The Air War, and British Bomber Crews, in World War Two
By Mark Fielder
The 'air war' of World War Two was crucial to the Allies eventual success. Mark Fielder explains how RAF Bomber Command took the war straight to the Nazi heartlands - but at a terrible cost to the aeroplane crews.
Flying in a British bomber during World War Two was one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable. Some 55,000 aircrew died in raids over Europe between 1939 and 1945, the highest loss rate of any major branch of the British armed forces.
Yet there is no official campaign medal commemorating the sacrifices of these men. Their contribution to the war effort has been partly overshadowed by the controversy over the saturation bombing of German cities in 1944 and '45, in which tens of thousands of German civilians were killed.
During the war, this was not a debate that concerned most members of Bomber Command. They were preoccupied with obeying their orders, and with surviving. Early in the war bomber pilots were taught terrible lessons about their vulnerability. Missions over Europe were flown by day, and German fighters found the lumbering British aircraft easy targets.
In late 1939, 21 out of 36 bombers on one sortie failed to return. Many of the planes were flying so low that when they were hit there was no time to bale out. Daylight raids were abandoned. From then on, British bombers would fly mainly at night.
Navigation in the dark was intensely difficult, particularly if there was cloud cover over the ground. At first, crews had to rely on dead reckoning - estimating position by speed, flying time and compass. Unpredictable winds could disrupt the finest calculations. Doug Morton was a tail gunner on a raid to Italy in 1940:
'There were seven aircraft detailed for it from our flight. Three of the aircraft couldn't get over the Alps. We managed to fly through them, and we bombed the target - the Fiat works at Turin - quite successfully. But it was 10/10 cloud right down to the ground all the way back, and consequently we were hopelessly and completely lost. We were hit by anti-aircraft, so we guessed that we were crossing the northern French coast. Then we carried on and then again we were absolutely blasted with anti-aircraft, and we carried on a bit further. We ran out of petrol. There was no lay-by handy, so we all jumped. This was about five o'clock on a very cold November morning.'
The problems of navigating in the dark, finding a comparatively small target and hitting it accurately were dramatically illustrated in 1941, by a report commissioned into the efficacy of Bomber Command's campaign against military and industrial objectives such as oil plants, railway yards, aircraft factories and docks.
The report counted a hit if the bomb fell within five miles of the target. Even using these absurdly generous criteria the results were dismal. Over Germany as a whole, only one in four planes had hit their targets. In the crucial Ruhr Valley, centre of German industrial production, that proportion fell to as low as one in fifteen. And all this failure had been at the cost of some 700 British bombers and their crews of up to seven men.
'Even doing practice bombing in broad daylight and straight and level, it's very difficult to hit a target. So to hit it at night, when you're hoping you're identifying the right thing, and the aircraft wobbling about and being shunted about with flak, it's quite tricky, because it only needs a little swing off of the aeroplane to throw the bombs a long way away.' (Roy MacDonald)
On the other hand, German raids on Britain during the Blitz had been devastating and had killed many civilians. It was time for a rethink. Raids on Germany were halted after the Butt Report's shattering conclusion. When they resumed in 1942, they had a different objective.
Gone was the need to hit precision targets, factories or military sites. Now German cities were the targets. The bomber crews had new planes. In 1942, the four-engined Lancaster was introduced. It could carry much bigger bomb loads than the older machines, eventually up to 10 tons. It could cope with more punishment in the air. Pilots found it easier to fly, although getting the fully laden plane off the ground was still a challenge.
'He opened them up almost to full power, and the engineer's hand would be behind him, and then he would let go, and then the engineer pushed it up the rest of the way, so that he had both hands to haul the thing off. Because a Lancaster had no power-assisted operation whatsoever it was all brute force and hard work.' (Rex Oldland)
Conditions on the plane were basic. It was noisy, cramped and cold. The temperature could drop to -40ºC, cold enough to freeze exposed flesh if it touched metal. Early in the war, crews had to pile on layers of clothing. The rear gunner - 'tail-end Charlie' - was directly exposed to the freezing night air because he would often knock out a panel from his gun turret to increase his chance of spotting German fighters.
Crews were acutely aware of their vulnerability in a plane laden with bombs and fuel. As they approached, the target's searchlights, sometimes guided by primitive radar, would hunt for a plane, trying to 'cone' it between two different beams to offer it as a target for the anti-aircraft guns.
'The searchlights were fantastic, they really were. They were worse really than flak because you didn't see that until it actually burst. But to fly towards a target which was literally ringed with cones of searchlights, with the flak going up into where all the beans met at a focal point, and then all the guns round it would concentrate on that area once they got someone in it. It was quite scary.'
Flak was intended to explode at the same height as the planes, throwing out shards of hot metal that could easily rip through the thin skins of the bombers.
'You had to literally fly through a wall of flak. You were often getting chunks of metal come pinging in to the aircraft. And sometimes you could smell the cordite in the aircraft.' (Tom Wingham)
The war bred clever innovation in radar systems, navigation aids and bomb sites. Some were spectacularly successful. In July 1943, on a raid over Hamburg, planes dropped thousands of strips of aluminium foil, codenamed Window.
The strips fluttered down, creating a mass of reflections on German radar screens which made it difficult to distinguish the bombers and gave them an easy run on target. However, German technology kept pace with the British. By the end of the war, German fighters were equipped with radar that could home in on individual British planes.
Once they had found a target they would follow it, trying to knock out the rear gunner. If they succeeded, they could shoot at the plane from behind and below in relative safety. British pilots developed drastic measures to evade night fighters.
'You were flying straight and level, and the order came from somebody, "corkscrew port" or "starboard, go". And immediately you went right over, till your wings were almost vertical, and at the same time, straight down as hard as you could go.
When the airspeed reached somewhere around 350 or 400 knots, the wings were supposed to drop off at 300, but they never did. You rolled off the other way, and then climbed as steep as you could, up on your tail, until you were almost stalling, and then round again, and down again. So you actually went through the sky like a corkscrew.' (Rex Oldland)
The enormous cost
Sometimes, night-fighter pilots struck before they were seen, using a cannon that fired vertically, up into the unprotected belly of the bombers.
'It was a brilliant night, huge moon, and we were attacked from behind and below. We couldn't see him at all, only when he opened fire. And he hit the tail turret, and two guns jammed and the other two were put out of action, so we had nothing. I just had to watch the shells ricocheting off the starboard wing, and exploding up in front of us.
And while I was looking at that side, there was a huge sort of whoomph, and I turned round and the petrol tanks on the port wing had burst into flames, so there was nothing much we could do other than leave [the plane].' (Rex Oldland)
Dropping the bombs was the most dangerous part of the mission. Planes had to fly level and straight to maximise chances of hitting the target. After the bombs fell, the pilot would have to hold position to take a flash photograph of the site. Without this photograph, the flight might not count towards the 30 required to complete a single tour of duty.
Planes on the bomb run presented a perfect target. Occasionally, planes might even be hit by bombs released from a plane above. When crews returned home they were exhausted by the intensity of the dangers they had experienced and by many hours flying in uncomfortable conditions. Some of them would have seen other planes exploding in huge fireballs, or being shot down.
They returned to an ordered life on the base where, after the Battle of Britain, there was little risk of attack. Within hours of weaving their way through flak in the freezing skies above Berlin, they could be off duty enjoying a pint, a dance or a film.
'It was a Jekyll and Hyde existence really, and it was funny to just ride around your bike among the fields, and think, well, it's not many hours since we were in another, completely different world. And probably thinking maybe just once or twice about friends who hadn't come back. It was a schizophrenic life really. You had to have two caps, one to enjoy yourself and one to get serious.' (Roy MacDonald)
Losses on each flight varied enormously during the war. The acceptable rate was set around five per cent, and the average between 1942-44 was four per cent. This arithmetic is more brutal than it sounds. Less than one crew in eight would survive fifty missions. Half of all aircrew were lost before they had even completed ten missions.
Historians have fiercely debated whether Bomber Command's contribution to the war effort was worthwhile, and whether the loss of German civilian lives can ever be justified. But whether the strategy was militarily and morally acceptable or not, the men who flew the planes and died in their thousands did not devise it.
Find out more
The conduct of the Air War in the Second World War edited by Horst Boog (1992)
Bomber Command by Max Hastings (1979)
The Bomber Command War Diaries by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt (1985)
Most Secret War by RV Jones (1978)
About the author
Mark Fielder is executive producer of the BBC Battlefields series. He has made many other series, including D-Day, Burma, War Walks, and Western Front.