Ted Barris On Canada’s Heroic Dam Busters & Latest Book
Photo courtesy of Ted Barris.
For more than five decades, journalist, author and broadcaster Ted Barris, 69, has dedicated himself to chronicling the oft-untold heroics of Canadian men and women in the theatre of war.
From shedding light on the Canuck contingent behind the famed Second World War POW prison break dubbed “The Great Escape” — popularized in the classic Hollywood film that ignores the Canadian effort — to the largely forgotten Canadian effort in Korea to the stories of the men and women who fought in Afghanistan, you’d be hard-pressed to find a conflict that the Barris hasn’t covered.
Seventeen bestselling non-fiction books later — not to mention a Veterans’ Affairs Commendation (2011), the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012) and a Libris Best Non-Fiction Book Award (in 2014 for The Great Escape: A Canadian Story) — the Toronto native returns with his latest tome, Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid Against Nazi Germany.
The Dam Busters raid, as Barris explains, took place on May 16 and 17, 1943, after “a weirdo scientist in Britain named Barns Wallace invented a bomb that could bounce over the reservoir water where the Nazis had developed these huge dams on the Ruhr River.” He notes that the dams “powered the Nazi industrial military complex building the weapons that the Nazis were using against everybody in Europe. The scientists figured that if we could bomb those dams it would knock out all the water production, the hydroelectricity, the iron production and the steel production that was developing these weapons. And so the job of 19 crews was to fly in with a four engine Lancaster bomber at treetop level with a 10,000 pound bomb in its belly from England to the Ruhr Valley and back to deliver this bouncing bomb to those dams.”
Barris adds that, “This extraordinary operation … took place when the allies had no victories to their credit, [and] turned the tide to a certain extent in the war because this was a victory to breach those dams … water flooded for 100 miles down the river killing a lot of people but destroying those munitions plants and airfields and all the Nazi build-up for 100 miles. And nobody realizes this is a Canadian op.”
In addition to his work as an author and historian, Barris, in the interest of full disclosure, also taught journalism in Toronto for many years, where he served as my professor and mentor a decade ago. But now, in an interview setting, I put the questions to him, looking to find out what drives his passion for history and preserving these distinctly Canadian stories.
MIKE CRISOLAGO: I wanted to start by discussing the roots of your love for Canadian military history because I read that you wrote your first paper in elementary school on the War of 1812. That means you’ve technically been writing about military history since childhood.
TED BARRIS: It was actually a speech. When I went to school in the 1950s we had public speaking competitions. I chose a topic – I think it was the causes of the War of 1812 and it was probably Grade 7. I remember writing the speech because I dug into the history … and then stood up there and sweated bullets as I presented the causes of the War of 1812 to my classmates and the rest of assembly. For some reason I chose that topic and suddenly I realized that military stuff was visual, it was exciting, and if you could catch the stories of the people in the middle of this stuff, so much the better.
MC: Did you win the speech competition?
TB: I don’t think I did, no. I think probably somebody who picked a topic that the teacher liked more than the War of 1812 did. [He laughs] But it was a great experience and the one redeeming thing about that, now that I’m thinking about it, is the man who was my teacher then, Mike Malott … kindled my love of history. He realized that I had a penchant for it and a fascination of it and he instilled that in me … We had a history class scheduled [one] afternoon and we came back in the classroom and we’re sitting there [and] where’s the teacher? Chaos is beginning to break out in the room and no one’s paying any attention [and] all of a sudden the door bangs open and Mike comes in with a three corner cap, boots up to his knees, a cape and a ruler as a sword and he leaps up onto the desk and he becomes Vasco da Gama, the great explorer of the Pacific, and we were kind of like “Holy smoke who is this guy?” But in an instant he grabbed our attention … Mike instilled that passion from that day and unfortunately he’s gone now but I did have an opportunity in one of my books, Days of Victory back in 2005, to dedicate the book to him and a thank [him] for the gift of his passion for history.
MC: You’ve written 17 non-fiction bestsellers and often they’re Canadian military tales that are overlooked or forgotten by history. What is your process for finding a topic and then deciding to write a book about it?