History

What Was Bomber Command?

More than 55,500 young men died flying with Bomber Command during World War Two – more than the number who serve in the entire RAF today.

Bomber Command was formed in a 1930s Britain fearing an aerial apocalypse – it was thought a strong force would deter enemy aggression.

It was against this backdrop that Bomber Command was created in the Royal Air Force, providing specialised control of the UK's bomber force between 1936 and 1968.

The organisation existed for 32 years but is best known for the role it played in the Second World War.

This week a ceremony took place to mark the 85th anniversary of the formation of Bomber Command.

About a million men and women from across the world supported Bomber Command during World War Two, with more than 50,000 of them making the ultimate sacrifice.

Their efforts were remembered at the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC) in Lincolnshire.

What made up Bomber Command?

Bomber Command raised 128 operational squadrons during the war, predominantly manned by young, civilian volunteers from Britain and the Commonwealth.

Aircrew were expected to fly a tour of 30 operations before having a rest – operational flying was perilous and exhausting.

Bomber Command flew a variety of light, medium, and heavy bombers of which about 12,000 were destroyed.

The Avro Lancaster, which came into service in April 1942, was fully equipped for night flying and usually flew with a crew of seven men.

617 Squadron flew specially-adapted Lancasters on the legendary 'Dambusters Raid' in 1943.

What role did the Bomber Command play?

The RAF initially believed that the conflict would be a 'bombing war', which would be decided by airstrikes.

Bomber Command was tasked with taking the fight to the enemy, not only to raise the morale of the British people but directly attack and weaken Nazi Germany.

Air Marshal Arthur 'Bomber' Harris was appointed as Commander in Chief of Bomber Command in February 1942, with the objective to destroy Germany’s industrial power and create a collapse in the morale of the civilian workforce, breaking Germany's will to fight on. 

Bomber Command did cause significant disruption to the German war economy by attacking industrial, communications, and fuel targets in occupied Europe and Germany.

Bomber Command's 138 Squadron with a Lancaster at Tuddenham 120545 CREDIT BLACK COUNTRY IMAGES ALAMY
Personnel from Bomber Command's 138 Squadron in May 1945 (Picture: Black Country Images/Alamy).

Their operations

Commander-in-Chief Harris believed that through a combination of improved aircraft, better training and navigational aids, and a ruthless will to press the attack, Bomber Command could knock Germany out of the war.

This led, in May 1942, to the launching of the 'thousand bomber raid' against Cologne, which shocked Germany.

Further massed attacks had a devastating effect on the Nazi war economy, but the country continued to fight. 

More specialised operations also took place, such as the daring 'Dambusters' raid of May 1943 and other attacks, like that on battleship Tirpitz the following year, eliminated the German Navy's last major surface ship.

All these operations demonstrated the adaptability of Bomber Command crews, taking on precision strikes with great effect. 

From November 1943 to March 1944, huge raids on Berlin were launched, promising to knock Germany out of the war in the process. More than 1,000 aircraft and 7,000 aircrew were lost during the deadly 'Battle of Berlin'.

The allies would have to invade to finally defeat Germany.

The controversy which followed

Bomber Command's actions undoubtedly shortened the war, but remain controversial due to the loss of human life.

By VE Day 55,573 had been killed and a further 18,000 were wounded or had been taken prisoner.

With a tragically high casualty rate of 60%, there was no more dangerous occupation in the British Armed Forces.

Bomber Command has been the subject of controversy not only to the personal loss of men but due to the mixed feelings in British post-war society about the ethics of wartime bombing.

The three most divisive subjects are bombing accuracy, the ethics of bombing cities, and particularly bombing locations such as Dresden.

Dresden was an historic, medieval town, which was bombed on 13-15 February 1945 by 769 British and 527 American heavy bombers. City officials telegraphed Berlin that about 20,000 were killed.