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A Sample Feature From Aviation News

Remembering the Bomber War

With the final ending of the war in Europe 60 years ago in May 1945, RAF Bomber Command ceased its aerial bombardment of German targets. Its campaign had lasted for six years and the enormous cost of such a relentless battle could at last be assessed. In this overview, Jim Wilde looks at the development and expansion of Britain’s strategic bombing offensive, from the early pin-prick raids to the big attacks by 1,000+ aircraft. Also summarised are the electronics and countermeasures which helped reduce losses for the Command in its brutal nocturnal war.

the Avro Lancaster

Above: The greatest of all night bombers, the Avro Lancaster.

Below: The slow, inadequately-armed and vulnerable Bristol Blenheim Mk IV was shot from the sky during the first year of the war. This is L8756 of No 139 Sqn in April 1940, the ‘phoney war’ period when the squadron operated from Plivot in France. Surprisingly, this particular aircraft survived the forthcoming battles to be struck off charge in May 1944.

Bristol Blenheim Mk IV

The Second World War began for RAF Bomber Command when ten Whitleys from No 51 and 58 Squadrons from RAF Leconfield dropped leaflets over Germany on the first night of the war, September 3/4, 1939. The first aggressive sorties against the enemy followed on the afternoon of September 4 when Blenheims and Wellingtons carried out an unsuccessful raid on enemy battleships, but in spite of the courage and sacrifice of Hampden, Whitley, Blenheim and Wellington airmen, after almost two and a half years of war very little serious damage had been done to the Nazi war machine. Using only dead (deduced) reckoning and star-shots the bomber crews had been trying to cope with the weather, enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire to arrive at their over-ambitious targets and drop their bombs with any accuracy. After Churchill was made aware of the situation he ordered Air Marshal Arthur Harris to take over Bomber Command from February 22, 1942.

The crew of Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk V N1386 of No 102 Sqn

Above: For the brave men of Bomber Command, flying a Whitley across Europe in the freezing winter night sky of January 1940, only to drop propaganda leaflets and provide the German populace with toilet paper, was deeply resented. The crew of Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk V N1386 of No 102 Sqn embark for such a flight at Driffield in April 1940. The fuselage roundel has its outer (yellow) ring overpainted to reduce the aircraft’s visibility at night. (Photos, Av News Files).

There were four obvious requirements needed to turn failure into success. Larger and faster aircraft, radio aids for accurate navigation, equipment to bomb more effectively, plus the illumination of targets and the jamming of enemy radios and radars. Fortunately, by 1942, Lord Beaverbrook’s Ministry of Aircraft Production was in a position to supply ever-increasing numbers of Short Stirling, Handley Page Halifax, Avro Lancaster and de Havilland Mosquito bombers. The first heavies to attack the enemy were three Stirlings of No 7 Sqn in a combined raid with Wellingtons on oil tanks at Rotterdam on February 10, 1941 (no losses to enemy fire, but the leader was shot down by RAF fighters), the Halifax first went into action on March 11/12, 1941, 44 Sqn Lancasters first bombed Germany in a raid by 105 Sqn on Essen on March 10, 1942, and the first operation by the bomber version of the Mosquito was a raid on Cologne on May 31, 1942.

The year also saw Gee, the first of three radio aids, ready for operational use. No 115 Sqn at RAF Marham had worked with the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) on developing Gee and two of their Wellingtons carried out the first trials over enemy territory in a raid on Münchengladbach on August 11/12, 1941. The installation programme for Gee boxes in Bomber Command aircraft began in March 1942 and Gee-equipped Wellingtons and Stirlings led the first 1,000 bomber raid that destroyed large areas of Cologne on May 30/31, 1942. Two important uses of Gee were finding accurate wind speed and direction shortly after take-off, then marshalling the bomber streams. Although the system lost accuracy with range and could be jammed it was still of enormous value to the RAF and the USAAF throughout the war.

On taking command, Harris immediately scraped the bottom of the barrel for all available aircraft and wisely on a moonlit night, sent 235 assorted aircraft to destroy the Renault factory at Billancourt on March 3/4, 1942. This was closely followed by two Gee-assisted raids on Essen, one on Emden, the elimination of a large area of Lubeck at the end of March and the destruction of more than half of Rostock in four raids in April 1942. These attacks provoked reprisal raids by the Luftwaffe on Canterbury, Exeter, Norwich and York.

Handley Page Halifax

Sharing the night offensive with the Lancaster was the Handley Page Halifax (above) and the Short Stirling (below). The former is a Pathfinder Force B.II Srs IA from No 35 Sqn at RAF Graveley in summer 1943, and the latter is a B.III of No 149 Sqn.

Pathfinder Force B.II Srs IA from No 35 Sqn

At that time, target-marking was confined to having the first groups of aircraft arrive at the target and set it alight with incendiaries. The main force then had no doubt about where to drop their high-explosive loads. The first operation using the precision bombing system Oboe was to a Dutch power-station at Lutterade by Mosquitos of No 109 Sqn on December 20, 1942.

Early in 1942 the Air Ministry was in favour of creaming off the best pilots and navigators and using them to form an elite Pathfinder Force, but not surprisingly Harris wasn’t keen on the idea of losing his best men. However, he reluctantly agreed and the formation of the force was officially entrusted to the Master Navigator, Wg Cdr Donald Bennett on July 5, that year. Bennett was promoted to Group Captain and took command of the unit as part of the No 3 Group at RAF Wyton on August 15, 1942. Pathfinder sorties were under the control of a Master Bomber who remained in the target area giving instructions on where to illuminate and bomb throughout the raid. These elite aircraft first marked the targets with two lines of parachute flares, followed by illuminators that lit up aiming points with red, yellow or green Target Indicators and finally, ‘Backers-up’ that stoked up the T/Is as they burned out. The force also illuminated dog-legs and turning points en route.

PFF operations began with four squadrons: No 7 with Stirlings based at Oakington and receiving Lancasters from May 1943, No 35 with the Halifax based at Graveley and finally changing to Lancasters from March 1944, No 83 with Lancasters at Wyton and No 156 with Wellingtons then Lancasters from March 1944. The first PFF raid, against Flensburg, by a few Lancasters on August 18/19, 1942, was not a success but the situation improved with the first sky-marking sorties by Oboe-equipped Mosquitoes from attached 109 Sqn on December 31, 1942. On January 8, 1943, the PFF became No 8 Group under the command of Bennett, now promoted to Air Commodore.

Mosquito squadron No 627 and Oboe-Mosquito squadrons 105 and 139 joined the PFF in 1943 followed by Lancaster squadrons 97 and 405 in 1943 and 582 and 635 in 1944, but No 83 and 97 were detached to No 5 Group in April 1944. The first PFF raid using self-contained H2S radar was on Hamburg on January 30/31, 1943, when No 7 Sqn Stirlings and No 35 Sqn Halifaxes marked for the Main Force from No 1 and 5 Groups. The first ground-marking Oboe raids were on February 28 and the Battle of the Ruhr began with an attack on Essen by 442 aircraft on the night of March 5/6, 1943. In 1944 Bennett set up a Light Night Striking Force involving Mosquitoes of 128, 142, 162, 163, 571, 608 and 692 Sqn but lost No 627 Sqn when they were detached to No 5 Group in April 1944.

Below: The devastation of massed raids on Cologne where some 5,000 acres including the complete centre of the city was destroyed, the exception being the Gothic Cathedral which survived although fire-blackened and damaged.

The devastation of massed raids on Cologne

For the rest of this article please see the May 2005 issue.