Sunday, 29 January 2012

Medals for Bomber Command

Wellington Bomber
 In 1941 the Third Reich was at the pinnacle of its power, the Luftwaffe was triumphant and controlled the skies over Europe, the German Armies still undefeated were pushing towards Moscow and a German victory was inevitable.

Within four years Germany was defeated, her roads and railways were shattered, her industry crippled and the once proud Luftwaffe blasted from the skies or hiding in woodland and under Autobahn bridges.
The RAF air offencive had played a massive part in this victory and was indeed the arm of the British forces that did the most against Germany.
To be fair to the other forces, the Royal Navy played an excellent part in protecting convoys, harassing German Shipping and Arctic convoys to Russia but its big battleships were fairly redundant in the new modern war.
The Army fought valiantly in France, Norway, North Africa, Italy, Greece, Crete and in the second push through France and the Low countries but the main strength of the German army was tied up and ultimately defeated by the Russian army.

In 1941 Stalin insisted that the British opened up a second front to draw German forces away from the Eastern front. British high command knew that landings in France were not possible and Scandinavia was too far for resupply. The only option was to launch an air offensive.

At this stage the majority of the air arm was made up of Wellington Bombers, Stirlings and medium range Anson and Blenhiem bombers. Without escort these planes were quickly turned away by the Luftwaffe and many Wellington's were chewed up by Messerschmitt BF 110 heavy fighters.

As larger bombers came into action the RAF still suffered losses by day as unescorted bombers travelled deeper and deeper into German territory and eventually they switched to night bombing.

Messerschmitt 110 Night fighter
 The Luftwaffe quickly adapted to deal with the night menace, and a belt of Radar stations stretching from Belgium to Switzerland nicknamed the "Kammhuber line" after the Luftwaffe General in charge of Night defence. This line had Night fighters covering and as the Bomber stream crossed it the fighters were vectored to intercept.
Even after the use of Operation Window to confuse the Radar sets Junker 88, Messerschmitt 110 and the excellent He 219 Uhu night fighters were soon equipped with their own Liechtenstein sets and able to vector themselves in.
The Nachtjagdgeschwader would also use a weapon called Schräge Musik which was a pair of upward firing machine guns. The night fighter would creep under the Bomber's blind spot and fire into the fuselage from below - effectively blowing it out of the sky.

Even now RAF veterans speak of "Scarecrows" shells that were fired and scattered parts of planes to scare them. In actuality they were bombers being destroyed by Schräge Musik.

If that wasn't enough to contend with there was the Flak. The 88mm German Flak gun was one of the best weapons to come out of the war and they were concentrated in huge numbers around the Reich's cities they had search lights and radar control and were deadly in concentrated batteries. There was also the Flak tower, giant concrete structures that housed many concentrated AA gun batteries.

The whole affair must have been harrowing. Long hours of flight at night, death only a heart beat away from hidden enemies and when you got to the target the ground would open up with deadly Flak shells and once you'd done that you had to fly back through the Nachtjagdgeschwaderen with a possibly damaged aircraft or wounded crew.

Did Bomber command receive any real recognition?

No. A few VCs or GCs were handed out for extreme bravery - a notable example is Guy Gibson VC who famously led the Damnbuster raids and a scattering of others but as a whole no.
Fighter pilots always get glamorously decorated. As Oberst Werner Baumbach of the infamous Kamfgeschwader 200 wrote in his book Broken Swastika bomber pilots have a different mentality to fighter pilots and are generally more stoic. The Jagdflieger used to refer to their bomber pilots as "Bus drivers" for their slow moving chugging aircraft. A fighter pilot's success could be measured in the amount of kills he got, the same for Stuka pilots and ground attack aircraft. The Luftwaffe's highest decorated pilot, Oberst Rudel was a Stuka and ground attack specialist who destroyed many tanks and facilities. (he also lost a leg and escaped Russian capture returning to German lines!) However Medium and heavy bomber pilots could not measure their success - only by their longevity.

The other thing is it is hard to recognise an individual act of bravery in an aircraft as it is hard to recognise who was responsible. For example Eugene Esmonde received the VC for his attacks on Scharnhorst, Gniesnau and Prinz Eugen in the channel dash but no such award was made to his observer and gunner who perished along with him didn't receive the same medal.

The next thing is Dresden and Hamburg. My grandfather went through the city of Ulm post war and he said all that was left was the Cathedral and the rest of the city was flat. In Hamburg a firestorm burned bright and fierce started by British incendiaries. In Dresden ( three months before the end of the war) the bombing pattern was planned especially to start a firestorm. It burned so hot that German citizens hiding in their basement shelters melted and had to be pumped out. The death toll was catastrophic.
It is arguably a war crime - I know opinion is divided on this subject and I won't add my voice to either side merely make the observation that if you shot a civilian it was a crime but to blast them from the air as all sides did during the war it is OK. To me it doesn't add up.

This should not detract from the bravery of the crews and pilots who were following their orders and flew bravely into action, often to death, wounding and capture. They should be awarded something for their bravery, and I understand a campaign has been mounted to see these men finally get the recognition they deserve and who can fault it?


  1. Very interesting topic. I hope you did read my father's website. He was in 115 squadron and was shot down on one of the 1000 Bombing Raids to Duisburg in July 1942. He arrived back in England in April 1945 weighing 5 stone in a Dakota after being liberated by the Americans after one of the death marches across Europe from Stalag VIIIB. At long last a memorial is to be erected in Green Park in London this year. However, it will be too late for my father to see as he passed away in 2008. The war years played heavy on his mind but unlike some he tried to share his experiences. He never judged, and I may be biased, but I feel he and all of Bomber Command should have been awarded commendation of their bravery. Please spare some time to read and look at photos on his website

  2. you want me to vote for someone who can't spell or use a spell checker? the word is, 'offensive'.

  3. Whoops... sorry - must have slipped through the three checks I did. Every now and then one slips below the radar.

  4. Boy, someone is touchy about the English Language. God, it must be terrible to be perfect in every way.