The legacy of Bomber Command
Source: Veterans SA
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
These famous words delivered by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in his wartime speech to the British House of Commons on 20 August, 1940 were said in reference to the Battle of Britain, which took place from 10 July to the end of October, 1940. Although widely accepted as comments relating to those who fought against the Luftwaffe as part of Fighter Command in the British RAF, there are many historians who take the view that Churchill was also referring to all allied aircrew, including those of Bomber Command and Coastal Command who made up the ranks of the RAF. Regardless, considering the losses and casualties amongst air men that were incurred, for those who fought as part of Bomber Command it rings true.
The speech came at a time when the United Kingdom had suffered a series of monumental defeats. The Luftwaffe in particular appeared unstoppable and the fear of land invasion by Germany was palpable.
Shortly after Churchill made this speech the tide began to turn in Britain’s favour. His words proved to be a great inspiration to an embattled United Kingdom during what was probably its most dangerous phase of World War II.
In World War II there were over 125,000 airmen who served in the RAF; Approximately 10,000 were Australian. In fact, RAF Bomber Command was predominantly made up of British, Australian and Canadian airmen who were later assisted by the US Air Force following America’s entry into the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
More than 55,570 (over 40%) of those in the RAF in WWII were killed and another 18,170 became casualties. It was the air force that incurred the highest casualty rate of all Allied forces in WWII.
Of the 50,000 killed in action 3,480 were Australians, along with another 650 who died in training accidents in the United Kingdom, accounting for 10% of Australia’s total number of combat deaths in World War II – an even more disproportionate number of losses considering just 2% of Australia’s forces were part of Bomber Command.
But it wasn’t only air crew who died in Bomber Command. The ground crew who worked tirelessly to maintain the aircraft and airfield, despite these being relentlessly targeted by the Luftwaffe, were also killed.
The Queen opened a Memorial to Bomber Command in Green Park in London on 28 June, 2012. To quote historian Dr Alan Stephens, “no single group of Australians from any service did more to help win World War II than the men who fought in Bomber Command”. Distinguished South Australian Bomber Command veteran, former Squadron Leader David Leicester DFC* OAM, was invited to recite the Ode of Remembrance at the ceremony and was presented to Her Majesty the Queen.
In 2005, the Australian War Memorial unveiled a commemorative sculpture by artist, Neil Dawson honouring the contribution made by Australia’s RAAF air and ground crew who served and died with Bomber Command during the Second World War. On 4 October, 2013 an exhibition about Australian’s who flew with Bomber Command was opened at the Shrine of Remembrance in Victoria. The exhibition highlighted the courage and determination of the Australian Aircrew who flew with RAF Bomber Command deep into Germany and enemy occupied Europe during the Second World War.
The Australians in RAF Bomber Command units were recruited through three main avenues. Some who joined the RAAF accepted Short Service Commissions in the RAF. Others joined the RAF in response to recruiting notices published in Australia, while the final group, living in Britain, had joined the RAF directly rather than coming home and going through the Empire Air Training Scheme. Some Australian pilots transferred to RAAF Squadrons when they were raised, while others chose to remain within the RAF for the duration of the war.
The men of Bomber Command were younger on average than other men who served in World War II. Most were between 19 and 25 years of age. Invariably, they were some of the fittest and brightest of their generation attracted to the prestige of the air force following development of air travel after World War 1 and the misguided belief that they were somehow safer in the air than they would have been on the ground; a belief they quickly came to realize as false.
Many Australians joined up under the Empire Air Training Scheme as agreed between Australian and British WWII commands in December 1939. The Empire Air Training Scheme was established to supply trained Dominion aircrew to the RAF. Under the scheme Britain had committed to providing the industrial capacity to build and supply aircraft while Australia, New Zealand and Canada, amongst other Commonwealth nations, would supply a proportion of the pilots and ground crews needed to fly them.
The first Australian Training Schools were established in 1940. They were set up In South Australia at Victor Harbour, Mallala, Mount Gambier and Port Pirie.
Once trained the men of the RAAF embarked for Britain on a transport or Merchant Navy ship on a voyage that took approximately 2 months to complete. Upon arrival they were generally sent to the Australian Section of the No.3 Personnel Reception Centre in England, to await allocation to an RAF unit.
Sea voyages were invariably treacherous and some transports either encountered delays, or in some cases, never made it to their destination. The Merchant navy ship The Memnon for example, left Port Pirie with six RAAF Sergeants on board only to be torpedoed by a U-boat off the coast of Africa. After thirteen days adrift in lifeboats, the survivors were taken prisoner by the Vichy French. In the end these men were released and were able to continue to their final destination in England.
Final training was completed within RAF squadrons with many of the Australian’s dispersed rather than retained in the groups in which they had arrived. Some Australian air crew completed their final training in Canada.
Upon arriving in the UK, some Australian trained fighter pilots were required to either wait for a position as a fighter pilot to ‘become available’ or take up the option of joining Bomber Command, which had a need for more men at that time.
The first Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Squadron to be established was No. 455 Squadron, raised in Williamstown, NSW on 23 May, 1941. The RAF assigned the 455 Squadron to its Swinderby Base in the UK, where it began assembling on 6 June 1941. The first plane arrived on 10 July, contributing to the Squadron’s delay in undertaking its first bombing raid on 29 August, 1941 over Frankfurt in Germany. On 27 April 1942, 455 Squadron transferred to Coastal Command and focused on coastal bombing runs using torpedos. At one stage it was relocated to Russia to support Allied shipping access to Murmansk.
A second Australian squadron, No. 458 Squadron, was formed at Holme-on-Spalding Moor in East Riding, Yorkshire. Due to the existence of Wellington aircraft, this unit experienced no delays and 458 Squadron ran a successful three month strategic bombing campaign against Germany.
By 24 November 1941, 458 Squadron had grown so large that 4 of its officers and 117 of its airmen were transferred to create No. 460 Squadron. Those who remained in 458 Squadron were later re-allocated to the Middle East, and by January 1942 flew missions over Malta, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Sardinia, Corsica, Italy, France and Gibraltar.
460 Squadron took part in some of the most famous air battles of WWII, including providing support at the D-Day landings and bombing of Berlin. Although originally equipped with the Vickers Wellington aircraft, the Squadron was later supplied with Handley Page Halifax and Arvo Lancasters.
Its motto “Strike and Return” rang true as the Squadron maintained consistently higher serviceability rates among its aircraft and set numerous operational records within Bomber Command. In fact, 460 Squadron flew the most bombing raids of any squadron in WWII and was credited with the greatest tonnage of bombs dropped overall at 24,856 tons.
The famous Lancaster ‘G for George’, on display at the Australian War Memorial, flew with No. 460 Squadron and remains one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. Formed in Molesworth in Huntingdonshire on 15 November 1941, the Squadron commenced operations with the raid on Emden, Germany on 12 March 1942.
But 460 Squadron paid a terrible price for its fame, losing a total of 181 aircraft and suffering 1,018 fatalities – 589 of which were Australian – the highest number of any squadron in WWII.
There were many more RAAF Squadrons who took their place amongst a total of 500 RAF Squadrons who made up RAF Bomber Command.
You can read more about these here:
For the men of Bomber Command each mission was kept top secret until the day of the raid. Each day air crew would check the battle order to see which men were required to run missions (sorties) that day. If their name appeared on the list, they were restricted to base – unable to leave for any reason. This was because earlier in the war, it was believed German spies had intercepted information that enabled them to target locations (including ‘pubs’) that pilots were known to frequent.
Raids later in the war often contained between 200 – 1,000 planes, so having precise information was very important. The bombing window usually lasted 20 mins. This meant all Bomber Command planes flew in close proximity to each other. The window was measured from the first bomber that dropped its payload to the last bomber passing over the target. Despite being in different formations, at different altitudes, when a plane went down either due to mechanical failure or enemy intervention, it was a very real risk to other planes in the formation. Many accidents occurred, especially on the ‘dog legs’ with whole crew watching out to make sure other aircraft were not too close. It only took one pilot to make a slight deviation, at a second too early or too late, to cause a catastrophic collision.
Early in the war, due to heavy losses on daytime raids, Bomber Command started flying most missions at night under the cover of darkness. Once they left England, crews were instructed to turn off all lights both inside and outside their aircraft. Pilots had to know instinctively where their instruments were, and to find throttles, steering, and other levers and buttons by feel. The only exception was the navigator, who could use a small pin light to work by, while surrounded by curtains on all sides.
German fighter planes such as the Messerschmitt Me 262, were usually quicker and more maneuverable, shooting down many Allied aircraft. Bomber Command ran limited day time raids for this reason until late 1944 and 1945 when the Luftwaffe’s ability to attack in large formations was reduced. Anti-aircraft guns were also a major risk because the Allied aircraft were required to maintain a certain altitude and line while dropping bombs, making them an easier target for guns on the ground.
In May 1942, the first thousand bomber raid was launched against Cologne. The sheer scale of these raids shocked Germany but unfortunately instead of being a decisive blow to morale that would end the war as had been hoped, it only served to strengthen the resolve of the German people. Ultimately however, the raids on Germany did much to divert men and munitions from other war fronts enabling the Allies to gain the edge they needed to prevail. Historian Hank Nelson’s paper titled “A different war: Australians in Bomber Command” which he presented at the 2003 History Conference – Air War Europe, provides an excellent insight into this highly contested subject.
Another famous Bomber Command raid was that of the Dambusters, made all the more famous by the Hollywood film of the same name. This raid launched in May 1943 involved the use of a new weapon called the ‘bouncing bomb’ used on the dams in the Ruhr Valley (Germany’s industrial heartland). Often referred to as Happy Valley by the men of Bomber Command, many Allied aircraft were lost in this heavily defended valley due to the strategic importance it held for the Germans. Heavily bombed during the war, it consisted of many industrial targets including the world’s largest steel works. Bomber Command was awarded a Battle Honour for actions taken against Germany in the Ruhr Valley.
A Tour of Duty usually consisted of 30 sorties (raids). Except in exceptional circumstances, once an Aircrew had completed a tour, it was required to rest for a minimum six months. During this time the crew would undertake other tasks such as transport, instructing or further training. The chance of completing a tour is reported at being 1 in 3. The chance of surviving a second tour of 20 sorties, just 1 in 2.
One of the last major missions undertaken by Bomber Command was Operation MANNA. Those who took part completed 3000 sorties dropping more than 7,000 tonnes of vital food supplies to the Netherlands following its liberation. Some Bomber Command crews also took part in repatriating Prisoners of War from Europe.
The men of Bomber Command were a special breed. They needed nerves of steel and a remarkable courage to continue against all odds. They can share harrowing stories of survival, including escapes from enemy territory that were not thought possible, as a result the men of Bomber Command have received many commendations and battle honours – far too many to mention here.
“We in the RAF are accustomed to hearing of bravery, so much so that our appreciation of it tends to be blunted”
Stories from South Australian Bomber Command Air Crew can be read on the RSL’s Virtual War Memorial:
Official War Diaries – Bomber Command