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Brian Grafton Articles
An Odd Way to View WWII
Bomber Command

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Bomber Command
Bomber Command
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. [1]
  The British were driven out of Greece. [2]
  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. [3]
  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. [4]
  On July 8, Churchill and President Roosevelt met in Argentia Bay, Newfoundland. From this meeting came the Atlantic Charter. [5]
  President Roosevelt 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 ("Channel Stop").

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 industry.

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 immediately.

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. [6]  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 on radar.

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 executed.

Preliminary assessments of raid photos were not encouraging, but had not received comprehensive attention. Lord Cherwell, [7] 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.
1. Of 100 bombers setting out on an operation, many never found the target.
2. Of those attacking the target, on average only one-third placed their bombs within 5 miles of the target.
3. In hazy or inclement weather, the number of bombers finding the target was only one in ten.
4. On moonless nights, only one bomber in 15 found the target. [8]

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. [9]

New Weapons
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 come.
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 older.

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".
Plane Size Engines
Load (lbs)
Span Length
Wellington Mk I 86' 2" 64' 7" 2X1,050 4,500 22,000 230 2,200 4 .303 mg 6
Heinkel 111H 74' 2" 53' 10" 2X1,350 4,400 21,980 258 1,212 varied 5
Stirling Mk I 99' 1" 87' 3" 4X1,500 17,000 16,500 255 2,330 8 .303 mg 8
Halifax Mk I 98' 8" 70' 1" 4X1,130 13,000 18,000 255 1,860 10 .303 mg 7
Manchester Mk I 90' 1" 69' 0" 2X1,760 10,350 18,000 265 1,630 8 .303 mg 6
Lancaster Mk I 102' 0" 69' 4" 4X1,460 14,000 24,500 287 1,660 8 .303 mg 7

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 bombers.

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.
Plane Size Engines
Load (lbs)
Span Length
Blenheim Mk IV 56' 4" 39' 9" 2X920 1,000 29,500 283 1,460 various 3
Mosquito B. IV 54 '2" 40' 6" 2X1,230 2,000 30,000 380 1,860 various 2

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. [10]  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 future.

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 Park.[11]

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. [12]  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.

July-December, 1941

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 Losses (Planes) Percentages
Days 83 1,567 112 7.1
Nights 92 11,991 414 3.5
Total  -- 13,558 526 3.9
Average/24 hours  -- 107.6 4.2 n/a

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 fly.

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.

The 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 months.

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 January 1943.

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. [13]

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 dangerous.

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.


[1]. 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.

[2]. 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.

[3]. 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.

[4]. 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.

[5]. 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.

[6]. 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.

[7]. 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.

[8]. 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.

[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 present one.

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.

[10]. 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).

[11]. 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.

[12]. 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.

[13]. 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.

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Copyright © 2001 Brian Grafton. All rights reserved. Duplication of text or materials in any form prohibited except with the express written consent of Brian Grafton.

Written by Brian Grafton. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Brian Grafton at:

Published online: 09/20/2001.

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