What was Bomber Command?
The 1930s were an age when aerial apocalypse was feared, and it was believed that a strong bomber force would deter enemy aggression. It was against this backdrop that Bomber Command was formed in the Royal Air Force (RAF). Between 1936 and 1968, it provided specialised control of the UK’s bomber force. While this organisation existed for 32 years, the role of Bomber Command in the Second World War (1939-45) is best known.
The bombing war
On the 3rd September 1939, Britain entered the Second World War. Less than an hour after the declaration, a Blenheim bomber took off to make a reconnaissance of German naval ports. Bomber Command therefore made the RAF’s first operational sortie of the war over enemy territory.
The RAF initially believed that the conflict would be a ‘bombing war’, which would be decided by air strikes. While the emphasis changed in light of experience, Bomber Command was ultimately charged with ‘taking the fight to the enemy.’ This was important in raising the morale of the British people, as well as inflicting material damage at a time prior to the D-Day invasion when Britain had no other method of directly attacking and weakening Nazi Germany.
From 1942, Bomber Command caused significant disruption to the German war economy by attacking industrial, communications, and fuel targets in occupied Europe and Germany.
Men and machines
Bomber Command raised 128 operational squadrons during the war. These were largely manned by young, civilian volunteers from Britain and the Commonwealth. Aircrew were expected to fly a tour of 30 operations before having a rest. This figure may appear negligible but operational flying was perilous, exhausting, and psychologically-draining.
Bomber Command flew a variety of light, medium, and heavy bombers of which around 12,000 were destroyed. Perhaps the most famous is the Avro Lancaster, which came into service in April 1942. This aircraft was fully equipped for night flying and usually flew with a crew of 7 men. No. 617 Squadron flew specially-adapted Lancasters on the legendary ‘Dambusters Raid’ in 1943.
The actions of Bomber Command undoubtedly shortened the war but remain controversial due to the loss of human life. Approximately 55,573 were killed by VE Day and a further 18,000 wounded or taken prisoner. With a casualty rate of 60 per cent, there was no more dangerous occupation in the British armed forces.