Tag Archives: RAF Bomber Command

One Author’s Personal Tribute to the men of RAF Bomber Command

“Although author George Stratford’s  novel, Buried Pasts, consists entirely of fictional characters and events, his inspiration to create this story came from an all too real source – his Canadian father, a pilot who was killed in action on the 19th July 1944 whilst serving with 78 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command. George was just six weeks old at the time.”

Read a sample chapter. 

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Using themselves up

“Beyond those who died flying for Bomber Command, many more outstanding men somehow used themselves up in the Second World War, leaving pathetically little energy and imagination to support them through the balance of their lives. Surviving aircrew often felt deeply betrayed by criticism of the strategic air offensive, It is disgraceful that they were never awarded a campaign Medal after surviving the extraordinary battle that they fought for so long against such odds, and in which so many of them died. One night after I visited a much-decorated pilot in the North of England in the course of writing this book, he drove me to the station. Suddenly turning to me in the car, he asked: ‘Has anybody else mentioned having nightmares about it?’ He said that in the past ten years he had been troubled by increasingly vivid and terrible dreasm about his experiences over Germany.

A teacher by profession, he had thought nothing of the war for years afterwards. The a younger generation of his colleagues began to ask with repetitive, inquisitive distaste: ‘How could you have done it? How could you have flown over Germany night after night to bomb women and children?’ He began to brood more and more deeply about the past. He changed his job and started to teach mentally-handicapped children, which he saw as a kind of restitution.  Yet still, more than thirty years after, his memories of the war haunt him.

It is wrong that it should be so. He was a brave man who achieved an outstanding record in the RAF. The aircrew of Bomber Command went out to do what they had been told had to be done for the survival of Britain and for Allied victory. Historic judgements on the bomber offensive can do nothing to mar the honour of such an epitaph.”

-Max Hastings, 458-459.


The cost of the bomber offensive

“We want- that is, the people who served in Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force and their next of kin- a categorical assurance that the work we did was militarily and strategically justified.”

-Wing-Commander Ernest Millington MP, House of Commons, 1946

Having taken a long look at Bomber Command over the last few weeks, I think the time has come to start shifting our focus. There are two pieces of work to be done before I start adding the specific details from the log book: further consideration of memoirs and memory (all the work we have looked at thus far has been written by historians; I’d like to look at some first-hand accounts- one written during the war and one written long after it).  I also need to build a better understanding of the situation in North Africa, working from the ground up.

But, before we depart from the topic of Bomber Command, I’d like to collect and post a few final thoughts on the balance sheet and why it remains such a difficult topic even today.

Here is Hasting’s summation:

“After the War, beneath a thin layer of perfunctory good will, it was soon apparent that…in the safety of peace the bombers’ part in the war was one that many politicians and civilians would prefer to forget. The laurels and romantic adulation were reserved for Fighter Command, the defenders. The men of the Army Occupation were first awed, then increasingly dismayed, by the devastation of Germany (451).”

“The bomber offensive partly fulfilled useful purposes for the Allied war effort. Bomber Command entirely satisfied Churchill’s hopes…by fighting a long-holding action to buy time before launching Overlord on overwhelmingly favourable terms. If the airmen had pitched their demands for resources, their own hopes and their subsequent claims more modestly, history might have judged them more kindly. As it was, the cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved (458).”


A final tally

All RAF aircrews were volunteers. They had an average age of 22.

Of 125,000 bomber aircrew involved, more than 55,000 were killed, over 8,000 were wounded and nearly 10,000 were prisoners of war. This was on a scale proportionate to British casualties in the trenches during the worst period of World War One.

43,000 British civilians were killed during the Blitz.

Through the bombing offensive, 593,000 German civilians died and 3.37 million dwellings were destroyed, including 600,000 in Berlin alone.

Hastings’ final judgment reads:

“The bomber offensive partly fulfilled useful purposes for the Allied war effort. Bomber Command entirely satisfied Churchill’s hopes… by fighting a long holding-action to buy time before launching Overlord on overwhelmingly favourable terms. If airmen had pitched their demands for resources, their own hopes and their subsequent claims more modestly, history might have judged them more kindly. As it was, the cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved” (458).


I’m afraid we’ve had it

In summing up the impossible sacrifices, here is one final story:

97 Squadron were dispatched on an exceptionally difficult low-level operation over Stettin. Experienced pilot Ed Porter, approaching the end of his second tour, was Master Bomber.

He successfully made the outward journey and marked the target, but the furious flak caught his aircraft as he hung over the canal, coned by a dense knot of searchlights. With an unshakeable calm that every crew listening remembered for the rest of their lives, he said on the R/T: “I’m afraid we have had it. I shall have to leave you now. Bailing out. Good luck everybody.” But they were too low for parachutes.

The aircrew of Bomber Command went out to do what they had been told had to be done for the survival of Britain.
In writing his book, Hastings says:

“As for those who flew, it was deeply moving to sit through long evenings in suburban bungalows, listening to very ordinary middle-aged men describing the quite extraordinary things they did as young aircrew over Germany. I am grateful that my generation has been spared the need to discover whether we could match the impossible sacrifices that they made.” (xiv)


Lacking moral fibre

Hastings writes that even now (or at least at the time he was writing Bomber Command), it is difficult to obtain information about crew who were classified as LMF: lacking moral fibre.

Based on his interviews, he estimates that as many as 1 in 10 men were unable to complete their tours due to medical or psychological reasons. From his vantage point in 1979 he comments that “Few of these cases would be classified by any but the most bigoted as simple cowardice, for by now the Moran principle that courage is not an absolute human characteristic, but expendable capital every man possesses in varying quantity, has been widely recognised. But in 1943 most cases of men relieved of operational duty for medical or moral reasons were treated by the RAF with considerable harshness (270).”

There was great fear at the top of the service that if an honourable path existed to escape operations, many men would take it. Court martials, humiliating stripping of rank and public disdain fixed crews to their grim operations.

Many men talked of their fate:

“One much-liked officer came fresh from a long stint as an instructor to be a flight commander. ‘You better tell me about this business, chaps’ he said modestly in the mess. ‘I’ve been away on the prairies too long.’ After a few operations he concluded readily that he had no chance of survival. ‘What are you doing for Christmas, Stuart?’ somebody asked him in the mess one day. ‘Oh, I shan’t be alive for Christmas,’ he said wistfully, and was gone within a week, leaving a wife and three children.” (Hastings 281)


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