R.A.F. Bomber Command 1939 - 1945
A Brief History


The Second World War (3rd September 1939 to 8th May 1945) saw the use of air power in great force. Whilst the use of bombing aircraft was pioneered during the First World War (August 1914 to November 1918) it was during WW2 that most combative nations developed and used mass air fleets.

The Royal Air Force, formed on April 1st 1918 from the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, was split into several main parts. Bomber Command with HQ at High Wycombe was responsible for all light, medium and heavy bomber units. At this time Bomber Command was forbidden to attack anything other than military installations; factories were "private property".


The RAF's bombers of the day were designs made during the RAF's expansion period of the 30s. Twin engined Vickers Wellingtons, Handley Page Hampdens, Bristol Blenheims and Armstrong-Whitworth Whitleys formed the mainstay.

The Wellington was a popular, reliable aircraft designed by Barnes Wallis (later of Dam Buster bomb fame). Equipped with two inline or radial engines, it had a crew of 5; pilot, observer (who also navigated and dropped the bombs), front gunner, wireless operator and rear gunner. It carried two hydraulic power-operated gun turrets, front with 2 x .303 Browning machine guns and rear with 4. Due to its geodetic "basket-weave" construction, was renowned for the punishment it could take. Its skin was doped fabric. Its maximum speed was 235 mph and could carry 4,500 lbs. of bombs 1,200 miles, with a maximum height of 20,000 feet. It was still being used for advanced training long after the war was finished.

The Hampden was a very spindly-looking but strong and reliable aircraft with a crew of 4; pilot, observer, gunner/wireless operator and air gunner. It had two radial engines and carried a pair of free-standing .303 Vickers machine guns in a dorsal position and another in the belly, pointing aft. A fourth forward-firing .303 was fixed in the wing. It was all-metal and its maximum speed was 254 miles per hour; it could carry 4,000 lbs. of bombs for 1,200 miles and had a maximum height of 19,000 feet. It was considered obsolete by 1942

The Blenheim was a versatile fighter or bomber depending on its configuration. When it was introduced it was faster than the RAF's fighters, but by 1941 was obsolete and suffering severe losses. It had a crew of 3; pilot, observer, and gunner / wireless operator. Typically fitted with a single dorsal power-operated turret with 2 x .303s as well as one or two fixed forward-firing .303s. It too was all-metal and its maximum speed was 266 miles per hour; it could carry 1,000 lbs. of bombs for 1,460 miles and had a maximum height of 22,000 feet.

The Whitley was obsolete by 1941 and was an all-metal bomber with a crew of 5 and turrets very similar to the Wellington. Its chief characteristic as a distinct nose-down flying attitude, but it was sturdy and reliable. It was also all-metal and its maximum speed was 222 miles per hour; it could carry 3,000 lbs. of bombs for 1,650 miles and had a maximum height of 17,600 feet. After retirement, the Whitley performed well as a paratroop carrier.

The Early Days

Early RAF tactics dictated that a formation of bombers could defend themselves in daylight against enemy fighter attack, a theory soon proved false as great numbers of RAF bombers were lost in daylight operations against such targets as Wilhelmshaven and Stavanger. Bomber Command switched to night attacks, which became normal by mid-1941. By this time the "private property" rule was shelved but flying by night with primitive navigational aids, early bombing was grossly ineffective. If unable to visually identify the target, crews bombed on dead reckoning. This was done by flying a known course for a known time from a known point, and dropping their bombs when they were supposed to be over the target. The officially-commissioned Butt Report revealed bombing to be shockingly inaccurate and the answer was better navigational aids and better trained crew.

The ineffectiveness of the early operations was carefully concealed from the general public, who were only too pleased to read in their newspapers that many hundreds of aircraft had attacked Berlin, Hamburg or the industrial centres around the Ruhr. Contemporary films such as "Target For Tonight" portrayed the popular image; but such was far from the truth, and losses were worsening as the German defences improved their techniques.

Gradually the standard of equipment and training improved. From early 1941 onwards the "medium" twin-engined bombers gave way to the "heavy" four-engined types; pilots, navigators and bomb-aimers received comprehensive training in Canada, America, or South Africa; and electronic aids arrived.

Better Equipment : The "Heavies"

Avro Manchester/Lancaster

The Avro Manchester was a fine all-metal airframe marred by extremely unreliable Rolls-Royce Vulture engines, which were little more than experimental. More Manchesters were lost as a result of engine failure than by enemy action. Avro, refused permission by the Air Ministry to equip the otherwise sound Manchester with four tried and tested Merlin engines, scrounged a quartet anyway, tweaked the wing design, and the result was the Lancaster.

The Avro Lancaster was an extremely fine aircraft renowned for its durability and lack of vices, fitted with four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Equipped with three power operated turrets, it could not hold its own against determined daylight fighter attacks, but could deliver sufficient firepower to defend itself at night. The seven crew (pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless-operator, mid-upper and rear air gunners) were all specialists, trained to fly as a team.

The "Lanc" could easily fly on three engines, could manage on two and limp away on one. It was all-metal and its maximum speed was 270 miles per hour; it could carry 14,000 lbs. of bombs for 1,000 miles (or 2,350 lbs. of bombs for 5,500 miles) and had a maximum height of 22,000 feet. Soon it became Bomber Command's Shining Sword. It was operational by Christmas 1941 and mostly replaced the 1 and 5 Group Hampden-equipped Squadrons of Lincolnshire. By the end of the war specially modified versions were lifting 22,000 lbs.

The Lancaster is best remembered in the specially-adapted Dam Buster and 10-Ton "Grand Slam" versions. It was extremely popular with its crews. One documented source calculated that the Lancaster, in one successful operation, destroyed enemy production equal to that of its own manufacture. Curiously, its average life was thirteen operations.

Bomber Command Lancaster veterans speak with great affection of their aircraft, and over the years it has acquired a status equal to that of its wartime comrade, the Supermarine Spitfire. Both reputations are well earned, but stand some argument. Hawker Hurricanes shot down more enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain, and were present in greater numbers. But it was "Spitfire" and "Lancaster" not "Hurricane" and "Halifax" on every schoolboy's lips.

Major Variants: Mk 1 Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
  Mk 2 Bristol Hercules radial engines (300 aircraft only).
  Mk 3 Packard-built Merlin engines.
  Mk 10 Built under licence by Victory Aircraft of Canada
    with Packard-Merlins. Total : 7,377 of
    which 3,431 were lost on operations.

Handley Page Halifax

Handley Page's Halifax was a heavier, more square but sister design, also all-metal with 4 engines and very similar firepower. Early models with Merlin engines suffered from being overweight; and a serious design flaw in the rudders caused many fatalities. Having removed the front turret, armour plate, removed completely (or changed for a different type) the mid-upper turret, fitted more powerful Bristol Hercules engines and redesigned rudders, it was transformed into a solid, dependable, but unexciting aircraft. It was capable of 280 mph at 13,500 feet and with a maximum height of 20,000 feet, carrying 7,000 lbs. of bombs 1,985 miles. But by then it was 1944 and the Lancaster was in the public eye. The Halifax mainly replaced the Whitley-equipped 4 Group Squadrons of Yorkshire.

Halifax crews, even today, insist that it was a better aeroplane than the Lancaster. Its early design faults and haphazard arrangement of internal controls, dials and switches made it harder work to fly. One pilot said "The Halifax always seemed reluctant to leave the ground and glad to be back down again. If left to fly itself, it would porpoise its way back to straight and level. It was in fact the ideal aeroplane to go to sleep in. But the instruments were arranged as if they had been flung in through the window and fitted where they landed. The flight-engineer and I were in constant communication." Halifaxes, however, had a much better reputation for survival when baling-out.

Major Variants: Mk 1 Merlins, 3 turrets.
  Mk 2 Merlins, 2 turrets.
  Mk 3 Bristol Pegasus engines, square fins and rudders,
    glass nose, 2 turrets.

Short Stirling

Short Brothers' Stirling was the third of the "heavies" and the first to be introduced in late 1940. Restricted by the Air Ministry to a maximum wingspan of 100 feet (so it could fit inside the then-standard hangar!) it was a very strongly-built aircraft which suffered from insufficient speed and altitude. Also, its split length bomb bay could not accept the large 4,000lb blast bombs which were now becoming standard. Although operated well into 1944 as a heavy bomber it also performed extremely well as a glider tug and paratroop carrier. Its short wingspan made astonishingly large flaps imperative, and the tall spindly-legged electrically operated undercarriage was less than reliable. It also had a proliferation of fuel tanks and the crew were constantly switching between them. The Stirling's performance was a maximum of 270 mph at 14,500 feet, a maximum height of 17,000 feet, and a war load of 3,500 lbs. of bombs over 2,010 miles.

Many operationally tired Stirlings could not climb above 13,000 feet where they were sitting ducks for both light and heavy flak defences.

Few bombers saw the inside of a hangar, being dispersed around the aerodrome's perimeter track. A typical Bomber aerodrome was 750 or 1,000 acres of former Lincolnshire, Yorkshire or Cambridgeshire farmland, with a "population" of 1,000 or 1,200 people. Ground staff outnumbered aircrew 10 to 1, and many valuable jobs were done by members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, or WAAFs.


Although conscription was in effect - all healthy males between 18 and 40 had to be in either uniform or reserved occupation - all aircrew were volunteers. But once trained, you flew operations until your tour of duty was complete - or you were regarded by officialdom as a coward - or you were killed or taken prisoner. The concept of "operational fatigue" popularly, "flak happy" was not officially recognised. Those who broke under the strain were rapidly branded "LMF: Lack of Moral Fibre"; de-ranked, de-breveted (sometimes publicly), and whisked away to menial tasks.

Pilots, navigators and bomb aimers took two years to train and tended to be drawn from the University and Grammar School element of aircrew intakes. Everyone wanted to be a pilot and those who failed the aptitude and preliminary flying tests were re-mustered as navigators and bomb aimers. Air-gunners, flight engineers and wireless operators were trained in about nine months. Except in the early days, all aircrew on completion of training were given the rank of Sergeant or higher, the top third usually being offered a commission.

The popular expression "Gone for a Burton" meaning "dead" referred originally to the RAF department which handled postings for wireless-operators. This was situated above Burtons Menswear Tailoring shop in Liverpool, and anyone who failed the W.Op. course was posted back there, to be rejected for aircrew.

After completion of flying training, the crew - pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, one air-gunner and wireless-operator - teamed up at Operational Training Unit, where the new intake was paraded in a hangar and told to form themselves into crews. Here they flew mainly Wellingtons and acquired team skills and did a lot of training, sometimes with an "easy" operation (dropping mines or leaflets) thrown in. After this, those destined for four-engined aircraft - which by late 1941 was almost every one of them - were sent to a Heavy Conversion Unit where the crew was joined by the flight engineer and a second air-gunner. At HCU instructors converted the crew onto Halifaxes or Stirlings, and after a short course the crew was posted to an operational Squadron. Crews destined for Lancaster-equipped units did a very short course at a Lancaster Finishing School at Syerston or Hemswell before an operational posting. Most OTUs fed a particular Group - for example, 27 OTU at Lichfield fed No 1 Group.

Taking an example of 100 typical airmen:-

51 killed on operations or died as result of wounds
9 killed on active service (crashed in UK or during training)
3 seriously injured on active service
12 taken prisoner of war (some injured)
1 shot down and evaded capture
24 survived.

Rank differences, and comradeship

It was quite common for a pilot to be a non-commissioned Officer (Sergeant or Flight Sergeant) with a commissioned officer as navigator or bomb-aimer. The pilot was captain of the aircraft irrespective of rank (except in the Canadian units), and most crews, in the air, had a first-names policy. The correct "form" was that an NCO saluted an officer in his crew the first time they met every day and after that rank was ignored, unless there was a senior officer about. Certainly most crews went off to the pub together, regardless of rank.

In a typical instance, dozens of aircrew had arrived at the local pub and a new barmaid had refused to serve the sergeants and flight-sergeants, insisting that the lounge bar was for officers only. All the non commissioned ranks had immediately departed for the public bar, and to a man, the officers had set down their pints and followed them, leaving the lounge deserted. Quietly informed of the situation by the senior flight-commander, the pub's owner had hurriedly rushed downstairs from his supper and put the barmaid right. Offering his apologies to the aircrew, the situation was restored to normal.

RAF rank structure varied according to the Command. A Bomber Command squadron commander was a Wing Commander, and in Path Finder Force (PFF) a Group Captain. This reflects the number of men in the unit and the various levels of responsibility. Flight-commanders were of Squadron Leader or Wing Commander (PFF) rank.

Non-flying Station Commanders were of Wing Commander or Group Captain rank. Most "Station-Masters" were tour-expired men, who occasionally flew on operations, usually "incognito" and in defiance of orders. Such spirit and example has to be greatly admired. At Kelstern, G/Capt. Donkin, a WW1 veteran, had flown as supernumerary with a 635 Sqdn. crew on a 1944 Berlin operation, and on return a BBC reporter, broadcasting "live" in the early hours, asked him what it had been like. The great waxed moustaches bristled. "Ai dain't maind telling yew," replied the aristocratic voice, "that Ai was shite-scaired all the way theyah, and Ai was shite-scaired all the way back."

A Tour of Duty, and Losses

Once on an operational Squadron, a tour of duty was 30 completed ops. The loss rate was around the 5 per cent mark, so mathematically it was impossible to survive. Yet about 35 per cent of crews survived a first tour, after which they were classed as "tour expired" and trained as instructors and sent to HCUs and OTUs to train more crews. After a six month rest, they came back for another tour of 20 operations. If they survived this, they could volunteer for more; but if they chose not to, they remained as instructors unless promoted to higher things.

During the first five operations the new crew ran ten times the risk of the more experienced men, simply because they did not know the ropes. Having survived 15 ops, the odds were reckoned to be even. Aircrew received one week's leave every six weeks.

Such was the comradeship of aircrew that many of the men, doing a second tour with a different crew to their first, would find that they had finished before the rest of the crew. Most would volunteer to do a few extra so that the crew's unity was preserved; this was rarely spoken of, but illustrates the bond between such men. A smaller minority, thinking that it was foolish to push their luck, would quietly ask that they finish at the proper number of trips. There were many cases of a man doing one extra as a favour to a comrade, or a tour-expired crew stepping in to make up the numbers; and then failing to return.

Heavy bomber crew had a ten percent chance of baling out after being shot down. The German anti-aircraft system was extremely well organised, with the Kammhuber Line, a strong belt of 88mm guns and powerful searchlights extending along the German/Dutch border. Many aircraft came down in the Zuider Zee (Ijsselmeer) and are still being discovered as the land is gradually drained. The Luftwaffe's night fighter force was also very highly developed, with ground radar stations directing airborne radar-equipped night fighters into the bomber stream, freelance roving fighters, and high-flying Luftwaffe aircraft dropping flares to mark the bomber stream's progress.

Aircrew prisoners of war were generally well treated by the Germans, in line with the Geneva Convention. Held in camps called Stalags (Stammlager, or permanent camps) run by the Luftwaffe, they were not generally mistreated by their counterparts.


The .303s of the RAF air-gunners were outgunned by the 20mm and 30mm cannon carried by the Luftwaffe - but the RAF air-gunners would not open fire unless attacked by a night-fighter; their guns were defensive. Although the .303's effective range was reckoned to be 400 yards, at night if within visible range, the night-fighters were also within range of the .303s. Rear-gunners had to stay alert for long periods in subzero temperatures, and be ready to call for a corkscrew (violent evasive action) at a moment's notice.

The Luftwaffe soon developed the "Schrage Musik" upward-firing cannon fitted to some Me110s and Ju88 night fighters. Attacked from directly below, many heavies were lost, and it was not until returned bombers showed vertically pierced damage that the new threat was realised.

Later, some "heavies" were fitted with .50 calibre machine guns; notably the Rose rear turret fitted to a few Lancasters. The Halifax's electric Martin mid-upper and rear turrets carried 4 x .303s but the Lancaster and Stirling had Frazer-Nash hydraulic turrets; twin .303s for the nose and mid-upper, and 4 x 303s for the rear. A few aircraft, mainly Canadian units, had a mid-under gun position, but this was not a common feature.

Gadgets and inventions

Many new electronic devices came into service. "Gee" was a radio navigation system with three transmitters in England sending a synchronised pulse at precise intervals. By comparing the arrival time of each pulse, navigators could check a chart and calculate their position to within a few miles. It did not extend over the radio horizon, and the Germans soon started to jam it; but it was very effective over the UK and the North Sea. Modern developments of Gee are still in use today, although satellites have replaced ground transmitters.

"H2S" was an downwards pointing radar scanner in the rear belly of the aircraft; a large Perspex black-painted blister contained the rotating scanner. It gave a reasonable "picture" of the ground below; water, buildings and roads showed up clearly. It could not be jammed, but specially-equipped Luftwaffe night-fighters could home in on any aircraft using it. Consequently it was only used by a bomber for very short periods. RAF intruders (counter-night-fighters) homed in on Luftwaffe aircraft using airborne radar, and shot them down, often over their own bases.

These devices, and vastly improved training for aircrew - especially navigators - brought about a dramatic increase in bombing accuracy. Still operating by night, Bomber Command could now find their targets, which were by this time very often city centres as well as specific military targets.


It was by mid 1941 possible to send many hundreds of medium and heavy bombers together in large numbers, and brief the crews to attack over a short time period. This swamped the defences and improved the loss rate. But Bomber Command's accuracy was still not good enough and the Command was losing prestige. Its new Commander in Chief, Arthur T Harris, mounted the first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne. By dragging in every possible aircraft and crew from the Squadrons and training units, 1,046 bombers attacked Cologne on the night of 30th/31st May 1942, delivering a devastating blow. This set the scene for the great and terrible bombing offensive which was to follow.

As Harris said of the enemy, "They sowed the wind and now they will reap the whirlwind."

Once Path Finder Force was formed in August 1942, and crack crews siphoned off to form this elite unit, target marking had been hit-and-miss. But PFF soon began to mark targets with great precision and the general accuracy of bombing improved further. Mistakes were made, and wrong targets attacked; but gradually Bomber Command grew to what Guy Gibson (of Dam Buster fame) called the Mighty Lion.

A second 1,000 bomber raid took place against Bremen on 25/26th June 1943, but this was not so successful due to adverse weather. On the night of July 30th/31st 1943 "Operation Gomorrah" took place on Hamburg and over the next four nights the city centre was almost destroyed by a firestorm brought about by great fires merging into one firestorm conflagration. This technique was repeated at Dresden on February 14/15th, 1945, and the city was almost completely destroyed. Controversies surround this attack, even today, as Dresden was not a military objective. Popular opinion is that Stalin wanted a final knock-out blow against the Germans, and the attack was made to appease him.

Huge controversy rages today about Bomber Command's contribution to the war. Ii is generally accepted that by the middle of summer 1944, Bomber Command was an unstoppable machine, directed by Harris. Although able now to attack pinpoint military targets with devastating force, he persisted with area city bombing when it wasn't necessary any more.

Whilst purely military targets were attacked, area bombing did no more to fatally weaken the enemy's capacity to wage war, and to destroy morale, than did the London Blitz in 1940. But having said this, war production (factories and installations) and especially communications (railways and canals), suffered massive destruction, forcing the enemy to deploy manpower from the fighting areas to the home front.

Throughout the war, both sides used intruder fighters to attack aircraft when at their most vulnerable time, landing and taxiing.

Notable Events

The Battle of the Barges

August 1940. The Germans were poised to invade, and the Channel ports crammed with invasion barges. Bomber Command mounted low-level attacks and destroyed significant numbers as well as much other materiel.

The Augsburg Raid : 17th April 1942.

The recent introduction of the Lancaster led some to believe that it could defend itself in a deep penetration daylight operation, and selected crews from No 44 and 97 Squadrons attacked the MAN Diesel works at Augsburg, Bavaria. Bad luck and inattention to timing caused the loss of 7 out of the 12 aircraft, with unspectacular results. The operational commander, Wing Commander John Nettleton, received the VC for this attack.

Operation Robinson

T he attack on the Schneider Armaments Works at Le Creusot, France, 17th October 1942. No 5 Group trained for weeks in low-flying formations and the attack was a success with very low losses.

Operation Millennium

The first 1,000 aircraft raid against Cologne on the night of 30/31st May 1942 and was a great success. There were two more such, but neither was successful, mainly on account of the weather.

The Dams Raid : 16/17th May 1943.

Famous raid by 617 Squadron on the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe Dams

Operation Gomorrah

The repeated raids by the RAF and USAAF on Hamburg caused such a series of giant fires that these combined into a firestorm or such intensity that 100+ mph winds were sucked into the city by the raging conflagration. This tactic was repeated at Dresden in February 1945.

The Battle of the Ruhr : summer 1943 to New Year 1944.

German industry was concentrated around the Ruhr Valley, a heavily defended area attacked repeatedly. Essen, Dortmund, Duisburg, Cologne, Bochum, Dusseldorf, Munchen-Gladbach were attacked time and time again. Serious damage was done to war production, factories destroyed, communications disrupted, and workers killed. Losses were just within tolerance limits, and this round is reckoned to have been won by the RAF.

The Nuremburg Raid : 30/31st March 1944.

On the night of March 30th/31st, 1944, 795 Royal Air Force Bomber Command aircraft operated against Nuremburg and suffered 96 losses, with 8 more aircraft written off afterwards. Badly forecast winds & a straight-in attack path, coupled with a lack of predicted cloud cover & a full, bright moon, gave the defences what amounted to a turkey shoot. 155 other aircraft operated against other targets (diversions etc) with only one loss.

With the winds being far stronger than predicted, the concentration of aircraft (designed to swamp the defences) rapidly fragmented. Many RAF crews attacked Schweinfurt by mistake. Some claimed that the Luftwaffe were pre-warned of the target, but there is no evidence to support this "ambush" theory. Thick cloud covered the target & little damage being done; only 69 people were killed on the ground.

Out of the 96 aircraft shot down, the vast majority fell to fighter attack - not surprising, in the conditions of bright moonlight.

The Battle of Berlin : Autumn/Winter 1944/5.

Three operations out of four were bombing Berlin, and some crews did most of their tours against the German capital. Major damage was done but losses were high as defensive tactics improved. If the RAF didn't lose, then the Germans didn't win - and the accepted result is a draw, with both sides recording serious losses.

The End : May 1945

The final operation was a double attack on the night of April 24/25th 1945 against Hitler's Redoubt at Berchtesgaden and Naval installations at Sylt, on the Dutch/German coast. By the end of the war, Bomber Command had flown 364,514 sorties and lost 8,325 aircraft and 47,268 aircrew, the highest pro rata loss rate of any Allied military unit.

After The End : May/June 1945

Bomber Command dropped thousands of tons of food to Dutch civilians in what was termed Operation Manna. Retreating Germans had laid waste land, and many families were starving. The Dutch have never forgotten this and to this day maintain very friendly relations with England. An unofficial cease-fire was agreed with the Germans, and safe passages granted; but such trips counted as "ops" for the crews.

Bomber Command also flew home many liberated Prisoners of War, during Operation Dodge.

Some Statistics on RAF Bomber Command Losses

For the period 3-Sep-39 to 28-Aug-41 the 12 operations which incurred the highest loss rates are as follows:

Training 279
Reconnaissance 112
Berlin 104
Anti-Shipping 98
Bremen 98
Cologne 83
Hamburg 70
Ground (accidents, enemy attack) 67
Kiel 64
Minelaying 64
Hannover 58
Dusseldorf 48

It is not generally realised that losses during training were so high, but this remaining a constant drain on the RAF throughout the war.

For the same period, the types of aircraft lost were as follows, with individual mark numbers ignored:

Blenheim 639
Wellington 491
Hampden 436
Whitley 332
Battle 215
Stirling 39
Halifax 29
Manchester 18
Anson 12
Fortress 4
Hereford 2
Master 1

The Lancaster was as yet not in service.

Total Bomber Command losses by the end of the War were as follows

Avro Lancaster 4171
Handly Page Halifax 2627
Vickers Wellington 1970
Short Stirling 891
Bristol Blenheim 745
Handly Page Hampden 743
De Havilland Mosquito 533
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley 509
Fairy Battle 217
Avro Manchester 104
Boston 71
Ventura 53
Fortress 24
Mitchell 20
Lysander* 16
Anson 12
Hudson* 8
Liberator 6
Hereford 2
Warwick 2
Beaufighter 1
Master 1
Oxford 1

* SOE Operations

Most Of This Information Is Taken From Rob Davis' Web Site