River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Bomber Command (early years in WW2)

August 2020

Continuing reflections on WW2. In 1932 the Air Ministry produced a specification for a twin-engine medium bomber. The first company to respond was Armstrong Whitworth who produced the Whitley, (I always thought it to be a rather ugly aeroplane) which first flew in 1936, next was the Handley Page Hampden and then the Vickers Wellington. All three were produced for the RAF and all proved to be strong aircraft and often proved capable of getting home after withstanding a good deal of damage. Not really a medium bomber but the Bristol Blenheim might also be included in the group. Reasonably robust they may have been but, with the exception of the Blenheim, they were a little out-classed in terms of performance by the twin-engine German bombers of the time, that were responsible for the London blitz in 1940/41, the Junkers 88, the Heinkel 111 and the Dornier 217. I have always thought that these early RAF bombers, and their crews, tended to be rather forgotten, being overshadowed by the heavies, the Lancaster and Halifax, not to mention the bombing role of the brilliant Mosquito. Those early bombers were rather primitive, as was some of the personal equipment provided for the crews. The Whitley had a slab-sided narrow fuselage making it difficult for crew members to pass one another, it had poor defence capability with a Browning 0.303 machine gun forward facing and two in a rear hand operated turret. Throughout the war the Browning gun was the main defence weapon of British bombers, later planes had more of them but still relied on the .303s. Some Lancasters were equipped with 0.50 guns but that was not the norm. The .303s put them at a disadvantage when up against German fighters with 20mm cannons. The Germans could fire their cannons whilst still out of the effective range of the British machine guns. I did read that, when he was Air Vice Marshall, in late 1941, Sir John Slessor said: ”Ever since those heavies appeared on the horizon I have been convinced that we must arm them with cannon. If it means a drop in bomb load – well that’s just too bad; but it is better to carry 7000lb of bombs and get to the target and back than to carry 8000lb and get shot down. The Americans think we are crazy to go on quite happily with .303 in bombers, and I am sure they are right.” Sir John Slessor went on to become Marshall of the Royal Airforce. One can’t help wondering why, if he did say that, he was not able to ensure that British bombers were better defended with higher calibre weapons. The claimed maximum air speed for the Whitley was 206mph, not all were capable of that speed and even that would require having the engines at maximum power, most of the time they would be flying at an air speed of nearer 160 mph. Coming home from a raid over Germany against a westerly wind could mean that they were travelling with a ground speed of, perhaps, 130mph, making them relatively easy prey for the German fighters. Although outclassed by the later heavy bombers the Whitley was seen as a good aeroplane and, after it was withdrawn from front line bombing raids, it continued to serve in a number of ways, including dropping agents, weapons and supplies to resistance groups, this involved some very low flying until they reached the drop zone in order to avoid German radar. Whitleys were also used as glider tugs in airborne attacks including the attack on the bridge at Arnhem. They wee still in service at the end of the war. The Hampden looked a more capable plane and more modern design, but it was not much faster. The Hampden was said to be a nice plane to fly but an awful plane to fly in. This was because it was very cramped. Viewing the main part of the plane from the side the four-man crew was situated with one in each corner. The width of this part of the plane was no more than three feet, once the crew were in their stations it was not possible for them to change places, they were stuck there for the entire flight. Some of their operations meant flights of seven hours or more. The winter of 1941 was particularly cold and at the altitude at which they flew temperatures were well below freezing. The crew had some refreshments provided (or taken with them), I read how one crew member reported that his orange juice was frozen solid, as was his sandwich, they were, in effect, flying in a freezer. Occasionally it was necessary to remove their gloves, especially for the navigator, then they dare not touch the metal of the plane or their skin would stick to it. The last of the trio of bombers was the Wellington and unquestionably it seems, the best. A little bit faster than the other two with a good bomb load ability, it became the mainstay of Bomber Command in the early days. It went on to serve throughout the war, joining in with the heavies on mass bomber raids on Hamburg and Cologne. There were 11,000 Wellingtons made, more than any other WW2 type. The Hampden was not a successful plane and was withdrawn from service early on in the war, I believe there were 1400 Hampdens put into service and roughly half that number were lost. Some of the losses were due to known crashes, a significant number were due to enemy action, of course, but post-war German records of Hampdens shot down revealed that around 200 had just gone missing. There was another bomber that was intended to replace the Whitley, the Avro Manchester. This was not a success and only a few were built. Their engines proved unreliable and the plane was underpowered. A re-think by Avro resulted in the Manchester being very much modified and it re-emerged as a four-engine heavy bomber, with four Rolls Royce Merlins. It had become the mighty Lancaster, the scourge of Germany. Handley Page redeemed themselves by producing the other major heavy bomber, the Halifax, popular with air crews but definitely second to the Lancaster. Rather naively the RAF thought that those early bombers could defend themselves against enemy fighters and they engaged in daylight raids over Germany and France. Sadly they learnt the error of their thinking at the expense of a number of good men. Enemy fighters made rings round those slow old bombers and their few machine guns were totally inadequate for defence against the fighters. It was soon realised that daylight raids were not feasible. The Germans learnt the same lesson in their attacks on Britain in the Battle of Britain in1940, even though they had fighter escorts they suffered many losses. We did not have fighters with a sufficient range to enable them to escort those early bombers over Germany. The Germans turned to night bombing and the RAF did the same. Those early raids had limited effect with one exception. After Dunkirk, the Germans amassed motorised landing barges in Belgian and French ports in preparation for the invasion of the UK. Daylight raids by Wellingtons and Blenheims were very successful in reducing the number of serviceable barges. Navigation was a problem for night flying. It was policy in those days to have a second pilot in the crew, a fully trained and competent pilot, but he often had to serve as navigator with only limited training. Without any radio aids navigation was by compass and reckoning. The calculations involved were not simple, especially if the pilot was forced into taking evasive action, it was a difficult task and occasionally they could not find the target and when they did the bomb aiming was often not very successful. Nevertheless, after Coventry and the blitz on London, those raids were good for British morale, and bad for German morale. German defences improved rapidly, radar enabled the fighters to be directed and was also able to assist the guns, sometimes British losses were high. There is no doubt the crews of those Whitleys, Wellingtons and especially the Hampdens were heroes. They carried on the war against the Germans at a time when Britain was close to being invaded and they helped the RAF learn how to overcome the problems of navigation and target identification. Bombers were the principal weapon we had to use against the Germans in the first few years of the war and went on to be a major weapon in the defeat of the Nazis. The heavies, in conjunction with the Mosquito, were used to devastating effect. But losses were high, often between 10% and 20% on each raid. Crews had to witness their friends being shot down. They were expected to complete thirty operations before given an extended leave, many crews never got to complete the thirty. (One squadron went for a long period without any crews completing thirty missions.) When they returned from leave they were often given different duties, including training, making use of the experience that they had had. Some volunteered to continue with bombing, some were required to do so. If there was to be a special mission, such as dam busting, those experienced crew member were called upon. There is no question that these bomber crews were heroes, they were in a similar position to those called upon to climb out of their trenches and advance on the enemy in WW1, both knew they were exposed with little or no protection from enemy fire and that they were very likely to be killed, if not this time then next time. The bomber crews were very young, one navigator worked out the average age of his Lancaster crew of seven men to be 20years and 9months. After the war it seemed that some people in this country questioned the justification for the extent of the bombing of Germany, especially after Dresden, almost to the extent of regarding it as a cause for national shame, and bomber crews were not praised in the same way that the pilots of the Battle of Britain had been. Without question they were heroes, they did what was asked of them facing terrible odds and possibly terrible deaths. 55.000 bomber crew were lost. In more recent times their commitment and bravery have been recognised, it is a matter for national shame that it was not more widely praised in the post war years.

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