This commemorative publication is a part of the series; Australians in World War II. It focuses on the Australians who flew in Bomber Command with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) . This resource shares their training, their operational lives and their unique experiences. This book is supplemented with teaching activities for students in the booklet, Bomber Command: Educational Activities.
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Chapter 1: Berlin, 2 December 1943: a spectacle of devastation
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.
- 1. Alf King, 'Huge bombers inspected', Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August 1942
- 2. Alf King, 'Terrible picture of devastation', Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 1943
Chapter 2: The road to bomber command: the empire air training scheme
For JB 140's pilot, Bill (William Alexander) Forbes, the road to Bomber Command and Berlin began at No. 3 Recruiting Depot, Brisbane, Queensland. As a 21-year-old clerk, born in Charters Towers but working in Brisbane, he enrolled in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve on 9 May 1941 and then, on 17 August, in the RAAF proper 'for the duration of the war'.3 Over the next twelve months, until he received his pilot's wings and commission as a Pilot Officer, Leading Aircraftsman Forbes went through the different stages of one of the most technically demanding training schedules of World War II: the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS).
Why did men volunteer for aircrew? There were probably as many reasons for this as there were volunteers: for some it was patriotism, for others perhaps the novelty, adventure and glamour of flying. Some had fathers who had been through the trenches of France and Belgium in World War I and wanted none of that for their sons. William Pearce's dad walked with a limp from a shell burst which had blown most of the flesh and muscle from his left leg, but he eventually agreed to his son enlisting in the RAAF:
You can have a go at joining the Air Force if you like. If anything happens there it will be quick and sudden and you won't have to suffer at length.4
Hank Nelson considers that men selected for aircrew training were, in general, more educated and more likely to come from the ranks of those with 'white collar' jobs, such as schoolteachers, clerks, bankers, or civil servants, although there were always exceptions. Ninety-nine per cent of navigators and 96 per cent of pilots graduating in the first year of EATS had four years of secondary education at a time when few school leavers achieved an Intermediate (fourth year) certificate. Typical perhaps was Clifford James Lucas, aged 19, from Gundagai, NSW, who wrote on his 'Application for Air Crew' that he had his Intermediate Certificate with passes in English, History, Geography, Maths 1 and 2, French and Elementary Science. What would have also pleased the selectors was his response to Question 15: 'Particulars of Sports and Games Played – football, cricket, tennis, swimming, boxing and athletics'.
The EATS was established in 1939 to supply trained Dominion aircrew to the Royal Air Force (RAF). It was thought that, while Britain had the industrial capacity to build and supply aircraft, there would not be enough British crew to fly them as the RAF expanded to fight the coming air battle against Germany. Ultimately, more than 37,000 Australians trained under the EATS scheme, and it is estimated that more than 10,000 of these served in RAF Bomber Command. There, along with men from Great Britain and the other Dominions and colonies of the British Empire, they provided the RAF with its bomber aircrew requirements between 1940 and the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. Initial training, and allocation to the different aircrew 'musterings' (roles), was conducted in Australia at Initial Training Schools (ITS), followed by specialised courses for pilots, navigators, wireless operators and air gunners. A large number of Australians completed their EATS training in Canada, and a few were sent to Rhodesia. By the time an EATS trainee reached England he had either received his officers' commission, or stripes as a Sergeant or Flight Sergeant.
The great fear in training was to be 'scrubbed'. By mid 1941, virtually 18 per cent of the intake failed to get through the exams at the Initial Training School. Based on results at the ITS, recruits were designated for training as pilots, navigators (the description 'observer' was also used for a time), bomb aimers, wireless air gunners, or air gunners. Many would-be pilots, 29 per cent, were 'scrubbed' at the Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS), and a further 18 per cent failed at Service Flying Training School (SFTS). The same fear permeated the ranks of perspective navigators. Don Charlwood remembered the late nights and the intense cramming before what his French Canadian navigation instructor called 'ze scroob tests':
I drifted to sleep murmuring – Variation east magnetic least; Stand with your back to the wind in the northern hemisphere and the low pressure system is on your left; Saturated adiabatic lapse rate is – is what? God, I must check it in the morning!5
Peter O'Connor dreamed of becoming a pilot. Doing his elementary flying training at Cunderdin, Western Australia, (No. 9 EFTS) he remembered the day the Chief Flying Instructor 'scrubbed' him: 'I still do a little weep over that to think I didn't make the grade'. He went on to fly as a navigator.
Bill Forbes began his EATS course on 15 September 1941 at No. 3 Initial Training School in Queensland. Until selected for pilot training, he faced a weekly demanding round of lectures in meteorology, armaments, signalling, navigation and maths. John McCarthy writes of this initial training, and the determination to live up to high expectations:
The will to succeed was very strong and, as one former trainee now recalls, the course members themselves determined that all would pass … This spontaneous manifestation of collective help may be seen not only as an indicator of high morale but also as a contributor to it …There was little time for relaxation, less for reflection … Often former trainees cannot recall having any time off at all.6
Drill and physical education were also compulsory. Drill, never much part of RAAF life on an operational bomber station for elite aircrew, was an aspect of training most never forgot. Edward Martin recalled the man whose voice made EATS recruits come to attention:
… Sergeant Gascoine and his corporal – they wielded a power I had not experienced before or since. In 1942 … I met and spoke to Air Marshall Tedder. Despite the rank he did not exude [sic] the fear as did the Lindfield corporal.7
From his ITS, Forbes graduated to No. 12 Elementary Flying Training School and then, in February 1942, to No. 8 Service Flying Training School, both at Bundaberg, Queensland. Here, and at similar training schools all over Australia, the realities of wartime flying came a little closer.
In May 1942, Leading Aircraftman Clifford Lucas came to No. 8 SFTS having passed the course at No. 10 EFTS at Temora, NSW. On 1 June, Lucas, along with Leading Aircraftman Regan, another EATS trainee, went on a training flight in an Avro Anson with their instructor, Flight Sergeant Ronald Davies. For reasons that have never come to light their aircraft crashed into the sea and all were killed. Searches found aircraft wreckage two kilometres offshore, but the bodies were never found. Today, Lucas, Regan and Davies are commemorated on the Sydney Memorial, and on Anzac Day 2007 a plaque was unveiled to their memory at Bargara, Queensland, near the crash site. At the edge of country towns, where flying training schools were set up during World War II, are the sad reminders of those who volunteered to fight for Australia overseas, but never left home. Hank Nelson writes:
There are now 29 war graves beyond Wirraway Road (Deniliquin, NSW), the airfield and the western edge of the town cemetery. Nearly all the headstones are for trainees and their instructors, one for each month that 7SFTS operated. Close to one per cent of the 2,200 pilots who trained at Deniliquin were buried there – below red brick pavement, white headstones, flowers and hardy shrubs, and surrounded by the scent of pepper trees and lemon scented gums.8
- 1. Personal details on RAAF career of Bill Forbes from 'Forbes, William Alexander, DSO, DFC, Wing Commander, Nos 467 and 463 Squadron RAAF', RAAF Officers Personal Files, 1921–1948, A9300, National Archives of Australia
- 2. William George Pearce, The wing is clipped, a real life adventure with the RAAF, Slipstream Archives, Margate, 2000, introduction.
- 3. Don Charlwood, Journeys into night, Burgewood Books, Warrandyte, 2005, p. 27
- 4. John McCarthy, A last call of empire, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1988, p. 60
- 5. Martin, quoted by McCarthy, A last call of empire, p. 53
- 6. Hank Nelson, Chased by the sun, ABC Books, Sydney, 2002, p. 29
Chapter 3: The road to bomber command: operational training
Now a Pilot Officer, and attached from the RAAF to the RAF, Bill Forbes embarked from Brisbane on the merchant ship Taranaki on 28 July 1942 and reached the United Kingdom more than two months later on 4 October. This long sea journey was a common experience for that great majority of Australian EATS graduates who were sent to serve with the RAF. Some, like Forbes, were ready for their final RAF flight training in Britain, but others completed their courses in Canada. Leading Aircraftsman Eric Willis was not too impressed with his trans-Pacific trip. In May 1943, Willis left Sydney on an American troopship, the Mount Vernon, and watching Sydney Heads disappear in the mist wondered, like so many must have done, if he would see Australia again. Initially put to work in the bakery for his mess, Willis was rescued from such duties, along with the other EATS trainees, by their accompanying RAAF educational officer, who decided they should have daily lectures instead. The 'tucker' he found 'awful hash', tea was rarely served, and the coffee so 'strong you would need an iron constitution to drink it for long'.
Willis' voyage was in sharp contrast to that of Don Charlwood on the passenger liner Monterey in September 1941. Charlwood's group completed their initial training in Australia and then, with other designated navigators, he was en route to Edmonton in Canada. Luncheon was their first engagement on board:
Even before we reached the heads, the Monterey's routine claimed us with a call for the first sitting for lunch … Unsophisticated products of the Depression that we were, we considered the menu in silence, privately ruling out dish after dish as too expensive. Then someone exclaimed, 'But the Air Force is paying!'9
A few EATS men were in the thick of the war well before they reached England. On 18 February 1941 the British ship Memnon left Port Pirie, South Australia, for England with 7629 tons of general cargo, which included 2697 tons of wheat and 2036 tons of zinc concentrates. Also on board were six RAAF Sergeants, led by Flight Sergeant Maxwell Whitehill. On 11 March, three days out from Freetown on the west African coast, theMemnon was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-106, under the command of Captain Jürgen Oesten. Escaping in the lifeboats with other survivors, and clad only in shorts and shirts, the Australian airmen drifted in open boats for thirteen days until hitting the coast of French West Africa at Dakar (modern Senegal).
At Dakar, the party was interned by the pro-German Vichy French authorities and Whitehill was one of those placed in the hospital. Complaining, after two weeks, of the lack of food, he was told by the hospital commander that as the British were blockading Dakar 'they did not intend to give us any more to eat than would keep us alive'. Three of the Australians escaped, hoping to seize a canoe and paddle down the Niger River to reach British territory, but they were caught and thrown into a dungeon for fourteen days. Eventually, all six South Australian airmen were released and reached England after this unexpected interruption to their training. Only two of them came home alive after the war.
Arriving in Britain in early October 1942, Pilot Officer Bill Forbes was sent straight to the Australian section of No. 3 Personnel Reception Centre (3 PRC) on the south coast of England. The purpose of this centre was to allow Australian airman to rest, fill out necessary paper work, take some refresher training after a lengthy period of travel, and await posting on to relevant RAF training units. Most Australian EATS trainees were posted to Bomber Command, but some also went to Fighter and Coastal Command. From 3 PRC men were also given leave to acclimatise themselves to England and the English. Many had relatives in Britain – as the Australian Census of 1933 showed, 10 per cent of Australia's population had been born in Great Britain or Ireland.
Dan Conway's mother was Irish and he dutifully crossed the Irish Sea – in borrowed civilian clothes as the Irish Free State was neutral – and headed for Killarney, County Kerry. There he watched Gaelic football, went to dances and was surrounded by people 'all of whom seemed to be my cousins'. By contrast, Paddy Rowling and Gus Rowcroft availed themselves of the services of 'Lady Frances Ryder and Miss MacDonald of the Isles Dominion Hospitality Scheme'. These two ladies, as their card indicated, were 'at home' between 10 am and 10 pm, at their apartment in Sloane Square, London, where, over tea, they would find suitable English families for Australians to spend their initial leave with. Rowling and Rowcroft went to a double-story manor house in Shropshire set in 1000 acres of land. Here they watched an English 'shoot' where each shooter had a gun loader, and thirty 'beaters' urged the pheasants to their doom. The Australian airmen were not invited to sip port with the shooters, but were offered beer instead with the loaders. Rowling was 'sadly disillusioned' with the English upper classes, but later he became very friendly with an English family near his airfield, who fed him poached eggs for breakfast, and he wrote of the 'many kindnesses he [Len Nettleborough] and his wife have shown me'. However, it would be unfair to judge the 'Hospitality Scheme' by Rowling and Rowcroft's initial experiences. Most, writes Hank Nelson, 'were delighted by the manners and generosity of their often elderly hosts' who welcomed them to Britain, and who undoubtedly had kith and kin of their own facing the dangers of war.
From the PRC those destined for Bomber Command went to pre-squadron training. At Advanced Flying Units (AFU) navigators began learning the difference between plotting courses in the open spaces of the Canadian prairies and in the mist, rain and low clouds of Britain; wireless operators, their skills rusty after months of inactivity, had to cope with the huge scale of radio traffic over England; and pilots learned how to land on instruments in fog. Bill Forbes did his refresher flying at No. 11 AFU, RAF Condover, Shropshire, where the non-commissioned ranks were housed in pre-fabricated 'Quonset' huts made of galvanized steel, similar in size and shape to the well-known World War II 'Nissan' hut. Officers, like Forbes, were accommodated in more luxurious and historic surroundings at nearby Condover Hall, a large Elizabethan manor house dating from the 1590s. With skills refreshed, airmen now arrived at the most significant, and often dangerous, period of training – the Operational Training Unit (OTU). Australians could find themselves at different OTUs spread throughout Britain, from No. 20 OTU at RAF Lossiemouth on the bleak shores of the North Sea in Scotland, to No. 29 OTU at RAF Bruntingthorpe, in Leicestershire in the midlands of England, where Bill Forbes was sent on 16 December 1942. It was at the OTU that the most decisive event so far in the life of a prospective member of Bomber Command occurred – 'crewing up'.
Crewing up has been described as an 'intense personal experience' and a critical one. The large four-engine bombers, the Halifaxes and Lancasters, which were the defining aircraft of Bomber Command from late 1942 until the end of the war, demanded a crew of seven. These men were required to undertake thirty operations – a 'tour' – many operations lasting up to seven or eight hours, through skies where the enemy's main aim was to destroy them. Their lives would depend on the individual ability of each man to do his job effectively under extreme pressure; a moment of inattention or hesitation from any of them could prove fatal for all.
At Bruntingthorpe in mid-1943, Dan Conway remembers that they – pilots, navigators, gunners, etc. – were assembled in a hanger and told to sort themselves out. Conway, an officer, hung around shyly, 'not wanting to inflict myself on anybody', when he was approached by Joe Wesley, an English RAF Sergeant navigator. Wesley seemed to know what he was doing: he knew a wireless operator, who knew a gunner, and so on. Conway described it as marriage without the courtship and wondered, now that they were stuck with one another, how they were going to make the relationship work:
The problem was quickly solved as everyone except Ron Day [the gunner] enjoyed a beer and so we began a series of visits to the local pubs. It was good fun and the Mess saw little of me as my social life outside blossomed – as did our comradeship.10
Conway's crew was fairly typical of Bomber Command throughout the war, a mixture of nationalities. Australians found themselves flying with Canadians and New Zealanders, South Africans and Welshmen, Irishmen and Englishmen. Even on the Australian Bomber Command squadrons, which began forming in England from late summer 1941, it was rare to find an all-Australian crew. Although there was an overseas RAAF administrative headquarters based in London, by sending airmen to Britain under the EATS scheme, Australia virtually surrendered them to RAF control, or certainly for the duration of their operational flying with Bomber Command. Some have lamented this as detrimental to the development of the RAAF and, from the perspective of those wishing to advance their careers beyond operational flying, this was probably true. The Canadians, at the insistence of the Canadian government, brought their squadrons together in one 'Group' of Bomber Command, 6 Group. Australia never achieved such a 'national' force in Bomber Command, but it should be remembered that after December 1941 Australia's efforts in the air war were divided between the ongoing needs of the EATS and the urgent requirement for a significant RAAF build up in the Pacific. Unlike Australia, the Royal Canadian Air Force never directed much of its attention to the war against Japan. The RAAF's official historian, John Herington, however, had this to say in 1954 about those many hundreds of Australian EATS graduates who began arriving in England from early 1941:
… aircrew did not really care greatly whether or not a national force was formed; because both for them and the ground staff, avenues of promotion were more numerous in the RAF than they would have been if Australians were confined to relatively few Australian squadrons, and also the aircrew were more interested in quickly getting to an operational squadron rather than any national unit.11
Flight Lieutenant John Whiting, who flew in England with No. 467 Squadron RAAF, put the matter more bluntly. In his opinion, when the squadron, after a time, began to become predominantly an Australian rather than a mixed unit, he felt something was lost, and that this was largely due to manipulations elsewhere:
… the changeover was, I believe, a purely political move to keep people back home happy. No consideration was given to the crews themselves or to squadron efficiency. Such is the way of all politicians.12
Many never made it to an operational squadron. John Herington gives an official figure of 724 Australian deaths in air accidents at OTUs, the great majority of which would have been from among those training for Bomber Command. At an OTU men were tested, for the first time, in bombers, not smaller lighter training aircraft. Before reaching Bruntingthorpe, Bill Forbes's record shows he had flown a Tiger Moth (a two-seater, single-engine biplane), an Avro Anson (twin-engine light reconnaissance aircraft), and an Airspeed AS 10 Oxford, (a similar aircraft to the Anson). Now, like thousands of others, he trained on a Wellington bomber, a plane which was one of the mainstays of Bomber Command in the early years of the war. John McCarthy refers to the Wellington at this time as an 'obsolescent aircraft of doubtful serviceability', and writes of the twelve week OTU course as something of a 'nightmare'. Certainly it was dangerous, and according to McCarthy virtually every page of the Operations Record Book for No. 27 OTU Lichfield contains details of an accident, usually fatal.
Perhaps the most isolated OTU in Britain was No. 20 OTU at RAF Lossiemouth in northern Scotland. An area of great natural beauty, this would have been a bleak place in winter, and after take-off for training flights those with an outside view from their Wellington bomber would have seen the snow-covered Cairngorm Mountains and the wastes of the North Sea. In his detailed work on RAAF fatalities in World War II, Alan Storr identifies a number of Australian trainees who flew from Lossiemouth in the bleak mid-winter, never to return. The winter of 1941–1942 was considered one of the worst in years, as snow covered the hillsides and temperatures plummeted. On board Wellington N2825, which went on a night training exercise on 14 February 1942, were early EATS enlistees Sergeant Jack Bishop of Mount Gambier, South Australia, aged 25, and Sergeant John Goldie, from Goornong, Victoria, aged 22, both wireless operators. It was later thought that engine failure brought the aircraft down, 24 kilometres to the south, on a hillside near Rothes. Five of the six men on board, including Goldie and Bishop, were killed.
Five days after the loss of Wellington N2825, Wellington R1646 went missing on a night exercise – indeed the aircraft simply disappeared, the only message received from it being a weak signal. A month later, James Wright, a gamekeeper on the Invercauld Estate, deep in the Cairngorms 96 kilometres to the south of Lossiemouth, saw through his telescope something glinting in the snow way up on the mountainside of Glen Clunie. The following day a party led by Wright waded through the waist deep snow, well beyond the Braemar-Blairgowrie road over the mountains, and discovered that the glinting object was the glass of the rear turret of a bomber. Nothing else was seen, but the RAF now sent a recovery team up the mountain. So extreme were the weather conditions that steps and pathways had to be constructed in the ice to reach the wreck, but eventually Wellington R1646 and its crew were found under the snow. Among them were two trainee RAAF wireless air gunners from Queensland: Sergeant Roy Milliken of Mackay, aged 22, and Sergeant Beaumont Dickson of Rockhampton. Their bodies were recovered and buried in Dyce Old Churchyard, near Aberdeen. In August 2003, a memorial was unveiled in Braemar to commemorate the seven victims of the crash and one of the bomber's Pegasus engines was placed on top of it. The memorial, and the recovery of the engines, was the inspiration of Andy Brown who, as a 15-year-old boy, had struggled up the mountain with James Wright in 1942 to locate the wreck.
Some trainees had lucky escapes. Dan Conway piloted a Wellington from Bruntingthorpe on the night of 4–5 September 1943 on one of six night cross-country training flights he was obliged to undertake. On their descent on the last leg, his navigator requested a major change of course and it soon emerged that they were not over central England, but lost. The weather was turbulent and cloudy, which prevented an emergency system known as 'Darky', using the beams of searchlights to guide them, being of any use. After seven hours flying they were at their fuel limit when a beacon was seen, shining vertically below them through a gap in the clouds. This proved to be RAF Jurby on the Isle of Man, in the middle of the Irish Sea, a long way from Leicestershire. A rough approach in gale force winds and rain, a bumpy landing, and Conway put the Wellington down with little fuel to spare. Jurby Flying Control told them they were lucky – two lost Wellingtons on previous nights had attempted to land but crashed. Next day, the return trip to Bruntingthorpe took just one and a half hours, where Conway received a severe dressing down from the Chief Flying Officer (CFO), despite the fact that their problems had been one of navigation rather than pilot error. But, as Conway writes, 'if the crew did a good job the captain got much of the credit; if the reverse he carried the blame'. Conway thought he might be 'scrubbed' but eventually the CFO relented and satisfied himself with noting Conway in his log book as 'a medium bomber pilot – average', and not the best at navigation.
A final hazard in training was actually being sent on air operations before being posted to an operational squadron. On 22 February 1942 a new commander arrived at Bomber Command: Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, soon to be known as 'Bomber Harris'. Harris instituted significant changes, some of which had been developing for a long time and will be described later, but one which affected the trainees at OTUs was his decision to use them, when he felt it necessary, on raids over enemy territory. Between June and September 1942, for example, No. 27 OTU at Lichfield, a place where many Australians were trained, sent aircraft at various times to attack well defended German cities such as Bremen, Düsseldorf, Emden and Essen.
Wellington DV552 took off from Lichfield to bomb Düsseldorf on the night of 31 July 1942, captained by Flying Officer Mervyn McNeil, Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). Records describe McNeil as a 'screened' pilot: someone who had already done a tour of operations ('ops') and was now 'screened' from operational flying for six months as a flying instructor at an OTU. The other five men being flown by McNeil that night were RAAF EATS trainees. Nothing was heard from the aircraft after take off, and their families in Australia were informed that they were 'missing on air operations'. By November 1942, it was known that the bomber had crashed in Belgium and that the bodies of the crew had been recovered for burial. The contents of a letter, in the records of one of the dead Australians, Flying Officer Arthur Nash, of Nedlands, Western Australia, were undoubtedly never conveyed to their families. From the Commanding Officer of RAF Lichfield, he wrote that while McNeil's trainee crew was above average, they 'were not considered to be quite up to the requisite standard for an operation of this nature'.
From the 'screens' at the OTUs the trainees had their first real whiff of life on an operational bomber station. Soon they were using RAF slang – 'to get the chop' (be killed), 'to shoot a line' (exaggerate one's own accomplishments or achievements), 'bags' (numerous), 'erk' (ground crew), 'kite' (an aircraft), 'sprogs' (new aircrew on operational squadron), 'prang' (to crash or hit a target well), and much more. Those who asked the 'screens' about operational flying might be told that most of these instructors came from the Mediterranean because not enough men were surviving a tour of duty over Germany. Whatever they had learned it was now to be fully tested for, after a short period at a Conversion Unit to familiarise themselves with four-engine 'heavy' bombers like the Lancaster, Halifax and Sterling, they were posted to a squadron in one of the operational 'Groups' of Bomber Command.
Bill Forbes, now a Flying Officer, reported on 14 June 1943 to No. 467 Squadron RAAF, part of 5 Group, at RAF Bottesford in Leicestershire. On the night of 16 June 1943, just over two years after he had walked, aged 19, into No. 3 Recruiting Depot in Brisbane, Flying Officer Forbes went to war. At 10.13 pm, he flew to bomb Cologne, Germany, as 'second dickie' (second pilot) with Flight Sergeant Desmond Sullivan and his crew on Lancaster ED531. Taking the first 'op' of your tour as 'second dickie' was a way of showing a new boy what it was all about. Less than a week later, on 21 June, Forbes, as captain, took his own crew on Lancaster W5003 to bomb Krefeld. It was the same crew that was to bring The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Alf King to view the devastation of Berlin a few months later in December.
- 1. Charlwood, Journeys into night, p. 9
- 2. Dan Conway, The trenches in the sky, Hesperian Press, Victoria Park, 1995, p. 61
- 3. John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy, 1939–1943, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1954, p. 128
- 4. Whiting, quoted by Martin Middlebrook, The battle of Hamburg, the firestorm raid, Penguin Books, London, 1988, p. 36
Chapter 4: Bomber command's war
Bomber Command did not begin hostilities with the destructive capacity observed by Alf King over Berlin from Squadron Leader Bill Forbes' Lancaster. In September 1939, it was a relatively small force which started operations by dropping leaflets and carrying out what the enemy would have regarded as mainly nuisance raids on a variety of targets from shipping to industrial plants, most of which it could not manage to hit. By mid-1945, the British bombers were an armada of heavy four-engine aircraft, carrying some of the most sophisticated navigational equipment in the world and capable of destroying cities, as well as eliminating more precise targets, far from their island base.
The force's role in the defeat of Germany and Italy was a significant one, although the exact nature of that achievement has been much debated. What has not been questioned is the courage and determination of the approximately 125,000 aircrew who, through five years and eight months of the most sustained and destructive air battle ever fought in Europe, flew time after time against well-defended targets. It cost 55,500 of them their lives; wounded 8400; and sent another 9800, many of them wounded, into enemy prison camps. This was a casualty rate of almost 59 per cent, similar to the terrible losses experienced in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I. How did the war unfold for the Australians of Bomber Command?
Chapter 5: Early years (September 1939–February 1942)
When war broke out in September 1939, there were a handful of Australians serving with RAF Bomber Command. None wore, officially at least, the distinctive dark blue uniform of the RAAF which would become a common sight on airfields throughout England by 1941. Australian aircrew of those early days were of three kinds: some had joined the RAAF but gone to Britain and received short service commissions with the RAF; a few responded to RAF recruiting notices in Australia; and others were living in Britain and joined the RAF rather than return home and spend perhaps years getting into action through the EATS scheme. EATS recruits from Australia began arriving in late 1940 when, after final training, they were sent to squadrons throughout Bomber Command. Also, by mid-1941, squadrons designated as RAAF squadrons began forming and became operational before the end of that year.
The first experiences of the Australians, typical of Bomber Command operations in the opening months of the war, were well reported in the Australian press. Respecting the request of the American President Franklin Roosevelt that neither side bomb civilian targets, between September and November 1939 RAF Blenheims, twin-engine medium bombers, carried out a number of reconnaissance and leaflet-dropping flights over Germany. The bombers were no match for the German fighters sent to intercept them, and a number were lost, including, on 28 September, the aircraft of Wing Commander Ivan Cameron, of Bealiba, Victoria, the commander of No. 110 Squadron RAF. Cameron had been investigating the Münster area. On 2 October, Melbourne's The Argus reported Cameron's death, writing that he was an old boy of Maryborough High School and Geelong College who had trained in the RAAF in the mid-1920s, then gone to England and eventually received a permanent commission in the RAF.
Next day, 29 September 1939, eleven Hampdens (another type of twin-engine medium bomber) of No. 144 Squadron RAF were sent to attack German warships off Heligoland in the North Sea. They flew by night, as it had been quickly discovered that daytime operations led to heavy casualties. German radio announced that the second wave of these bombers—five planes—encountered a 'hornets' nest' of fighters, and that all were shot down, including the aircraft being navigated by Flight Lieutenant John Sadler. On 9 December, The Advocate (Burnie, Tasmania) reported the official notification of Sadler's death and sympathised with his family, who until that time had regarded him as 'missing', hopefully a prisoner of war. It was to be a situation faced by thousands of Australian families over the next five years as they waited for news of a son, husband or relative reported initially as missing in air operations. Ivan Cameron's body was recovered by the Germans and lies today in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery; John Sadler's remains were never found, and he is commemorated in Britain on the Air Forces Memorial at Cooper's Hill, near Runnymede in Surrey. The Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial shows that these two Australian airmen of Bomber Command were the first Australians to die in combat during World War II.
Much to the delight of the Australian press, Australian aircrew were also involved in one of the first major sorties by Bomber Command in the war—the attack on the Hörnum (Sylt) seaplane base on 19–20 March 1940. This was ordered as a 'reprisal' raid because a civilian had been killed in a German attack on the Royal Navy's base at Scarpa Flow. 'Australians in Sylt Raid—gave it all they had' ran the headline in Adelaide'sThe Advertiser on 22 March, and the accompanying article featured an interview with a local man, Flying Officer John Bull of Norwood. Bull gave an upbeat description of his experience:
We were more concerned about hitting back for the dirty attacks on fishing boats than for the Scarpa Flow raid … we drove the plane to the centre of the wide target and unloaded the bombs. We did not know what was the result but we got what we wanted.13
Bull was typical of the Australians serving on British bombers at this time. Unable to get into the RAAF in 1937, he worked his way to England on a cargo ship and gained entry to the RAF's Air School with a short service commission, and during his training showed his ability on the cricket field by being chosen to play for the 'Gentlemen of Shropshire'. Bull and his crew, all of No. 50 Squadron RAF, were lost on 12 April 1940 after they baled out in the North Sea on an operation to bomb German shipping in Norway.
May and June 1940 brought catastrophe. Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and France, and on 22 June France surrendered. Soon German planes were fighting the British for air superiority over the skies of southern England, a superiority they needed before a planned invasion could proceed. Held off by the RAF, the Germans then swung their attack to the bombing of British cities—the 'Blitz'. Throughout these desperate months of the invasion of France and the Battle of Britain, Bomber Command, taking heavy losses, was used to hit back where possible at the German army and Luftwaffe (air force). Australian aircrew found themselves conducting some of the first significant operations against German industry and also bombing roads, bridges and canals, armoured columns, troop concentrations and invasion barges. Deterred from his plans to invade Britain, in mid-1941 Hitler turned his attention to an assault on the Soviet Union.
When the Germans invaded France, Australian airmen became involved in a forgotten, but tragic, epic of Bomber Command—suffering huge losses as Blenheim and Fairey Battle bombers attempted, sometimes in daylight, to stem the enemy advance. John Herington, the official Australian historian, writes of 174 aircraft—137 Battles and 37 Blenheims—of what was called the 'Advanced Air Striking Force', being destroyed. Flying Officer Albert Oakley, No. 15 Squadron RAF, of Sydney, lost his life on 12 May 1940 in an attempt by forty-two Blenheims to block roads by destroying bridges in the Maastricht area of Holland. A brief paragraph in The Argus (Melbourne) on 22 May referred to the parents of Flying Officer Douglas Cameron, No. 226 Squadron RAF, who, they were informed, had been missing since 10 May. On that day Cameron piloted one of thirty-two Battles ordered to attack German columns advancing through Luxembourg, and he was reportedly brought down by small arms fire as he flew just metres above the ground. Rescued from the wreck, Cameron died three days later during an operation to save his arm. Thirteen Battles were shot down, and all the rest damaged.
Throughout 1941, the bleakest year of the war for Britain and her allies, Bomber Command sought to find a distinctive role for itself. As Herington writes: '… in 13 months between the opening of the campaign in the west [May 1940] and June 1941 there had been 11 major and minor directives … governing the operations of the strategic bomber force'. Enemy oil production was targeted; raids were conducted on submarine factories and bases as the U-boats threatened Britain's essential maritime supply lines; and German cities were raided in an effort to hit industrial plants producing for the war effort. Then, in August 1941, as increasing numbers of Australian EATS trainees arrived in Britain, a detailed report into the effectiveness of Bomber Command, the Butt report, argued that only five percent of bombs dropped came within eight kilometres of the target. A few months later Professor Archibald Hill, MP for Cambridge University, said in the House of Commons: 'We know most of our bombs hit nothing of importance'. None of this was a criticism of the aircrews themselves. The fact was that in blackout conditions by night, over enemy territory, it was virtually impossible to find the target by conventional navigation methods. What was required were new technical aids to assist bomber navigators to deliver their aircraft as close to the target as possible, and these were about to become available to Bomber Command over the coming eighteen months.
Australians, by late 1941, were becoming aware of the mounting cost of the air war in Europe. Seven EATS graduates, all of whom joined up in 1940, were killed in the largest operation of 1941: the raids on Berlin, Mannheim and Cologne of 7–8 November. In response to the Butt report, the head of Bomber Command, Air Vice Marshal Sir Richard Pierse, mounted this operation to show that targets could be found and hit hard. But this mammoth effort, involving some 392 aircraft, was a disaster. Bad weather—storms, thick cloud, ice and hail—made the route over the North Sea hazardous, and only 73 bombers of the 169 dispatched to Berlin reached the general area of the city. Given the conditions, all the crews could report was several fires on the outskirts and little else. That night 37 aircraft were lost, 7.4 per cent of the force, and it was thought many crashed into the North Sea as a result of icing-up on the wings and fuel exhaustion in the awful flying conditions. Two of the seven RAAF men lost that night were Sergeants Vincent Brown and Ronald Bryant, both of No. 102 Squadron RAF. Coming back over the North Sea, three Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys, a twin-engine medium bomber, of No. 102 Squadron, requested help to find their positions but were never heard of again. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called a virtual halt to the bombing campaign, and informed Pierse that only limited operations were to be carried out during the mid-winter months, pending a review of bombing operations.
As the bombing campaign and its future was discussed by the government, RAAF squadrons began flying in Britain. On 29 August 1941, one Hampden of No. 455 Squadron RAAF took to the air with 141 other bombers to attack Frankfurt, and No. 458 Squadron RAAF commenced operations with Wellington bombers on 20 October. For the remainder of 1941, and into the spring of 1942, these two squadrons, in often bleak winter weather, attacked German warships, ports and accessible German cities in what have been described as 'roving commissions'.
Holme-on-Spalding in Yorkshire was the initial home of No. 458 Squadron. It seems to have been a grim place, according to Flight Lieutenant William Baird, RAAF:
It is the coldest, bleakest and most miserable spot I have ever struck, this place Holme. On top of a moor, miles away from anywhere and the station being only six months old does not offer much in the way of 'home comforts'.14
Aircrew lived in Nissen huts near the 'dispersal' sites where their Wellington bombers were parked around the runways; many huts had no running water and were lit by candles. The problem of staying warm was well summed up by one airman: if you kept the window open you froze, and if you didn't you were smoked out by the fire.
On 20 October No. 458 Squadron, led by Wing Commander Norman Mulholland, an Australian in the RAF, mounted its first 'op' when ten bombers took off and with twenty-five other aircraft bombed Antwerp docks. All the No. 458 Squadron aircraft, except for one, dropped their bombs but Martin Middlebrook records that because of the cloud cover most other bombers did not. From Wellington Z1218 there was 'no communication received after take-off' and this aircraft became the first bomber in an RAAF squadron to be shot down by a German night fighter. The captain of the bomber that night was Sergeant Peter Hamilton, of Sandringham, Victoria, who had worked his way to England in 1939 and joined the RAF; the second pilot was Sergeant Philip Crittenden RAAF, an early EATS graduate who arrived in England in June 1941. Hamilton, Crittenden and three other RAF crew members died over Belgium in Wellington Z1218, Crittenden becoming the first member of the RAAF to suffer that fate in an RAAF squadron of Bomber Command.
No. 455 Squadron was, for a time, stationed at RAF Wigsley, 220 kilometres north of London in the flat countryside of east Nottinghamshire adjoining Lincolnshire, and on 21 February 1942 Wing Commander Thomas White, the commander of the Australian Section of 3PRC Bournemouth, came on a visit. He found this isolated outpost of Australia's war snowbound, with living conditions 'difficult and uncomfortable', but was soon 'sitting around the stove in the mess' chatting with airmen whom he had trained at 1 ITS, back at RAAF Somers in Victoria, men who were among the first EATS recruits. White, himself a World War I flyer, went on a training flight in a Hampden, an aircraft nicknamed the 'flying tadpole', piloted by one of his ex-students, Flying Officer Jimmy Catanach, son of the well-known Melbourne jeweller:
We flew over a snow covered countryside, the villages seemingly half-buried, and snow falling at intervals. But we had an exquisite view of Lincoln Cathedral, one of England's finest, its beautiful lines showing in greater relief through the clinging snow mantle … From the front gunner's seat … I was able … to appreciate in a small measure the discomfort in long flights at high altitudes which the crews endure.15
Later, White watched as seven 'flying tadpoles' were prepared by ground crew, some of them Australians, for a raid on Cologne:
Ground crews had emerged like Eskimos from small huts near their planes … the heaped snow on the wings was being swept off, engine covers removed, de-icing compound being spread upon the leading edge of the wings, and engines started up; in some cases the backfiring of the engine starting fires amid the snow on the ground.16
In the deepening gloom, the seven Hampdens taxied, their 'airscrews blowing up plumes of fine snow in the slipstream behind', sped down the runway, gained height, circled, and then passing the crescent moon, 'disappeared into the snowstorm near the horizon's edge'. Like ground staff at airfields throughout the war, White now sat out the night waiting for the sounds of approaching aero engines signalling the homecoming of the bombers. Two returned early when the heating apparatus failed and the pilots knew unbearably cold temperatures would be reached at the plane's operating altitude of 5700 metres. As the time of return grew close, White went to the 'Ops' Room:
The time dragged on, the WAAFs [Women's Auxiliary Air Force] knitting and shuffling cold feet on the floor … Now and then, when all were drooping with tiredness and cold the WAAFs would receive messages through the RT [radio transmitter] of another plane whose heating apparatus had caused it to land at a drome ten miles away [16 kilometres]; of another of whom we heard, as it passed over far north of us on its return, and looked as if it might come down in the Irish Sea, but happily landed on the last possible aerodrome in the west of England.17
This proved to be RAF Squires Gate, at Blackpool, Lancashire, on the shore of the Irish Sea, and the pilot later described how the engines were cutting out in icing conditions. When they finally broke cloud, they found themselves close to defensive barrage balloons, before friendly searchlights pointed them in the direction of the nearest landing ground.
As the hours went by at the Wigsley ops room, it became clear that Hampden AT181 was well beyond its fuel limit, and would not return. In daylight, but still in foul weather, Hampdens of No. 455 Squadron searched an area of the North Sea, as someone had reported seeing a downed aircraft drifting there. White returned to London, where he wrote and published an account of his visit to Wigsley, ending it with the announcement that day from the BBC that 'Squadrons of our Bomber Command have made a night raid on the Ruhr, bombing many objectives successfully such as Cologne …' The four crewmen of AT181 were never found, among them two Australians: Sergeant John Davey, the wireless operator, and Sergeant Colin Scott, the gunner. Scott, according to White, had just arrived on the squadron. Davey and Scott died just as the nature of the air war over Germany was about to change considerably for the aircrews of Bomber Command.
- 1. 'Australians in Sylt raid', The Advertiser, Adelaide, 22 March 1940
- 2. Flight Lieutenant William Baird RAAF, 458 Squadron at RAF Holme-on-Spalding, to Wing Commander Thomas White, Box 16, Folder 9148-8-9, Brighton, Papers of Sir Thomas White, MS9148, National Library of Australia
- 3. Thomas W White, 'An RAAF bomber station in Britain, A Letter from Wing Commander T W White DFC VD MP', Box 15, Folder 9148-8-2, Brighton, Sir Thomas White papers, MS9148, National Library of Australia
- 4. White, 'An RAAF bomber station in Britain'
- 5. White, 'An RAAF bomber station in Britain'
Chapter 6: A few of the brave (Part 1)
The RAAF members of Bomber Command were awarded an impressive number of decorations, both British and foreign. To cover all of them would take a book in itself – however, here are just a few stories of gallant Australians, some well known, some not so well known.
Air Commodore Sir Hughie Idwal Edwards, VC, KCMG, CB, DSO, OBE, DFC
Hughie Idwal Edwards was born in Western Australia and enlisted into the tiny pre-war Australian Army in 1933. He transferred to the RAAF in 1935 and was commissioned after successful completion of pilot training. However, the following year he resigned from the RAAF to accept a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and he was to remain in the RAF for the rest of his military career.
Edwards was posted to a bomber squadron in Britain in 1936. Two years later he was badly injured in a plane crash and did not resume flying until the war began. In May 1941 he was appointed to command No. 105 Squadron RAF; he led his squadron in attacks on Germany and the occupied countries, and on enemy shipping.
On 4 July 1941 Edwards led twelve Bristol Blenheim twin-engined bombers of No. 105 Squadron in a low-level attack on the heavily defended German port of Bremen. Flying low enough to pass under high-tension wires, the Blenheims met intense enemy anti-aircraft fire. All of the squadron's aircraft were hit by enemy fire and four were shot down. For his gallantry and leadership of the audacious raid, Edwards was awarded the Victoria Cross. He continued to lead his squadron in the bombing campaign against Germany and would add the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Flying Cross and a mention in despatches to his VC. He resumed his association with the RAAF in February 1943 when he was appointed Commanding Officer of RAF Station Binbrook, which placed No. 460 Squadron RAAF under his command.
After the war Edwards continued his career in the RAF with a succession of staff and operational postings, and at his retirement in 1962 he was Director of Establishments at the Air Ministry in London, with the rank of Air Commodore. Following retirement from the RAF, Edwards returned to Australia to live and in 1974 he was appointed Governor of Western Australia. Knighted in 1975, Edwards retired his vice-regal appointment that year due to ill-health and moved to Sydney, where he lived in semi-retirement until his death on 5 August 1982.
Squadron Leader David John Shannon, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar
David John Shannon, a 19-year-old insurance clerk and the son of a South Australian member of parliament, enlisted into the RAAF on 4 January 1941. Trained in Australia, he was granted a commission as Pilot Officer in September 1941 and arrived in the UK in January 1942. After completing his bomber conversion training he was posted to No. 106 Squadron RAF. In January 1943, Shannon was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for gallantry and leadership on a number of operational sorties over Germany.
In March 1943, Shannon's commanding officer, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, left No. 106 Squadron to take command of the newly formed No. 617 Squadron, which had been created as a special unit to attack the German hydro-electric dams in the Ruhr Valley. Gibson asked for Shannon to be posted to No. 617 Squadron as one of his aircraft captains. Shannon was the pilot of Lancaster 'L-Leather' in the famous 'Dambusters' raid carried out by No. 617 Squadron on the Ruhr Valley dams on the night of 17 May 1943. For his leadership and gallantry during the raid, Shannon was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, at the age of just 20 years. In November 1943 Shannon was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross for carrying out a successful low-level raid over Germany. Finally, in September 1944 he was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order in recognition of his leadership and gallantry on a number of operational sorties over France, Germany and Italy. Shannon was demobilised in the United Kingdom in December 1945 in the rank of Squadron Leader. He was the most highly decorated RAAF aircrew officer of the war and had completed sixty-nine operational sorties with Bomber Command.
Shannon died in the UK in 1993, just weeks short of the 50th anniversary of the Dambusters raid.
Sergeant (later Acting Squadron Leader) Norman Francis Williams, CGM, DFM and Bar
Norman Francis Williams has the double distinction of being the RAAF's most highly decorated non-commissioned officer of World War II and also the RAAF's only non-fighter pilot 'ace'. An air gunner serving with No. 10 Squadron RAF of Bomber Command, Norman Williams was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) in November 1942 for gallantry during a raid on the German city of Bremen in September of that year. In May of the following year he was awarded a Bar to the DFM for gallantry and devotion to duty during a number of raids, including operations to Turin and Genoa in Italy; and Hamburg, Cologne and Essen in Germany. Following his thirty-mission tour with No. 10 Squadron, Norman Williams was posted to No. 35 Squadron.
During a raid on Düsseldorf in June 1943 his aircraft was severely damaged, his turret jammed and one wing was set on fire. While the crew was preparing to bail out, the captain heard Williams call urgently to him to turn to starboard as a night fighter had located them. The captain carried out the turn and Williams was able to bring his guns to bear on the German fighter and destroy it. Although having taken bullet wounds in the stomach and legs, and been paralysed from the waist down, Williams shot down a second fighter which attacked his aircraft. Due to Williams' wounds the captain elected to try to reach England, rather than bail out, and the crippled Halifax managed to make it back to friendly soil and crash land. The damage to the aircraft was so severe that Williams' turret had first to be cut from the fuselage and lifted out before he himself could be cut out of his turret.
For his incredible action, Norman Williams was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Flying). This was an extremely rare honour, with only 103 awards being made between 1943 and 1945, and only ten to the RAAF. Norman Williams' personal score of six German aircraft destroyed qualified him as an 'ace', the RAAF's only non-fighter pilot member to achieve this distinction.
Following months of medical treatment and convalescence, Williams was repatriated to Australia, where he was offered an instructional post. Declining this position, Williams was posted to No. 23 Squadron RAAF, where he served out the war as a gunner on B-24 Liberators. Following the war Norman Williams served with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan until he was demobilised in 1948. He returned to the RAAF in 1952 on a short-service commission and served as an air traffic controller during the Malayan Emergency and the Korean War, before he left the RAAF for good in September 1954 in the rank of acting Squadron Leader.
Chapter 7: Maximum effort (February 1942–March 1944)
In February 1942, Bomber Command received a new policy directive and a new commander. The policy ordered the bombers to concentrate their activity on key German industrial cities and recognised implicitly that, as the technology stood in early 1942, the hitting of specific targets in any consistent and systematic way was not possible:
It has been decided that the primary objective of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular on the industrial workers.18
Lest this be misunderstood, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, wrote:
Ref the new bombing directive: I suppose it is clear that the aiming points are to be the built-up areas, not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories.19
Hitting dockyards and factories remained important, but it was clear that total war, in the shape of the destruction of their cities, was now to be visited upon the German population. The western allies (Britain and America) were unlikely to be able to mount any invasion of Europe in the foreseeable future and, in the east, the people and armies of the Soviet Union were suffering enormous losses in their battle against the Germans. The systematic bombing of German cities—so-called 'area bombing'—was seen as the only way in which Britain could both hit out at its main enemy and show the Russians that their ally was fully committing resources to the European conflict. Moreover, after two and a half years of war, during which their own cities had been bombed, the British people themselves would see and hear their airmen striking back at the enemy. Don Charlwood, carrying out his tour in a Lancaster of No. 103 Squadron RAF, felt the bombers were making an impact as they roared up into the clouds and headed east for Germany:
Below, in the houses of the town we have never seen, people's morale will be lifted by the sound of our strength. Probably this does more for them than news of hitting targets.20
Eight days after the new policy was announced, on 22 February 1942, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris was appointed commander in chief of Bomber Command. Soon nicknamed 'Bomber Harris', he was a vigorous leader and a believer in the war-winning potential of the area bombing strategy. Churchill had said that 'the fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone can provide the means to victory'—Harris wanted to prove the Prime Minister correct.
With the full backing of the British government, Harris set about the growth and development of his squadrons. Throughout 1942 and 1943, the force's striking power was increased by the advent of the Lancaster bomber, a powerful four-engine aircraft capable of carrying a greatly increased bomb load. The Lancaster had many advantages: it had a flight ceiling of 6700 metres, which took it above much—although not all—of the German 'flak'; and as Frank Dixon, who flew with No. 467 Squadron RAAF, recalled, it could take punishment:
… I've flown one from Italy back to England on only two engines because two engines were knocked out. I flew one home from the Ruhr where my engineer was wounded and we were coned in searchlights and copped I don't know how many shells. Fortunately, we had four engines that survived and were going like birds all the way.21
Another warhorse of Bomber Command was the four-engine Handley Page Halifax, large numbers of which remained in full service until the end of the war. Along with older, but more vulnerable aircraft, such as the Sterling, these 'heavies' became capable of delivering an enormous tonnage of bombs in any one operation. Bomber Command equipped the squadrons with as many heavy bombers as British industry could produce.
Other developments of great significance were navigational aids such as 'Gee', 'Oboe' and the H2S radar, which allowed the bombers to approach and then find the target with varying degrees of accuracy. To mark the target a special group of squadrons were brought together called the 'Pathfinders'. This new force, in which many Australians served, was led from its inception in mid-1942 to the end of the war by Australian Wing Commander (later Air Vice Marshal) Donald Bennett. Pathfinder aircraft flew ahead of the main force and dropped illuminated flares, known as target indicators, at the aiming point, while other Pathfinders—the 'backers up'—refreshed these initial flares as the raid developed. Another important innovation was the 'bomber stream', in which all aircraft would fly a common route at the same speed to and from the target, each pilot being given a height and time slot in the stream to avoid collisions. A stream, which by late 1943 could involve hundreds of aircraft, allowed concentrated bombing capable at times of temporarily overwhelming a city's defences. Thus between 19.58 and 20.20 pm on 23 November 1943, 696 bombers released 1153 tons of high explosives and 1348 tons of incendiaries on Berlin.
Australian airmen, who continued to arrive from EATS training in significant numbers, still found themselves sent to virtually every RAF squadron to fly Wellingtons, Sterlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters with mixed crews. Some ended up in the Australian squadrons, which began operations in 1942, 1943 and 1944—Nos 460, 462, 463, 464, 466 and 467—but at no time were these squadrons exclusively Australian. For example, in July 1944, non-Australian aircrew in No. 466 Squadron stood at 30 per cent; No. 467 Squadron's figure was 35 per cent. In 1943, some squadrons left Bomber Command: No. 455 for Coastal Command, No. 458 for the Middle East Air Force, and No. 464 for Fighter Command.
The months from February 1942, and the diverting of the force to pre-invasion of Europe (D-Day) targets in April 1944, severely tested the skill, the courage and the physical and psychological capacity of every member of aircrew. For Harris, 1942 was a time to try out the growing strength of his force, and to experiment with new methods of navigation and target marking. Typical of early probing attacks were the operations against the old north German Baltic port towns of Lübeck and Rostock between 28 March and 26 April 1942. Flying Wellingtons, No. 460 Squadron participated in the three raids on Rostock, crews reporting that 'the whole town appeared to be burning freely' and that the blaze could be seen 160 kilometres away. That, indeed, had been part of the objective—to cause fire and destruction—and the raids, from the viewpoint of the policy of area bombing, were considered a success. According to Martin Middlebrook, Dr Goebbels, the German propaganda chief, confided to his diary that 'community life in Rostock is at an end'.
But at Rostock the enemy struck back in a way that was all too familiar, and that would cause enormous casualties in the years ahead. As Sergeant David Kitchen RAAF piloted his Wellington out towards the North Sea over the island of Sylt, he was attacked by a German night fighter, a Messerschmitt 110. The Canadian rear-gunner was seriously wounded and the communication between pilot and gunner severed by the German's first burst of gunfire, thus preventing the Canadian from warning that they were under fighter attack. In all the Wellington was attacked four times, causing severe damage and making the aircraft very hard to control. Shaking off the fighter virtually at sea level, Kitchen nursed his damaged plane 640 kilometres home across the North Sea, and landed with all his tyres flat from bullet holes. For his fortitude Kitchen did not receive a bravery award but a very unusual commendation. Harris, who must have been informed of this feat of airmanship, had a lengthy account placed in Bomber Command's 'Routine Orders' which, after the detail of the attacks, printed this about Kitchen:
By his coolness, presence of mind and skilful airmanship under most trying conditions, this NCO saved the lives of his crew, and brought a wrecked aircraft back to safety.22
The No. 460 Squadron historian, Peter Firkins, who himself flew a tour in bombers, found this an extraordinary gesture from a man who 'outwardly anyway, showed little or no emotion to the prosecution of the war his crews were waging' and who, apart from the title 'Bomber', also came to be known as 'Butch' or 'Butcher' Harris. Sergeant David Kitchen, of Hawthorn, Victoria, went missing on air operations a few weeks later, on 20 June 1942.
In April and May 1942, Harris and his aircrews were certainly in the public eye in Australia. Raid after raid was reported in newspapers around the country, with a focus, where possible, on local airmen. On 9 April, theAlbany Advertiser featured well-known local sportsman Rod Ferry, whose parents had just learnt of his commission to be a Pilot Officer. Now serving in 'blitzed England' as an air gunner in Wellington bombers, Ferry had also, when operations on the 'Berlin Bus Service' permitted, played cricket for two county clubs and looked forward to the day when he could meet his old friends for a carnival in Albany. On the other side of the continent the citizens of Yeppoon, Queensland, read in The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) that local boy Eric Jarman, aged 27 years, had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his conduct on an operation over Cologne on 22–23 April. Indeed, Jarman's story was reported by The Canberra Times because the Minister for Air, Arthur Drakeford, publically announced the award. Flying with No. 75 Squadron RNZAF, Jarman's plane was hit as it came over Cologne, leaving the wireless operator and navigator wounded. Undeterred, he completed his attack, but while flying home he discovered a bomb was still hanging from the aircraft. As the bomb was jettisoned over the North Sea, the aircraft was attacked by a night fighter, which killed the rear gunner, but Jarman managed to shake the fighter off and land safely back in England. Three years later, on 18 April 1945, The Morning Bulletin reported that Squadron Leader Eric George Delaney Jarman DFC, of Yeppoon, previously reported missing, was now presumed dead.
The city of Cologne was soon in the news again. On 1 June 1942, The Argus (Melbourne) carried a photograph of what Cologne looked like after a recent attack, drawing attention to the commercial centre of the city with its damaged cathedral and railway station. The attack carried out on the previous night, 30–31 May, was one of the most famous in Bomber Command's history: the first 1000-bomber raid. Harris, with the full support of Churchill, who saw the propaganda value of 1000 bombers, scraped together aircraft from every available source. The frontline squadrons could not have produced the numbers, so the OTUs, using many crews in training, were called upon to provide the magic '1000'. The Australian press, nationwide, reported the destruction of Cologne in dramatic language: 'flames and smoke could be seen from the coast of Holland', 'a pall of smoke rose 15,000 feet [4570 metres]', 'Cologne was one burning mass', 'twice as many [aircraft] as the Luftwaffe sent over England', 'hammer blows that must provide victory', 'the RAF to break German morale'. Churchill himself, ever the master of the colourful phrase, announced the bombing of Cologne, calling it 'the herald of what Germany will receive city by city from now on'. As if to prove the point, Harris staged two more 1000-bomber raids: 1 June on Essen and 25 June on Bremen.
Australians, serving across the squadrons of Bomber Command, participated in these historic operations. RAAF Pilot Officer William Leek, serving with No. 12 Squadron RAF, described how Bomber Harris managed to get so many planes in the sky over Cologne:
Even a veteran Group Captain participated. The squadron sent over every plane that could take the air, including two old Whitley bombers used for towing targets and an ancient Wellington trainer equipped with dual control which had done over 500 hours operational flying.23
Surprisingly, No. 460 Squadron's 'Operations Record Book' was matter-of-fact about the Cologne raid, to which the squadron sent eighteen aircraft, noting it simply as 'the most successful operation yet carried out'. All the squadron's planes came home safely. At the debriefing crews did mention the fires, one reporting that they could be seen from 240 kilometres away, but the British press would have soon made the Australian airmen aware that they had just made history. By mid-June, the Australian press was picking up more stirring stories from squadron aircrew as The Sydney Morning Herald's correspondent in London, JE Mitchell, had interviewed them. They spoke of the 'hell of Cologne', of how there were so many planes over the city the place resembled traffic congestion at Kings Cross in Sydney or Swanston Street in Melbourne, of the flak holes in their Wellingtons, and of their safe return. Mitchell concentrated his report on Pilot Officer Frederick Breen, and his crew of Wellington 1355, perhaps because Breen had been a photographer with the Sydney paper before he enlisted. The burning city appeared to Breen like 'a carpet of white hot metal'; his gunner, Sergeant Godfrey Morgan, said he 'didn't even get a chance to squirt at a Jerry night fighter'; while the wireless operator, Sergeant Arthur Jones, felt it was a 'good job' as he came back with a souvenir—a piece of flak which hit them over Antwerp. Piloted by Breen, Wellington 1355 went missing over Hamburg at the end of July.
Bomber Harris made sure the general public knew all about Cologne. A film, Gigantic 1000 Bomber Raid, featured Harris and interviews with many of the crews returning from the operation, including a group of Australians. The film would have been shown widely in British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand cinemas and it was noteworthy for the way in which Harris, talking from behind his desk at Bomber Command headquarters in High Wycombe, England, spelt out publically the implications of the Cologne raid and its relation to the RAF's area bombing policy:
When the storm bursts over Germany they will look back to the days of Lübeck and Rostock and Cologne as a man caught in the blasts of a hurricane will look back to the gentle zephyrs of last summer. There are a lot of people who say that bombing can never win a war. Well, my answer to that is that it has never been tried yet, and we shall see.24
Much of the story of Australians in Bomber Command revolves around the large scale area bombing of Germany, the policy adopted after the criticism aimed at the force in 1941 for its inability to locate and hit targets with precision. There were, however, occasions when these problems could be overcome by a specific kind of attack. On 6 December 1942, the Command's medium bombers of 2 Group carried out a daring and effective daylight raid on the Philips valve and radio factory at Eindhoven in Holland. Leading the attack, in a Mosquito of No. 105 Squadron RAF, was an Australian who was a legend in the RAF and RAAF, Wing Commander Hughie Edwards. Edwards was no stranger to this kind of hit-and-run attack, having been awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to an Australian in Bomber Command, for his leadership and courage in the low-level bombing of Bremen harbour on 4 July 1941. Prominent also among the attackers of Eindhoven were the Ventura medium bombers of No. 464 Squadron RAAF, only recently formed in England and on their first operation. Staged on a Sunday, when the Dutch workers would not be in the factory, the bombers flew across from England at 'very low level', then across the flat Dutch countryside and, in clear weather, wrought such damage that Philips produced nothing more for the German war effort for six months. As they appeared over occupied Holland, the airmen were cheered by a sight described in The Argus (Melbourne) on 9 December 1942 by a Wing Commander who took part in the raid:
As we came in over the mainland Dutch people came out to have a look. They were standing in their backyards waving handkerchiefs and even flags … we went in low to make sure of hitting each target properly, and to avoid hitting any Dutch people by accident.25
Sadly, some bombs fell in streets beside the factory, killing 148 Dutch people. There was also an unexpected problem on the way home:
All machines and some crew suffered damage from collision with birds, both seagulls and duck being brought back jammed on various positions on the machines, some found their way inside having smashed the perspex.26
The Eindhoven raid, at that point in 1942, was a one-off and, as John Herington wrote, it was 'an exceptional enterprise … which could not be repeated'. This daring operation was filmed and audiences in Britain and in Australia saw the exploits of flyers like Hughie Edwards. The Eindhoven raid film featured Edwards standing around with his crews on their return to England and ended with this commentary:
On returning from the raid one observer said it was the most magnificent bombing he had ever seen and we say we always knew we had the most magnificent air force.27
Another daring special operation which captured the public imagination, raised morale throughout the United Kingdom, and became the stuff of legend, was widely reported throughout Australia in May 1943. There were headlines such as 'Devastating Blow against German Industry', 'Ruin in the Ruhr', 'Germany's Worst Catastrophe', 'The Shaken Reich' and 'Ruhr Disaster Paralyses Industry'. The blow was struck by a specially created RAF squadron, No. 617, which contained some of the most daring, innovative and experienced airmen in Bomber Command, Australians amongst them, and was led by young Englishman Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Gibson's squadron navigation leader was RAAF Flight Lieutenant Jack Leggo and his bombing leader RAAF Flight Lieutenant Robert Hay, both early EATS trainees who had begun their Bomber Command careers with No. 455 Squadron RAAF. The bomb aimer in Gibson's own crew was RAAF Flying Officer Frederick Spafford. For weeks the aircrews trained to dive their Lancasters down between steep wooded hillsides enclosing lakes and then fly at 18 metres above the water out over a dam in England's peak district. Then, on the night of 16–17 May 1943 nineteen Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and headed at low level all the way to their targets, the dams situated in hilly countryside near the Ruhr industrial area of Germany. From these facilities came a significant amount of the hydro-electricity for the Ruhr area as well as the great quantities of water required in heavy industry.
The weapon created for the destruction of the dams was totally unlike any other World War II bomb. Fixed to the rear of the fuselage beneath the Lancaster it resembled a large fat water tank and, when released by a mechanism which caused it to spin, it bounced across the water until, when it hit the dam wall, it sank and exploded at a pre-set depth. Gibson led the first wave of bombers against the Möhne Dam and on his first pass over the lake, against heavy anti-aircraft fire, decided to abort the run. On Gibson's second attempt, Spafford released the device close to the dam wall. A second Lancaster, coming in to drop, was hit and exploded. The third, captained by Australian Squadron Leader Harold 'Micky' Martin, dropped his bomb accurately and Gibson was convinced he saw the dam wall move. Two more Lancasters attacked and finally the Möhne Dam collapsed, sending thousands of tons of water down into the countryside below.
Gibson now led another wave of Lancasters against the Eder Dam. Here, after a number of aborted runs and a period spent circling the area to observe the target, RAAF Squadron Leader David Shannon achieved a direct hit on the dam wall, but it did not budge. The last Lancaster left of the force designated for the Eder Dam was that captained by RAAF Pilot Officer Leslie Knight. He had time to fully study the lie of the land as the others attacked and, after one practice run, he dropped his bomb. This time the wall of the Eder Dam collapsed.
By 19 May 1943, Australians could read of their countrymen who had participated in this daring and successful operation. Leggo, Spafford, Martin, Shannon, Knight, and others, were all headlined as the 'Australian Aces Chosen for Raid'28 and their exploits described. Official historian John Herington later wrote that thirteen Australians had flown against the dams, four of them as captains of Lancasters: 'Two were killed and the ten who returned safely became Homeric figures'. The story of this hazardous operation survives to this day largely due to the release in 1953 of the popular feature film 'The Dam Busters', with its stirring theme music and depiction of the young heroes of Bomber Command, personified in the portrayal of Wing Commander Guy Gibson by actor Richard Todd.
By early 1943, Bomber Harris felt that his squadrons were ready for what he later described as his 'main offensive'. Until directed to turn their attention to the build-up for the Allied invasion of Europe, planned for 6 June 1944 (D-Day), the bombers were free to concentrate their efforts on the destruction of German industry and 'the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened'.29 Bomber Harris put it more colourfully and luridly in a communication to his crews after the first attack of his offensive—the operation against Essen on 5–6 March 1943, in which the famous Krupps steel works suffered significant damage:
The attack on Essen has now inflicted … vast damage … You have set a fire in the belly of Germany which will burn the black heart out of Nazidom and wither its grasping limbs at the very roots.30
From early March 1943 until the end of March 1944, the men of Bomber Command embarked on a series of so-called 'battles': the 'Battle of the Ruhr', March to July 1943; the 'Battle of Hamburg', July to August 1943; and the 'Battle of Berlin', August 1943 to March 1944. Essen, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Hannover, Stuttgart, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Cologne, Berlin—there was hardly a major German city during that year that did not have high explosives and incendiaries rained upon it from a bomber stream of 200 aircraft for a small operation, to 700–800 for a major attack. The 'heavies' of the Australian squadrons—Nos 460, 467, 466 and 463 (formed out of part of No. 467 Squadron in November 1943)—flew on operation after operation throughout this critical period of the air war, as did the aircraft of every squadron in Bomber Command in which Australians were serving. Major damage was inflicted on Germany and, as resources had to be diverted to the defence of the cities, this has been called a virtual 'second front', opened up well before the Allied invasion of mainland Europe in June 1944. So severe, however, were aircrew casualties that many men did not survive their tour. Flying as a wireless operator with first No. 100 and then No. 156 Squadron RAF, Queenslander William Pearce recalled the effect of the relentless loss, night after night, but also how they adjusted quickly to the inevitability of it:
Sometimes the 'mood' in the mess, at the meal after an 'op' would be very gloomy. This would be on the occasion of an aircraft having 'failed to return' … We accepted this, it happened regularly enough, and who was to be next? I guess all we really did was mutter something like 'poor bloody Joe', or Jack or Fred or whoever, shrug our shoulders, eat our meal and go to bed. Then, at the earliest opportunity, we would sneak to their crew's quarters, and pinch what was left of their coal supply.31
When a crew 'went for a Burton' on a night operation—RAF jargon for the official phrases 'failed to return' or 'missing air operations'—a so-called Committee of Adjustment at the station quickly went to their quarters to pack up their belongings before replacements arrived. RAAF Flight Sergeant Robert Robb, of No. 103 Squadron RAF, 'failed to return' on the morning of 21 December 1942, so his friend, Don Charlwood, went with the Committee to secure Robb's personal diary for his family:
When we then went together into the barracks, there came a moment like an episode from a second-rate movie: at Robb's bed one of the men switched on his light; his radio also came on—Richard Tauber singing 'Just a little love, a little kiss'.32
What was a typical tour during this main offensive? On 14 June 1943, having finished his training, Flying Officer William Forbes arrived at No. 467 Squadron RAAF to begin his tour. There are no publically available personal diaries or letters which might allow us to get Forbes' sense of his tour, but the official 'Operations Record Book' of No. 467 Squadron shows something of what his life, the life of a typical Australian pilot and his crew, was like. Typed up daily, this archival record takes us on every squadron operation; it lists the crews, aircraft type and identification numbers; names targets; provides a summary of the debriefings after each operation; summarises the squadron's operational activity month by month; lists all postings in and out of the unit; and provides descriptions of events thought to be of some significance. Forbes' service with No. 467 spanned the last nights of the Battle of the Ruhr, the Battle of Hamburg, and half of the period of the Battle of Berlin.
Flying Officer Forbes and his crew arrived together at No. 467 Squadron from 1661 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit), where they would have been given some experience flying the sort of aircraft they would take into battle—the Lancaster. Most crews formed at their OTU, and one wonders if the first two to come together in this crew were Forbes and his flight engineer, also a Queenslander, Sergeant Francis Miller, from Mulgowie. The rest were all RAF; Sergeant H Robertson, navigator; Sergeant W Grime, bomb aimer; Sergeant F McLeod, wireless operator; Sergeant H Garth, mid-upper gunner; and Sergeant AJ Norman, rear gunner.
Flung straight into the Battle of the Ruhr, by early July Forbes and the crew had been, in order, to Krefeld, Mülheim, Wuppertal, Gelsenkirchen, and twice to Cologne. The Krefeld operation was a typical attack on an important industrial centre producing high grade steel, and this operation involving 705 bombers burnt out 47 per cent of the centre of the city. The Argus (Melbourne) reported Krefeld 'obliterated'; Forbes described the defences as 'light' and that they had observed one very large 'concentrated' fire. Known to aircrew as 'Happy Valley', the Ruhr defences were some of the strongest in Germany and Don Charlwood spent much of his tour over Battle of the Ruhr targets such as Cologne:
It was a hellish but wildly beautiful sight. I felt like some earthbound giant was down there, lashing at the wasps above him. Searchlights swept everywhere and sometimes silhouetted struggling aircraft. Flak burst below, above and all around us. And on the ground were the constant flashes of the guns. Huge fires glowed through their own smoke. As I looked, it swept over me, 'We have done that!'33
At the end of July 1943, No. 467 Squadron turned away from the cities of the Ruhr towards a target whose name has become a symbol for the destructive capacity of Bomber Command—Hamburg. For four nights in late July and early August 1943, the bomber stream converged on Germany's biggest port and left it a smoking ruin. While it had not been the RAF's specific intention, the dry weather conditions over Hamburg at the time, combined with the fires set by the thousands of incendiaries dropped by the bombers, caused a huge firestorm. An RAF bomb aimer flying with No. 460 Squadron, Sergeant WG Lamb, found the burning city an 'awesome' sight:
I could see one mass of fire. 'A sea of flame' has been the description and that's an understatement. It was so bright that I could read the target maps and adjust the bomb sights. It was useless even to use the bomb sight and I cannot remember giving the pilot any directions as there was no definite aiming point and I cannot remember giving the pilot any.34
Forbes brought his Lancaster over Hamburg on three of the RAF's operations: on the opening attack of 24 July; on the night of the great firestorm, 27 July; and on the final raid of 2 August. His most shaky moment was trying to find the city through the cloud cover and storm which hit Hamburg on that day:
Owing to severe electrical storms and icing conditions no PFFs [Pathfinder marker flares] seen and it was not until after experiencing 15 minutes of rough handling from the elements that we were able to descend through clouds and drop bombs amidst smoke and fire which navigator calculated by D/R [dead reckoning] was the target.35
For Peter Firkins, No. 460 Squadron historian, the storm was 'Providence' lending a hand to the 'unfortunate city' by making this last raid an 'utter failure'. Hamburg, however, was a clear indication of what Bomber Command could do when everything went right and Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, who visited the city, admitted to an audience there that such attacks could not be prevented. If Hamburg could have been repeated in 1943 all over Germany then, as Marin Middlebrook concluded, the nation would 'probably find herself unable to continue the war and thus give the British bomber leaders the victory they sought'.
On bomber crews the months of the tour took their toll. Nights were spent flying over blazing cities avoiding searchlights and the thudding explosions of flak shells, being hunted by night fighters, and watching other aircraft being shot down in flames. Then, after the dangers of the return flight over enemy territory, there was the arrival home to an airfield in rural England. As he flew in over the Yorkshire coast from the Ruhr in a No. 460 Squadron Lancaster in May 1943, Group Captain Thomas White noticed the red-stained moon going down in the west, heard the pilot, RAAF Flying Officer Edward 'Soapy' Hudson, call their airfield at Breighton and the reply of the 'blonde WAAF' in the ops room giving them their runway, and felt the relief of the long glide to touchdown between the flare path lights and the 'taxi to rest'. They left Lancaster 'U for Uncle' in the dawn light:
There was a slight frost on the rustling grass. Blackbirds were singing in the coppices, and the skylarks had already taken off. It was good to be in a wholesome and peaceful world again after the fury of the skies.36
It was not always a safe and peaceful return. German intruder night fighters sometimes followed the bomber stream across the North Sea and attacked either when aircraft were making their landing approach, or once they had landed. Returning over England to RAF Ludford Magna from Hamburg at 1.20 am on 28 September 1943, a Lancaster of No. 101 Squadron RAF was shot down by a German intruder. All the crew were killed, including RAAF Pilot Officer Rex Liersch, the flight engineer.
After a safe landing there was debriefing, then the operational meal of bacon and eggs with lashings of hot tea or coffee, followed by the wait to see who was not coming back. The period of the main offensive cost No. 467 Squadron forty-eight aircraft, each with its seven-man crew, 'missing on air operations'; this was typical of all Bomber Command units. Some, the lucky ones, baled out and survived the war in prison camps, or managed as 'evaders' to find their way back to England. The Australian War Memorial's Roll of Honour records that ninety-eight Australians died by 'flying battle' with No. 467 Squadron between March 1943 and March 1944.
How did aircrew cope with it all? On nights with no operations, when it was possible to leave the base, men headed for the nearest bright lights, as noted by the No. 467 Squadron diarist on 11 July 1943:
'Ops' were scrubbed … and the lads seemed to do an attack on Nottingham at night for large numbers were noticed wending their way in by various means.37
RAAF Flight Sergeant William Pearce, of No. 100 Squadron RAF, was in a really mixed crew—RAAF, RAF and RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force)—and on no-flying nights they would 'scout the countryside' for a pub with a piano. Their mid-upper gunner, RAF Sergeant 'Dusty' Ayres, provided the entertainment:
With 'Dusty' playing the piano, the rest of the crew, and the other clientele, would sing along, and down a few 'pints'. Dusty as the musician did very well for drinks, it's a habit they have in England, drinks are bought by other people for the piano player. He would end up with quite a few glasses lined up on top of the piano.38
Riotous parties in the mess were another way of forgetting the war. On such occasions, No. 460 Squadron enjoyed individual performances of the 'Muffin Man', something of a speciality of the Air Controller, World War I veteran Squadron Leader Foggo. Foggo's last performance, on 8 May 1945, VE Day (Victory in Europe), was probably typical of them all:
Balancing a jug of beer on his bald head, he'd sing the 'Muffin Man', stripping off his clothes as he went, until finally he stood in a pair of red and white polka dot underpants … on the backside was a black swastika, and Foggo wasn't fussy about who was watching when the act was performed, WAAF officers included.39
Aware of the stress on aircrew, Bomber Command allowed generous leave. Records show that Bill Forbes and the crew, on three occasions during their tour, were able, for nine days at a time, to leave their bomber behind for the delights of London, or wherever. In London a man on leave could take in a West End show, savour the many pubs, go sightseeing and relax at the Boomerang Club in Australia House. The club, opened in early 1942, boasted the facilities of a 'West End hotel' where you could snooze in an easy chair, enjoy a game of billiards, write a letter home, take in a movie, have a haircut, take a shower, and even get your uniform mended. Nearby, in Fleet Street was 'Ye Old Codgers Inn', once the haunt of literary types such as Charles Dickens and Oliver Goldmith; by Christmas 1943 it was being called 'Little Australia'. In 1944, RAAF Flying Officer Cliff Halsall reported home that more than 7400 Australians had left their names and messages in the visitors' book at Codgers. The release of a London leave was summed up by RAAF Flying Officer Alan Forrester, who spent some days there celebrating a crew mate's 21st birthday:
We went to the Codger's Club, Dirty Dicks, got hopelessly drunk and pinched or took control of (not stealing) a double-decker bus in Fleet Street and driving to the Strand Palace Hotel in the Strand. Collecting fares for money to spend on booze, collecting clothing coupons in payment of fares, even to the extent of a bowler hat and then setting off to the Watney Brewery to rescue two of the crew who had managed to get themselves locked in there all night. What a life! I must and always will say the British people were wonderful and very understanding.40
Leave in 1943 was a short respite from ops, and in the last months of 1943 ops meant involvement in Bomber Command's longest and most costly battle of all—the Battle of Berlin. Even before the success of Hamburg, the British press was calling for the bombers to hit the German capital. From his Berlin operations Bomber Harris expected Germany's defeat, providing he had the help of the Americans, who were now carrying out large daylight raids from England:
We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces) will come in on it. It will cost between us 400 and 500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.41
The USAAF declined the offer; moreover, it was a bold claim.
For aircrew, Berlin was the ultimate challenge. RAAF Flight Sergeant Frederic Stuart, of No. 10 Squadron RAF, 'broke into a cold sweat' when this new main target was revealed:
I had done quite a few ops, but never to Berlin. I suppose I knew it would only be a matter of time before it would come up. However, I'll never forget that briefing when the curtain covering the map of Europe was swept aside and—there—the tapes ran to that great, evil looking, blood-red blob—Berlin—the Big City.42
For Bill Forbes, who was soon promoted acting Squadron Leader, and his crew, the Battle of Berlin began on 23 August 1943, as recorded in No. 467 Squadron's Operations Records Book:
Ops today again and, boy oh boy, the target is No 1 priority BERLIN …14 detailed.
Forbes described this, the first of nineteen major attacks on the city between 23 August 1943 and 24 March 1944, as a 'bang on trip and a wizard prang', the glow from fires in Berlin being seen as he crossed the Danish coast on their way home. The operation, however, was marked by problems which beset the whole of Bomber Command's Berlin offensive: the growing ability of the German night fighters to shoot down the bombers; and the difficulty the Pathfinders had, even with the new H2S radar sets, in finding the precise aiming point in the third largest city in the world with an urban area of 2330 square kilometres.
That night, 23–24 August, the Luftwaffe night fighters and the German flak gunners destroyed fifty-six bombers, 7.9 per cent of the force. One of them was a Halifax of No. 158 Squadron RAF flown by 21-year-old RAAF Flight Lieutenant Kevin Hornibrook, shot down by a night fighter near Berlin. Pilot Officer Alan Bryett, Hornibrook's bomb aimer, was left in the bomber with him after the gunners had been killed and three other crew members baled out. As the doomed aircraft dived towards the ground, Hornibrook managed, despite the enormous force of gravity pushing him back, to reach the escape hatch in the nose. Here he paused, grabbed hold of Bryett, and pushed him out the hatch. Shortly after this, as Bryett recalled, the plane crashed:
Kevin never got out. We had been too low. I am very conscious that my life hinged on that moment when Kevin pushed me out. When my son was born in 1951, I called him Kevin as a daily reminder of Kevin Hornibrook, to whom I owed the rest of my life. Never a day goes by without me remembering that he was first at the door and could have saved himself easily.43
Flight Lieutenant Kevin Hornibrook lies in the Berlin War Cemetery beside the graves of his two air gunners, Englishman Sergeant Lawrence Chesson, age 21, and Flight Sergeant Graham McLeod RAAF, age 20.
The Battle of Berlin was primarily about destroying the enemy's capital, but many other cities in Germany were also raided. Between August and December 1943, Bill Forbes and his crew attacked Nuremburg, Munich, Kassel, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Hannover and, most famously, the rocket research establishment at Peenemünde on the Baltic Coast. At Peenemünde, the Germans were developing what Hitler presented increasingly in his propaganda as 'wonder weapons' which would turn the tide of war once again in Germany's favour: the V2 rocket and the V1 'flying bomb'. Spy flights had revealed the existence of test rocket launcher ramps, and there were increasing worries about the possible effect of such weapons on the success of the proposed Anglo-American invasion of Europe. On 17–18 August 1943, Peenemünde was hit, by moonlight, by 597 heavy bombers, among them Lancaster JA902 of No. 467 Squadron, piloted by Bill Forbes. The operation was a success, the German night fighters having been diverted to Berlin for the early stages of the attack, although they took a heavy toll of the force later by downing forty bombers. While it did not stop the V2 project, Martin Middlebrook estimates that the damage caused by Bomber Command set development back just enough to reduce the ultimate effectiveness of the weapon when it was used against England, and other European cities, in the final months of the war. Forbes reported:
Should not be necessary to pay a further visit to this target. Fires and explosions observed have been the best seen on all my trips.44
In his career with Bomber Command, the Peenemünde operation was of great personal significance for Bill Forbes. In October 1944, he went to Buckingham Palace to receive from King George VI the DFC, awarded in part, as the official citation read, for his role in destroying the V2 rocket site:
During an attack on Peenemunde, the aircraft captained by Flight Lieutenant Forbes was subjected to intense fighter attacks but despite this he pressed home his attacks on the target with the greatest persistence and determination. Throughout his tour of duty this officer has displayed courage, determination and skill of the highest order.45
The tour for Squadron Leader Bill Forbes and his crew ended with their visit to Berlin on 2 December 1943, when they flew Alf King of The Sydney Morning Herald to experience a night with Bomber Command. It was their 27th 'op', and King was alive to the dangers they had faced every time they came over enemy occupied Europe:
… they never know whether the next flak burst is going to extinguish their lives, smash their limbs, cripple their plane.46
Sensing, perhaps, the effect of the physical and mental strain of the tour on them all, King described Forbes as 'an old man at 23'. The reporter would have been conscious, also, of the increasing toll the Germans were exacting from Bomber Command on these raids, and he 'breathed a sigh of relief' when they landed safely back at RAF Waddington. King's article on his experiences, 'Terrible Picture of Devastation', which appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 4 December 1943, delighted No. 467 Squadron, even if it was felt that Bill Forbes and the boys had laid it on a bit:
Mr King … had an enjoyable trip to Berlin and we saw the results today in the daily papers. Boy oh boy, what a line he shot and also the pilot. A copy of the cutting was to have been attached [to the Operations Record Book] but someone got away with all the copies—wonder who? The story was well done and we all enjoyed it. S/Ldr Forbes and crew came in for some 'barracking in true Aussie style' however.47
The Forbes crew had completed only twenty-seven ops of a thirty op tour. Why were they taken off operational flying? Don Charlwood wrote that three crews on No. 103 Squadron RAF were compulsorily 'screened' in mid-1943 after twenty-five ops because experienced flying instructors were desperately needed. Moreover, they would 'bear witness to novice crews that survival was possible'. During the period of the Forbes crew tour, between June and the end of November 1943, every crew on No. 467 Squadron must have wondered about his chances of getting through. During those months, 27 aircraft and 189 airmen went 'missing air operations'—virtually a whole squadron. Perhaps at No. 467 Squadron it was thought a good thing that 'sprog' aircrew be given a chance to see survivors like Bill Forbes. RAAF Pilot Officer Keith Harris remembers how significant his crew was at No. 460 Squadron when they finished their tour, just before Christmas 1943. Rather than go on leave, they spent four days in the mess celebrating:
Everybody came to see us because, apart from the fact that I don't think anybody finished for quite awhile—it was sort of a rarity for anybody to get through—we finished on Berlin.48
What was causing these casualties? As Bill Forbes' Lancaster approached Peenemünde on 17 August 1943, his flight engineer, fellow Australian Sergeant Francis Miller, saw what he thought were 'scarecrows'. These large explosions in the air, larger than normal flak explosions, were thought by many aircrew to be an enemy fireworks device to frighten them:
As we [Miller and crew] neared the target area, I first spotted these explosions with their pyrotechnic displays and asked the pilot [Forbes] what they were. He said, 'Scarecrows, to put the wind up you'. I said, 'Hell, they don't need those'. Over the target area there were far too many to be aircraft exploding.49
Martin Middlebrook, however, thinks that aircrew were mistaken and that what Miller saw at Peenemünde were the results of a German night fighter technique first used that night and which was soon to wreck havoc in the bomber streams – schräge Musik. Normally, when a bomber's gunners saw a fighter they quickly warned the pilot of the fighter's angle of approach and he would throw the aircraft into a series of abrupt dives and climbs. This violent 'corkscrew' manoeuvre might shake off the fighter, as well as allow the gunners a shot. In a schräge Musik attack, the enemy seemed invisible. Flight Lieutenant Dan Conway, No. 467 Squadron, wrote:
… most aircraft one saw exploding in mid air, did so after a short burst of tracer fire which, in the darkness, looked only a matter of feet long. These sightings were one-sided sudden death and were increasing in frequency. Certainly different to the criss-cross of fire across the sky which marked the standard approach of a fighter from the rear.50
Conway's instincts were correct; the gunfire was not coming from the side, but from underneath. The night fighter pilot would find his bomber either visually or by radar, then fly up from underneath, often unseen by the gunners, and synchronise his flight path with his target. The schräge Musik, colloquial German for jazz music, poured from a canon slanted upwards behind the pilot's seat—schräge meaning oblique or slanted—into the fuselage or wings of the bomber. Many crews never knew what hit them; one minute they were flying along, the next they were plunging down in flames.
The months of the Battle of Berlin were the golden period of the German schräge Musik pilots. They were lone wolves who hunted the bombers on the long approach to a target over Germany or on their return flight, and we will probably never know just how many Australian airmen were their victims. One of them was RAAF Pilot Officer James Haste, of No. 61 Squadron RAF. On 31 March 1944, Haste was flying his Lancaster home over Belgium from a raid on Nuremberg, deep in the heart of Germany, his eighth op. The plane was fitted with the H2S radar navigation device, and it was their undoing. A new German radar, Naxos, which picked up the H2S signal and homed in on it, was being fitted gradually to the night fighters. Consequently, navigators had been warned to use their sets only for short periods, but that night Haste's navigator had left his set on too long. They were found by Major Rudolf Schoenert:
I kept … picking up signals on my Naxos but was very disappointed to find that these suddenly stopped each time I tried to find the bomber … [I] eventually picked up a Lanki which was flying home. I hit it in the right wing with my slanting canon and started a fire. The bomber went on flying for a long time and they had plenty of time to bale out but they didn't and eventually it went down.51
The Nuremberg raid of 30–31 March 1944 was the last, and most costly, for the bombers of the Battle of Berlin. The operation itself was a failure: 120 aircraft of the 795 dispatched bombed the wrong city, Schweinfurt; thick cloud and a high wind over Nuremberg caused the Pathfinders to drop their flares too far to the east; and little damage was done to the city. The night fighters shot down eighty-two bombers on the way to Nuremberg and near the city, and a further thirteen on the route home, causing the deaths of 545 airmen, fifty of whom were from the RAAF. Eight were from Australian squadrons and the rest were spread across the squadrons of Bomber Command. With a bevy of press photographers and correspondents to wave them off from RAF Ludford Magna in Lincolnshire, seventeen Halifaxes of No. 101 Squadron RAF set off for Nuremberg; only ten returned, among them the bomber of RAAF Pilot Officer Edwin Holland:
We waited and waited and waited. We were an experienced crew and accustomed to losing the odd one or two aircraft … But, with nearly one third of our squadron missing, this was a big kick in the guts to us all. We waited up until nearly mid-day before going to our huts—stunned, shocked and silent, each crew member wrapped in his own mental anguish.52
Eight Australians died with No. 101 Squadron on the Nuremberg raid.
Martin Middlebrook has written that Nuremberg was the 'end of the bomber dream'. That dream had been, by mid-1944, to bring Germany to surrender by area bombing alone, thus avoiding a costly land invasion of Europe by British and American soldiers. Throughout the winter of 1943–1944 Bomber Command had pressed on, sending large numbers of aircraft deep into Germany, and to Berlin, dropping thousands of tons of high explosive and incendiaries, causing significant damage to German industry and the fabric of the cities. Nonetheless, it did not bring the country to its knees and the bombers were hugely punished by the German defences. No. 460 Squadron RAAF flew more individual 'sorties' during the battle than any other unit, but also suffered the greatest losses—28 aircraft and 179 aircrew, 135 of whom were killed. For Dan Conway, who flew with No. 467 Squadron, it was 'trenches in the sky':
We tried, by God, we tried, but by its very definition there is no easy or quick solution to a war of attrition … there was no knockout as planned.53
- 1. Area bombing directive, 14 February 1942, quoted by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The bomber command war diaries, an operational reference book, 1939–1945, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1985, p.
- 2. Portal, quoted by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The bomber command war diaries, p. 240
- 3. Charlwood, Journeys into night, p. 188
- 4. Dixon quoted by Mark Rowe, The luckiest men alive, Australians in Bomber Command in Britain in World War II, privately published, 2003, p. 36
- 5. Harris quoted by Peter Firkins, Strike and return: the story of the exploits of 460 Squadron RAAF, Westward Ho, Perth, 1985, p. 23
- 6. 'Bomber's close call at night', The Mail, Adelaide, 20 June 1942
- 7. Harris in 'Gigantic 1000 bomber raid', original 1942 film on 'You Tube' at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfe0vEkz3lI
- 8. 'Bombers flew low at Eindhoven', The Argus, Melbourne, 9 December 1942
- 9. Operations Record Book, No. 464 Squadron RAAF, 6 December 1942, A9186, National Archives of Australia
- 10. 'RAF's Bomber Command famous Eindhoven raid', original 1942 film on 'You Tube' at www.youtube.com/watch?v=SD4Yxbw79wM
- 11. 'Australian Aces Chosen for Raid', The Daily News, Perth, 19 May 1943
- 12. Directive, Combined Chiefs of Staff, 27 January 1943, quoted in John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy 1939–1943, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1954, p. 475
- 13. Harris, quoted by Henry Probert, Bomber Harris, his life and times, Greenhill Books, London, 2006, p. 202
- 14. Pearce, quoted by Nelson, Chased by the sun, p. 196
- 15. Charlwood, Journeys into night, p. 154
- 16. Charlwood, Journeys into night, p. 203
- 17. Lamb, quoted by Middlebrook, Battle of Hamburg, p. 244
- 18. Forbes in 467 Squadron RAAF, Operations Record Book, 152, A9186, National Archives of Australia, 2 August 1943, Lanc III ED 539
- 19. Thomas W White, 'An RAAF squadron on a bomber raid to the Ruhr', Box 17, typescript, Sir Thomas White papers, MS9148, National Library of Australia
- 20. Operations Record Book, No. 467 Squadron RAAF, Diary, 11 July 1943
- 21. Pearce, Wing is clipped, p. 51
- 22. Firkins, Strike and return, p. 178
- 23. Forrester, quoted by Rowe, The luckiest men alive, p. 85
- 24. Harris, quoted by Martin Middlebrook, The Berlin raids, RAF Bomber Command winter 1943–44, Cassell Military Paperbacks, London, 2002, p. 2
- 25. Stuart, quoted by Middlebrook, The Berlin raids, p. 34
- 26. Bryett, quoted by Middlebrook, The Berlin raids, p. 59
- 27. Forbes in Operations Record Book, No. 467 Squadron RAAF, 17–18 August 1943
- 28. Citation in Forbes, RAAF Officers Personal Files, National Archives of Australia
- 29. King, 'Terrible picture of devastation'
- 30. No. 467 Squadron RAAF, Operations Record Book, 4 December 1943
- 31. Harris quoted by Peter Burness, 'Lancaster G for George', Air War Europe Conference, 2003, Australian War Memorial, online at oldsite.awm.gov.au/events/conference/2003/burness/
- 32. Miller, quoted by Martin Middlebrook, The Peenemünde raid, Penguin Books, London, 1982, p. 174
- 33. Conway, Trenches in the sky, pp. 97–99
- 34. Schoenert, quoted by Martin Middlebrook, The Nuremberg raid, 3–31 March 1944, Penguin Books, London, 1980, p. 234
- 35. Holland, quoted by Middlebrook, Nuremberg raid, p. 251
- 36. Conway, Trenches in the sky, pp. 238–239
Chapter 8: A few of the brave (Part 2)
Although most decorations awarded to Australians in Bomber Command were air force specific, a small number of men received awards normally reserved for soldiers, all for gallantry and distinguished service involved in escaping from enemy captivity. The fear of every Bomber Command air crewman was that his aircraft would be shot down or otherwise destroyed during the course of a raid. Even if a man escaped death, more often than not the result of the loss of his aircraft would be capture by the enemy and incarceration in a prisoner of war (POW) camp. Not every man placed in a POW camp was happy to stay there and, for a variety of reasons, a number of men contrived to escape or at least to attempt to escape. Two of these escapers were awarded with army decorations, both awards unique to the RAAF during World War II: an award of the Military Cross (MC) to Pilot Officer (later Squadron Leader) Allan McSweyn and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) to Sergeant (later Pilot Officer) William Gerald Reed.
Pilot Officer Allan McSweyn, MC, AFC
Pilot Officer Allan McSweyn was a member of the crew of a No. 115 Squadron Vickers Wellington bomber which was shot down during a raid against Bremen, in Germany, on the night of 29–30 June 1941. His first attempt to make his way to England occurred three days after he was shot down, and before he had been captured, when he tried to steal a German night fighter and use it to fly to freedom. Foiled in this attempt and taken prisoner, he was held in a number of camps and carried out a number of further escape attempts.
His last bid for freedom was from Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, in late 1943, in a daring daylight tunnel escape. He was equipped with money, food and false papers that identified him as a French forced labour worker who had permission to return to France for medical reasons, and he was accompanied by a fellow escaper who spoke fluent German. Reaching the Franco-German border, the escapers managed to locate a guide to take them across into France, where they made contact with the Marie-Claire escape network in September 1943. The escape network conveyed the two through occupied France and neutral Spain and into British Gibraltar, which they reached on 4 December 1943.
For his gallant and distinguished service during his persistent escape attempts and also in recognition of the valuable intelligence he brought back with him, Pilot Officer McSweyn was awarded the Military Cross.
Sergeant William Gerald Reed, DCM
Sergeant William Gerald Reed was a rear gunner with No. 460 Squadron RAAF when his aircraft was shot down on the night of 3 July 1942 while returning from a raid on Bremen. Taken prisoner and sent to Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, his first escape attempt took place in September 1942 and involved cutting through the wire of the compound fence; however, he was sighted and stopped before he could get away. In three further attempts he managed to get out of camp and reach the port of Stettin, with the intention of boarding a ship bound for neutral Sweden; however, each time he was recaptured. Finally, he managed to exchange identities with an enlisted man incarcerated in a work camp—his logic being that such prisoners were not watched or searched as closely and regularly as officer and non-commissioned officer aircrew prisoners. His reasoning proved sound, and on 11 July 1944 he and a German-speaking companion escaped from their camp, located near a coal mine, and managed to reach Stettin three days later. They then got aboard a Swedish ship due to sail on 18 July and were assisted by members of the crew to hide from German police and security officers who conducted a search of the ship prior to its departure. The two escapers remained undiscovered and less than two days later were safe in neutral Sweden.
For his gallant and distinguished service during his persistent escape attempts and also in recognition of the valuable intelligence he brought back with him, Sergeant Reed was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Chapter 9: Invasion to victory (April 1944–May 1945)
On the night of 5–6 June 1944 Londoners heard above them 'the most powerful throb of aero engines ever to beat over the city as large forces of Allied bombers went out at dawn'. That night 1012 aircraft of Bomber Command—551 Lancasters, 412 Halifaxes and 49 Mosquitos—flew out over the Channel to the coast of France and there dropped 5000 tons of bombs, the biggest tonnage in one operation so far in the war. Beneath lay German gun batteries built to defend the beaches and cliffs of the Normandy coastline from attack from the sea. All four Australian heavy bomber squadrons—Nos 460, 463, 466 and 467—as well as Australians serving in squadrons throughout Bomber Command, were part of this massive raid. From his rear turret in a No. 467 Squadron Lancaster, Sergeant John Thorp RAF saw below him the invasion of western Europe, D-Day:
From my position … I could see the flashes and hear the rumble of the guns of the capital ships shelling behind the eventual Normandy beachhead. After bombing we headed north towards the United Kingdom. As we crossed the Channel we could see hundreds of ships below, the invasion fleet. My thoughts on looking down on these were,'You poor So and Sos are going into that lot and we're going home for breakfast'.54
For more than eight weeks, beginning with an operation against railway yards in Lille, northern France, on 9–10 April 1944 , Bomber Harris had been sending his squadrons against targets whose destruction would assist the Allied invasion planned for 6 June. Bomber crews had learnt the geography of Germany; now the navigators of No. 466 Squadron RAAF took their Halifax bombers to closer locations across the Channel: Villeneuve St Georges, Tergnier, Achères, Mantes-Gassicourt, and Ferme D'Urville. Railway yards, through which the enemy could bring up troop reinforcements and supplies, were prime targets. On the night of 30 April 1944, No. 466 Squadron sent fourteen Halifaxes in a force of 128 bombers to Achères, north-west of Paris, in what was a typical precision attack, very different to the previous area bombing of German cities. The object was to destroy the Achères marshalling yards and to avoid killing French civilians. On this occasion, the bombers flew in at comparatively low level, to a well-marked target being circled by a Master Bomber who was relying instructions for the bomb run. The Mayor of Achères reported the success of the attack: the railway yards were completely destroyed and no civilians were killed.
Although not nearly so well defended as the German cities, these French locations were not soft targets. Tergnier, a rail junction 80 kilometres north-east of Paris, was bombed twice in April 1944. To each operation No. 466 Squadron despatched fifteen bombers, three of which were shot down. One was Halifax LV875, piloted by Flight Sergeant John Bond, which was downed by a night fighter on 11 April. The five Australians in the crew were buried in the communal cemetery of the little Somme village of Meharicourt, not far from where thousands of their countrymen lie in cemeteries of the Great War spread throughout this region of France. There are forty-one war graves at Meharicourt, all of Bomber Command airmen, more than half of whom died in the raids on Tergnier. Both operations were successful, that of 18–19 April blocking fifty railway lines.
Other targets in those pre-invasion months included German military camps such as Mailly-le-Camp, attacked on the night of 3–4 May 1944. Operationally the raid was a success: barrack buildings, transport sheds, vehicles and tanks were destroyed. For many of the Bomber Command crews involved, however, it was a disaster. As the main force flew in and waited to be called forward for their bomb runs by the 'Main Force Controller', Wing Commander LC Deane, he found himself unable to give them the signal. His VHF radio was being drowned out by a competing broadcast and his wireless set was wrongly tuned. Englishman Sergeant Ron Eeles was the rear gunner in a No. 49 Squadron Lancaster:
After a few minutes we did not like this at all and the crew were worried as visibility was clear and good and we knew from experience the dangers of hanging around enemy territory any longer than absolutely necessary. We were circling this flare for approximately half a hour and becoming increasingly worried as it appeared impossible to receive any radio instructions due to an American Forces Broadcasting Station blasting away. I remember only too well the tune, 'Deep in the heart of Texas', followed by hand clapping and noise like a party going on.55
This delay allowed the German night fighters to arrive and forty-two Lancasters were shot down, 11.6 per cent of the force, the sort of casualty rate the bombers had been used to in the skies over Germany in Bomber Harris' main offensive. Mailly-le-Camp proved to be No. 460 Squadron's worst night of the war, with five aircraft lost, three of them being flown by crews on their first operation. Flight Lieutenant Noel Sanders, No. 463 Squadron, never forgot the night fighters of Mailly-le-Camp; they took the life of his school friend from Kempsey, NSW, Pilot Officer Colin Dickson of No. 467 Squadron:
… I've been to see his sister many times to talk about him, up there. I saw his parents as soon as I got back … coming back from that target, we didn't need a navigator, because the fighters were all along the route … they were picking us off like anything. Not only our squadron, but all the others. There were forty four odd planes shot down. You just had to follow the burning planes on the ground, to take you out over the coast, and back to England. That was a horrific show.56
The people of Beauchery-St-Martin, a little village to the south-east of Paris, also had good reason to remember the night of 3–4 May 1944. Rachel de Boisgelin, the American-born wife of a local landowner, was woken up by the noise:
Many of us living near were awakened by a tremendous roar of motors, by firing, and then the sky was lighted up for miles around by explosions. But at that time the Germans were masters here, and anyone who stepped out of a house before five in the morning risked being shot. By the noise and the glow in the sky, when the planes came down the Germans knew what had happened, and they were looking at everything before anyone else … It grieves me to tell … these painful details but the planes caught fire which made the identification of those who were in them extremely difficult.57
RAAF Flight Sergeant Clifford Gay, of Murrumbeena, Victoria, was in one of the planes, Lancaster ND411 of No. 101 Squadron RAF; RAAF Warrant Officer Douglas Close, of Rockhampton, Queensland, was in Lancaster JB 405 of No. 12 Squadron RAF. It was Close's first operation and he was flying as 'second pilot'; Gay was a bomb aimer in an established crew. Of the fifteen aircrew only one survived; and of those killed only two, including Close, could be identified. The remains of the others, placed in five coffins, were buried by the villagers in a collective grave in the Beauchery Communal Cemetery. A local teacher, Simone Rustang, wrote to the sister of Sergeant James Moore, the flight engineer in Gay's Lancaster:
Never has our village seen such a big crowd—1,800 to 2,000 people. At that lovely time of the year, there were plenty of lilac and lilies of the valley, also tulips and rarer flowers. The five coffins disappeared under the tulips … and whilst they were all being taken to their last resting place in this peaceful corner of the cemetery where grass often grows, we were thinking of their families who might be thinking of them alive—somewhere in Europe. From the wounded airman [Sergeant S Johnson of Lancaster JB 405] … who was sheltered in a farm … and then taken prisoner, you might get the precious details of the last wild course of their machine, feeling themselves pursued, and of their despair during the last few moments of their life.58
The spot where one of the bodies had fallen to earth became a place to express the hope for liberation. Rachel de Boisgelin watched as flowers were placed on the spot, and recalled how the Germans hid in an attempt to catch those responsible, and how a Polish woman and others continued to lay their tributes to 'fearlessly [keep] alive the memory of those fallen aviators'.
Although they did not know it, for the people of Beauchery-St-Martin and France liberation was but months away. After their initial D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, the Allied armies were held in the Normandy area by strong encircling German forces. On 7 July 1944, Bomber Command was ordered to assist with an attempted British and Canadian army breakthrough at Caen. The intention was to bomb enemy forces within an area of ten square kilometres, five kilometres from the Allied lines, and 467 bombers, including thirty-four from Nos 460 and 466 Squadrons, were despatched to Caen in daylight with strong fighter protection. RAAF Flying Officer Rodney Allcot was in one of the No. 460 Squadron Lancasters:
But we must have dropped God knows how many tons of bombs on a section of the German army … The place was saturated with bombs; no fighters came near us … when it was all over and we retreated and our army advanced they found that there weren't as many Germans actually killed as they thought there would be. But those that weren't killed, they were wandering around stunned, they were just stunned.59
The fighter protection at Caen did not help RAAF Squadron Leader William Blessing. Blessing was well-known for his work with No. 105 Squadron RAF, flying Mosquito aircraft against precision targets. On 27 May 1943, he led seven Mosquitos in daylight against the Zeiss optical lens works at Jena, deep in Germany, an operation for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The medal citation told of the high degree of skill required for a long flight at extremely low level, in bad weather, to a target where, despite intense anti-aircraft fire, Blessing pressed home his attack 'with great vigour' and hit the Zeiss works. The bombing was accurate and one German authority claims that there was a 90 per cent loss of production at Zeiss. Bomber Harris, however, never liked these operations against what he called 'panacea targets' as they took resources away from his area bombing offensive against the German cities, so the Mosquitos of No. 105 Squadron were transferred soon after the Zeiss attack to the Pathfinder Force, as target marking aircraft. Coming in to mark the target at Caen, Blessing's Mosquito was hit by canon shells from a German fighter. His navigator managed to bail out, but the plane went into a violent spin at low level and disintegrated. Shortly before he died, Blessing was married to Leading Aircraftwoman Audrey Birch in England. In late August, the Allies broke out of the encirclement in Normandy, with Bomber Command credited with having weakened the German defences, and by the end of 1944 British Empire and American forces were approaching the frontiers of Germany.
After the Normandy breakout, the war in Europe lasted just over eight months. During that time the Australians in Bomber Command flew against a range of specialist targets as well as returning to the area bombing of German cities. The Operations Record Book of No. 463 Squadron RAAF shows that from the start of September 1944 to the end of April 1945 the squadron's Lancasters carried out 82 ops: 22 were area bombing, 21 were communications targets such as canals and railway yards, 19 were synthetic oil plants and other oil installations, 13 were army co-operation raids against enemy ground positions, and 7 were raids on ports and shipping. This diversity represented three schools of thought at the higher levels of the Allied supreme command about the best use of the strategic bomber forces in the defeat of Germany. One group thought the destruction of German oil production would bring the war to a quick end, focused as that effort now was on plants making oil from coal, synthetic oil. Others maintained that successful precision raids on the enemy transportation system would just as soon stifle industrial life and prevent troops quickly reaching the fighting fronts. To Harris these were all 'panacea targets'; they took his ever growing force of 'heavies' away from what would bring Germany to its knees without having to invade the country—the destruction of the cities and the cracking of the morale of the population. On 25 September 1944 a directive went to Bomber Command and to the American Eighth Air Force, giving clear target priority to German oil plants and, as a secondary priority, the enemy's rail and waterway system. Cities were only mentioned for 'general attack' when weather conditions and other restrictions prevented raids on the primary targets. To lead No. 463 Squadron in these final months, Bill Forbes returned to RAF Waddington for his second tour of ops, and from June 1944 until January 1945 the monthly returns in the Operations Record Book were signed 'WA Forbes, Wing Commander commanding 463 (RAAF) Squadron'.
The renewal of area bombing brought the Lancasters of No. 463 Squadron over smaller cities that had not featured in the battles of the main offensive of 1943–1944. On the night of 11–12 September the squadron, led by Forbes, sent twenty-one bombers in an all-Lancaster force of 226 bombers on a devastating raid on Darmstadt. It was a cloudless night, the markers were well laid and at midnight Forbes, who could see the town clearly from the light of the flares, dropped his bomb load from 4100 metres in what he considered should be a successful attack. It was. Fires burnt out the centre of the city and some adjacent suburbs; 12,300 were estimated later to have been killed and more than 70,000 rendered homeless. The 'smoke was higher than us' RAAF Pilot Officer Kenneth Youdale, flying with No. 619 Squadron RAF, told reporters, and official historian John Herington wrote that 'the smouldering ruins of Darmstadt were seen and reported on 12–13 September by No. 460 on their way to Frankfurt'. Twelve Lancasters were lost to the defenders of Darmstadt, one of them from No. 463 Squadron.
In Australia headlines such as 'Rising Fury of New Air Offensive' conveyed the now overwhelming power of Bomber Command, a power clearly revealed on the night of 14–15 October 1944. Such was the operational capability of Harris' force that he was able to send out 1238 'heavies'—Lancasters and Halifaxes—against the cities of Duisberg and Brunswick. No. 463 Squadron went to Brunswick, a city which Bomber Command had raided four times without success, and on this night they finally destroyed it. One aircraft from No. 463—an official film unit flight—went to Duisberg, where they bombed and took pictures of a city suffering its second night of heavy attack in what was called 'Operation Hurricane', a 'demonstration to the enemy in Germany generally' of the 'overwhelming superiority of the Allied Air Forces'. The Americans also sent 1251 bombers by day against the city. The hurricane that hit Duisberg was reported in Australia as 'the heaviest single attack on any German industrial city' and headlines spoke of 'A Mass of Blazing Ruins' and a 'Fantastic Duisberg Scene'.
Also participating in the Duisberg raid on 14–15 October was an Australian squadron recently re-formed in Bomber Command after service in the Middle East: No. 462. Over Duisberg the No. 462 Halifax flown by Pilot Officer Albert Cockerill of Casino, NSW, was 'coned' by searchlights and hit by flak, a piece of metal coming through the cockpit window and hitting Cockerill in the eye. Momentarily, Cockerill lost consciousness and the bomber went into a dive, but he recovered, and completed his bomb run. Despite his severe injury, which was causing him great pain and preventing him from seeing his instruments properly, he refused morphine, knowing he was the only one who could fly the aircraft. With the bomb aimer standing beside him and relaying instructions, Cockerill landed the plane back in England. It was his last flight with Bomber Command; he lost his eye but was immediately awarded the DSO, the citation reading, in part, 'calling on his remaining strength he landed, saving the aircraft and crew by his skill, courage and fortitude'.
Of all the area bombing attacks on German cities in World War II, none has stayed longer in historical memory than that on Dresden. By February 1945 Soviet armies had broken into Germany and were within striking distance of Berlin. Earlier, at the Yalta Conference in the Crimea between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, a request came from the Russians for attacks on cities seen as significant supply and communications centres for the Germans on their eastern front. Months previously Bomber Command had begun preparing for an offensive to be called 'Operation Thunderclap', an all-out assault on Berlin, Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig. Although shelved at the time, the idea was dusted off as the Russians broke into Germany, and Churchill himself supported the scheme, especially as he was headed for Yalta and talks with Stalin.
And so on the evening of 13 February 1945, nineteen bombers of No. 463 took off for Dresden to join a force of 796 Lancasters which included aircraft from Nos 460 and 467 Squadrons. Ironically, that very day, well before the bombers would have taken to the air, the Townsville Daily Bulletin ran a picture of Dresden on its front page with a caption describing the historic centre of the city:
Dresden, German Art Centre: Marshall Koniev's breakthrough across the Oder River has brought him to within 90 miles of Dresden, home of Raphael's Sistine Madonna. Our picture shows a section of the Zwinger, a group of richly designed galleries, pavilions and gardens built by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, in the early 18th century. The twin towers to the right are those of the Protestant Court Church, dating originally from the 13th century, but in the years preceding the war handsomely restored.60
The bombers struck Dresden in two waves, No. 463 Squadron being in the first, which, because of the cloud cover, was not a successful attack. Only one of the squadron's Lancasters, the film unit aircraft piloted by RAF Flight Lieutenant GG Skelton, saw what happened to Dresden after the 526 Lancasters of the second wave released 1800 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the city. Skelton flew around taking photographs until the end of the raid and when he got back to RAF Waddington he reported:
The whole of the town appeared to be burning well … The whole of Dresden appeared on fire, we orbited the target for eight and a half minutes, allowing the film unit to do a good job. This attack really stoked up the fires.61
Official RAAF historian John Herington uses phrases like 'dreadful hail of bombs', 'laid waste', and 'virtually blotted out' to describe the bombing of Dresden. 'Nor', he wrote 'did this agony end with dawn' as the Americans arrived and sent another 750 tons of bombs into a 'the vast pall of smoke' which rose 4570 metres above the city. The operation produced a firestorm which killed an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 people and the historic buildings seen in the Townsville Daily Bulletin photograph were now rubble. By war's end in early May 1945, the combined efforts of Bomber Command and the United States Army Air Forces had reduced most of Germany's major cities to a similar state.
In late August and early September 1944, No. 463 Squadron carried out raids on German defensive positions at French ports such as Brest, Le Havre, Boulougne and Calais. Some criticised these attacks, as numbers of French civilians were killed and important port facilities damaged; others pointed to the 'stunning' impact of the bombs on German soldiers and that it cost only 1500 Canadian army casualties to effect the surrender of 30,000 of the enemy at Calais. Strong anti-aircraft fire at Calais took its toll of bomber crews who, owing to bad weather over the target on 24 September 1944, had to complete the bomb run at low level. Because of the clouds and the proximity of Allied soldiers to the aiming point, RAAF Flying Officer Francis Griffin, a No. 463 Squadron bomb aimer, aborted his Lancaster's first bomb run. Heavy enemy fire on the second run wounded Griffin in the legs, thighs and arms, but he continued the attack and released his bombs accurately. For his 'courage and devotion to duty' on this occasion Griffin was immediately awarded the DFC. The pilot, RAAF Flight Lieutenant Bruce Ward-Smith, reported simply: 'Bombs seen to straddle target. Flak opposition intense. Bomb aimer hit'.
Bomber Command's assault on German oil production took No. 463 Squadron Lancasters to places rarely associated with the bombing of Germany: Pölitz, Rositz, Harburg, and Böhlen. The attack on 5–6 March 1945 on the synthetic oil plant at Böhlen showed just how much punishment a Lancaster could take. That night Lancaster NG401 was piloted by RAAF Flying Officer Angus Belford, an experienced captain on his 23rd operation. As he brought the bomber on its bomb run at 3600 metres, it was hit by a shell and began to roll uncontrollably. Belford jettisoned the bombs and within 30 seconds the plane lost a great deal of height, but wrestling with the controls he managed to bring the aircraft back to level flight. Belford was not confident that he could land the plane safely with his elevators, rudders and fins all badly damaged, so he set course for Allied territory in France, where he intended that he and the crew should bale out. Belford was now told that both gunners had been badly wounded, although the rear gunner, after treatment, insisted on remaining at his post. Once over France Belford realised the gunners would possibly not survive a parachute drop, so he headed for the airfield at Juvincourt. Here they were unable to make any of the wireless systems work or see the airfield until they broke cloud at 230 metres and, firing emergency flares, Belford headed for the runway. With no proper controls, he had to abort the first landing, but on his second effort they came down with the crew braced for a crash. As the wheels hit the ground, the starboard wing tip touched earth and spun the Lancaster around until it headed backwards and came to rest in a bomb crater. For the Operations Record Book Belford reported that the flak hits had 'eliminated everything aft of the rear spar'—his ailerons were hanging by a shred, one petrol tank was dangling from the wing, and indeed the aircraft had been almost blown in two. For his 'skill, superb captaincy and exceptional resolution' in bringing what was left of NG401 safely to earth with its crew, Belford was awarded the DSO.
In World War II coal was the lifeblood of German heavy industry. The coal for the great steel mills of the Ruhr passed along the Dortmund–Ems Canal and the linked Mittelland Canal, waterways which became a focus of Bomber Command's efforts to destroy Germany's transportation system and so cripple the nation's war production. For Bomber Command the canals had always been primary targets. In mid-1940 aircrew of No. 83 Squadron RAF, flying Hampden bombers, trained by moonlight over the flat Lincolnshire countryside in low-level attack techniques. On 12 August five Hampdens, two of them piloted by Australians, Flight Lieutenant Alan Mulligan and Flying Officer Ellis Ross, attacked a heavily defended bridge carrying the Dortmund–Ems Canal over the River Ems. Ross was shot down and killed while Mulligan pressed home his bomb run in the face of heavy fire. The Hampden's port engine was hit, exploding into flames; Mulligan dropped his bombs and then climbed swiftly to 600 metres, where he ordered his crew to bale out. After baling out himself Mulligan was captured and spent the rest of the war in German hands. This was Mulligan's 23rd op and he was awarded the DFC, presented to him in 1947 by the Governor-General in Sydney. Aerial reconnaissance showed that the canal had been breached and Australian papers carried the story with headlines such as 'Canal Left Useless', a thought which may have boosted morale at a dark moment of the war.
In September 1944 Bomber Command returned to the Dortmund–Ems Canal and breached it again. Given its importance to the Germans, thousands of forced labourers were put to work to repair the canal and it was soon operational. Consequently, the RAF attacked the waterway again on 4–5 October, with Lancasters from Nos 463 and 467 Squadrons forming part of the attacking force. Yet again, the canal was breached and, yet again, repaired. This ding-dong battle against the canals went on over the winter months; on 21–22 February an attack finally sealed off the Mittelland Canal, and on 3–4 March 1945 the Dortmund–Ems Canal was put out of action for the rest of the war. This concentrated campaign against the canals—Nos 463 and 467 Squadrons attacked them ten times—had a decided effect on Germany's transportation of vital coal supplies, one historian concluding: 'For small losses the Allies had wrecked the German inland waterway system and thrown the burden of moving freight—above all coal—on to the already overstrained railways'.
While the losses may have been small for Nos 463 and 467 Squadrons, they were tragic. On 7–8 February Wing Commander Keith Douglas, squadron commander, led thirteen Lancasters of No. 467 squadron against the Dortmund–Ems Canal. Douglas' fate that night, as another victim of schräge Musik, was later described by his mid-upper gunner, RAAF Warrant Officer Boyd Bean, who bailed out before their bomber crashed:
About ten minutes out from the target on our return journey we were flying straight and level when all at once the aircraft shook and the port wing burst into flames neither myself or the rear gunner saw anything but must presume it was an upward firing fighter which came out of the cloud below. The pilot immediately gave the order to jump and not to wait …62
Douglas died with his aircraft, along with two other members of his crew. From RAF Waddington a letter dated 11 February 1945 came to Mr FDP Strickland, of Dromana, Victoria, telling him that another member of Douglas' crew, his son Pilot Officer James Strickland, was 'missing whilst engaged on an operational flight from this country'. Strickland later turned up, having baled out and evaded capture. The letter to his father was signed 'E Langlois, Squadron Leader, T/Commanding. No. 467 (RAAF) Squadron'.
Promoted to Wing Commander, Eric Langlois led No. 467 Squadron back to the Dortmund–Ems Canal on the night of 3–4 March 1945, the raid which finally put the canal out of action. Just after 10.00 pm, according to Langlois' bomb aimer, RAAF Flying Officer John Willmot, they had a running battle with a night fighter but were eventually hit in the bomb bay. The bomber burst into flames and Langlois gave the order to bale out, which Willmot did but saw nothing more of the plane after he came safely to earth. Langlois' body was never found.
Just over a week before Langlois' death, Bill Forbes had led No. 463 Squadron against the Mittelland Canal. This successful raid rendered the canal, in the words of Bomber Command, '100 per cent unserviceable', but nine bombers were lost and four crashed in Holland. Among the missing were Bill Forbes and two other members of his crew. RAF Flight Lieutenant William Grime, who bailed out of the stricken bomber, was one of the last to see Forbes alive:
The Captain gave the order to bale out. I went through the front escape hatch followed by the Engineer and Navigator. The Navigator later said that the Captain was still in his seat when he left the plane.63
A post-war investigation revealed that the aircraft had been hit by flak and exploded as it crashed. Wing Commander William Forbes DSO, DFC was eventually buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery and is described in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission register as the 'Son of James Alexander Forbes and Elizebeth Forbes; husband of Betty Edna Forbes, of East Bundaberg, Queensland'.
Within a month the two RAAF squadrons had lost three squadron commanders: Douglas, age 24, Forbes, age 26, and Langlois, age 31. Forbes had been on the final operation of his second tour, and in March 1946 the London Gazette confirmed the award of a DSO to Wing Commander William Alexander Forbes for the 'spectacular' attack on the Dortmund–Ems Canal in January 1945, his 'outstanding leadership and determination', and for the example he had set the aircrew of his squadron reflected in their 'efficiency and fine fighting spirit'. Noel Sanders, who flew with Forbes, never forgot him: 'I had another excellent wing commander, Wing Commander Billy Forbes, the late Wing Commander Billy Forbes, because he was shot down after I left the Squadron … Wonderful man, he was'.
By early April 1945 Germany was close to defeat, and throughout the last weeks of the war Bomber Command pressed on. No. 460 Squadron RAAF laid sea mines, destroyed an oil plant, attacked the German naval yards at Kiel and bombed Potsdam, the last area bombing operation of the war. On 25 April, between 5.00 and 5.30 am twenty Lancasters of No. 460 Squadron took off from RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire, joined a bomber stream of 359 other Lancasters, and set course for southern Germany. The target, 2830 metres up in the mountains of Bavaria, was hard to identify as there was mist about and snow covered the ground, but between 1.00 and 1.40 pm the squadron released its last load of bombs on Hitler's Germany. Appropriately, they fell on the German leader's so-called 'Eagle's Nest', his personal mansion at Berchtesgaden, and the neighbouring SS barracks. The operation had been ordered because German propaganda claimed that a 'redoubt' was being prepared here to which die-hard troops could report and hold out indefinitely against the Allied invaders of Germany. Later photographs showed that the attack was a success, with Hitler's residence and the SS barracks both suffering significant damage. RAAF Flight Lieutenant Jack Buckley, who took part in the raid, later observed to a journalist: 'I would not care to be Hitler's insurance agent'. But, decades later, thinking back on the operation, Clarence 'Clarrie' Gardener, No. 460 Squadron, was less sure of its value:
… of course Hitler wasn't there anyway, he was still in Berlin, he had committed suicide, so we didn't achieve very much other than being able to say and the papers spread it of course, that Bomber Command had obliterated Hitler's hideout in Berchtesgaden, I'd say virtually it was all a bit of propaganda that trip … they told us that the German headquarters had moved there because Berlin was so devastated but he was already dead anyhow … as I say I think it was a propaganda trip as much as anything, they wanted to be able to say well we knocked him off … Yes there was a fair bit of hilarity that night I can assure you.64
The aircrew of No. 460 Squadron arrived back at Binbrook in time for a special parade to mark Anzac Day.
On the night of 2–3 May, just a day short of the surrender of all German forces in north-west Germany, Holland and Norway, an Australian squadron took part in Bomber Command's last op of the war. Although Germany was all but finished, it was thought some enemy troops were assembling in the north German port of Kiel with the intention of escaping to Norway to continue fighting. A force of fifty-three Mosquitoes was sent to bomb Kiel, while a so-called 'spoof' raid was conducted by eighty-nine RCM (Radio Counter Measures) aircraft, which included ten Halifaxes of No. 462 Squadron RAAF. These spoof raids, a feature of operations during 1944 and 1945, were conducted by special RCM bombers fitted with a range of sophisticated radar jamming and other devices with names like 'Airborne Cigar', 'Jostle' and 'Mandrel'. Basically, the aim was to fool the Germans into thinking a raid was making for a particular target, while the main force was heading somewhere else. Large amounts of 'Window', clouds of thin strips of foil, were also dropped, a device which confused the German ground radar operators seeking to determine the direction of an approaching bomber stream. As the German night fighters came up at the spoof raid bombers, they were attacked by attendant Mosquito fighter-bombers, and even harassed around their own airfields. These diversionary tactics were often successful and undoubtedly saved the lives of many 'main force' aircrews who would otherwise have fallen victim to the night fighters. For authenticity the spoof raiders also carried bombs and dropped them, as did No. 462 Squadron on the night of 2–3 May in the area of Flensburg north of Kiel. They were the last bombs dropped by the RAAF on Germany in World War II.
No. 462 Squadron had the sadder distinction of having the last Halifax bomber to be shot down by a German night fighter. On the night of 16–17 April 1945, Halifax MZ467 went on a spoof raid to Augsburg, piloted by RAAF Flying Officer Allan Lodder. Oberfeldwebel Ludwig Schmidt was still defending Germany that night and accounted for the Halifax in a classic attack, as described by Lodder:
On our bombing run we were suddenly hit by what appeared to be cannon fire from underneath. The aircraft shuddered as if in a stall. The control column was jammed forward and we were in a steep dive. I called for the crew on the intercom to abandon aircraft, but it was dead …65
Badly burnt, Lodder was thrown clear of the doomed bomber and survived. Two other Australians in the crew—Flight Sergeant Cecil Foster, wireless operator; and Flight Sergeant Eric 'Happy' Tisdell, an operator of special equipment—did not survive, becoming the last RAAF aircrew to die in an RAAF Bomber Command squadron in World War II. Also killed were the flight engineer, Sergeant Edmund Gray RAF; the navigator, Flight Sergeant Edward Windus RAF; and the mid-upper gunner, Sergeant Robert 'Jock' McGarvie. Sixty years later, Allan Lodder recalled McGarvie's death:
We had been on leave and … [Jock McGarvie] had taken the opportunity to get married. He had only come back that afternoon and was killed a few hours later. There's no decency in war.66
As peace came, the RAAF squadrons, and RAAF personnel in RAF units, were involved in two extraordinary and memorable events. Certain areas of Holland were still in German hands and food shortages had brought the Dutch people close to starvation. A truce with the enemy occupiers allowed Allied aircraft to approach at very low level and drop supplies in what was called Operation Manna. For seven days from 30 April 1945, No. 460 Squadron flew to Holland with bags of food and medical supplies in the bomb bays of their Lancasters, while aircrew prepared and dropped small packages of chocolate and other items for children, using parachutes made from pocket handkerchiefs. The squadron Operations Record Book recorded the satisfaction crews got from seeing the Dutch rush towards the drop zones to pick up the bags of food. Flying over the city of Rotterdam, bombed early in the war by the Germans, they could see people looking up waving flags, handkerchiefs and bed sheets from every vantage point. As the Lancasters pulled away from the drop field at Leiden, aircrew read a large sign next to it: 'Thank you boys'.
For many Australians what may have been an even more emotional experience was Operation Exodus—the repatriation to England by air of many thousands of British Empire prisoners of war. RAAF Flying Officer Eric Willis flew a load of 'kriegies' (from the German 'Kriegsgefangener', prisoner of war) back from France:
I got more satisfaction out of the trip, than out of anything I have done in my life … Some of them cried when they saw the English cliffs loom up ahead; some had been prisoners for 6 years. We had one AIF officer in our bunch. He was down in the bomb bay hatch … so he was able to see everything.67
Many never made it back to England. Of the 55,000 aircrew who, in the bleak phraseology of the RAF 'failed to return' or were 'missing air operations' during the war, 3486 were Australians of Bomber Command. This figure represents 20 per cent of all Australian service personnel 'killed in action' in all theatres of war in World War II. It is hardly surprising that, even in the last year of the war, when Bomber Command casualties fell away as the German fighter force declined, men pondered their chances in bombers. RAAF Pilot Officer Neville Skinner, who served on ops late in the war, nonetheless 'knew some good guys who have gone for a Burton', and felt lucky to survive. Skinner summed up his feelings in a memorable sentence, feelings which would have been echoed by many survivors of Bomber Command's war:
The sound of an aircraft at night, fading away far above, is the loneliest sound I know.68
- 1. John Thorp, 'Longest day', at 69
- 2. Ron Eeles, 'My recollections of a night bombing raid on Mailly-le-Camp', online at www.49squadron.co.uk/assets/pdf/ron_eeles.pdf
- 3. Interview, Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron RAAF, Australians at War Film Archive.
- 4. Letter, Rachel de Boisgelin, 25 April 1945, in 'Gay, Clifford Samuel, Flight Sergeant RAAF, 101 Squadron' RAF, Casualty, Lancaster ND411, Beauchery, France, 4 May 1944, 166/15/234, A705, National Archives of Australia
- 5. Letter, Simone Rustang to Miss Moore, 13 April 1945, in 'Gay, Clifford Samuel, Flight Sergeant RAAF, 101 Squadron'
- 6. Interview, Rodney Allcot, 460 Squadron RAAF, Australians at War Film Archive.
- 7. 'Dresden, German art centre' photograph and caption, Townsville Daily Bulletin, 13 February 1945
- 8. Skelton quoted in 463 Squadron RAAF, Operations Record Book, 13–14 February 1945, Lanc 1PO329
- 9. Warrant Officer Owen Bean RAAF, 'Statement by repatriated or released prisoner of war', account of fate of aircraft flown by Wing Commander Keith Douglas, 467 Squadron, 8 February 1945, in Douglas, John Keith, Wing Commander, Casualty, Lancaster NG455, item 166/10/401, A705, National Archives of Australia
- 10. Grime quoted in '463 Squadron RAAF World War 2 fatalities', crash of Lancaster PB804, Wing Commander William Forbes, 21 February 1945, online at https://d2uipk7udysvkd.cloudfront.net/images/collection/pdf/RC09125_013--1-.pdf
- 11. Interview, Clarence 'Clarrie' Gardner, 460 Squadron.
- 12. Mark Lax and Leon Kane-Maguire, To see the dawn again: a history of 462 Squadron RAAF, 1942–2008, Wanniassa, 2008, p. 345
- 13. Lax and Kane-Maguire, To see the dawn again: a history of 462 Squadron RAAF, 1942–2008, p. 346
- 14. Eric Willis quoted by James J Willis, My dream to fly fulfilled, from Brigalow to Bomber Command, the memoirs of Flying Office Eric J Willis, privately published, 2005, p. 475
- 15. Letter from Pilot Officer Neville Skinner to Beryl Easton, 19 August 1945, private collection
Chapter 10: Remembrance
Ronald Ashbridge watched the destruction of the great bombers. In late 1945, cycling past RAF Silloth in a remote corner of England, this former 'erk' (ground crew) from RAF Waddington, the home of Nos 467 and 463 Squadrons RAAF, saw Lancasters parked there with the distinctive squadron lettering JO and PO being cut to bits:
Entire mainplanes hacked through and dropped, to be hacked up into smaller pieces then flattened by running steamrollers over them … fuselages cut through and similarly flattened.70
The sight brought tears to his eyes.
RAF Pilot Officer Kenneth Turnham, who had flown on ops, witnessed even more distressing sights. He joined the RAF's Missing Research Enquiry Unit and went looking for the remains of the missing of Bomber Command scattered over Germany and previously enemy occupied Europe. Files would arrive from London with details of when and roughly where an aircraft had disappeared and Turnham and his men would interview local officials, and others, in an attempt to discover what had happened to the crew and where, if anywhere, they were buried. For someone with no forensic training, and working on ten to twelve exhumations a day, it was a challenge:
… sometimes there would be three or four legs and two arms and you had to try to identify who they were … I had to cut away clothing to look for laundry marks, signet rings or any other personal effects in pockets.71
While the work might have seemed 'morbid', Turnham found it rewarding being able to pass identified remains over for proper and dignified burial.
It could take some time before families in Australia learnt the results of the work of the Missing Research and Enquiry Unit. On the night of 13–14 February 1945, the crew of Lancaster NG234 of No. 463 Squadron RAAF went missing over Dresden. At 9.30 am on 17 February, Mr and Mrs FW Coleman of Greenwich, NSW, received a telegram from the Air Board in Melbourne with the news every parent with a son in Bomber Command must have dreaded:
Regret to inform you that your son Flight Sergeant Maxwell John Coleman is missing as a result of air operations on 14 February 1945 … he was a member of a crew Lancaster aircraft detailed to attack enemy target at Dresden Germany which failed to return to base.
In June 1945 the Lancaster's rear gunner, Flight Sergeant Arthur White, turned up, having been released from a prisoner of war camp, and in December 1945 the Colemans were informed that their son must now be 'presumed' dead 'for official purposes'. Another year and a half passed until RAF Flying Officer RP Hunter of No. 4 Missing Research and Enquiry Unit, Berlin, went to Dresden to look for the crew of Lancaster NG234.
On the night of 13–14 February 1945, as Hunter discovered, Coleman's bomber exploded and crashed over the Jägerstrasse, on the north-east edge of Dresden. As stated in his report, pieces of the plane were scattered over a wide area and cleared away days later by a local air raid precautions unit. There were no witnesses as to what happened initially to the crew. Police records showed that three were found in nearby Nordstrasse and two of them were identified from their identity disks; the pilot, RAAF Flying Officer Norman Fernley-Stott, was found in Baumstrasse; and another unidentified crewman was recovered from Fruchtlingstrasse. These five were then buried in unmarked graves on the 'edge of Dresden heath' outside the city. Days later another unidentified airman was found in the same vicinity and buried 'in a mass grave with several thousand air raid victims' at the Junge Heide Friedhof (Cemetery) and, not surprisingly, no records were kept of those burials.
After an exhumation carried out by Flying Officer Hunter it was possible to identify the five buried aircrew. RAF Flight Sergeant Richard Marriott had his name on his collar; RAAF Flight Sergeant Bruce Wilson had his identity disk; RAAF Flying Officer Norman Fernley-Stott had his officer's braid; RAAF Flight Sergeant Terrance McManus had his flight sergeant's crown and chevrons; and RAAF Flight Sergeant Maxwell Coleman had his WOP (wireless operator) badge. Bomber Command airmen exhumed from crash and burial sites throughout Germany were removed to large Commonwealth War Graves Commission 'consolidation' cemeteries and the bodies of the five identified crew of Lancaster NG234 were reburied together in a collective grave in the Berlin War Cemetery. Of the 3595 buried there more than 80 per cent are airmen killed in operations over the cities of east Germany between 1939 and 1945. The missing member of Coleman's crew, possibly the airman buried with the German dead of the Dresden raid, was RAF Sergeant James Johnson and his name was recorded and honoured on the walls of the missing on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede in England. Coleman's parents received a photograph of his grave and, in 1950, as they wrote to the RAAF Casualty Section, they were grateful for that: '… thank you for all you have done in regards to the passing of our dear lad, you have done all that could be done to soften the blow'.
Families in Australia also were sent a deceased airman's possessions, and these treasured things would have become significant in their remembrance of that person. The 'Casualty' files held at the National Archives of Australia reveal detailed lists of personal items carefully collected by the Committees of Adjustment and often mention the near impossibility of repatriating larger objects such as bicycles and radios. In August 1946, the personal effects of Wing Commander Keith Douglas of No. 467 Squadron RAAF came home to his parents in three cartons and one suitcase. They included two Australian flags and two uniforms, attached to which were Douglas' pilot's brevets and ribbons showing he had been awarded the DFC and the AFC (Air Force Cross). As his mother had written to Wing Commander Rollo Kingsford-Smith, who had flown with both Nos 463 and 467 Squadrons:
You will understand just how much I am longing to have his small personal things, photos, his Leica camera etc. even though I know it is going to be a heart-breaking experience when they do come to hand.72
One of Douglas' uniforms was eventually donated to the Australian War Memorial.
Surviving Bomber Command aircrew did not forget their experiences or their dead comrades. RAAF Flight Sergeant Arthur White, who escaped from Lancaster NG234 as it exploded over Dresden, was discharged from the air force in January 1946 and on 13 February 1947 placed an entry in The Sydney Morning Herald's 'In Memoriam' column:
To the memory of the crew Lancaster 'E Easy' 463 Squadron Lincoln England: F/O Fernley-Stott, P/O McManus, F/S Wilson, F/S Johnson, F/S Marriott (RAF) killed on operations Dresden, Germany 13 February 1945. Inserted by sole survivor. Arthur White, Orange.
The father of Flying Officer Norman Fernley-Stott placed a similar message in the paper that day for his son. For decades the press carried these 'In Memoriam' entries from families on such significant dates to show they had not forgotten their own and Australia's severe loss in the skies over Europe.
As surviving aircrew aged, they sought to ensure that the story of the Australian Bomber Command squadrons was not forgotten. Small memorials were unveiled at former wartime airfields in England, such as those placed by the 460 Squadron Association at Binbrook, 467–463 Squadron Association at Waddington, and 466–462 Association at Driffield. Communities in what was once German occupied Europe also remembered the men of Bomber Command. At Mailly-le-Camp in France, where No. 460 Squadron experienced one of the unit's worst nights of the war, losing five bombers to night fighters, L'Association Mailly has built a memorial. It is dedicated to the 300 airmen killed that night, regarded as having lost their lives 'in the fight for freedom', and every year on the anniversary of the raid, 3–4 May, ceremonies are held at the memorial. Recognised also in these ceremonies are the French who died that night, many of them French colonial prisoners of war held in the German military camp. In 2010 the villagers of Beauchery-St-Martin, where Flight Sergeant Clifford Gay and Warrant Officer Douglas Close of the RAAF, both killed in the raid of 3–4 May 1944, lie buried, requested that a ceremony of commemoration be held in their communal cemetery. In many other places in France, Belgium and Holland the airmen of Bomber Command, from the RAF and all the Dominion air forces, are similarly remembered and honoured.
In other ways the public remembrance of Bomber Command has been more complex. In 1999 the Australian War Memorial opened its Sculpture Garden, which offered 'a place for quiet contemplation of the sacrifice of the many Australians who have died in war'. This development provided the opportunity for the Bomber Command Association (Australia), in conjunction with the AWM, to commission a memorial to the Australians who flew with Bomber Command, and this memorial was unveiled in 2005. Before that the main national commemorative statement about Australia's involvement in the bombing campaign against Germany, apart from the thousands of names honoured on the Memorial's Roll of Honour, had been in the Memorial's Hall of Memory. Here, four large mosaics – a sailor, a soldier, a member of the women's services and an airman – were designed and executed by artist Napier Waller in the early 1950s, when World War II was a part of recent memory and experience. Each mosaic contains an image of the relevant service person with other significant symbolic images in the background, and it is these symbolic images that show something of the difficulty that has surrounded the adequate honouring of the story of Bomber Command.
The AWM suggests that these mosaics 'recall the Australian experience of the Second World War'. For the soldier, sailor and service woman these experiences seem uncontroversial. But the airman stands in a ruined cathedral surveying, in the Memorial's words, 'the destruction of beauty and human ideals'. Missiles rain down on the cathedral and the 'destruction of beauty' is suggested by the presence of a decapitated saint and a mutilated hand. Presented in a heroic stance, the airman is 'inspired to defend his tradition' and this youngest of the armed services has 'built up a wonderful tradition of prowess and the noble one of chivalry'. Clearly in this mosaic the airman himself is not seen as responsible for this collapse of civilized values although, in the aftermath of World War II, it is not hard to think that these images recalled for many the destruction of European cities by the air forces of all belligerent nations. It was the connection with the destruction of Germany that brought about an initial official ambivalence towards the role of Bomber Command, as war ended.
On 13 May 1945 Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a man who had become the symbol of Britain's determined opposition to Hitler and the embodiment of the nation's fighting spirit, gave a lengthy victory speech. It was broadcast all over the world by the BBC. In the speech Churchill recalled much that had happened in the course of the war, paid tribute to a number of leading military figures and, while never mentioning the RAF by name, praised the fighter pilots who had saved Britain from invasion in 1940. Neither Bomber Harris nor Bomber Command, nor even the word 'bomber', rated a mention. Although Harris was offered a peerage, he refused because of what he regarded as a snub to his men in that they were not offered official recognition or a special medal for their campaign against Germany, in which they had suffered such terrible losses. Like airmen in any other section of the RAF, Bomber Command veterans were entitled to the 'Air Crew Europe Star', indicating participation in operational flights over enemy occupied Europe between September 1939 and June 1944. Subsequent wartime operations gained an airman the 'France and Germany' clasp to his existing medal. Churchill, it is alleged, was distancing himself from association with the bombing of Dresden in particular, the necessity of which was being questioned publically by some members of the British parliament. The issue of Dresden led to further questioning, by some, of the supposed morality of the whole strategy of area bombing, which had led to the deaths of so many German civilians. Bomber Harris felt particularly attacked on the Dresden issue:
I know that the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were as fully justified as any other operation of war. Here I will only say that the attack on Dresden was at the time considered a military necessity by much more important people than myself.73
Harris was referring to Churchill. Historians, and others, later weighed in to this controversy by debating the pros and cons of particular aspects of the bombing as it developed during the war, and what the contribution of the bomber had been to Germany's defeat. In any outline of Bomber Command's war these matters are significant, but they are less relevant to a consideration of the experiences of the airmen themselves, who to the best of their abilities carried out the orders of their superiors.
Australians contributed much to, and suffered greatly in, Bomber Command. English historian Martin Middlebrook, a respected writer on the subject, noted that during the most stressful part of Harris' main offensive, the costly operations against Berlin, the Australian squadrons were 'steady'. Australian historian Hank Nelson calls this an 'exceptional tribute'. Certainly the Australians came out of the war with some notable statistics, especially those of No. 460 Squadron, which according to both their own squadron history and Middlebrook was credited with dropping the greatest tonnage of bombs and flying the most Lancaster sorties in Bomber Command. The squadron's losses were also the highest of all the Lancaster squadrons of 1 Group, and the Australian War Memorial's Roll of Honour lists the names of 589 Australians who died serving with the squadron. To that must be added the names of another 429 who died beside them in the uniform of the RAF or of other Dominions and colonies of the old British Empire and Commonwealth. Like nothing else those simple numbers show that Bomber Command was always a multi-national force.
More generally, the airmen of Bomber Command played an essential role in the war effort. At a time when the Allied nations had suffered defeat after defeat, they took the war into the heart of enemy territory. From the invasion of western Europe until war's end, the bomber crews supported the Allied armies in hundreds of hazardous operations and gradually denied German industry the capacity to effectively carry on the war. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, conducted in 1945, also concluded that the bombers 'brought home to the German people the full impact of modern war with all its horror and suffering'. This is a conclusion to which the inhabitants of European countries which had endured enemy occupation would have taken little exception, especially those of eastern Europe where German forces had brought horrendous loss of life and human suffering.
But such generalities do not catch the character of the Australians who flew with Bomber Command. In June 2012, in the centre of London, a Bomber Command Memorial was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II. At its heart is a bronze sculpture of seven bomber aircrew. They are depicted as having just exited their aircraft, and artist Philip Jackson has captured their individual weariness from the stress and threat of an all-night operation over Europe.
From among all the thousands of experiences of Australian aircrew in those same skies perhaps two can be allowed to sum up the qualities which they brought to Bomber Command.
In the little churchyard of St John's, Beck Row, Suffolk, England, is the grave of EATS graduate RAAF Pilot Officer Rawdon Hume Middleton, of Parkes, NSW, who died on the night of 29 November 1942 off the south coast of England, aged 26. Middleton's behaviour that night was described in a letter to his parents by his comrades in No. 149 Squadron RAF:
We in the RAF are accustomed to hearing of bravery, so much so that our appreciation of it tends to be blunted. But this was just outstanding, 'unsurpassed in the annals of the RAF', the official citation itself said.74
The citation was for the immediate, but posthumous, award to Middleton of the Victoria Cross in circumstances which revealed the young airman's exceptional bravery and physical endurance. As the pilot of a Sterling bomber he was badly wounded in an attack on Turin in Italy, but despite his near crippling injuries, for the sake of his crew he determined to fly the damaged bomber back to England. For most of the four-hour flight, conducted in freezing conditions brought about by the shattering of the cockpit perspex, Middleton was in great pain and near to unconsciousness, but he brought them home. Over the English coast the bomber was running short of fuel but Middleton gave the crew the opportunity to bale out while he, determined not to crash on land with the possibility of killing civilians, headed out to sea, where he crashed and died. Two crewmen who remained with him baled out over the water but drowned. Middleton's body was washed up near Dover two months later and the surviving members of his crew all received bravery awards. On Middleton's headstone is the epitaph 'True to the End'.
A very different set of circumstances confronted the crew of Lancaster ME701, 'Whoa Bessie', on the night of 23–24 June 1944. The captain was RAAF Flight Lieutenant Bruce Buckham, and his crew were mainly RAAF. This was No. 463 Squadron's film unit aircraft, and Buckham later became well known for the film taken from his aircraft of the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fiord on 12 November 1944 by Lancasters from Nos 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF. As 'Whoa Bessie' flew home over France from an attack on an ammunition dump at Limoges, the mid-upper gunner, Flying Officer Jim Muddle, about to complete his second tour, called out: 'There's a train—I must get me a train'. Buckham wanted to fly on, but the whole crew badgered him into an attack on the train. Bringing the great bomber down to 21 metres and coming up behind the train as it travelled along an embankment, Buckham told the gunners to fire at the engine. As the bullets hit it, the engine belched steam and came to a stop. Flying further they were forced to shoot up an uncharted enemy airfield to prevent fighters coming up against them. On arrival back at RAF Waddington nobody said anything about these incidents, but Buckham was quizzed by the station commander, Air Commodore Arthur Hesketh, concerning a report of a train being attacked by a Lancaster. A week later he was informed over a drink with Hesketh that, just as the train was being attacked, German secret police on board (Gestapo) had been about to arrest six French resistance fighters but the shoot-up allowed them to successfully jump from the train and avoid capture. Buckham's response was 'Isn't that great, Sir' and through the years he kept the story to himself. Offered work in the post-war RAF he refused:
... one thing was certain, I couldn't fly again not without that crew, and there was no way in the world I was going to have them. They had their lives to live, and I wanted to have a family, so that was that.75
Bruce Buckham, DSO, DFC died in August 2011 in Brisbane, aged 92, survived by his wife, three children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. At the funeral Buckham's coffin was draped with the RAAF flag; an RAAF Guard of Honour saluted him; and a piper played a lament.
- 1. Ashbridge, quoted by Kevin Wilson, Journey's end, Bomber Command's battle from Arnhem to Dresden and beyond, Phoenix, London, 2011, p. 396
- 2. Turnham, quoted by Wilson, Journey's end, pp. 396–397
- 3. Copy of letter, Marion Douglas to Wing Commander Rollo Kingsford Smith, 3 May 1946, in Douglas, John Keith, Wing Commander, Casualty, Lancaster NG455, item 166/10/401, A705, National Archives of Australia
- 4. Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber offensive, Collins, London, 1947, p. 242
- 5. `Letter, quoted by Stuart Bill, Middleton VC, privately published, East Bentleigh, 1991, p.160
- 6. Buckham, quoted by Laurie Woods, Halfway to hell, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 2010, p. 48
Appendice i: Medals and awards
Victoria Cross (VC)
Awarded to all ranks for most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.
- Number awarded: 2
Distinguished Service Order (DSO)
Awarded to officers for distinguished services during active operations against the enemy
- Number awarded: 59
- 1st Bar to DSO: 3
Military Cross (MC)
Awarded to officers and warrant officers for gallantry during active operations against the enemy.
- Number awarded: 1
Note: The MC was normally only awarded to Army officers and warrant officers.
Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)
Awarded to officers and warrant officers for an act or acts of valour and courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy.
- Number awarded: 1513
- 1st Bar to DFC: 95
- 2nd Bar to DFC: 1
Air Force Cross (AFC)
Awarded to officers and warrant officers for an act of valour and courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying, though not in active operations against the enemy.
- Number awarded: 3
Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)
Awarded to warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks for gallantry during active operations against the enemy.
- Number awarded: 1
Note: The DCM was normally only awarded to warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks of the Army.
Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Flying)
Awarded to warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks for conspicuous gallantry in the air.
- Number awarded: 6
Military Medal (MM)
Awarded to warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire.
- Number awarded: 1
Note: The MM was normally only awarded to warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks of the Army.
Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM)
Awarded to warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks for an act or acts of valour and courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy.
- Number awarded: 295
- 1st Bar to DFM: 2
Air Force Medal (AFM)
Awarded to warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks for an act of valour and courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying, though not in active operations against the enemy.
- Number awarded: 3
Appendice ii: The Australian Squadrons
There were 126 squadrons in Bomber Command, including squadrons that were originally units of Bomber Command but were later transferred to other RAF commands, disbanded or converted to other roles. Australians served in almost every squadron of Bomber Command, the exceptions being the Polish, Free French and Czechoslovakian squadrons of the command and a handful of RAF units. The biggest concentration of Australians in Bomber Command, however, was always found in the Article XV squadrons raised by Australia, and information on these squadrons is given below.
NO. 455 SQUADRON
'STRIKE AND STRIKE AGAIN'
Formed: 23 May 1941.
Operated with: No. 5 Group from 6 June 1941 to 26 April 1942
Transferred to: Coastal Command
Disbanded: 26 May 1945
Aircraft: Handley Page Hampden
No. 455 Squadron was the first Australian squadron to join No. 5 Group of Bomber Command and was the first Australian squadron to bomb Germany (Frankfurt, 29 August 1941). On 12 February 1942 the squadron was involved in the unsuccessful attack on the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as they ran the gauntlet of the English Channel. In April 1942 the squadron was transferred to Coastal Command, where it served for the rest of the war.
NO. 458 SQUADRON
'WE FIND AND DESTROY'
Formed: 8 July 1941
Operated with: No. 1 Group from 25 August 1941 to 31 January 1942
Transferred to: Middle East
Disbanded: 9 June 1945
Aircraft: Vickers Wellington
No. 458 Squadron commenced operations over German occupied Europe on 20 October 1941 and for the next three months the focus of the squadron's operations was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. In January 1942 the squadron was reallocated to Middle East Command, where it remained for the rest of the war.
NO. 460 SQUADRON
'STRIKE AND RETURN'
Formed: 15 November 1941
Operated with: Nos 8 and 1 Groups
Disbanded: 10 October 1945
Aircraft: Vickers Wellington, Hanley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster
No. 460 Squadron mounted its first raid on 12 March 1942, against the German city of Emden. In the ensuing three years the squadron was heavily committed to operations over Germany, Italy and German occupied Europe. No. 460 is regarded as having been the most efficient of the Australian squadrons. It maintained consistently high serviceability rates among its aircraft, set numerous operational records within Bomber Command, flew the most bombing raids of any Australian squadron, and was credited with the greatest tonnage of bombs dropped: 24,856 tons (22,549 tonnes). The squadron lost 181 aircraft on operations and suffered 1018 fatal casualties, including 589 Australians.
NO. 462 SQUADRON
Formed: 6 September 1942
Operated with: Nos 4 and 100 Groups
Disbanded: 24 September 1945
Aircraft: Hanley Page Halifax
No. 462 Squadron was formed in Egypt and originally operated as part of Middle East Command. Disbanded for administrative reasons on 1 March 1944, the squadron reformed in Britain as a Bomber Command Squadron on 14 August 1944. Equipped with Halifaxes, No. 462 Squadron operated for five months as part of No. 4 Group, bombing targets in France and Germany. On 29 September 1944 it transferred to No. 100 Group, a specialist formation tasked with disrupting the German air defence system through the employment of diversionary raids and radio countermeasures. The squadron's operations played a critical role in drawing German attention away from real raids and continued until its last operation on the night of 2–3 May 1945.
NO. 463 SQUADRON
'PRESS ON REGARDLESS'
Formed: 25 November 1942
Operated with: No. 5 Group
Disbanded: 25 September 1945
Aircraft: Avro Lancaster
No. 463 Squadron was formed from 'C' Flight of No. 467 Squadron and was equipped with Lancasters from the outset. The squadron commenced operations the day after it was formed. In seventeen months of operations, No. 463 Squadron flew 2525 sorties, dropped 11,430 tons (10,369 tonnes) of bombs and shot down six enemy aircraft. In the course of these operations the squadron lost 546 aircrew, including 225 Australians, and 78 aircraft. No. 463 Squadron sustained the highest loss rate of any of the Australian bomber squadrons.
NO. 464 SQUADRON
'AEQUO ANIMO' ('EQUANIMITY')
Formed: 1 September 1942
Operated with: No. 2 Group from 25 August 1941 to 10 July 1942
Transferred to: 2nd Tactical Air Force
Disbanded: 2 September 1945
Aircraft: Lockheed Ventura
While serving with Bomber Command, No. 464 Squadron in its Venturas pioneered the techniques of precision, low-level bombing raids, which it would continue to employ using Mosquitoes after transfer to 2nd Tactical Air Force. These raids would become the squadron's trademark operation for the remainder of the war.
NO. 466 SQUADRON
'BRAVE AND TRUE'
Formed: 10 October 1942
Operated with: No. 4 Group
Disbanded: 26 October 1945
Aircraft: Vickers Wellington, Handley Page Halifax
No. 466 Squadron flew its first operational mission on 13 January 1943, laying mines along the German North Sea coast. The squadron's primary operational focus was the strategic bombing of Germany, although mine-laying remained an important secondary role. Between December 1942 and May 1945 (when the squadron was transferred to Transport Command), No. 466 Squadron flew 3326 sorties against 269 separate targets; the squadron dropped 8804 tons (7986 tonnes) of bombs, laid 442 tons (400 tonnes) of mine and lost 81 aircraft.
NO. 467 SQUADRON
'RECIDETE ADVERSARIUS ATQUE FEROCITER'
('FALL ON ENEMIES FEROCIOUSLY')
Formed: 7 November 1942
Operated with: No. 5 Group
Disbanded: 30 September 1945
Aircraft: Avro Lancaster
No. 467 Squadron commenced operations on 2 January 1942. On 20 June 1943, it was the first Bomber Command squadron to participate in the 'shuttle service' where aircraft would leave the United Kingdom, bomb a European target and then fly on to an airfield in North Africa; there they would refuel and rearm and then bomb another target on the return flight to Britain. The German port of Frederichshafen was the outbound target and the Italian port of Spezia was the inbound one. Between January 1943 and April 1945, the squadron flew 3833 sorties and dropped 17,578 tons (15,946 tonnes) of bombs. No. 467 Squadron lost 760 personnel killed, including 284 Australians, and lost 118 aircraft.
Appendice iii: Aircraft of bomber command
Type: Light single-engine bomber
Manufacturer: Fairey Aviation Company (UK)
In service: 1937
Retired: 1941 (frontline service – remained in service as a trainer)
Bomb load: up to 1500lb (680kg) in wing cells and underwing racks
Armament: single fixed forward firing .303 inch Browning MG (starboard wing) and single, rear mounted, trainable Vickers K MG.
Comments: obsolete by the start of World War II, the Battle suffered appalling losses in the Battle of France and was quickly withdrawn from frontline operational service, spending the rest of the war in more benign roles such as coastal surveillance, courier and liaison, engine test bed, trainer and target tug.
Type: Light bomber/fighter
Manufacturer: Bristol Aeroplane Company (UK)
In service: 1937
Bomb load: 1000 lb (453 kg) in internal bomb bay
Armament: single fixed forward firing .303 inch Browning MG (port wing) and single, rear mounted, Vickers K MG in semi-retractable turret.
Comments: obsolete by the outbreak of World War II, the Blenheim suffered severe losses in the day bomber and fighter roles, although it did have some success as a night fighter.
Name: Boston (Havoc in US service)
Type: Light bomber/night fighter
Manufacturer: Douglas Aircraft Company (US)
In service: 1941
Bomb load: 2000 lb (907 kg) in internal bomb bay
Armament: 4 x fixed .303 inch Browing MG in the nose, 2 x flexible .303 inch MG in dorsal mount, 1 x flexible .303 inch Vickers K MG mounted ventrally
Comments: popular with crews, the Boston had some success in the daylight bombing and anti-shipping roles and more success as night fighters and night fighter control aircraft. RAF Bostons were gradually replaced by Blenheims and Mosquitos.
HANDLEY PAGE HALIFAX
Type: Heavy bomber
Manufacturer: Handley Page Limited (UK)
In service: 1940
Retired: 1952 (RAF service)
Bomb load: 13,000 lb (5896 kg) in internal bomb bay
Armament: 4 x .303 inch Browing MG in dorsal turret, 4 x .303 inch Browning MG in tail mount, 1 x .303 inch Vickers K MG in nose
Comments: in Bomber Command service Halifaxes flew 82,773 operations, dropped 224,207 tons (203,397 tonnes) of bombs and suffered the loss of 1833 aircraft. In addition to the bomber role, the Halifax served as a glider tug, electronic warfare aircraft and special operations aircraft. The Halifax was also operated by Coastal Command in the anti-submarine warfare, reconnaissance and meteorological roles. Two Australian Bomber Command squadrons, Nos 460 and 466, operated the Halifax.
HANDLEY PAGE HAMPDEN
Type: Medium bomber
Manufacturer: Handley Page Limited (UK)
In service: 1938
Bomb load: 4000 lb (1814 kg) in internal bomb bay
Armament: 2 x .303 Vickers K MG in nose (1 x fixed, 1 x flexible), 1–2 x dorsal turret, 4 x .303 inch Browning MG in tail mount, 1 x .303 inch Vickers K MG in nose
Comments: despite being relatively fast and agile, the Hampden was totally outclassed by German fighters in the day bomber role, although it had some success as a night bomber. Withdrawn from Bomber Command service in 1942, the Hampden served with Coastal Command as a long-range torpedo bomber and then later as a trainer. Of 1430 Hampdens built, 714 were lost on operations. No. 455 RAAF Squadron operated the Hampden during the squadron's short time of service with Bomber Command.
Type: Heavy bomber
Manufacturer: AV Roe and Co. (UK)
In service: 1942
Retired: 1947 (RAF – 1962 for RCAF)
Bomb load: 14,000lb (6350 kg) normal and up to 22,000 lb (9979 kg) for special munitions
Armament: 8 x .303 Browning MG in nose, dorsal and tail turrets
Comments: Lancasters flew 156,000 sorties and dropped 608,612 tons (552,124 tonnes) of bombs between 1942 and 1945. A total of 3249 Lancasters were lost in action and just 35 aircraft completed more than 100 successful operations each. Nos 460, 463 and 467 Squadrons RAAF operated the Lancaster in Bomber Command.
DE HAVILLAND MOSQUITO
Type: Fast bomber, fighter-bomber, night fighter, maritime strike aircraft, fast photo-reconnaissance aircraft
Manufacturer: De Havilland Aircraft Company (UK)
In service: 1941
Bomb load: 4000lb (1814kg)
Armament: nil for bomber variants
Comments: the Mosquito was operated in a wide variety of roles, including medium bomber, reconnaissance, tactical strike, anti-submarine, anti-shipping and night fighter duties, both defensive and offensive, until the end of the war. In Bomber Command, the Mosquito was widely used by the elite Pathfinder Force (PFF) squadrons, whose task was to locate and visually mark bombing targets for the following medium or heavy bomber streams.
Type: Heavy bomber
Manufacturer: Short Brothers (UK)
In service: 1941
Bomb load: 14,000lb (6350kg)
Armament: 8 x .303 Browning MG in nose, dorsal and tail turrets
Comments: in service with Bomber Command, the Stirling flew 14,500 sorties and dropped 27,000 tons (24,494 tonnes) of bombs; 582 Stirlings were lost in action and another 119 written off due to other causes.
Type: Light bomber/patrol
Manufacturer: Lockheed Corporation (US)
In service: 1942
Bomb load: 3000 lb (1360 kg)
Armament: 4 x .50 inch Browning (fixed in nose), 2 x .30 inch M1919 Browning MG in dorsal turret
Comments: although heavily armed and able to carry a larger bomb load than the aircraft it had been designed to replace, the Lockheed Hudson, the Ventura was never a popular aircraft, either with aircrew or ground crew, and had a relatively short period of service in Bomber Command, being replaced by the Mosquito by the end of 1943.
Type: Medium bomber
Manufacturer: Vickers-Armstrong (Aircraft) Ltd (UK)
In service: 1938
Bomb load: 4500lb (2041kg)
Armament: 6–8 x .303 inch Browning MG in nose, waist (single gun each side) and tail (2 or 4 guns)
Comments: the Wellington, affectionately known as the 'Wimpy' by the men who flew it, was one of the mainstay aircraft of Bomber Command (over half of the aircraft involved in the first 'thousand bomber raid' on 30 May 1942 were Wellingtons) until it was eventually replaced by the new generation of four-engined heavies. Bomber Command Wellingtons flew 47,409 operations and dropped 41,823 tons (37,941 tonnes) of bombs and 1332 Wellingtons were lost. The Wellington was operated by Nos 460 and 466 RAAF Squadrons.
ARMSTRONG WHITWORTH WHITLEY
Type: Medium bomber
Manufacturer: Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft (UK)
In service: 1937
Bomb load: 7000lb (3175kg)
Armament: 1 x .303 inch Vickers K MG in nose turret and 4 x .303 inch Browning MG in tail turret
Comments: the oldest of the RAF's pre-war bombers, the Whitley was obsolete by the start of World War II, yet over 1000 additional aircraft were built between 1939 and 1943 before a suitable replacement aircraft could be found. A particular problem of the Whitley was that it could not maintain altitude on one engine, a major drawback for a twin-engined aircraft. With Bomber Command, Whitleys flew 8996 operations and dropped 9845 tons (8931 tonnes) of bombs, while 269 aircraft were lost in action.
Appendice iv: The Lancaster's bomb load
An important feature of the Lancaster was its large 33 ft (10.05 m) long bomb bay. Initially, the heaviest bomb carried was the 4000 lb (1814 kg) high capacity (HC) 'Cookie'. Bulged doors were added to 30% of the Lancaster force to allow the aircraft to carry 8000 lb (3628 kg) and later 12,000 lb (5443 kg) 'Cookies'. Towards the end of the war, when attacking special and hardened targets, such as U-boat pens, the modified Lancasters could carry the 21 ft (6.4 m) long 12,000 lb 'Tallboy' or 25.5 ft (7.77 m) long 22,000 lb (9979kg) 'Grand Slam' earthquake bombs. The Lancaster was able to carry and deliver the heaviest bombs ever made.
To carry the 'Grand Slam', extensive modifications to the aircraft were required, which led to them being named B I (Specials). Modifications included the removal of the mid-upper turret, removal of two guns from the rear turret, removal of the cockpit armour plating and installation of Rolls-Royce Merlin Mk 24 engines, which gave better take-off performance. The bomb-bay doors were removed and the rear end of the bomb bay was cut away to clear the tail of the bomb. Later, the nose turret would also be removed to further improve performance.
Aside from the outsized 'Cookie', 'Tall Boy' and 'Grand Slam' bombs, the Lancaster carried a variety of more mundane munitions, including:
- Small Bomb Container (SBC), which held 236 4 lb (1.8 kg) or twenty-four 30 lb (13.6 kg) incendiary and explosive incendiary bomblets
- 250 lb (113.4 kg) or 500 lb (226.8 kg) anti-submarine depth charges
- 250 lb Semi-Armour Piercing (SAP) bombs, for use against submarines before 1942
- 500 lb and 1000 lb (453.6 kg) General Purpose High Explosive (GP/HE) bombs
- 1850 lb (839.2 kg) parachute deployed magnetic or acoustic mines
- 2000 lb (907.2 kg) armour piercing (AP) bombs
Specific bomb loads were standardised and given code names by Bomber Command:
|CODE NAME||TYPE OF RAID OR TARGET||BOMB LOAD|
|ARSON||INCENDIARY AREA BOMBING||14 x SBC, each with 236 x 4 lb Incendiary and Explosive Incendiary bomblets|
|ABNORMAL||FACTORIES, RAILWAY YARDS, DOCKYARDS||14 x 1000 lb GP/HE bombs using both impact and long delay (up to 144 hours) fuses|
|COOKIE or PLUMDUFF||BLAST, DEMOLITION AND FIRE||1 x 4000 lb impact-fused HC bomb. 3 x 1000 lb GP/HE bombs, and up to 6 x SBCs with incendiary bomblets|
|USUAL||BLAST AND INCENDIARY AREA BOMBING||1 x 4000 lb impact-fused HC bomb, and 12 x SBCs with incendiary bomblets|
|NO-BALL||V-1 FLYING BOMB LAUNCH SITES||1 x 4000 lb impact fused HC and up to 18 x 500 lb GP bombs, with both impact and delay fusing|
|PIECE||DOCKS, FORTIFICATIONS AND SHIPS||6 x 2000 lb short-delay fused AP bombs, plus other GP/HE bombs based on local needs or availability|
|GARDENING||PORTS, CANALS, RIVERS AND SEAWAYS||6 x 1850 lb parachute mines|
|PLUMDUFF-PLUS||HEAVY INDUSTRY||1 x 8000 lb impact or barometric fused HC and up to 6 x 500 lbs impact or delay fused GP/HE bombs|
|TALLBOY||VERY STRONG OR DURABLE STRUCTURES||1 x 12,000 lb short-delay fused Tallboy bomb|
|GRAND SLAM||UNDERGROUND OR ARMOURED FACILITIES||1 x 22,000 lb short-delay fused Grand Slam bomb|
|n/a||MEDIUM-RANGE LOW ALTITUDE TACTICAL RAIDS||6 x 1000 lb short and long delay fused GP/HE bombs, additional 250 lb GP/HE bombs sometimes added|
|n/a||SUBMARINES||6 x 500 lb and 3 x 250 lb anti-submarine depth charge bombs and until 1942 5 x 250 lb short delay fuse SAP bombs for surfaced U-boats|
Appendice v: Sources
Peter Alexander, We find and destroy, history of 458 Squadron, 458 Squadron Council, 1958
'Australians Tell Story of Cologne', The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1943
Warrant Officer Owen Bean RAAF, 'Statement by repatriated or released prisoner of war, account of fate of aircraft flown by Wing Commander Keith Douglas, 467 Squadron, 8 February 1945, in Douglas, John Keith, Wing Commander, Casualty, Lancaster NG455, item 166/10/401, A705, National Archives of Australia
Blessing, Squadron Leader William RAAF, DSO Medal Citation, Flight, 1 July 1943, p. 22
Ernst Borg, Gerhard Krebs and Detlef Vogel, Germany and the Second World War, Vol III, The strategic air war in Europe and the war in the west and east Africa, 1943–1944/45, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006
'Bruce Buckham funeral highlights', 1992, Patty Beecham Productions, online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-qR46cP1FU
Bruce Buckham, 'Shoot the train', online at www.467463raafsquadrons.com
Peter Burness, 'Lancaster G for George', Air War Europe Conference, 2003, Australian war Memorial, online at https://oldsite.awm.gov.au/events/conference/2003/burness/
Cameron, Douglas Alexander, Flying Officer, 226 Squadron RAF, online at http://www.epibreren.com/ww2/raf/226_squadron.html
'Canal left useless', The Mercury (Hobart), 19 July 1940
'Direct hits by heavy bombs on Hitler's chalet', The Mercury, Hobart, 27 April 1945
Don Charlwood, Journeys into night, Burgewood Books, Warrandyte, 2005
Winston Churchill's victory speech, 13 May 1945, online at www.churchill-society-london.org.uk/13May45.html
'Circumstantial report', Station Commander, RAF Lichfield, 27 OTU, on crash of Wellington DV552, 1 August 1942, in Nash, Arthur Frederick Richard (Flying Officer), Casualty, Correspondence Files, A705, National Archives of Australia
'Club for Australians in England – comfort of West End hotel', Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, 1 April 1942
Cockerill, Albert John, Pilot Officer, DSO Citation, in RAAF Officers Personnel files, 1921–1948, 420765, A9300, National Archives of Australia
Coleman, Maxwell John, Flight Sergeant, 463 Squadron RAAF, Casualty, Lancaster NG234 E, 13 February 1945, item 166/8/869, A705, National Archives of Australia
Dan Conway, The trenches in the sky, Hesperian Press, Victoria Park, 1995
Peter Firkins, Strike and return: the story of the exploits of 460 Squadron RAAF, Westward Ho, Perth, 1985
Forbes, William Alexander, DSO DFC, Wing Commander, 467 and 463 Squadron RAAF, RAAF Officers Personal Files, 1921–1948, A9300, National Archives of Australia
Forbes, William Alexander, Wing Commander, DSO Citation, London Gazette, 1 March 1946
467 and 463 Squadrons RAAF, website, www.467463raafsquadrons.com
Gay, Clifford Samuel, Flight Sergeant RAAF, 101 Squadron RAF, Casualty, Lancaster ND411, Beauchery, France, 4 May 1944, 166/15/234, A705, National Archives of Australia
'Grave of Pilot Officer Rawdon Hume Middleton', in Richard Reid, Australians in Britain: two world wars, Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra, 2003
Griffin, Francis Thorn, Flying Officer, RAAF, DFC citation, London Gazette, 14 November 1944
Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber offensive, Collins, London, 1947
'Heaviest bomb raid of war on Duisberg', The Canberra Times, 16 October 1944
John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy, 1939–1943, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1954
John Herington, Air power over Europe, 1944–1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1963
John Thorp, 467 Squadron, 'Our longest day', on line at www.467463raafsquadrons.com/TrueTales/LongestDay.htm
'Krefeld obliterated by fires', The Argus (Melbourne), 24 June 1943
Mark Lax and Leon Kane-Maguire, To see the dawn again: a history of 462 Squadron RAAF, 1942–2008, Wanniassa, 2008
Alan Levine, The strategic bombing of Germany, 1940–1945, Praeger Publishers, Westport, 1992
Lucas, Clifford James, Aircraftsman, RAAF Personnel files of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and other ranks, 1921–1948, 420765, A9301, National Archives of Australia
Lucas, Clifford James, Aircraftsman, Casualty, Anson AW902, 1 June 1942, 163/140/83, A705, National Archives of Australia
John McManus and Stan Parker, Brave and true (466 Squadron history), second edition, privately published, 1998
Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The Bomber Command war diaries, an operational reference book, 1939–1945, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1985
Martin Middlebrook, The Berlin raids, RAF Bomber Command winter 1943–44, Cassell Military Paperbacks, London, 2002
Martin Middlebrook, The battle of Hamburg, the firestorm raid, Penguin Books, London, 1988
Martin Middlebrook, The Peenemünde raid, Penguin Books, London, 1982
Martin Middlebrook, The Nuremberg raid, 3-31 March 1944, Penguin Books, London, 1980
John McCarthy, A last call of empire, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1988
Mulligan, Alan Roy, Flight Lieutenant, 83 Squadron RAF, story online at www.unithistories.com/officers/RAF_officers_M01.html
Nash, Arthur Frederick Richard, Pilot Officer, NO 27 OTU, Casualty, Wellington DV552, 1 August 1942, A705, National Archives of Australia
Hank Nelson, Chased by the sun, courageous Australians in Bomber Command, AQBC Books, Sydney, 2002
Oakley, Albert, Pilot Officer, 15 Squadron RAF, online at www.epibreren.com/ww2/raf/15_squadron.html
Operations Record Book, 455 Squadron RAAF, item 141, A11271, National Archives of Australia
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Operations Record Book, 460 Squadron RAAF, item 147, A9186, National Archives of Australia
Operations Record Book, 463 Squadron RAAF, item 150, A9186, National Archives of Australia
Operations Record Book, 464 Squadron RAAF, item 151, A9186, National Archives of Australia
Operations Record Book, 466 Squadron, item 152, A9186, National Archives of Australia
Operations Record Book, 467 Squadron RAAF, item 153, A9186, National Archives of Australia
William George Pearce, The wing is clipped, a real life adventure with the RAAF, Slipstream Archives, Margate, 2000
Henry Probert, Bomber Harris, his life and times, Greenhill Books, London, 2006
Mark Rowe, The luckiest men alive, Australians in Bomber Command in Britain in World War II, privately published, 2003
Colin Robert Scott, Sergeant, 455 Squadron RAAF, RAAF Personnel Files of Non-Commissioned Officers and other ranks, 1920–1948, A9301, National Archives of Australia
Roll of Honour, Australian War Memorial, online at https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/honour-rolls/roll-of-honour
Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron RAAF, interview
Pilot Officer Neville Skinner RAAF, letters, private collection
Alan Storr, RAAF fatalities in Second World War among RAAF personnel serving on attachment in Royal Air Force squadrons and support units, online at https://d2uipk7udysvkd.cloudfront.net/images/collection/pdf/RC09125_022--1-.pdf
'Throb of Air Fleet gave Londoners news', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 7 June 1944
'Aus 407022, Sgt, Whitehill M M , to F/L G B Grant, OC, A Squadron, No 3 PRC, Bournemouth, 12 July 1942', Box 15, Folder 9148-8-1, Brighton, Papers of Sir Thomas White, MS9148, National Library of Australia
'The large figures in the Hall of Memory', Encyclopedia, Australian War Memorial, online at https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/visitor-information/features/hall-of-memory/mosaics
The United States strategic bombing survey, September 30 1945, online www.anesi.com/ussbs02.htm#c
James J Willis, My dream to fly fulfilled, from Brigalow to Bomber Command, the memoirs of Flying Office Eric J Willis, privately published, 2005
John Willmot, ex-467 Squadron, description dated 5 November 1945 of fate of aircraft flown by Wing Commander Eric Langlois, 3–4 March 1945, in Reid, Alan Frank, Flying Officer, Casualty, Lancaster PB806, item 166/35/16, A705, National Archives of Australia
Kevin Wilson, Journey's end, Bomber Command's battle from Arnhem to Dresden and beyond, Phoenix, London, 2011
Wellington R1646, Lossimouth, 'The memorial in Braemar', online at www.archieraf.co.uk/scs/1646memorial.html
Laurie Woods, Halfway to hell, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 2010
World War 2 Nominal Roll, online at nominal-rolls.dva.gov.au/ww2
Images of medals supplied by the Australian War Memorial: Distinguished Service Order REL37414.001; Distinguished Conduct Medal REL28351.001; Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Flying) REL/21118.001
All other medal images courtesy of the Army History Unit and Directorate of Honours and Awards, Department of Defence
Images of squadron badges sourced from Cluley, Richard J, Unit Badges of the Royal Australian Air Force, RAAF Association Foundation, 1989
Images of aircraft supplied by the Australian War Memorial: Fairey Battle 014349; Bristol Blenheim 072930; Douglas Boston 128965; Handley Page Halifax 069310; Handley Page Hampden UK0166; Avro Lancaster UK1819; De Havilland Mosquito 015459; Short Stirling 069307; Lockheed Ventura UK0267; Vickers Wellington 069309; Armstrong Whitworth Whitley 304491
Images of flight wings kindly supplied by Mr Ian Jenkins, Canberra
Photographs and artworks
On 12 November 1944 thirty Lancasters of Nos 617 and 9 Squadrons RAF flew from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland across the North Sea to Tromsø Fjord, where they attacked the German battleship Tirpitz. Other operations had been conducted against this ship, but its armour plating was too thick for conventional bombs and any damage had quickly been repaired. Right through the war such heavily armed enemy ships had been considered a potential threat to Allied shipping, and it was always a challenge to Bomber Command to try and disable them. The Tirpitz succumbed to two direct hits and two near misses from Britain’s largest World War II bomb, the Tallboy, developed by Barnes Wallis, the man who also put together the ‘bouncing bomb’ that had destroyed the Möhne and Eder Dams in 1943.
The Tallboy explosions caused the great battleship to capsize, and an estimated 1000 of the 1900 crew were killed or injured.
Flying with the two RAF squadrons was the RAF Film Production Unit aircraft from No. 463 Squadron RAAF, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Bruce Buckham, who was awarded the DSO for his part in the raid. Naturally, the RAF were keen to popularise such a success and Buckham, along with the selected members of other Lancaster crews who took part in the raid, went to London for a press conference. The No. 463 Squadron bomber was the last to pass over the ship as it took its films and the Australian press picked up on Buckham’s rear gunner, Flying Officer Eric Giersch, who supposedly was the first to see the battleship keel over and sink. Buckham told the assembled journalists:
Eric shouted through the intercom that he thought Tirpitz was capsizing. He was most excited and I can’t tell you his exact words but they were pretty hot. We went round again and by the time I was able to see Tirpitz from the pilot’s seat from 5,000 feet [1524 metres] she was listing 70 to 80 degrees with her red hull showing and water glistening on it in the sunlight. [‘Aircrews’ Story of Tirpitz Sinking’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 16 November 1944]
When Stella Bowen accepted a job as an official war artist for the Australian War Memorial in February 1944 the authorities insisted she accept, much against her wishes, an officer’s commission. This was to give her relatively easy access to military establishments and, as she sketched Flight Lieutenant John McCarthy RAAF at RAF Driffield, she wore her army uniform. She found Driffield, situated in the flat, bleak and cold East Riding of Yorkshire, a trying place in winter. Working in a Nissan hut she strove to keep warm with only a small stove while making her sketches for a major work depicting a Halifax bomber crew: ‘I practically sit on the stove and my unfortunate sitter, four feet away [1.2 metres], freezes’.
Earlier in the year she had been forced to complete another major work, Bomber crew, 1944, from photographs of the men, but this time she could paint as she preferred, ‘all direct from life’. The painting she produced of this all-Australian crew showed not only their faces but also their hands, carrying out the tasks allocated to them in a heavy bomber. This was a crew that had survived their operational ‘tour’ and one of them, Flying Officer Colin Challis, suspected that it was their very survival that had led to this honour:
Possibly the reason for our selection was that we were a very experienced crew, having all completed one full tour of 30 operations and we were more than half way through our second tour of 20 operations when the portrait was painted. [Bowen, quoted in Fiona Clarke, ‘Stella’s War’, in Stella Bowen: art, love and war, AWM, Canberra, 2002, p. 55; Challis, quoted in Richard Reid, RAAF: artworks from the collection of the Australian War Memorial, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, 2002, p. 56]
The Operations Record Book of No. 460 Squadron records that on the morning of 27 January 1944, JB637 had ‘failed to return’ and that no news had been received from either the aircraft or the crew. At RAF Binbrook a ‘Committee of Adjustment’ would have quickly gathered up the belongings of these airmen and they would have been sent to RAAF Overseas Headquarters in London to be stored pending further developments. By the end of November 1944, nothing having been heard of any of the crew, it was assumed for official purposes that they were dead. Worley’s possessions were sent back to his parents in Australia, including his flying log, a document which was not taken on operations because of its intelligence value to the enemy if captured. Someone at RAF Binbrook filled in the final log entry for Flight Sergeant John Worley as ‘Berlin – failed to return’ and tallied up his total operational hours – 121 hours and five minutes. John was killed on his 19th ‘op’, aged 20. His mother eventually donated his log book, along with some other personal items, including his medals, to the Australian War Memorial.
- 1Alf King, 'Huge bombers inspected', Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August 1942
- 2Alf King, 'Terrible picture of devastation', Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 1943
- 3Personal details on RAAF career of Bill Forbes from 'Forbes, William Alexander, DSO, DFC, Wing Commander, Nos 467 and 463 Squadron RAAF', RAAF Officers Personal Files, 1921–1948, A9300, National Archives of Australia
- 4William George Pearce, The wing is clipped, a real life adventure with the RAAF, Slipstream Archives, Margate, 2000, introduction.
- 5Don Charlwood, Journeys into night, Burgewood Books, Warrandyte, 2005, p. 27
- 6John McCarthy, A last call of empire, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1988, p. 60
- 7Martin, quoted by McCarthy, A last call of empire, p. 53
- 8Hank Nelson, Chased by the sun, ABC Books, Sydney, 2002, p. 29
- 9Charlwood, Journeys into night, p. 9
- 10Dan Conway, The trenches in the sky, Hesperian Press, Victoria Park, 1995, p. 61
- 11John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy, 1939–1943, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1954, p. 128
- 12Whiting, quoted by Martin Middlebrook, The battle of Hamburg, the firestorm raid, Penguin Books, London, 1988, p. 36
- 13'Australians in Sylt raid', The Advertiser, Adelaide, 22 March 1940
- 14Flight Lieutenant William Baird RAAF, 458 Squadron at RAF Holme-on-Spalding, to Wing Commander Thomas White, Box 16, Folder 9148-8-9, Brighton, Papers of Sir Thomas White, MS9148, National Library of Australia
- 15Thomas W White, 'An RAAF bomber station in Britain, A Letter from Wing Commander T W White DFC VD MP', Box 15, Folder 9148-8-2, Brighton, Sir Thomas White papers, MS9148, National Library of Australia
- 16White, 'An RAAF bomber station in Britain'
- 17White, 'An RAAF bomber station in Britain'
- 18Area bombing directive, 14 February 1942, quoted by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The bomber command war diaries, an operational reference book, 1939–1945, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1985, p.
- 19Portal, quoted by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The bomber command war diaries, p. 240
- 20Charlwood, Journeys into night, p. 188
- 21Dixon quoted by Mark Rowe, The luckiest men alive, Australians in Bomber Command in Britain in World War II, privately published, 2003, p. 36
- 22Harris quoted by Peter Firkins, Strike and return: the story of the exploits of 460 Squadron RAAF, Westward Ho, Perth, 1985, p. 23
- 23'Bomber's close call at night', The Mail, Adelaide, 20 June 1942
- 24Harris in 'Gigantic 1000 bomber raid', original 1942 film on 'You Tube' at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfe0vEkz3lI
- 25'Bombers flew low at Eindhoven', The Argus, Melbourne, 9 December 1942
- 26Operations Record Book, No. 464 Squadron RAAF, 6 December 1942, A9186, National Archives of Australia
- 27'RAF's Bomber Command famous Eindhoven raid', original 1942 film on 'You Tube' at www.youtube.com/watch?v=SD4Yxbw79wM
- 28'Australian Aces Chosen for Raid', The Daily News, Perth, 19 May 1943
- 29Directive, Combined Chiefs of Staff, 27 January 1943, quoted in John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy 1939–1943, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1954, p. 475
- 30Harris, quoted by Henry Probert, Bomber Harris, his life and times, Greenhill Books, London, 2006, p. 202
- 31Pearce, quoted by Nelson, Chased by the sun, p. 196
- 32Charlwood, Journeys into night, p. 154
- 33Charlwood, Journeys into night, p. 203
- 34Lamb, quoted by Middlebrook, Battle of Hamburg, p. 244
- 35Forbes in 467 Squadron RAAF, Operations Record Book, 152, A9186, National Archives of Australia, 2 August 1943, Lanc III ED 539
- 36Thomas W White, 'An RAAF squadron on a bomber raid to the Ruhr', Box 17, typescript, Sir Thomas White papers, MS9148, National Library of Australia
- 37Operations Record Book, No. 467 Squadron RAAF, Diary, 11 July 1943
- 38Pearce, Wing is clipped, p. 51
- 39Firkins, Strike and return, p. 178
- 40Forrester, quoted by Rowe, The luckiest men alive, p. 85
- 41Harris, quoted by Martin Middlebrook, The Berlin raids, RAF Bomber Command winter 1943–44, Cassell Military Paperbacks, London, 2002, p. 2
- 42Stuart, quoted by Middlebrook, The Berlin raids, p. 34
- 43Bryett, quoted by Middlebrook, The Berlin raids, p. 59
- 44Forbes in Operations Record Book, No. 467 Squadron RAAF, 17–18 August 1943
- 45Citation in Forbes, RAAF Officers Personal Files, National Archives of Australia
- 46King, 'Terrible picture of devastation'
- 47No. 467 Squadron RAAF, Operations Record Book, 4 December 1943
- 48Harris quoted by Peter Burness, 'Lancaster G for George', Air War Europe Conference, 2003, Australian War Memorial, online at oldsite.awm.gov.au/events/conference/2003/burness/
- 49Miller, quoted by Martin Middlebrook, The Peenemünde raid, Penguin Books, London, 1982, p. 174
- 50Conway, Trenches in the sky, pp. 97–99
- 51Schoenert, quoted by Martin Middlebrook, The Nuremberg raid, 3–31 March 1944, Penguin Books, London, 1980, p. 234
- 52Holland, quoted by Middlebrook, Nuremberg raid, p. 251
- 53Conway, Trenches in the sky, pp. 238–239
- 54John Thorp, 'Longest day', at www.467463raafsquadrons.com/TrueTales/LongestDay.htm
- 55Ron Eeles, 'My recollections of a night bombing raid on Mailly-le-Camp', online at www.49squadron.co.uk/assets/pdf/ron_eeles.pdf
- 56Interview, Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron RAAF, Australians at War Film Archive.
- 57Letter, Rachel de Boisgelin, 25 April 1945, in 'Gay, Clifford Samuel, Flight Sergeant RAAF, 101 Squadron' RAF, Casualty, Lancaster ND411, Beauchery, France, 4 May 1944, 166/15/234, A705, National Archives of Australia
- 58Letter, Simone Rustang to Miss Moore, 13 April 1945, in 'Gay, Clifford Samuel, Flight Sergeant RAAF, 101 Squadron'
- 59Interview, Rodney Allcot, 460 Squadron RAAF, Australians at War Film Archive.
- 60'Dresden, German art centre' photograph and caption, Townsville Daily Bulletin, 13 February 1945
- 61Skelton quoted in 463 Squadron RAAF, Operations Record Book, 13–14 February 1945, Lanc 1PO329
- 62Warrant Officer Owen Bean RAAF, 'Statement by repatriated or released prisoner of war', account of fate of aircraft flown by Wing Commander Keith Douglas, 467 Squadron, 8 February 1945, in Douglas, John Keith, Wing Commander, Casualty, Lancaster NG455, item 166/10/401, A705, National Archives of Australia
- 63Grime quoted in '463 Squadron RAAF World War 2 fatalities', crash of Lancaster PB804, Wing Commander William Forbes, 21 February 1945, online at https://d2uipk7udysvkd.cloudfront.net/images/collection/pdf/RC09125_013--1-.pdf
- 64Interview, Clarence 'Clarrie' Gardner, 460 Squadron.
- 65Mark Lax and Leon Kane-Maguire, To see the dawn again: a history of 462 Squadron RAAF, 1942–2008, Wanniassa, 2008, p. 345
- 66Lax and Kane-Maguire, To see the dawn again: a history of 462 Squadron RAAF, 1942–2008, p. 346
- 67Eric Willis quoted by James J Willis, My dream to fly fulfilled, from Brigalow to Bomber Command, the memoirs of Flying Office Eric J Willis, privately published, 2005, p. 475
- 68Letter from Pilot Officer Neville Skinner to Beryl Easton, 19 August 1945, private collection
- 70Ashbridge, quoted by Kevin Wilson, Journey's end, Bomber Command's battle from Arnhem to Dresden and beyond, Phoenix, London, 2011, p. 396
- 71Turnham, quoted by Wilson, Journey's end, pp. 396–397
- 72Copy of letter, Marion Douglas to Wing Commander Rollo Kingsford Smith, 3 May 1946, in Douglas, John Keith, Wing Commander, Casualty, Lancaster NG455, item 166/10/401, A705, National Archives of Australia
- 73Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber offensive, Collins, London, 1947, p. 242
- 74`Letter, quoted by Stuart Bill, Middleton VC, privately published, East Bentleigh, 1991, p.160
- 75Buckham, quoted by Laurie Woods, Halfway to hell, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 2010, p. 48
This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the Commonwealth. Requests and enquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to the publications section of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs: