Battlefield History Tours

Battlefield History Tours
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 Sadly all our 2020 tours have been cancelled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. As it appears travel restrictions will continue in 2021, tours listed will run in 2022 on dates similar to those published for 2021. ... 

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About Australians in the UK Bomber Command 1939 - 1945

Twenty Thousand Australian airmen served with (the Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force during the 1939-45 War. These men had been recruited into the Royal Australian Air Force and remained members of the RAAF but after training in Australia and Canada were employed operationally within the RAF which assumed full financial responsibility for such service except where Australian rates of pay and pensions differed from the British. The training of the RAAF airmen who flew with Bomber Command was through the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) which linked training organisations in Australia and Canada. The first ground instruction schools in Australia under the EATS scheme opened in April 1940 and were followed a month later by elementary flying courses. The first Australian EATS drafts from Canada reached England in December 1940 and by March 1941 individual RAAF men were joining Bomber Command squadrons.

The first Australians to see action with Bomber Command were Australian born regular RAF officers some of whom like Group Captain Hughie Edwards, who won the Victoria Cross in 1941, had trained with the RAAF. Australia was not able to employ all the airmen it trained prior to 1939 and many Australians transferred to the RAF when it was recruiting approximately 20% of its pilots from Commonwealth countries. Under the EATS scheme, aircrew were trained for Coastal, Fighter and Transport Commands as well as Bomber Command but it was to Bomber Command that the great majority were allotted. By the end of 1941, 300 Australians (mostly pilots) were spread in small numbers to no less than 46 Bomber Command squadrons.

Formation of Australian squadrons

The first two Australian medium bomber squadrons began to form - No 455 in June and No 458 in September 1941. After some delays both were flying regular missions against Germany by the end of 1941. The Australian government expressed the wish to consolidate RAAF airmen into RAAF units but there was never an Australian Group in Bomber Command to compare with No 6 (Canadian) group. The formation of Australian squadrons did not solve the problem since they were formed with only a small number of Australian aircrews. Crews were formed by the men themselves, without regard to nationality, at operational training units and did not care to be broken up on arrival at squadrons. A number of RAF station commanders favoured mixed nationality crews and, without the same determination shown by the Canadians for a Canadian group, Australians remained scattered among many crews and many squadrons of Bomber Command until the war's end. Where crews were predominantly Australian in composition, they could transfer without difficulty to RAAF squadrons and RAAF individuals especially desirous of serving on an Australian squadron could, and did, arrange for their whole crew to be posted with them but this meant further dilution of the RAAF squadrons.

The Aircraft

Wellington Bomber Lancaster Hampden
Whitley Bomber Whitley Bomber

Lancaster BomberThe backbone of Bomber Command from 1939 until 1942 was the Wellington bomber which equipped No 455 Squadron. It was supported by Hampdens which equipped No 458 Squadron and Whitleys but it was decided in early 1942 to replace the Hampdens and Whitleys with four engined bombers which could carry twice the bombload of a medium bomber. Bomber Command soon found that the Lancaster was by far the most satisfactory aircraft for weight carrying, range and altitude and by July 1942 there were as many Lancasters as Halifaxes (the next most powerful type) in operation and there after the Lancaster predominated until the end of the war when they equipped no less that 55 squadrons.

Early Strategy

Britain held back from bombing Germany for the first eight months of the war and it was not until four days after Germany had invaded France and the Low Countries that permission was given for Bomber Command to attack targets inside Germany. While Fighter Command fought the Battle of Britain, Bomber Command took the attack to Germany and of 47 Australian pilots actively engaged, five were killed and six became prisoners of war. Bomber Command strategy until mid-1941 was to attack petrol, oil and lubricant supplies but German military and political successes in South Eastern Europe in the first half of 1941 dramatically improved its petrol and oil situation. On 9 July 1941, Bomber Command received a formal directive which defined its main aim as "dislocating the German transportation system and destroying the morale of the civilian population as a whole and of industrial workers in particular." Nine rail centres were specified as primary objectives and six main towns with important rail facilities as secondary targets. Bomber Command had abandoned daylight bombing in favour of night bombing early in the war because of unacceptable losses. This change in policy reflected recognition of the fact that Bomber Command was unable to protect itself from enemy fighters and flak by day and it could not bomb accurately at night. The air attack on Germany continued for the rest of 1941 but it was not able to concentrate wholly on the offensive action of strategic bombing until February 1942. Much effort was diverted in this period into attacks against ports and harbours which held German capital ships and U-boats and in minelaying operations. However, at the same time, work on bombing technique and the aircraft to get the bombs to the target was proceeding.

In the first years of the war, raids against Germany were not closely planned and co-ordinated. Bombers did not have rigid take-off times, routes were not set out, there were no navigation aids, no set bombing heights and times, and there was no target marking. Germany took advantage of the fact that Berlin and other targets in central and southern Germany and in northern Italy could only be attacked on the long winter nights in its deployment of fighter and anti-aircraft forces. In August 1941, a survey of bombing accuracy found that, because of inaccurate navigation and faulty bomb aiming, only one in three aircraft were bombing within 5 miles of target. By the end of 1941, the fortunes of Bomber Command were at an ebb with the increasing effectiveness of German defences causing unacceptable losses. The appointment, on 23 February 1942, of Air Chief Marshall Arthur Harris was to change the course of the strategic bombing campaign and, under his leadership, Bomber Command was forged into a powerful fighting force.

Massed Bombing Raids

The first of the navigational aids to help Bomber Command to locate its target was Gee but its initial use was disappointing and it was available for only a few aircraft. On 28/29 March, the Baltic port of Lubeck was attacked with incendiaries by a force of 224 aircraft including 10 Hamptons of No 455 RAAF Squadron which caused greater damage than had previously been caused on any German city. On 30/31 May, just three months after Harris took command, the first mass area attack was launched against Koln (Cologne) in the Ruhr valley with over 1,000 aircraft attacking. This was twice the size of any previous formation and, for the first time, used the bomber stream where all attacking aircraft flew the same route to and from the target and each was allocated its own place and height in the bomber stream. The attack was concentrated into as short a duration as possible in order to overwhelm the German fire fighting services and thereby allowing bigger fires to occur, causing greater damage. The damage caused by this raid was almost equal to the aggregate of damage in all other German towns attacked up to then and vindicated the tactics of concentration and incendiary attack. Of 18 bombers of No 460 Squadron attacking, 17 bombed the target and all returned. Of the attacking force of 1,042 aircraft, 40 failed to return. The raid was also important for the heartening effect it had on British public opinion and this helped strengthen Harris' demand for more bombers.

Two further 1,000 bomber raids were carried out in May and June 1942 but they did not have the same success as the first raid. Harris had stretched the resources of Bomber Command to mount these raids and the rest of 1942 was a period of consolidation for Bomber Command.

In August 1942, the Pathfinder force was created under the command of Australian Air Commodore Donald Bennett, an acknowledged expert on navigation. The force was to be a specialist target finding unit to help with bombing accuracy. No 460 Squadron was the only RAAF squadron with Bomber Command for most of 1942 - No 455 Squadron having left for the Middle East in February 1942 and No 458 Squadron having transferred to Two new Australian squadrons - Nos 466 & 467 - were formed at the end of C oastal Command in April 1942. 1942 and flew their first missions in January 1943 but with few Australian aircrew and fewer Australian ground crew. Australians continued to be scattered among British Squadrons and it was an Australian pilot, flying with AF flying with Bomber Command to win the R AF No 149 Squadron who was the only member of the RA Victoria Cross. In November 1942, Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton was flying the four engined Stirling Bomber when the aircraft was hit on the way to Turin, Italy. He flew onto the target where the aircraft was again hit, this time seriously wounding Middleton. Despite his wounds, Middleton flew the aircraft back to England where five of the crew were able to bail out safely but with fuel almost exhausted he was killed when the aircraft crashed into the sea.

Battles of the Ruhr, Hamburg and Berlin

In 1943, Bomber Command concentrated its effort against three major targets in what became known as the Battle of the Ruhr, the Battle of Hamburg and the Battle of Berlin. By this time, Bomber Command had received new technical navigation and bombing aids - Oboe, a blind bombing device, and H2S, an air radar set which gave a rough radar picture of the ground the aircraft was flying over. The Battle of the Ruhr opened on the night of 5/6 March 1943 when 369 aircraft, including 33 from the three Australian squadrons, attacked Essen in a highly successful raid. From March until July, 43 raids were launched against the Ruhr causing extensive damage to many of the industrial cities of that region. In late July and early August, Hamburg was attacked in four major raids in ten days causing enormous destruction with a conflagration, leaving the city in smouldering ruins. Window (aluminium strips dropped from the attacking aircraft to confuse the German air and ground radar) was first used during these raids with great success. Although Bomber Command concentrated its efforts on these major battles, many other targets were attacked during the same period. During the Battle of the Ruhr, the famous dams raid took place. The 16 Lancasters which made this attack carried 13 Australians, four of whom were captains of aircraft. Eight Lancasters were lost, involving the deaths of 55 men with only a solitary Australian rear gunner surviving to become a prisoner of war. Of the twelve other Australians, only two were killed, with ten returning safely. The Battle of Hamburg took place mid-way through welve raids against northern Italy designed to cripple the Italian will to resist the invasion of Sicily. a series of t In the late summer and autumn of 1943, Bomber Command regularly attacked towns in Southern Germany. Within a month of its success at Hamburg, three heavy raids were made against Berlin. With a sufficient number of heavy bombers assured, a winter campaign against the German capital, to damage both industrial capacity and national morale, seemed desirable. However, any raid against Berlin required a minimum of 500 miles flying over hostile territory. Between November 1943 and March 1944, Bomber Command launched 16 the Battles of the Ruhr and Hamburg, the results of the Battle of Berlin m ajor attacks against Berlin. Unlike were indecisive. A total of 9,105 aircraft were dispatched to Berlin and over 6% (539 aircraft) were lost. Of 787 RAAF aircraft dispatched, just under 6% (45 aircraft) were lost. In addition to heavy losses, cloud completely covered Berlin on a number of occasions. Because Berlin was such a large area, most bombs did some damage but it was too big a target for Bomber Command to completely destroy the city.

In November 1943, a fourth Australian squadron, No 463, was formed from a flight of No 467 Squadron. (Only one Australian squadron, No 460, was substantially maintained by Australian ground staff.)

The Nuremberg Raid

Other than Berlin, the main targets during the winter of 1943/44 were cities which supported the German aircraft industry. The last major raid of the winter was to the important political and industrial city of Numberg (Nuremberg) on 30/31 March 1944. 795 bombers including 75 from the four Australian squadrons were dispatched but 95 aircraft including 5 Australian aircraft failed to return. This was Bomber Command's worst loss in one raid during the entire war. Of the aircrew of the 95 aircraft lost, 545 were killed and 159 became prisoners of war. Five RAAF aircraft with 35 aircrew were lost, of whom 7 of the 20 killed were Australians. Another 40 Australians, including 11 pilots flying with 16 different RAF squadrons that night were killed

Preparation for the D-Day Landings

From the start of April until 5 June 1944, Bomber Command supported the attacks leading up to the D-Day landings. Bomber Command launched 53 raids against railway workshops in this period, with RAAF aircraft involved in 25 raids for the loss of 17 aircraft. Further attacks were made against road and rail bridges over the Seine and the Loire and against German radar and wireless installations. On the night before the landings, Bomber Command attacked 10 coastal batteries in the assault area with about 100 aircraft against each battery. This and other support from Bomber Command helped to contribute to the success of the invasion. Strategic Bombing did not completely stop in the lead up to the invasion. RAAF squadrons took pan in nine raids against Germany from 20 April until 23 May.

The Last Operations

In the last ten months of the war, there was strong argument on which direction strategic bombing should take. The Americans and the RAF Chief of Air Staff argued for concentration against oil supplies, the Deputy Supreme Commander, Air Marshall Tedder argued for an attack against transportation and communications, while Harris still favoured area bombing. By this stage of the war, the allies enjoyed massive air superiority and Bomber Command had sufficient resources to launch heavy attacks against both oil and transportation targets rman cities. It was only as the war neared its end that the morality of area attacks on w hile still attacking Ge cities was seriously raised and then only after the bombing of Dresden in March 1945. Harris suffered no doubts and said "Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre and key transportation centre. It is now none of those things." Bomber Command also assisted allied land operations, both on the offensive and in helping the Americans stop the German offensive in the Ardennes at the end of 1944. The main emphasis in February and March 1945 was attacking the Ruhr and Rhineland ahead of the advancing allied armies. A fifth Australian squadron, No 462, joined Bomber Command in August 1944 and it flew the last RAAF operational mission on 2/3 May 1945. For the last 10 days of the war, Lancasters were employed flying liberated prisoners of war back to England and in dropping food and medicine to civilians in Holland who had not been reached by allied ground forces.

Australian casualties in Bomber Command were 3,486 dead and 265 injured. After the war, 750 Australian aircrew were released from German prisoner of war camps, most of whom would have flown with Bomber Command.

Prepared by: Anthony Staunton

Herington, John. Air War Against Germany and Italy 1939-1945. Australian War Memorial, 1962.
Herington, John. Air War Over Europe 1944-45. Australian War Memorial, 1963.
Messenger, Charles. 'Bomber' Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive 1939-1945. Arms and Armour Press, 1984.
Middlebrook, Martin and Everitt, Chris. The Bomber Command War Diaries, An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945. Viking Press, 1985.
Middlebrook, Martin The Nuremberg Raid. William Morrow and Co Inc, 1974.
Stanley, Peter. Bomber Command. Hodder and Stoughton (Aust) Pty Ltd, 1985.

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