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Bomber Command in the Battle of Britain: Stories of The Many

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White vapour trails twisting and turning in an azure sky, Spitfires and Hurricanes roaring through the thin air, bright sunlight glinting off their wings, machine guns spitting out destruction and defiance, grateful crowds far below gazing in awe at the gallant modern-day knights defending the realm from a cruel and skilful enemy. Such is the traditional and popular view of the Battle of Britain but – without taking anything away from the inspirational exploits of The Few – it is at best a partial one.

The role of The Many in Bomber Command often remains overlooked and neglected. Night after night, the bomber crews ranged far and wide over Occupied Europe, often in atrocious conditions, seeking out and attacking targets in an all-out attempt to undermine the German war effort against Britain and prevent the imminent invasion. The Battle of Britain for these airmen was very different but no less deadly. 

The parsimonious and languid approach of successive governments to military spending after the Great War had a significant and deleterious effect upon the RAF and the years slipped by with precious little investment in new aircraft, equipment and training. Indeed, a Royal Flying Corps veteran returning to the colours in, say, 1934 would have needed little more than a light refresher course before becoming fully operational once more. At the end of that year, there was still not a single bomber in service that could from an airfield in Britain reach the nearest point in Germany, deliver more than a paltry 500lb bomb load and return. If an attempt had been made in daylight, the lumbering bombers would have been easy prey for anti-aircraft guns and a new generation of fighters. If the attempt had been made by night, the problems of navigation, target location and accuracy in hostile skies almost precluded success and a safe return. The matter did not end there for there had been a similar degree of stagnation and paralysis in defensive armament, ordnance and general training, especially at night. Even the very welcome introduction of new and far more capable aircraft like the Wellington, Hampden and Whitley did little to remedy many of the deficiencies in the Command. Indeed, they underlined the long-held belief that Bomber Command was a decisive weapon of war, capable of destroying a hostile nation’s capacity and will to wage war.  More than that, as Prime Minister Baldwin had famously opined in November 1932 ‘the bomber will always get through’ and, as a result, as key component of defending the nation was to have the capacity to bomb an enemy harder and more often than he could you, an early form of Mutually Assured Destruction. Added to the mix much later was the almost unthinkable imperative of having to prevent a direct invasion. The gulf between extensive expectation and harsh reality at the outbreak of war was a very wide one.

The aircrew of Bomber Command in 1940 were overwhelmingly skilful career airmen determined to do their duty and carry out their orders to the very best of their ability. Time and again, the young men made bold decisions in the full knowledge of the risks entailed. On the night of 30th August, for example, 58 Squadron pilot Plt. Off. N.O. Clements, who just a few days earlier had swept over Bremen docks in his Whitley under heavy fire at just 100ft to carry out his attack and let his crew take on the searchlight and flak batteries with machine guns, found himself over Berlin in the dark. Unable to identify anything of interest through the cloud, he cruised over the city releasing his flares one by one until, his supply eventually exhausted, he reluctantly turned for home. Passing over Nordhorn, his crew spotted a large factory complex and they decided to attack it in preference to taking their bombs back, even though doing so would use up more of their dwindling fuel supply. Having done so, Clements eked out the fuel as best as he could, gently easing the bomber out over Occupied Europe and over the inhospitable North Sea, until, with the coast of Yorkshire visible on the horizon in the pale glow of dawn, the engines finally began to cough and splutter. Coaxing the bomber as far as he could, he gave the order to bail out while there was still height to do so and the aircraft was still under control. Clements knew as he gave the order that he would not have time to get out and instead attempted to ditch the bomber; it was around 05.00hours and he had been in the pilot’s seat for nine and a quarter hours. While he and three of his crew made it, Sgt. M. Hill was caught by an off-shore breeze and drifter further out to sea, his body being lost.  Such is the thin line between life and death.

On another occasion, later in the summer, 51 Squadron’s Whitleys were assigned targets industrial targets in northern Italy, at the very limits of the aircraft’s endurance. Crossing the whole of Occupied Europe and then the Alps in a heavily laden bomber with little fuel or altitude to spare was no easy or quick matter but the crews managed to locate the targets in the clear conditions and left a number of fires burning. However, flying conditions had deteriorated significantly for the return-leg and the crews now faced miles of dense, ice-bearing storm clouds. Sgt. Wright held course as best he could and throttled right back to conserve precious fuel and flew as low as he dared in the hope of finding a hole in the cloud and picking up some very much needed landmark. The clock showed a gruelling twelve hours in the air before the cloud broke to reveal nothing but sea not too far beneath them. The young crew’s dismay increased as first one then the other engine spluttered and fell silent. Wright succeeded in pulling off a textbook ditching in the darkness and the crew managed to scramble out and take to their dinghy, exhausted, wet and cold, waiting for the dawn. When it came, they discovered they had been very lucky; they were just a few miles north of the River Mersey.

There was little time for reflection or rest after such traumatic experiences; there was a war to be fought and aircrew were at a premium. On one flight, a young American Fg Off Henry Young of 102 Squadron found himself far out over the Atlantic when his engines began to run rough and then cut out entirely. There was little else for it but to send out a distress signal, ditch and hope for the best. Young pulled off the first of several such landings to earn the epithet ‘Dinghy’ and the men were able to clamber into the dinghy which became their wave tossed home for the next twenty two hours. Picked up by HMS St. Mary, Young and his crew returned to duty straightaway. Young eventually became a Sqn Ldr DFC but lost his life on the Dams Raid in May 1943.

When Plt Off Andy Dunn of 77 Squadron ditched on 24th September on his way back from Berlin, he knew what to expect, having ditched off Hastings early in the morning of 20th June. Things could have been far worse; nobody was seriously injured, they were in a dinghy stocked with emergency food and water and had had time to send a detailed location signal and knew they were just 80 or so miles off the English coast. There was great jubilation as a Coastal Command Hudson located them at 10.50 hours the following morning, about 100 miles east of Hartlepool and aircraft sent in relay remained reassuringly overhead for much of the day as ships set out to rescue them. However, the weather worsened rapidly and it became clear that it would be a long and difficult night, tossed about on the open sea. By 11.00 the following morning, another Hudson had spotted them again and remained on station until 13.00, by which time two destroyers were only sixteen miles away. The weather once again clamped down and contact was lost as visibility fell to almost zero, leaving the bone-weary airmen to the Fates. As daylight returned, only Sgts Riley and Allen and Dunn were still alive, the latter by now in a bad way. Throughout the following day, the search aircraft fought a number of skirmishes with German planes in the area but failed to locate the dinghy. The following day, the fourth, four Ansons and five Hudsons resumed the search in foul conditions and, against the odds, at 11.15 hours one spotted the dinghy only to lose sight of it in the squally showers and it was not until 14.00 hours that contact was re-established. Determined not to lose sight, the Hudson circled at wave top height, noting that two of the men now lay slumped motionless; with mounting horror, the crew watched as one of the figures reared up, struggled to his feet, lost his balance and tumbled into the sea – the last moments of Plt Off Dunn’s life. Barely ninety minutes later, HMS Bedouin picked up Riley and Allen and signalled ‘One fair, one very ill’, an accurate assessment as Allen slipped away within the hour. Over the four days, the dinghy had drifted over 100 miles in rotten weather; nobody would have quibbled if Sgt Riley, after such a terrible ordeal, had wanted no further part in the war. In the event, he volunteered to return to operational flying and served with distinction in 106 and later 617 Squadrons, completing 49 operations.

The long and dogged war waged by the men of Bomber Command was very different to that of the pilots of Fighter Command. What links them, however, is the courage and determination of the young airmen who were ready and willing to risk everything in defence of their country.

By Paul Tweddle

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