed with four and a half tons of explosives, looked like an oil-drum. As it was released, it rotated backwards at high speed, while momentum carried it forward. Spin was everything; like a stone skimming across a pond, it enabled the bomb to bounce its way past the inevitable torpedo nets and hit the dam. Here, the device would sink, then explode at a certain depth. The pressure of water would destroy the dam and wreak havoc downstream.

As Tina Ediss's story reveals, the crews of the 19 Lancaster bombers had rehearsed as best they could in Britain. But to get to a test-run at a reservoir in Derbyshire, it was not necessary to fly for four hours at an absurdly low altitude, then face furious enemy fire.

THESE DAYS, the Dambusters tour of Germany begins with a cheap flight from Stansted to Dortmund, the airport operated from 1939 by the Luftwaffe, and from 1945 by the RAF. Two minutes' flying time east (but the best part of an hour in a bottom-of-the-range rental car) is the Möhnesee. On the map, it looks like a crooked finger pointing up the valley of the Möhne. In reality, it is a bucolic stretch of water divided by a duo of bridges and hulking great dam. Immediately downstream is a knuckle-shaped lake, populated by ducks of impeccably unruffled feathers. On the moonlit night, when Flight Lieutenant Maltby's Lancaster bomber dispatched its deadly cargo, the calm turned into a calamitous storm.

A few miles downstream, the Möhne flows into the Ruhr, Germany's industrial artery. When the dam gave way, the message travelled as fast as the tidal wave: "We, the British, can torment you in ways that you cannot imagine." Only a cynic would say that the UK's package holiday industry has been doing the same for the past 50 years.

THE NEXT waymark along the Dambusters trail is Sorpesee, where the main attraction is a dam that has remained intact since its completion just before the outbreak of the First World War. The RAF failed to breach it. You may infer that the goalkeeping hero of the lager ads ("I bet he drinks Carling Black Label") was on duty on the night of the attack. In fact, the bombers detailed to attack the dam suffered various calamities on the flight from Lincolnshire. Only one bomb was on target; the dam held, and the waters of the Röhr failed to pour down to the confluence with Ruhr. Damn and blast, as Flight Sergeant Brown may have sworn as he turned for the treacherous journey home.

The crown of the dam is a broad avenue, populated by a swish of in-line skaters and idling families, whose numbers fall with the sinking sun. At the nearby town of Sundern, the main accommodation option is the Hotel Sunderland. This has all the appeal of Frankfurt's Cafe Birmingham (which exists) and Berlin's Middlesbrough Motel (which doesn't). So instead my companion and I pressed on to the town of Korbach.

This turns out to be a gem of a stadt, untouched by the RAF and the British holidaymaker. Few people are aware of this blessed bump on the landscape, with half-timbered homes and a 14th-century church tower dedicated to the Irish martyr St Kilian.

Korbach is the sort of tidy country hideaway where Germany's Christian Democrats, like Britain's Tories, might usefully hold a bonding session. But where should they stay?

Our first attempt to book a room failed. The proprietor, leaning weightily on a bar counter partially obscured by the fog of his chain-smoking customers, was prepared to offer only the honeymoon suite. Since I was travelling with a friend who is engaged to be married, the idea seemed faintly unsuitable.

The next option, a tottering old barn of a hotel, proved ideal. It had a bounteous supply of cheap, clean and cheerful single rooms. Next morning, the breakfast table creaked under the weight of Germany's agricultural surplus. Dambusters tourists march on their stomachs.

THE THREE magnificent structures were created on the orders Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany and King of Prussia. The dams bestowed the nation with an instant Lake District. Today, the serenity whispers peace and prosperity. The road to Edersee curves through drowsy half-timbered villages. Follow the signs to Halbinsel Scheid, and you find a rocky peninsula giving fine views all around the lake, but presenting a hazard to pilots skimming the surface at an altitude of 60 feet. Cstensibly, the aim of 617 Squadron's audacious mission was to unleash a tidal wave to wreck the Nazi war effort. In fact, the main damage was inflicted upon humans (around 500 Ukrainian slave labourers died in the deluge) and German morale. Even so, Hitler's regime did not crumble like the dams at Edertal and Möhne; it took two more years and millions of lives before the Allies could proclaim Victory in Europe.

Back on the dam, a fading monochrome poster points to a small museum and promises the true story of "Operation Chastise". There is one modest memorial stone. Yet it does not mourn those who died in the attack, but the suffering of those ordered to rebuild it: "In memory of the 2,000 workers from all over Europe, who had to live and work in inhuman conditions during the reconstruction of the Edertal Dam."

They made a pretty good job of it, as the cover photo on the local holiday brochure shows. Edersee today is a slow-lane antidote to the web of autobahns that are slowly strangling so much of Germany. Yet not once in the 70 pages of the brochure are the events of that fateful night mentioned. Here in the heart of western Germany, at the triumphant climax of man-modified nature, the past is indeed another country.

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