BOMBER COMMAND IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Bob Hickox
As Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command from 1942-45, Air Marshal Harris presided over the rapid expansion of Bomber Command with the introduction of 4-engined bomber aircraft in much greater numbers, improved bombing tactics, and the effective use of radar technology. He succeeded in turning what had been a poorly equipped force with mediocre results into an efficient and deadly weapon of war, a situation brought about largely by dint of his personal commitment and strength of character. With the first 1,000-bomber raid in May 1942 on Cologne, scraped together with a mixture of twin-engined and four-engined bombers, and some from training squadrons, much of the centre of that city was destroyed, the defenders being overwhelmed by the scale of the raid. With this raid Harris sent out a strong signal to Bomber Command’s detractors, particularly in the Royal Navy, that he meant business, and that his command was not going to be dismembered and its resources shared out between the other two services.
Although promoted Marshal of the RAF in 1945, unlike the other main leaders of the war years, Harris did not receive a peerage in the 1946 New Year Honours. Politicians, including Churchill himself, were quick to distance themselves from the bomber offensive, particularly the raid on Dresden, now that the war had been won, and Sir Arthur Harris and Bomber Command became victims of post war political expediency.
For the first three years of war from 1939 to 1942, Bomber Command was made up of twin-engined medium bombers which carried a limited bomb load and which were extremely vulnerable while daylight bombing. These included the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, the Handley Page Hampden and the Bristol Blenheim and Beaufort and Vickers Wellington. The best of the bunch were the Beaufort and Wellington, a number of the latter of which attacked Wilhelmshaven in daylight, However, the majority of them were shot down by German fighters and it was concluded that night bombing was the only sustainable option. However, this made the target much more difficult to find and more advanced navigation aids were badly needed. The Wellington and Beaufort when based in Malta did much to interdict the shipping crossing the Mediterranean from Italy to supply Rommel’s Afrika Korps. But by 1944 both were relegated to the training role.
With the publication of the Butt report in August 1941, which concluded that at best only 10% to 20% of night bombers placed their bombs within 5 miles of their intended target, it was decided that targets should be areas rather than more specific targets, and the area bombing of cities to destroy civilian morale was initiated. In order to make night bombing generally more accurate however, the Pathfinder Force (PFF) came into being on 15th August 1942, with headquarters at Wyton, Huntingdonshire. It was formed at the direct request of the Air Ministry and initially comprised five squadrons, one from each of the operational Bomber Command Groups before becoming No.8 (PFF) Group at the beginning of 1943 equipped with Lancasters and Mosquitoes, the best aircraft for the job.
In 1940, the Germans had employed Kampfgruppe 100 to precede the main force on each raid, and with the aid of navigational beams (Knickebein, X Gerãt and Y Gerãt) accurately lit up the target area with incendiary fires. These methods had been very successful and ensured the destruction of the old centre of Coventry, heavy damage to other provincial cities, and the blitz on London, where much of the area of the docks and the East End of London was heavily damaged, including much of the City of London. Night fighters at that time were largely ineffective before airborne radar had been sufficiently developed, so the German night bombers sustained relatively few losses to British night fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Although Harris was opposed to the formation of an elite force within Bomber Command, its necessity outweighed his opposition due to very poor bombing accuracy at the time. It was formed under Gp Capt D.C.T. Bennett and its contribution to the war effort was immense, perfecting as it did techniques for precision Main Force bombing, including “Oboe”, blind bombing system and “Gee” radio navigation equipment with which the target could be found more accurately, and brilliant target indicator flares dropped which would indicate the aiming point to the Main Force bombers. Progressively, all Lancasters were fitted with H2S, a look down radar which could identify rivers and coastlines through cloud and other landmarks, which was a useful aid to the navigators in the Main Force, particularly when the target was cloud covered. However most crews would have preferred the placement of a ventral machine gun turret instead, which was badly needed for combating German night fighter attacks
No.100 (Bomber Support) Group was a special duties group within RAF Bomber Command. It was formed on 11 November 1943 to consolidate the increasingly complex business of electronic warfare and countermeasures within one organisation. The group was responsible for the development, operational trial and use of electronic warfare and countermeasures equipment. Various 2 Gp aircraft were used including Mosquito, Wellington, Halifax, Beaufighter, Stirling, and Liberator aircraft. Together with the Lancaster, the Halifax and Stirling were the two other four-engined heavy bombers. But the Stirling had a short wingspan which enabled it to fit in most hangars. This gave it a low ceiling where it was in greater danger from flak and searchlights. So it was taken out of frontline service by the beginning of 1944. The later marks of Halifax with Bristol Hercules air-cooled engines, which were less susceptible to damage by flak or bullets than the water-cooled inline Merlin engines of the Lancaster, remained as part of the heavy bomber force with the Lancaster until the end of the war.
No. 100 (Bomber Support) Group was a special duties group within RAF Bomber Command. It was formed on 11 November 1943 to consolidate the increasingly complex business of electronic warfare and countermeasures within one organisation. The group was responsible for the development, operational trial and use of electronic warfare and countermeasures equipment. Various 2 Gp aircraft were used including Mosquito, Wellington, Halifax, Beaufighter, Stirling, and Liberator aircraft. Together with the Lancaster, the Halifax and Stirling were the two other four-engined heavy bombers. But the Stirling had a short wingspan which enabled it to fit in most hangars. This gave it a low ceiling where it was in greater danger from flak and searchlights. So it was taken out of frontline service by the beginning of 1944. The later marks of Halifax with Bristol Hercules air-cooled engines, which were less susceptible to damage by flak or bullets than the water-cooled inline Merlin engines of the Lancaster, remained as part of the heavy bomber force with the Lancaster until the end of the war.
No.100 Group was a pioneer in countering the formidable force of radar-equipped Luftwaffe night fighters, utilising a range of electronic ‘homers’ fitted to de Havilland Mosquito fighters. This detected the German night fighter’s various radar and radio emissions and allowed the RAF fighters to home in onto the Axis aircraft, either to shoot them down or disrupt their missions against the bomber streams. Other Mosquitoes would patrol around the known Luftwaffe fighter airfields ready to attack any landing night fighters they came across. This constant harassment had a detrimental effect on the morale and confidence of many Luftwaffe crews, and indirectly led to a high proportion of both aircraft and aircrew wastage from crashes as night fighters hurried in to land to avoid the Mosquito threat.
This tactic was also used by the Germans who sent over intruder aircraft to our bomber airfields when they were landing after a raid. A number of bombers were shot down in the airfield circuits, the crews of which were then least expecting it. Such attacks were very effective and would have a detrimental effect on bomber crews’ morale. Luckily the Germans did not exploit this tactic very often, otherwise it would have become a very serious issue. During 1944-5, the Mosquitoes of 100 Group claimed 258 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down for 70 losses over Germany.
Electronic measures and counter measures gave one side the advantage and then the other. In particular, the German signal intercept service became skilled at detecting Bomber Command’s habit of testing H2S on the ground prior to a raid. The Germans were able to detect these emissions which provided early warning of a raid, which was then sent out to individual German night fighter units to place them on alert. The Himmelbett system co-ordinated ground-based radars with its night fighters in a grid from 1942 onwards. But this system was a static defence and vulnerable if its Command and Control was disrupted. As a Lancaster could pass through it in less than four minutes, the grid system could be easily overwhelmed. Therefore Harris introduced a dense bomber stream in May 1943 which channeled all bombers through a few boxes and into a tighter formation which overwhelmed the handful of fighters in their path with too many targets. In response to this the night fighters shifted to more decentralised, operational methods which enabled them to free hunt within the bomber stream. This was much more effective, especially when they were equipped with
Consequently, single-engined “Wilde Sau” (Wild Boar) day fighters were also used as night fighters. They were not equipped with airborne radar as it was considered that they could be used en masse to inflict disastrous losses on the bomber stream, picking out their targets visually from above against the lighter background from fires from cities below, or guided by searchlights to the bomber stream. Their success was limited and there were many accidents due to the lack of training of day fighter pilots in night flying. Due to these factors their contribution to bomber losses combined with their accident rate did not make their losses worthwhile and their use was discontinued after a few months.
In the first six months of 1944, when German night fighters were equipped with SN-2 target acquisition radar and “Schrage Musik”, upwardly inclined 20 mm cannon for attacks from below, 1,041 Lancasters were lost on operational sorties. This was equivalent to the loss of 70% of all Lancasters built in this period. When aircraft lost in accidents and non-combat losses are factored in also, Bomber Command lost the equivalent of 94% of Lancasters built in the first half of 1944. The RAF’s failure to learn about the capabilities of the SN-2 radar and “Schrage Musik” for more than 8 months after the German night fighters started using them, left the Lancaster crews virtually defenceless during the most intense phase of the bombing of Germany, especially during a series of attacks on Berlin.
Harris believed he could break the morale of the Germans with a series of destructive raids on Berlin. Despite the devastation they caused, these raids were very costly to Bomber Command beginning in August 1943 with 18 more raids over the next six months. Harris’ mistake in the Battle of Berlin was in failing to realise that the Nachtjagd was no longer tied to Himmelbett boxes. It was more effective to let the twin-engine night fighters pursue a free hunt using their airborne interception radar as an important aid to finding a target. Harris did not realise this until later in the war, so that losses from his closely packed bomber streams were much higher than expected. Also the equipping of all Pathfinder Lancasters with H2S, an active radar emitter which the night fighters could home on to, would increase the vulnerability of the bombers and reduce the chances for success in a protracted campaign.
Stirling losses were so heavy during the Battle of Berlin due to their limited ceiling that they were retired from operations, plus the older Halifaxes. NJG 5 defending Berlin suffered 14 Bf.110 night fighter losses in combat and another 12 in accidents, about one third its strength. Harris failed to achieve his objectives. German civilian morale did not break, the city’s defences and essential services were maintained and war production in greater Berlin did not fall. Area bombing consistently failed to meet its stated objective, which was to win the war by bombing Germany until its economy and civilian morale collapsed.
The bombing had kept a check on German production and caused the direction of resources from offensive to defensive purposes. In 16 raids with 9,111 sorties on Berlin, Bomber Command lost 492 aircraft, with their crews killed or captured, and 954 aircraft damaged, a rate of loss of 5.8%, exceeding the 5% threshold that was considered the maximum sustainable operational loss rate by the RAF. Over the course of the war, Bomber Command suffered a casualty rate of more than 61% amongst its aircrew, with 44% being killed. A very high rate of loss. The Pathfinder Force suffered particularly heavy losses due to the ability of the Germans to home in on to the H2S radar.
The death toll on the ground was approximately 10,305 casualties, a fraction of those killed in the Hamburg raids earlier in 1943, when over 40,000 people were killed in one raid due to a firestorm which affected the centre of Hamburg. This was caused by the coalescence of large fires which consumed oxygen at a rapid rate that caused high winds to blow into the fires. This left carbon monoxide which caused the deaths of many in the shelters who were unaware of its deadly presence. The initial use of “window”, metal strips cut to the same wavelength as the German radars and pushed out of the Lancasters, confused the German radars to such an extent that the defending fighters were sent in the wrong direction and there was no opposition to the raid. Unfortunately once the Germans realised what was happening they were able to use a different wavelength to enable their radars to see through “window”. As a result, these devastating raids could not be repeated against other German cities. It they had been Albert Speer, the German Minister for Production, indicated that such destruction of 4 or 5 other cities would have brought a rapid end to the war
By the end of 1943, the Nachtjagd (Night Fighter Force) found that the RAF was jamming or disrupting most of its radio frequencies from electronically equipped airborne Lancasters known as ABCs and ground-based stations which severely disrupted the night fighters’ radio navigation linkages. This often made it more difficult to mass fighters against the bomber stream. Radar jamming became so effective by mid 1944 that the night fighters were forced to use other firms of communication, such as the use of civilian radio broadcasts. But the so called “Monica” tail-mounted radar warning device on Lancasters provided too many false returns from other bombers for it to be useful. The Germans soon created the Flensburg radar warning receiver which could home in on “Monica” after examining this radar emitter from crashed Lancasters,
Hitler had not put armament production on a war footing until 1942 when he realised that the war on the eastern front would not be over in a few months. Thus there was considerable slack in the system. With the reorganisation of production under the new Minister for Production, Albert Speer in 1944, much industrial production was dispersed to smaller sub-contractors before the completed parts were brought together in one place. This prevented the complete destruction of one centre of war production in one attack. With aircraft production however, although numbers produced far exceeded those in earlier years, parts constructed in different locations did not always fit together as well as they should, which degraded the performance of some aircraft or caused dangerous weaknesses in the structure.
Harris recognized that the Nachtjagd was growing stronger and that bomber casualty rates would soon reach an unsustainable level. The equipping of a large number of Lancasters with H2S ground mapping radar in the dorsal position under the fuselage both robbed the ability of the Lancasters to have a defensive gun position below and helped the German night fighters to find the bombers from a considerable distance via the “Naxos” passive radar detector which homed onto the H2S radar emissions. The introduction of the Lichtenstein SN-2 radar to find targets in 1943 was also a significant electronic advance for the German night fighters.
Harris recognized the tactical success of the German night fighters when he said on 7 April 1944 : –
“The strength of the German defences would in time reach a point at which night bombing attacks by existing methods and types of heavy bomber would involve percentage casualty rates which could not in the long run be sustained. We have not yet reached that point, but tactical innovations which have so far postponed it are now practically exhausted.”
These high losses were the logical result of a weapon system that was designed around a single characteristic, bomb load. But it was not enough for the Lancaster to reach Berlin with a large bomb load. It needed to survive and fly multiple missions in order to justify its cost of construction. It was undermined by a failure to make realistic operational assessments in the critical early days of the Lancaster design program. Not enough effort was put into defensive measures in a night flying role and night navigation until failure became a very real possibility. Tactically the Messerschmitt Bf.110 with the SN-2 radar and “Schrage Musik” and other twin-engined night fighters such as the Junkers Ju 88 routinely decimated Lancaster raids at an exchange rate that Bomber Command could not afford.
In the first 6 months of 1944 1,041 Lancasters were lost on operational sorties. This was equivalent to a loss of 70% of all Lancasters built in this period. When Lancasters lost in accidents and non-combat losses are included, the loss rate was equivalent to 94% of Lancasters built in the first half of 1944. A sustained loss rate of 3.3% meant that no Lancaster aircrews would survive a 25 mission tour. Loss rates exceeded this in 6 of 12 months in 1942 and 1943.
After the considerable losses consequent on the attacks on Berlin, the night bomber force was diverted to attacks on transportation depots and railway junctions in France and elsewhere to disrupt communications with the Normandy coast. Known gun positions and other defensive measures were bombed in preparation for Operation Overlord in June 1944. With certain exceptions such as the raid on the panzer training school at Mailly-le-Camp and the bombing of Wesseling in the Ruhr, these targets in France were generally less well defended and the Bomber Force was able to recover from its rough treatment over Berlin. At Mailly-le-Camp interference from an American radio station prevented communications between the Master Bomber and the Main Force causing much confusion of which the night fighters took advantage shooting down 42 bombers, a loss rate of 11.6%.
Only the declining strategic position of the German military and the failure to priorities night fighter production prevented these aircraft from demolishing the Lancaster Main Force bombers. Increasingly from 1943 onwards, fuel shortage due to the destruction of the oil refineries at Ploesti in Romania and the synthetic oil plants by the American 8th Army Air Force daylight bombing raids contributed to a lack of new, well-trained pilots. Problems with the introduction of faster and improved dedicated night fighters like the Heinkel He.219 until the last few weeks of the war, which were never produced in quantity, caused a decline in the effectiveness of the Nachtjagd. Also a muddled production programme, political interference, Allied bombing and the wasting of resources on too many projects in general, added to this decline.
The Luftwaffe might have posed a greater threat to the British night bombing policy, particularly with the introduction of new night fighters such as the Heinkel He.219 and Messerchmitt Me.262 night fighter. General Kammhuber, head of the night fighter force, stated that with 18 wings of aircraft instead of 6, he could have forced the British to curtail or change their heavy bombing policy.
Despite the above, night fighter aces like Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer shot down seven Lancasters in 19 minutes in February 1945 and only broke off the action due to exhausted ammunition. His final three victories came in March 1945. However, Bomber Command’s electronic warfare had been improving and by early 1945, it was able to jam the SN-2 radar.
The Mosquito could bomb Berlin with relative impunity. While its bomb load was inferior to the Lancaster, its high speed made it almost invulnerable to Germany’s night fighter and other defences. The Light Night Bomber Force, based upon the Mosquito, was the model for successful strategic night bombing. But Harris would not allow any reduction in his monthly bomb tonnage delivery statistics and would not allow the Mosquito to supplant the Lancaster.
Both the Junkers Ju.88 and Messerschmitt Bf.110, although designed originally for other roles, became extremely effective night fighters. Originally designed as a heavy fighter, the Bf.110 was outclassed by the Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain and had to be withdrawn from that battle. The Ju.88, whilst being one of the most effective medium bombers of the Luftwaffe, became also an extremely successful night fighter. Both aircraft were heavily armed with cannon and had a long range and therefore more time in the air to shoot down bombers than single-engined fighters.
The General der Jagdflieger (the defending fighters), Adolf Galland, said that the combination of the Pathfinders’ operations, the activities of No. 100 Group, the British advantage in radar, jamming and Window techniques, combined with intelligent attacking tactics, as well as the discipline and bravery of the RAF crews, had been remarkable. He had severe problems in trying to defend Germany in the air at night.
Those serving in Bomber Command were not awarded a Campaign Medal until 65 years too late, concurrently with the Bomber Command Memorial, which was finally dedicated in Green Park, Central London, on 28 June 2012. The great majority of surviving combatants had died of natural causes by then, so that recognition for their sacrifice was too late for most of them.
At least 5,000 Bomber Command aircrew were killed in training accidents and 45-50,000 were killed on operations, a total of 55,000, apart from the thousands of others physically and mentally scarred due to their experiences in the war. Such sacrifice went unrecognized due to the political expediency of politicians over commanders. They wished to distance themselves from the sometimes controversial nature of the destruction they had visited upon Germany, in reply to the Germans own unlimited bombing of our cities. In fact, during the Battle of Britain, more bomber crewmen lost their lives than fighter pilots while attacking the barges collected in the Channel ports of France, mining coastal waters, and other missions to hinder any attempt at invasion. Later in the war, night bombing of Germany tied down thousands of Germans plus armaments on the home front, which could otherwise have been employed usefully on the fighting fronts. In particular the 88mm anti-aircraft gun was also a very efficient tank destroyer. So the less of them at the war fronts the better. In fact, the anti-aircraft gunners and other defenders were mostly teenagers in the later years of the war, due to a shortage of suitable personnel.
Allied bombing of German cities killed between 305,000 and 600,000 civilians. One of the most controversial aspects of Bomber Command during World War II was the area bombing of cities. Until 1942 navigational technology did not allow for any more precise targeting than at best a district of a town or city by night bombing. All large German cities contained important industrial districts and so were considered legitimate targets by the allies.
A Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in World War I. Controversially, more personnel were killed serving in Bomber Command than in the Blitz, or the bombings of Hamburg or Dresden. By comparison, the US Eighth Army Air Force, which flew daylight raids over Europe from 1942 onwards, had 350,000 aircrew during the war and suffered 26,000 killed and 23,000 POWs. In Bomber Command, statistically there was little prospect of surviving a tour of 30 operations and by 1943, only one in six expected to survive their first tour and one in forty would survive their second tour if they undertook one.
The aim of the bombing offensive, to break the morale of the German civilians, must be considered a failure. The scale and intensity of the offensive was an appalling trial to the German people and the Hamburg attacks particularly profoundly shook the Nazi leadership. However, on balance, the indiscriminate nature of the bombing and the heavy civilian casualties and damage stiffened German resistance to fight to the end. The blitz on British cities in 1940 and 1941 had the same effect. But by the time of the “Baby Blitz” in 1944, German bomber capability was much reduced and the British night fighters with their improved airborne radar were much more effective, so that the destruction on the ground was minimal compared to the Blitz of 1940/41.
In the middle war period, for every one hundred Bomber Command aircrew who started their tour, only sixteen would remain with their squadron alive and unwounded at the end of thirty missions. Of the others, 25 would be PoWs, 5 would be wounded and the remaining 54 dead or missing. Despite these tragic losses, comradeship remained strong. There would be an indomitable spirit and a high level of morale amongst aircrew, 21 of whom won the Victoria Cross. The small numbers of aircrew who could not function properly due to fear overcoming their commitment to duty had to be taken off operations quickly, as the survival of the crew depended on each member doing their job to the best of their ability. If this was compromised in any way they were at a much higher risk of being shot down.
A US survey of their bombing results was little concerned with the RAF area bombing campaign. It pointed to the great success of the USAAF’s attacks on Germany’s synthetic oil plants starting in the spring of 1944. This had a crippling effect on German transportation. It also prevented the Luftwaffe from flying to anything like the order of battle that the aviation engine plants, parts and sub-assembly fabrication, and final assembly manufacturing facilities that Luftwaffe training and logistics could have otherwise sustained. Further, in going for targets they knew the Germans must defend, the new American longer range escort fighters, such as the North American P-51 Mustang, were able to inflict crippling losses on the Luftwaffe’s fighter force. However it should be pointed out that later in the war the RAF also made a great contribution to the oil offensive, as its abilities to attack precision targets had greatly improved since the arrival of new navigation and target finding equipment.
Apart from those flying from this country, there were airmen from Bomber Command who served in the Middle East, North Africa, Malta, and Italy and the Far East, who have still not been awarded Campaign Medals, The bombing and torpedo attacks on shipping in the Mediterranean, supplying Rommel’s Afrika Korps, were instrumental in limiting his essential supplies of fuel and armaments at the end of a long supply line. Thus, his Panzers ran out of fuel and were unable make further attacks at El Alamein, losing the initiative and the battle. From there he retreated to the Mareth Line and Tunisia and, after one or two notable successes against inexperienced American forces, was forced into a wholesale evacuation to Sicily, and then to Italy a few months later. The retreat from Tunisia to Sicily resulted in more axis prisoners being taken by the allies than the number of German prisoners at Stalingrad.