by Brian Grafton
If 1940 was a bad year for Britain, 1941 was worse. A brief list of major
war-related events shows how pressed the British were:
Increased activity in the
Atlantic came close to overwhelming the British lifeline.
The German air assault on
British cities continued to May 16, with little hindrance. 
The British were driven
out of Greece. 
The British were driven
out of Crete, with substantial military and naval losses.
The war in North Africa
(the Desert War) went sour with the German introduction of what the allies call
"The Afrika Corps".
The British were under
tremendous pressure in Iraq and the Lebanon.
On May 24, Hood was blown
up, with only three crew members surviving, while engaged at long range by
Bismark and Prince Eugen. While Bismark was eventually sunk, the RN did not
find Prince Eugen.
Though elements of the RN
had two singular successes at Taranto and off Matapan, the Mediterranean was,
in effect, closed to British convoys to Malta from Gibraltar and Alexandria.
This allowed the Germans and Italians to supply their North African forces
almost at will. 
On December 10, Prince of
Wales and Repulse were sunk off Malaya by Japanese aircraft.
There were some positive developments as well, though some of them did not
appear as such at the time:
On June 22, the Wehrmacht
invaded the Soviet Union, expecting a quick and decisive victory. This provided
Britain with an ally that was expected to fall to the Wehrmacht in six weeks.
On July 8, Churchill and
President Roosevelt met in Argentia Bay, Newfoundland. From this meeting came
the Atlantic Charter. 
increased American presence in the Atlantic, and was supported by Admiral King,
who placed his forces on an "all but war" footing.
On December 7, the
Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, forcing the Americans into a war with Japan.
Meeting a commitment he had made to the Japanese ambassador earlier in the
year, and despite advice to the contrary, on December 11 Adolf Hitler declared
war on the United States, thus bringing the U.S. into the European war.
These events form the backdrop against which Bomber Command played its role in
1941. It was the hardest year that Bomber Command was to face.
Strategically, the goals of Bomber Command did not change with the changing
year. Synthetic oil production facilities continued to receive top priority
early in the year because it was thought Germany's oil supplies were dwindling.
Enemy-held ports and harbours ; always the easiest targets to find ; continued
to receive attention. General industrial areas were still target options when
weather or ground haze made precision bombing impossible. During the long
winter months in northern Europe, there were many nights when industrial urban
targets were the only ones that were realistically available.
Operationally, however, Bomber Command's targets shifted according to the
requirements of the nation or the whim of its leaders. By late February, the
slaughter of merchant ships in the Atlantic, coupled with the continued threat
posed by Kriegsmarine surface vessels ( Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Tirpitz
were the main concern), caused new directives to be issued for bomber assaults
on U-boat pens and capital ships along the entire Atlantic coastline, from
Norway to the Bay of Biscay. The Blenheims, for their part, were to share their
time between "hit-and-run" raids ("Circuses") against towns in France and the
Low Countries and ; after the end of April ; attacks on enemy coastal shipping
From mid-March until the middle of the summer, the "heavies" of Bomber Command,
working with Coastal Command, were active over many Atlantic coast ports. The
impact of this attention may be inferred, though not really proven, by the
sharp decline in merchant shipping losses to U-boats by early July. On July 9 a
new directive returned Bomber Command to its primary task of bombing German
The directive might be new, but little else was. Bomber Command itself was not
growing rapidly enough to mount large-scale attacks. Bomber crews still had no
reliable navigation aids. It still found daylight raids, when it tried them,
prohibitively costly in machines and men. It still had no means of bombing a
target accurately once the bombers found it. It was still constrained by the
lack of trained air- and ground crew.
However., while the bombers continued their (largely ineffectual) assault on
Europe, the very nature of the air war was changing.
The Development of the Night Fighter
Throughout the first two years of the war, bomber crews noted that, whatever
other difficulties arose from night bombing ; navigation, bomb aiming,
returning to base safely ; there were few fighters to contend with, though flak
appeared heavy, and was disturbingly accurate. This changed at the end of June,
1941, when German night fighters appeared, and had considerable effect almost
We tend to forget how immensely large the sky is. Even setting the ceiling at
only 20,000 feet ; an acceptable operational altitude in the early war years ;
it is possible for two planes to be within very few miles of one another on a
clear day and not see one another.  Add the cloak of darkness and a
blacked-out landscape and the task is multiplied a thousand-fold.
Both British and German air forces had experimented with night fighters early
in the war. Both began by using fighters, in part because of the speed
necessary not just to find but to close with an enemy intruder. For the most
part, these early attempts involved simply placing an aircraft in the skies
during a raid and hoping it would be able to find the enemy. Needless to say,
this didn't work. The solution, both sides knew, was airborne radar. As early
as June, 1940, the British had developed a primitive air-borne radar unit, but
there was no aircraft in the British arsenal that was both big enough to carry
the unit and fast enough to catch German bombers.
After the fall of France, the onset of mass bombing taught Germans and British
alike that daylight bombing must give way to night raids. As a result, efforts
to develop effective night fighter capabilities increased on both sides.
The man assigned the job of establishing night fighter defences for Germany was
General Josef Kammhuber, appointed in October, 1940. He created a formidable
night fighting structure that, with variations, was to challenge Bomber Command
from 1941 to 1944. It was known to the allies as the Kammhuber Line. It relied
The Kammhuber line was a series of "boxes" set approximately 20 miles apart,
stretching from Denmark to the Bay of Biscay. Each box contained three radar
units ; one Freya unit, for long-range detection of incoming planes, and two
short-range Würzburg units, one for tracking the raider and the other for
tracking the night fighter. Ground controllers would interpret the signals from
the Würzburg units and direct the night fighter towards intercept. The size of
the box was determined by the effective reach of the radar involved.
While this method was inefficient in terms of radar equipment, night fighters
and qualified ground controllers ; the controller could handle only one
intercept at a time ; it provided an effective means of countering what to the
Germans were increasingly irritating raids by Bomber Command. In 1941, given
Bomber Command's practice of sending relatively small numbers of aircraft
against targets, German night fighter techniques were efficient enough to cause
Bomber Command legitimate concern over the increasing loss rate for bombers
after June, 1941.
The Butt Report
To date, Bomber Command had no real means of determining the success rate of
its operations. Air crew were bringing back glowing reports of fires raised,
damage done and targets destroyed, though independent sources were providing a
much less sanguine picture. Air Ministry and Bomber Command officials were not
unaware of the discrepancies. But means of verification were slow to develop.
It was not until 1941 that effective cameras were mounted on a sufficient
number of bombers to give some means of assessing how the war was being
Preliminary assessments of raid photos were not encouraging, but had not
received comprehensive attention. Lord Cherwell,  Churchill's personal
scientific advisor, suggested a systematic review of the photographs by a
disinterested official, and the Butt Report was born. D.M. Butt, of the War
Cabinet Secretariat, reviewed over 600 operational photos, comparing them with
crew claims and Bomber Command assessments.
The results of the Butt Report, ready in August, 1941, were not at all
encouraging. It provided evidence, literally in black-and-white, not only that
Bomber Command's offensive was ineffective but that the training and
capabilities of most of its air crew were well below acceptable levels.
||Of 100 bombers setting out on an
operation, many never found the target.
||Of those attacking the target,
on average only one-third placed their bombs within 5 miles of the target.
||In hazy or inclement weather,
the number of bombers finding the target was only one in ten.
||On moonless nights, only one
bomber in 15 found the target. 
The impact of the Butt Report was to be much farther-reaching than was at first
evident. Bomber Command was surprisingly ready to accept the findings and to
begin looking for solutions that would lead to improvement. But beginning with
the Butt Report, a pronounced scepticism at the highest levels was to dog
Bomber Command from this time forward: Churchill, who in October, 1940, saw the
bomber as the only arm of victory, would never again fully trust Bomber Command
pronouncements or claims. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union,
Churchill saw another means ; however shaky at present, with the Soviet
military being driven back closer and closer to Moscow and Leningrad ; by which
Germany could be defeated.
Bomber Command leaders would place increasing demands for accuracy and results
on their air crews, while choosing more demanding targets for their crews to
attack. The air crews themselves, shaken by Butt's findings, would suffer a
crisis of confidence, and would also push themselves and their planes to the
limit to prove that they were having a positive effect on the war effort. In
September of 1941, Bomber Command remained England's only offensive weapon. 
In 1941, a new generation of weapons was being introduced to Bomber Command.
New bombs were being developed, as the deficiencies of (until then) standard
ordnance were no longer accepted. At the same time, new bombers were beginning
to appear at the squadron level. While neither the bombs nor the aircraft which
appeared in 1941 marked the end of weapons development, their appearance and
capabilities pointed the way to a harsher air war over Europe. The more
critical need ; for even rudimentary navigational devices ; would not be met
for another year, while the myriad developments in radar were still largely to
The science of bombing ; if one can call the ability to kill people more
effectively a science ; grew more sophisticated during 1941, though not to the
level it would obtain later in the war. In effect, there were three basic types
of bombs: high explosive; incendiary; and (although they were called GP, for
General Purpose) anti-personnel. In 1939, the standard 250 lb. GP bomb dropped
by the RAF was ineffective. It was too small to do the requisite amount of
damage, and a great many of them were defective. The GP was replaced by a 500
lb. bomb, known as a "medium capacity" bomb. A new incendiary was also
developed. The largest bomb in the arsenal grew to 4,000 lb.
Without going into detail, new bombs were seen as a necessary development.
Starting in September, 1940, Britain¹s leaders had learned a great deal about
bombing: they had seen the impact of high explosives on London. The devastation
caused by "land mines", the susceptibility of tightly-packed buildings to
incendiaries, and the tension surrounding the use of "delayed action" bombs
were duly noted. They recognized that the new "medium capacity" bomb could do a
better job of opening the hearts of cities. They knew at first hand that more
effective incendiaries could better exploit the increased targeting of civilian
or non-industrial properties. New "heavies" were coming on line, capable of
carrying a much larger bomb load. By the end of the war in Europe, when the
weight of a bomb was still more important than TNT equivalency, Bomber Command
would be carrying specialized bombs as heavy as 22,000 lb.
Later in the war, the bombing procedure was almost performed by rule of thumb:
"open" the target with high explosives in the first wave, "exploit" the opened
areas with incendiaries in the second, and "hamper" the civil defence workers
with anti-personnel bombs, mixed with other types, in the third. The only
questions were centred on percentages of bomb type by wave, the percentage of
delayed-action bombs to be dropped, and the timing between waves. In 1941,
however, Bomber Command had neither the aircraft nor the navigational skills to
generate waves of bombers. That particular refinement was still in the future.
New Heavy Bombers
In 1936, the Air Ministry had issued Specifications P/13/36 and B/12/36 for
four- and two-engined bombers categorized as "heavy" or "medium heavy". Based
on wind-tunnel testing and prototype flights, three companies ; Short (the
"Stirling"), Handley-Page (the "Halifax") and Avro (the "Manchester") ; were
given funding to develop a new generation of "heavy" bombers for the RAF.
Squadrons were being equipped with the new aircraft by late 1940, though none
flew on operations until 1941.
With the hindsight of sixty years it is hard to appreciate the enormous strides
that the new "heavies" represented. For those of us accustomed to travel by
jet, the new "heavies" would appear puny and primitive indeed. But they were an
enormous advance in nearly every sphere, including size, number of crew, bomb
load, armament and avionics (if such a word existed in 1941), compared with
even a fine aircraft like the Wellington, whose design was only four years
The table below lists some of the "vital statistics" by which bombers can be
compared. I have included "marks" of the Wellington and the Heinkel operational
in 1940 for points of comparison, and have used data only for the first "marks"
of the new "heavies".
|Wellington Mk I
||4 .303 mg
|Stirling Mk I
||8 .303 mg
|Halifax Mk I
||10 .303 mg
|Manchester Mk I
||8 .303 mg
|Lancaster Mk I
||8 .303 mg
Data are never static when dealing with operational
aircraft. I am skeptical about the four-gun armament in the Wellington, for
example; the Wimpey was upgunned early in her career, with a new nose turret,
combinations of ventral or beam guns, and ; in the Mk III ; a quad tail turret.
Engines too changed relatively rapidly, though more powerful engines did not
necessarily affect other performance numbers, since additional weight (in
additional armour or self-sealing fuel tanks, for example) would offset
additional power. Range, too, can be misleading: the Wellington's range of
2,200 miles, for instance, is achieved at a sacrifice in bomb load (only 1,500
lb.). Data sources also often disagree. Some give the Lancaster's range as
1,660 miles (30 miles greater than the Manchester), while others list it as
great as 2,530 miles (with a 7,000 lb. bomb load); some give the Manchester's
ceiling as 18,000 feet, while others place it as low as 10,000 feet. The
telling numbers from an operational point-of-view are bomb-load and number of
crew: a 25 percent increase in crew is balanced against a 350 percent increase
in carrying capacity.
The Short "Stirling"
The Stirling was expected to be Bomber Command's main bomber. Her development
was plagued with difficulties. Her wingspan was shorter than the designer
wished, which affected her lift; her lift affected the length of her take-off,
leading to changes affecting her undercarriage. But above all, she had a
relatively low ceiling, which made her vulnerable to light flak. The Stirling
entered RAF service late 1940, flying on operations in early 1941. She was a
disappointment, and although she flew well into the war (and, I believe, many
of her crews were comfortable with her), she never met her expectations.
With the cold logic and black humour of war, the Stirlings were cheered (by
Lancaster and Halifax crews) whenever they were on ops with Lancs and Hallys.
With their low ceilings, Stirlings provided excellent targets for flak, which
kept the guns away from the rest.
The Handley-Page "Halifax"
The Halifax was a sound, reliable bomber with an early, well deserved bad
reputation. The Mark Is had problems with the tail design, and were known by
air crew as an aircraft that did not respond well to violent manoeuvres: many
Hallys were lost in flying accidents at the training level. But with a
redesigned tail assembly, the Hally proved to be a work-horse for the RAF both
as a bomber and ; later in the war ; as a glider tug, target aircraft, and
transport. Originally equipped with Rolls Royce Merlin engines, later Marks
worked equally well powered by the Bristol Hercules. First introduced to
service in late 1940, the Hally first flew on ops in early 1941. With a decent
bomb capacity and good range, she provided excellent service. At least some
Halifax air crews preferred her to the Lancaster ; in part, perhaps, because
statistically there appeared to be a much better chance of escaping from a
stricken Hally than from a Lanc.
The Avro "Manchester"
Of all the new designs, the least satisfactory was the "medium heavy"
Manchester. The Manchester was a two-engined plane in a new world running on
four engines. Smaller, and with a lighter bomb load than the Stirling or
Halifax, the Manchester still more than doubled the bomb load of the
Wellington. The Manchester was ordered into production before a prototype had
been constructed, a strong indication of the Air Ministry's urgency for heavy
The Manchester was not a happy aircraft for the RAF, though opinions now vary.
Some say she was a sound aircraft with ineffective and unreliable engines: she
was equipped with very powerful Rolls Royce Vultures (24-cylinder hybrids
created by joining two 12-cylinder Rolls Royce Kestril engines) which were
subject to rapid overheating. Others say she was simply a bad design: her tail
assembly, for example, was weak and did not provide necessary lateral
stability, a problem that was never really solved, even with the introduction
of a third tail fin. More disturbing, the Manchester could not maintain height
on one engine.
Entering service in November, 1940, and flying on operations on February 24/25,
1941, the Manchester was a "lame duck" aircraft from the beginning. The
much-redesigned Manchester Mk II was already being tested, and existing
Manchester air frames were being reconfigured for the new design. So different
was the new "mark", and so dubious the reputation of the Manchester Mk I, that
Avro gave it a new designation: the Lancaster.
The Avro "Lancaster"
From its first flight on January 9, 1941, the Lancaster was recognized as a
superlative aircraft. Strong, powerful, forgiving and relatively easy to fly,
the Lanc was destined to become the main weapon Bomber Command would direct
against Germany. Basically a Manchester with increased wingspan (to accommodate
an additional two engines), reliable engines (the marvellous Merlins rather
than the unpredictable Vultures) and a redesigned tail, the Lancaster went
through many modifications during the war. She first flew on operations in
early March, 1942.
New Light Bomber
With the development of the new "heavies", the Air Ministry had considered
eliminating the "light" bomber category. Fortunately, de Havilland were able to
convince the Ministry that there was room for a light, fast, agile bomber. The
result was the De Havilland "Mosquito", which was to play a role out of all
proportion to its size. Based on the design of an earlier De Havilland
transport aircraft, the Mosquito prototype flew just 11 months after
Specification B/1/40 was issued. By the end of 1941, the "Mozzie" was in
squadron service ; as a bomber (the B.IV), fighter (F.II), night-fighter
(NF.II) and unarmed reconnaissance aircraft (PR.I). She excelled in every field
in which she was placed.
Built entirely of wood and powered by either Rolls Royce or Packard Merlins,
this twin-engined bomber was designed as a "fast bomber" that could outrun
fighter opponents. While this smacks of the propaganda surrounding Germany's
special-engined Do 17 in 1937 (which was designated a "schnellbomber"), in the
case of the Mosquito the plane performed above expectations. A table comparing
the Mozzie with the Blenheim ; the "light" bomber that was brought into service
in 1937 and was slowly being phased out in 1941 ; demonstrates the strides that
had been made in design and performance. I have based Blenheim data on the
basic Mk IV (there were many configurations); for the Mosquito I have used data
for the B.IV, the first large-scale bomber configuration.
|Blenheim Mk IV
|Mosquito B. IV
The Blenheim had served well since 1937, and the Mk
IV represented the maximum configuration that could be forced out of the old
design. For the Mosquito, on the other hand, the B.IV was only the beginning:
later configurations would accept an increased bomb load (to 4,000 lb.), or
would fly higher (up to 42,650 ft.) or have longer range (3,500 miles) or
higher speed (up to 425 mph). But from the introduction of the B.IV, the
Mosquito carried double the bomb load of the Blenheim, and delivered it 100 mph
faster. At 380 mph, the B.IV compared well with the latest fighters: she was
marginally faster than the Spitfire Mk V (374 mph) and just slower than the
Messerschmitt Bf 109F (388 mph).
In early 1941, Bomber Command was not much larger than it had been in
September, 1939. Despite active recruitment, operational losses and the needs
of other Commands meant that there were simply insufficient trained men upon
which Bomber Command could draw. During the 1930s Britain had an effective
"in-house" training program for pilots and other air crew, though it seems
rather haphazard in retrospect. Much of the training was conducted in
operational squadrons, where ground crew could learn certain air crew functions
by hands-on flying. This continued well into the first months of the war.
In addition, elementary training was offered in Australia to a limited number
of that country's youth, who would be granted short-term commissions in the RAF
upon completion of their training. The RAF felt it was good for the service to
maintain a leavening of "colonials" within its structure, and similar programs
were proposed in New Zealand, South Africa and Canada as well.
As a peacetime procedure, the practice worked well, but it was recognized as
early as 1936 that a more comprehensive training program would be required.
Arthur Tedder, then in charge of RAF training and eventually to serve as
Eisenhower's deputy, suggested looking to the commonwealth for a greatly
expanded training program. Given the increasingly sour political climate of
Europe, Canada was an obvious choice. Closer to Britain than other commonwealth
countries, and with vast open spaces, lengthy coastlines and close proximity to
the manufacturing might of the United States, Canada met all Britain's
requirements. Yet even then, the program was to be British ; a larger version
of the Empire Air Training Scheme established in Australia, but in the end
offering (in 1937) only 15 "places" in the RAF to British-trained Canadians.
Unfortunately, for a variety of political reasons the Canadian government was
at best lukewarm to British discussions on the subject of "Empire" training
schemes.  At one level, the political structure of Canada was still
responding to the imposition of conscription during the Great War: nobody
outside Canada can appreciate the tension between francophone and anglophone
over the conscription of men to fight in an English cause. At a second level,
Canada was herself only recently "freed" from colonial status, and was less
than enthusiastic about placing any part of its armed forces under British
control. No astute Canadian politician could ignore these political realities ;
and Mackenzie King, the Liberal Prime Minister, was a very astute politician.
Without rejecting Britain's proposals, he set ground rules which included
Canadian control over any training facilities which ; largely at British
expense, and using RAF training personnel ; might be established. The British
military mission returned to Britain empty-handed, but with some hope for the
When Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, Canada did not
follow suit until September 10. It has been suggested that this "tardiness" was
to allow time for American war-related goods to be shipped to Britain through a
neutral country. Yet however efficiently an order could be placed and filled,
it seems improbable that an additional week would provide sufficient time. The
reason for the delay is likely much more political than military. With a
federal election in the wings for early 1940, Mackenzie King delayed Canada's
declaration until it could be made with the Canadian House of Commons in
session ; another proof of Canadian sovereignty ; while assuring francophones
that Canada was not blindly demanding that all its citizens declare themselves
"for King and country". In the hearts of many Canadians, Canada was not under
threat, and King George VI had no legitimate claims on their loyalty.
So too with Canadian acceptance of the Commonwealth Air Training Program
(CATP), the training child that had been so long abirthing. Until Canadian
sovereignty was seen to be assured, and until the results of the federal
election (called for March, 1940) were as decided as political events could be,
King held off. Not until December 17 did a final agreement (among Canada,
Britain, Australia and New Zealand) on a training program become a reality ;
and that only after frantic last-minute negotiations. Canada gained much of
what it wanted. Chief among its demands: administrative control over the
program; and the creation of a separate RCAF structure within the RAF. In
Bomber Command, that translated into the establishment (on January 1, 1943) of
6 Group (RCAF), flying out of the Vale of York and headquartered at Allerton
Canada was hopelessly ill-prepared for the CATP. Largely a rural, disconnected
country, Canada had neither an infrastructure capable of dealing with the
CATP's size and complexity, nor the financial resources required. Nor was the
RCAF, with its peacetime complement of 4,000 officers and men, qualified to
train or administer the undertaking. Nevertheless, with financial assistance
and RAF trainers to leaven the process, the first bases were opened for
training by the end of April, 1940 ; after the federal election.
Initially, CATP air crew trainees received basic training as pilots,
navigators, observers, bomb aimers, wireless operators and gunners. Ground crew
were also needed: fitters, artificers, mechanics and the like were included in
the training scheme. By all accounts, the courses were demanding and the
instructors sound, if unimaginative. Despite the tardy start, "graduates" began
to appear before the end of 1940. Pilots, navigators, air observers, wireless
operators and gunners had met the basic standards and could pin on the wings
and badges appropriate to their status as qualified air crew.
By early 1941, the first new air crew were arriving in Britain. They were still
only fledglings, and faced many more months of advanced training (later to be
undertaken in Canada as well) and operational training through the RAF OTUs.
Typically, it might take 18-24 months from enlistment to first op.,
particularly for a pilot or navigator; taking May, 1940 as a beginning point, a
pilot (gunner, bomb aimer, W/O) might be ready to join a squadron, if not yet
to fly against Germany, by late 1941.  The length of the training
period explains why the full flood of CATP-trained air crew did not start
appearing on operations until early 1942. When they arrived, they went to RAF
commands, whether Bomber, Fighter, or Coastal.
During the hard months of 1941, however, there continued to be a shortage of
trained air crew. Harris, who would take command in February, 1942, would
benefit from the CATP program as Peirse, in 1941, could not.
While developments were taking place in weapons and personnel and aircraft and
enemy defences, flights of "heavies" continued ops over occupied Europe. To air
crew, a new aircraft six months down the line or a better bomb-sight by the end
of the year meant nothing. Their's was a world of two simple numbers: number of
operations completed; and percentage loss per operation. It took 30 ops to
complete a tour, and the actuarial chances of meeting that magic number was
determined by the results of each mission.
From all accounts, the official loss figures per mission did not affect the
crews as much as personal experience. If 12 Wellingtons of any given squadron
flew into the night and only eight came back, the 48 remaining air crew would
be aware of 24 empty places in the mess. This is not strictly accurate, of
course, since the strict separation of officers and enlisted men could appear
to dilute the losses. But the impact on air crew was inevitable, degrading, and
cumulative. Life became a question of luck, and death an expected event. Even
the language reflected this, from the rather whimsical "gone for a Burton" to
the more brutal "got the chop".
In the 126 days between 7/8 July and 10 November ; which mirrors pretty closely
the July to December period under discussion ; Bomber Command activities
yielded the following numbers (Bomber Command War Diaries, p. 219):
||Number of Operations
||Number of Sorties
Without belabouring statistics or checking percentages of aircraft types
included in the numbers given above, it is (roughly) acceptable to assume 4.5
air crew per aircraft (Blenheims carried three, Whitleys five, and Wellingtons
six; the new "heavies" carried seven or eight). This means that about 2,400 men
may have lost their lives in these 126 days. Some, of course, would have had
the honour of being guests of the Third Reich. Some would escape, though
chances were very slight. Significantly, however, the statistics record
aircraft losses, rather than crew. And for the most part, the men continued to
In the cold light of reality, bombers would continue to fly and air crew would
continue to die. The question, to put it bluntly, is: what were they dying for?
This is not as facile a question as it first appears. In truth, the air crew
were trapped in the horrible gulf between an idea (to assault the Germans by
day and night) and a reality (the assault is ineffective). They were also
caught between the needs of government and the expectations of Bomber Command.
They were the tools by which Bomber Command doctrine and commitment were
determined, and upon which careers and reputations depended. And from late June
of 1941 ; and more intensely after the Butt Report in August ; Bomber Command
doctrine was being questioned by both the War Cabinet and the Air Ministry.
issue came to a head in the final two months of 1941. The raids of 7/8 November
are often seen as the catalyst. On the surface the raids appear fairly
straight-forward. Max Hastings (Bomber Command, p. 126) offers the simplest
version, though his last sentence is chilling:
On the night of 7 November 37 aircraft were lost out of 400 dispatched. 12.5
per cent of those sent to Berlin, 13 per cent of those sent to Mannheim and 21
per cent of those sent to the Ruhr failed to return. Only those sent to targets
in France came home relatively unscathed.
Including those aircraft which had crashed inside England, the entire front
line of Bomber Command had been statistically wiped out in less than four
Denis Richards (The Hardest Victory, p. 100) offers a much fuller story, and
includes details of the weather:
No fewer than 169 [bombers] took off for Berlin, and 223 for other targets. But
the weather proved too formidable; of the Berlin contingent, fewer than a half
reached their objective, and those did little damage. The German capital was in
any case at extreme range for the Wellingtons and Whitleys which formed the
bulk of the force; and with much more thick, ice-laden cloud and higher winds
on the return journey than had been forecast, it was not only the inexperienced
pilots who found their petrol running dangerously low. Of the 169 aircraft sent
to Berlin, 21 ; a shocking 12.5 per cent ; failed to return. ...
The losses on the Berlin raid, however, were not the only disaster on 7/8
November. Fifty-five aircraft took off for Mannheim ; seven (13 per cent) did
not return. Another 43 went to the Ruhr, or mining; nine (21 per cent) were
reported missing. Only the 133 sent against the nearer targets ; Cologne,
Ostend and Boulogne ; got home intact.
The loss of 37 bombers in a single night ; more than twice a many as in any
previous night's operations ; naturally resulted in enquiries.
Finally, Martin Middlebrook (Bomber Command War Diaries, pp. 217-18) details
losses by aircraft type, and includes results from later research. His full
entry for 7/8 November runs almost two pages. Below are excerpts:
169 aircraft ; 101 Wellingtons, 42 Whitleys, 17 Stirlings, 9 Halifaxes ; of 1,
3 and 4 Groups. 21 aircraft ;10 Wellingtons, 9 Whitleys, 2 Stirlings ; were
lost, 12.4 per cent of those dispatched.
73 aircraft reached the general area of Berlin but could only claim fires on
the outskirts of the city... . This was the last major raid on Berlin until
53 Wellingtons and 2 Stirlings of 1 and 3 Groups. 7 Wellingtons lost.
43 crews bombed in this area and reported a large fire. A specific request to
Mannheim [presumably made after the war] for a report for this particularly
important night brought the reply that there was no record of any bombs falling
in the city. It is not known where the bombs of this force fell.
...Total effort for the night: 392 sorties, 37 aircraft (9.4 per cent) lost.
This loss was more than double the previous highest for night operations. It is
probable than many of the casualties crashed in the North Sea, suffering from
icing or fuel exhaustion in the bad weather conditions there.
The raid is worth looking at in such detail because it gives us a look at a
major undertaking by 1941 standards, and measures (to some extent) Bomber
Command's success. Of 224 aircraft sent against Berlin and Mannheim, only 116 ;
a mere 52 per cent ; claimed to find their target. Twenty-eight aircraft (12.5
per cent) were lost: a total of 163 crew. As a result of the bombing, Berlin
suffered 11 killed, 44 injured, and 637 bombed out and receiving official aid.
Only 30 buildings, all houses, were declared destroyed, though more, including
16 wooden garden houses and one farm building, were damaged. Mannheim, as
Middlebrook points out, has no record of an air attack on this date. There was
nothing comforting to Bomber Command in any aspect of the raid.
Secondly, it introduces a further element ; weather ; which plays a large role
in the outcome of this particular raid. Weather conditions affected many Bomber
Command attacks between 1939 and the end of 1941, because weather hampered
navigation and target location. In this raid, 57 per cent did not find Berlin,
and 12 per cent did not find Mannheim. On 7/8 November, weather conditions were
marginal at best, and may have been worsening, particularly given the distance
to Berlin. Indeed, 5 Group had its Hampdens redirected to Cologne because of
the worsening weather, which included stronger than anticipated head-winds on
the return journey coupled with icing conditions.
Both Richards and Middlebrook suggest the weather played a role in the high
loss rate, and they are undoubtedly correct. Yet it is worth noting that no
planes are recorded as crashing in Britain ; as might be expected, given fuel
limitations while trying getting back to base against head-winds ; though these
data were recorded. 
Between them, the War Cabinet and the Air Ministry responded quickly to the
events of 7/8 November. Within a week, a new directive was delivered to Bomber
Command, invoking the need for restraint in target choice when factors (e.g.,
weather and distance) were adverse. In fact, the directive called for a scaling
back of the bomber offensive, until weather and new equipment improved the
possibilities for effective attacks. Even without knowing the ineffectiveness
of their strikes, it was deemed unacceptable that Bomber Command should suffer
such high loss rates.
Peirse, C-in-C of Bomber Command, felt that the capabilities of his air crew
had been called into question, and argued that it would be counter-productive
to limit the scope, size or timing of his assault. Indeed, he may have
committed his forces to the raids of 7/8 November to prove that his command
would not be deterred by weather. But in the face of the Butt Report and the
coolness shown by Churchill and others to the claims for the bomber offensive,
Peirse's response to this latest directive, while understandable, was
Portal, until recently C-in-C of Bomber Command and now Chief of Air Staff at
the Air Ministry, would not leave the matter alone. Through November and
December, he checked statements and facts and weather data. By the end of the
year, he had determined that Peirse was guilty of an error in judgment. He
presented his findings to Churchill on January 4, 1942. Peirse was relieved of
command four days later.
By the end of 1941 the war had broadened immeasurably. The United States and
Japan had entered the war, making it truly global. But at home, Britain still
had only one offensive weapon: Bomber Command. And the efficacy of the command
was under intense and continuing scrutiny: the events of 1941 had so
discredited Bomber Command claims that it would never fully recover. After a
very rocky start in 1942, Bomber Command would go on to great heights, though
never to the heights it claimed. After 1941, nobody in Britain outside Bomber
Command was convinced it could do the job it had set itself.
. The British were attempting to develop night fighter capability, but
without a good balance of aircraft and radar they were unable to mount an
effective counter-offensive. An early air-borne radar device had been mounted
in Blenheims as early as 1940, but the aircraft itself was too slow to
intercept any intruders it detected.
. Churchill was acting on commitments made to the Greek government. While it
was fighting only the Italians, invading through Albania, the Greek government
rejected his offer of assistance, but it changed its mind when German troops
loomed to the north. The troops sent by Churchill were insufficient,
ill-equipped, and unable to staunch the German onslaught.
. That Malta remained unconquered is miraculous. For the British the three
naval bases covering the Mediterranean ; Gibraltar in the west, Malta in the
centre, and Alexandria in the east ; were a key to the shipping lifeline from
India, Australia and New Zealand. Without this, shipments would have to
circumnavigate South Africa and face the perils of the southeast Atlantic. The
siege of Malta, and the difficulty in supplying this small island, meant that ;
at least in the western half of the Mediterranean ; the Germans and Italians
were virtually unopposed in ferrying supplies to North Africa.
. Churchill, though always a staunch anti-Bolshevik, immediately made common
cause with the Soviet Union, offering whatever assistance was possible. The
Soviets were allies of necessity; Churchill is known to have said that if
Hitler attacked Hell, he (Churchill) would have at least a few good words to
say for the Devil.
. In many ways, the meeting was not a success. Britain (and many military
officials in the U.S.) felt that the announcements from the meeting would bring
the U.S. close to war footing with Germany. Roosevelt was unprepared to go that
far; he had a good reading of the American political pulse. The Atlantic
Charter provided the framework for the United Nations.
. I recently flew along the fringe of a torpedo test range in a
small float-plane, a De Havilland "Beaver", during a training exercise. I
watched an Orion make its pass and climb in front of my aircraft, and watched a
helicopter dropping smoke buoys. My companion saw none of it, and accused me of
inventing the story merely to add some excitement to the flight.
. Lord Cherwell, when still Professor Lindemann, had
endeared himself to Churchill many years before the war, and unfortunately his
statements carried a great deal of weight. His was not a first-class scientific
mind; his chief failings were his inability to listen to others and his
insistence that his ideas must have merit. His obstructionism came close to
derailing the investigation of radar in 1936, and there were countless other
instances where his opinions were counterproductive. His suggestion for an
evaluation of bomber success was nevertheless right on the money.
. I have drawn heavily on Denis Richards, The Hardest Victory, p. 96, for
information concerning the findings of the Butt Report. See also Max Hastings,
Bomber Command, pp. 108-9.
. The army, leavened by strong contingents of commonwealth and colonial
troops, was fighting for its life in North Africa. Initially very successful
against the Italian army, who proved incapable of giving Mussolini his day on a
white charger, the British forces were gutted by Churchill¹s political decision
to assist Greece, under (unsuccessful) assault by Il Duce¹s troops operating
out of Albania and threatened by Wehrmacht forces to the north. The troops sent
to Greece were insufficient both in numbers and in supply, and were driven
first to Crete (a second Dunkirk?) and then, after a successful Luftwaffe
paratroop invasion, to Alexandria (a third?). The troops remaining in Africa
were insufficient in skill and logistics to confront the superior tactical
abilities of Erwin Rommel, who was sent to Africa to support the Italians, and
who drove the British back almost to Alexandria.
The Royal Navy, on the other hand, has much to answer for. Putatively the
world¹s greatest navy, it had contributed little to the first two years of the
war. The RN had a large array of capital ships, resting ; as they had during
the Great War ; at Scapa Flow. They had a vast number of ships at sea ;
corvettes and trawlers and minesweepers ; attempting to cover the lack of
foresight characteristic of the Admiralty, which had proclaimed that the
anti-submarine weapons of the last war would be more than adequate for the
The RN had had its successes, at Montevideo (Graf Spee) and in the Atlantic
(Bismark), and its Mediterranean fleet had achieved excellent results at
Taranto and off Matapan. But it had also taken heavy losses during the
Norwegian campaign and elsewhere. In the western Mediterranean, for example,
the RN received a battering attempting to convoy supplies to Malta. And in one
of its primary roles ; maintaining Britain¹s lifeline of merchant ships ; the
RN proved itself but a pathetic remnant of its former self. It could not keep
the Channel open (and asked the Blenheims to do the job of clearing German
shipping), dared not attack Scharnhorst and Gneisenau while at Brest (and asked
Bomber Command to sink them) and could not stop them from sailing through the
Channel in daylight (and asked Bomber and Coastal Commands to do so), and was
afraid of Tirpitz (and asked Bomber Command to disable her). It is little
wonder that Bomber Harris told the Admiralty, rather acerbically, that he would
take care of its problems "when he had a minute".
There are some excellent publications dealing with life in the "Andrew" during
the war ; one that comes to mind is Heart of Oak, by Tristan Jones ; but they
have received little attention. There is a great story dealing with RN
weaknesses during the war. It is waiting to be told.
. It is interesting to note that writers from Australia, New
Zealand and Britain speak of the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS), while
Canadians speak either of the Commonwealth Air Training Program (CATP) or, more
formally, of the British Commonwealth Air Training Program (BCATP).
. Other commonwealth nations did not wring any concessions from Britain.
Their pilots were part of the RAF command structure, and were placed where they
were needed. There is a touch of bitterness in some current information about
how Commonwealth air crew were treated under RAF command.
. Flt/Sgt Geoffrey B. Whyte, for example, enlisted on September 14, 1940,
graduated from Basic Gunnery School on June 23, 1941, and flew on his first
raid (against Essen) on 5/6 June, 1942. Nine months were given over to basic
instruction, but an additional 11 months elapsed before his first op.
. It is difficult to establish exact numbers of aircraft losses,
because the methods by which they were counted or excluded have never, to my
knowledge, been clarified. Middlebrook separates losses from crashes on
returning to England, and has a separate category for aircraft shot down over
England by intruders (i.e., enemy night fighters). His numbers do not always
tally in specifics with other sources of information, but this may reflect more
on the quality of the original data than on the veracity of any source.
Copyright © 2001 Brian Grafton. All rights reserved. Duplication of text
or materials in any form prohibited except with the express written consent of
Written by Brian Grafton. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Brian Grafton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published online: 09/20/2001.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.