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RAF Bomber Command

Air crews from RAF Bomber Command went into action against German warships on 4th September 1939 - the second day of the war.  Blenheims and Wellingtons flying from Wattisham and Honington in Suffolk carried out the first RAF offensive action of the conflict at a cost of seven aircraft, from which only two crewmen survived as PoWs.


Wellington taking off - possibly from Bassingbourn

From this first punitive strike, until the last bombing raid in the six-year air war on 2-3 May 1945 against Kiel, RAF Bomber Command fought one of the hardest and bloodiest campaigns in the history of warfare.  From start to finish, some 12,330 aircraft were shot down, wrecked in crashes in the UK or written off due to damage, many of them flying from bases in East Anglia.  It was felt to be only fitting, therefore, that a museum exhibition building should be added to the Flixton Air Museum's already impressive complex, dedicated to the memory of the men and women who served in RAF Bomber Command in World War 2.

In terms of loss of life, RAF Bomber Command's casualties were nothing less than horrific.  During the costly Battle of France, in one raid by Blenheims on 17 May 1940, eleven out of twelve aircraft from No. 82 Squadron were shot down in daylight raids on German armoured units.  The one Blenheim which survived the debacle crash-landed on return to RAF Watton and was damaged beyond repair.  As late as May 1943, the German defences continued to take their toll of locally based RAF bombers in daylight, ten out of twelve Ventura aircraft being destroyed over Holland by a swarm of enemy fighters.  A Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for bravery, was awarded to Squadron Leader Len Trent, DFC RNZAF, for his part in this raid.  A special exhibition in the new building relates to RAF Bomber Command VCs, particularly those with a local connection.

Wellington L4288

More than 11,400 Wellington bombers were produced by Britain in WW 2, more than any other bomber ever built in this country.  Only two examples remain in museums.  In 1982/3 the museum recovered considerable remains from Wellington I L4288 from marshland near the village of Sapiston, Suffolk (above).  The wreckage held by the museum is thought to be the largest Wellington I remains in existence.  The fuselage centre section, nacelles and wing spars make this an extremely substantial wreck.  A complete Pegasus XVII radial engine and propeller were also recovered and have been stripped down and restored by museum staff.  The L4288 remains now form the centrepiece of the new RAF Bomber Command display building at Flixton.  L4288, piloted by S/L L S Lamb, was one of two Wellington aircraft  from No.9 Squadron which crashed following a mid-air collision near RAF Honington on 30th October 1939.  All nine crewmen were killed, and the graves of five can be seen at Honington Churchyard.

Wellington L4288

The remains of Wellington L4288

A brief history

On the 14th July 1936, the Air Defence of Great Britain - the umbrella organisation of Britain’s air forces - was replaced by a system of four RAF Commands: Fighter, Coastal, Training and Bomber Command.   

Early in World War II, Germany’s Reich Marshal Hermann Goering boasted that “No enemy plane will fly over the Reich territory” but with the fall of France in 1940 the only way to take the fight to the enemy was by undertaking bombing missions against occupied Europe.  The bombing offensive against the Axis powers lasted for six years, during which time 55,573 Royal Air Force British and Commonwealth, and 76,000 USAAF, aircrew perished.  Bomber Command’s casualties amounted to almost one seventh of all British deaths in action on land, sea and air between 1939 and 1945.    

The spectacular success of the Battle of Britain is common knowledge but the supreme efforts of those who led and served in Bomber Command have mostly been forgotten - or condemned in recent times by ignorance, or lack of acceptance of the grave situation that prevailed, and the fate that could easily have befallen Great Britain and the remainder of the free world.  The many civilians on the Home Front who endured the Blitz and were in the front line for Hitler’s vengeance weapons, such as the V.1, V.2, and the developing V.3 superguns, certainly did not condemn the policy of retaliatory mass bombing.  Nor did the people living in the countries that had been attacked and invaded by German forces.  It has been estimated that 593,000 German civilians died and 3.37 million dwellings were destroyed from 1939 to 1945, but the role of Bomber Command greatly helped to shorten the war.   

After the fall of the Ottoman Dynasty following World War I, the Royal Air Force was in the Middle East as part of the international force looking after a number of unstable countries.  A rebellion in Iraq in 1920 identified the benefit of aerial policing and reconnaissance, and being able to swiftly reach a location.  These operational roles provided unique opportunities for the service to perfect its training and strategies, and prove it was an efficient and cost-effective force.  The period also provided for the development of bombing techniques.  When only a Squadron Leader and Commander of No.45 Squadron, Arthur T Harris modified his squadron’s Vickers Vernon transports and converted them to bombers by having a hole cut in the forward fuselage with a bombsight installed for a prone bomb-aimer, plus bomb racks and a bomb-release mechanism to be operated by the pilot.  

 In 1923 it was decided that Britain should maintain a Home Defence air force to protect it from attack.  Plans were laid for 52 squadrons to be formed and, because counter-attack was recognised as an essential element of defence, the squadrons were equipped in the ratio of two bombers to one fighter.  Re-armament by Germany, and the secret growth of the Luftwaffe, brought an expansion programme to be considered in 1934 for 75 squadrons, rising to 128 over the following five years.  Further expansion took place in 1935 and 1936 with planned completion by March 1939.  Despite all this, the RAF seriously lagged behind the German Luftwaffe in numbers of aircraft and trained personnel when war came in September 1939.    

 In July 1936, Bomber Command was led by Air Chief Marshal Sir John Steel.  Sir Edgar Ludlow Hewitt became Commander-in-Chief in September 1937, then Air Marshal C. F. A. Portal in April 1940, and Sir Richard Peirse in the October.  In 1941, new heavy bombers such as the Avro Manchester, Short Stirling and Handley Page Halifax entered service, although they represented a small proportion of the 500 aircraft within Bomber Command by the year-end.  The campaign against Germany industry had begun in earnest and from February 1942, with Air Marshal Arthur T Harris then in charge, deliveries commenced of the formidable Avro Lancaster and de Havilland Mosquito aircraft.  

The chosen way to disrupt German war production was to bomb lightly defended factories in occupied Europe and to destroy whole sections of German industrial towns by so-called “area-bombing”.  The radio navigational aid called “Gee” was already in service but by the end of 1942, the Pathfinder Force (P.F.F.) had the new “Oboe” (radio beam device), “H2S” (airborne radar) navigation aids and Target Indicator (T.I.) bombs, so Bomber Command’s great offensive, which lasted from March 1943 to March 1944, could count on greater accuracy in the placing of destructive loads through overcast and, especially, at night.  The demanding development work undertaken at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and elsewhere during WWII saw the introduction of radar aids to navigation and bomb-aiming; flight safety levels today are a direct result of innovations in avionics during WWII.  

In 1944, Bomber Command helped destroy the French railway system and the German coastal defences.  When the Allies invaded Northern France, the occupying German forces could do little to defend themselves or bring in reinforcements or supplies.  Over the following months, the Allied bomber forces attacked tactical targets in support of their armies, and V.1 flying bomb launch sites and supply lines.  In the Autumn, the targets became the transport networks and fuel supply facilities so that, by May 1945, Germany was effectively paralysed.  In the first week of May 1945, as the war in Europe drew to a close, over 6,600 tons of supplies were dropped to starving civilians in Holland.  When hostilities ended, the Command was heavily involved in repatriating some 75,000 ex-prisoners-of-war.  

Harris, later Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur T Harris, Bt, GCB, OBE, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Bomber Command, 1942-1945, was regarded as an inspirational leader and greatly respected by personnel serving in Bomber Command.  Average life expectancy in Bomber Command was very short and aircrew members were extremely fortunate to survive a tour of operations.  This museum building is dedicated to the memory of all who perished.

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