Perhaps the most evocative image of the RAF in the Second World War is of gallant fighter pilots fighting off the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940. The Battle of Britain, in many eyes, was the RAF’s biggest contribution during the Second World War.
The RAF has always been fiercely protective of its independence, and as a result has long championed two strengths that underlines it – air defence and strategic bombing. With some small changes over time this still holds true today – witness the lavish amount of Eurofighters, compared to the shortage of Helicopters. There is something extremely glamorous about fighters. A Spitfire is graceful, a sportscar, whereas a Lancaster is a great lumbering beast, more akin to a truck.
But among all the emphasis on Spitfires and Hurricanes, are we missing something? What about the Bombers?Just as a comparison, Between 1939 and 1947 14 men from Portsmouth died whilst flying Spitfires and Hurricanes. 92 were killed flying Lancasters and Halifaxes.
Why is there such a difference in numbers? For a start, fighters had a single pilot, whereas Bombers had a much larger crew. If a plane was shot down, the losses were much higher. And while Fighter Command was extremely busy during the summer of 1940, throughout the war and particularly from 1942 onwards Bomber Command was attacking occupied Europe night after night – prolonged operations were bound to take their toll.
Given that by 1943 Bomber Command was able to launch raids consisting of 1,000 bombers, we have some impression of just how many bombers were being launched into the air offensive. Once we take into account that bombers flew night after night, and the attrition brought on by German defences, its not surprising that so many Bomber men were killed in action.