Air war Europe 1939-1945

...your whole time in operations you lived day by day.
You don't think of tomorrow.
There ain't no tomorrow...

[Walter Mailey,DFM, 3 Squadron RAAF]

Recruiting poster for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) air crew. A pilot is depicted wearing flying suit, helmet, goggles and parachute, climbing into the cockpit of a 1940s-era aircraft. He smiles and gives the thumbs-up; excited by the sense of adventure. Another aircraft is depicted flying overhead. Poster text reads: Coming? - then hurry? Air crews wanted now for the R.A.A.F. Apply R.A.A.F recruiting centres in capital cities, and voluntary selection committee in country centres.

Coming? – then hurry! Recruiting poster for RAAF aircrew, photolithograph, c1940. AWM ARTV04297

When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircrews were among the first Australians to head overseas to Britain's aid. Between 1939 and 1945, they flew in both Australian and British squadrons with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Coastal, Bomber and Fighter Commands.

The first RAAF aircrew in Britain was a RAAF party who were already there to take delivery of new Sunderland flying boats. They remained there when war broke out, becoming No 10 Squadron RAAF, the only Australians attached to the RAF. However, by the end of 1940, the first Australians trained under a new Empire training scheme started to arrive in Britain.

Australia, with the other British Dominions had adopted the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) to provide trained aircrews to fight with the RAF. Australian recruits received elementary training at air bases around Australia and many of them were then sent overseas for advanced training. Before the scheme ended in mid-1944, more than 10,000 Australians had received advanced training in Canada and 674 had been sent to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before joining the RAF in Britain. So that the RAAF identity would not be lost in the EATS, provision was made under the agreement for the formation of complete Dominion Squadrons within the plan. Squadrons which were predominantly Australian aircrew were designated as RAAF squadrons and 17 of these were eventually formed: 12 in Britain and 5 in the Middle East. Many Australians also served in RAF squadrons as did British and other Dominion personnel in RAAF squadrons.

The 27,899 aircrew, who had qualified under the Empire Air Training Scheme, supplied approximately 9 per cent of all aircrew who fought for the RAF in the Mediterranean and European theatres in the air war against Italy and Germany. They flew in operations over German and Italian cities; they sank enemy ships and submarines; shot down many enemy aircraft; and RAAF bombers dropped many tons of bombs.

Australians served mainly as aircrew - pilots, engineers, navigators, wireless operators, observers and air gunners. Some also went as ground crew and carried out the maintenance and administrative tasks on the ground necessary to keep aircraft flying. By the war's end, Australian airmen had flown Gladiator biplane fighters in Libya; Hampden torpedo-bombers from north Russia; Baltimore bombers over the islands of the Aegean, Dakota transports over Poland, Sunderland flying boats far out over the Atlantic, Spitfires over France, Tomahawk fighters over Syria, Lancaster bombers over Germany, Stirling bombers over Italy, Beaufighters in the fjords of Norway, Mustang fighter-bombers over Italy – the list goes on and on.

Between 1940 and 1943, Australian airmen participated in the air war against the Germans and Italians in North Africa and the Middle East, in the defence of Malta in 1942, in the Allied drive through Sicily and Italy between 1943 and 1945, and in the skies over the UK, Europe and Britain's sea lanes from 1939 until 1945.

The most costly missions were with RAF Bomber Command and Australian aircrews flew in virtually every major operation. Although their numbers amounted to less than 2 per cent of Australia's World War II enlistments, the 3486 men who were killed in Bomber Command accounted for almost 20 per cent of all Australian combat deaths. The squadron with the greatest losses - 1019 men - was 460 Squadron RAAF, which operated Vickers Wellington and then Avro Lancaster bombers from England.

In late 1943 and early 1944, during the peak of the bomber offensive against Germany, the bomber crews suffered a loss rate of nearly five per cent on each operation (bombing raid or 'op' for short): there was little chance of surviving an operational tour of 30 'ops'. Approximately 1,500 RAAF aircrew parachuted from their aircraft over enemy territory and spent the remainder of the war in prison camps.

...In the face of overwhelming odds...

His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force.

[From Victoria Cross citation, Flight Sergeant Rawdon Hume Middleton]

Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton, 149 Squadron RAF, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his courage. During a raid on Turin, Italy, on the night of 28-29 November 1942 a shell burst in the cockpit of his Stirling bomber. Although he was badly wounded, Middleton managed to fly the damaged aircraft back to England so his crew could bail out. He then flew out to sea and crashed the bomber to avoid hitting any houses. His body was washed up near Dover two months later. He was buried in the churchyard of St John's, Beck Row, Mildenhall, Suffolk with full military honours. His Victoria Cross is in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

'The angry sky'

'The angry sky' has been borrowed from a poem engraved on a window of the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, Surrey in England. It was written by a student, Paul H Scott, soon after the completion of the memorial. The memorial, which was opened in October 1953, commemorates airmen from all parts of the British Commonwealth and Empire as well as some from occupied Europe who were lost during Royal Air Force operations from Britain and north-west Europe in World War II and who have no known graves. The airmen served in Bomber, Fighter, Coastal, Transport, Flying Training and Maintenance Commands. Of the 20,401 names, 1,396 are Australian.

The first rays of the dawning sun
Shall touch its pillars,
And as the day advances
And the light grows stronger,
You shall read the names
Engraved on the stone
Of those who sailed on the angry sky
And saw harbour no more.
No gravestone in yew-dark churchyard
Shall mark the resting place;
Their bones lie in the forgotten corners
Of earth and sea

But, that we may not lose their memory
With fading years, their monument stand here,
Here, at the heart of England, half-way between
Royal Windsor and Lordly London; looking down,
Here, where the trees troops down to Runnymede
Meadow of Magna Carta, field of freedom,
Never saw you so fitting a memorial,
Proof that the principles established here
Are still dear to the hearts of men.
Here now they stand, constrasted and alike,
The field of freedom's birth, and the memorial
To freedom's winning.

And, as the evening comes,
And mists, like quiet ghosts, rise from the river bed,
And climb the hill to wander through the cloisters,
We shall not forget them.
Above the mist
We shall see the memorial still, and over it
The crown and single star.
And we shall pray,
As the mists rise up and the air grows dark,
That we may wear
A brave a heart as they.


Last updated: 12 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Air war Europe 1939-1945, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 4 December 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/events/air-war-europe-1939-1945
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