Tag Archives: Bomber Command

No writing home

Most of the crews of Bomber Command fought an unending battle with fear during their tours. Here, three pilots recall the fractured life between warm, summer afternoons spent playing cricket and the nightly hell over Germany:

“I was not troubled in my conscience because we were fighting a very ruthless enemy. We all knew this. Our families were home behind us and we were rather like a crusader with his sword in front of them. My thoughts at the time were that I have a family, and a bigger family – the public – and I was going to do my damnedest to stop the Germans coming across.”

Wing Commander,
Rod Rodley DSO DFC AE, Bomber Command website

‘It was a Jekyll and Hyde existence really, and it was funny to just ride around your bike among the fields, and think, well, it’s not many hours since we were in another, completely different world. And probably thinking maybe just once or twice about friends who hadn’t come back. It was a schizophrenic life really. You had to have two caps, one to enjoy yourself and one to get serious.’
Roy MacDonald (as quoted on BBC History site)

‘When the flight crews arrived in the Mess you got an idea from their general behaviour and attitude how long they would last. We would bet among ourselves – “Oh, he’ll make it” or “He won’t make it”. Sitting in a corner writing home was not the sort of thing the average chap did. There were too many things to do to worry about your mother. The young marrieds were the ones who suffered most. We just enjoyed ourselves in our free time. We loved flying. There were sadder times, if a crew didn’t return. One night we lost three aeroplanes, 21 people. There was the ritual of moving their kit from the room. Not 24 hours later, or even less, a truck would come through the gates with the new crews to replace those lost. They would come into the Mess where those who had been on the Squadron for a month or two were considered old hands.

I don’t think we worried about it at the time. We had a job to do. Our role was flying aeroplanes to do whatever we could for the war effort. Of course, one never got to know people for any length of time. On the Squadron we knew that it was short-lived, that we would move on if we survived to the end of our tour. We sorted out our friends. The loners, the ones who sat writing letters home, these were the ones that didn’t seem to last. The ones who enjoyed life, who seemed a bit juvenile at times, survived. My best friend on the Squadron survived with me. There were others that I knew very well who were killed. That was Mess life. Squadron life. It was an odd feeling – I could look back and think I was very hard, that people were hard, but they weren’t really. It was a matter of accepting it. This is what happened in war.”

Maurice Chick,
Bomber Command Pathfinder pilot


A summing up of technical advances

“By late 1944, Bomber Command and the USAAF possessed the means to undertake what Harris had attempted without success in 1942 and 1943: the wholesale destruction of Germany’s cities. But it was too late. When they possessed the strategic justification- in 1942 and 1943- they lacked the means. By winter in 1944, when they had gained the means, the justification was gone, for the Allied armies were evidently on the verge of complete vistory on the ground, and it was only a combination of their own shortcomings and the Wehrmacht’s genius that delayed the end so long. In the last months of war Bomber Command contributed to the punishment of the Germany more than the defeat 0f the enemy”. (Hastings 456)

The lesser evil

Cologne in 1945



The next series of posts will relate to the outcomes of Bomber Command’s strategic air offensive in Europe. I’ve segmented the analysis into three topics: How did they do it- both in the moral and the operational sense? What were the results? How is it remembered and recorded?

In the early phases of the war, all raids were directed against military targets. As it became increasingly apparent that it was not possible to attack such specific destinations with precision, the campaign was shifted to area bombing.

Operation Millennium

In 1942 , Sir Arthur Harris knew that the future of Bomber Command was still in doubt. He approached both Winston Churchill and Sir Charles Portal with the bold idea of assembling a force of 1,000 bombers and sending them out in one massive raid on a German city.

Final orders were ready on 26 May with the full moon approaching. The force stood ready, waiting for the weather. His first choice of target was Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany and a great port. But the weather over Germany was unfavourable for three days running and, on 30 May, Harris decided to send the bombers to his second target choice – Cologne, the third largest city in Germany. Soon after noon on that day, the order to attack Cologne went out to the groups and squadrons and the raid took place that night.

The moral reckoning

The raid was deemed a great success, with devastating fires and casualties fueling the Allied propaganda machine. But not all agreed…

A report was sent to the Air Ministry analysing a sample of civilian letters opened by the censor after the raid: “There are those who are pleased, and those who regret that so much suffering should have to be inflicted.” (Hastings 216).

Distinguished military thinker Captain Basil Liddell Hart wrote a private reflection (219):

“It will be ironical if the defenders of civilization depend for victory upon the most barbaric, and unskilled, way of winning a war that the modern world has seen…it should be a sobering thought that but for Hitler’s folly in attacking Russia we and the Germans would now be ‘Cologning’ each other’s cities with the advantage on Germany’s side, in this mad competition in mutual devastation…”

Many of Britain’s churchmen supported the bomber offensive. The Archbishop of York wrote in 1943 “Often in life, there is no clear choice between absolute right and wrong; frequently the choice has to be made of the lesser of two evils, and it is a lesser evil to bomb a war-loving Germany than to sacrifice the lives of our fellow country-men who long for peace, and to delay delivering millions now held in slavery”.

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (in the heart of 11 Group Territory and only a few miles from Westhampnett, where our story began) was unable to accept this compromise. He addressed the House of Lords in 1944:

“The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is ‘Law’. It is of supreme importance that we, who, with our Allies, are the Liberators of Europe, should so use power that it is always under the control of law.”

Revd. John Collins was Chaplain at Bomber Command. He was also a permanent thorn in the side of authority. After the war he wrote:

“Bomber Command Headquarters was perhaps the most soul-destroying, the most depressing of the places…which I had been to serve. For there, in contrast with the natural beauty of the surroundings, the evil…policy of the carpet bombing of German cities was planned.”

How to navigate this moral battlefield? ┬áIn so many ways, little seems to have changed. The news this evening leads with more strategic air strikes on Libya. After months of highly technical precision bombing and enforcement of the ‘no fly zone’, Quadafi remains in power. And there is dismay that the airforce hasn’t yet finished the job.

History now seems uncertain about how to understand what happened from 1942 and how to reconcile the moral disgrace of the destruction with the youthful, extraordinarily brave aircrew. It explains why there are still so many people passionately campaigning for a permanent memorial- and why one has yet to be created.

A view looking up

The last word on this thought goes to Germany.

Klaus Schmit recorded the stories of Darmstadt, a town ferrociously bombed towards the end of war:

“At the turn of the century, I travelled through Germany’s towns, and each one had its own soul and face. Shortly before the war I ventured again through the same towns, and it seemed that their souls and faces were gone, as if they were dead in themselves. Now, as I walk through the ruins of the same towns, I am overcome by the terrible awareness that they have fulfilled the promise that was made before the war. Instead of living corpses they have become truly dead ones.”

The lowest possible stake

By 1942, Bomber Command was committed to area bombing and the British Government was committed to fulfilling the vast resources demanded by the RAF.

Churchill supported the offensive but now had a limited strategic faith in these attacks.

Why did he persist?

Hastings writes:

“..by far the most convincing reason is that the Prime Minister had already become determined to postpone the opening of a Second Front in Europe until the last possible hour… Churchill never shared the airmen’s faith that the bomber offensive could eliminate the need for a land campaign to defeat the enemy. But the bombers could enable the western Allies to delay aggressively, while Russia fought out the huge battles that broke the Wehrmacht…Neither the Russians nor the Americans could be flatly told that the British proposed to fight no campaign in Europe for years to come…Bomber Command’s 56, 000 dead represented, at the end, the lowest possible stake that Britain could be seen to throw on the tables of Europe, when the Russians were counting their dead in millions. The strategic air offensive might thus be interpreted as the greatest panacea of all.” (169-170)

Bomber Command: The major raids

The most famous wartime raids carried out by Bomber Command, with cuttings of how the Telegraph reported them at the time.

Harris reaps the whirlwind

Trenchard’s foundations for Bomber Command, which are described in more detail in the post below, found a willing and determined disciple in Sir Arthur Harris. Harris was appointed C-in-C of Bomber Command in 1942.

The seeds of failure had been sown before Harris even took command: Trenchard’s theories were not correct ( it wasn’t possible to destroy a country with air power alone and the morale of the Germans did not break); and Bomber Command did not possess the technology to carry out their missions. Ill-equipped Blenheims limped across the channel as they struggled to find their targets through dense cloud ,heavy flak and nimble ME 109s.

“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

-Sir Arthur Harris