RC Sherriff and The Dam Busters

17 May 2018 sees the 75th anniversary of ‘Operation Chastise’, better known as the ‘Dambuster’ raid by RAF 617 Squadron, immortalised in the 1955 film The Dam Busters. But did you know that Journey’s End author, RC Sherriff, wrote the script for the epic film? Surrey History Centre holds not only Sherriff’s papers relating to the film but also papers relating to Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, the engineer and inventor of the ‘bouncing bomb’, who lived in Effingham, with his wife Molly (Mary).

The original film stock, owned by the film company Studiocanal, has been restored and digitally re-mastered to be shown at a gala evening at the Royal Albert Hall, simultaneously in cinemas nationwide, and available as a collector’s edition for the anniversary (from June 2018). It is being accompanied by a commemorative booklet researching the making of the film to which Surrey History Centre has contributed material from its RC Sherriff and Barnes Wallis collections.

Front cover of Roland Wales’ new book <em>From Journey's End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches</em>, 2016 (Pen & Sword)

Front cover of Roland Wales’ new book From Journey’s End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches, 2016 (Pen & Sword)

Roland Wales, RC Sherriff’s biographer, has contributed to new research on the film and he has kindly supplied the following sections of text used in his book From Journey’s End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches (2016, Pen & Sword). The full chapter on ‘The Dam Busters’ can be found in this work. Additional information from the correspondence of Molly (Lady Mary) Wallis, wife of Barnes Wallis, has been added below by Surrey History Centre.

Dam Busters – the beginnings

RC Sherriff picked up his screenwriting pencil again. There had been nothing since No Highway, partly because he had been busy with his plays, but also because no especially attractive film offer had come his way. All that was to change with the arrival of The Dam Busters.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (HU 92132) Head and shoulders portrait of Dr Barnes Wallis. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205127109

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (HU 92132) Head and shoulders portrait of Dr Barnes Wallis. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source.

Robert Clark, the Director of Productions at Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC), one of the biggest players in the British movie industry at that time, began thinking of making the The Dam Busters film in October 1951. He had bought the rights to Paul Brickhill’s book of the same name (previously dramatised for BBC Radio, and broadcast on 8 May), which was a history of the RAF’s 617 Squadron, beginning with its formation to take part in the 1943 raid on 3 German dams (the Moehne, the Eder and the Sorpe). The raid was the culmination of Barnes Wallis’s work on designing new, larger-sized (so-called ‘earthquake’) bombs, intended to attack Germany’s sources of power, including mines and dams. Brickhill’s book noted Wallis’s numerous tests regarding the shape, size, launch trajectory and speed of the final bomb and shows him convincing Sir Arthur Harris (‘Bomber’ Harris, Chief of the Air Staff) to give him the go-ahead.

The story continues with the young, but experienced new Commander, of 617 Squadron, Guy Gibson (incorporating elements of Gibson’s memoir Enemy Coast Ahead and shows him meeting Wallis at his office at Brooklands, Weybridge, where the theory behind the bomb is explained to him. With the deadline for the raid just a few weeks away, each man has his own problems to deal with: Wallis to perfect his bomb, and Gibson to ensure that his men could deliver it in exactly the way that was needed for the dams to be breached. This required the ability to fly at very low altitudes over water, and a means of aiming the bombs accurately every time. The problems are eventually overcome, and culminate in the successful breaching of the Moehne and the Eder dams. The casualty rate was high, with eight of the 19 planes being shot down, 53 men killed and 3 taken prisoner.

Clark intended to use the film as a vehicle for Richard Todd, at that time on contract to ABPC. Bill Whittaker, a production supervisor at ABPC’s Elstree Studios, and script editor Walter Mycroft, produced a suggested treatment of the story, which could be used to brief the screenwriter, once one had been chosen. Curiously, they turned Brickhill’s successful narrative on its head beginning the story with Gibson rather than Barnes Wallis – although that may have been because at that point the famous ‘bouncing bomb’ was still top secret and they may have shied away from showing it. Various names were suggested, including Terence Rattigan, Emlyn Williams and C S Forester, but in January of 1952 Clark settled on RC Sherriff.

Sherriff arrives

Publicity photograph of RC Sherriff sitting in his armchair, 1929. (SHC ref 2332/6/9/14)

Publicity photograph of RC Sherriff sitting in his armchair, 1929. (SHC ref 2332/6/9/14)

According to a diary kept by Whittaker, Sherriff attended an initial script meeting on 7 March 1952, in which he outlined his ideas for the treatment of the story: ‘He feels that it should be told simply and naturally, with no recourse to tricks of any sort…It was also agreed that there should be no effort to introduce a feminine influence.’ After the meeting, Sherriff visited Wallis at his home in Effingham, once on his own, and once in the company of Brickhill, Mycroft and Whittaker, the latter of whom recorded in his diary, 22 March 1952:

‘Mr Wallis has set up the catapult, water tub etc with which he did his original experiments. Mr Wallis proudly conducted us to them and said, “It’s just as it was at the time. Now I’ll show you how it works.” It didn’t.’

Extract from a letter from Molly Wallis, to her friend Mary Morris, recounting the visit of RC Sherriff, Paul Brickhill, Mycroft and Whittaker, 23 Mar 1952 (SHC ref 9456/4/32/1/9A p.1)

Extract from a letter from Molly Wallis, to her friend Mary Morris, recounting the visit of RC Sherriff, Paul Brickhill, Mycroft and Whittaker, 23 Mar 1952
(SHC ref 9456/4/32/1/9A p.1). Click on the image to see a larger copy.

The following day, Molly Wallis wrote to her friend Mary Morris and recounted the visit:

“Paul Brickhill, RC Sherriff, the scriptwriter and Mr Mycock [sic], the production manager, and Mr Whittaker, the photography expert came, and our old Doc [their old family doctor]. Sherriff is a charming person, thin and brown, and highly strung. He sat talking to Lis [daughter Elisabeth] and Doc and me suggesting the first scene; and every time we made a good suggestion he jumped up and walked about and said “yes, yes, that will be very nice”. They were all thrilled by the whole dramatic story.”

With the information from Wallis, and his experiments, in hand, Sherriff set about preparing his own treatment. It departs radically from the briefing treatment, returning instead to the book’s original structure, and beginning by showing Wallis’s back-garden experiments, which had only been alluded to by Brickhill. This implies there may have been a noticeable easing in security restrictions, supported by the presence in his files of a ‘Top Secret’ memo written by Wallis about the ‘Spherical Bomb’, or ‘Surface torpedo’ (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/1). The treatment ends with a short description of the way in which the raid will be treated.

Click on the following links to see pdf (PDF) copies of:

Several points are worth noting about Sherriff’s treatment: Firstly, it does, indeed, completely exclude the ‘feminine influence’; it includes several short scenes which show the manufacture of the bomb, and the modification of the Lancaster bombers to take the bomb; it includes Wallis’s test at Chesil Beach, Dorset but only as seen through the reaction of onlookers: there would be ‘no authentic shots of the falling bomb…nor anything else that might infringe security’.

David Cottis, Theatre Director and Screenwriting Lecturer, who spoke at Surrey History Centre’s RC Sherriff Study Day in 2015, argues that Sherriff’s treatment is highly innovative by shifting the focus of the movie one-third of the way in, when we leave the story of one hero and begin following that of another, although eventually the two storylines are woven together. Sherriff faced the problem of how to dramatise a story which took place over several years (and involved a good deal of non-filmic scientific experimentation), and in which a second major protagonist does not appear until towards the very end. Sherriff’s construction has the benefit of narrative progression, even if it takes a big risk in making us suddenly transfer our interest from one hero to an entirely different one. But the producers at ABPC seemed happy with Sherriff’s new approach.

From Treatment to Script

Whittaker records that the ‘Final complete script’ was delivered on 15 July, and that, at meetings held from 12-14 August a cast of characters from ABPC read it through and discussed it. Although the original script is no longer to be found, a subsequent version, dated 24 October, can be examined in Sherriff’s papers (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/13). There are a number of changes from his own initial treatment, including the omitting of scenes showing the bomb being manufactured, and the Lancasters being retro-fitted to take the missile. Several other scenes are trimmed and edited, presumably to speed the action along, but the overall impression, especially given Sherriff’s experiences in most of his other films, is that his original vision for the movie was broadly maintained throughout the script development process.

The script contains some of Sherriff’s trademark humour. One of the better jokes is where Wallis, after the final successful test at Reculver, credits the idea of the bouncing bomb to Nelson, who, at the Battle of the Nile, ‘dismissed the French flagship with a yorker’. The concept is noted in Wallis’s ‘Top Secret’ memo on the bomb, which includes the following section: ‘Ricochet gunfire was known as early as the 16th Century and was used in naval gunnery in the 17th and 18th centuries to extend the effective range of muzzle loading guns, firing spherical cannon balls’. The Nelson touch was probably pure Sherriff (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/1).

The overall tone of the script, however, is serious and restrained. It was almost bound to be so, given how recently the raid had taken place, and the presence of so many survivors involved. But probably no one did restraint better than Sherriff. He had shown as much in Journey’s End. There is a resonant echo from Sherriff’s past in the final scene between Gibson and Wallis. Wallis is upset at the loss of 56 men and tells Gibson that ‘If I’d known it would be like this, I would never have started it’, to which Gibson replies:

‘You mustn’t think that way. If all these fellows had known from the beginning that they wouldn’t be coming back, they’d have gone for it just the same. There isn’t a single one would have dropped out. I know them all and I know that’s the truth.’

Gibson’s sentiment is very similar to what Sherriff had written to his father, ‘Pips’, whilst in the trenches, 25 January 1917:

‘It is no good dwelling on the awfulness of it all, for you know it only too well – the men who go up for a tour of duty in the trenches go up absolutely resigned…they go because they must – and although they are always cheerful they go with that thought that, although there is every possibility of them coming back safely, someone isn’t.’ (SHC ref 2332/1/1/3/138)

The final scenes in the script are delicate and sombre, and deeply touching. We watch the pilots as they prepare in their rooms before the raid. Afterwards we see the same rooms, now largely empty, as the announcement of the raid comes over the wireless. The heroism of the men is reinforced by the exchange between Wallis and Gibson, and is brilliantly underscored in Gibson’s last line, when Wallis asks ‘Aren’t you going to turn in?’, he replies, ‘I’ve got to write some letters first.’ That line, and the salute which he shortly thereafter returns to a young airman, perfectly symbolises Gibson’s code of duty and takes us straight back to the ‘uncomplaining’ duty that Sherriff first described in the trenches in France.

The bulk of Sherriff’s work on The Dam Busters probably ended with the production of the October 1952 script, although given his commitment to the project he was probably happy to remain available for script conferences and advice. His third, and final, payment of £1250 came through in August 1952, after which there would be no further payments until after the film was released. This suggests that his contract had been structured such that he was paid a slightly smaller amount than normal for the preparation of the script (£3750), but with a further final equivalent amount when the film was eventually released in 1955.

Click on the following links to see pdf (PDF) copies of:

Molly Wallis writes in April 1956 that Barnes was arranging a special showing of the ‘The Dam Busters’ film for themselves and guests (SHC ref 9456/4/36/1 (11e)) and in May they had a dinner party and film show (SHC ref 9456/4/36/2 (1)). Later in 1957, she records with annoyance the ‘film people’ losing the negative of a photograph of their children playing marbles with Barnes’, which demonstrated experiments for the ‘bouncing bomb’, a scene which featured in the film (SHC ref 9456/4/37/1 (10a)). Happily, this photograph had already been printed and exists in the Wallis family photograph albums but it can also be seen online courtesy of Mary Stopes-Roe.

Testing the concept of the bouncing bomb at home in Effigham (courtesy of Mary Stopes-Roe)

Testing the concept of the bouncing bomb at home in Effigham
(courtesy of Mary Stopes-Roe)

Barnes Wallis was knighted in 1968 and lived in Effingham from 1930 until his death in 1979. He and Molly (d.1986), are buried at St Laurence’s church, Effingham.

Barnes and Molly Wallis' grave. Image courtesy of P Cooper, Surrey Heritage

Barnes and Molly Wallis’ grave. Image courtesy of P Cooper, Surrey Heritage

The film was a huge success when it was shown at its royal premiere in May 1955. Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd demonstrated fine acting in the lead roles and critics applauded the excellent directing by Michael Anderson. However, the most important ingredient in the film’s success was generally thought to be RC Sherriff’s human, and honest approach to the screenplay. ‘The Dam Busters’ is now hailed as one of the most iconic, unforgettable British films ever made.

Click on the following links to see pdf (PDF) copy of the article by Barnes Wallis on the ‘Dambusters raid’ in Achievement Magazine, 1955 (SHC ref 2332/8/13/5)

Further reading:

Read Roland Wales’ article about Sherriff’s role in the film at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/classic-british/r-c-sherriff/ and his website is https://www.rolandwales.com/

For more information about ‘The Dam Busters’ anniversary and re-release see https://www.thedambusters75.co.uk/

Read more about RC Sherriff, his life and literary career at https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/people/writers/sherriff/

The Barnes Wallis Foundation, was set up to continue Barnes Wallis’ educational legacy, find out more at https://www.barneswallisfoundation.co.uk/

Mary Stopes-Roe, ‘Mathematics With Love: the courtship correspondence of Barnes Wallis, Inventor of the Bouncing Bomb’ (MacMillan, 2005).

J E Morpugo, ‘Barnes Wallis’ (Longmans, 1972)

‘The Dam Busters’ in the archives at Surrey History Centre

RC Sherriff collection
‘Top Secret’ memo, 1942 (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/1). Photostats of a scientific memorandum, possibly by Barnes Wallis, including technical diagrams explaining how the bouncing bomb worked. Annotated ”Top Secret”, ”Part I handed to Prof. Blackett 22 April 1942”, and ”Part II handed to Sir Henry Tizard…May 1942”. [Professor Patrick Blackett was Scientific Advisor to the Admiralty, and Sir Henry Tizard was Scientific Advisor to the Chief of the Air Staff].

Copy of the ‘The Dam Busters’ script, dated 10 November 1951 (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/7). The treatment bears no names on the cover, but given its date, was most likely written by Mycroft and Whittaker, since it roughly corresponds with the comments in Whittaker’s diary.

Typescript list of chronological notes concerning the development of the bouncing bomb by Barnes Wallis, c.1951 (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/2). Annotated ‘Mr Mycroft’.

‘The Dam-Busters’ radio script by Paul Brickhill , 1951 (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/3)

‘The Dam Busters’, suggested treatments for sequences, c.1951 (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/4 and SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/5)

Fragment of a screenplay relating to ‘The Dam Busters’, comprising typescript notes and dialogue (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/6)

Outlines of the screenplay for ‘The Dam Busters’, c.1951-1952 (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/7-10), including Sherriff’s script (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/9). The date of completion is not known but since it begins with a scene involving Wallis’s garden experiments, it suggests that it was completed after the 22 March meeting. It would have been completed at least several weeks in advance of him completing his ‘Final Complete Screenplay’ which, according to Whittaker’s diary, was in July 1952.

Research notes of a meeting, 1952, with Harold ”Mick” Martin (later Sir), who took part in the 1943 ‘Dambuster’ raid (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/11)

‘The Dam Busters’, treatment by W A Whittaker, Feb 1952 (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/12)

‘The Dam Busters’, copies of the screenplay by R C Sherriff, 1952 (SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/13 and SHC ref 2332/3/6/31/14)

Review from <em>The Manchester Guardian</em> 18 May 1955 SHC ref 2232/5/2/20

Review from The Manchester Guardian 18 May 1955 SHC ref 2232/5/2/20

Newspaper cuttings relating to ‘The Dam Busters’, May 1955-Sep 1956 (SHC ref 2332/5/2/20)

‘The Dam Busters’ newspaper serialisations, May-June 1955 (SHC ref 2332/5/5/6)

Publicity material relating to the UK release of the film ‘The Dam Busters’, 1955, including programme for the world premier on 16 May 1955 at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square; ‘Achievement – The Story of The Dam Busters’, a special issue of the film industry magazine to mark the release of the film, May 1955; and ABPC publicity booklet ‘The Story Behind a Great Film!’, May 1955 (SHC ref 2332/8/13/5)

Correspondence from Lady Molly (Mary) Wallis, wife of Sir Barnes Neville Wallis:
Mary Stopes-Roe, the daughter of Sir Barnes and Lady Molly Wallis, has deposited a fascinating collection of Molly’s personal papers, including diaries and letters from her, 1913-1979 (SHC ref 9456/-). These unique records give a wonderful insight into the family’s life in Surrey and elsewhere, and into Barnes’ career. Her letters also feature many references to the ‘Dambuster raid’ and the making of the film, including the following:

Letters from Summer 1943 (SHC ref 9456/4/23/2):

-Recording Barnes ‘messing about on the East Coast’ [at Reculver, presumably with the bouncing bomb]’ (1b);
-Barnes’ ‘not to be connected with these dams’ [Operation ‘Chastise’, or the ‘Dambuster’ raid, which took place on 16-17 May] and the Air Ministry ‘simply furious’ that the press has identified him (3a);
-Barnes himself ‘feeling absolutely awful because he’d killed so many people’ (3a-b);
– Sir Arthur Harris [Marshal of the Royal Air Force (1892-1984), commonly known as ‘Bomber’ Harris] in the newspapers (‘It took months for B … to persuade him to try his scheme. But it’ll be Sir A H’s invention now, & he’ll be made a baron’; and the ‘wonderful’ ‘RAF boys’ (‘specially Gibson’ [Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson (1918-1944)] (3b);
-A formal dinner given by Vickers in honour of Barnes (called ‘Papa Wally’ by 617 Squadron) and [Guy] Gibson (or ‘Gibbie’, whom she describes and who wrote ‘To Dambuster Wallis from Guy Gibson’ on Barnes’ collar (13a).
-Referring to a [radio] broadcast that made her and Barnes ‘feel a bit hot & ashamed’ (apparently regarding the ‘Dambusters’ raid), May 1951; (SHC ref 9456/4/31/2 (1a-b))

Re a meeting R C Sherriff and others for a film [‘The Dam Busters’], including a scene with Barnes Wallis playing marbles with the children, Jan-Apr 1952 (SHC ref 9456/4/32/1)

Referring to ‘The Film men’ to take photographs at White Hill House, Effingham for the film ‘The Dam Busters’, Spring 1954 (SHC ref 9456/4/34/1 (5f))

To Leslie Morris, with more information about ‘the film’ [‘The Dam Busters’], stating ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we were all twelve presented to her! [at a premiere] Poor Queen.’, 8 Mar 1954 (SHC ref 9456/4/34/1 (6))

Reporting a request from the art director of ‘the Film’ [‘The Dam Busters’] for items for their drawing room for the film sets with an invitation to see the ‘shooting’ of their house, Summer 1954 (SHC ref 9456/4/34/2 (3c))

Re arrangements for attending the Premiere of ‘The Dam Busters’ at the Empire Theatre Leicester Square (8) and Princess Margaret to be there, Spring 1955 (SHC ref 9456/4/35/1 (9))

Re a call from the Broadcasting Company of South Africa asking if they might record an introduction to ‘the film’ [‘The Dam Busters’] with Barnes at home (1a), a sudden lack of tickets for the film premiere, May 1955; Barnes being offered £4000 for a series of ten articles ‘in some Sunday paper’, £100 for photographs in ‘The Illustrated’ [London News] and £800 for writing a series about the film, together with a request for a collaboration on a biography (3), a request by Associated British Pictures for Barnes and herself to attend three ‘Gala Premieres’ of the film in Canada (‘Barnes is not so keen’; 4b), May-Aug 1955 (SHC ref 9456/4/35/2)

Re ‘The Dam Busters’ showing at a ‘little wall-eyed cinema’ in Canada and seen by [her sister] Pam (a Canadian ‘semi-celebrity’) and her children (who were not allowed to pay for their tickets, and her thoughts on ‘all this Dam Buster stuff’, Sep-Dec 1955 (SHC ref 9456/4/35/3 (4c-d & 11c))

Molly used part of a ‘The Dam Busters’ film poster to write notes on re the actor ‘Derek Farr saying: ‘I Play Group Captain [Whitworth’]’ 1963 (SHC ref 9456/4/43/1/4)