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Bomber Command

Bomber Command

    What Was It?

During World War II the bombing forces of Canada and the other Commonwealth Countries were placed under British command to conduct operations against the Nazis in Europe. Bomber Command operated continuously for some 2000 days in what has been described as the most prolonged and gruelling operation of war ever carried out.

    The Need
During the early years of the war:
  • Almost all of Europe was occupied by the Nazis.
  • Britain was ringed by enemy submarines and being attacked from the air.
  • An invasion of Britain was likely.
  • The United States was not involved in the war.
  • Bombers were the only way for Britain, Canada, and the other Commonwealth Allies to strike back at the enemy.

Winston Churchill watches a Stirling take off for a raid on Berlin.

"The Navy can lose us the war, but only the Air Force can win it. The fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory."

    -Winston Churchill September, 1940

Nazi occupied territory in 1940.



  • Twin-engine Whitleys, Blenheims, Hampdens, and Wellingtons.
  • Crews of four to six.
  • Bomb load limited to 4500 pounds or less.

  • Tactics

  • Aircraft operated independently.
  • After terrible losses during daylight raids, the aircraft operated almost exclusively at night.
  • Limited tools for navigation -a map, compass, assumed winds, and the stars. This often resulted in limited success locating and accurately bombing targets.

  • Bomber Command and the Battle of Britain

  • During the summer of 1940, RAF Fighter Command was being slowly destroyed by Nazi air attacks on its aircraft and facilities. After German bombs were inadvertently dropped on London, Bomber Command was ordered to attack Berlin on 25 August.
  • An infuriated Hitler retaliated with massive attacks on British cities giving Fighter Command time to recover and win the "Battle of Britain."
  • Hitler was forced to cancel his planned invasion of Britain.

"Bomber Command took the offensive to the enemy from the war's early stages, demonstrating to friend and foe alike that Britain and the Dominions did not intend to acquiesce to the totalitarian regimes. It provided a 'poor man's second front' to the beleaguered Soviets, when no other major commitment, such as a premature land campaign, could be initiated."

    -David Bashow

"The trip took nine hours and forty minutes but whether we ever got to Berlin I cannot say, because on ETA the whole area was obscured by thick cloud."

    -Sgt. Jock Hill
         (26 August, 1940)

       Bristol Blenheim ==>>

"Rain used to come into the cockpit and for three months my hands were frost-bitten." Everything was bare metal and sharp corners, and vital switches that were all too easy to brush against, especially when one's bulk was inflated by the multiple layers of clothing needed to keep out the freezing cold, plus a yellow "Mae West" around the upper body for flotation. A leather helmet covered the head, bulging with the vital earphones. Except for the eyes, the face was covered by a carefully fitted mask that contained a microphone and supplied life-giving oxygen."

    -A Whitley Bomber Pilot

"Wounded . . . fighters . . . five hundred feet."

    -W/C "Moose" Fulton; C/O No. 419 Sqd. RCAF
             [His last message]

Armstrong Whitworth Whitley

"Finally, we reached the point where we thought, and hoped, Berlin lay . . . dropped our bombs and turned for home. It wasn't long before I realized we were in trouble because the winds had increased greatly in strength and were almost dead ahead. Eventually, I lost height down to a few hundred feet to avaid incing conditions and save fuel . . . I realized we were unlikely to make base. I had little or no fiel left and told the crew to tke up ditching positions."

    -F/L John Fauquier

No. 408 Squadron RCAF Handley Page Hampden

No. 405 Squadron RCAF Vickers Wellington

"Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.
All hearts go out to the fighter pilots whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power."

    -Winston S. Churchill 20 August, 1940

[ It is often overlooked
that when Churchill coined the phrase "The Few,"
he was including the bomber crews
as well as the fighter pilots. ]



  • Four-engine Stirlings, Halifaxes, and Lancasters with crews of seven.
  • The fast, twin-engine Mosquitoes with a crew of two.
  • Bomb loads of up to 22,000 pounds.

  • Tactics

  • "Thousand Bomber Raids" boosted the morale of the airmen and the civilians as well.
  • The bombers flew in compressed, narrow bomber streams.
  • The Pathfinder Force was created to mark the targets with flares.
  • Generally, Bomber Command attacked by night. Beginning in August 1942, the American air force joined the effort and attacked by day.

The tightly-packed bomber streams had advantages
but there were many mid-air collisions.
Almost all resulted in the loss of both aircraft
but in this case, the Halifax in the foreground
made it back to base but without its nose
and the two aircrew who were in it.

Handley Page Halifax

"We were the Master Bomber and my Target Indicators were right on the aiming point. We were able to control the remaining crews to hit the bombing point and create a very successful raid. As we left the target area we flew right over the highway and saw army vehicles coming out of camouflage and moving down the highway. We realized that the raid was successful, we had removed a blockage so the army could move again."

    -Ross Baroni, No. 405 Squadron RCAF

Short Stirling

"GEE was the first radio navigation aid that we got. It worked well but as we got farther away it lost its accuracy. Once we were about 400 miles from England it wouldn't work at all because of the curature of the earth. But it was great for finding our way back to base when the weather was bad or the airfields were fogged in."

    -Jim Love RCAF Navigator

The Pathfinders' flares
came in red, green, and yellow.

H2S was a downward-looking radar
that navigators could use to identify
coastal features, rivers,
and built up areas
to assist with navigation.

Bundles of "Window" ---being dropped from
a bomber. This was a technique to create
thousands of false radar images by dropping
huge amounts of thin strips of aluminum foil.

Navigator W.D. Miller used the intersecting green and red
"GEE" lines as he plotted his course to a target in Germany.

No. 424 Squadron Avro Lancaster "Picadilly Princess""



  • All Bomber Command aircrew were volunteers. Most were in their late teens or early twenties.
  • Their lives were a unique mixture of danger and normality, at one moment on a terrifying bombing raid, a few hours later safely home at the pub.

  • Crewing Up and Operational Training

  • Pilots, wireless (radio) operators, navigators, bomb aimers, and air gunners were brought together in a large room and told to organize themselves into crews.

  • The Bond

  • Based on mutual trust, dependence, and shared experiences -both terrifying ones in the air and enjoyable ones while off duty, the bond between members of a bomber crew was very strong.

"With few exceptions, bomber crews were extraordinarily tight-knit groups, their members' lives enmeshed on the ground just as they were in the air. Seven strangers became united in a common endeavour; countless close friendships born on some windy British airfield have lasted a lifetime."

    -Spencer Dunmore

"You were seven men brought together by conflict and you came to know each other's every mood and reaction, ability, and humility, likes and dislikes during your training and operational life together . . . Your crew -seven men who not only flew together but ate, drank, slept, and played together . . . You were "one" and generally inseparable; rank meant little between you, yet you knew the dividing lines between respect, authority, and familiarity."

    -F/Lt. Eddie Tickler

This crew has just returned from their thirtieth operation,
including nine trips to the most dangerous target of all, Berlin.
They are elated as their tour of operations is over
and they have beaten the odds. Five of the crew went on
to serve a second tour together.
This particular aircraft was lost the following night
after an operational life of only nine days.


    Preparing the Aircraft

  • By 07:00 orders are received that operations are "on" for the station's squadrons.
  • Ground crews work feverishly on the thirty aircraft that are at dispersals around the perimeter of the aerodrome.
  • Air tests are completed and then bombs and ammunition are loaded.
  • By mid-afternoon the bombers are fueled and ready to go.

  • Briefing

  • At 11:00 aircrew gather in the Briefing Room facing a stage.
  • A curtain is drawn revealing a map with the route to the target.
  • Information regarding courses, known defences, tactics, timing, altitudes, radio frequencies, and weather is provided.

  • Climbing Aboard

  • By 16:00 the aircrew have had their traditional pre-operation meal of bacon and eggs, have been issued with their parachutes, and are in their flight gear.
  • Small trucks take the aircrew to the aircraft that are dispersed around the perimeter of the airfield.
  • The crew grope their way along the dark, narrow fuselage and begin the pre-flight checklists.

  • Flying to the Target

  • At dusk the bombers take off and rendezvous with those from other bases to form a narrow stream of several hundred on the same course. The risk of collisions is accepted as they hope to overwhelm the enemy's defences.
  • The enemy's radar alerts their fighters soon after the bombers are airborne.

  • The Bomb Run

  • Through searchlights and flak, the bomb aimer spots the target indicators dropped by the Pathfinder Force.
  • The bomb-bay doors open and the bomb aimer guides the pilot to the target.
  • The bombers are most vulnerable at this point in the raid.

  • Returning to Base

  • The bomber may have suffered flak damage over the target and, after eight or more hours in the air, engines often developed problems and had to be feathered. Many bombers were lost in the North Sea after a futile struggle to reach England.
  • The English coast, often covered by low-lying fog is finally sighted.
  • The airmen had to remain alert, as enemy intruder fighters sometimes followed the bombers home and attacked as they were landing.
  • Stiff and weary, the airmen are taken to the debriefing hut after eight hours in the air. One more day of war is over.



  • Hundreds of radar-controlled beams probed the sky over an enemy industrialized area and, once "coned," a bomber was generally trapped, becoming the focus for fighters and anti-aircraft guns.

  • Anti-Aircraft Guns

  • Batteries of radar-controlled guns could fill the sky with flak. By September 1943, 8876 of the deadly 88 mm guns were defending the homeland with a further 25,000 light flak guns.

  • Fighters

  • Guided by controllers on the ground and often equipped with on-board radar, night-fighters accounted for most of the bombers that were destroyed. They were armed with powerful 20 and 30 mm cannons. Some carried upward-pointing guns, enabling them to attack bombers from below where their defences were weakest.

I dived from my superior altitude and got the bomber in my sights. The airspeed indicator rose to 330 mph. The bomber grew ever larger in my sights. Now I could see the tall tail unit and the rear gunner's perspex turret . . . a few well-aimed bursts lashed the bomber's fuselage, tearing off huge pieces of fabric. The Tommy was on fire and turned over on its back."

    -Oberleutnant Wilhelm Johnen

Ju-88 fighter with upward firing cannons.

"I had just closed the bomb doors when I went blind. Absolutely blind. Terrified, I realized we had been coned. The world was a dazzling white, as though a giant flashlight was aimed directly into my eyes. I couldn't see my hands on the control column, couldn't see the instrument panel, couldn't see outside the cockpit. I was naked, totally exposed, helpless. We were a very bright and shiny target in the apex of fifty or more beams that were radar directed. They weren't going to let go easily."

    -Doug Harvey, No. 408 Squadron RCAF

    To each and every crew, a sky full of flak ahead was a real stomach-churner. Then the flak bursts would be careening past by the dozen . . . each man feeling alone, naked. Each Lanc would be recoiling and shuddering her entire length as the flak polka-dotted the sky. And then there was the noise . . . the sound . . . the fury of confusion to contend with. It was a hell impossible to describe . . . a hell endured time and time again if luck held."

        -Mike Garbett

Messerschmitt Bf 110 with radar antennas.


"The primary objective of Bomber Command will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system."

    -Arthur Harris

"The Commander-in-Chief was a very direct, down-to-earth person who exuded authority and commanded great respect and loyalty. He very seldom visited stations. He didn't have much time to do so, but in some mysterious way his personality and influence pervaded the whole Command. What he had was leadership."

    -Wilf Burnett, Bomber Command Pilot

"There are a lot of people who say that bombing cannot win the war. My reply to that is that it has never been tried . . . and we shall see."

    -Arthur Harris

Canadian Johnny Fauquier DSO and 2 BARS DFC
commanded 405 Squadron RCAF
during his first two tours of operations
and the legendary 617 'Dambusters' Squadron for his third.

Air Marshal Arthur Harris assumed
command during February, 1942.
He was highly thought of
by Bomber Command aircrew.


  • The successes of Bomber Command were purchased at a terrible cost.

  • Over 58,000 aircrew, including about 10,400 Canadians, were killed.

  • Of every 100 airmen who joined Bomber Command, 45 were killed, 6 were seriously wounded, 8 became Prisoners of War, and only 41 escaped unscathed.

  • Of those serving with Bomber Command at the beginning of the war, only 10% survived.

  • Only the Nazi U-Boat force suffered a higher casuality rate.

  • On a single night Bomber Command lost more aircrew than Fighter Command lost during the entire Battle of Britain.

  • 10,321 aircraft were lost in combat or in crashes in the UK.

"I am doing all I can to bring about a condition which will cause tyranny and oppression to leave this world, so that you and your future friends and playmates may never know what these words mean."

    -F/O Stephen Roxburgh

[ From a letter to his newborn nephew.
F/O Roxburgh was killed three months later ]

"Lost another one of my pals last night which means out of four of us who always were together there's only myself left. Makes me sit back and wonder how I ever managed to get through (his tour of thirty operations)."

    -Sgt. Robert Turnbull

      "There's a bubbling fire-ball in front of us. It mushrooms into a tight, swirling gray cloud; then spews out a Lancaster, whole!, blazing from wingtip to wingtip. She falls slowly -spinning beneath us in a cartwheel of flame . . . moments ago, its crew was thinking and working just like us!"

          -Charles Cuthill

"The compulsions of 1915 and 1940 produced two of the most unbelievable manifestations of human courage and endurance in the history of war -the infantry of 1914-1918 and the Bomber Crews of 1939-1945."

    -MSir John Slessor,
         Marshal of the Royal Air Force

"The crews faced formidable odds, odds seldom appreciated outside the Command. At times in the great offensives of 1943 and 1944 the short-term statistics foretold that less than 25 out of each 100 bomber crews graduating from Operational Training Units would survive their first tour of 30 operations."

    -Murray Peden

Once a fuel tank was set on fire
the bomber was doomed.

"One time a fellow tossed me the keys to the car that he had rented and told me that if he didn't come back, to take his car back to town. He was so happy-go-lucky about it all. I felt so good when he came back all right. He was a grand fellow. The next time he went out he didn't come back. Sometimes it all seems like a dream, and yet it isn't, and that is the feeling that you can't get out of your system."

    -Sgt. R. Lloyd Jones

A Bomber Command aircraft explodes.

This Lancaster returned to base
without its rear turret
and the rear gunner who manned it.


  • More than one quarter of Bomber Command aircrew were Canadians.

  • Hundreds of Canadians were serving with Bomber Command in the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of war.

  • Through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 131,000 aircrew were trained in Canada.

  • The number of Canadians serving with Bomber Command increased dramatically as the war progressed.

  • Most RCAF aircrew served on RAF squadron.

  • In October of 1942, No. 6 Group of Bomber Command was created to be predominantly manned by Canadian officers and men. By the end of the war, it had grown to fourteen squadrons.

"During No. 6 Group's Halifax operations between March 1943 and February 1944, the average loss rate was 6.05% , producing a mere 16% survival rate (for a tour of 30 operations)."

    -David Bashow

425 'Alouette' Squadron RCAF

There are more than 10,800 names on Canada's Bomber Command Memorial Wall.


  • As with attacks by the Nazis on European and British cities and by the Americans on Japanese and European cities, significant civilian casualties were an unfortunate result of Bomber Command raids.

  • During the war there was overwhelming public support for Bomber Command's operations.

"Although the deliberate slaughter of the German workforce was never mandated, collateral damage was certainly anticipated and it was understood there would be civilian casualties."

    -David Bashow

"The bomber crews did not enjoy what they had to do. They were very conscious that some innocent civilians unavoidably were being killed but they had a job to do and knew that war was a bloody business."

    -Sir Michael Beetham,
         Marshal of the Royal Air Force


  • For much of the war, Bomber Command was the only direct way of taking the fight to the enemy.

  • The Allies were under great pressure by the Soviets to invade occupied Europe and create a second front. The efforts and successes of Bomber Command made it possible to resist these pressures until a successful invasion was much more likely.

  • The enemy's industrial capacity was significantly reduced.

  • The Dambuster Raid raised the morale of Allies.

  • The destruction of the enemy's railway network contributed to the success of "D-Day."

  • Nazi V-2 missile development was delayed significantly.

  • Air-dropped mines denied the enemy the use of much of the Baltic Sea.

  • U-Boat construction and maintenance facilities were destroyed.

  • The Battleship Tirpitz and five other major warships were destroyed.

"Nearly 900,000 men were required to run the anti-aircraft defences by 1944. By then, the defence of the Reich demanded 81% of Germany's fighter aircraft resources and nearly 60,000 pieces of artillery that could have otherwise greatly aided their land forces."

    -David Bashow

    "The massive achievements of Bomber Command will long be remembered as an example of duty nobly done."

        -Winston Churchill

Mine being dropped into enemy waters.

"The real importance of the air war was that it opened a second front long before the invasion of Europe. That front was the skies over Germany... The unpredictability of the attacks made the front gigantic...... As far as I can judge from the accounts I have read, this was the greatest lost battle on the German side."

    -Albert Speer,
         Hitler's Minister for Armaments

      Industrial factory at Essen destroyed
      by a Bomber Command Raid.

The Mohne Dam, breached by The Dambusters.

A Nazi airfield put out of action.

"The bomber offensive paved the way, through the destruction of the enemy air defences, oil resources, and transportation networks, for a successful invasion of Germany through Northwest Europe in 1944."

    -David Bashow

Synthetic Oil Plant at Boehlen destroyed.

"Defence against air attacks required the production of thousands of anti aircraft guns, the stockpiling of tremendous quantities of ammunition all over the country, and holding in readiness hundreds of thousands of soldiers."

    -Albert Speer,
         Hitler's Minister for Armaments

    "The emphasis upon fighter production for the defence of the homeland also minimized the air support available to German troops at the fighting fronts. Thus, without the Allied bombing, German forces would have had much greater protection, and Allied forces would have been subjected to much more German bombardment."

        -David Bashow

Capsized German battleship Tirpitz being salvaged after the war.


"Three thousand miles across a hunted ocean they came, wearing on the shoulder of their tunics the treasured name, "Canada," telling the world their origin. Young men and women they were, some still in their teens, fashioned by their Maker to love, not to kill, but proud and earnest in their mission to stand, and if it had to be, to die, for their country and for freedom."

"One day, when the history of the twentieth century is finally written, it will be recorded that when human society stood at the crossroads and civilization itself was under siege, the Royal Canadian Air Force was there to fill the breach and help give humanity the victory. And all those who had a part in it will have left to posterity a legacy of honour, of courage, and of valour that time can never despoil."

Bomber Command Museum of Canada