Above and Beyond Enemy Lines

My latest book review in today’s Wall Street Journal

It’s hard to believe that there is more to learn about World War II, but there is, thanks in part to a closer examination of remote events and the release of newly declassified documents that may tell us more about campaigns that we thought we knew well. Two new books—”The Ariadne Objective” by Wes Davis and “Dam Busters” by James Holland—illustrate these welcome trends in World War II historiography and offer exciting narratives along the way.

Crete“The Ariadne Objective” concerns the efforts of Britain’s Special Operations Executive—a cadre of commandos and intelligence agents tasked with aiding resistance groups in occupied Europe—to tie up Germany’s forces on Crete in 1943-44. Hitler, whose Wehrmacht had occupied Crete since June 1941, saw the Greek island as a key to exerting control over the Middle East and its oil fields and a crucial transit point for troops reinforcing the Afrika Korps. For the British and Germans alike, the stakes were much bigger than the island’s small size might otherwise suggest.

Wes Davis’s fast-paced tale of wartime sabotage reads more like an Ian Fleming thriller than a mere retelling of events. Mr. Davis—for two years an assistant to the director of excavations at a site in eastern Crete—obviously knows the terrain and the culture well. Describing the Katharo plateau, a critical SOE drop point for men and supplies, he writes: “Although the northeastern fringe of the plateau was only twenty miles or so from the sea, it stood at an elevation nearly four thousand feet above sea level. The steep ascent from the Bay of Mirabello in the northeast was made, when it could be made at all, on a primitive trail riddled with switchbacks and narrow passes. . . . All in all it was inhospitable terrain for German patrols.”

A good yarn requires interesting characters, and Mr. Davis has them in the group of British boarding-school types who made up the backbone of the SOE. As one of them observed, they ended up in Crete because they made “the obsolete choice of Greek at school.” Among the book’s main characters is John Pendlebury, “a Cambridge trained archaeologist” with a glass eye who “had been living in Crete off and on since 1928. His book on the island’s ancient past was on its way to becoming the standard guide for anyone interested in Cretan archaeology.” Xan Fielding, who had edited a newspaper on Cyprus before the war, would write his own book of his wartime exploits in Crete and serve as a technical adviser on “Ill Met by Moonlight,” the 1957 film based on the memoir of another British participant, W. Stanley Moss.

The film depicted the SOE’s most daring mission on Crete, the capture of the German commander in May 1944. At the center of the operation was Moss and the best-known figure of all, Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British travel writer who in 1933, at age 18, had caught a steamer from London to Rotterdam and proceeded to walk to Istanbul, then on to Greece. The book’s small-world moment comes when Fermor is on the island in 1941, working with Greek partisans to repel a massive airborne assault, and learns that the attack is being spearheaded by one Capt. Von der Heydte.

Fermor quickly realized that the Nazi captain was Einer Heydte, an aristocrat whom Fermor had befriended during his Byronic trek across Europe a decade before, when Heydte’s views were rather more broad-minded than they would become. At that earlier time Heydte had cabled friends from Vienna to Istanbul asking them to show Fermor their hospitality. Fermor, writes Mr. Davis, “felt a wave of nostalgia for the era when opposing warriors who had moved in the same social circles might exchange a greeting during a lull in the fighting. But he knew that times hand changed. In the chaos of the battle raging on Crete, such antique gallantries were impossible.”

Initially the purpose of the mission on Crete was to keep the island unstable and force the Germans to commit more troops there. But the later kidnapping of the German commander—the culminating story in “The Ariadne Objective”—had less strategic logic, especially since the commander at that point wasn’t nearly so cruel and draconian as the man who had preceded him. Still, the episode makes for great reading, featuring plenty of danger and derring-do. Along the way, Mr. Davis offers portraits of the Greek partisans, who sometimes hurt more than helped the SOE’s goals on Crete. An assault on several German patrols, for instance, led to threefold reprisals against the population.

In a chapter titled “Fleshpots,” Mr. Davis describes life in Cairo for British rear-echelon clerks and SOE operatives taking R&R. He quotes an American journalist in Cairo who wrote that the Egyptians were working overtime to “‘keep alive the tradition of Oriental splendor and mysticism while Ford automobiles zip around the streets and movie houses show the latest Hollywood films.” The epicenter of British expat living was Gezira Island, on the Nile, where many of the SOE men involved in the kidnapping lived before the operation took place. “Cultivated lawns bordered the villas that dotted the area, and not far to the south began the outlying stretches of the golf course, cricket pitch, and polo fields.” As Mr. Davis shows, this paradise offered only a brief respite, since the war raged elsewhere after the Germans abandoned Crete and SOE operatives moved on to other theaters, including France in advance of the Normandy invasion.

While “The Ariadne Objective” mostly tracks missions behind enemy lines, “Dam Busters” describes the maneuvering that went on behind the scenes before one of Britain’s most important efforts to cripple the Nazi war machine. This is another somewhat familiar story, about the development of Upkeep and Highball, the spinning spherical bombs that were designed by the British to be dropped at high speed and low altitude on the hydroelectric dams in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland. Paul Brickhill’s “The Dambusters” has already given us a riveting account of the raid, but the book was written in 1951, before many documents were declassified. James Holland has delved into the new trove and uses it to shed light on this weapons program, the politics of its development and the eventual mission.

“The bare bones are much the same,” Mr. Holland writes of the story that the documents now tell, “but add the flesh and an even more remarkable tale quickly emerges—a story of politics and personalities as much as science and ingenious engineering.” Surprisingly, Britain’s Bomber Command was the primary obstacle to both the development of Upkeep and Highball and the mission itself.

Relying on declassified documents, Mr. Holland shows how Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the head of Bomber Command, opposed the plan primarily because it would take Lancaster bombers away from his all-out campaign to attack Germany from the air—both controversial civilian and necessary military targets. “I cannot too strongly deprecate any diversion of Lancasters at this critical moment in our affairs,” Harris wrote to Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal in February 1943. The dam-busting plan was based, he wrote skeptically, “on the assumption that some entirely new weapon, totally untried, is going to be a success.”

There were practical concerns as well. “The packing of the explosive,” Harris wrote, “let alone in retaining it packed in balance during the rotation, are obvious technical difficulties.” Such were the challenges faced by Barnes Wallis, the assistant chief designer at Vickers-Armstrong, one of Britain’s major arms manufacturers. Wallis had to overcome not just the science but the politics of making the weapon. He received support from a surprising quarter, the British navy, which saw his weapon, designed to skip across the water over submarine nets, as having the potential to hit not just dams but the Nazi fleet secreted in Norway’s fjords. The Admiralty’s support pushed the project along, but its involvement also made Harris dig in his heels until the 11th hour.

Mr. Holland is good at making complex matters clear, including the challenges of figuring out the best height and speed from which to drop the dam-busting bombs. Dropping them from the desired low position, he notes, “meant the plume of water thrown up was dangerously close to the Lancaster.” He is also good at writing action sequences. Early on he describes a pilot conducting a low-flying mission in 1942 similar to what the pilots who bombed the Ruhr dams would have to carry out. The pilot found himself “swerving and yawing the aircraft as much as he dared” and flying under power cables to escape pursuing fighters: “A moment later, a wing tip clipped the ground and the Lancaster cartwheeled and exploded in a ball of fire.”

On Sunday, May 16, 1943, the orders came down that the mission was a go, and at 9 p.m. more than a dozen Lancasters headed out from an air base in central England. When they reached the Ruhr, they dropped their payload and caused the Möhne and Edersee Dams to be breached (and a third dam to be damaged slightly). Parts of the valley were flooded, two hydroelectric plants were seriously crippled and an estimated 1,600 Germans were killed.

The mission was a public-relations success for the Allies, Mr. Holland notes, and a feat in itself. That the flight crews “should have been expected to head over enemy-occupied territory to drop a weapon that had been dropped once before by some and by many not at all is astonishing.” The raid, he says, was “a phenomenal achievement.”

—Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.