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The Royal Air Force in World War II

In the Battle of Britain, Germany attempted to win air supremacy over southern Britain as a precursor to invasion. There were heavy losses on both sides, but thanks to RAF air defences and German fears about the Royal Navy, the threat of immediate invasion passed. The Germans then began bombing British cities by night, and although the RAF was successful in deflecting a German aerial blow in daylight, the switch to night attacks posed technological problems that took time to solve. Only strategic bombing by the RAF now held out any hope of weakening Germany.

German attacks on cities tailed off during early summer 1941 and there was a lull until spring 1942. The Baedeker raids from April until the end of July 1942 were reprisal attacks for Bomber Command offensives against Germany. Many provincial cities were targeted and some, such as Exeter, suffered exceptionally heavy damage.

Through a radical policy of strategic bombing the Royal Air Force (RAF) changed from being a service that co-operated with the Army and Navy, to one of complete independence. The RAF Command that carried out the strategic attacks was Bomber Command. At first the RAF was forbidden to bomb targets in Germany for fear of civilian casualties, and concentrated on dropping propaganda leaflets at night. German air defences savaged daylight operations focusing on bombing strategic targets. By spring 1940 it was clear this strategy had failed. Bomber Command began to fly at night, but suffered navigation and target identification problems, along with a rapidly improving German defence.

Aircraft were deployed to support operations against tactical targets in Norway during the German invasion. The German invasion of France and the Low Countries followed, but there was now a thought-out plan for Bomber Command to follow - partly based on the bombing of strategic targets in Germany. A division of Bomber Command, together with the Advanced Air Striking Force (based in France), attacked communication targets, while the remaining squadrons attacked oil installations and refineries in the industrialised Ruhr area.

After France fell, Britain's small strategic bombing force was mainly occupied in anti-invasion operations; the Blenheims bombed barge concentrations in the Channel ports, and the night bombers (the Wellingtons, Hamptons and Whitleys) attacked oil installations and aircraft factories in Germany. Strategic bombing and Bomber Command were now Britain's only means of taking the offensive directly to Germany. As a result, Bomber Command began to hold a key place in British strategy.

During 1941 the first of the four-engined heavy bombers were used and the number of operational squadrons increased. Although Bomber Command was required to attack naval targets in France and Germany (on Churchill's orders), German ports remained more popular targets than those on the French Biscay Coast, as they were closer to the original RAF concept of strategic bombing.

The 'Transportation Plan' in 1941 concentrated on bombing German rail links. In August the Butt Report raised serious questions about photographs taken at the point bombers dropped their bombs. It appeared few of the bombers (who claimed to have successfully hit their targets) were getting near the correct aiming point, and errors were being measured in miles, not yards. But scientific aids to navigation and bomb aiming were being developed and soon vastly increased effectiveness.

Heavy losses persuaded Bomber Command to limit its activities at the end of 1941. However, with the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Harris in 1942, Bomber Command once again undertook heavy and decisive bombing attacks. Although individual operations (such as the attack on Lübeck or the 1000 bomber raids on Cologne and Bremen) were considered as tactically very successful, they could not be translated into complete strategic successes in the face of the sophisticated German air defence network. The Americans could not achieve a decisive defeat thorough strategic bombing either, and operations decreased.

Meanwhile, the maritime air battle against U-boats was being waged in cooperation with the Admiralty and RAF's Coastal Command. The Navy requested air raids against U-boat operating bases and construction yards, and the transferral of aircraft from Bomber Command to Coastal Command. Bomber Command and the Air Ministry were unwilling to give resources. A Cabinet-level compromise was eventually worked out and the Navy and Coastal Command were given enough resources to defeat the U-boats in May 1943.

In 1943 the strategic attack on Germany reached its peak, with attacks from America by day and Britain by night. During this period Bomber Command launched three major battles - the Battle of the Ruhr from March to June, the Battle of Hamburg from late July to early August, and the Battle of Berlin from November 1943 to March 1944.

In this period new navigational tools became available to enhance the accuracy of the British night attacks. A number of low-level precision raids took place, such as the attacks on the Ruhr Dams. At the same time the daylight attacks by the US 8th Air Force destroyed the fighter force of the German Luftwaffe in air-to-air combat.

Operation Overlord was the codename for the Allied invasion of northwest Europe which began (operationally) on June 6 1944 with the invasion of Normandy. The liberation of France in the same year seriously weakened German integrated night defences and navigation aids were sited in liberated France, allowing for deeper and more accurate bombing. Because the massive US strategic bombing, 'attack by day', had effectively destroyed the German day fighter force in 1943, Bomber Command was now able to operate by day as well as by night.

By July 1944 Bomber Command was launching large-scale attacks on German cities and had become a huge force made up of Halifax and Lancaster heavy bombers, with a 'light strike force' made up of the very fast, high-flying Mosquito medium bomber aircraft. There were now electronic aids for navigation and bomb aiming - the 'Path Finder Force' marked targets with a high degree of accuracy for heavy bombers to attack. Bomber Command was also used for special operations, and in November 1944 Lancaster bombers armed with special bombs sank the battleship Tirpitz. In this final and victorious phase of Bomber Command's war, an event occurred that has always remained controversial - the Dresden bombing.

On 8 September 1944 the first V2 rocket fell on Britain, landing in Chiswick. By the 18 September, 27 V2s had fallen, 16 of them on London. The offensive into Holland brought the attacks to a temporary halt but the next series attack came in 1944 with the deployment of German V1 and V2 missile systems. On 20 June 1944 the Cabinet Committee 'Crossbow' was set up to consider counter measures. By September 1944 allied ground forces had overrun the German launch sites, and the V1 attacks petered out. From October 1944 to March 1945 V2s fell regularly on the UK; only the advance of the Allied armies and the destruction of the German transport network brought the offensive to a halt. The air attack on Britain was over.

Bomber Command made an heroic effort during the war and was an enormous boost to British morale. Having suffered massive losses, it continued to take the war to the heart of Germany, night after night. Bomber Command transformed airpower into a political and military weapon, and with the addition of massive destruction from a single nuclear bomb, strategic bombing was transformed into the ultimate political weapon.

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Page last modified: 22-08-2016 18:34:13 ZULU