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".
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
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.
Equipment : The "Heavies"
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.
||Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
||Bristol Hercules radial engines (300 aircraft only).
||Packard-built Merlin engines.
||Built under licence by Victory Aircraft
||with Packard-Merlins. Total : 7,377 of
|| which 3,431 were lost on operations.
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.
||Merlins, 3 turrets.
||Merlins, 2 turrets.
||Bristol Pegasus engines, square fins and rudders,
||glass nose, 2 turrets.
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,
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
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
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
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."
Tour of Duty, and Losses
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
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.
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.
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
"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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dams Raid : 16/17th May 1943.
Famous raid by 617 Squadron on the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe Dams
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.
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.
End : May 1945
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.
The End : May/June 1945
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
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:
|Ground (accidents, enemy attack)
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:
Lancaster was as yet not in service.
Bomber Command losses by the end of the War were as follows
|Handly Page Halifax
|Handly Page Hampden
|De Havilland Mosquito
|Armstrong Whitworth Whitley
* SOE Operations
Of This Information Is Taken From Rob
Davis' Web Site