Development and early years of the Bomber force

In the final years of the first world war, aerial bombing had become a common tactic and was being implemented both on the battlefield as well as on cities. In 1915 Germany orchestrated a series of Zeppelin attacks on the city of London and in 1917 heavy bombers were also sent to bomb London. Great Britain also chose to adopt tactics such as bombing industrial cities, but the war concluded before any major attacks were made.

In 1936 the RAF was divided into four distinct divisions or commands: the Fighter, Bomber, Coastal and Training Commands. During this period in history, the Air Force was seen as exciting and glamorous and through the use of recruiting posters and agents, the RAF began its expansion.

During this period also, the German Army began increasing the power of its Air Force, evidence of this is seen in the destruction caused by the Luftwaffe when it bombed the city of Guernica in 1938 during the Spanish Civil war. The strength of the Luftwaffe had a large effect during the early stages of the war as Britain feared Heavy Bomber attacks. Little aerial bombing on behalf of Britain occurred during this period so not to provoke the Luftwaffe. The RAF's main role during this period was to drop propaganda pamphlets on German cities.

British Airmen Dropping Leaflets

As the war escalated, the British Air Force commenced daylight raids on enemy shipping and occupied airfields. Aerial tactics were relatively new during this period of time, and losses were high due to the ability of the lighter enemy fighters to reach higher speeds with increased maneuverability. Obsolete bombers were also used at this time to defend the retreat at Dunkirk.

Joint Anglo-French Declaration & AggreementAgainst Germany September 1939 The Governments of the United Kingdom and France solemnly and publicly affirm their intention should a war be forced upon them to conduct hostilities with a firm desire to spare the civilian population and to preserve in every way possible these monuments of human achievement which are treasured in all civilized countries.
In this spirit they have welcomed with deep satisfaction President Roosevelt's appeal on the subject of bombing from the air. Fully sympathizing with the humanitarian sentiments by which that appeal was inspired, they have replied to it in similar terms.
They had indeed some time ago sent explicit instructions to the Commanders of their armed forces prohibiting the bombardment, whether from the air, or the sea, or by artillery on land, of any except strictly military objectives in the narrowest sense of the word.
Bombardment by artillery on land will exclude objectives which have no strictly defined military importance, in particular large urban areas situated outside the battle zone. They will furthermore make every effort to avoid the destruction of localities or buildings which are of value to civilization.
As regards the use of naval forces, including submarines, the two Governments will abide strictly by the rules laid down in the Submarine Protocol of 1936 which have been accepted by nearly all civilized nations. Further they will only employ their aircraft against merchant shipping at sea in conformity with the recognized rules applicable to the exercise of maritime belligerent rights by warships.
Finally, the two allied Governments reaffirm their intention to abide by the terms of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibiting the use in war of asphyxiating or poisonous or other gases and of bacteriological methods of warfare. An inquiry will be addressed to the German Government as to whether they are prepared to give an assurance to the same effect.
It will, of course, be understood that in the event of the enemy not observing any of the restrictions which the Governments of the United Kingdom and France have thus imposed on the operations of their forces these Governments reserve the right to take all such action as they may consider appropriate.

The Battle of Britain - 1940 website © Battle of Britain Historical Society 2007
This agreement formally introduces "Bombardment frm the air" as a legitimate war tactic. This document justifies the bombing of areas of military importance. However, during this period in world war 2, total war had not been introduced by either 'side" and this aggreement illustrates this fully. No areas with non-military purpose were not to be targeted.

Britain Isolated

In June 1940, Britain was the sole European allied country that had repelled all German attacks. France had fallen soon after Prime Minister Churchill's famed "Be Ye Men of valor Speech". The Royal Air Force became the only available option for attacks on the German forces, the Royal Navy was occupied protecting transport routes with the commonwealth from the German "Wolf Packs" of U-Boats.

Operation Sea lion

In July of the same year, Germany began to prepare for its invasion of the British Isles, hundreds of barges were being massed in occupied ports while RAF Fighter Command continued to fight for dominance of the airspace over the English Channel. RAF bomber crews continually bombed barges, enemy air bases, fuel supplies and aircraft factories in an attempt to undermine the Luftwaffe. These bombing runs forced the Germans to postpone a "final invasion" on Britain.

In July Churchill wrote privately: ‘When I look round to see how we can win this war there is only one sure path…..and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland’.

German Barges Massing for Final Assault of Britain

Due to the damages sustained on the German forces, the Germans were unable to continue with a full scale invasion. Instead they began the Blitz, increasing aerial attacks on all major British cities, as well as an increase of U-boat activity in the Atlantic.

At this point, Churchill became so worried of the effects of the increased German Naval activities the RAF was forced to direct its efforts towards, mine laying in the ocean, bombing submarine factories as well as launching attacks on German destroyers and shipping lines. Running a large majority of these missions during daylight, the older planes sustained heavy losses. In a survey taken in the summer of 1941 it was recorded that during night raids only 30% of the planes made it within 5 miles of their targets. More advanced technology and newer planes were required in order to increase the accuracy of raids and to become a more effective striking force.

1942 has been recorded as the turning point for the bomber command, and perhaps even the war. In this year the Lancaster bomber was introduced as well as more accurate navagational aids and a new commander for Bomber command. Air Marshal Arthur Harris was appointed as the head of bomber command.

In February 1942, the official directive issued to Bomber Command ordered the specific targeting of 58 major German industrial cities. The primary target was officially described as ‘the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular, of the industrial workers’. This concept was endorsed by Churchill introducing officicaly total war on the behalf of the Commonwealth. The document below illustrates how Churchill believed that Total war was justified in times of supreme emergency.


The Great Gamble of Harris

With the knowledge that the Bomber Command needed more "victories", Harris took a calculated risk. On the 30th of May he gathered every availiable aircraft including training aircraft together for one continous assault of Cologne. Over 1000 bombers were sent on a night mission to destroy the city. As almost of the Commonwealth aircraft were sent on this mission, a loss would have effectively removed Britains main strike force in the war. More more 1000 bomber raids followed and the bomber offensive on occupied europe had begun.

However, even after the success of the 1000 bomber raids navagation was still a major concern. In early 1942 more advanced guidance technology called the GEE was introduced and increased numbers of the AVRO Lancaster were being build and sent into combat. In August 1942 another tactic was also developed to increase the probablity that bombing squadrons would find their targets. A special force called the Pathfinders was developed to fly ahead and mark the targets with flares increasing the visiblity of the targets. A master bomber would also circle the target and send directions to incoming allied aircraft. Small aircraft such as the Mosquito also were sent to fly over Berlin and major cities to keep the air raid sirens on all night to keep the workers awake as long as possible.

New Targets

By this point in the war, the V-1 and V-2 rocket had been developed by the Germans and was being employed to attack major british cities. Due to the destructive power of rockets they were emmidiatly targeted by Bomber Command. In spite of these efforts, through February as many as 13 rockets still landed on London every day due to the mobility of their launch sites.

V-Rocket Deployment center before and after an Allied Bombing strike

As well as industrial and civilian targets, Bomber Command also look for new ways to damage as much enemy territory possible. Due to this the famous Dambuster Raid occured in 1943. Lancaster bombers were required to fly low, under radar across Holland and Germany to drop special bombs designed to destroy enemy dams. This event illustrates the increasing accuracy of Bombers at this point of the war and was reconized by both sides as an incredibly skilled feat. The destruction of teh dam and subsequent flooding caused less damage than was hoped, but this raid was regarded as an amazing achievement and the picture below was circulated throughout the world to celebrate the success of the mission.

The Mohen dam after the Allied Dambusting Mission

This raid not only helped to boost morale, but was used by Churchill to prove the effectiveness of Bomb Command to the US Congress and even to Stalin to prove that Britian was hitting the Germans on the Western Front.

Bomber Command and the Naval War

Air crews also play a major role in the war over the Atlantic. In 1941 1000 sea mines were laid by Bomber Command. In 1942 this increased to nearly 9000. Many German cruisers were badly damaged by mines effectivly removing them from the war. Over the coarse of the war, Bomber Command sunk more German ships than the Royal Navy.


In support of the D-Day landings the RAF and USSAF's bombing forces were diverted from directly attacking the German territory inorder to destroy Luftwaffe fighters in an attempt to take some pressure from the landing parties. German supply lines were also targetted in an attempt to limit the ability of the German forces to react to the landings.

By 1944, the accuracy of bombing raids had increased to the point that precision attacks on rail yards and bridges were possible. After the landings, Bombing Command was called upon for precision raids on German strongholds and concentrations. In many cases, bombs were dropped less than a mile infront of the advancing allied troops.

Richard Dimbleby onboard a Lancaster bomber during one such mission is recorded as saying:

"There were 295 near misses…all at one time."
By the end of the second world war, Bomber Command had become a multi-role force allowing for key gains during the war. The efforts of the RAF allowed the Allied forces to gain a foothold in mainland Europe and effevtively reduced the ablity of the German forces to react and combat allied forces.

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