RAF Bomber Command was the organisation that controlled the RAF's bomber forces from 1936 to 1968. During World War II, the command destroyed a significant proportion of Nazi Germany's industries and many German cities, and in the 1960s, was at the peak of its postwar power with the V bombers and a supplemental force of Canberra light bombers. RAF Bomber Command had 19 Victoria Cross winners, and in August 2006, a memorial was unveiled at Lincoln Cathedral.
The problem was that the British Government was basing its data on a casualty rate of 50 per ton of bombs dropped. The basis for this assumption was a few raids on London in the later stages of World War I, by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers. Both the government and the general public viewed the bomber as a far more terrible weapon than it really was.
Bomber Command was further reduced in size after the declaration of war. No. 1 Group, with its squadrons of Fairey Battles, left for France to form the Advanced Air Striking Force. This was for two reasons; to give the British Expeditionary Force some air striking power, and to allow the Battle to operate against German targets, since it lacked the range to do so from British airfields.
The Sitzkrieg (or Phony War) mainly affected the army. However, to an extent, Bomber Command was not properly at war during the first few months of hostilities either. Bomber Command flew many operational missions, and lost aircraft, but it did virtually no damage to the enemy. Most of the missions either failed to find their targets, or were leaflet dropping missions (the first flights by RAF bombers over the German homeland were only to drop propaganda leaflets at night). The attack in the west in May 1940, changed everything.
The Fairey Battles of the Advanced Air Striking Force were partially disabled by German strikes on their airfields at the opening of the invasion of France. However, far from all of the force was caught on the ground. The Faireys proved to be horrendously vulnerable to enemy fire. Many times, Battles would set out to attack, and be almost wiped out in the process. This was somewhat ironic given the fact that due to French paranoia about being attacked by German aircraft, during the Sitzkrieg, the Battle force had actually trained over German airspace at night.
Bomber Command itself soon fully joined in the action. With the immensely quick collapse of France, invasion seemed a clear and present danger. As its part in Battle of Britain, Bomber Command was assigned to pound the invasion barges and fleets assembling in the Channel ports. This was much less high profile than the battles of the Spitfires and Hurricanes of RAF Fighter Command, but still vital and dangerous work. From July 1940 to the end of the year, Bomber Command lost nearly 330 aircraft and over 1,400 aircrew killed, missing or PoW.
Bomber Command was also indirectly responsible, in part at least, for the switch of Luftwaffe attention away from Fighter Command to bombing civilian targets. A German bomber on a raid got lost due to poor navigation and bombed London. Churchill consequently ordered a retaliatory raid on the German capital of Berlin. The damage caused was minor, but the raid sent Hitler into a rage. He ordered the Luftwaffe to level British cities, thus precipitating the Blitz.
Like the United States Army Air Forces later in the war, Bomber Command had first concentrated on a doctrine of "precision" bombing in daylight. However, when several late 1939 raids were cut to pieces by the organised German defences, a switch to night attack tactics was forced upon the Command. The problems of enemy defences were then replaced with the problems of simply finding the target. It was common in the early years of the war for bombers relying on dead reckoning navigation to miss entire cities. Surveys of Bombing photographs and other sources published during August 1941 indicated that less than one bomb in ten fell within 5 miles of its intended target. One of the most urgent problems of the Command was thus to develop technical navigational aids to allow accurate bombing.
Many squadrons and personnel from Commonwealth and other European countries were distributed throughout Bomber Command. No. 6 Group, which was activated on 1 January 1943, was unique among Bomber Command groups, in that it was not an RAF unit; it was a Canadian unit attached to Bomber Command. At its peak strength, 6 Group consisted of 14 operational RCAF bomber squadrons, and 15 different squadrons served with the group. Apart from 6 Group, many individual Canadians served with British and other Commonwealth squadrons; by the end of the war, almost a quarter of Bomber Command's personnel were RCAF personnel.
No. 8 Group, also known as the Pathfinder Force, was activated on 15 August 1942. It was a critical part of solving the navigational problems referred to above. The navigational problems of Bomber Command were solved by two methods. One was the use of a range of increasingly sophisticated electronic aids to navigation and the other was the use of specialist Pathfinders. The technical aids to navigation took two forms. One was external radio navigation aids, as exemplified by Gee and the later highly accurate Oboe systems. The other was the centimetric navigation equipment H2S radar which was carried in the bombers. The Pathfinders were a group of elite, specially trained and experienced crews who flew ahead of the main bombing forces, and marked the targets with flares and special marker bombs. No. 8 Group controlled the Pathfinder squadrons.
By late 1941, RAF Bomber Command was regularly mounting raids by hundreds of aircraft.
Along with an increase in the size of the Command came a massive increase in the capability of the aircraft it was using. In 1942, the main workhorse aircraft of the later part of the war came into service. The Halifax and Lancaster made up the backbone of the Command, and had a longer range, higher speed and much greater bomb load than the earlier aircraft. The classic aircraft of the Pathfinders, the Mosquito, also made its appearance.
A prolonged offensive against the Rhine-Ruhr area (the "Armory of the Third Reich") began on March 5/6 1943 with the first raid of the Battle of the Ruhr flew RAF Bomber Command's 100,000th sortie of WWII which destroyed 160 acres and hit 53 Krupps buildings. The series of raids on Hamburg (the Battle of Hamburg) in mid 1943 was one of the most successful Command operations, although Harris' extension of the offensive into the Battle of Berlin failed to decimate the capital and cost his force over 1,000 crews through the winter of 1943-44. Operation Hydra, the mission via Bomber Command Operation Order No. 176 (9th July, 1943) that bombed Peenemünde after midnight of August 17/18 August 1943, was the opening of Operation Crossbow
By April 1944, Harris called off his strategic offensive as the bomber force was seconded (much to his annoyance) to tactical and communications targets in France prior to D-Day. The anti-transport offensive proved highly effective. By late 1944, back attacking Third Reich targets, Bomber Command did have a genuine operational capability to put 1,000 aircraft over a target without extraordinary efforts. Ironically by this time the land battle through Northern Europe was making the Bomber Offensive increasingly meaningless.
The peak of Bomber Command's operations occurred in the raids of March 1945, when its squadrons dropped their highest amount of ordnance (by weight) for any month in the entire war. The last raid on Berlin took place on the night of 21-22 April, when 76 Mosquitos made six separate attacks just before Soviet forces entered the city centre. Afterwards most of the rest of the bombing raids made by the RAF were tactical support attacks. The last major strategic raid was the destruction of the oil refinery at Tonsberg in southern Norway by 107 Lancasters, on the night of 25-26 of April.
Once the surrender of Germany had occurred, plans were put in place to send the Tiger Force of about 30 British Commonwealth bomber squadrons to bases on Okinawa, and there was a reorganisation of groups within Bomber Command for the proposed invasion of Japan. However, the Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred before any part of the force had been transferred to the Pacific.
Regarding the legality of the campaign, an article in the International Review of the Red Cross stated:
Bomber Command crews also suffered an extremely high casualty rate: 55,573 killed out of a total of 125,000 aircrew (a 44.4% death rate), a further 8,403 were wounded in action and 9,838 became prisoners of war. A Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in World War I. By comparison, the US Eighth Air Force, which flew daylight raids over Europe, had 350,000 aircrew during the war, and suffered 26,000 killed and 23,000 POWs. Of the RAF Bomber Command personnel killed during the war, 72% were British, 18% were Canadian, 7% were Australian and 3% were New Zealanders. The fatalities included over 38,000 RAF aircrew (of all nationalities), 9,900 Royal Canadian Air Force personnel, and over 1,500 aircrew from countries in occupied Europe. It is illustrative that members of the Australian squadrons of Bomber Command equalled only two percent of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel, but the 4,050 killed represented 23% of the total number of RAAF personnel killed in action during World War II. No. 460 Squadron RAAF, which had an aircrew establishment of about 200, experienced 1,018 combat deaths during 1942-45 and was therefore effectively wiped out five times over. Nevertheless, by the beginning of 1945, 46% of Bomber Command personnel were from the Dominions.
In total 364,514 operational sorties were flown, 1,030,500 tons of bombs were dropped and 8,325 aircraft lost in action.
Harris was advised by an Operational Research Section (ORS) under a civilian, Basil Dickins, supported by a small team of mathematics and scientists. ORS2 (under Reuben Smeed) was concerned with analysing bomber losses. They were able to influence operations by identifying successful defensive tactics and equipment, though some of their more controversial advice (such as removing ineffectual turrets from bombers to increase defensive speed) was ignored. The very high casualty levels suffered give testimony to the dedication and courage of Bomber Command's aircrew in carrying out their orders. Statistically there was little prospect of surviving a tour of 30 operations. For much of the war, the loss rate hovered around 5%, about 1 in 20 aircraft would, on average, be shot down although obviously there was great variation here, on some occasions the loss rate exceeded 10% sometimes much higher than that.
Bomber Command was overwhelmingly committed to the strategic bombing offensive against Germany and its contribution to the Allied war effort must primarily be judged in that context. The ostensible aim of the offensive, breaking the morale of the German working class, 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. In any case as Sir Arthur Harris put it, the Germans living under a savage tyranny were "not allowed the luxury of morale".
Sir Arthur Harris himself believed that there was a relationship between tonnage dropped, city areas destroyed, and lost production. The effect of Bomber Command's attacks on industrial production is not so clear cut. The British Bombing Survey at the end of the war was deliberately under-resourced, for Churchill wanted to put Dresden behind him. The much better provided US survey 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 and 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; Luftwaffe training and logistics could have otherwise sustained. Further, in going for targets they knew the Germans must defend, the American escort fighters were able to inflict crippling losses on the Luftwaffe's fighter force. However it should be pointed out that the RAF also made a great contribution to the oil offensive as its abilities to attack precision targets had greatly improved- by mid 1944 it was mounting huge bombing raids in daylight too.
Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister of Armaments noted that the larger British bombs did much more damage and so made repair more difficult, and sometimes impossible. Shortly after the war's end, Speer was unequivocal about the effect of this:
In terms of overall production decrease resulting from the RAF area attacks, the US survey, based upon limited research, found that in 1943 it amounted to 9% and in 1944 to 17%. Relying on US gathered statistics the British survey found that actual arms production decreases were a mere 3% for 1943, and 1% for 1944. However they did find decreases of 46.5% and 39% in the second half of 1943 and 1944 respectively in the metal processing industries. These losses resulted from the devastating series of raids the Command launched on the Ruhr Valley at these times.
This apparent lack of success is accounted for in several ways. The German industrial economy was so strong, its industrial bases so widely spread, that it was a hopeless task to try and crush it by area bombing. Further, up until 1943 it is undoubtedly the case that Germany was not fully mobilised for war, Speer remarked that single shift factory working was commonplace, and so there was plenty of slack in the system. It has been argued that the RAF campaign placed a limit on German arms production. This may be true but it is also the case that the German forces did not run out of arms and ammunition and that it was manpower that was a key limiting factor, as well as the destruction of transport facilities and the fuel to move.
Having dealt with the negative side of the case it is now time to put the positive. The greatest contribution to winning the war made by Bomber Command was in the huge diversion of German resources into defending the homeland; this was very considerable indeed. By January 1943 some 1,000 Luftwaffe night fighters were committed to the defence of the Reich mostly twin engined Me 110 and Ju 88. Most critically, by September 1943, 8,876 of the deadly, dual purpose 88mm guns were also defending the homeland with a further 25,000 light flak guns 20/37mm. The 88mm gun was an effective AA weapon, it was a deadly destroyer of tanks and lethal against advancing infantry. These weapons would have done much to augment German anti-tank defences on the Russian front.
To man these weapons the flak regiments in Germany required some 90,000 fit personnel, and a further 1 million were deployed in clearing up and repairing the vast bomb damage caused by the RAF attacks. To put this into perspective General Erwin Rommel's German forces defending Normandy in 1944 comprised 50,000, and their resistance caused the Western Allies grave problems.
This diversion to defensive purposes of German arms and manpower was an enormous contribution made by RAF Bomber Command to winning the war. By 1944 the bombing offensive was costing Germany 30% of all artillery production, 20% of heavy shells, 33% of the output of the optical industry for sights and aiming devices and 50% of the country's electro-technical output which had to be diverted to the anti-aircraft role.
From the British perspective it should be noted that the RAF offensive made a great contribution in sustaining morale during the dark days of the war, especially during the bleak winter of 1941-42. It was the only means that Britain possessed of taking the war directly to the enemy at that time.
The first jet bomber was the English Electric Canberra light bomber, some of which remained in RAF service up to 2006 as photo reconnaissance aircraft. The Canberra proved to be an extremely successful aircraft, being exported to many countries and being license-built in the United States. The next to enter service was the Vickers Valiant, the first of the V bombers.
The V bombers were conceived as the replacement for the wartime Lancasters and Halifaxes. Three aircraft were developed, which many argue was a waste of resources. They contend that one design should have been pursued enabling a larger production run, but this is with 20/20 hindsight, it not being possible to predict which designs would be successful at the time. The V bombers became the backbone of the British nuclear forces. The Valiant, Handley Page Victor and Avro Vulcan were classic designs of British aviation.
In 1956, Bomber Command faced its the first operational test since World War II, and its last major action in anger. The Egyptian Government nationalised the Suez Canal during that year, and the British Government decided to take military action. During the Suez Crisis, Bomber Command Canberras were deployed to Cyprus and Malta and Valiants were deployed to Malta. The Canberra performed well, but the Valiant had problems. Since the Valiant had just been introduced into service, this was hardly surprising. The Canberras were also vulnerable to attack by the Egyptian Air Force, which fortunately did not choose to attack the crowded airfields of Cyprus (RAF Akrotiri and RAF Nicosia holding nearly the whole RAF strike force, with a recently reactivated and poor quality airfield taking much of the French force). Over 100 Bomber Command aircraft took part in operations against Egypt. By World War II standards, the scale of attack was light.
During the following twelve years, Bomber Command aircraft frequently deployed overseas to the Far East and Middle East. They were particularly used as a deterrent to Sukarno's Indonesia during the Konfrontasi. A detachment of Canberras was also permanently maintained at Akrotiri in Cyprus in support of CENTO obligations.
As the remaining V bombers came into service in the late 1950s, the British nuclear deterrent was gaining notice. The first British atomic bomb was tested in 1952, with the first hydrogen bomb being exploded in 1957. Operation Grapple saw Valiant bombers dropping hydrogen bombs over Christmas Island.
Nuclear annihilation came dramatically to world attention during 1962. The Cuban missile crisis was one of the nearest brushes with nuclear conflict the world has seen. During that tense period, Bomber Command aircraft maintained continuous strip alerts, ready to take off at a moment's notice. Heavy bombers were effectively doing what Fighter Command had done in 1940 in terms of reaction time. However, at no time did the Prime Minister take the decision to disperse the Bomber Command aircraft to satellite airfields, lest that be viewed as an aggressive step.
By the early 1960s, doubts were surfacing about the ability of Bomber Command to pierce the defences of the Soviet Union. The shooting down of a U-2 spyplane in 1960 confirmed that the Soviet Union did have surface-to-air missiles capable of reaching the heights that bombers operated at. Since WWII, the philosophy of bombers had been to go higher and faster. That found its ultimate expression in the XB-70 Valkyrie, developed for the USAF. With the deprecation of high and fast tactics, the new mantra became ultra low level attack. However, since the Bomber Command aircraft had not originally been designed for that kind of attack profile, problems were caused. Those problems were primarily airframe fatigue. The Valiant was the first to suffer. Severe airframe fatigue meant that all Valiants were grounded in October 1964, and permanently withdrawn from service in January 1965. Low level operations also reduced the lifespan of the Victors and Vulcans.
Bomber Command's other main function was to provide tanker aircraft to the RAF. The Valiant was the first bomber used as a tanker operationally. Trials had been carried out with air to air refuelling using Lincolns and Meteors, and had proved successful, so many of the new bombers were designed to be able to be used in the tanker role. Indeed, some Valiants were produced as a dedicated tanker variant. As high level penetration declined as an attack technique, the Valiant saw more and more use as a tanker. With the introduction of the Victor B2, the earlier models of that aircraft were also converted to tankers. The withdrawal of the Valiant from service caused the conversion of many of the Victors to tankers to be greatly speeded up. The Vulcan also saw service as a tanker, but not until an improvised conversion during the Falklands War. Ironically, in the tanker role, the Victor not only outlived Bomber Command, but also all the other V bombers by nine years.
In a further attempt to make the operation of the bomber force safer, attempts were made to develop stand-off weapons. With a stand-off capability, the bombers would not have to penetrate Soviet airspace. However, efforts to do so had only limited success. The first attempt was the Blue Steel missile. It worked, but its range meant that bombers still had to enter Soviet airspace. Longer range systems were developed, but failed and/or were cancelled. This fate befell the Mark 2 of the Blue Steel, its replacement, the American Skybolt ALBM and the ground-based Blue Streak program.
However, attempts to develop a stand-off nuclear deterrent were eventually successful. The American Polaris missile was procured, and Royal Navy submarines built to carry them. The modern form of the British nuclear force was thus essentially reached. Royal Navy submarines relieved the RAF of the nuclear deterrent mission in 1969. However, by that point, Bomber Command was no more.
In the postwar period, the RAF slowly declined in strength, and by the mid-1960s, it was clear that the home command structure needed rationalisation. To that end, Fighter Command and Bomber Command were merged in 1968 to form Strike Command. Coastal Command also followed shortly thereafter.
Bomber Command had a successful period of existence. Its early potential was at first not realised, but with the development of better navigation and aircraft, it carried the war to the enemy in spectacular fashion. Postwar, it carried Britain's nuclear deterrent through a difficult period, and continued the fine traditions existing in 1945.