The role of Bomber Command in World War Two still courts controversy. In 1992, a statue of Bomber Command’s leader, Arthur Harris, was unveiled in London – within 24 hours it had been splattered with red paint. In recent years, some commentators in Germany have stated that the raids by Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force on German cities should be seen as a crime on a par with the Holocaust. Bomber Command was making near enough daily raids on Nazi German targets from 1944 on. The attacks on German cities and the casualties these attacks caused have been the source of much controversy and Winston Churchill failed to even mention Bomber Command in his victory speech on VE Day and no campaign medal was ever issued to the unit.
A Lancaster Bomber
‘Bomber’ Harris, head of Bomber Command, believed that a prolonged and sustained attack on German cities would lead to a collapse in German morale. The civilians themselves would cause the Nazi hierarchy to sue for peace, so Harris believed. Thus Bomber Command was ordered to attack by night German cities and industrial zones outside of cities. Certain ‘specialist’ raids took place that were different to the norm – the Dambuster Raid and the bombing of the V1 and V2 research laboratory at Peenemunde, for instance. However, for the bulk of the men who flew with Bomber Command from 1944 on, German cities were the main target and the attrition rate among crews was very high. Bomber Command suffered a higher casualty rate than any other part of the British military in World War Two – 55,573 airmen were lost, with a large percentage of these men being lost between 1944 and 1945.
As bombers gathered over the east of Britain getting into formation ready for the flight to a designated target, they were safe. As they crossed into occupied Europe, they faced the real danger of attacks by German night fighters which could pick up a bomber on their radar. As they passed into Germany they faced the dangers of anti-aircraft fire. If a large plane like the Lancaster or Stirling was caught by searchlight, it had little chance of escape as AA fire would concentrate on the illuminated target.
was as if someone had flipped a switch in a dark room and you were the
only one picked out of all the other aircraft around you. And you knew
what would happen next, because you’d seen other planes suddenly
illuminated, then hit by shells. Balls of flames came from the engines,
then from the fuselage, and you’d see it all going down and down until
it disappeared into total darkness.”
Bob Pierson, Lancaster machine gunner.
Probably Bomber Command’s worst night came in March 1944. Harris had targeted Nuremburg – Harris personally selected targets. The attack was risky simply because of the distance the crews would have to fly – 1,500 miles over an eight hour time span. Nuremburg, because of its association with the Nazi Party, was also heavily defended. A March night could usually guarantee some form of cloud cover for the crews. On this night there was a full moon and very little cover. Nearly 800 bombers were used for the raid. However, for whatever reason, the Luftwaffe had guessed that Nuremburg was to be the target for that night. Within one hour, 59 bombers were shot down by Messerschmitt 109’s and Focke-Wolfe fighters. During the flight towards their target, the bomber crews also experienced a very rare occurrence. Bombers did not usually create a vapour trail below 25,000 feet. For this raid, planes flew below 25,000 feet and some were as low as 16,000 feet. For whatever meteorological reason, the planes gave off vapour trails – clearly indicating to the German fighter pilots where they were. In all, the total loss to Bomber Command on this one mission was 64 Lancaster’s and 31 Halifax’s lost – 670 men.
Though comparisons can be spurious and potentially misleading, Fighter Command lost 515 pilots of all nationalitiesin the whole four months of the Battle of Britain (though this represented 17% of all pilots). The casualty rate for the attack on Nuremburg, which survived relatively unscathed from this raid as many bombs missed their target, was 12% of crews – 4% was considered to be an acceptable loss rate. Despite such losses, Harris, along with the Americans, continued with his policy of attacking German cities. This climaxed with the attack on Dresden in February 1945.