Bomber Harris, not a happy man (8)

In his book, “The Relentless Offensive”, Roy Irons does not forget to discuss at great length, the huge losses of both aircraft and aircrew suffered by Bomber Command:

Even on night raids, bombers were shot down in great numbers, both by flak and by nightfighters such as the Junkers Ju88:

In part, this was because aircraft such as the Whitley, the Hampden, the Blenheim, the Manchester, the Stirling and the Halifax were to a greater or a lesser extent, just not up to the job. The Lancaster, in contrast, was an outstanding aircraft, although even the “Lanc”, despite being the bomber of choice of the vast majority of Bomber Command aircrew, was itself still shot down in large numbers.

Casualties, in actual fact, were enormous.

In the First Phase of the bomber war, the Battle of the Ruhr (March 1st to July 1943), Bomber Command lost 1,038 aircraft, some 4.3% of their total strength.

In the Second Phase, the Battle of Hamburg (July 24th-August 3rd 1943) 139 aircraft were lost.

Unlike the First Phase, however, the Second Phase was a total victory for the RAF. Some forty thousand Germans were killed and a million fled the city. As Albert Speer realised:

“Six more like that and all war production will come to a total halt.”

The Third Phase was the Battle of Berlin (August  1943–March 31st 1944). Bomber Command lost 1,778 aircraft as Harris’ promise “to wreck Berlin from end to end” went terribly, terribly, wrong.

During these three phases, 396 days had passed, and 2,955 bombers had been lost. There were seven men in each one of them and on average no more than two ever escaped alive.

The problems were, as we have already said, that the bombers, on very single one of those 396 days, had had defend themselves with rifle calibre bullets. Secondly, escort fighters at night were almost completely unknown. The ranges of every single RAF fighter except one were largely inadequate , and in any case the Mosquito night fighter was way too fast to fly alongside four engined bombers:

To these two factors can be added the ten thousand plus anti aircraft guns  protecting the Reich. The majority of those guns were the deadly “8.8 cm Flak”, known universally to the hundreds of thousands of people involved in operating them as the “Acht-acht” (“eight-eight”).

Overall, though, Harris was right. Bombing worked. It destroyed both factories and living accommodation and at the same time, it kept hundreds of thousands of people tied up, busy defending Germany. Were it not for Bomber Command, those hundreds of thousands of people, and their ten thousand plus anti aircraft guns, would have been on the Eastern Front, knocking over T-34 tanks, and putting a brake on those huge Soviet advances into the Reich.

And that’s without counting the actual damage the bombers did. Albert Speer, for example, stated that through the activities of the RAF a minimum of 35% of tank production had been lost and 31% of aircraft production and 42% of lorry production.

Over the course of the conflict, though, it must be admitted that the war-winning aircraft of Bomber Command had actually been found to be “pitifully vulnerable”.

During the very rough total of 2000 days of war, Bomber Command had lost the equivalent of four heavy bombers on every single one of them:

The people who decided the tactics, with the notable exception of Harris, had initially attached far too much attention to the old doctrine that “the bomber will always get through”, a war-cry which dated back as far as the distant days of the Spanish Civil War when the Legión Cóndor had invented area bombing by its carefully planned attack on Guernica:

Perhaps Bomber Command losses might have been cut if they had taken a leaf out of Fighter Command’s book. The top fighter pilots always turned themselves into fabulous marksmen by one means or another. Constant shooting practice, they found, was a good method to try. This method was “completely ignored in the training of bomber gunners” and the top brass actually suggested that the standards of gunners’ eyesight should be lowered, because of the shortage of gunners.
The net result was that Bomber Command did not shoot down too many enemy fighters. As the author, Roy Irons, states, the air war in the West won by the 0.5 calibre guns of the P-51s and the B-17s. In 1944, the Luftwaffe lost 914 night fighters, mainly to Bomber Command. In the same period of time, 6,039 dayfighters were shot down by P-51 Mustangs.
Here’s the Luftwaffe’s cutting edge night fighter, the Heinkel He219, with a fantastic array of radar  aerials.

And finally, if you enjoy discovering more irreverent truths about Bomber Command’s war, you might enjoy “Britain 1939-1945: The economic cost of strategic bombing” by John T Fahey. It is available on line here although it may take a long time to load.

There is a very interesting discussion about the book here.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

22 responses to “Bomber Harris, not a happy man (8)

  1. We are so used to learning about the fighter pilots’ losses that, for me, this death toll has been a real eye opener

    • The casualties in Bomber Command were on the edges of unbelievable. The book called “Bomber Command Casualties 1939-1945” by WR Chorley has, more or less, just a very long list of names in small type and very little else. They stretch over half a dozen pages short of five hundred. As far as I remember, there were single nights with Bomber Command where casualties exceeded those in the Battle of Britain. Having said that, it is wrong for me to make comparisons like that. Every man’s life is precious to somebody, and no death is a lesser event than another.

  2. Pierre Lagacé

    I just can’t enough of your articles about Bomber Harris.

    • I’m delighted that you have enjoyed them, Pierre, but I’m sad to say that this is the last one. I suppose he just ran out of people to kick up the backside! The main thing, though, was that, ultimately, he was on the side of the men doing the fighting and that was why they loved him so much.

  3. Pierre Lagacé

    I have learned (maybe on your blog John) that gunners would shoot at nightfighters as a last resort.

    • Yes, they would, because they hoped that if they stayed quiet, then they would not be noticed. That was a pretty forlorn hope given that there was such an array of formidable radar aerials on both the Me-110, the Ju-88 and the He-219.
      I recently read that Mosquito nightfighter pilots would play a game with each other about how close they could creep up on a Bomber Command bomber. Eventually, it became too dangerous to do, but they certainly used to get extremely close to the rear turret. That explains the horrendous casualty figures to some extent, and Bomber Harris’ complaints about the quality of RAF turrets and the guns in them.

  4. Whenever I look at the statistics, they still amaze and shock me. It only makes me admire that generation all the more!

    • Yes, indeed. Gradually, over the course of two World Wars and many other fierce conflicts, we, the democratic nations, seem to have learnt the lesson of how precious men’s lives are, and not to waste them. Casualty figures have gradually come down, but sadly, they never seem to reach zero.

      Personally, I am always shocked by the casualty rates in WW1, particularly the nations, who, in my opinion, were somehow sucked into it. The result was that Americans, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders died in their tens of thousands, and I suspect that a lot of their families back home did not really know why. At least the generation who fought World War Two knew what they were fighting for, and every nationality had an opponent that they knew would grind them into the dust given half a chance.

  5. A very interesting instalment in the Bomber Harris series John. It would be worth when comparing night fighter losses with day fighter loses, to maybe think of percentages as there would be fewer night fighters up at any one time compared to day fighters. This would no doubt, lean in the favour of our poor gunners in their bombers.

    • I think you are probably right there, although I would wheedle my way out of it by saying that the figures were taken from the author, Roy Irons, rather than being my own. Somewhere, almost lost in the distant past, I did read, I’m fairly sure, that Bomber Harris wanted Fighter Command to start flying at night, and to start defending his bombers.
      A change like that wouldn’t have been a bad idea, given the catastrophic losses Fighter Command had in, roughly, 1941-1943, when they were carrying out rodeos, ramrods, circuses and the like. Quite often, when faced by the brand new Fw190, they had match results along the lines of Spitfires 0 FW-190s 8. There are excellent accounts of that in John Terraine’s “To the Right of the Line” which you can sometimes pick up at, literally, a tenth of its original price. ) abebooks have shedloads at the moment of this 800 page history of the RAF in WW2. And it makes a great door stop.

  6. I just finished reading this book. Learned a lot of things I didn’t know about the bombing campaign. Glad I spent the time to read it.

    • Absolutely. It seems a trite thing to say, but so often, just one book can be a real eye opener, and can teach you a lot about a subject where you might have thought you had little left to learn.
      “Glad I spent the time to read it” is an excellent measure of a book’s worth. An alternative would be a blog called “Waste of a Good Tree”, where you could just list the books that were a waste of time and paper. I’ll start you off with Dicken’s “Bleak House”, most of Dostoyevsky and, top of the bonfire, Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”. There, that’s saved you a month that you can now spend working on one of your projects.

    • Thank you, Lloyd. We aim to please.

      That little phrase reminds me of the Air Gunners of Bomber Command who, at one time, had their own association which met up every month for a good meal and some beers.
      They are now disbanded for lack of members, but their motto was “We don’t aim to please”.

  7. Pierre Lagacé

    Take the time to read the link I have inserted about Alistair Lawson on this post. It’s quite a story about a troublesome Mosquito.

  8. atcDave

    No doubt Bomber Command losses were horrific. Although they do compare quite favorably to WWI trench Warfare. They did put a terrific strain on the German war machine, even to say it was effectively the “Second Front” even if Stalin never acknowledged it. You mentioned the Blenheim at first, I was under the impression it was purely tactical and not a part of the Bomber Offensive? I’d also mention the almost 1000 night fighters shot down is quite respectable, especially considering they had twice the crew and 3-4 x the cost of the day fighters!

    • I haven’t got any exact figures, but the usual thing said in the books I’ve read is that Bomber Command night raids were statistically just about as dangerous as an officer in, say, the Battle of the Somme. In other words, you wouldn’t really want to try either!
      The Blenheim was used early on in the war to attack German ports and shipping in daylight, or at dusk, but suffered tremendous losses. (“Bomber Command 1939-1940, the war before the war” by Gordon Thorburn) They were reduced to skipping from cloud to cloud to protect themselves, and staying at home on clear days, presumably.
      After that, the main job done by the Blenheim was, during the Battle of Britain, to attack French Channel ports in an attempt to destroy the invasion barges that were moored there in their hundreds if not thousands. And this they did, to their credit, contributing hugely to a happy-ish ending to England’s first year of the war.
      According to “Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book 1939-1945” by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, Blenheims then continued in 1941, participating in “minor operations”, but also took part, presumably making up the numbers in raids, for example, on Emden and Wilhelmshaven, two targets I found at random. In 1942, there were quite a few ordinary attacks on Germany which were accompanied by “Blenheim Intruders” but I don’t know what these were, whether Mark Is or Mark IVs. By 1943, I couldn’t find any further mention of Blenheims.

      • atcDave

        I didn’t realize it was proportionally so bad!
        Makes sense the Blenheim could have been called on to make up numbers on occasion. I just thought they were normally regarded separately and not a part of Bomber Command main force. It certainly would have been IVs (maybe Vs?), but I believe the I was no longer used inEngland (Med and Far East only after 9/1/39). I’m surprised they had the range for any main targets.

      • They could certainly reach the north western coast of Germany which I suppose is why they were often sent on anti-shipping missions and dropping mines. The plane without the range was the Whitley. One website had an ex-Whitley pilot saying “When they drain the North Sea, they’ll fine the wrecks of 200 Whitleys on the seabed, all facing the British coast fifty miles away.

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