Bomber Command: To war

At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Bomber Command had an average daily availability of 500 aircraft (total aircraft establishment was 920 aircraft) organised in fifty-five squadrons controlled by five operational Groups. No. 1 and No. 2 Groups were equipped with light bombers – Fairey Battles and Bristol Blenheims respectively – and the other three Groups (3, 4 and 5) with twin-engined ‘strategic bombers’ – Handley Page Hampdens, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitleys and Vickers-Armstrongs Wellingtons respectively.

On 2 September all aircraft of the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) were ordered to deploy to France, the Battles of No. 1 Group duly crossed the Channel, one ditching en route but with the crew being rescued There were effectively four operational Groups left in the UK – Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5 – with No. 6 Group taking on the training role to administer the Group Pool squadrons. These latter units were squadrons within each Group which were given the task of training the crews arriving from Flying Training Schools to a standard whereby they were fit to join operational squadrons and of providing a pool of replacement crews. Any expansion of Bomber Command was faced with a number of hurdles, the most important of which were availability of aircraft, crews and airfields. Each of these aspects was to cause major problems in the early years of the war and in almost every instance the solution was, in some respects, a compromise. The overriding consideration throughout the expansion of the Command was that of maintaining the attack on Germany. Lead times required for new aircraft, airfield construction and the training of aircrew had an effect on the speed with which the expansion progressed.

Bomber Command was in action on day one of the war, a number of Blenheim reconnaissance sorties later followed by a Hampden/Wellington force in search of German shipping were conducted, whilst on the first night of the war Whitleys flew over the Ruhr dropping propaganda leaflets. The Ruhr was a most appropriate destination in Germany for this first, albeit only with paper, visit by Bomber Command as it was the Ruhr that was to receive a great deal of the Command’s effort once the bombing offensive was launched.

This pattern of activity of daylight searches for shipping and night leaflet dropping was to be the focus of Bomber Command’s war for the next few weeks; only small numbers of aircraft were involved and little action took place, although there were early indications of bomber vulnerability such as the loss of five Hampdens on a shipping sortie on 29 September. There appears to have been little reaction to this high level of losses from an attack with no result in terms of damage to the enemy. October and November were quiet months although in addition to limited operational flying a number of exercises were flown, such as that on 22 November to, ‘Investigate the factors of time and concentration of aircraft in attacks on targets situated in a relatively small area’ and that on 28 November on ships in the Belfast area to, ‘Give training and experience in the delivery of concentrated and rapid attack upon warships located in or near harbours.’ The latter exercise involved sixty aircraft from Nos 3 and 5 Groups. Despite losses and lack of success to date, the general opinion was still that aircraft could find and hit their targets and that they would be able to defend themselves. Indeed, the report on an attack on 3 December appeared to confirm this view: ‘Twenty-four Wellingtons carried out an attack upon enemy warships anchored in the vicinity of Heligoland. A total of sixty-three 500 lb semi armour piercing (SAP) bombs were dropped; a direct hit was obtained on a cruiser and probably on a second. At least three bombs were dropped so close to enemy warships as to make it likely that damage was caused and casualties were sustained. Heavy anti-aircraft fire was encountered and some twenty enemy aircraft, including Me 110s, were seen, some of which attacked. One Me 109 was shot down and one appeared to have been hit. Three of our aircraft were hit but all returned safely to their bases.’ This report would seem to suggest that all was well and later that week the Air Ministry ordered attacks on naval forces in German estuaries ‘as soon as possible.’ On 14 December twelve Wellingtons from 99 Squadron were sent to patrol the Elbe Estuary and the Frisian Islands to attack shipping – and it was a disaster. Under fighter attack and in the face of heavy flak half of the attacking formation became casualties; not a promising start to the new campaign. Two days later the Commander-in-Chief presided over a conference of his Group commanders and senior staff to, ‘Examine the existing operating procedures with a view to making such modifications as might be considered desirable in the light of the experience gained in war conditions.’ The ink was hardly dry on the minutes of this meeting, which had reached no firm conclusions, when a second disastrous operation took place. On 18 December No. 3 Group sent twenty-four Wellingtons from three squadrons to patrol the Schillig Roads and Wilhelmshaven to report upon any enemy naval forces. ‘In Wilhelmshaven a battleship, two cruisers and four destroyers were seen in the harbour and alongside. They were not therefore attacked. There was heavy anti-aircraft fire and some twenty-five Me 109s and Me 40s (sic) attacked – at least twelve of which were shot down. Twelve of our aircraft failed to return, of these two are known to have descended into the North Sea on the way home.’ One initial reaction to this disaster was an Air Ministry order suspending attacks on naval forces until the armouring of the Wellington’s fuel tanks had been completed.

So with new aircraft types promised and a major growth in numbers, Bomber Command entered the first winter of the war. With a political injunction against attacks on land targets, the rationale for the strategic bombers had disappeared. The doctrine of bombing the enemy heartland and destroying his industrial capability had been removed at a stroke by the politicians. This was not so much on humanitarian grounds, although the American President had requested both sides to refrain from unrestrained bombing, but more because of a belief that the German bomb lift, i.e. weight of bombs to a target, was greater than that of the RAF.


Whilst the Wellingtons endeavoured to find and attack German shipping, the Whitleys were operating over Germany at night – but only dropping leaflets. This propaganda leaflet-dropping campaign (nickelling as it was called by Bomber Command) continued throughout the war. The first real test for the daylight bombing campaign came in December 1939 when, on a number of occasions, formations of Wellingtons were intercepted by fighters and suffered heavy losses. Another pillar of doctrine, that bombers flying in close formation using mutually supportive fire from their gun turrets could defeat fighter attack, was shattered. The number of sorties had been small and taken overall the losses were still seen as acceptable – and by no means an indicator that an offensive over the Ruhr would not succeed. Nevertheless, from January the Wellingtons and Hampdens joined the night leaflet campaign as there were no suitable bombing targets and it was an excellent way of giving crews practice in night operations. Losses from these sorties were low, as the Germans had not yet developed a night defence system.

One of the major dangers faced by the bomber crews was severe weather, icing being a particular hazard. The Whitley was prone to wing icing and, despite the use of anti-icing aids such as Kilfrost paste, the only real solution was to avoid the icing layers in the cloud. Given the poor performance of the aircraft and the often inadequate Met forecast this was easier said than done – once icing had been detected the only option was a descent in search of warmer air.

April/May 1940 brought a number of developments. The German invasion of Denmark and Norway in April gave Bomber Command a new set of targets, and on 11 April a small force of Wellingtons attacked the airfield at Stavanger in Norway – the first intentional bombing attack on a land target in Europe. The same month saw Hampdens fly the first of a new type of mission: minelaying. Gardening, as these sorties were code-named, was to become a major part of the Command’s work over the next five years. Finally, the German invasion of France in May led to a dramatic and short-lived tactical employment of the AASF Fairey Battles in attempting to stem the enemy armoured columns – with much heroism, and crippling losses among aircraft and aircrew.

The Blenheim squadrons were also heavily tasked in this period; indeed between 10 May (the date of the German invasion) and 25 June, the Blenheims operated on all but four days – flying 1,616 sorties for the loss of 104 aircraft.

By early June the battered remnants of the Bomber Command light bomber force had left France and returned to airfields in England; No. 1 Group had effectively ceased to exist.

The most significant event in May was the lifting of the ban on attacking targets in Germany; the first attack took place on the night of 15 May on oil and rail targets in the Ruhr area – the strategic offensive had started. As major industrial towns were concentrated in the relatively small geographic area of the Ruhr, this part of Germany was to be the focus of much of the bomber effort until the last months of the war. Italy’s entry into the war in June provided additional targets for the bombers.

With the launch of bombing raids on Germany the focus of attack on industrial centres was intended to, ‘Cause the continuous interruption and dislocation of industry, particularly where the German aircraft industry is concentrated.’ On 4 June a new directive had been issued to Bomber Command but with the rider that: ‘The initiative lies with the enemy; our strategic policy is liable to be deflected by the turn of events from the course we should like to follow. The Command was instructed to pursue its campaign against German industry but to be ready to assist in countering any invasion.

With the launch of the bombing offensive the Command endeavoured to attack industrial targets in the Ruhr, this being deemed the area most likely to produce results as it was a major industrial area, often referred to as the ‘weapon smithy’ of the Reich. It was a major mining centre for coal and produced large quantities of coke to feed its own industries and those of other areas. It was home to major industrial towns such as Bochum, Dortmund, Duisburg and Essen, the latter being home to the massive Krupps works. However, the very nature of this industrial centre meant that it had a permanent haze, which made it very difficult for bombers find targets visually. All of these places became regular targets for the Command, as did places such as Gelsenkirchen where the two hydrogenation plants of Gelsenberg-Benzin and Hydrierwerke-Scholvern between them produced 575,000 tons of aviation fuel a year. In addition to the actual industrial targets great importance was attached to the comprehensive rail and canal network that linked Germany’s industrial centres. Indeed, the importance of the rail network became one of the Command’s justifications for its area bombing of cities.

A new directive was issued on 13 July, which stated that the primary aim was to, ‘Reduce the scale of air attack on this country with the aircraft and oil industries being the priority targets’. The Air Staff directive also recommended concentration of effort against a limited number of targets rather than the widespread attacks that had been made so far. It listed ten aircraft factories and five oil installations as the main targets, and it also estimated that bombers would have to hit an aircraft factory with 140 of the standard 500 lb bombs in order to have any effect. Secondary targets included communications centres. However, Portal as AOC-in-C considered the directive too restrictive and sought, and received, authority to be more flexible in his choice of targets. A new target category was added on 30 July with the Command ordered to attack power stations, the experts having decided that these were key targets that if destroyed would seriously disrupt German industry. Power stations featured in the summary of operations over the next few years, some as daylight attacks by the light and medium bombers, others as an aiming point within an area attack on a city. A summary in August showed that the Command had expended 41 per cent of its effort, in terms of bomb tonnage, against Luftwaffe-related targets and a further 21 per cent against oil targets.

The decision to include Operational Training Unit aircraft on ops was in part based on the desire to increase the number of aircraft operating each night but more particularly to provide trainee crews in the latter stages of their course with easy and relatively risk-free operational experience, the favoured mission being night leaflet-dropping over France. The first such op was flown by three OTU aircraft on the night of 18/19 July.

The increased threat from U-boats brought Bomber Command into this aspect of the maritime war, the first specific attack being made against the U-boat pens at Lorient on 2/3 September by thirty-nine Hampdens. A directive of 21 September instructed the Command to allocate three squadrons employed on minelaying to be transferred to attacks on U-boat targets. The same directive dictated a continued focus on the oil industry and also mentioned Berlin: ‘Although there are no objectives in Berlin of importance to our major plans, it is the intention that attacks on the city and its environs should be continued from time to time when favourable weather conditions permit. The primary aim of these attacks will be to cause the greatest possible disturbance and dislocation both to the industrial activities and civilian population generally.’ By the end of September the immediate threat of invasion had receded and the bomber effort was able to focus once more on the strategic offensive, with the light bombers of No. 2 Group contributing to the night attacks, although Blenheims also flew cloud-cover and anti-shipping operations.

The weather in October frustrated the attempt to return to the offensive over Germany, although it was fog at the home airfields that caused the greatest number of losses. On a bad night the Command could lose 10–20 per cent of the bombers to crashes in England; of seventy-three bombers that operated on the night of 16/17 October, fourteen crashed because of fog over their bases (and only three were lost over enemy territory). There had been a similar situation the previous month, as recounted by Ken Wallis (103 Squadron Wellington L7586): ‘At this stage of the war we had orders only to drop bombs if we could identify a military target and so we brought ours back until we could drop them on a harbour target in Holland. This meant of course that we had used more fuel than planned. As we flew over the North Sea we received a message that all aircraft were being diverted to Scotland – not an option for us, we didn’t have the fuel. Using the Darkie system we eventually persuaded someone that we had to try to land at an airfield on the east coast and so made for Binbrook, not that far from our own base. The fog was extensive and despite pass after pass over the airfield, during which we could dimly see the Chance Light, a landing was impossible and each time I just glimpsed a building or obstruction at the last moment and put the Wellington into a steep climb. The petrol gauges had been reading empty for some time and I requested permission to bale out the crew. I was told to fly a little further north – at which point both engines stopped. All the crew were able to get out but I was pretty low when I jumped. It was impossible to see where you were going to come down and I landed heavily and was knocked out, also damaging my back.’ So much for the crash: the subsequent few hours are also worth recounting: ‘When I came to I was near a hedge and had no idea where I was, the fog was still thick and moisture was dripping off the hedge. A few shots from the Mauser pistol that I always carried with me and a Policeman found me. He took me to a nearby large house and the owner was persuaded, with some reluctance, to take pity on a poor pilot. The owner was making tea as he couldn’t sleep and he grudgingly offered me a cup. When I asked to use his phone to call my base and check on my crew he was less than happy – until I offered to reverse the charges. At 6.00 am the next morning the maid arrived and I was looking forward to a good breakfast, especially after I gave her the chocolate and orange I had not eaten from my flying rations. No such luck. The Squadron Commander picked me up in his car at 8.00 am and we then picked up the rest of the crew from some cottages – they had done somewhat better than I had and had been plied with brandy for much of the night!’ They went to the crash site but little survived of the aircraft except the tail, Ken acquired the fabric from the part of the fin with the mission marks painted on it and this now hangs in the hall of his house. After this incident he was given 10 days leave and then it was back to operational flying.

October was a quiet month for the Command because of bad weather but on the 24th it acquired a new commander when Portal moved up to become Chief of the Air Staff, his place being taken by Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse. The strategy for the winter offensive was laid out in a directive of 30 October; it was not new in that oil was to be the priority target, followed by aircraft component and aluminium factories. However, the overall stated aim was for, ‘Regular concentrated attacks on objectives in large towns and centres of industry, with the primary aim of causing very heavy material destruction, which will demonstrate to the enemy the power and severity of air bombardment and the hardship and dislocation which will result from it.’ This core doctrine remained with Bomber Command to the end of the war, although it is interesting to note that oil and the aircraft industry became the focus of the USAAF’s daylight bombing offensive from 1942 onwards, whilst Bomber Command concentrated on area bombing of cities of industrial and communications importance. The directive also called on the Command to continue its contribution to the maritime war; indeed it could only reduce this involvement with prior agreement from the Admiralty. Agreement was reached to reduce the minelaying force to one dedicated squadron.

It must be remembered that at this stage of the war Bomber Command’s nightly aircraft availability was limited, and a night when around 100 bombers operated was close to a maximum effort. The attack on Hamburg (16/17 November) was the largest to date but only comprised 130 aircraft; the raid was mounted in retaliation for the attack on Coventry the previous night. Only half the crews reported bombing the target and it is likely that if night photographs had been available from all of them that the true percentage would have been far lower. Evidence was beginning to mount that the bomber offensive was failing to have any major effect as bombers were unable to find or hit targets. Other developments in this first full year of war included consideration of tour length for aircrew – and the introduction to service of new bomber types. Discussions on tour lengths had been prompted by concern over the strain of continual operational flying; the ‘squadron commander’s discretion’ policy was gradually replaced by a fixed tour of 200 operational hours, which equated to thirty to thirty-five ops, the policy being circulated to Group commanders on 29 November. Although this calculation changed at various times during the war the basic tour length was generally around thirty ops, more for Pathfinder crews and with some targets only counting as half an operation.


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