Stories of Remembrance

Air Force, Second World War (1939-45)The Australian Contribution to the RAF Bombing Campaign ,Europe 1939-45

Not only was life for Bomber Command aircrew highly dangerous and stressful, but there was also intense pressure on their hard-working and highly skilled ground crews who kept ‘their crews’ bombers flying.
Hugh Morrison, Anzac House Volunteer Memorabilia Officer

The opening of the Bomber Command Exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance on 4 October 2013 has done much to highlight the courage and determination of the Australian Aircrew who flew with RAF Bomber Command deep into Germany and enemy occupied Europe during the Second World War, and recognises those gallant Australians whose contribution has been largely unsung for too long.

Of more than 10,000 Australians who served in RAF Bomber Command in WW2, 3486 died on operations, and several hundred more were killed in training accidents and other mishaps. The total number of all British and Commonwealth aircrew killed while serving with RAF Bomber Command in WW2, amounted to more than 55,500, [close to 50% of all who served], with many more being wounded and/or becoming Prisoners of War if they were lucky. Not only was life for Bomber Command aircrew highly dangerous and stressful, but there was also intense pressure on their hard-working and highly skilled ground crews who kept ‘their crews’ bombers flying.

Having volunteered for Aircrew training, Australian trainees then attended Empire Air Training Scheme [E.A.T.S.] courses often in Canada, during which they were selected as pilots, navigators, bomb-aimers, wireless operators or air gunners. Further training followed on heavy bombers in the UK, followed by the informal but effective process of ‘crewing up’ and then postings to operational Bomber Squadrons to do the required 30 ‘trips’ to complete a ‘tour’ of Operations. Operations or being on ‘ops’ as they were known, mostly entailed attacking Germany and occupied Europe night after night in the face of concentrated Anti-Aircraft Fire [Flak] and ubiquitous enemy night fighters. There was also the ever present risk of mid-air collisions in the crowded Bomber streams, as well as the possibility of being hit by bombs from friendly aircraft flying above. Crash- landings of damaged aircraft on return to base, or worse still crashing into the sea with little chance of being picked up were also common, while regularly seeing friends killed only re-enforced the knowledge that the chances of survival were slim indeed.

Although many Australian aircrew served throughout the war in RAF Squadrons alongside New Zealanders, Canadians and other Commonwealth comrades, as the war progressed some all Australian Bomber Squadrons were formed including 455 Squadron,[Halifaxes], and 460 ,463, & 467 Squadrons,[Lancasters].

In the early days British bombers were slow, vulnerable and too small to carry effective bombloads, which together with a lack of experience and poor technology, meant that in spite of the courage and resolve shown by crews, only one percent of all bombs dropped fell within the vicinity of the target. Things improved with the introduction of larger more powerful bombers culminating in the wonderful four-engine Avro Lancaster in 1942, referred to by Sir Arthur Harris then C. in C. Bomber Command, as ‘the shining sword’.

New technology such as ‘Gee’, ‘Oboe’ and ‘H2S’ also greatly improved Navigation and Bombing accuracy as did the formation of the elite ‘Pathfinder’ Force, whose specialist role was to accurately pinpoint and mark targets and which was led by the brilliant Australian Don Bennett CB CBE DSO. These improvements made the Night Bombing Offensive much more effective, however, Bomber Command still suffered dreadful losses, especially during the Battle of Berlin and the ill-fated Nuremberg Raid.
In addition to the deadly grind that was the ongoing night bombing campaign, among Bomber Command’s many other tasks in which Australians participated, was the famous and daring ‘Dam-Busters’ raid carried out by 617 Squadron on17/18 May 1943 which used the Barnes Wallis ‘Bouncing Bombs’, to successfully breach water storage dams vital to the Industrial Ruhr Valley. Among a number of Australians flying that night were ‘Mickey’ Martin DSO DFC AFC, and Dave Shannon DSO DFC. This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the ‘Dams Raid’ as it has come to be known. My Dad’s Log Book shows that he flew as a Lancaster pilot with Dave Shannon when both previously served in 106 Squadron RAF.

Barnes Wallis also invented the 12000lb ‘Tallboy’ and the 20000lb ‘Grand Slam’ concrete penetrating precision bombs that were used to such devastating effect in ‘pin-point’ precision bombing raids that destroyed the ‘U’ Boat Pens at Brest, that housed the Submarines causing huge losses to Allied Shipping in the Atlantic, and also the ‘E’ Boat Pens at Le Havre. They were also used to destroy the V1 and V2 Flying Bomb launch sites that were causing havoc in southern England, the closure the Saumur Tunnel, and the destruction of many other vital railway and communication targets that prevented German movement of vital Panzer [Armoured] Divisions to counter the ‘D’ Day landings at Normandy in 1944. These are but some of the achievements of Bomber Command in which Australians participated.

No overview of RAF Bombing Campaign in WW2, however brief, would be complete without mentioning the controversial RAF and USAF bombing of Dresden as requested by the Russians in February 1945, and which caused such terrible loss of life and destruction. In his recently published book ‘Lancaster Men The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command’, Peter Rees quotes Dresden’s own Stadt Museum, which states that Dresden was a justifiable military target, being an important military communications and Munitions manufacturing centre vital to the Nazi war effort. The museum furthermore observes that given the Nazi bombing of Guernica, Rotterdam, Coventry and London etc, and despite contemporary Nazi propaganda and much other censure since , there is no high moral ground when prosecuting total war.

For many years the service of Australians in Bomber Command during WW2 was largely over-looked, however the Bomber Command Exhibition at the Shrine put together by Curator Neil Sharkey, has done much to right this wrong. Also the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial at Green Park in London by HM The Queen in June 2012, which was attended by more than 100 Australian Bomber Command veterans, is an enduring tribute to, and reminder of, the dedication and bravery of the Australian, British, and all Commonwealth Bomber Command Aircrew during WW2.

I visited this fine memorial in June this year, and a week later, while having lunch with friends on the terrace at the Petwood Hotel at Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, formerly the Officers Mess of 617 Squadron, my friend sitting opposite told me to quickly look behind. As I spun around and stood up, the BBMF* Lancaster flying very low suddenly swept over us... all four Merlin engines roaring ...I had goose bumps all over and I still experience that thrill every time I recall that marvellous moment.

I would also draw your attention to the talk at the Shrine by Peter Rees on his fine book ‘Lancaster Men : The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command’ at 5.30 pm on Thursday 28th November, and the Bomber Command Panel Discussion chaired by Air Vice Marshall Chris Spence AO[Rtd], with Shrine Life Governor the distinguished Australian and Bomber Command Veteran Wing Commander [Retd] Peter Isaacson AM DFC AFC DFM, also at the Shrine.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge and thank my friend the late Air Commodore Ted Pickerd OBE DFC AE Legion D’Honneur, an RAAF 463 Squadron Lancaster Navigator and a veteran of 56 Operations, for his friendship over the years and for inviting me to become a member [representing my late father] of The Bomber Command Association in Australia. It was a great pleasure and a privilege to know Ted, and I also really enjoy the privilege of being a member of the Association.

Hugh Morrison
Anzac House Volunteer Memorabilia Officer.
Melbourne October 2013.

*BBMF= Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
 

Sources:

Hetherington, John, Air War Against Germany And Italy 1939-45 Australia in the War 1939-45- Air, Canberra Australian War Memorial, 1954, The Advertiser Printing Office Adelaide.
Harris Sir Arthur, Bomber Offensive Collins, London 1947.
Saward, Dudley, Bomber Harris: The Authorised Biography Cassell Ltd, London 1984.
Rees, Peter, Lancaster Men: The Aussie Heroes of Bomber Command Allen & Unwin Sydney, 2013.
Cawthorne, Nigel, Lancaster WW 11 Night Bomber and Dambuster Abbeyvale Press/Anness Publishing Ltd, London 2010.
 

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