Ted Barris Speaks in Winnipeg

by Bill Zuk

Award-winning Canadian author, journalist, educator and broadcaster Ted Barris recently launched his 18th book, Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid Against Nazi Germany. Barris, a full-time professor at Centennial College, Toronto, also writes a weekly column, "The Barris Beat", and is a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail and The National Post.

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Barris has authored 17 books with non-fiction works focusing on Canada's military heritage. Earlier works included The Great Escape: A Canadian Story (2013) and Behind the Glory: Canada’s Role in the Allied Air War (2010).

da gang 480On October 16, in his stop along a tour of Canada that began in Nanton, Alberta at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada, Barris had the opportunity to come back to Winnipeg where he had previously spoken about The Great Escape and Behind the Glory. Jointly hosted by a number of historical associations in Manitoba, primarily the Royal Military Institute of Manitoba and the Manitoba Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, Barris presented a highly evocative account of the Canadian airmen that flew in the secret raid that breached the great dams of the Ruhr Valley in 1943.

The Dam Busters raid on the evening of March 16-17, 1943, was the culmination of a secret weapons project that involved a technological achievement in creating a “bouncing bomb”, designed by acclaimed engineer Sir Barnes Wallis, carried aloft by specially modified Avro Lancaster bombers and crewed by an elite group of airmen. Of the 29 Canadians (of the 132 Commonwealth aviators and one American) that made up the RAF No. 617 squadron, Wing Commander Guy Gibson carefully chose volunteers that could carry out a secret “op” that demanded not only exacting flying skills but also was a strike into the heart of industrial Nazi Germany, guarded by flak towers and patrolled by the menacing Luftwaffe night fighters.

The raid known as Operation Chastise, led by Gibson whose hand-picked crew included three Canadians, was successful in breeching the Möhne and Eder Dams, and damaging other dams in Ruhr Valley. The attack by 19 Lancaster bombers unleashed a torrent of water that swept away two hydroelectric plants, 11 munitions and manufacturing factories and 41 others severely damaged. The total extent of the damage included destroyed railway bridges and whole villages being obliterated, with the subsequent deaths of thousands.

Barnes Wallis was fearful not of the damage his weapons could unleash but the cost it would inflict on the brave young airmen that set out on the attack. His premonitions proved correct as No. 617 Squadron was decimated with 42% of the crews killed, captured or missing; 13 Canadians would not return. The stories behind the Canadian connection were part of the emotive audio-visual presentation Barris made in Winnipeg to an audience of an estimated 130 enthusiasts at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, the penultimate event hosted at the museum before its closure at the end of the month and eventual demolition prior to being rebuilt in a new airport location.

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The spirited program at one point was marked by a request from Barris to show his publisher in Toronto what the local reaction to Dam Busters entailed. The publisher had concerns that his visit to the hinterlands of Winnipeg was a waste of time. The audience promptly held up more than 60 copies of the book!