Creation of the
Bomber Force
1936 - 1940

The Early Years
1940 - 1942

Bomber Offensive
1942 - 1945

Role of the USAAF


Bomber Offensive

Tactics and technology
improve bombing accuracy

Despite the spectacular results of the Thousand Bomber Raids, the problem still remained that, in Harris’ words: ‘the average crew in average weather could not find their way to the target’. But from early 1942, a new navigational aid called GEE allowed bombing on non-moonlit nights and helped guide the stream of bombers onto the target. Also, more four-engine bombers were becoming available, particularly the outstanding Avro Lancaster, which became the backbone of the Bomber Offensive.

From August 1942 a specialised target-finding force, called the ‘Pathfinders’, began operating. Their task was to fly ahead of the other bombers, locate the target and mark it with large coloured flares (‘Target Indicators’) which the main force then aimed at. An experienced commander, known as the ‘Master Bomber’ would circle the target throughout the raid, sending instructions to the incoming stream of bombers to ensure accuracy was maintained.

For three-and-a-half years Bomber Command pounded Germany night after night, sometimes sending 800 or more aircraft against a major industrial centre, sometimes, if weather conditions precluded a heavy raid, sending a few fast Mosquitoes over Berlin or the Ruhr industrial area to keep the air raid sirens sounding all night and German war workers out of their beds.

The story of these raids is best told by the aircrews themselves, in their own words: Click on the list opposite.




Aircrews at a briefing

Personal stories


Bombers target the V-rockets

During 1943 British intelligence identified the Germans’ rocket development centre at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast. On the night of 17th/18th August, 596 heavy bombers attacked the site, delaying the use of the so-called V-weapons. Eventually the V-1 flying bombs were fired across the Channel into London and the South East from mobile launching ramps. Though elusive targets, the launch sites were heavily bombed, reducing the effectiveness of the dreaded ‘doodlebug’ campaign. The V-2 rocket sites were also bombed, though in February 1945 as many as 13 rockets a day were still landing on London.



The Peenemunde raid


"If word leaks out about the target, you won't go tonight - and the source will be summarily executed."




A Pathfinder at Peenemunde


"The mid-upper gunner said, "There's a fighter coming in!  It's got a Lanc, it's got another, it's got another!"






V-rocket defelopment centre



Special targets:

'The Dam Busters Raid' 1943

Bomber Command was called upon to fly many unusual and particularly dangerous missions. These included the famous ‘Dambusters’ raid in May 1943.

The challenge was to fly Lancaster bombers very low across Holland into Germany at night and drop the special ‘bouncing bombs’, designed by Barnes Wallis, at just 60 ft over water towards the huge Mohne and Eder dams in the Ruhr valley. A specialist squadron was formed, 617 Sqn who trained for six weeks for the operation. Both dams were destroyed and a third was damaged, though of the 19 bombers involved, 8 were lost. The raid’s leader, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, received the Victoria Cross.

The raid was an extraordinary demonstration of precision bombing at night and the skill of the airmen was admired even by the Germans. Although the resulting flooding did not cause as much damage as was hoped, Bomber Command’s achievement had enormous propaganda value as pictures of the broken dams were flashed around the world.

The raid’s success also had important political value. Churchill referred to it in his address to the US Congress, in order to highlight the success and importance of bombing the German homeland. He also used the raid to help convince Stalin that Britain really was hitting effectively at Germany from the west, as the Russians struggled against the Germans on the Eastern front.


The Dam Busters Raid


"You only had the one weapon, and you couldn’t waste it."




The Mohne Dam

Surprising the submarines
- The Augsburg Raid 1942

On 17th April 1942 twelve Lancasters flew right across Germany at low level in daylight, gambling that this was just what the enemy would not expect. Their target was a submarine engine factory in Eastern Germany that had to be destroyed. Only five bombers made it home. Wing Commander John Nettleton won a VC.


The Augsburg Raid 1942


"When the curtain drew back at the briefing there was a roar of laughter."




Spoiling a birthday party
- Daylight raid on Berlin radio station 1943

When British Intelligence found out that Goering, the Head of the German Luftwaffe, was to give a major speech on Berlin radio at 11.00am on 30th January 1943 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Nazi Party, Bomber Command could not resist - two Mosquitoes raced over Berlin in broad daylight and bombed the radio station as Goering went live on air - disrupting the whole propaganda event.


Silencing Goering


"There was a stunned silence in the van. We thought, "Start to climb when we cross the Elbe? Where on earth are we going?"





Bomber Command’s contribution
to the Naval War

Aircrew slang for mine-laying operations was ‘gardening’ and the mines were referred to as being ‘sown’ when they were dropped at low-level into the sea. In 1941 1,000 mines were laid by the bombers, but in 1942 this increased to 9,000. The cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisnau were both badly damaged by mines. In fact, over the course of the war, the RAF actually sank more German ships than the Royal Navy.

Bomber Command also continued attacking the German submarine bases on the French coast and U-boat factories on the German north coast, devoting 26% of the entire bombing effort on these targets, such was the importance of trying to disrupt the U-boat attacks on the Atlantic supply convoys from America. During 1944 the great battleship Tirpitz was attacked and finally sunk by Lancaster bombers dropping the 12,000 lbs ‘Tallboy’ bomb.


Dropping a mine


"We had to fly low over the North Sea, which was not pleasant"







D-day & support for the Allied armies

In preparation for the Allies’ invasion of Europe (‘D-day’), Bomber Command and the USAAF’s bombing force were put under the command of General Eisenhower, the overall Allied Commander in Europe. Both Harris and the USAAF commander, General Carl Spaatz, were initially doubtful about being diverted from attacking Germany itself, but eventually both agreed to the official directive to target firstly the German air force, in particular the Luftwaffe fighters, in order to prevent them from attacking Allied forces and secondly the enemy’s railway system in order to stop the Germans from quickly moving troops, tanks, guns and other reinforcements towards the Allies. Shortly before the landing, bombers pounded the Normandy beach defences, then on D-day itself they flew diversionary raids to other parts of enemy territory.

By 1944 bombing accuracy had improved so much that precision attacks on rail yards and bridges were possible. After D-day, as the Allied armies moved across Northern France, the bombers were called upon by army commanders to fly precision raids on German strongpoints and troop concentrations, sometimes dropping their bombs less than a mile ahead of Allied soldiers.


With Dimbleby aboard


"There were 295 near misses…all at one time."




Lancaster  being loadedHalifax in daylight


Damaged rail yard



A multi-role force

Bomber Command had many roles. Over six years of war, the force was directed not only to bomb German industrial cities, but also to support the Royal Navy and British Army by bombing enemy shipping, submarine bases, military supplies, railways and communications, oil refineries, airfields and many other targets. Bomber crews and aircraft were also drafted to fight in Italy, Africa, the Middle East and Far East.


Middle East posting


"I'll be on a cold slab before the morning anyway"





Halifax bombers