© HMSO 1943
Flak over Germany October 1940
It is a sad reflection on historians that for the East Anglian region the bombing offensive is often taken to mean the role of the American 8th Air Force to the almost total exclusion of everything else. In fact, these heavy bomber deployments didn't start until August 1942 by which time the technology available for strategic bombing was considerably more advanced. That is not to say that the bravery and sacrifice shown by the USAAF was any less, but rather that the memory of those who laid the foundations, on which they so excellently built, should also be respected and preserved.
The Bomber Force in 1940 consisted of twin-engined Blenheims, Battles, Hampdens, Whitleys and Wellingtons. The Bristol Blenheim, mainstay of the light-bomber force was at the time of its introduction in 1937, faster than most contemporary fighters but developments in 1938-9 had left it comparatively slow, cumbersome and with inadequate defensive armament. Other bomber aircraft too were to find the daylight role almost impossible to sustain and during the battle to defend France all had taken appalling losses. The Fairey Battle squadrons had all but been wiped out in this period and had been withdrawn. Thus these aircraft were forced to operate at night were darkness could conceal their presence to some extent, but the night bomber role was one for which they were neither designed nor equipped. Meanwhile, Luftwaffe bombers had the advantage of the radio beacons, Knickebein and X-Gerät to guide them onto the target, heavier armament and, with the exception of the Dornier Do17 which was fractionally slower than the Blenheim, greater speed.
The inherent problems faced by Bomber Command had begun in the inter-war years when the future use of aircraft had been envisaged as an aerial form of trench warfare. While pilot training had been a priority, the direction and development of that training had been misplaced. This was excaberated by the stringent defence spending during the twenties and thirties.
It was soon found that the strategic bombing force, on which so much emphasis had been placed before the war, was sadly lacking in a number of areas. This had in fact been realised by the head of Bomber Command, Ludlow-Hewitt in 1937, who immediately started a series of initiatives to drastically improve the situation, but in September 1939 there was no time left to correct the depredations of the last fifteen years.
Thus, by the outbreak of war the RAFs strategic bombing force consisted of largely obsolete aircraft, unheated, without self-sealing fuel tanks or armour plate and were in addition inadequately armed. Navigational equipment and night landing aids were rudimentary at best. Furthermore, The operational priorities, known as the Western Air Plans (WA) following the 1938 Munich Crisis, could not be met given the state of readiness of the Command.
These objectives were:
WA.1 Attack the German Airforce, the aerodromes in north western Germany and the German aircraft industry.
WA. 4 Attack on canal, road and rail communications in conjunction with British and French General Staffs.
WA. 5 Attacks on German industry and oil supplies
However, until such time that urgent re-organisation and training could be put into place the Command would have to make the best of a bad situation. It was for this reason that the leaflet dropping "Nickel Raids" were introduced, allowing the opportunity for night navigation, reconnaissance and familiarisation over enemy territory until such time as a heavier blow could be struck.
Other urgent considerations were the need for training in night navigation, the ability to bomb through cloud, even an effective means of adequately defending an aircraft from attack. Bombing accuracy also needed to be addressed as a matter of priority as did the ordnance itself which was totally inadequate to the task. Each aircraft also needed a dedicated crew, rather than a pilot and a motley collection of personnel untrained to the task an so unable to fight the aircraft as a cohesive unit.
These, and other weaknesses contributed to the high casualty rate in the first two years of war. Ninety eight aircraft were lost from the outbreak of war on 3 September to the beginning of the Battle For France and from 10 May to 26 June the loss of a further 145 bombers had seriously depleted the bomber force, not only of much needed aircraft but also the cream of trained and experienced crews. During the Battle of Britain, Bomber Command lost more aircraft and aircrew than Fighter Command.
Whereas the Luftwaffe were able to concentrate all their efforts on England, RAF bombers were attacking targets in in Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark and even Italy. These well defended targets were attacked whenever weather conditions permitted, both day and night. In addition, shipping strikes and mine laying operations were mounted on a regular basis.
There was no accurate method of assessment at the time on what were essentially "hit and run" raids, but photographic reconnaissance indicated that 10% of the invasion force targets were completely destroyed and a further 40% damaged significantly. In any event, the invasion, for whatever reason, was never able to embark from the assembly areas.
Given the critical limitations, the intensity and frequency of the RAF bombing raids was an incredible achievement that more than equalled that of Fighter Command. Bombing operations took place both day and night and in the 123 days from the 1 July to 31 October 1940, Bomber Command had mounted a total of 119 daylight operations and 115 night operations for the loss of 271 aircraft, 62 in daylight raids and 209 on night operations. Included in these figures were sorties by the newly formed Operational Training Units (OTUs) on "Nickel Raids". While the number of aircraft in a squadron varied, this figure roughly equates to the loss of 29 squadrons.
The variety of targets selected was also impressive. While raids on French, Belgian and Dutch ports were mounted to destroy barges and communications centres there were also attacks on airfields, German naval installations, shipping and industry. Attempts, although ineffectual, were also made to destroy agriculture by burning crops and forests. Bombers, particularly Wellingtons, carried water-filled milk churns containing Razzles, and Deckers strips of phosphorous coated wood or rags which were dropped over the German countryside.
With the benefit of hindsight it can now be seen that many of these early operations deep into occupied Europe were wasteful of lives and equipment for little appreciable result. For the most part. the German population was unaware that they were under attack and damage to the selected targets was minimal. However, the ferocious and persistent short range attacks on the invasion force were a vital contribution that led to the abandonment of Operation Sealion and the proof that the Luftwaffe had comprehensively failed in its attempts to destroy the RAF.