RAF Bomber Command

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RAF Bomber Command was the organisation that controlled the RAF's bomber forces. It was formed in 1936 and absorbed into the new Strike Command in 1968.

Bomber Command first found fame during World War II, when aircrews under the command of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, destroyed a significant proportion of Nazi Germany's industries and many German cities.

Many of Bomber Command's personnel and squadrons during the war were neither British nor part of the RAF; a large proportion came from Commonwealth countries, or occupied Europe.

Bomber Command came to prominence again in the 1960s, when it was at the peak of its postwar power, with the V force of Valiant, Victor and Vulcan nuclear bombers, and a supplemental force of Canberra light bombers.


Bomber Command 1936-1945

When Bomber Command was formed, Giulio Douhet's slogan "the bomber will always get through" was popular, and was cited by figures like Stanley Baldwin. Until advances in radar technology in the late 1930s, this statement was effectively true. Attacking bombers could not be detected early enough to assemble fighters fast enough to prevent them reaching their targets. Some damage might be done to the bombers by AA guns, and by fighters as the bombers returned to base, but that was not the same as a proper defence. Consequently, the early conception of Bomber Command was in some ways akin to its later role as a nuclear deterrent force. It was seen as an entity that threatened the enemy with utter destruction, and thus prevented war. However, in addition to being made obsolete by technology, even if the bomber did always get through, its potential for damage to cities was massively overrated.

The problem was that the British Government was basing its data on a casualty rate of 50 per ton of bombs dropped. The basis for this assumption was a few raids on London in the later stages of World War I, by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers. Both the government and the general public viewed the bomber as a far more terrible weapon than it really was.

At the start of WWII, Bomber Command was hampered by three problems. The first was simple lack of size; Bomber Command was not large enough to effectively attack the enemy. The second was rules of engagement; at the start of the war, the targets allocated to Bomber Command were not wide enough in scope. The British Government did not want to violate international law by attacking civilian targets, and the French were even more concerned lest Bomber Command operations provoke a German bombing attack on France. Since the Armée de l'Air had almost nothing in the way of modern fighters, and no defence network comparable to the British chain of radar stations, France was effectively prostrate before the threat of a German bombing attack. The final problem was lack of good enough aircraft. The main Bomber Command workhorses at the start of the war were the Battle, Blenheim, Hampden, Wellesley, Wellington and Whitley. None of them had enough range or ordnance capacity.

Bomber Command was further reduced in size after the declaration of war. No. 1 Group, with its squadrons of Fairey Battles, left for France to form the Advanced Air Striking Force. This was for two reasons; to give the British Expeditionary Force some air striking power, and also to allow the Battle to operate against German targets, since it lacked the range to do so from British airfields.

The "Sitzkrieg" (or Phoney War) mainly affected the Army. However, to an extent, Bomber Command was not properly at war during the first few months of hostilities either. Bomber Command flew many operational missions, and lost aircraft, but it did virtually no damage to the enemy. Most of the missions either failed to find their targets, or were leaflet dropping missions. The attack in the west in May 1940, changed everything.

The Fairey Battles of the Advanced Air Striking Force were partially disabled by German strikes on their airfields at the opening of the invasion of France. However, far from all of the force was caught on the ground. The Faireys proved to be horrendously vulnerable to enemy fire. Many times, Battles would set out to attack, and be almost wiped out in the process. This was somewhat ironic given the fact that due to French paranoia about being attacked by German aircraft, during the Sitzkrieg, the Battle force had actually trained over German airspace at night.

Bomber Command itself soon fully joined in the action. With the immensely quick collapse of France, invasion seemed a clear and present danger. As its part in Battle of Britain, Bomber Command was assigned to pound the invasion fleets assembling in the Channel ports. This was much less high profile than the battles of the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command, but still vital work.

Bomber Command was also indirectly responsible, in part at least, for the switch of Luftwaffe attention away from Fighter Command itself to bombing civilian targets. A German bomber on a raid had got lost due to poor navigation. It bombed London. Churchill consequently ordered a retaliatory raid on the German capital of Berlin. The damage caused was minor, but the raid sent Hitler into a rage. He ordered the Luftwaffe to level British cities, thus precipitating the Blitz.

Like the US Army Air Force later in the war, Bomber Command had first concentrated on "precision" bombing in daylight. However, when several raids were cut to pieces by German defences, a switch to night attack tactics was forced upon the Command. The problems of enemy defences were then replaced with the problems of finding the target. It was common in the early years of the war for bombers relying on dead reckoning navigation to miss entire cities. One of the most urgent problems of the Command was thus to find technical aids to allow accurate bombing.

Bomber Command was made up of a number of Groups during the war. It began the war with Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Groups. No. 1 Group was soon sent to France, as indicated above. It was, however, returned to Bomber Command control after the evacuation of France, and reconstituted. No. 2 Group remained part of Bomber Command until 1943, when it was removed to the control of Second Tactical Air Force, to form the light bomber component of that command. Bomber Command also gained two new Groups during the war. No. 6 Group was activated on 1 January, 1943. It was unique in that it was entirely made up of Royal Canadian Air Force crews and aircraft. Several squadrons and many personnel from Commonwealth and other European countries were distributed throughout the other Groups. No. 8 Group was actived on 15 August, 1942. It was a critical part of solving the navigational problems referred to in the previous paragraph.

The navigational problems of Bomber Command were solved by two methods, technical aids to navigation and Pathfinders. The technical aids to navigation took two forms. One was external radio navigation aids, as exemplified by Gee and the later Oboe systems. The other was the H2S radar, which was carried on the bombers themselves. The Pathfinders were a group of elite crews who flew lighter aircraft ahead of the main bombing forces, and marked the targets. No. 8 Group controlled the Pathfinder squadrons.

Bomber Command was increasing massively in size. In the early days of the war, it was common for raids to consist of a few tens of aircraft. By late 1941, raids by hundreds of aircraft were regularly being mounted.

Strategic bombing 1942-45

The government's chief scientific adviser, Professor Frederick Lindemann was very close to Winston Churchill, who gave him a seat in the Cabinet. In 1942, Lindemann presented a seminal paper to the Cabinet advocating the "aerial bombing of German cities by carpet bombing" in a strategic bombing campaign. His paper put forward the theory of attacking major industrial centrers in order to deliberately destroy as many homes and houses as possible. Working class homes were to be targeted because they had a higher density and fire storms were more likely. This would displace the German workforce and reduce industrial output. Lindemann's calculations showed that Bomber Command would be able to destroy the majority of German houses located in cities quite quickly. The plan was highly controversial even before it started. However it was considered an integral part of the "total war" which the German leaders had begun, and the British Cabinet thought that bombing was the only option available to directly attack Germany, since an invasion of Western Europe was years away. The Soviet Union was also demanding that the Western Allies do something to relieve pressure on the Eastern Front. The plan was accepted by the Cabinet and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris was appointed Air Officer Commanding to carry out the task.

Harris decided to mount a massive raid on Cologne on May 30, 1942 by scraping together virtually every aircraft in Bomber Command that could fly — including those from advanced training units — to form a force of 1,000 aircraft. Cologne was vitually destroyed; only 300 houses in the whole city escaped damage. However, this was not an effort that could be repeated on a regular basis by the RAF in 1942.

Along with an increase in the size of the Command came a massive increase in the capability of the aircraft it was using. In 1942, the main workhorse aircraft of the later part of the war came into service. The Halifax and Lancaster made up the backbone of the Command, and had a longer range, higher speed and much greater bomb load than the earlier aircraft. The classic aircraft of the Pathfinders, the Mosquito, also made its appearance.

By 1944, Bomber Command did have a genuine operational capability to put 1,000 aircraft over a target without extraordinary efforts. The most controversial RAF raid of the war took place in the very early morning of February 14, 1945 with the bombing of the city of Dresden resulting in a lethal firestorm which killed several tens of thousands of civilians.

The culmination of the RAF Bomber Command offensive occurred in the raids of March-April 1945 when the RAF dropped the highest monthly weight of ordinance in the entire war. The cities hit included: April 1st, Mannheim by 478 aircraft; 2nd, Cologne 858 aircraft; 3rd, Kamen 234, Dortmund-Ems Canal, 220; 4th, small raids; 5-6th, Chemnitz 760, smaller raids 1,223; 6th-7th, small raids; 7-8th, Dessau 526, Hemmingstedt 256, Harburg 234 (SROT 1,276); 8-9th, Hamburg 312 Kassel 262 (SROT 805); 10th small raids; 11th Essen 1,079 aircraft;12th Dortmund 1,079; 13th Wuppertal and Barmen 354; 14th, Herne and Gelsenkirchen 195, Datteln and Hattingen (near Bochum) 169; 14-15th, Lützkendorf 244, Zweibrücken 230 (smaller raids 812 sorties); 15-16th, Hagen 267, Misburg 257 (smaller raids 729); 16-17th, Nuremburg 231, Würzburg 225 (smaller raids 171); 17-18th, small day raids of total of 300 aircraft; 18-19th Witten 324, 277 Hanau (smaller raids 844); 19th, No. 617 Squadron RAF using six Grand Slams hit the railway viaduct at Arnsberg; 20-21st, Böhlen 224, Hemmingstedt 166 (smaller raids 675). The daytime total on the 21st was 497; the nighttime total on the 21-22nd was 536, the 22nd daytime total was 708. On the 22-23rd and in daylight on the 23rd, about 300 bombers carried out small raids. On the 23-24th, 195 Lancasters and 23 Mosquitos from 5 and 8 Groups carried out the last raid on the town of Wesel. No aircraft were lost. (It is claimed that Wesel was the most intensively bombed town, for its size, in Germany: 97% of the buildings in the main town area were destroyed. The population, which had numbered nearly 25,000 on the outbreak of war, was only 1,900 in May 1945.) The attack was part of 537 sorties flown as tactical attacks in support of the British Army’s crossing of the Rhine on the 24th. On April 25th there were attacks on towns with communication support for German troops defending the Rhine: Hanover 267, Munster 175, Osnabruck 156. On the 27th, there were attacks on Paderborn 268, Hamm area 150 and smaller raids 541. On the 31st Hamburg was attacked by 469 aircraft.

The last raid on Berlin took place on the night of 21-22nd of April, when 76 Mosquitos made six separate attacks just before Soviet forces entered the city centre. Afterwards most of the rest of the bombing raids made by the RAF were tactical support attacks. The last major strategic raid was the destruction of the oil refinery at Tonsberg in southern Norway by 107 Lancasters, on the night of 25-26 of April.


About two thirds of the 500,000 to 600,000 casualties of the bombings of German cities died during attacks by Bomber Command. One of the most controversial aspects of Bomber Command during WWII was the area bombing of cities. It is often argued that this constituted a war crime. However, it must be remembered that navigational technologies of the day, even late in the war, did not allow for much more precisely targeting than a town or city, or at the very smallest an area of a city, by night bombing. The two single most destructive raids in terms of absolute casualties were those on Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945. Both caused firestorms and left tens of thousands dead. Many people view such attacks as a war crime, for which British leaders such as Harris were never punished. However the Luftwaffe had already inflicted severe casualties to civilian targets, including thousands of deaths. All large German cities contained important industrial areas, and so were legitimate targets for attacks by that measure.

Mention must also be made of the extremely high casualty rate suffered by RAF Bomber Command crews, who suffered 55,000 dead and 20,000 wounded. It is illustrative that members of the Australian squadrons of Bomber Command equalled only two percent of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel, but represented 23% of the total number of RAAF personnel killed in action during World War II. No. 460 Squadron RAAF, which had an aircrew establishment of about 200, experienced 1,018 combat deaths during 1942-45 and was therefore effectively wiped out five times over.

Bomber Command 1946 – 1968

In the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was clear that the world had changed. In addition, the coming of the jet presaged an equally important change. In order for Bomber Command to keep up technologically in the early postwar years, B-29 Superfortresses were pressed into service as the Boeing Washington. However, they, and the Avro Lincoln, were only stopgap measures until the first of the new jet aircraft could come into service.

That first jet was the English Electric Canberra light bomber, some of which remain in RAF service in 2004 as photo reconnaissance aircraft. The Canberra proved to be an extremely successful aircraft, being exported to many countries and being licensed-built in the United States. The next to enter service was the Vickers Valiant, the first of the V bombers.

The V bombers were conceived as the replacement for the wartime Lancasters and Halifaxes. Three aircraft were developed, which many argue was a waste of resources. They contend that one design should have been pursued enabling a larger production run, however this is with 20/20 hindsight, it not being possible to predict which designs would be successful at the time. The V bombers became the backbone of the British nuclear forces. The Valiant, Handley Page Victor and Avro Vulcan were classic designs of British aviation.

1956 saw the first operational test of Bomber Command since WWII, and its last major action in anger. The Egyptian Government nationalised the Suez Canal during that year, and the British Government decided to take military action. During the Suez Crisis, Bomber Command Canberras were deployed to Cyprus and Malta and Valiants were deployed to Malta. The Canberra performed well, but the Valiant had problems. Since the Valiant had just been introduced into service, this was hardly surprising. The Canberras were also vulnerable to attack by the Egyptian Air Force, which fortunately did not choose to attack the crowded airfields of Cyprus (RAF Akrotiri and RAF Nicosia holding nearly the whole RAF strike force, with a recently reactivated and poor quality airfield taking much of the French force).

Over 100 Bomber Command aircraft took part in operations against Egypt. By WWII standards, the scale of attack was light, but it did the job at hand.

Suez was the last major operational test of Bomber Command, but it was far from its last operation. During the following twelve years, Bomber Command aircraft frequently deployed overeseas to the Far East and Middle East. They were particularly used as a deterrent to Sukarno's Indonesia during the Konfrontasi. A detachment of Canberras was also permanently maintained at Akrotiri in Cyprus in support of CENTO obligations.

As the remaining V bombers came into service in the late 1950s, the British nuclear deterrent was gaining notice. The first British atomic bomb was tested in 1952, with the first hydrogen bomb being exploded in 1957. Operation Grapple saw Valiant bombers dropping hydrogen bombs over Christmas Island.

Nuclear annihilation came dramatically to world attention during 1962. The Cuban missile crisis was one of the nearest brushes with nuclear conflict the world has seen. During that tense period, Bomber Command aircraft maintained continuous strip alerts, ready to take off at a moment's notice. Heavy bombers were effectively doing what Fighter Command had done in 1940 in terms of reaction time. However, at no time did the Prime Minister take the decision to disperse the Bomber Command aircraft to satellite airfields, lest that be viewed as an aggressive step.

By the early 1960s, doubts were surfacing about the ability of Bomber Command to pierce the defences of the Soviet Union. The shooting down of a U-2 spyplane in 1960 confirmed that the Soviet Union did have surface-to-air missiles capable of reaching the heights that bombers operated at. Since WWII, the philosophy of bombers had been to go higher and faster. That found its ultimate expression in the XB-70 Valkyrie, developed for the USAF. With the deprecation of high and fast tactics, the new mantra became ultra low level attack. However, since the Bomber Command aircraft were not designed for that kind of attack profile, problems were caused. Those problems were primarily airframe fatigue. The Valiant was the first to suffer. Severe airframe fatigue meant that all Valiants were grounded in October 1964, and permanently withdrawn from service in January 1965. Low level operations also reduced the lifespan of the Victors and Vulcans.

Bomber Command's other main function was to provide tanker aircraft to the RAF. The Valiant was the first bomber used as a tanker operationally. Trials had been carried out with air to air refuelling using Lincolns and Meteors, and had proved successful, so many of the new bombers were designed to be able to be used in the tanker role. Indeed, some Valiants were produced as a dedicated tanker variant. As high level penetration declined as an attack technique, the Valiant saw more and more use as a tanker. With the introduction of the Victor B2, the earlier models of that aircraft were also converted to tankers. The withdrawal of the Valiant from service caused the conversion of many of the Victors to tankers to be greatly speeded up. The Vulcan also saw service as a tanker, but not until a improvised conversion during the Falklands War. Ironically, in the tanker role, the Victor not only outlived Bomber Command, but also all the other V bombers by nine years.

In a further attempt to make the operation of the bomber force safer, attempts were made to develop stand-off weapons. With a stand-off capability, the bombers would not have to penetrate Soviet airspace. However, efforts to do so had only limited success. The first attempt was the Blue Steel missile. It worked, but its range meant that bombers still had to enter Soviet airspace. Longer range systems were developed, but failed and/or were cancelled. This fate befell the mark 2 of the Blue Steel, its replacement, the American Skybolt ALBM and the ground-based Blue Streak program.

However, attempts to develop a stand-off nuclear deterrent were eventually successful. The American Polaris missile was procured, and Royal Navy submarines built to carry them. The modern form of the British nuclear force was thus essentially reached. Royal Navy submarines relieved the RAF of the nuclear deterrent mission in 1969. However, by that point, Bomber Command was no more.

In the postwar period, the RAF slowly declined in strength, and by the mid-1960s, it was clear that the home command structure needed rationalisation. To that end, Fighter Command and Bomber Command were merged in 1968 to form Strike Command. Coastal Command also followed shortly thereafter.

Bomber Command had a successful period of existence. Its early potential was at first not realised, but with the development of better navigation and aircraft, it carried the war to the enemy in spectacular fashion. Postwar, it carried Britain's nuclear deterrent through a difficult period, and continued the fine traditions existing in 1945.

Battle honours

  • Honour: "Berlin 1940-1945": For bombardment of Berlin by aircraft of Bomber Command.
  • Honour: "Fortress Europe 1940-1944": For operations by aircraft based in the British Isles against targets in Germany, Italy and enemy-occupied Europe, from the fall of France to the invasion of Normandy.

External links

Template:RAF WWII Strategic Bombing


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