Members of the Royal Air Force (RAF) formed the majority of the Allies’ Bomber Command during the Second World War. They played an important role in defeating the threat of the Luftwaffe. The original crews of the RAF were not enough to provide adequate defense of Britain, so as the Second World War progressed British aircrew numbers expanded to meet the rapidly increasing need.
Although based in and controlled from Britain, the RAF Bomber Command incorporated squadrons of other nationalities into their crews. These came from Europe and further abroad. Of the 126 units serving with Bomber Command, 32 were made up of non-British units. These included two Polish and two French squadrons.
The RAF Bomber Command also built up a first-rate fleet of aircraft, making use of the most up-to-date development in aircraft design. Training centers operated in Canada, Australia, and the USA to a lesser extent, to train these additional squadrons. In the course of WWII, the aircrews would make 364,514 operational flights with high casualty rates.
As the war progressed, 8,325 planes were lost and an estimated 57,205 airmen were killed in action. There were also 8,403 men injured as well as 9,838 taken prisoner. Flying as part of an aircrew was clearly an extremely risky undertaking.
Bomber Command crew personnel were organized into trades. These changed in the course of the war, and new trades were introduced to adapt to changing needs. The key roles are as follows:
The Pilot was effectively the captain and responsible for making the main decisions. His authority was based not on rank but his training, qualifications, and experience. He was still in command even if there were higher-ranking officers in the crew. On larger aircraft, he would have a Second Pilot as an assistant. The Second Pilot was also fully qualified but generally less experienced.
Another key role was the Observer. Responsibilities involved map reading and using astral and wireless navigation. He would navigate the aircraft and also decide the right time to release the payload.
The Observer would often be assisted by the Wireless Operator who frequently doubled as an Air Gunner. As well as assisting the Observer with navigation, he had to be ready to use the machine gun to defend the plane.
On larger aircraft, there might be a dedicated Air Gunner. These mostly held the rank of sergeant. They tended to be older than average and some crews had gunners who had previously fought in the First World War.
As aircraft became more developed, particularly when four-engine aircraft were introduced, the crew could also include a Flight Engineer for maintenance. The number of crew members varied depending on the size and type of aircraft, as well as the requirements of the mission.
Some of the most well-known aircraft included the following:
The Fairey Battle was used to support ground operations during the day. This was a single-engine light bomber and normally would have a three-man crew consisting of the pilot, observer and wireless operator who would also take on the air gunner’s role if needed.
This type of aircraft was used in the Battle of France (May-June 1940) where the Allies’ aircraft fared badly against the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitts.
The Handley Page Hampden carried a crew of three or four men. It was a twin-engine plane used mostly in nighttime operations. These aircraft were in service right from the beginning of Great Britain’s entry into the war. Besides bombing attacks, it was also used to drop propaganda leaflets and lay sea mines.
The Vickers Wellington was a larger sized twin-engine aircraft and carried a crew of five or six men. The crew usually included a gunner to operate the rear airgun mounted on a turret. What made the Vickers Wellington so useful was its strength and resilience. It would continue flying even after sustaining damage that would have destroyed other aircraft.
It was at its best when used in night operations and was used mostly for these after daytime operations in 1939 over northern Germany resulted in heavy losses.
Although the majority of the units were British, the Bomber Command expanded to include many different nationalities. There was a substantial contingent of both Polish and French airmen. The ranks were also supplemented by members from Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. Not only did individuals enlist from these countries, but whole squadrons from the Royal Australian, Royal New Zealand, and Royal Canadian Air Forces joined the RAF Bomber Command fleet.
There were also a small number of recruits from other Commonwealth countries who enlisted as individuals. One of the oldest casualties of the Bomber Command was a 48-year-old Sri Lankan wireless operator named Kadir Nagalingam who was killed in action October 1944.
Many Polish and French airmen were motivated to continue the fight against Germany after the occupation of their country. For ease of communication, men of the same nationality were kept together as a crew.
Most of the men who manned the aircraft were between 19-25 years old. However, there were many younger men and some who were a lot older. There were several who were 17 years old and the youngest casualty is believed to have been 16-year-old Canadian Edward James Wright, who must have lied about his age to enlist.
But it was not only the young men who concealed their ages. One of the oldest was William Wedgewood Benn who was still flying at the age of 67. He was forced to stop when officials discovered his age.
Bomber Command played a vital part in the Allies’ victory and was also an example of international effort and cooperation. However, with such a heavy casualty rate, the cost was high and was paid by young men from all across the world.