Tag Archives: bomber command

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.



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Bombs Away! – British and Commonwealth Bomber Aircrew in WWII by Martin Bowman

Bombs Away

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the first-hand veterans account is the most important aspect of military history right now. While in the immediate years after the war historians were pre-ocuppied with grand strategy, and what colour socks Churchill wore, recent years have seen a surge in the popularity of the memories and experiences of the ordinary man at war. Perhaps this is down to a realisation that as time passes, their memories might be lost. Perhaps it is also down to a broader democratisation of history. Maybe a combination of both.

This book by Martin Bowman comprises a unique selection of experiences from British and Commonwealth Bomber aircrew. Their accounts are not pre-occupied by strategy or tactics, but rather the emotional aspect of war. They are not the usual ‘tally-ho’ accounts of senior officers – most of the men in question were plucked from civvy street – but they are strirring, gripping and memorable.

The Bomber war was a unique experience. While battleships might see action infrequently, and army units might train for and fight set piece battles, Bomber crews routinely went into battle several nights a week – often night after night. Losses were heavy, even on supposedly quiet nights. The empty places in the mess halls must have had a sobering effect indeed. How on earth do men deal with such emotions and experiences?

There is nothing in this book that is particularly new in terms of the bigger picture. There are plenty of other similar books out there, but this book is very well presented and researched. Often veterans accounts can be overshadowed by the authors writing, but not here. Every similar book adds a new building block. We should be grateful that the individual stories of these men have been recorded for posterity – the more personal memories and experiences that are captured, the more material historians of future generations will have to ensure that the Bomber crews are never forgotten.

Bombs Away! is published by Pen and Sword

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Why no Bomber Command Memorial?

I’ve just read an interesting article on the Today section of the BBC News website.

The infamous Bomber raid on Dresden took place 65 years ago this weekend. At least 25,000 people died in the devestating attacks on the city. The raid was carried out largely at the request of Stalin, but the scale of destruction – despite the city’s status as a munitions and transport hub – led to much controversery, particularly after the war. Dresden is still debated to this day.

More than 55,000 men of Bomber Command lost their lives in the Second World War. Despite this, and the crucial role they played in the war effort, they received no campaign medal, despite the fact that the Bomber Offensive was very much a distinct campaign. Sir Arthur Harris did not receive the peerage that many of his counterparts and superiors were awarded. It was not until 1992 that a statue of Bomber Harris was unveiled in London. Even then, it has suffered problem from vandalism.

But that lack of recognition is set to change. 65 years after the end of the war, plans are advanced for a permanent memorial to the brave air crews of Bomber Command, in Green park in the centre of London.

But why has it taken so long? One Bomber Command Veteran, Andy Wiseman, now 87, has a very interesting perpective:

‘”I think at one time bomber Command were the blue eyes of the war… Churchill’s Blue Orchids we were called at one time. I think it was Dresden which did destroy churches and museums inter alia and the German propaganda and there are far too man revisionist historians floating about. They should have been in Coventry in the 40s; they should have been in Auschwitz in the 40s, rather than in the cloistered peace of the universities. We don’t claim we’ve done necessarily more than other people, but we’ve certainly done as much as other people and to see a memorial to the women of Britain going up in Whitehall – bless them, I’m sure they played their part. But they didn’t play as much as a part as Bomber Command.”

Wiseman’s point of view does seem to fit in with the historiography. During the war it was fahionable to complement the Bombers, but as soon as peace reigned it became an unpleasant part of the war that politicians and historians felt convenient to forget, ignore and denigrate. Many historians have argued that the Bomber offensive was not as effective as we have been told. But that is besides the point. Bomber Command lost more men than any other comparable armed forces command during the war. While ships and armies fought battles in short sharp bursts, the Bombers went out into the skies over Europe night after night. Theirs was a war like no other. Bombers were about much more than the Dambusters.

My own research into Portsmouths war dead shows the scale of losses. Hundreds of men from Portsmouth died flying in Bombers, in hundreds of aircraft, over targets in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Denmark and Norway, in the North Sea and in the English Channel. They are buried in hundreds of cemeteries and churchyards all over Europe. Its unacceptable that their contribution to the war effort has gone unrecognised just because it has been convenient for politicians to forget them and for Historians to denigrate them. By comparison, there are plenty of memorials out there to Fighter Command. There are plenty of Spitfires and Hurricanes still airworthy, there is only one flying Lancaster in the UK. Their part in the war was crucial too, but numerically in terms of losses and aircraft, it was much smaller. Yet history seems to have treated Fighter Command far kinder.

Approximately £1.5million has been raised so far, out of the £4million required. The Memorial Fund hope to see the memorial unveiled in March 2011.

Further Information about the Bomber Command Memorial can be found here.


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Flt Lt Patrick McCarthy DFC & Plt. Off. Alan Hargrave

A Bomber crew preparing for their next mission

A Bomber crew preparing for their next mission

One thing that my research into Portsmouth’s Second World War dead has shown is the sheer number of young men who were killed on operations whilst serving in the RAF, and in particular in Bomber Command. There were young men who were going into action night after night in the skies over Europe. Bomber Command lost more men killed than any other comparable command in the British armed forces during the war.

We tend to think of Portsmouth as being a naval town, which of course it is – we all know about the devastating loss of life caused by the sinkings of HMS Royal Oak, HMS Hood and HMS Barham. We are also perhaps more conscious of the armies role, especially as Portsmouth was the launchpad for D-Day.

Yet we hear very little about the young men of Portsmouth who were killed serving in the RAF. And they were overwhelmingly members of Bomber Command, killed in the strategic Bomber offensive during 1943 and 1944. They were mostly called-up servicemen, the peacetime RAF had expanded massively. They were also remarkably young – most were in their early to mid twenties. Not only were they going into action every night, but they were performing roles operating a complex aircraft – Pilots, Navigators, Wireless Operators, Flight Engineers, Air Bombers and Air Gunners.

Remarkably, two un-related Portsmouth men were killed on the same aircraft. Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC (21 and from Southsea) and Pilot Officer Alan Hargrave (24 and from Portsmouth) were members of 7 Squadron, which operated Lancasters from Oakington. Crew members of PB148 MG-C ‘C for Charlie’, McCarthy was the Pilot and Hargrave the Navigator. Bomber Crews formed by a process of ‘palling-up’, so either McCarthy and Hargrave teamed up as two Portsmouth lads, or by a huge coincidence they found themselves on the same crew.

On an operation to bomb a target at Sterkrade in the Ruhr, 7 Squadron was in the Pathfinder role. C for Charlie, however, came to grief in the skies over Holland. There is no indication as to how the she was lost, but all of the crew are now buried in Bergen-op-Zoom War Cemetery in Holland.

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Sergeant Francis Compton DFM

35 Squadron RAF

35 Squadron RAF

Seargeant Francis Compton, 20 and from Paulsgrove, was killed on the night of 29 June 1943.

Not only does Compton’s story show just how young some of Bomber Command’s aircrew were, it also highlights just how many young men from Portsmouth were lost in the skies over Europe in the Second World War.

His Halifax Bomber, serial number HR812, Squadron number TL-F, took off at 11.27pm from Graveley on a mission to attack Cologne in Germany. Part of 35 Squadron, RAF, their role was to act as pathfinders, identifying and illuminating the target for the main force who would follow on behind.

Compton, an Air Gunner, was onboard HR812 when she was shot down by a German night fighter, piloted by Lieutenant Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, at 01.55am. The Halifax crashed near Wandre, 8 kilometres North East of Liege in Belgium.

During the Battle of the Ruhr in May 1943, Sgt Compton (then serving with No.10 Sqdn), shot down one night-fighter, damaged a second and drove off at least two others. His immediate DFM was Gazetted on 4 June 1943.

Sergeant Compton is buried in Heverlee Cemetery, Belgium.


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Book of the week: Bomber Harris special

Bomber Harris: his life and times

Bomber Harris: his life and times

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris and the RAF’s WW2 Bomber Command of late, and I thought I would take a look at some of the many books written by him, about him, and about his work.

My interest was sparked by picking up a cheap copy of Bomber Harris: His Life and Times by Henry Probert (Greenhill, 2003) at the National Archives bookshop when I was there doing some research. It is a remarkably balanced work, addressing some of the myths and detractions that have been pointed at Harris and his men. Importantly, it looks at his prewar and post-war lives, to give us some context to his character. Clinchingly, Probert does not seek to eulogise Harris, as many military biographies do, nor denigrate him, as revionist historians might seek to.

This contrasts firmly with the ‘official’ biography, published shortly after his death. In Bomber Harris (Time Warner, 1985) Dudley Saward misses out vast swathes of Harris’s life, even omitting to mention that he had a first family before his divorce. Whilst this is not militarily important, and there were no doubt honourable reasons for this, it does cast questions over the authors judgement regarding inclusion and exclusion of details. As with most official biographies, it is firmly uncontroversial.

Sir Arthur Harris also wrote himself. In Bomber Offensive (Pen and sword, 2005) we really get a flavour of the man. Writing in terms that would be totally unacceptable today, and without the saddlestone of hindsight, this is a timely reminder that men were making difficult decisions at the time based on the difficult situation they were in.

Casting our net wider, the celebrated war-reporter turned Newspaper Editor, Max Hastings, has turned his pen’s attention towards Bomber Command. In Bomber Command (Pan, 1999) Hastings has produced an eminently readable and well crafted work. Whilst one might not agree with his conclusions about the effectiveness of the Bomber offensive, it is not difficult to admire his objectiveness, something which is all too often lacking in some military historians.

However, in this historians view the best work written about the Bomber offensive is by that under-rated, serial rescuer of maligned military figures, Robin Neillands. In The Bomber War (John Murray, 2001) Neillands took the approach of appraising Bomber Command and the US Eight Air Forces efforts together, rather than separately, as many other books do. Not sensational, and not as ‘trendy’ as Hastings, but more on the spot, one feels.


Filed under Book of the Week, Royal Air Force