The strategic bombing offensive carried out by Bomber Command in Europe played a significant role in the Allied victory. Australian airmen flew in every major operation.
Most of the aircrews who trained in Australia under the Empire Air Training Scheme were posted to Bomber Command. There were five main RAAF squadrons – No 460 flying Wellingtons then Lancasters, Nos 463 and 467 flying Lancasters, and Nos 462 and 466 flying Halifaxes. For a time Nos 455 and 458 Squadrons were also part of Bomber Command. An example of the workload of these squadrons can be gleaned from the record of No. 460 squadron. Formed in England on 15 November 1941 it flew operations until 25 April 1945, its last when it bombed Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” at Berchtesgaden. A typical ‘main force’ bomber unit, the squadron flew 6,234 operational sorties, dropped 24,856 tons of bombs and lost 169 aircraft and 1,018 aircrew.
Flying tens of thousands of operations and sorties, the squadrons of Bomber Command inflicted devastating damage and performed outstanding acts of courage. Two Australian airmen, Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton (posted to the RAF’s No. 149 Squadron during an attack on the Fiat factory in Turin on 28/29 November 1942) and Wing Commander Hughie Edwards were awarded the Victoria Cross.
A key group within Bomber Command was the Pathfinder Force under the command of another Australian, Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett. Flying mostly Lancasters and Mosquitos, an elite corps of crews would mark targets with flares and incendiaries to guide the following waves of bombers. Perhaps the most famous attack in which Australian aircrew participated was the Dam Buster mission on the night of 16/17 May 1943 against the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe Dams. The dams were successfully breached and eight Australian airmen were awarded decorations for their part in the raid. Australian squadrons and crew also participated in the mass bombing raids on German cities such as Hamburg, Hanover and Berlin, which caused grievous casualties among civilians.
D-Day on 6 June 1944 provided a climactic moment of the war in Europe. The air and sea borne landings were preceded by attacks from the air. Australian bomber squadrons helped to destroy artillery batteries and obstacles to clear the way for the infantry, who might otherwise be in great danger on the beaches. On D-Day allied aircraft flew some 11,000 sorties. Some Australians flew transport aircraft carrying paratroopers to their drop zones while others flew diversionary raids.
Of the 1136 bombers committed to silencing the shore batteries, 168 were skippered by RAAF pilots or were from RAAF squadrons 460, 463, 466 and 467. No. 460 Squadron flew two missions and dropped 150 tons of bombs (5000 tons were dropped in total) while No. 466 bombed a German battery at Maisy that threatened American troops landing at Omaha and Utah beaches. On 8 July Australian Halifaxes and Lancasters flew a daylight raid against the German positions at Caen where the British army was locked in battle. Australian bombers continued to participate in attacks on German rear areas and communications after the landings until Normandy operations ceased on 23 July.
While the triumphs of Bomber Command are legendary, heroism came at a high price. Nearly 3,500 RAAF airmen serving with the Command were killed, amounting to about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in combat during the war. Statistically, Bomber Command aircrew were unlikely to survive a tour of 30 operational missions. It was not uncommon for aircrew to arrive at an operational squadron from their training unit and be tasked to fly that night. Within hours, they could have been shot down, not even having had time to unpack or get to know their new comrades.
Service was particularly stressful and the dangers many. Once spotlighted, the ponderous bombers were easy prey for marauding German fighters and the mass batteries of flak that was thrown up in defence.