A different war: Australians in Bomber Command

Hank Nelson

Writing to his family in Cootamundra in 1941, Flight Sergeant George Hawes, then at a Bomber Command Operational Training Unit, tried to express his admiration for the aeroplane that he was flying. “I would like to give old Coota a thrill and bring one of these ‘Wimpies’ down the main street about a hundred feet up – and give them a look at a real aeroplane …”. When he was posted to 207 Squadron and shifted from Wellingtons to Manchesters, he wrote: “Heck, they are a size! I thought the others were big, but ‘boy you should these babies’ (as my observer would say).” In 1942, 207 Squadron was re-equipped with Lancasters. Twice Hawes called them “wizard kites”, and he underlined a sentence: “If anybody had told me two years ago that I would be flying the fastest four engine bombers in the world in 1942 I would have said they were mad.[1]

Hawse’s was right to be both surprised and proud at what he was doing, and his struggle to describe his aircraft to the “gang” at Cootamundra was understandable. In 1939, among its Ansons and Wirraways the RAAF had nothing like the four-engine Lancasters and Halifaxes that were to fly most operations in Bomber Command. The closest were the two Short Empire Flying Boats, requisitioned from Qantas, and few Australians had seen them. The first Hudsons, able to carry one-tenth of the bomb load of the Lancasters, did not arrive until mid 1940, and the first Catalinas did not make their pioneering Pacific Ocean crossings until early in 1941. At Cootamundra itself, the most modern aircraft at the rapidly developed Empire Air Training Scheme airfield was normally the twin-engine Avro Anson.[2] Australians did not see a Lancaster until mid 1943 – nearly four years into the war – when Peter Isaacson landed “Q for Queenie” at Amberley.[3] By then, the Lancaster was not so much a chance to see the aircraft that George was flying in the air war in Europe for the Hawes family, but a reminder of his death. George Hawes and his crew had disappeared on their 24th operation, presumed lost over the North Sea.[4]

The aircraft that determined much of what aircrew could be asked to do, and what they did do, were new: even the two-engine Wellingtons had been first delivered to the squadrons on the very eve of war. The basic tactic, night bombers flying in a long stream, was developed during the war; and became the standard seven-man crew of one pilot, a flight engineer, a bomb aimer, a navigator, two air gunners and a radio operator was not established until 1942. When most Australians were joining Bomber Command from early 1942, the very aircraft they were flying, the skills demanded of the crews, the tactics, and the tasks were all new, and they were not to recur in any other theatre and in any other war.[5] Those Australians in Bomber Command fought a different war, but there were additional factors that helped make flying in Bomber Command a unique combat experience.

Australians volunteered in thousands to train as aircrew. Waiting lists were long. Jim Bowen, later a pilot in 463 Squadron and then in 83 Squadron, a Pathfinder squadron, said he waited seven or eight months after he was accepted for aircrew before going to Initial Training School at Victor Harbour on ANZAC Day 1942.[6] Air men enlisted for the same reasons that men joined the other services: duty, the chance to travel, the lure of adventure – and escape. But there were additional reasons they wanted to get into aircrew: they had too many fathers and uncles telling them to keep out of the trenches. Air men, the old diggers said, had warm meals, hot beds, less mud, no bayonets, airfields beyond the range of artillery, and – if they survived – rank and a skill to take into civilian life.

The aspiring air men of 1939 had grown up on the First World War stories of aces dog fighting in their wire and fabric aircraft above the Western Front. The pioneer aviators, Ross and Keith Smith, Bert Hinkler, and Kingsford Smith and the travelling barnstormers kept the spirit of adventure alive through the 1920s and 1930s. From 1934 regular international flights linked Australia to the rest of the world, and new internal air routes were being opened. Air travel was, as the advertisements made clear, the way of the future. And aspiring aircrew had grown up on the exploits of the fictitious heroes: Captain James Bigglesworth, ex-Royal Flying Corps, had flown his Sopwith Camel through the first Biggles volume in 1932 and there were another 13 brisk, ennobling, and empire-confirming Biggles volumes before 1939.

In the early months of the Second World War, when defeat followed defeat and the invasion of Britain seemed likely, it was the pilots in their Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain that gave respite and then hope. Where so much else seemed second-rate, the pilots were skilful, efficiently deployed, and equipped with the world’s best aircraft. One year into the war, Churchill’s much quoted statement confirmed the status of air men: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.[7]

There is, then, no trouble explaining why men wanted to train to become members of aircrew. But we do have difficulty understanding why they continued to apply for aircrew after 1942 and 1943. Firstly, they knew their chances of becoming a pilot were slight. Especially after the heavy bombers employed just one pilot, those selected for aircrew training were more likely to be trained as wireless operators and air gunners than as pilots.[8] Secondly, after December 1941 aircrew knew they were likely to be sent to the war in Europe when the immediate danger to Australia was in New Guinea, and there the army was carrying the main burden. And thirdly, the high death rates of aircrew were known from anecdote and the casualty lists in the newspapers. Neither the fact that they were increasing their chances of dying nor that they were unlikely to be selected to train as pilots deterred applicants. The fact that many aircrew continued to be sent to the war in Europe when the 6th, 7th, and 9th Divisions were being brought home raises a more complex reaction. Immediately after the Japanese attack, aircrew training in Canada protested about being sent to Europe, and George Hawes already in England said the Australians trying to get home “were kicking up an awful stink”.[9] But the overt protests passed and many trainees made it clear that they still wanted to fly in Europe. Syd Johnson, a Western Australian navigator waiting for embarkation orders in Melbourne in 1943, said there was a “roar of approval” from those told they were on their way to England. Part of the explanation for their preference is that they wanted to travel to the other side of the world, fly the most advanced aircraft, operate from established airfields near cities, and fight where the air war was most significant. But it is also true that while the Australians who grew up in the 1930s were consciously, even aggressively, Australian, they were British in a way difficult to understand by Australians born two and three generations later.

The pre-war training programs for air cadets and those “Gentlemen of the dominions” selected for short service commissions could not meet the demands of a world war.[10] The Empire Air Training Scheme, outlined within weeks of the start of the war and accepted before the end of 1939, provided the basis for the mass training of aircrew.[11] The white dominions – Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – would provide their sons and train them, and Britain would supply the airfields and aircraft and send them to war. As the scheme got under way in 1940, new courses were called up each month to enter Initial Training Schools. By May 1942, just over 9,500 Australians were under instruction in the scheme.[12]

The officers who issued the questionnaires and conducted the interviews and tests wanted men that could make decisions quickly, had sharp reflexes, were ready to lead, and had a good education and “all-round interests, with a mechanical bent”.[13] They needed men able to learn quickly to fly the most advanced aircraft in the most extreme and demanding circumstances. They had to learn to navigate, shoot accurately with the shooter and the target moving rapidly in three dimensions, operate radio and radar equipment, and send and receive Morse code. As the pilot was captain of his ship, and in the air each aircraft was effectively alone, a pilot had to be able to lead. The selecting officers looked for those “inspiring liking and respect in their fellows”. From the start, recruits knew that their written tests were going to difficult. The Manual for air crew reservists of 1940 told them that:

The ratio of the thrust to the torque of a coarse pitch airscrew is very much lower than that of an airscrew of fine pitch, and therefore for a given torque, provided by the engine during take-off, a considerable gain in thrust can be obtained by reducing the airscrew pitch.[14]

Many men waiting to be called up went to night school or took advantage of those teachers who volunteered to give them special classes.

Given the demand for places in aircrew training, the selecting officers could afford to be selective. Those chosen were likely to have been sportsmen, preferably having been captain of a team, were educated above the average, had an air of confidence, spoke fluently and indicated some interest in flying – or at least in motor cars or motor bicycles.[15] Over 90 per cent of aircrew in 1940 had over four years of secondary schooling, when at that time such a qualification was less common than a degree is today. In 1939, those with the education were likely to be university students, school teachers, journalists, public servants, and junior office workers in banks and large insurance and trading firms. In the foyer of Canberra High are the names of 43 ex-students who died in the Second World War. Just over half died in the Air Force, a much smaller fighting force than the Army. Robert Kennard is listed twice: he was school captain in 1940 and was killed over German in 1945. Three times as many Commonwealth Bank officers died in the RAAF as died in the AIF.

The men who entered Initial Training Schools as Aircraftsman Second Class were young. Where the age of men joining an infantry battalion early in the war might average 27 and later could be 25, aircrew were around 24 when they died, and even younger late in the war.[16] That is, they were at least three years younger than the men in an infantry battalion. The Air Force believed that its preference for youth was justified: in the training schools the youngest did better even than those aged 23, and much better than those aged 27. And given that aircrew graduated as sergeants and pilot officers, they were very young by rank.

Under the Empire Air Training Scheme, aircrew went through a sequence of schools that varied between 50 weeks for pilots to 36 weeks for Wireless Operators/Air Gunners. At each school men faced the threat – often made explicit on early parades – of being “scrubbed”. Even on more advanced schools, wastage rates could be high. At 5 Service Flying Training School (5SFTS) at Uranquinty, where pilots were transferring skills learnt on Tiger Moths to the Wirraway, the “scrub rate” was sometimes over 40 per cent.[17] The scrubbed pilots and navigators could re-muster, but to fail as a gunner meant the end of the chance of service in aircrew.[18] After graduating at their wings parade, aircrew still faced failure at Operational Training Unit, conversion to four-engine bombers, and specialist courses such as landing in fog. Given the demands of the numerous courses, Second World War aircrew were the most highly trained large group of servicemen that Australia has sent overseas.[19]

As they went to successive courses within Australia, many aircrew travelled the continent. Often on slow trains, Gus Belford went to Initial Training School near Perth before being sent east to Parafield near Adelaide, and then to Deniliquin in New South Wales. Some 10,000 Australians did part of their training in Canada and 674 went to Rhodesia before going to the war in the Middle East or Europe. A few who went directly to England were shipped around the Cape of Good Hope, but most crossed the Pacific, took trains across America and then waited on the east coast for an Atlantic convoy. By the time the men entered reception centres at Bournemouth or Brighton on the south coast of England, the courses, the meetings with other trainees, and the travel had transformed the suburban bank clerk or law student who had entered Initial Training School. The courses with their frequent tests and scrub rates had confirmed that to be in aircrew was to be admitted to an elite. They were the “Brylcreem Boys”, the “Blue Orchids”.[20] And more than most trainees they had been close to death. At Deniliquin there are 29 headstones for trainees and instructors, one for each month 7 Service Flying Training School operated on the edge of the town.[21] At 5SFTS Uranquinty, 42 airmen died, just over one a month.[22] Men rarely went through their training without a course member dying.[23] After the Australians arrived in England, 834 died in training units – equal to the losses in a major land battle.[24] The deaths were the result of the pressure to train men quickly; the less than perfect machines they flew; the need to push the limits of weather, technical, and human capacities; and youthful bravado.

Once the recruit had been selected for aircrew training, many decisions were out of his control. The movement through schools was determined by performance, the many selection boards, and the demands of the various musterings. Trainees were asked to express a preference, and most (perhaps 90 per cent) wanted to be pilots; of those, the majority wanted to be fighter pilots flying Spitfires, but trainees soon learnt that personal choice had little influence on where they went and what they did. They were allocated to commands and theatres largely according to demand. And the range of possibilities was great. They could end up flying across the top of rain forest supporting ground forces in the Sepik, in slow-flying Catalinas mining seaways in the Netherlands East Indies, in the desperate defence of Malta, crouched in tents waiting for Saharan dust storms to subside, challenging the monsoonal fronts to reach targets in Burma, flying fighters off short Marsden matting strips in New Guinea, or ferrying aircraft in transport command. But nearly two-thirds of the men were sent to England, and there again they were dispersed into commands. By 1944 Bomber Command had on average over one thousand operational aircraft, each crew required seven air men, and Bomber Command had lost over one thousand aircraft in the four months from the start of December 1943 to the end of March 1944. There was no doubt where many of the men would go.[25] Bomber Command was the great common experience of Australian aircrew in the Second World War.

Within Bomber Command, the dispersal of men into Operational Training Units and squadrons continued. Given that posting to a squadron equipped with Stirlings rather than with Lancasters increased the chances of dying by 50 per cent, all were critical decisions.[26] But in this frequent, controlled shifting and regrouping of men, there was one critical decision left to air men themselves: they sorted themselves into crews. Soon after arriving at an Operational Training Unit (27 OTU Lichfield for many Australians), appropriate numbers of each mustering were directed to a hangar or a lecture room and told to sort themselves into crews. As they were flying Wellingtons at OTUs, six men were looking for each other. The seventh, the flight engineer, was added later when the crews converted to Lancasters and Halifaxes. Some men, knowing that they had to form crews, had already linked up in twos and threes – perhaps a pilot and navigator, or two gunners who had trained together. Australians looked for Australians, but as Australians were scattered through OTUs it was often impossible for six Australians of the right skills to come together. Aircrew could ask to see each other’s log books to check on length of training and any noted achievements and failures; but most did not. Many crews formed by casual, first impressions and quick judgments. Fresh-faced, fair-haired 21-year-old Ivan Pellas was approached by a navigator and his gunner mate. They asked Ivan if he was married. They explained that they were looking for a married man for their pilot as they thought he would have a greater incentive to get home. Ivan said he was single. The men said he would do anyway. Ivan said that some instinct told them it was the right decision. And it was: they formed the basis of a Halifax crew that completed 37 operations.

The crew was mutually dependent. Given the confined space, the intensity of the experience, and the length of the long flights, personal compatibility was almost as important as skill. At any given time in a flight, any one of the crew could be responsible for the success of the operation and the lives of the others. For most of an operation the crew was alone: they took all decisions, and they alone knew just how each other performed under stress. It is difficult to think of any other small group of servicemen so frequently asked to operate alone and with such power to kill and so liable to be killed.

Crews arriving at their first operating squadron were confronted by the “tour”. To complete a tour was to pass the personal and professional tests faced by those sent to war in the air, and it was to live. How a tour was measured varied from time to time, but generally it meant completing thirty operations. Operations could include scattering leaflets over occupied and enemy territory (aircrew called it “bumphleteering”); dropping mines (code-named “gardening”) in enemy ports and shipping lanes from the Baltic to the Channel and further south; attacking submarine bases and V2 rocket sites; supporting the Allied land forces after D-Day, disrupting transport, fuel production and other sections of the economy critical to the war effort; and attacking special targets, most notably in the dam buster raid. But most of all they flew at night to bomb German cities: the close industrial cities in the Ruhr (Happy Valley), Essen, Duisburg, Dusseldorf, Dortmund; Hamburg and ports in the north right across to Konigsberg; Berlin (the “Big City”); Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Nuremberg and every major city to the Czech and Polish border.

With most Australians arriving from 1942, they were there for the battles of the Ruhr, Hamburg and Berlin, the invasion of Normandy, and the final assault on Germany. Nearly all Australians completing a tour flew a variety of operations, and most included attacks on German cities. Dan Conway, arriving at 460 Squadron at the end of 1943, flew 14 successive raids into Germany, six times to Berlin, twice to Stuttgart, and single trips to Brunswick, Frankfurt, Madgeburg, Leipzig, Schweinfurt, and Augsburg.[27]

The demands placed on the individual, the chances of staying alive, and whether battles were won or loss were largely determined by the loss rate. The average loss on a raid in Bomber Command during the war was close to 3 per cent.[28] In 1943 and early 1944, if a raid was on a highly defended target in the Ruhr, or on Berlin, the loss rate was more like 5 or 6 per cent. It was lower on closer targets in occupied Europe and as the German air force became a diminishing threat from late 1944. On major raids it was never higher than the 13.5 per cent lost on the Nuremberg raid of March 1944.[29] The loss rate, varying on large raids from less than 1 per cent to rarely over 10 per cent, was surprisingly consistent.[30]

Air crew knew – or could know – what the losses were. They were quickly broadcast on the BBC and printed in newspapers. The only losses omitted were those unknown to the enemy – those “operational crashes” that took place in or close to England. In any case, the losses on an operating station were only too obvious to other crews as they waited in hope for friends late to land, and then saw the quick work of the Committee of Adjustment removing the possessions of those “missing as a result of air operations” so the rooms could be occupied quickly by a new crew.[31] Before setting off on a raid experienced crew could make a quick assessment of the key factors – length of the flight, strength of the defences, the weather, the moon, and what had happened on previous raids to that target – and make a fairly accurate guess about how many were “for the chop”. So here was a strange situation where men going into battle could make a fairly accurate assessment of the likely losses.[32]

For the men who did think about the odds they faced, a 3 per cent chance of dying on any one raid might seem reasonable. But they had to do this 30 times, and any air man could do the simple calculation that 30 times 3 per cent was 90 per cent. A 90 per cent chance of being among the missing was near enough to a certainty. If the tour was in the tough times of the Battle of Berlin, then the average loss on a raid was more like 4 per cent, and 30 times 4 per cent was 120 per cent. That was no chance. In fact, that simple multiplication does not give the odds of survival. A 3 per cent chance repeated 30 times gives a 40 per cent of completing a tour, still less than half but a lot better than 90 per cent. If the average loss rate was 5 per cent, then 21.5 per cent would complete a tour. Crews asked to fly a tour faced the probability of death, and all could know this.

The loss rate can be looked at another way. If a squadron was able to put into the air an average of twenty bombers on operating nights, and that was often the case with 460 Squadron, then over five operating nights it had to expect to lose three aircraft. In just three months (December 1943, and January and February 1944) 460 Squadron lost twenty aircraft, equal to its average fighting force. In the entire war 460 Squadron lost 1,083 aircrew. No Australian army battalion in the Second World War had anything like those battle losses, and the fighting force of a battalion is four or five times that of a bomber squadron.

The pressure on aircrew came from a combination of factors. Flying in an unpressurised, inadequately heated aircraft on an eight-hour operation through winter skies, constantly on guard against enemy action, collision, and mechanical failure placed high demands on endurance and skills. Aircrew in their diaries wrote of being physically and mentally tired. At the mid-point of such a flight, to take an aircraft into a target area defended by hundreds and hundreds of anti-aircraft guns and unseen night fighters was an extreme test of courage. With its search lights, marker and fighter flares, exploding aircraft and flak patterns, a target was a several-mile cauldron of spectacular colour and death. No wonder so many aircrew tried to describe it: an aerial battle above a city under attack was fascinating and terrifying and they saw it when their own senses were at their most heightened. The standard evasive techniques of aircraft caught in searchlights or under attack from night fighters demanded flying to the limits of the aircraft and the skill of the crew, and sustaining that effort through several minutes. Where an army unit committed to a main battle might find itself in reserve or on the flank of the main action, all bomber crews on all main raids were directed to a precise point in the centre of danger. As a result of repeated high risks, most crews completing a tour had been themselves caught in search lights, hit by flak, survived flights in storms and fog, attacked by fighters, forced to use all their ingenuity to keep a mechanically faulty aircraft in the air, and watched as other aircraft were destroyed. It was also inevitable that they had chance escapes where others suffered the death that so easily could have been their own: the wireless operator and the mid-upper gunner swapped places and the gunner was killed by a burst from a night fighter, or sinus trouble grounded a navigator on the night when the rest of the crew and their spare navigator died.

During a tour, aircrew suffered from the accumulated experiences of danger and fortuitous escapes and knowledge of that dreadful equation: the more operations, the greater the chance of death. Intense training, attention to detail, constant vigilance, and protective action might shift the odds slightly, but most crews flying in the night sky knew that collisions, or the sudden burst of radar-controlled flak or Schrage Musik from a night fighter were largely beyond their control. Aircrew worked in a system where any failure of skill or vigilance would lead to their deaths, but no amount of skill or vigilance would necessarily save them. And death was more chance than skill – perhaps 80 per cent chance. The odds of surviving a full tour were not only known, negative, and inescapable, they were also largely beyond human control.

One influence on the chances of aircrew surviving at any one time was the balance in technology. The change in aircraft from Battles, Blenheims, Hampdens, Wellingtons, and Whitleys at the start of the war to Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Mosquitoes at the end was only part of the transformation in equipment that took place. The battle of the boffins was constant with the introduction of the radio pulse and radar navigational aids, Gee, Oboe, H2S, and G-H; the use of “Window”; improved bomb sights and target indicators; bigger and more efficient bombs; and the development of long-range fighters able to escort the bombers.[33] Nearly all technical innovations went through several modifications, so that Oboe was replaced by Oboe Mark II and then Mark III. From the “Pink Pansy” target indicator first used in 1943, “forty or so versions” were used.[34] Each technical advance brought changes in tactics and counter measures from the enemy, and Bomber Command itself modified tactics and equipment in response to changes introduced by the Luftwaffe. But for the crews, until the last months of the war no changes gave one side an overwhelming advantage, and marginal advantages were brief. “Window” protected the bombers in the destruction of Hamburg at the end of July 1943, but in the important raids on Peenemunde on 17 August and Berlin on 23 August, losses were around 7 per cent.

In the ground war, Germany and Japan were dominant early in the war, but from El Alamein, Milne Bay, Guadalcanal, Kokoda, and Stalingrad in late 1942, the Allies were advancing. By contrast, the air war over Europe was fiercely and closely contested through the three main years of battles – 1942, 1943, and 1944. In the fine balance between offence and defence, clear victories such as Hamburg for the bombers and Nuremberg for the night fighters required special factors, such as a coincidence of tactics, equipment, and weather. The fine edge between defeat and victory is illustrated by Bomber Command’s own estimate of the highest percentage of losses that could be tolerated over a three-month period. The conclusion was that a 7 per cent loss would render the force “ineffective”. It was not that replacement crews or aircraft could not be found, but the loss of experienced crews, the relative ineffectiveness of new crews, and the lowering of morale that were critical. A 7 per cent loss rate had been reached three times: among Halifax crews in 4 Group between March and August 1942, in Stirling crews in 3 Group from August to November 1943 and in Halifax IIs and Vs in 4 Group from November 1943 to February 1944. In all these cases, the relevant squadrons were suspended from operations. Even a 5 per cent loss, Bomber Command decided, would lead to “unacceptable efficiency” if sustained over three months.[35] On main raids against major cities, a 5 per cent loss was frequent, and it was the average loss in the assaults on Berlin in late 1943 and early 1944. The long period when Bomber Command was so often within 1 per cent of either success or failure meant that commanders were likely to ask for more resources, make frequent demands for maximum effort, and work crews hard.

Where F Force had seven months relentless work on the Railway and the 39th Battalion was on the Kokoda Trail for two months, aircrew were always shifting between comfort and danger. When station crews were to operate, the call, “There’s a war on”, went out. It implied that at other times there was peace, and that was nearly true. Even when they were operating frequently, aircrew could eat, sleep, read, and play a game of billiards in conditions far removed from those inside a bomber fuselage. When crews were stood down, had a “48” (a 48-hour leave pass), or took their regular six days leave in every six weeks, they could travel to the local towns – Lincoln, Grimsby, Skegness, and York – and go to a dance, have a meal at a pub, see a movie, or attend a service at Lincoln Cathedral or the Thomas Cooper Memorial Baptist Church in St Benedict Square, Lincoln. They could go to the home of an English crew member, or that of a family nominated by the Lady Frances Ryder and Miss MacDonald of the Isles Dominion Hospitality Scheme, sleep in, read the newspapers, and wander across the fields. Or they could catch a train to London, stay at the Strand Palace Hotel close to the Boomerang Club and Codger’s bar, see the sights, and take in the show at the Windmill Theatre, John Gielgud as Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, Noel Coward’s Blithe spirit at the Duchess Theatre, or a concert at Albert Hall. Less than 24 hours later, aircrew could be taking a Halifax on a test flight preparing it for an operation over the Ruhr.

The crews' oscillations between peace and war were intensified by their closeness to women. By 1943 there could be two hundred to three hundred women on an operating station. They did what wage-earning women were then expected to do: they cooked, cleaned, and typed. Young Australian officers were, to their initial astonishment, served by WAAF batwomen. But the women with technical training also fixed advanced radio equipment on aircraft, worked in the meteorological officer, took charge of maps, and gave intelligence briefings. A few were officers who outranked many aircrew and had increased standing because they had been on the station longer than the transitory aircrew. All over the station women were drivers of trucks, tractors, vans, and cars. A woman drove crews to their aircraft before take-off. The returning crews heard a woman’s voice from the control tower, directing the order of landing and giving priority and confidence to those crews in damaged aircraft and with wounded airmen. A woman intelligence officer debriefed some crews, and women served the post-operation breakfasts in the mess. Women were with the crews in the tension before a raid and were again with the exhausted men in its aftermath.

From their meetings with English women that began at Bournemouth and Brighton and continued on leave and on stations, over two thousand Australians from all commands married British women. Given so many formally acknowledged long-standing relationships, there must have been many other relationships of varying degrees of intimacy and duration. But in the search for an escape or simply a contrast to the tension of operations, booze was a competitor. Geoffrey Williams, a rear gunner, said that on their six-days leave he and his friends went on “a binge of drinking and sex to block out what was behind – and ahead. I’d be almost incoherent for two days after a mission. On leave you’d find women first and then get on the piss.”[36] When missions were cancelled, or in breaks in periods of tough operations, informal parties in the mess would quickly develop into wild football games, with motorbikes roaring down corridors and men demonstrating aerobatics from tabletops. The number of men who resisted the wild reactions, preferring to go to church or the pictures or to write a letter home is unknown, but some squadron commanders thought the occasional outbursts of collegial riot were necessary to release tension and maintain morale.

All aircrew went through the cycle of pre-operation tension, the exhausting intensity of a mission, the attempt to sleep, relax, and recover in the aftermath, and then wait for the next listing of operating crews and the beginning of another build-up to battle. The swings in mood were intensified by the opportunity to enter a tranquil civil life, intense relationships with women, or frenetic, brawling parties. Young men’s minds and bodies were responding to extreme demands and to the floods and ebbs of testosterone, adrenalin, and alcohol.

As cities had suffered aerial bombing in the First World War, it was inevitable that both the morality and effectiveness of bombing would be considered after 1918. The use of bombing in the violence leading to the Second World War by the Japanese in China, the Italians in Abyssinia, and the Germans and Italians in Spain increased fears about the probability that cities would be bombed in any major conflict, and that bombing might be devastating and decisive. In the early months of the war the Germans bombed and strafed towns in Poland, and in May 1940 their bombing of Rotterdam and the killing of nearly one thousand civilians seemed to confirm the power of bombing and to end any hope that civilian populations might be spared. The Blitz on British cities began in August, with the attack on London beginning on 7 September. But when the British finally decided on area bombing, that policy was not so much a retaliation as it was a response to other circumstances of war. British advances in technology and recognition of what the bombers could not do were just as important as considerations as were what they could do. Pragmatism overruled morality.

By attacking particular cities, such as the bombing of Mannheim in December 1940, the British demonstrated that targets would not be confined to military targets and industries essential to the war effort. That policy widened on 9 July when Bomber Command was told the enemy's morale was one of his “weakest points”. As a result, Bomber Command was directed to destroy the “morale of the civil population as a whole and of industrial workers in particular”. After a pause and review of policy, the directive to Bomber Command of 14 February said that it was to “resume the offensive at full effort” and confirmed that the “primary object” was the morale of the civil population. Concentrated “incendiary attacks” were to be used, and Essen and other industrial cities were listed as targets.[37]

Through 1941 several events had convinced the British that area bombing of the civilian population could and should be policy. In June 1941, Germany attacked Russia, and much of the Luftwaffe was diverted to the east. German capacity to attack bombers or to retaliate in greater force and from close airfields in occupied Europe had diminished. As the rapid German advance east continued, pressure on the Allies to help Russia increased. But the Americans were not going to be able to mount an offensive action for a year. The British army was on the defensive, about to make massive surrenders in the Far East and Tobruk, and any advance in distant North Africa was a year away. The British navy could lose the war if it could not protect the Atlantic convoys, maintain the continental blockade, and keep sea lanes open in the Mediterranean, but it could not win the war. Within the Air Force, only Bomber Command then had the range and the capacity to carry the attack to the German homeland. The Halifax had began operations early in 1941, the Lancaster was to be delivered to the squadrons from early 1942, and the new navigational aid, Gee, had been tested and was to be put into general use in 1942.

As the British War Cabinet was reassessing the role of Bomber Command, it had, for the first time, compelling empirical evidence of the effectiveness of the Command’s raids. Mr David Butt made an examination of over six hundred photographs showing the accuracy of more than four thousand aircraft. He found that on average just one-third of all bombs fell within five miles of the centre of the target. But if he confined his study to the inland, industrial haze-covered Ruhr on moonless nights, then only 7 or 8 per cent fell within five miles of the target. As Butt did not include those aircraft that did not bomb because of equipment failure, enemy action, weather, or simply getting lost, the reality was that about 5 per cent of bombers setting out bombed within five miles of a target. On these figures several conclusions were obvious. To keep losses to an acceptable level, the bombers had to fly on moonless nights, but in those conditions precision bombing in Germany was impossible. Only broad areas of several square miles could be hit, and that meant cities. To be effective, the raids required hundreds of bombers to saturate the defences and to ensure that a sufficient density of bombs fell within the target area.

Churchill and the War Cabinet made the final decision that led to the 14 February 1942 directive to Bomber Command because they had to launch an offensive to demonstrate some support for the Russians. Bomber Command was the only force able to strike Germany, Bomber Command could hit only an area target, and there was an optimistic belief that the new and bigger bombers could deliver devastating blows and that German morale was vulnerable. All those decisions were made before Arthur Harris was appointed commander-in-chief on 23 February 1942. From his arrival at High Wycombe, he was a fervent advocate of the policies he had inherited and an efficient organiser and inspiring leader of his command. But Harris tended to promise more that he could deliver and he continued area bombing when his crews were capable of hitting particular and more critical targets.

There has been more questioning of the morality and legality of the actions of Bomber Command than of any other major Allied force in the Second World War. With the inter-war debates, the early request by President Roosevelt to both sides not to bomb “civilian populations” or “unfortified cities”, the questions raised in the House of Commons during the war about Britain’s “indiscriminate bombing”, and the reprinting in British newspapers of reports from neutral countries about deaths of Germans civilians, the morality of area bombing was never completely submerged by the exigencies and patriotism of a country in total war.[38] The late bombing of cities such as Pforzheim, Dresden, and Worms, and the controversies over official recognition of Harris and Bomber Command, ensured the questioning of area bombing continued after the war.

The most simplistic condemnations of aerial bombing of cities imply that it initiated the exposure of large civilian populations to death in war. In fact, the practice of enclosing cities in walls is evidence that they were long the targets of siege with the aim of starving people, or the target of indiscriminate artillery. In the Second World War, the high death rates in cities such as Stalingrad, Leningrad, and Manila (where many more people were killed than in Hamburg or Dresden) were generally not a result of aerial bombing. The deaths of 500,000 Germans as a result of aerial bombing were significant and horrific, but bombing was a minor cause of civilian deaths. The argument against aerial bombing cannot be based on the suppositions that it was new, killed those who were previously immune, or introduced a new scale of killing.

Those commentators that have claimed that Bomber Command’s campaigns were ineffective could then simplify the moral question. If aerial bombing had no impact on the course of the war, then the killing of civilians was gratuitous and unjustified. But the bombing did have significant influence on the war: it reduced the growth and then the total production of essential war industries, forced the Germans to divert resources to the defence of cities, redirected the Luftwaffe to defence against bombers, rendering it less able to provide tactical support to German ground forces, and the bombers (particularly the American bombers) drew the Luftwaffe into battle where it was defeated by the escorting fighters. There is, then, a defence of the policy of aerial bombing of cities confirmed in the directive of early 1942: Bomber Command was the only force capable of offensive action against an evil regime, area bombing was the only effective way to use the bomber main force, the Allies had to take some pressure off the hard-pressed Russians, and the bombing contributed to ultimate victory.

However, it is true that the bombing did not break the morale of the German people or produce the “speedy” victory that its most optimistic supporters had hoped. As well, the new technology and increased concentrations of bombers escalated the weapons deployed against civilians, and the continued bombing of cities in 1945, particularly the extension of bombing to cities with little relevance to the German war effort when Bomber Command could hit more precise targets with a more immediate impact on Germany’s capacity to wage war, meant a coming together of the practical and moral case against Bomber Command. By 1945, Bomber Command was efficient, dominant, and capable of awesome destruction, and it continued to do what it was then able to do only too well. The raids on Dresden and Pforzheim resulted in the second and third highest numbers of civilian deaths after the Hamburg raid over eighteen months earlier.

In the Boer War and First World War Australians had learnt that when their servicemen were serving in allied forces, the Australians should not be dispersed, but held together in Australian units, commanded by Australian officers with access to the Australian higher command and government, and deployed in ways approved by Australians. Early in the Second World War, Australia’s senior commanders in North Africa and the Middle East and Malaya again faced problems as they tried to retain the coherence of their forces, and in Article 15 of the Empire Air training Scheme, the dominions tried to ensure that their air men retained their national identity. But in spite of experience from previous wars and reminders in the Second World War, Australia allowed its airmen to be dispersed from the time they left British reception depots. They went to different training units, then various groups and squadrons. Those who went on to Pathfinders might stay together as a crew but Donald Bennett was determined not to allow his fellow Australians to have their own squadron. Especially in the early years, some found themselves the lone Australian on a squadron, and even on 1 January 1945, 111 squadrons operating out of Britain had fewer than ten Australians.[39] The dispersal of Australians may have meant that they were more likely to be retained in operations and less likely to be given specialist and technical training, and individual officers and the RAAF as an institution missed the chance to form and direct truly Australian units up to the level of groups. But also Australia, in allowing the dilution of Australian authority, had given away influence over the strategy and tactics of Bomber Command when both raised complex issues of morality and effectiveness.

In the immediate postwar period, the Australians who had returned from service in Bomber Command retained something of their wartime prestige. On the strength of their service records, many won positions in government and business that would have been beyond realistic ambitions before the war. Wing Commander Arthur Doubleday was asked to stand for parliament, declined, and settled for public service to aviation and transport. Both careers were unthinkable for the 28-year-old Coolamon farmer of 1940. The success of the books and films, such as the Enemy coast ahead (1946), The dam busters (1951 and 1954), The great escape (1950), and The wooden horse (1950), No moon tonight (1956) revealed a public eager to be reminded of the exploits of Bomber Command.[40] In the official history published in 1954, Herington wrote that the Australian dam busters had become “Homeric figures”.[41] But by the 1960s Bomber Command was being forgotten by the Australian public. In part, it disappeared in the general cynicism and re-evaluation of the ANZAC tradition that was expressed by the conflict of generations in Alan Seymour’s play, The one day of the year (1960).[42] By the 1970s and 1980s, the greatest of those “Homeric figures”, Micky Martin and Dave Shannon, were almost unknown. And when ANZAC Day was rediscovered by another generation and reinvigorated, the ex-servicemen of the Great War, and selected groups of the Second World War were the beneficiaries – particularly prisoners of war of the Japanese and units that had fought the early battles on Kokoda. But Bomber Command, where the battle losses were so high, was rarely mentioned. In fact, the Battle of Britain in which few Australians fought, is often better remembered in Australia. Ironically, the resurgence of interest in prisoners of war did not include those imprisoned in Europe, and so the six hundred Bomber Command aircrew that survived in the Stalags again missed national recognition. The decline in Bomber Command in popular memory did not occur in Great Britain, where monuments, museums, books, and memorabilia are obvious in Lincolnshire and the other counties that once reverberated to the sound of bomber squadrons.

There are several reasons why Australians have tended to forget Bomber Command. In the army, many men trained, fought, and came home in the same unit. Most units recruited strongly from particular areas – the 2/40th Battalion was Tasmanian and the 2/19th was from New South Wales. Later, they met on ANZAC Day and circulated a newsletter to retain contact with each other. But aircrew trained in a sequence of schools, and while the graduating class had a group identity it was immediately broken up by postings to commands and theatres. The men who sailed overseas together came to know each other only be dispersed again as they left the reception depot. By the time aircrew had moved through Bomber Command training units, it was unusual for more than three or four men from the same graduating class to go to the same operating squadron.

The intense experience of war made the operating squadron significant for all aircrew, but men could complete a tour in three months. Sometimes it might be six months, but during the intense, short flights in support of the D-Day landing, some crews came and went in just six weeks. If a crew transferred to Pathfinders or came back for a second tour, it was likely to serve in another squadron. As a result, most aircrew were on an operating squadron for perhaps one-tenth of its war: they did not know most men who were members of their squadron and had no firsthand knowledge of most events that made up squadron history.

During operations, most crews formed close personal relations – some were to say the brotherhood of the crew was as close as any other relationship they were to know in their lives. Crews alone knew how each other performed in the heat of battle; by contrast, in the night sky they saw little of what other crews did on operations. But crews came together only at Operational Training Unit, and as most crews included members from different parts of the Commonwealth, they dispersed far and wide at the end of operations. Australians who served in a British squadron and were the lone Australian in a crew separated from those with whom they had shared the experience of battle. On ANZAC Day and at reunions they met with those who had a similar war, but it was not the same war.

The dispersal of aircrew also fragmented group memory: for many aircrew there is no unit with the coherence of an army battalion. It also meant that service in Bomber Command was not exclusively part of the history of the RAAF: it was also the history of individual RAAF aircrew that served in England in British or nominally Australian squadrons. This distinction raised problems for John Herington in trying to write about Australians. If he wrote about 460 Squadron, he wrote of a unit that might be approximately one-half Australian, and he could not hope to cover the experiences of all Australians spread so thinly across well over one hundred squadrons.

For those who wish to commemorate Bomber Command in public or private there is no obvious site. The battles were fought through hundreds of miles of sky; and of the old airfields, Waddington is still an operating station and closed to the public, and many others are disappearing under fields and housing and industrial estates. The two memorials that record the names of over one thousand Australian air men, the books in Lincoln Cathedral, and the cloisters of the Runnymede Memorial are little known. Those aircrew whose bodies were recovered are scattered through many in small British and Continental graveyards – nine in Sweden, seven in Switzerland, and one in Lyon in France. Only three cemeteries have more than 250 graves of Australian aircrew: Reichswald Forest, Durnbach, and Cambridge.[43]

Australians now see an immediate relevance in battles fought in Singapore, Timor, Milne Bay, or Kokoda, and of the experiences of the 22,000 Australians who became prisoners of war of the Japanese. This was the first mass immersion of Australians in what they were just beginning to think of as their “near north”; the Australians were fighting in the defence of Australia; and in several battles they provided the dominant force rather than being junior partners.[44] By contrast, young Australians have difficulty understanding why a previous generation died attempting to bomb Stuttgart, Cologne, and Konigsberg.

Finally, in remembering Australian aircrew it is difficult to make the distinction between what they did and the debates about the morality and effectiveness of the directives that set the targets and tactics of all squadrons. As aircrew had no say in Bomber Command policies, and they carried the great cost of implementation when offence and defence were so closely balanced, that is a distinction worth making and repeating. If any Australians are to be held accountable, then it is the government and senior officers who allowed aircrew to be used in circumstances where they had almost no influence on their deployment. The failure of Australian authorities to retain command goes beyond the practical issues of pay, leave, discipline, and promotion.

Obviously, Australians should not remember their participation in war according to a quantitative scale based on the numbers of dead or medals won, but it seems strange that as Australians have – at both the level of the government and in popular responses – increased consciousness of participation in war, they have often omitted those who were asked to do so much, suffered the highest battle losses of the Second World War, and were appropriately recognised at the time.[45] The gap between the public remembering and the reality has been excessive and prolonged.

In summary, the Australians who served in Bomber Command were:

  • Subjected to the most stringent selection and most demanding and dangerous training of any large group of servicemen to leave Australia;
  • Young compared with the men in other services and with those of equivalent rank;
  • Equipped with the most advanced technology then available and they used it in ways that were unknown even three years into the war;
  • Trained in a highly structured sequence of schools where others decided what they did and where they went, but they themselves chose who went into battle with them;
  • Sent into battle in crews that operated alone, were mutually dependent, and responsible for decisions that could kill themselves or large numbers of others;
  • Required to go into action when the odds of survival were known and consistent;
  • Committed to a tour of thirty operations when the cumulative losses over a tour meant that death was more likely than survival;
  • Engaged in the longest and most closely contested battles of the Second World War;
  • From their training days were often in situations of extreme danger, and all who survived knew many close colleagues who were killed in accidents and air battles;
  • Shifted sharply between peace and war;
  • In closer and more numerous associations with women than any other large group of servicemen in action in the Second World War;
  • In units that suffered the greatest battle losses of any Australian units in the Second World War, and whose total losses made up over 20 per cent of all Australian battle deaths;[46]
  • Dispersed widely through RAF training and operating squadrons;
  • Directed to implement policies subjected to greater scrutiny for their morality and effectiveness than those of any other major Allied force; and
  • Appropriately remembered in the immediate postwar period, but since then have been given slight official and popular recognition.

The sum of all those points confirms that those in Bomber Command had a different war: it had no precedent and it will not recur. The disjunction lies between the last point and all those that go before it. A nation that asked so much of its citizens should remember them.

[1] Denise Rope, For the duration, privately published, 1984, pp. 38, 39, and 66.

[2] Ben Dannecker, Cootamundra Aerodrome, privately published, no date.

[3] Robert Nielsen, With the stars above, privately published, 1984, is a detailed account of the crew and the flight to Australia.

[4] Flight Sgt Hawes, W.G., A705/15, 163/120/513, National Archives of Australia (NAA).

[5] Over 70 per cent of operations were flown by Lancasters and Halifaxes – over 80 per cent if those flown by Mosquitoes are omitted.

[6] Reminiscences, as told to C. Beal, privately published, 2001, p. 2.

[7] Churchill made the statement on 20 August 1940.

[8] Of about 37,000 trained under the EATS, 15,000 were pilots, 13,500 were navigators, and 8,500 were wireless operators and air gunners (WAGs/AGs). The number of WAGs/AGs exceeded pilots in 1944.

[9] Rope, p. 57.

[10] “Gentlemen of the dominions” appeared in the advertisement calling for applicants.

[11] John McCarthy, A last call of empire: Australian aircrew, Britain and the Empire Air Training Scheme, Australian War memorial, Canberra, 1988; Spencer Dunmore, Wings for victory: The remarkable story of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1994. What was an “Empire Scheme” in Australia was a “Commonwealth Plan” in Canada.

[12] D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939–42, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1962, p. 485.

[13] From the “Guide to selection panels”, quoted in H. Nelson, Chased by the sun: courageous Australians in Bomber Command in World War II, ABC, Sydney, 2001, p. 10.

[14] Royal Australian Air Force manual for air crew reservists, Commonwealth Government Printer, Canberra, 1940.

[15] The “Application for air crew” form of 1939 asked men to state their experience with the internal combustion engine.

[16] Gavin Long, To Benghazi, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1952, p. 58, gives figures from the 6th Division. I calculated them for the 8th Division and aircrew.

[17] In 31 Course, 30 of 69 failed and in 44 Course, 38 of 76 failed. P. Ilbery, Empire airmen strike back: the Empire Air Training Scheme and 5SFTS, Uranquinty, Banner Books, Maryborough, 1999, pp. 141 and 153.

[18] In Victory roll: the Royal Australian Air Force in its sixth year of war, RAAF Directorate of Public Relations, Canberra, 1945, it is claimed that under the EATS, 10,434 trained as gunners and 8,604 did not complete their training. The 8,604 includes those found medically unfit and various others who left pilot and navigator training and did not re-muster as gunners. It is an indicator of failure rates but not a measure of how many failed Wireless Operator/Air Gunner schools.

[19] Some gunners took a much shorter time, and some early pilots (e.g., Brill and Doubleday, who took 17 months) went to war quickly. D. Hannaford, Mission incomplete, privately published, 2000, p. x, said as a WOP/AG in 1944 it took him 18 months from ITS to posting to 463 Squadron.

[20] Sydney Baker, The Australian language, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1966, p. 183, suggests that “Blue Orchid” is English in origin, but the The national Australian dictionary, Oxford, Melbourne, accepts it as Australian. Given the blue Australian uniform this seems likely. “Brylcreem Boy” is not Australian in origin.

[21] There may have been other deaths of Deniliquin trainees, but they were buried elsewhere.

[22] P. Ilbery, 1999, p. 161.

[23] One third of all RAAF casualties in all commands were a result of accidents – in training and in other units.

[24] J. Herington, Air power over Europe 1944–45, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1963, p. 509. This includes deaths in Operational Training Units, and some of these were deaths on operations.

[25] Arthur Harris, Bomber offensive, Greenhill Books, London, 1998, p. 191; and M. Middlebrook and C. Everitt, The Bomber Command war diaries: an operational reference book 1939–45, Midland Publishing, Leicester, 1996, p. 488.

[26] Middlebrook and Everitt, 1996, p. 707.

[27] Dan Conway, The trenches in the sky, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, 1995, pp. 168–9.

[28] The average loss on a raid was 2.3 per cent. But that includes operations by Mosquitoes with a loss rate of 0.65 per cent, and reconnaissance, weather observation, and diversionary flights, and it does not includes crashes in England that were at the time unknown to the enemy. Even including the many operations in 1945 when the average loss was around 1 per cent, the loss rate for heavy bombers on bombing operations is close to 3 per cent.

[29] Middlebrook and Everitt, p. 487, say that 11.9 per cent were lost on the Nuremberg raid, but that does not include “operational crashes” – those aircraft that crashed in or near England.

[30] C. Webster and N. Frankland, The strategic air offensive against Germany 1939–45, Vol IV, Annexes and Appendices, p. 445, point out that to 16 March 1945 loss rates over three-month periods had fluctuated between 1.8 per cent and 4.4 per cent.

[31] Those words were sometimes used on telegrams to next of kin.

[32] It is true that some men say that they did not know the percentage losses, and while they knew the obvious – that some raids were more dangerous than others were – they did not and could not attempt accurate pre-flight calculations.

[33] Webster and Frankland, Vol. IV, Annex 1, sets out the changes in navigational aids, and in Annex IV “Bombs and bombsights” notes (p. 32) that no 1,000-pound bombs were dropped in 1939, 153 in 1940 and 36,182 in 1943. G-H was a combination of Gee and “H”. “H” was a means by which an aircraft could measure its distance from two ground stations.

[34] Webster and Frankland, Vol. IV, p. 36.

[35] Webster and Frankland, Vol. IV, Appendix 42, pp. 445-6. The Bomber Command assessment of the danger levels of sustainable losses included crashes in and close to England and crews that had to be posted out. The actual losses therefore understate the situation.

[36] Geoffrey Williams, Flying backwards: memoirs of a rear-gunner, privately published, p. 41

[37] Webster and Frankland, Vol. IV, pp. 135–6 and pp. 143–5.

[38] J.M. Spaight, Bombing vindicated, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1944, is a wartime book that, in justifying bombing, examines the counter arguments then current.

[39] John Herington, Air power over Europe 1944–45, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1963, p. 17.

[40] Paul Brickhill's The dam busters, was reprinted five times in 1954, the year that the film came out. Guy Gibson had written Enemy coast ahead and it was published after his death, and Brickhill wrote The great escape.

[41] J. Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy 1939–43, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1954, p. 495.

[42] It was rejected in 1959 by the board of the Adelaide festival and first staged in Sydney in 1960.

[43] In a rush trip to Europe in July 2002 (six countries in six days), Prime Minister John Howard visited the Berlin cemetery where some 3,000 Commonwealth (about 215 Australians) air men are buried, but this part of his trip was not mentioned by many in the press (Weekend Australian, 6–7 July 2002, p. 6; Canberra Times, 5 July 2002, p. 3).

[44] The term “near north” was used in Near north: Australia and a thousand million neighbours, eds, R. J. Gilmore and D. Warner, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1948,

[45] Members of 460 Squadron were awarded 355 medals: 9 DSO, 228 DFC, 14 Bar to DFC, 1 CGM, 101 DFM, 1 MBE, and 1 DCM.

[46] This assumes that the total of Australians killed in action, missing and presumed dead and died of wounds was 18,777, and it omits those who died as prisoners of war or in other ways out of battle. G. Long, The final campaigns, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1963, p. 634.

Hank Nelson is Professor in the Research School of Pacific and Asian History at the Australian National University in Canberra.