A Fascinating Look at the Men & Machines of RAF Bomber Command

 
Low-level 'beat-up'. A Halifax II, JB911/KN-X of No 77 Squadron roars low over an audience of appreciative 'erks' during air tests at Elvington, Yorkshire, July 1943
Low-level 'beat-up'. A Halifax II, JB911/KN-X of No 77 Squadron roars low over an audience of appreciative 'erks' during air tests at Elvington, Yorkshire, July 1943
 
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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.

RAF Bomber Command 1940 Vickers Wellington Mk IC bombers of No. 149 Squadron in flight, circa August 1940.
RAF Bomber Command 1940 Vickers Wellington Mk IC bombers of No. 149 Squadron in flight, circa August 1940.

The Trades

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.

Lancaster pilot at the controls, left, flight engineer at right
Lancaster pilot at the controls, left, flight engineer at right

 

Navigator at work. F O Phil Ingleby of 619 Squadron, killed on his second tour in August 1944
Navigator at work. F O Phil Ingleby of 619 Squadron, killed on his second tour in August 1944

 

A graphic line-up of all the personnel required to keep one Avro Lancaster of RAF Bomber Command flying on operations, taken at Scampton, Lincolnshire, 11 June 1942.
A graphic line-up of all the personnel required to keep one Avro Lancaster of RAF Bomber Command flying on operations, taken at Scampton, Lincolnshire, 11 June 1942.

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.

Mid Upper Gunner with twin .303 Brownings, February 1943
Mid Upper Gunner with twin .303 Brownings, February 1943

 

The bomb aimer on a Lancaster B Mark I at his position in the nose
The bomb aimer on a Lancaster B Mark I at his position in the nose

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.

The air gunner of a Battle mans the aircraft’s defensive weapon, a single pintle-mounted rapid firing Vickers K machine gun, France, 1940
The air gunner of a Battle mans the aircraft’s defensive weapon, a single pintle-mounted rapid firing Vickers K machine gun, France, 1940

 The Aircraft

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.

Ground crew unloading 250-lb GP bombs in front of a Battle, circa 1939-1940
Ground crew unloading 250-lb GP bombs in front of a Battle, circa 1939-1940

 

The bomb aimer position in the Battle was in the aircraft’s floor. Note the CSBS Mk. VII equipment
The bomb aimer position in the Battle was in the aircraft’s floor. Note the CSBS Mk. VII equipment

 

RAF No. 218 Squadron Fairey Battles over France, circa 1940
RAF No. 218 Squadron Fairey Battles over France, circa 1940

 

Ground crew pushing a Battle on the ground
Ground crew pushing a Battle on the ground

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.

Handley Page Hampden of No. 83 Squadron with crew, seated on a loaded bomb trolley at Scampton, October 1940
Handley Page Hampden of No. 83 Squadron with crew, seated on a loaded bomb trolley at Scampton, October 1940

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.

A Wellington DWI Mark II HX682 of No. 1 General Reconnaissance Unit. Note the magnetic field generator to detonate naval mines at Ismailia, Egypt
A Wellington DWI Mark II HX682 of No. 1 General Reconnaissance Unit. Note the magnetic field generator to detonate naval mines at Ismailia, Egypt

 

Bomb bay of a Wellington bomber
Bomb bay of a Wellington bomber

 

A crew member inside a Wellington
A crew member inside a Wellington

 

The tail turret of a Wellington, 1942
The tail turret of a Wellington, 1942

The Airmen

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.

William Wedgwood Benn, 1st Viscount Stansgate
William Wedgwood Benn, 1st Viscount Stansgate

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.

Read another story from us: Top Bombers & Pilots of WW2

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.

 
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