Daily Archives: 12 July, 2010

The Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 by Ian Smith Watson

I’ve got to admit, I didn’t expect much from this book. No matter how you look on it, it just doesn’t sound that interesting. Which makes it all the more pleasing that in actual fact, its a very enlightening read.

I’m quite a latecomer to airshows – I’ve only ever been to one back in the early 90’s at the old HMS Daedelus in Gosport, and the last couple of years at Shoreham airshow. Its quite intereresting to read, therefore, that according to the author airshows were the second biggest participation events in Britain in the twentieth century, after football matches. Where this assertion comes from is not made clear, but all the same, as a spectacle the airshow holds a place in British social history.

The main focus of Ian Smith Watson is the RAF’s own official air displays from 1920, until the remaining annual display at RAF Leuchars. As a relatively young service the RAF has always had to gain the respect of the public, politicians and the other services, and as such it has learnt to market itself very effectively. As the operators of some seriously impressive hardware, the air show has become a valuable tool in the RAF’s PR armoury.

The first RAF airshows began soon after the service’s founding, in the early 1920’s at RAF Hendon. At that time it was still only some 20 years since the Wright brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk, and aircraft were still a novelty and a big draw to the public. Locally, the airshows at Portsmouth’s new airport in the early 1920’s drew thousands of spectators – at the time it was almost the equivalent of NASA displaying the Space Shuttle.

Although interrupted by the war years – when naturally enough the RAF had enough on its plate without putting on displays – after 1945 a return to peacetime conditions ensued. Recognising once more a need to promote the service and engage with the public the Battle of Britain at home days were devised. The anniversary of the Battle of Britain was chosen, as it was seen as the RAF’s finest hour. Its interesting that even so soon after the end of the war the RAF was distancing itself from the fallout of the Bomber offensive. The ‘at home’ concept saw as many RAF bases as possible throwing open their doors to the public, with static and flying displays.

The post-war contraction of the RAF, coupled with the changing performance of aircraft, saw the number of shows gradually decline until they were taking place more on a regional basis, with bases such as Biggin Hill, Abingdon, St Athan, Finningley and Leuchars hosting major events. Gradually official aerobatic display teams were formed, leading to the world-famous red arrows.

One interesting factor that Smith Watson looks at is the involvement of foreign air forces. In the early 1950’s the RAF decided against inviting foreign airforces – apart from the US and Canada – for practical and protocol reasons. Within a few years, however, and with the decline of the RAF’s inventory a u-turn saw much of the ‘at home’ air shows being padded-out with foreign participants. Given the ever-decreasing size of the RAF and operational commitments, sadly the only official RAF airshow is now at RAF Leuchars, and RAF commitment to other civilian-organised shows is on the wane.

Perhaps in places the author is over-nostalgic, for example his dislike for the RAF’s attempt at trialling a new modern kind of airshow in recent years. People change, and so does society, and it takes different ways to engage. The other drawback with this book is that it focuses only on official RAF airshows, whereas in the broader remit there are many other air-minded events that might be interesting to research. But all the same, this book points the reader in that direction.

I think any writer can take a fashionable or well-known subject and churn out a book, but it takes a very gifted writer to take such a specialist subject and make it readable to a wider audience. It might also make interesting reading for an RAF PR officer, thinking about how to promote the service in public minds, especially with spending cuts looming.

The Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 is published by Pen and Sword



Filed under airshow, Book of the Week, Royal Air Force

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – focus on Bomber Command

As such a large percentage of Portsmouth airmen died whilst serving with Bomber Command, it makes sense to take a more detailed look at the manner in which they died.

Of the 208 Portsmouth airmen who died serving with Bombers, we have additional details about 138 of them thanks to the brilliant lostbombers website, which contains crash details for all Bombers lost over North West Europe during the war. The remaining 70 were either ground crew or serving in Bombers overseas. As we can see from the breakdown of where they were targetting, when and where they were lost accurately tells the story of the strategic Bomber Offensive.

Germany – 96

Portsmouth airmen were lost on raids on the following targets:

20 – Berlin
7 – Cologne
6 – Homberg
4 – Mannheim
3 – Dusseldorf
3 – Essen
3 – Frankfurt
3 – Hamburg
3 – Hannover
3 – Krefeld
3 – Mulheim
3 – Nuremberg
3 – Peenemunde
2 – Aachen
2 – Bremen
2 – Brunswick
2 – Dortmund
2 – Mainz
2 – Sterkrade
2 – Wilhelmshaven
1 – Bochum
1 – Chemnitz
1 – Duisburg
1 – Emmerich
1 – Gelsenkirchen
1 – Karlsruhe
1 – Kembs Dan
1 – Kiel Canal
1 – Koblenz
1 – Leipzig
1 – Lubeck
1 – Munich
1 – Osnabruck
1 – Russelheim
1 – Schweinfurt
1 – Stuttgart
1 – Witten
1 – Wuppertal

As we can see, most of the casualties were suffered in two areas – Berlin and the Ruhr. Berlin was heavily targetted due to its status as the Nazi capital. The Ruhr came in for special attention due to its high concentration of heavy industry, its relative closeness to airbases in England, and the ability to navigate to targets their from the coast.

15 of the 20 men killed while targetting Berlin were killed during the offensive known as the Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944. 24 March 1944 was a particularly heavy night, when 4 Portsmouth men were killed. Overall the Battle of Berlin caused the loss of 2,690 airmen and 500 aircraft.

19 men were lost during the period known as the Battle of the Ruhr, between March and July 1943. Raids were launched on Germany’s industrial heartland, and men were killed targetting cities such as Emmerich, Dortmund, Essen, Dusseldorf, Bochum, Cologne, Krefeld, Mulheim, Wuppertal and Cologne. Particularly heavy losses were experienced over Essen on 28 May (2 men killed), Krefeld on 2 June (3 men killed) and Cologne on 29 June and 4 July (2 men killed on each date).

3 Portsmouth men were also killed on the vitally important raid on Peenemunde on 18 August 1943. Peenemunde was the testing site for German V-Weapons. Other interesting targets were the U-boat pens at Wilhelmshaven, the ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt, the Kembs Dam and the Kiel Canal. Interestingly, no Portsmouth airmen were killed in the infamous raids on Dresden or Hamburg.

Another fact that is most striking is the sheer number of targets that Bomber Command hit. Sure, we all know about Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne – but not about Homberg, Mannheim or Krefeld. German industry was spread far more widely than we might think, and part of Bomber Command’s ‘dehousing’ policy was to area bomb these cities and thus demoralise and dislocate the workforce. It was recognised early in the war in the 1941 Butt report that Bombers did not have the accuracy to effectively hit pinpoint targets at night.

France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Czech Republic – 25

2 – Pilsen
2 – Bourg-Leopold
1 – Vierzon
1 – St Leu d’Esserent
1 – Merville
1 – Normandy
1 – Mailly-le-Camp
1 – La Pallice
1 – Laon
1 – Achures
1 – Auberive-sur-Suippes
1 – Berry-au-Bac
1 – Boulogne
1 – Brest
1 – Caen
1 – Turin
1 – V Weapons sites
1 – Haine St Pierre
1 – Colombelles
1 – Courbonne
1 – Ypenburg
1 – Courtrai
1 – Battle Area (1940)

Bomber Command also struck at many targets outside of Germany. Pilsen in Czechoslovakia was targetted as it was the home of the huge Skoda auto works, and Turin in Italy as it was the home of Fiat – both were extremely long haul flights. Many of the targets in France were hit either in 1940 as the Germans advanced towards Dunkirk, or in 1944 either in the run up to D-Day or afterwards in an attempt to help the Allied armies take Caen or break out of the beachead. Notable raids include Merville, the battery that the Otway’s Paras disabled on D-Day; the V Weapons sites in Holland and Belgium, and the U-Boat base at Brest.

Other Missions 15

4 – Minelaying
4 – Anti-Shipping
2 – Communications
2 – Recconaisance
1 – Window
1 – Supply Drop to Resistance
1 – Invasion Ports

Bombers also performed a number of other roles during the war other than attacking German cities. Mines were laid in the North Sea and Baltic (known to the Bomber crews as ‘gardening’), and the Bombers also took on anti-shipping patrols. ‘Communications’ raids were mainly targetted at northern France in the run up to D-Day. ‘Window’ was the practise of dropping bundles of aluminium strips in the air to confuse German radar. One bomber was lost while dropping supplies to the resistance, two whilst performing ‘recconaisance’, and one whilst targetting invasion barges in channel ports in the summer of 1940.


203 Portsmouth Bomber men were killed during wartime:

18 – 1940 (8.87%)
25 – 1941 (12.32%)
20 – 1942 (9.85%)
60 – 1943 (29.56%)
67 – 1944 (33%)
13 – 1945 (6.4%)

In terms of the intensisty of losses, the Bomber war seems to have been split into three distinct phases. From 1939 until 1942 Bomber Command lacked the numbers of both aircraft and crews to hit Germany with any intensity. Once Sir Arthur Harris took over Bomber Command in 1942 he was finally able to unleash a force experienced at flying at night, with increasing numbers, heavier aircraft such as the Lancaster, and with technology such as Oboe, Gee and Window becoming available. 1943 and 1944 saw the Battle of the Ruhr, the Battle of Berlin, the raid on Peenemunde and the raids on targets in France in support of Operation Overlord. Once this phase was completed the Bombers went back to targetting Germany, but with the war ending in May 1945 and with German defences shattered losses were far lower.


Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two