Tag Archives: the Stirling

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.

22 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History