Don Charlwood's Twenty Men
the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database provides online access to ALL British & Commonwealth war graves for the First and Second World Wars
The Canadian Virtual War Memorial. Code Recognition Letters. The Australian WW2 Nominal Roll.
Royal Air Force units are described as "No. such-a-number Squadron" i.e. "No. 103 Squadron". It is incorrect to refer to such units as "the 103rd Squadron". The abbreviation for Squadron is either Sqn or Sqdn. This also applies to Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), Polish Air Force (PAF) or Free French Air Force (FFAF).
RAF flying locations are generally called aerodromes, specifically referred to as Stations; "RAF Elsham Wolds" or "RAF Station Elsham Wolds." Squadrons were part of Groups and Groups were part of a Command. Thus, Bomber Command comprised of several Groups (1 Group, 5 Group and so on) and 1 Group comprised several Squadrons (103 Sqdn, 100 Sqdn and so on). A Squadron was for administrative purposes further divided into Flights such as A Flight, B Flight, and for a large squadron, C Flight. Each entity had its own members and administration.
From the top down, the chain of command is therefore Command > Group > Squadron > Flight.
Americanisms such as "tail gunner", "bombardier" and "radio operator" are wrong. The correct crew categories are:-
Pilot, 2nd Pilot, Flight Engineer, Bomb Aimer or Air Bomber, 2nd Air Bomber, Navigator, 2nd Navigator, Navigator (Radar), Observer, Wireless Operator, Air Gunner. The RCAF also had a category of Wireless Air Gunner.
Many wireless-operators were trained air gunners and referred to as WOp/AG. Most aircrew understudied another job in case of emergency. The flight-engineer was often informally trained by the pilot to fly the aircraft straight and level, or an air-gunner trained by the navigator to be able to calculate a simple course. Many "observers" were actually 2nd Pilots, undergoing extra training or amassing experience before being allocated their own crew and aircraft.
It is easy to differentiate between English / Commonwealth and American bomber films and aircrew. English bomb-aimers announce "Bombs gone". American bombardiers announce "Bombs away".
This is not intended as an exhaustive history, but a quick reference guide. Also, I do not engage in arguments over the ethics of bombing.
The Second World War (in Europe, 3rd September 1939 to 8th May 1945) saw the use of air power in great force. Whilst the use of bombing aircraft was pioneered during the First World War (August 1914 to November 1918) it was during WW2 that most combative nations developed and used mass air fleets.
The Royal Air Force, formed on April 1st 1918 from the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, was split into several main parts. RAF Bomber Command with HQ at High Wycombe was responsible for most light and medium, and all heavy, bomber units. At this time it was forbidden to attack anything other than military installations; factories were "private property". Whilst the RFC had used the Army rank structure, the RAF adopted new names, from the lowest, upwards:-
Other Ranks:- Aircraftman 2nd Class (AC2), Aircraftman 1st Class (AC1), Leading Aircraftman (LAC), Corporal
Non-Commissioned Officers:- Sergeant, Flight Sergeant, Warrant Officer (the RCAF also had Warrant Officer Class 1 and 2). A Flight Sergeant or Warrant Officer who was not aircrew was a very senior man in the ranks.
Commissioned Officers:- Pilot Officer, Flying Officer, Flight Lieutenant, Squadron Leader, Wing Commander, Group Captain
Air Rank Officers:- Air Commodore, Air Vice Marshal, Air Marshal, Air Chief Marshal, Marshal of the Royal Air Force
Full Ranks Comparison Table
The RAF's early bombers were designs made during the RAF's expansion period of the 30s. Twin engined Vickers Wellingtons, Handley Page Hampdens, Bristol Blenheims and Armstrong-Whitworth Whitleys formed the mainstay.
(The maximum speeds expressed here were based on an unloaded aircraft operating under ideal conditions. Normal flying speed and range were considerably less, especially under a war load.)
The single-engined Fairey Battle (right) was a three-seat Merlin-powered light bomber which went into wartime service with the Allied Expeditionary Force in France. It proved to be nothing more than a deathtrap for its crews; slow, poorly armed and with a negligible bomb load. Used for bombing and dive bombing, members of 12 Sqdn were the first airmen to win the VC in a suicidal attack on the Maastricht bridges in May 1940. After the fall of France, the squadrons flying Battles were quickly re-equipped, and the aircraft devolved down to be used as for flying and gunnery training. Many air-gunners who later served on the "heavies" learned their trade from the draughty, rearmost open cockpit of a Fairey Battle.
The Vickers Wellington was a popular, reliable aircraft designed by Barnes Wallis (later of Dam Buster bomb fame). Equipped with two inline or radial engines, it usually had a crew of 5; pilot, second pilot (who acted as navigator and bomb aimer), front gunner, wireless operator and rear gunner. It carried two hydraulic power-operated gun turrets, front with 2 x .303 Browning machine guns and rear with 4. Due to its duralumin geodetic "basket-weave" construction, was renowned for the punishment it could take. Its skin was doped fabric. Its maximum speed was 235 mph and could carry 4,500 lbs of bombs 1,200 miles, with a maximum height of 20,000 feet. It was still being used for advanced training long after the war was finished.
This is the Wellington recovered from Loch Ness, and restored for display at the Brooklands Air Museum (photo Julie Allwood). The geodetic construction is clearly shown, as some of the fuselage has yet to be re-skinned.
The MoD's Wellington page.
The Handley-Page Hampden (above, 106 Sqdn) was a very spindly-looking but strong and reliable aircraft with a crew of 4; pilot, observer (who navigated and dropped the bombs), gunner / wireless operator and air gunner. It had two radial engines and carried a pair of freestanding .303 Vickers machine guns in a dorsal position and another in the belly, pointing aft. A fourth fixed forward-firing .303 was fired by the pilot. It was all-metal and its maximum speed was 254 miles per hour; it could carry 4,000 lbs of bombs for 1,200 miles and had a maximum height of 19,000 feet. It was considered obsolete by 1942.
Its very narrow fuselage made movement inside particularly difficult, and if the pilot was wounded it was next to impossible to drag him out of the seat. There are various parts of a single Hampden which crash landed in Russia and which are in the hands of the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth, London, or its "operational" site at Duxford, Cambridgeshire and more recently at the restoration faciilties at the RAF Museum, Cosford. This does find its way onto a static display from time to time. The MoD's Hampden resource.
A Hampden (left) P5436 is in pristine condition after undergoing restoration in Canada. Thanks to Ken Oakes for the fine photo.
There is a short colour film of Hampdens here.
The Lincolnshire Air Museum at East Kirkby is restoring Hampden AE436 PL:J of No 144 Squadron, recovered from a force landing at Tsatsa, Sweden, on 5-Sep-1942, during a transit flight to Afrikanda, 111 miles south of Murmansk. This aircraft is on display in a disassembled state and when I last saw it in May 2001, the cockpit section was well under active restoration in one of the workshops. There are photos of this aircraft in various books, Bomber Group At War (Chaz Bowyer) p41, The Hampden File p164/4. FlyPast magazine has also featured it.
The Bristol Blenheim was a versatile fighter or bomber depending on its configuration. When it was introduced it was faster than the RAF's fighters, but by 1941 was obsolete and suffering severe losses. It had a crew of 3; pilot, observer (who navigated and dropped the bombs), and gunner / wireless operator. Typically fitted with a single dorsal power-operated turret with 2 x .303s as well as one or two fixed forward-firing .303s. It too was all-metal and its maximum speed was 266 miles per hour; it could carry 1,000 lbs of bombs for 1,460 miles and had a maximum height of 22,000 feet.
Several Blenheims can be viewed, notably at the Battle Of Britain Hall, RAF Museum, Hendon, London; there is also a flying Blenheim (right, photo Julie Allwood) which appears regularly at UK Air Shows such as the fabulous Flying Legends at Duxford in July every year.
The Blenheim pilot certainly did not give any arm signals - the tips of the propellers were only a foot or so away from the cockpit side windows.
The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley (left) was obsolete by 1941 and was an all-metal bomber with a crew of 5 and turrets very similar to the Wellington. Its chief characteristic was a distinct nose-down flying attitude, but it was sturdy and reliable. It was also all-metal and its maximum speed was 222 miles per hour; it could carry 3,000 lbs of bombs for 1,650 miles and had a maximum height of 17,600 feet. After retirement, the Whitley performed well as a paratroop carrier.
No entire Whitleys exist today, but I am informed that the rear part of a Whitley fuselage and its tail unit are on show at the Coventry Air Museum at Bagington.
Working on the maxim that "The bomber will always get through", early RAF tactics dictated that a formation of bombers could defend themselves in daylight against enemy fighter attack, a theory soon proved false as great numbers of RAF bombers were lost in daylight operations against such targets as Wilhelmshaven and Stavanger. RAF Bomber Command switched to night attacks, which became normal by mid-1940. By this time the "private property" rule was shelved.
But flying by night with primitive navigational aids, early bombing was grossly ineffective. If unable to visually identify the target, crews bombed on dead reckoning. This was done by flying a known course for a known time from a known point, and dropping their bombs when they were supposed to be over the target. The officially-commissioned Butt Report (by the economist David Miles Bensusan-Butt, 1914-1994) in 1941 revealed bombing to be shockingly inaccurate and the answer was better navigational aids and better trained crew. Churchill recognised the importance of the report - "this is a very serious paper and seems to require urgent attention" - and subsequent historians have considered it amongst the greatest intellectual contribution to strategy in wartime Bomber Command.
Crews who dropped their bombs on this dead reckoning basis had been deemed to have successfully attacked the target, and the Butt Report was hugely revealing with long term serious implications for the Command.
The "Bomber Dream" (a very apt expression coined by the noted historian Martin Middlebrook) of the 1930s, which promoted the theory of fleets of aircraft dropping precisely aimed loads against tactical and strategic targets such as military installations, communications facilities and war factories was soon proved to be just that - a Dream. It was impossible with the technologies available in the early 40s to even find the desired targets by night, let alone hit them. Bombs, too, often failed to explode, and a crew who were able to bomb accurately might have 40% of its bombs not explode. The explosive of the day, Amatol, was not as powerful as German explosive, and the charge : weight ratio (i.e. the weight of actual explosive against the metal of the bomb itself) was also less than loads dropped by the Luftwaffe.
"Precision Bombing" - with a very few notable exceptions, by the very top level of highly trained and expertly experienced aircrew - remained beyond reach for Bomber Command during WW2. The rank and file units could not hope to reach such a high standard, and area bombing remained as normal strategy, working on the basis that something worthwhile would be hit and destroyed.
The ineffectiveness of the early operations was carefully concealed from the general public, who were only too pleased to read in their newspapers that many hundreds of aircraft had attacked Berlin, Hamburg or the industrial centres around the Ruhr. Contemporary films such as "Target For Tonight" portrayed the popular image; but such was far from the truth, and losses were worsening as the German defences improved their techniques.
Gradually the standard of equipment and training improved. From early 1941 onwards the "medium" twin-engined bombers gave way to the "heavy" four-engined types; pilots, navigators and bomb-aimers received comprehensive training in Canada, the USA or South Africa; and electronic aids arrived.
Better Equipment : The "Heavies"
The Avro Manchester (right) was a fine all-metal airframe marred by extremely unreliable Rolls-Royce Vulture engines, which were little more than experimental. It was a perversity of the Vulture engine that it would often deliver enough power to send the Manchester into the air, and then fail to deliver enough power to keep it there.
More Manchesters were lost as a result of engine failure than by enemy action; if one engine failed, the aircraft was reckoned to be a goner. F/Lt "Kipper" Herring brought back a Manchester (L7432) from Berlin on one engine and was awarded an immediate DFC, a feat unsurpassed in Bomber Command.
Avro, refused permission by the Air Ministry to equip the otherwise sound Manchester with four tried and tested Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, scrounged a quartet anyway, tweaked the wing design, and the result was the Lancaster.
Short Stirling I of 149 Squadron
Short Brothers' Stirling (above) was the first to be introduced in late 1940. Restricted by the Air Ministry to a maximum wingspan of 100 feet (so it could fit inside the then-standard hangar!) it was a very strongly-built aircraft which suffered from insufficient speed and altitude. Also, its split length bomb bay could not accept the large 4,000lb "cookie" blast bombs which were now becoming standard. Although operated well into 1944 as a heavy bomber it also performed extremely well as a glider tug and paratroop carrier. Its short wingspan made astonishingly large flaps imperative, but the tall spindly-legged electrically operated undercarriage was less than reliable. It also had a proliferation of fuel tanks and the crew were constantly switching between them. The Stirling's performance was a maximum of 270 mph at 14,500 feet, a maximum height of 17,000 feet, and a war load of 3,500 lbs of bombs over 2,010 miles.
Many operationally tired Stirlings could not climb above 13,000 feet where they were sitting ducks for both light and heavy flak defences. Also, many Stirling crews consisted of eight men, including a 2nd Pilot as well as a Flight Engineer.
It has been reported to me that a skilled Stirling pilot could turn the 4 engined bomber inside an “attacking” Hurricane or Martinet, on fighter affiliation exercises. This was apparently due to the Stirling's very high wing loading which allowed astonishingly tight turns. No Stirlings exist today, but although severely hampered by the lack of engineering drawings, a volunteer team led by former Stirling pilot Brian Harris is gradually constructing a complete aircraft, starting with the forward section. This awesome task is in dire need of funds and donations are most welcome to Dr Eric Bailey, The Stirling Project, 18 Cromwell Place, Cranleigh, Surrey GU6 7LF.
The Avro Lancaster (right, the Battle of Britain Flight's PA474, dressed in 61 Squadron livery) was an extremely fine aircraft renowned for its durability and lack of vices, fitted with four of the tried and tested Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. With a wingspan of just over 100 feet and equipped with three power operated (hydraulic) turrets, it could not hold its own against determined daylight fighter attacks, but could deliver sufficient firepower to defend itself at night. The seven crew (pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless-operator, mid-upper and rear air gunners) were all specialists, trained to fly as a team.
The "Lanc" could easily fly on three engines, could manage on two and limp away on one. It was all-metal and its maximum speed was 270 miles per hour; it could carry 14,000 lbs of bombs for 1,000 miles (or 2,350 lbs of bombs for 5,500 miles) and had a maximum height of 22,000 feet. Soon it became RAF Bomber Command's Shining Sword. It was operational by Christmas 1941 and mostly replaced the 1 and 5 Group Hampden-equipped Squadrons of Lincolnshire. By the end of the war specially modified versions were lifting 22,000 lbs.
The Lancaster is best remembered in the specially-adapted Dam Buster and 10-Ton "Grand Slam" versions. It was extremely popular with its crews. One documented source calculated that the Lancaster, in one successful operation, destroyed enemy production equal to that of its own manufacture.
RAF Bomber Command Lancaster veterans speak with great affection of their aircraft, and over the years it has acquired a status equal to that of its wartime comrade, the Supermarine Spitfire. Both reputations are well earned, but stand some argument. Hawker Hurricanes shot down more enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain, and were present in greater numbers. But it was "Spitfire" and "Lancaster" not "Hurricane" and "Halifax" on every schoolboy's lips.
Major variants: Mk 1 : Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Mk 2 : Bristol Hercules radial engines (300 aircraft only). Mk 3 : Packard-built Merlin engines. Mk 10 : built under licence by Victory Aircraft of Canada. with Packard-Merlins. Total : 7,377 of which 3,431 were lost on operations.
Today, numerous Lancasters exist in Aircraft Museums around the world, and two still fly, the RAF Battle of Britain Flight's City of Lincoln (PA474) and the Canadian War Heritage Museum's FM213 at Mount Hope, Ontario, Canada. Both these aircraft are often seen at air shows. There is also a taxi-ing Mk VII Lancaster (NX611) at the Lincolnshire Air Museum at East Kirkby and this does make regular excursions, a thrilling sight, especially at night. One lovely touch is when the aircraft is at the end of its outward taxi run, turns, waits, and flashes its letter "J" via signalling lamp, to the Watch Office. Good show, chaps.
I took a ride in the aircraft for one of its taxi runs in May 2001 and report that it was a thrilling experience. Whilst you must stay in your designated "crew position" whilst the aircraft is moving, once stationary with its engines blaring there is every opportunity to move round and photograph / video. Once the engines have stopped, you are free to walk round the outside of the aircraft quite unhurriedly and see it "in the flesh". This once-in-a-lifetime experience at the time cost me a mere £65 in 2001, but today it's about four times that!. What crew position do I recommend? Mid-upper turret, or astrodome just in front. From here you have the best position for viewing, and the crowd can gape at you!
The MoD have a Lancaster page.
Handley Page's Halifax was a heavier, more square but sister design, also all-metal with 4 engines and very similar firepower. Early models with Merlin engines suffered from being overweight; and a serious design flaw in the tail section caused many fatalities when the arrow-shaped rudders locked over at full reach, causing a usually fatal spin. Having removed the front turret, armour plate, removed completely (or changed for a different type) the mid-upper turret, fitted more powerful Bristol Hercules engines and redesigned rectangular fins and rudders, it was transformed into a solid, dependable, but unexciting aircraft. It was capable of 280 mph at 13,500 feet and with a maximum height of 20,000 feet, carrying 7,000 lbs of bombs 1,985 miles. But by then it was 1944 and the Lancaster was in the public eye. The Halifax mainly replaced the Whitley-equipped 4 Group Squadrons of Yorkshire.
Halifax crews, even today, insist that it was a better aeroplane than the Lancaster. Its early design faults and haphazard arrangement of internal controls, dials and switches made it harder work to fly. One pilot [the late Jack Currie] said "The Halifax always seemed reluctant to leave the ground and glad to be back down again. If left to fly itself, it would porpoise its way back to straight and level. It was in fact the ideal aeroplane to go to sleep in. But the instruments were arranged as if they had been flung in through the window and fitted where they landed. The flight-engineer and I were in constant communication." Halifaxes, however, had a much better reputation for survival when baling-out.
Major variants : Mk 1 : Merlins, 3 turrets; Mk 2 : Merlins, 2 turrets; Mk 3 : Bristol Hercules engines, rectangular fins and rudders, glass nose, 2 turrets.
There are only three Halifaxes left in the world, two are in Britain. W1048 TL:S, a 35 Sqdn Mk I recovered from the bed of a Lake Hoklingen in Norway, and in a parlous state, can be seen at the Bomber Command Hall of the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon. This aircraft was deemed to be too badly damaged and corroded to be restored. The other is a composite but beautifully rebuilt Mk III at the Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington. The Royal Canadian Air Force Memorial Museum at Trenton, Ontario, Canada, has recently acquired NA337, a Mk VII Halifax which crashed into Lake Mjosa, Norway in April 1945 and recovered 50 years later. This aircraft is undergoing restoration.
Halifax fans should see http://www.57rescue.org/ or the MoD Halifax page.
The diagram opposite shows the size differences between the three types of heavy bomber; Stirling in light yellow, Halifax in pink and Lancaster in light blue. The substantially larger and more ponderous outline of the Stirling is clearly evident.
Few bombers saw the inside of a hangar, being dispersed around the aerodrome's perimeter track. A typical Bomber aerodrome was 750 or 1,000 acres of former Lincolnshire, Yorkshire or Cambridgeshire farmland, with a "population" of 1,000 or 1,200 people. Ground staff outnumbered aircrew 10 to 1, and many valuable jobs were done by members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, or WAAFs.
Explosives and bomb design improved to match. The new explosive compound RDX, and later Torpex, was developed, and with a much higher charge : weight ratio and better primers, timers and detonators, the entire focus of night bombing began to change. The great bombs of the day - the 4,000-lb "cookies" - were nothing but steel dustbins packed with RDX and designed to destroy an entire street. Magnesium and phosphorous incendiary bombs of various configurations set fire to anything they touched.
Most bombers were inadequately heated, with only one heat outlet, with the result that one lucky crew member sat in a sweat and everyone else froze. The air gunners were equipped with electrically heated oversuits, boots and gauntlets, but these were notoriously unreliable. The stunning cold at high altitudes often froze equipment solid, leaving guns unable to fire at a crucial moment, or crew members injured when they touched metal with their bare hands. Thus, enemy action was not the only hazard they faced.
At the peak of heavy bomber production in December 1943, the aircraft industry employed 1,711,600 workers, and expenditure in 1942 was £690 million. At least £200 million was spent by the RAF in constructing the new concrete three-runway aerodromes, with a heavy bomber, two squadron base costing £1 million in 1941.
Wartime figures showed that the average number of operational sorties completed by a bomber aircraft was between thirteen and fourteen.
A vast number of airmen from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other parts of the British Empire and its Dominions (such as South Africa, Rhodesia and so on) served in the RAF, RCAF, RAAF, or RNZAF. Even before the USA's involvement after Pearl Harbour (7-Dec-1941) many United States nationals also swelled the ranks, usually by the simple expedient of crossing into Canada and joining the RCAF. Provided that the man concerned forsook his US citizenship, and took allegiance to the Crown, this practice was winked at by the authorities. A very large number of Canadians served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Specific units were formed to accommodate Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, and such units as 460 Sqdn RAAF, 75 Sqdn RNZAF, and 428 Sqdn RCAF (to name but a few) sprang into existence. Having said that, a great number of such men also served in RAF units, the Australians soon earning a reputation for assertiveness and aggressiveness - as much on the ground as in the air!
Volunteers also came from the Caribbean and West Africa. Approximately 500 black and coloured Caribbean aircrew, as well as 6,000 ground crew, served with both Bomber and Fighter Commands during the war. About one third of these men were killed on operations and 102 of the volunteers were decorated. The most senior served as Squadron Commander with 139 (Jamaica) Squadron, based at RAF Marham.
During the celebrated “Battle of Brighton” a large contingent of RAAF airmen took on an equally large number of RAF men, during which time the Police and Military Police kept well clear. At the height of the battle, a diminutive RAF wireless-operator was engaged in close combat with a large Australian navigator. Thump! went the Ozzie’s fist against the Englishman. "Have you had enough yet you Pommie bastard?" "No" came the reply. Thump! went the fist again. "Have you had enough now you Pommie bastard?" "No" came the reply. Thump! went the fist again. "Have you had enough now?" "Yes" came the reply. "Bloody good", said the Australian, wrapping his arm round the Englishman's shoulders, "Let's go and have a drink."
After the Japanese attack on the Americans at Pearl Harbour, and once the United States 8th Army Air Force (8AAF) arrived in Britain and began to operate against the enemy, many former US nationals were wooed back into the Army Air Force olive green uniform, tripling their rate of pay. The 8AAF needed experienced fliers, and made the unusual concession of both (a) allowing those men who chose to finish their tour of duty with the RAF to do so, and (b) continuing to wear RAF brevets and decorations, provided that such were worn physically lower than any USA insignia.
Many French, Poles and Czechs joined the RAF and similar bomber units to the RCAF / RAAF / RNZAF existed. The Free French Air Force had Nos. 346 and 347 Sqdns and the Poles operated with great determination in such Squadrons as 300, 301 and 302. Many Poles and Czechs also flew on "Special Duties" flights, dropping arms and agents into occupied territory.
A typical Bomber Command crew could readily consist of a spectrum of nationalities; an Australian pilot, English bomb aimer, and flight engineer, Canadian gunners and New Zealander wireless operator.
Although conscription was in effect - all healthy males between 18 and 40 had to be in either uniform or reserved occupation - all aircrew were volunteers. But once trained, you flew operations until your tour of duty was complete - or you were regarded by officialdom as a coward - or you were killed or taken prisoner.
Any member of aircrew could at any time go to his commanding officer and decline to fly on further operations, but the concept of "operational fatigue" popularly, "flak happy" was not officially recognised. Those who broke under the strain were rapidly branded "LMF: Lack of Moral Fibre"; de-ranked, de-breveted (sometimes publicly), and whisked away to menial tasks. Usually, a man asking to be withdrawn from flying duties was instantly removed from the squadron.
Pilots, navigators and bomb aimers took two years to train and tended to be drawn from the University and Grammar School element of aircrew intakes. Under the PNB (Pilot / Navigator / Bomb Aimer) scheme, most of these were trained in Canada, passing through the well known RCAF Depot at Monckton, New Brunswick, and then on to various training units. The Arnold Scheme in the US allowed RAF airmen to be trained alongside US airmen despite, at that time, the US not being involved in the war. South Africa was also a venue for training, and after the wide open spaces and clear skies of Canada, America and South Africa, the crowded, cloudy and dirty skies above Britain were quite a shock for the returning men.
Everyone wanted to be a pilot and those who failed the aptitude and preliminary flying tests were remustered as navigators and bomb aimers. Air-gunners, flight engineers and wireless operators were trained in about nine months. Except in the early days, all aircrew on completion of training were given the rank of Sergeant or higher, the top third of a training course intake usually being offered a commission.
The popular expression "Gone for a Burton" meaning "dead" referred to Burton on Trent. This was (and still is) home to a very substantial brewing industry. "Burton Ale" was advertised at the time on a billboard in two parts - two men carrying a ladder - one at each end and then in the second panel one man carrying but the other had disappeared with the slogan - "Gone for a Burton" under it. Hence went for a beer, became RAF slang for "buying the farm" "getting the chop".
Another tale describes how Blackpool was said to be the largest RAF camp during WW2 and amongst other units there was No. 10 SRC (Signals Recruiting Centre). Many establishment were requisitioned, such as the Tower which had 10 foot removed to fit a radar aerial, another was Burton's which was a restaurant come ball room and was used from testing WOP on their morse code hence gone for a Burton.
After completion of flying training, the individual airmen were posted to an Operational Training Unit, where the new intake was paraded in a hangar and told to form themselves into 5-man crews of pilot, navigator, wireless-operator, bomb aimer, and one air gunner. Here they flew mainly Wellingtons and acquired team skills and did a lot of training, sometimes with an "easy" operation (dropping mines or leaflets) thrown in. After this, those destined for four-engined aircraft - which by late 1942 was almost every one of them - were sent to a Heavy Conversion Unit where the crew was joined by the flight engineer and a second air-gunner.
Whilst many crews formed quite happily on this ad-hoc basis, it is clear from my very large database of aircraft losses that some men crewed up simply because their names were alphabetically close. This may have been mere convenience, or it may point to the hand of officialdom. It was not unknown for a crew to fail to weld into a team, and to split up or even be separated by the flight commander or commanding officer, if necessary. Some men "tried several crews for size" until they were happy. A misfit quickly became apparent.
At HCU instructors converted the crew onto the four-engined bombers, Halifaxes or Stirlings, and after a short course the crew was posted to an operational Squadron. Crews destined for Lancaster-equipped units did a very short course at a Lancaster Finishing School at Syerston (No 5 LFS) or Hemswell (No 1 LFS) before an operational posting. Most OTUs fed a particular Group - for example, 27 OTU at Lichfield fed No 1 Group.
Taking an example of 100 airmen:-
55 killed on operations or died as result of wounds
3 injured (in varying levels of severity) on operations or active service
13 taken prisoner of war (some injured)
2 shot down and evaded capture
27 survived a tour of operations.
These figures are generated by my database and are slightly different to the official ones.
It was customary that when an airman successfully baled out of an aircraft and landed safely by parachute that he would find and thank the person who had packed the parachute and pass a pound note to the airman or airwoman concerned. In one such incident the WAAF recipient replied that she had packed five of the six parachutes that a bomber crew had been compelled to use after being forced to abandon their Lancaster when it suffered an engine fire during a fighter affiliation exercise. The flight engineer of the crew had not taken his own parachute, saying that it was "just another traiing exercise". He was killed, being unable to bale out as the aircraft crashed.
It was common for a pilot to be of Non-Commissioned rank (Sergeant, Flight Sergeant or Warrant Officer) with a commissioned officer as navigator or bomb-aimer. The pilot was captain of the aircraft irrespective of rank (except in some RCAF and Polish units), and most crews, in the air, had a first-names policy. The correct "form" was that an NCO saluted an officer in his crew the first time they met every day and after that rank was ignored, unless there was a senior officer about. Certainly most crews went off to the pub together, regardless of rank
Whilst it was considered fine for a pilot to socialise with another pilot, or an air gunner to mix off-duty with other air gunner pals, it was regarded as unnatural for a pilot to socialise frequently with a navigator from another crew, or for any member of a crew to regularly associate with an airman of a different category from another crew. This sounds weird, but illustrates the comradeship and bond between members of a crew. They were "all in it together", as most often their fate as a crew was combined.
In a typical instance of the comradeship of airmen, dozens of aircrew had arrived at the local pub and a new barmaid had refused to serve the sergeants and flight-sergeants, insisting that the lounge bar was for officers only. All the non commissioned ranks had immediately departed for the public bar, and to a man, the officers had set down their pints and followed them, leaving the lounge deserted and the men in the packed public bar breathing by numbers. Quietly informed of the situation by the senior flight-commander, the pub's owner had hurriedly rushed downstairs from his supper and put the barmaid right. Offering his apologies to the aircrew, the situation was restored to normal.
RAF rank structure varied according to the branch of the Command. An RAF Bomber Command squadron commander was a Wing Commander, and in Path Finder Force (PFF), where ranks were one higher than regular Bomber Command, a Group Captain. This reflects the number of men in the unit and the various levels of responsibility. Squadrons were subdivided into two or more Flights (A Flight, B Flight, sometimes C Flight as well) and Flight-commanders were of Squadron Leader or Wing Commander (PFF) rank.
The following table illustrates the structure:-
Path Finder Force
Deputy Flight Commander
The Squadron Commander was the senior airman responsible for the aircrews. The Station Commander was responsible for the ground staff and the aerodrome itself. Both had teams of subordinates assisting with clerical work. Squadron Commanders were not required to operate on every raid, but one measure of their leadership skills was how often they and their crew actually did fly with the rest of the squadron. Some only operated on easy missions; others led from the front.
Non-operational Station Commanders were of Wing Commander or more usually Group Captain rank. Most "Station-Masters" were tour-expired men, who occasionally flew on operations, usually "incognito" and in defiance of orders. Such spirit and example has to be greatly admired. At Kelstern, G/Capt P L Donkin (1913-2000), a veteran prewar career officer, had flown as supernumerary with a 625 Sqdn crew on a 1944 Berlin operation, never having previously operated during WW2. On the squadron's return, a BBC reporter, broadcasting "live" in the early hours, asked him what it had been like. The great waxed moustaches bristled. "Ai dain't maind telling yew," replied the aristocratic voice, "that Ai was shite-scaired all the way theyah, and Ai was shite-scaired all the way back."
The RAF was still a little snooty in terms of social class v. rank structure. Many airmen had accents or backgrounds which left them unlikely to be offered or encouraged to apply for a commission. Don Charlwood in "No Moon Tonight" describes one man as "having an accent which left him safe from RAF commissioning." However, a great many Sergeants and Flight-Sergeants were granted the King's Commission, to became officers. This was usually a painless process, whereby an NCO applied for a commission or was encouraged to apply for one by a superior. The usual procedure was that a visiting board of staff officers, incorporating senior men from the Squadron, interviewed the applicant, sometimes only taking a few minutes. Results were generally quickly known, and a man who survived for long enough, did his job well, and kept his nose clean, could rise rapidly in rank.
In a not untypical case, an experienced Flight-Sergeant wireless-operator at 101 Sqdn, RAF Ludford Magna, was called in at the end of his tour and told to report to the Squadron Commander, Group Captain King, who said "By the way, you are recommended for a commission. Get washed and shaved and report to the Air Officer Commanding, Air Commodore Blucke, in half an hour." (The AOC happened to be visiting the base.) "Well," said the AOC, "coming through the ranks as you have should stand you in good stead now that you are to become an officer. Don't let me down." At midnight on that same day he became a Pilot Officer. It was his 21st birthday.
Unlike the Army, where newly commissioned officers are never sent back to their original units, in order to avoid a conflict with the men they had previously associated with, it was almost standard practice in the RAF for man to rise overnight from Flight Sergeant to Pilot Officer, yet stay with the same crew on the same Squadron. Although he would have to move his bags from the NCOs' quarters into the Officers' Mess, and sign for drinks rather than pay hard cash!
Once on an operational Squadron, a tour of duty was 30 completed operations. An "op" was a successfully completed flight or sortie, where the primary or secondary target had been attacked. Crews turning back early through technical problems did not count as having successfully operated. The loss rate was around the 4 to 5 per cent mark, so mathematically it was impossible to survive. Yet about 25 per cent of crews survived a first tour, after which they were classed as "tour expired" or "screened", trained as instructors and sent to HCUs and OTUs to train more crews. After a six month rest, they came back for another tour of 20 operations. If they survived this, they could volunteer for more; but if they chose not to, they remained as instructors unless promoted to higher things.
Many airmen were awarded what they laconically described as a "routine" decoration after a successful tour of duty, and perhaps a commission for an NCO pilot, bomb aimer or navigator. Others seemed to float though an uneventful tour and pass soundlessly and without decoration or promotion into a training unit. A great deal depended on the mettle of the crew, luck, and whether or not they had come to the attention of the squadron's senior officers, perhaps to their own disadvantage by disgracing themselves too often down at the local pubs. A significant number of NCOs, happy with life in the Sergeants' Mess and not willing to lose the companionship of their fellows, declined commissions.
During the first five operations the new crew ran ten times the risk of the more experienced men, simply because they did not know the ropes. Having survived 15 ops, the odds were reckoned to be even. In many squadrons the rule was "no leave until 5 operations are complete" but normally, aircrew received one week's leave every six weeks, and would be issued with a return rail pass to a destination of his choice, plus the necessary temporary ration cards. Most airmen went "home" to wives or parents and it was nothing unusual for a son or husband to turn up at little or no notice with a crewmate or two along, especially if such were Canadians or Australians, sampling British home life.
Others teamed up with friends and went on expeditions to London or York. The latter were termed a "bash" and usually involved considerable quantities of alcohol and the companionship of the opposite gender. In the main, though, it was high rather than alcoholic spirits which spurred them on. The concept of "Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" was ever present, if rarely mentioned.
The bomber offensive progressed at such a rate that six months' instructing could leave aircrew thoroughly out of date with their knowledge and techniques. A return to operations after such a break was a traumatic time, with no small number lost at the beginning of a 2nd tour. Yet, most aircrew found the dull and repetitive life of instructing completely boring after squadron life, and usually pulled strings shamelessly to return to operations.
Such was the comradeship of aircrew that many of the men, doing a second tour with a different crew to their first, would find that they had finished a tour before the rest of the crew. Most would volunteer to do a few extra so that the crew's unity was preserved; this was rarely spoken of, but illustrates the bond between such men. A smaller minority, thinking that it was foolish to push their luck, would quietly ask that they finish at the proper number of trips. There were many cases of a man doing one extra as a favour to a comrade, or a tour-expired crew stepping in to make up the numbers; and then failing to return.
Heavy bomber crews had a ten percent chance of baling out after being shot down. The German anti-aircraft system was extremely well organised, with the Kammhuber Line, a strong belt of radar-controlled 88mm guns and powerful searchlights extending along the German / Dutch border. Many aircraft came down in the Zuider Zee (Ijsselmeer) and are still being discovered as the land is gradually drained. The Luftwaffe's night fighter force was also very highly developed, with ground radar stations directing airborne radar-equipped night fighters into the bomber stream, freelance roving fighters, and high-flying Luftwaffe aircraft dropping flares to mark the bomber stream's progress.
There is an excellent video called SOME OF OUR AIRMEN ARE NO LONGER MISSING which can be purchased from specialised video retailers, or bought at air shows. This depicts the sterling work carried out by the Royal Netherlands Air Force Recovery Team, then headed by Gerrie Zwanenburg, during the draining of the Zuider Zee.
Aircrew prisoners of war were generally well treated by the Germans, in line with the Geneva Convention. Held in camps called Stalags (Stammlager, or permanent camps) run by the Luftwaffe, they were not generally mistreated by their counterparts. (My page on the Great Escape covers this event in much detail.)
The .303 inch (7.9mm) calibre machine guns of the RAF air-gunners were outgunned by the 20mm and 30mm cannon carried by the Luftwaffe - but the RAF air-gunners would not open fire unless attacked by a night-fighter; their guns were defensive. Although the .303's rate of fire was 12 rounds per second, and its effective range reckoned to be 400 yards, at night if within visible range, the night-fighters were also within range of the .303s.
Mid-upper and rear-gunners were isolated from their crewmates except via intercom and had to stay alert for long periods in subzero temperatures. Their fields of fire overlapped somewhat; the mid-upper could rotate through 360 degrees. Helped to some extent by the Taylor combined electrically-heated suit and Mae West lifejacket, as well as heated mittens and gloves, their alertness was vital. They could call for a corkscrew (violent evasive action) at a moment's notice. The trick was to take evasive action inside the attacking curve of the fighter, forcing him to steepen his turn in order to be able to shoot into the space where the bomber was expected to be by the time the bullets and shells arrived. The corkscrew manoeuvre was so described because when view from directly astern, the pattern created by the bomber was corkscrew-shaped. Dive port, climb port, roll, dive starboard, climb starboard, roll … and good air-gunners, knowing what was happening next, could fire into the space where they expected the night fighter to be.
Few night fighter crews persevered with an attack after the bomber had spotted them, and fewer still night fighter pilots had the skill to stay with a corkscrewing bomber and shoot it down as they danced together. A determined and experienced bomber pilot could make the evasive manoeuvre so violent that rivets popped out of the aircraft. Aircraft were actually only borrowed by the aircrew; the aeroplane "belonged" to its ground crew.
The Luftwaffe soon developed the "Schrage Musik" upward-firing cannon fitted to some Me110 and Ju88 night fighters. Attacked from directly below, many heavies were lost, and it was not until late summer 1943, when returned bombers showed vertically pierced damage that the new threat was realised. This technique was so effective that night fighter pilots would not shoot directly into a bomber's fuselage, for fear the bomb load would explode immediately above, destroying both aircraft. Thus, they preferred to aim at wing petrol tanks or engines.
Later, some "heavies" were fitted with .50 calibre machine guns; notably the Rose rear turret fitted to a few Lancasters. The Halifax's electric-hydraulic Boulton-Paul mid-upper and rear turrets carried 4 x .303s but the Lancaster and Stirling had Frazer-Nash hydraulic turrets; twin .303s for the nose and mid-upper, and 4 x 303s for the rear. A few aircraft, mainly Canadian units, had a mid-under gun position, but this was not a common feature and was only fitted where there was no underslung radar dome. Mk III Halifaxes often had a single .303 or occasionally a .50 gun mounted in the nose dome.
Many new electronic devices came into service. "Gee" was a radio navigation system with three transmitters in England sending a synchronised radio pulse at precise intervals. By comparing the slight time difference of arrival time of each pulse, navigators could check a chart and calculate their position very accurately. It did not extend over the radio horizon, and the Germans soon started to jam it; but it was very effective over the UK and the North Sea. Modern developments of Gee's radio triangulation system are still in use today as geostationary satellites at 22,000 miles from the Earth provide GPS or Global Positioning System. The principle – TDOA or Time Difference of Arrival - is very similar to the wartime Gee.
"Oboe" was a pair of radio beams transmitted from England with their intersection angled to cross over or near the target. One beam transmitted continuous Morse code dots, the other continuous dashes. Specially equipped Mosquito aircraft flew down one beam until at their intersection the pilot could hear a steady continuous signal of combined dots and dashes. At this point he released his marker bombs and the system was so accurate that allowance could be made for the forward travel of the bombs as they fell. However Oboe could only be used by a small number of aircraft at any one time.
"Paramatta" was the code name given to attacking aircraft bombing ground markers and it was even possible for the timing of an attack to be such that sky markers on parachute flares could also be used against cloud-covered targets by attacking aircraft. Named "Wanganui" the technique of using sky markers, which looked like a shower of coloured blobs, was often used and provided the sky flares were periodically refreshed after hitting the ground, proved accurate. When used in conjunction with markers dropped by Oboe-equipped Mosquitos, "Musical Paramatta" and "Musical Wanganui" were valuable steps forward in improving accuracy.
A "Master Bomber" was the method of one crew acting as director of an attack, instructing other aircraft in the main force to concentrate their airming points at specific markers, which he could observe and confirm for accuracy, even by radio ordering inaccurate markers to be ignored, new ones laid, or shifting the focus of the bombing to a different point. For example, "Master Bomber to all attacking aircraft, ignore the green spot flares, bomb the red flares a mile and a half to the north."
"H2S" was an downwards pointing radar scanner in the rear belly of the aircraft; a large perspex black-painted blister contained the rotating scanner. It gave a reasonable "picture" of the ground below; water, buildings and roads showed up clearly. It could not be jammed, but specially-equipped Luftwaffe night-fighters could home in on any aircraft using it. Once this was known, H2S was only used by a bomber for very short periods. RAF intruders (counter-night-fighters) homed in on Luftwaffe aircraft using airborne radar, and shot them down, often over their own bases.
The popular explanation for the strange name of "H2S" is that a top brass Air Staff officer was visiting the factory where the units were being built. On being told of the device's expected performance, he was openly sceptical. "It stinks," he said bluntly, "call it H2S" [hydrogen sulphide, or rotten-egg smell].
These devices, and vastly improved training for aircrew - especially navigators - brought about a dramatic increase in bombing accuracy. Still operating by night, RAF Bomber Command could now find their targets, which were by this time very often city centres as well as specific military targets.
In the early days, pilots were given a main target, a couple of alternates, and left to plan their own take-off times and routes based on their own experience and preferences, but within a year the defences were sharpening and it was necessary to co-ordinate tactics, not just for pilots in one squadron, but for the entire Bomber Force.
By mid 1941 it was possible to send many hundreds of medium and the first of the heavy bombers together in large numbers, and brief the crews to attack over a short time period. This swamped the defences and decreased losses. But RAF Bomber Command's accuracy was still not good enough and the Command was losing prestige. Its new Commander in Chief, Arthur T Harris, mounted the first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne. By dragging in every possible aircraft and crew from the Squadrons and training units, 1,046 bombers attacked Cologne on the night of 30th / 31st May 1942, delivering a devastating blow. This set the scene for the great and terrible bombing offensive which was to follow.
As Harris said of the enemy, "They sowed the wind and now they will reap the whirlwind."
Until Path Finder Force was formed in August 1942, and crack crews syphoned off to form this elite unit, target marking had been hit-and-miss. After initial problems, PFF soon began to mark targets with great precision and the general accuracy of bombing improved further. Mistakes were made, and wrong targets attacked; but gradually RAF Bomber Command grew to what Guy Gibson (of Dam Buster fame) called the Mighty Lion.
A second 1,000 bomber raid took place against Bremen on 25th / 26th June 1943, but this was not so successful due to adverse weather. On the night of July 30th / 31st 1943 "Operation Gomorrah" took place on Hamburg and over the next four nights, with daylight operations by the Americans, the city centre was almost destroyed by a firestorm brought about by great fires merging into one firestorm conflagration. This technique was repeated at Dresden on February 14th / 15th 1945, and the city was almost completely destroyed. Controversies surround this attack, even today, as Dresden was not a military objective. Popular opinion is that Stalin wanted a final knock-out blow against the Germans, and the attack was made to appease him.
It was on the Hamburg raids that the radar jamming device "Window" was used. Window was strips of tinfoil cut to such a length and width that clouds of it, dropped at timed intervals by the heavies, corrupted the ground radar signals. All heavies carried dozens of bundles of window and the crews were briefed to throw out a packet of foil strips every minute. Over the nights of the Hamburg raids the German ground radar was rendered completely useless, and for a few months, Bomber Command enjoyed greatly reduced losses. Gradually the German scientists and radar technicians were able to overcome the jamming produced by huge clouds of Window, and losses rose again. Nowadays Window is still dropped by aircraft to disrupt enemy radar and air-to-air / ground-to-air missiles - but now it's called "Chaff".
Interestingly, Martin Middlebrook voiced the opinion that the introduction of Window was a strategy which although successful in the short term, forced the Germans to greatly strengthen and improve their airborne defences as well as push forward development of ground radar. This led to very serious losses for Bomber Command in 1944. I can see the logic behind this opinion and I think he was right.
Huge controversy rages today about Bomber Command's contribution to the war. I have recently come to accept the argument that by the middle of summer 1944, with vastly improved navigation and advances in electronic and other general equipment RAF Bomber Command was an unstoppable machine, directed by Harris and treated as his personal weapon. Although able now to attack decisive military targets with devastating force, he persisted with area city bombing when it wasn't necessary any more.
Whilst purely military targets were attacked, area bombing did no more to fatally weaken the enemy's capacity to wage war, and to destroy morale, than did the London Blitz in 1940. But having said this, war production (factories and installations) and especially communications (railways and canals), suffered massive destruction, forcing the enemy to deploy manpower from the fighting areas to the home front as well as reducing manufacturing capacity.
One unforeseen and highly useful by-product or area bombing was the disruption of telephone and teleprinter landlines. This forced military communications traffic onto wireless, and the RAF listening stations and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park made good use of the infomation gained this way.
Post-war anaysis showed that insufficient importance had been placed on attacks to communications, especially railways, their bridges, tunnels and marshalling yards. Without transportation, you can't effectively move troops, fuel, supplies or equipment. You may have these in abundance at mustering points, camps and depots - but without canal, road and especially rail, they are going nowhere.
It's interesting to note that the first war to be won solely by air power was not until the NATO conflict with Serbia in Spring and early Summer of 1999.
The highest award for gallantry in the British Armed Forces was, and is, the Victoria Cross which is understandably rare and often posthumous. The VC is awarded to both officers and men, although there is also the equally rarely awarded and slightly lower ranking Conspicuous Gallantry Medal available for NCOs and Other Ranks.
Decorations for Commissioned Officers
The Distinguished Service Order is primarily for leadership and dedication to duty, as well as for acts of valour in battle.
The Distinguished Flying Cross was awarded both for one outstanding action ("immediate") or more usually for a sustained effort, in battle.
The Air Force Cross (as DFC but diagonal red and white striped ribbon) is for similar feats but not in battle.
Decorations for Non-Commissioned Officers
The Distinguished Conduct Medal is a lesser version of the VC awarded to NCOs and Other Ranks, and equally rarely given as the VC.
The Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM, silver elliptical medal, narrow diagonal purple and white striped ribbon) and the Air Force Medal (AFM, narrow diagonal red and white striped ribbon) are the equivalents.
Any medal awarded twice was termed a bar, signified by a rosette inset into the ribbon. Thus, a well decorated airman might collect a DSO, DFC and bar, DFM.
A senior officer wearing a DFM commanded immediate respect amongst his fellow airmen - for not many Sergeants or Flight-Sergeants survived long enough to both gain the decoration and be granted the King's Commission.
The Battle of the Barges : August 1940. The Germans were poised to invade, and the Channel ports crammed with invasion barges. RAF Bomber Command mounted low-level attacks and destroyed significant numbers as well as much other materiel.
The Augsburg Raid : 17th April 1942. The recent introduction of the Lancaster led some to believe that it could defend itself in a deep penetration daylight operation, and selected crews from No 44 and 97 Squadrons attacked the MAN Diesel works at Augsburg, Bavaria. Bad luck and inattention to timing caused the loss of 7 out of the 12 aircraft, with unspectacular results. The operational commander, Wing Commander John Nettleton, received the VC for this attack. He was later killed on an operation to Milan.
"Operation Robinson" the attack on the Schneider Armaments Works at Le Creusot, France, 17th October 1942. No 5 Group trained for weeks in low-flying formations and the attack was a success with very low losses.
"Operation Millennium" the first 1,000 aircraft raid against Cologne on the night of 30/31st May 1942 and was a great success. There were two more such, but neither was successful, mainly on account of the weather.
The Dams Raid : 16/17th May 1943
"Operation Gomorrah" the repeated raids by the RAF and USAAF on Hamburg caused such a series of giant fires that these combined into a firestorm or such intensity that 100+ mph winds were sucked into the city by the raging conflagration. This tactic was repeated at Dresden in February 1945.
The Battle of the Ruhr : summer 1943 to New Year 1944. German industry was concentrated around the Ruhr Valley, a heavily defended area attacked repeatedly. Essen, Dortmund, Duisburg, Cologne, Bochum, Dusseldorf, Munchen-Gladbach were attacked time and time again. Serious damage was done to war production, factories destroyed, communications disrupted, and workers killed. Losses were just within tolerance limits, and this round is reckoned to have been won by the RAF.
The Nuremburg Raid : 30 / 31st March 1944. Incorrectly forecast winds and an unforeseen bright moon gave the Luftwaffe what amounted to a turkey shoot, with 97 RAF bombers lost in one operation. My novel "Nor The Years Condemn" is based around this operation, it's free as a PDF, please email me if you would like a copy.
The Battle of Berlin : autumn / winter 1943 / 4. Three operations out of four were bombing Berlin, and some crews did most of their tours against the German capital. Major damage was done but losses were high as defensive tactics improved. If the RAF didn't lose, then the Germans didn't win - and the accepted result is a bloodied draw, with both sides recording serious losses.
The final "Main Force" operation of any significance was a double attack on the night of April 24/25th 1945 against Hitler's Redoubt at Berchtesgaden and Naval installations at Sylt, on the Dutch/German coast. By the end of the war, RAF Bomber Command had flown 372,650 sorties and lost 8,617 aircraft and 47,268 aircrew, the highest pro rata loss rate of any Allied military unit. Almost 1 million tons of bombs had been dropped.
An astonishing number of WAAF servicewomen were also killed serving with the RAF during World War 2 - 649 WAAFs are on the CWGC database. A few died as a result of air crashes, ground explosions or other incidents, and some such as Yolande Elsa Maria Beekman (9902) were secret agents, this lady officer being executed at Dachau - I've seen her memorial plate there.
processing large tracts of aircraft loss and casualty data I noticed that many
RCAF airmen who became casualties at Sergeant, Flight Sergeant or Warrant Officer
rank subsequently appeared in official data as Pilot Officer or a higher. Whilst
it is not uncommon for an airman's commission to have happened so shortly before
his death that Squadron records did not reflect the change, this anomaly was
far too common for RCAF airmen to have been coincidence. Guessing that this
'lightning quick' commission was effected to afford a widow or dependant an
improved pension, I queried the matter with Canadian officialdom. Stephen Harris,
Acting Director and Chief Historian of the Directorate of History and Heritage,
National Defence, Canada, replies:-
Canadian Minister of National Defence for Air, Chubby Power, believed all aircrew
should be commissioned but could not achieve this goal because of limitations
on commissioning contained in the BCATP agreement (Empire Air Training Scheme
in UK). We negociated for, and received, higher commissioning rates in the May
1942 conference -- and some increases thereafter. Aircrew who were captured
were "off the books", in a way, and it was Canadian policy to commission
them so that they went of officer PW camps. For some Canadian aircrew, especially
those serving on RAF squadrons, the time delay between their commissioning and
the notification of the RAF squadron concerned could be considerable. Even for
those serving on RCAF squadrons there could be a delay: when Mynarski took off,
he had been promoted but his squadron did not know it. Thus he was wearing WO
insignia, but his VC was issued to reflect his commissioned rank. All that is
preamble to the answer we can give re: casualties. We have never found policy.
We are aware of practice, but have never found policy. And it certainly wasn't
universal: there wasn't the same urgency in commissioning air gunners."
At the end of the war the Polish Air Force personnel in Britain numbered over 14,000 people (aircrew, ground crew, WAAFs, etc.). In 1947 about 3,000 decided to return to Poland whereas 11,000 chose to stay abroad. In 1947-48 about 2,500 of the latter emigrated to South America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, USA, South Africa and various countries in western Europe. The remainder settled down in Britain.
RAF Bomber Command dropped thousands of tons of food to Dutch civilians in what was termed Operation Manna. Retreating Germans had laid waste land, and many families were starving. The Dutch have never forgotten this and to this day maintain very friendly relations with England. An unofficial cease fire was agreed with the Germans, and safe passages granted; but such trips counted as "ops" for the crews.
RAF Bomber Command also flew home many liberated Prisoners of War, during Operation Dodge from Italy and the Mediterranean, and Operation Exodus from Brussels, Belgium. Thus, many airmen taken PoW flew home in a Lancaster or Halifax, as a repatiated passenger.
Service Record Abbreviations
For the benefit of those researching service records, I explain below the most common abbreviations:-
Empire Air Training Scheme
Overseas training scheme for pilots / bomb-aimers / navigators, sent to South Africa, the USA or Canada for training
Air Gunnery School
|eg "Bishop's Court" on the Isle of Man|
Air Crew Reception Centre
Where men destined for aircrew were received and their training began
Heavy Conversion Unit
Training graduating from 2 engined to 4 engined aircraft
Operational Training Unit
Where a crew received the final polish of their training, and did an "easy"operation at the end, before Squadron posting
Air Crew Training Centre
Known as "Arsy Tarsy"” where aircrew were initially assessed for suitable crew position (navigator, pilot, gunner etc)
I'll add more as I am asked about them.
The Losses Database
This is now up to 15,885 (April 2015) aircraft and crews (about 100mb) and covers all RAF Bomber Command losses for the entire period of the Second World War. This now covers 12,866 Squadron aircraft plus 2,414 from Operational Training Units and 285 from Heavy Conversion Units; the data entry is ongoing. Very large amounts of supportive information is included, where such has come to my attention, usually from book and other publication references or from information held at Kew, or by personal correspondence, which is why any figues I show on this page are very slightly higher than the "official" ones.
81,285 Airmens' records are on the database, each one associated with one or more aircraft losses. Remember that some airmen were involved with several incidents. Details of every aircraft loss, crew list, and fate is kept. I collate all personal, email, webpage, photographic and book references that I encounter, which refer to a specific aircraft or airman involved in an aircraft loss. All losses are cross referenced with other relevant ones, such as several losses involving the same pilot or crew member(s); an air collision or ground explosion; airmen who were related, etc. The search facilities are comprehensive and support extraction by single or combination fields such as name, squadron, target, aircraft type, time period, etc.
I have recently been adding GPS co-ordinates for CWGC Cemeteries. Much other information is available from my bookshelf.
Please remember that the Losses Database ONLY covers aircraft losses. Where an airman was killed but the aircraft was repaired and put back into service, the airman's name won't be there, although if the aircraft was subsequently lost, the final crew will be listed. I am happy to search my aircraft and crew losses database for enquirers. There is normally no charge for this, unless the information requested takes a significant amount of work to compile. Don't expect me to simply give away large tracts of data - I've been collating this information for about forty years. Requests for "all you've got on so-and-so squadron" will be refused.
above Main screen
above a comprehensive search is possible
or a simple search for a name
above Search for references for a particular book or publication
I've now downloaded the CWGC data year by year and have completed a mammoth operation to merge the data with my own, resulting in all the fatal casualties on the database having full details - surname, forenames, service number, cemetery and next of kin (where such is known). Many thanks to CWGC who put this data online and downloadable.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database provides online access to ALL British & Commonwealth war graves for the First and Second World Wars as well as later conflicts.
My personal tribute to three airmen who lie at Durnbach War Cemetery is here.
USA Casualties Online Database
Finding former Aircrew, and Squadron Associations
Australian War Memorial Pages
RAF World War II Squadron and Unit Code Recognition Letters
the Odd Bods (UK) Association website.
Luftwaffe of the Reich / Wehrmacht History
You are welcome to email me.