Bomber Command is the second book in the Australians in World War II series, published by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA). Written by historian Dr Richard Reid, this book focuses on the Australians who flew with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in Bomber Command and tells the story of their training, their operational lives and their unique experiences following the German surrender.
On 12 August 1942, Alf King, London correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, stood on the tarmac of an AV Roe and Company (Avro) test aerodrome and marvelled at what stood before him:
I saw six bombers fresh from the production lines capable of carrying about 50 tons of death and destruction in one journey over Germany.1
Sixteen months later, on 2 December 1943, King witnessed this destruction for himself from the flight deck of Avro Lancaster JB 140 of No. 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), as the aircraft began its bomb run over Germany’s capital city, Berlin. This was one of the most feared moments for the big bomber’s seven-man crew, captained by their pilot, RAAF Squadron Leader Bill Forbes, as they had to fly their aircraft straight and level for the time it took to open the bomb doors, release the load at the aiming point, then take a photograph to show how close they were to the correct position, before climbing away as fast as the Lancaster’s four Rolls Royce Merlin engines would take them. All the while, the shells – ‘flak’ – from German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground burst around them, and beneath them the 4000 lb (1814 kg) ‘Cookie’ bombs and thousands of smaller incendiaries from other aircraft exploded, shattering buildings and setting fires. For his readers in Australia, far from the night skies over Germany, King strove to bring before them the drama and tension of the bomb run:
Over the intercom, from the bomb aimer’s compartment, came Grime’s [Pilot Officer William Grime, Royal Air Force] calm voice: ‘Bomb doors open’ magic words that thrill even the most hardened crews. ‘Okay’, came from Forbes.
Seconds passed. Then, from Grime came the even more magic words, in his unruffled voice: ‘Cookie gone’.
‘Okay’, came from the equally unruffled Forbes.
I counted slowly to myself … one, two, three, four, five. Then Grime again spoke: ‘Incendiaries gone’. ‘Okay’, came from Forbes. We had delivered, free of charge, to Hitler and company, a 4,000 lb building-blaster and morale-shaker, and many fire-raisers. This was the climax of the flight, almost four hours from base to target.2
For King, the whole sight beneath him, as he looked over Forbes’ shoulder from the cockpit to the ground below, was a ‘spectacle of devastation by explosive and burning’, both ‘terrifying’ and ‘savage’.
That night, Lancaster JB 140 was not alone in the skies above Berlin. Between four and five o’clock that afternoon, from airfields close to the east coast of England, 458 heavy bombers had been despatched to Berlin, 425 of them Avro Lancasters. Gathering over the North Sea, they formed into a ‘bomber stream’, each plane setting a course to bring it, flying at a predetermined height and speed, over Berlin at a designated time. Between 8:04 and 8:24 pm, the ‘stream’ passed over the city, releasing 1600 tons (1,451,460 kg) of bombs. Of these, 840 tons (762,000 kg) were high explosives such as the Cookie bomb, and 760 tons (689,460 kg) were small 4 lb (1.8 kg) or 30 lb (13.6 kg) incendiaries. JB 140’s load that night was a typical ‘blast and incendiary’ load – one 4000 lb high explosive Cookie, sixty-eight 30 lb incendiaries, and 1200 4 lb incendiaries. The men who delivered this deadly load of fire and destruction to Berlin – the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators and air gunners – came from many nations but predominantly from the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the old British Empire and Commonwealth: Australia, New Zealand and Canada. All saw themselves as belonging to the combined squadrons of the Empire’s main striking force against Nazi Germany in the years before the June 1944 Allied invasion of Europe: Royal Air Force Bomber Command.