The RAAF and Bomber Command – A Retrospective

By Dr Alan Stephens (Ph.D., ex RAAF Wg/Cdr, RAAF Historian)

Presentation to the RAAF Europe Association – Friday October 6th, 2000 (Extract)

Street names at Australia's premier military training establishment, the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, honour notable wartime actions. While every one of those actions was a matter of life or death for the men involved, when measured against the broader sweep of history some scarcely merit the description 'battle'. It might seem remarkable, therefore, that three of the greatest battles in which Australians have fought aren't acknowledged.

Those three battles all took place in the skies over Germany during World War II, and were fought by the men of the RAF's Bomber Command, many of whom were members of the RAAF.

The first was the Battle of the Ruhr from March to July 1943, the second the Battle of Hamburg from 24 July to 3 August 1943, and the third the Battle of Berlin from November 1943 to March 1944.

Statistics can never tell a story by themselves, but the figures from those three epic clashes reveal a fearful truth. No Bomber Command aircrew who fought in all three could expect to survive.

An operational tour on heavy bombers consisted of thirty missions. Crews were then rested for about six months, usually instructing at a training unit. That 'rest' was, however, in name only, as more than 8000 men were killed in flying accidents at bomber conversion units. They might then volunteer for or be assigned to a second operational tour of twenty missions.

Over the course of the war the odds of surviving a first tour were exactly one–in–two – the classic toss of a coin. When the second tour was added the odds slipped further, to one–in–three. And during the battles of the Ruhr, Hamburg and Berlin it was statistically impossible to survive thirty missions.

No other sustained campaign in which Australians have ever been involved can compare with the air war over Germany in terms of individual danger. The men of the RAAF who fought for Bomber command amounted to less than 2 per cent of all Australians who enlisted in World War II, yet the 3486 who died accounted for almost 20 per cent of all deaths in combat.

The RAAF's most distinguished heavy bomber unit, No.460 Squadron, alone lost 1018 aircrew, meaning that, in effect, the entire squadron was wiped out five times. It was far more dangerous to fight in Bomber Command than in the infantry.

Perhaps the loss rate would be less distressing if the sacrifice of the men who had to bear it had been properly acknowledged. Regrettably that hasn't been the case. The example of the Australian Defence Force Academy's ignorance is merely one of many.

Such was the prejudice of influential politicians and public figures that a Bomber command campaign medal was never awarded, despite the obvious importance and magnitude of the crusade; while the man who led the fight from 1942 onwards, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, was the only commander of his status to be ignored when post–War peerages were handed out.

According to the Nazis' minister of war production, Albert Speer, following the Hamburg raids he 'reported for the first time to the Fuehrer that if these serial attacks continued a rapid end of the war might be the consequence'.

An objective review of the statistics presents a powerful and grim picture of the physical and mental devastation the bombing caused.

It's important to appreciate that that devastation didn't really start' until mid–1944, with over 70 per cent of the bombs dropped on Germany falling in the last year of the war. The effect was profound.

I now want to talk about some of the specifically Australian aspects of the experience.

The bomber offensive may have been decisive in the allies' eventual victory but for the RAAF it brought mixed results. The problem was the RAAF's inability to control what happened to its aircrew, which in turn made it impossible to control its destiny.

Throughout the war it was the British Air Ministry's preference to post the first available, suitable person to the squadron most in need, an approach which was sensible and easy to administer.

As a consequence, Australian airmen found themselves dispersed across the length and breadth or the RAF. But at the institutional level the practice undermined the RAAF's ambition to form squadrons with an identifiable national character, and whose contribution would be clearly Australian. For the RAAF, the policy was an institutional disaster.

That disaster manifested itself most obviously by stifling opportunities for senior command. Because there were no genuine Australian squadrons, nor could there be Australian wings and groups, which meant that promising RAAF officers were denied the experience which would have come with those formations.

The effect was insidious. Concern about the quality of the RAAF's senior echelons was to be a problem for the post–war Air Force for ten years. Perhaps a more resolute national stance on the employment of Australians in Bomber Command might have eased that problem.

No single group of Australians from any service did more to help win World War II than the men who fought in Bomber Command. But so intertwined were the RAAF crews with the RAF that it's almost impossible to identify a distinctive Australian effort.

It is an Institutional tragedy for the RAAF that the story of its Bomber Command crews can't be fully reconstructed, and that their experiences weren't lived out within a wholly Australian context. RAAF history remains immeasurably the poorer for the loss.

The outstanding RAAF unit of the war was No.460 Squadron, which took its twin–engined Wellingtons to war for the first time in a strike against Emden on 12/13 March 1942. Only two months later, on May 30/31, the squadron contributed eighteen aircraft to the dramatic thousand–bomber attack on Cologne.

No.460 Squadron, which by then was flying the premier bomber of the war, the four–engined Avro Lancaster, and, together with other RAAF units, was in the vanguard of Bomber Command's operations.

During the autumn and winter of 1943–44, which culminated in the Battle of Berlin, the Australian squadrons typically provided about 10 per cent of the main bomber force.

Four RAAF squadrons fought in Bomber Command's worst night of the war, the notorious strike against Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944 when ninety–five of 608 aircraft – almost 16 per cent – were lost. The 545 allied airmen who died in the space of about eight hours exceeded the 507 killed during the entire Battle of Britain. Five of the RAAF's sixty–seven aircraft were shot down.

The magnitude of the Australian bomber crews' contribution to victory in Europe can be gauged by a brief summary of some of their major actions.

The critical point is that, for 5ΒΌ years, without a break, they fought in almost every notable operation. In addition to the fearful campaign against German cities, RAAF aircrew attacked the enemy's railways, roads and bridges; oil refineries and storage facilities; factories; submarine pens; secret weapon sites; army formations; warships; and canals.

Thirteen Australians serving with the RAF's No.617 Squadron took part in the famous dam busters raid on 16/17 May 1943, including two of the war's greatest bomber pilots, Flight Lieutenants Mickey Martin and David Shannon. Other RAAF crews dropped 5,500kg Tallboy bombs on viaducts and 10,000kg Grand Slam bombs on bridges; while No.456 Squadron's achievement in laying 256 mines in August 1944 was a Command record.

Let me conclude.

Most Australians know the meaning of Gallipoli, and many have some understanding of what their countrymen achieved at places like Tobruk and the Kokoda Trail. It's unlikely, though, that more than a handful have any appreciation of either the sacrifice or the contribution to victory made by the 13,000 or so Australian airmen who served with Bomber Command during World War II.

Whatever the morality of the combined bomber offensive may be, three indisputable facts stand out. First, the men of the RAAF who fought in that offensive did so at the lawful direction of their government. Second, in terms of casualties, theirs was the most savage and most dangerous sustained campaign fought by any Australians during World War II. And third, theirs was the major contribution of any Australians to the defeat of Germany and, therefore, to the allies' ultimate victory.

It was the men of Bomber Command who alone opened a second front in Germany, four years before D–Day; and it was the men of Bomber Command who alone inflicted decisive damage on the German war economy. As Albert Speer lamented, Bomber Command's victory represented 'the greatest lost battle on the German side. The time is long overdue for the men of the RAAF who fought in the great air battles over Germany and Italy during World War II to receive far more generous recognition of their extraordinary achievements and courage.

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