Bomber Command moved to its new headquarters near High Wycombe early in 1940. Its commander-in-chief, Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, moved into a centre that had direct communications with all bomber groups and stations in Great Britain. He also had direct communications with Fighter Command and the Air Ministry. Many of the senior officers in Bomber Command were experienced from World War One but none of them had experienced modern bombing as seen at Guernica in the Spanish Civil War. Here the Luftwaffe literally blooded itself.


Wellington bomber

Many men joined Bomber Command and by September 1939, there were nominally 33 bomber squadrons. However, they were equipped with planes that could not match the bombers Nazi Germany had built.

Bomber Group No 1 had been sent to France to assist the BEF, but equipped with obsolete Fairey Battles, they could do little of substance.

Bomber Group No 2 was equipped with Blenheims; Bomber Group No 3 was equipped with Wellingtons; No 4 Group had Whitleys while No 5 Group had Hampdens.

The Blenheims could only carry 1,000 pounds of bombs, so it could not be used as a strategic bomber against Germany.

The Wellington had a maximum speed of 234 mph and could carry a bomb load of 4,500 pounds. However, this twin engined bomber suffered heavy losses against the Germans though it was used in various guises throughout the war.

The Whitley could carry 8,000 pounds of bombs but it had a maximum speed of only 192 mph. Such a handicap led to Bomber Command using Whitleys solely for night time operations.

The Hampden could carry 4000 pounds of bombs and had a maximum speed of 254 mph. The Hampden carried out the first raid on Germany when planes from No 5 Group attacked Hornum.

On paper, Bomber Command had 272 bombers in September 1939. However, in reality, because of a shortage of trained crews, only 140 planes could be used on average. Germany had about 1000 bombers fully operational at the start of the war – excluding the Stuka dive-bomber.

However, all three bombers could hit targets throughout Germany – with additional petrol tanks, even targets in Austria could be hit.

At the start of the war, F D Roosevelt had implored all the leaders in Europe not to bomb civilian targets. In fact, there is no evidence that Hitler had any plans to do so as it would not have fitted in with Blitzkrieg. As the Germans kept to military targets, Bomber Command kept to attacking the German fleet when it could and to dropping propaganda leaflets over Germany.

Bomber Command’s first brush with the enemy came on September 4th 1939. Ten Blenheims and nine Wellingtons attacked the German fleet in the Heligoland Bight. Five Blenheims and two Wellingtons failed to return – and little damage was done to any German warship. However, the attack did have one benefit – the German Navy in that area remained relatively quiet up to December. However, in December, Bomber Command took unacceptable casualties in its attacks on the German Navy. On December 18th, only 10 out of 22 Wellingtons returned from one such raid. The Wellington was heavily armed at the front, rear and on top of the plane. But it was extremely vulnerable to an attack from the sides – hence the heavy casualties. Exposed petrol tanks in the wings made them even more vulnerable if a plane caught fire.

To give crews experience of night flying, Bomber Command introduced primarily night raids. Though crews were usually safe from German fighters, the weather was another matter. The temperature could fall very low and engines and machine gun turrets could literally freeze. Frost bite and oxygen shortages were a real problem. Night time navigation was also a major problem as Germany had a full blackout and the astro-sextant, used to navigate via the stars, was not reliable – neither was the radio aerial. Successful navigation was almost entirely due to the skill of the crew as opposed to any man-made contrivance. The situation did not change until late 1941 when the GEE was introduced – a far more sophisticated radio aid.

In the first six months of the war, Bomber Command made 262 night sorties over Germany, at a cost of five aircraft missing and eight that crashed. The experience crews got from such sorties was to prove invaluable in later years. By comparison, in daylight raids, Bomber Command suffered an attrition rate of about 20% (173 planes used with 31 lost).

The experiences of Bomber Command in the early months of the war, led to a decision being made that night raids were far better in terms of crew survival and night flying became the norm rather than day flying. However, Bomber Command did not have a free hand in its decision-making. Agencies like the Air Staff and the Ministry of Economic Warfare also played a major part in influencing policy. Ludlow-Hewitt had to balance all these up with his concern for the dangers all missions might entail for his crews.

In early 1940, the Air Staff believed that it was only a matter of time before Germany attacked the west of Europe. When this happened, what they wanted was a massive attack by Bomber Command on the Ruhr – using all of their planes to destroy the heart of Germany’s industry. Ludlow-Hewitt was against such an attack as he estimated that 50% of his planes would be lost and that Bomber Command would be operationally crippled for many months. Ludlow-Hewitt was replaced as commander-in-chief by Air Marshall Portal and on April 13th 1940, Portal was given a command that if an attack on the west occurred, his targets were to be German troop concentrations and rail yards and oil plants in the Ruhr. The attacks were to be done primarily at night. Germany launched their attack on the west on May 10th; on May 15th, Bomber Command launched a major attack on the Ruhr. Of the 78 planes on the night raid, only one was lost. However, smog over the Ruhr obscured many of the targets and only 24 crews claimed to have even seen their planned targets.

With the loss of France in June 1940, Bomber Command lost its forward runways. To get to the Ruhr, the planes now had to fly from Britain over occupied Europe – an area bristling with anti-aircraft guns, fighters and searchlights. The fear of a German invasion was great and Bomber Command had its primary objective changed from bombing the Ruhr to bombing ports where any concentration of barges could be identified. Bombers were also used to mine coastal waters.

Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain ended any chance of a German invasion. However, Britain and her allies had not moved any nearer to defeating Germany on mainland Europe. Winston Churchill summed up Britain’s position to his War Cabinet:

“The Navy can lose us the war, but only the RAF can win it. Therefore our supreme effort must be to gain overwhelming mastery of the air. The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.”

Therefore, Bomber Command was expected to take its offensive role to a much greater level. For this to succeed, it needed a new generation of bombers that were capable of defending themselves when attacked and delivering a payload that would cause great damage to the enemy. As Bomber Command had never been in this position before – literally taking the fight to the enemy – it had to develop a new strategy. It highlighted many targets but central to all of them was oil. The Air Staff wanted precision bombing though it accepted that civilians near a target would almost certainly be casualties. Many crews in Bomber Command were against precision bombing as it put them at huge risk. If a target could not be seen first time round, was a crew to circle, despite anti-aircraft fire and searchlights, until it could see its target and then attack? A counter-argument was that any bomb that was dropped but missed its target was a wasted bomb.

Those in Bomber Command who did not favour precision bombing got the support of Winston Churchill who believed that the Germans should suffer what the people of London had suffered during the Blitz. It was also argued that if an area was destroyed, then the primary target somewhere in that area would also be destroyed. In this way, crews would not be endangering themselves more than needs be and the target would be destroyed.

On October 25th, 1940, Portal was promoted and Sir Richard Peirse was appointed commander-in-chief of Bomber Command. On October 30th a new directive was issued that stated:

“Regular concentrated attacks should be made 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 this.”

  In the last few months of 1940, Bomber Command attacked places such as the Krupp’s plant at Essen and Mannheim. The flight crews returned jubilant that their missions had been successful. However, later photographic reconnaissance pictures, showed that the damage inflicted on the Germans had been limited, primarily for two reasons. First, the crews needed much better targeting equipment – at Mannheim, the bombs had been dropped over a large part of the city and the attack was not condensed to the city centre as had been planned. Secondly, a lot of bombs failed to detonate as many had warheads made of amatol, which was an inefficient explosive.

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