RAAF losses in Bomber Command: understanding the numbers

15 July 2020 by Lachlan Grant

Stella Bowen, Bomber Crew, 1944, ART26265

Flying Officer Colin Flockhart was typical of the many young men who enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War. A boy from the suburbs, he was 18 years old when he enlisted in 1942. Selected to become a pilot, Flockhart completed his training at schools in Australia and Britain – where he would master flying the Lancaster bomber. Training to join Bomber Command was a test of endurance and two years after his enlistment, Flockhart was ready to fly “ops” and was posted to No. 619 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

Just weeks after joining No. 619, Flockhart wrote a letter home to his family, intended only to be sent only in the event of his death. In it, he recorded:

Some impressions so that, if, by some chance, I should not finish my tour, you will know just how I feel about things and it may help to ease the suffering and sorrow you will endure at my loss. First of all let me say that I have enjoyed my Air Force service as I have enjoyed no other years of my life and I have been completely happy the whole time. I have travelled, made friendships and shared experiences which will stand me in good stead all my life … This war was inevitable and I could never have been content unless I did my share … I want you to know therefore that if I should die I shall not be afraid because my heart is at ease … I love you all very dearly. Please don’t think I'm pessimistic but I do realise what the odds are and I have seen too many of my friends pass on without leaving any words of hope or encouragement behind. Cheerio and keep smiling though your hearts are breaking.

On 7 January 1945, Flockhart’s Lancaster was returning from a raid on Munich when it collided with another aircraft – killing the entire crew of both – and his family duly received Colin’s heartfelt letter. Flockhart was one of the more than 4,100 airmen of the RAAF to be killed in RAF Bomber Command.

Flying Officer Colin Flockhart

The most dangerous theatre of operations for Australians in the Second World War was the air war over Europe. Almost one in five Australian airmen to serve in Britain did not survive the war. For those members of the RAAF serving in RAF Bomber Command, more than one in three were killed; amounting to 20 per cent of all Australians combat losses in the Second World War.

Different sources give varying numbers of Australians killed while serving in Bomber Command, from 3,486 (cited in the Australian Official History) to 4,059 (in the British Official History).

While the British official history volume includes figures of those killed on operations and non-operations while serving in Bomber Command, the Official History series of Australia in the Second World War does not include non-operations, providing separate listings for those who died in training units and “similar schools”.

The figure given in the British official history is more inclusive and more accurate: Bomber Command consisted of operational squadrons and training units. Aircrew selected to join the bomber force were required to graduate from specialist Bomber Command Operational Training Units (OTUs) and Heavy Conversion Units (HCUs) before being posted to squadrons. They had already completed training to become qualified pilots, navigators, wireless operators, bomb aimers, flight engineers, and gunners; OTUs and HCUs were where they learnt how to operate together as bomber crews flying front-line heavy bombers. Members of these units were serving in Bomber Command.

With increased access to digitised service records and repatriation files (crash reports) made possible by the National Archives of Australia, the blurred lines between “operational” and “non-operational” deaths, not to mention those listed as killed in training or as a result of accidents, has been made more evident.  Aircraft could be shot down by enemy aircraft on training or non-operational flights; crashes occurred during forced landings while returning from operational missions; mid-air collisions were also a hazard; crews from OTUs and HCUs would sometimes be called upon to bolster bombing forces during large raids.  

For novice crews, this sometimes became a type of graduation that occurred prior to being posted to an operational squadron. While some missions consisted of leaflet drops over enemy territory, on occasion novice crews took part in large raids on well defended targets such as Berlin or Cologne. Either way, flying operations over enemy territory was a dangerous exercise. When compiling a figure for the number of RAAF aircrew killed while serving in Bomber Command, it would be remiss to neglect members of Bomber Command training units.

Using the Memorial’s Roll of Honour, we were able to compile a list of 4,149 members of the RAAF killed while serving in Bomber Command. This figure includes 610 members of the RAAF serving across more than 50 RAF Bomber Command training units, and 3,539 who were serving in the 132 RAF, RAAF, RNZAF and RCAF squadrons that served in Bomber Command. It does not include Australians who enlisted directly in the Royal Air Force (or other dominion air forces). We were mindful to include only those whose deaths occurred when their squadron was serving in Bomber Command. (So, for example, the 25 members of No. 455 Squadron who were killed when the squadron was part of Bomber Command were included, but not those who died after the squadron was transferred to Coastal Command in April 1942).

With the Roll of Honour providing a name behind each number, we now know that more than 4,100 members of the RAAF were killed while serving in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. Coming to grips with these numbers, almost 75 years after the end of the Second World War, demonstrates the importance of continued historical research and of asking new questions.

RAAF crewmembers killed while serving with Bomber Command

Source Figure cited Notes
Australian Official History 3,486 Includes only those killed while part of operational squadrons
British Official History 4,059 Based on compilation of figures for operational and non-operational deaths
Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour 4,149 3,539 in operational squadrons;

610 in Bomber Command training units

International Bomber Command Centre losses database 4,102  

 

 

W. Chorley, RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War

 

 

4,089

 

Figures based on Commonwealth War Grave Commission records
 

Martin Middlebrook, The Bomber Command war diaries

 

4,050 Figures provided by the Air Ministry; includes those killed in non-operations
 

RAAF casualty reports for Second World War

 

3,486 Includes members of operational squadrons only; this report informed the Australian Official History

Sources for table:

John Herington, Air power over Europe, 1944-1945, 1963, Australia in the War of 1939–1945, series 3 – Air, Vol. IV, p. 509; Charles Webster and Noble Frakland, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, vol. IV: Annexes and Appendices, 1961, p. 440-444;

https://losses.internationalbcc.co.uk; W.R. Chorley, RAF Bomber Command Losses, vol. 9: Roll of Honour, 2007, p. 484; Martin Middlebrook, The Bomber Command War Diaries, 1985, pp. 708-712; AWM 54 171/14/2; AWM 54 171/14/1