Air War NW Europe 1939-45 (World War 2, 3 September 1939 to 5 May 1945)

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About This Campaign

This campaign was based  on the Royal Air Force's engagement with the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica (Italian Airforce) in NW Europe over Britain, France and Germany, and lasted until 5 May 1945.  

Many Australians served in RAF Squadrons and in a number of RAAF and other Dominion units.  Aircrew were generally trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme. (/explore/campaigns/13)  

Australian "Article XV Squadrons" all with a 400 series number, were attached to RAF Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands.  Article XV Squadrons also included Canadian, New Zealand and South African Squadrons, in which Australians also served. 

The greatest number of Australians served as individuals posted across the RAF force.  These men were nown colloquially as "Odd Bods".

The sector operating at the greatest intensity were those flown by RAF Bomber Command and Australian aircrews flew in virtually every major operation, including the first Thousand Bomber raid, Operation Chastise (the Dambusters raid), Pathfinder Force and major operations against Hamburg Berlin and the Ruhr Valley, German's industrial heartland.

Although in numerical terms less than 2 per cent of Australia's World War II total enlistments, the 3486 men who were killed in Bomber Command accounted for almost 20 per cent of all Australian combat deaths, the other largest single group being PoW of the Japanese. The squadron with the greatest losses - 1019 men - was 460 Squadron RAAF, (/explore/units/28) which operated Vickers Wellington and then Avro Lancaster bombers from England from 1942.

In late 1943 and early 1944, during the peak of the bomber offensive against Germany, the bomber crews suffered a loss rate of nearly five per cent on each operation (a bombing raid or 'op' for short).  The chance of surviving a full tour of 30 'ops' was remote.   

Aircraft were often lost with all crew but on many occasions, at least some members of the crew might escape a doomed aircraft.  About 1,500 RAAF aircrew 'bailed out' from their aircraft over enemy territory and spent the remainder of the war in prison camps.

The Air War comprised a number of phases, some of which were concurrent:

The "Phoney War" – pre May 1940

Fighter Command Operations  - 452 and 457 Squadrons  (/explore/units/391) 453 Squadron (/explore/units/390)

The Battle of France – May-June 1940.  Pilot Officer Leslie Clisby DFC (/explore/people/13447), from South Australia, became an ace in this campaign before being killed in action in May 1940.

The Battle of Britain – July–October 1940.  Relatively few Australians played a direct role in the Battle.  One who did was Flight Lieutenant Richard Reynell (/explore/people/378906) who flew with the RAF's 43 Squadron.  He was killed in action on 7th September 1940.  His father had been killed in action commanding the 9th Light Horse Regiment at Hill 60 at Gallipoli in August 1915.

The Blitz -  November 1940-June 1941. 456 RAAF Night Fighter Squadron (/explore/units/960) defended Britain from night bombing raids.  Squadron Leader Bob Cowper DFC, (/explore/people/512078) who flew with and commanded No. 456 Squadron later in the war had 'cut his teeth' in a similar RAF unit, No. 108 Squadron, before being transfered to the Mediterranean theatre.

‘Rhubarbs’ & fighter escorts – June 1941–D Day. 

Post D Day - ground attack and interdiction of enemy ground forces

Bomber Command Offensive.  

Australia's 460 (/explore/units/28), 462 (/explore/units/801) (Special Duties) , 463 & 467 Squadrons (/explore/units/398) and 466 Squadron (/explore/units/743) flew as part of RAF Bomber Command.  Tens of thousands of Australians flew in RAF Squadrons. Collectively they suffered the highest loss rates of any Australian grouping in WW2.

  • Early on, twin engined medium bomber aircraft such as the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, Handley Page Hampden, Avro Manchester and Vickers Wellington formed the bulk of the force but they quickly became obsolete.  Their losses were high and the decision was taken to switch to night operations.  
  • A Luftwaffe decision to bomb London at night during the Blitz in 1940 triggered a response raid on Berlin which began Britain's main offensive campaign until the D Day landings.
  • Early results were disappointing mainly due to problems with navigation.
  • The introduction of four engined bombers, the Short Stirling, Handley Page Halifax and the famed Avro Lancaster bomber changed things.  Also added to the inventory was the very fast twin engined de Havilland Mosquito.  The creation of the Pathfinder force in mid 1942,  led by Australian Wing Commander Don Bennett, to mark targets for the main force, and later still the introduction of navigation aids such as "Gee" and "H2S" inreased accuracy and the damage inflicted increased exponentially.   The Lancaster in particular formed the backbone of the night bomber force from 1942.  It was arguably the best bomber of the war; able to carry a prodigious bomb load and faster than its American day bomber counterparts, if not as well armed and protected.
  • Despite the aircraft's success,  its losses were horrendous, with fully half of the Lancaster fleet of over 7000, lost in action mainly to enemy night fighters and anti aircraft fire (known as Flack).

First 'thousand bomber raid' Cologne May 1942

The Dams raid May 1943.  Numbers of Australians took part in this famous raid by 617 squadron ("The Dambusters") including pilots Mickey Martin and Dave Shannon.

Pathfinders. The Pathfinder Force was consolidated in No. 8 Group of Bomber Command

The Ruhr (Germany's industrial heartland)



Support to Operation Overlord (May - September 1944)  The Transportation Plan raids over France and Belgium.

D Day - paratroop and glider-borne Assaults, resupply operations

Dresden Feb 1945 - the most controversial raid of the campaign - flown at maximum range from the United Kingdom.

Relief Operations  - Post war's end repatriation of prisoners and dropping of emergency food supplies in Holland, 'Operation Manna'

Transport Command Operations

Special Operations Executive  - infiltration of agents into occupied Europe

Coastal Command Operations  - North Atlantic.

The Battle of the Atlantic and the U Boat scourge.  Australia's 10 Squadron (/explore/units/392)served throughout the War and was joined by 461 Squadron (/explore/units/392) in this role operating Short Sunderland Flying Boats.

Maritime Strike. RAAF 455 Beaufighter Squadron (/explore/units/408) played a key role attacking Nazi shipping in the North Sea and Norway.


Steve Larkins 15 May 2013



Slow motion nightmare over Dusseldorf - April 1944

Out of the 596 aircraft on the raid 29 were shot down. These figure were fairly typical of RAF raids on German targets at the time – immense destruction was now almost assured at a cost that was, if not acceptable, then at least sustainable.

Flight Engineer Sergeant C.H. ‘Chick’ Chandler was on one of the Lancasters that was not shot down that night. His experience was about as bad as it could get without becoming a casualty. In his memory the traumatic events remained to be replayed in slow motion:

It was 0110 HOURS on the morning of 23 April 1944. We were a XV Squadron Lancaster III crew from Mildenhall on our 17th op and we were hit simultaneously by heavy flak and cannon fire from an Me 109 at the precise moment that our bombs were released on Dusseldorf. Being the flight engineer, I was standing on the right-hand side of the cockpit, as was usual during our bombing run, with my head in the blister to watch for any fighter attack that might occur from the starboard side.

The bombs were actually dropping from the aircraft when there was a tremendous explosion. For a brief period of time everything seemed to happen in ultra-slow motion. The explosion knocked me on my back; I was aware of falling on to the floor of the aircraft, but it seemed an age before I actually made contact. I distinctly remember ‘bouncing’. Probably lots of flying clothing and Mae Wests broke my fall, but under normal circumstances one would not have been aware of ‘bouncing’.

As I fell I ‘saw’, in my mind’s eye, very clearly indeed, a telegram boy cycling to my mother’s back door. He was whistling very cheerfully and handed her the telegram that informed her of my death. She was very calm and thanked the boy for delivering the message.

As I laid there I saw a stream of sparks pass a few feet above the cockpit, from back to front and going up at a slight angle. This caused me some confusion. If the sparks were from a burning engine they were going the wrong way. It was some little time before I realised that the ‘sparks’ were in fact tracer shells from a fighter that I did not know was attacking us.

The illusion that the tracer shells were going upwards was no doubt caused by the fact that our Lancaster was going into an uncontrolled, screaming dive, but because of the slow-motion effect that I was experiencing, I did not appreciate this fact. This whole episode had taken 2 or 3 seconds at most, then the slow-motion effect began to wear off, and I became aware of the screams of the bomb-aimer.

[after the aircraft went through violent evasive dives they threw off the fighter … the order to prepare to ‘bale out’ was withdrawn after they discovered that most of the parachutes had been destroyed]

My task now was to check the aircraft for damage and casualties. My checks started at the front of the aircraft, in the bomb-aimer’s compartment. I am afraid to say that my sheltered life had not prepared me for the terrible sight that met my eyes. It was obvious that this area had caught the full blast of the flak, and Alan Gerrard had suffered the most appalling injuries. At least he would have died almost instantaneously.

Suffice to say that I was sick. At this stage I risked using my torch to shine along the bomb bay to make sure that all our bombs were gone. My report simply was that the bomb-aimer had been killed and that all bombs had left the aircraft.

Next stop was the cockpit. The pilot had really worked wonders in controlling the aircraft and successfully feathering the engine that had been on fire. Then on to the navigator’s department; on peering round the blackout screen I saw that Ken Pincott was busy working over his charts, but that Flight Lieutenant John Fabian DFC, the H2S operator (the Squadron navigation leader), appeared to be in shock. However, once I established that there appeared to be no serious damage, I moved on. The wireless operator’s position was empty because his task during the bombing run was to go to the rear of the aircraft and ensure that the photo flash left at the same time as the bombs. Next, down to the mid-upper turret, where Ron Wilson had re-occupied his position, albeit only temporarily. (Unknown to me, he had suffered a wound to his ear that, although not too serious, would keep him off flying for a few weeks.)

On reaching the next checkpoint I was again totally unprepared for the dreadful sight that confronted me. Our wireless operator, Flight Sergeant L. Barnes, had sustained, in my opinion, fatal chest injuries and had mercifully lost consciousness. It was found later that he had further very serious injuries to his lower body and legs. He died of his wounds before we reached England.

From the rear turret I got a ‘thumbs up’ sign from ‘Whacker’ Mair, so I rightly concluded that he was OK. As well as having to report the death of our bomb-aimer, and the fatal injuries to the wireless operator, I had to report the complete failure of the hydraulic system. The pilot was already aware of the fact that we had lost our port inner engine through fire, and that our starboard outer was giving only partial power. The bomb doors were stuck in the open position, and the gun turrets had been rendered inoperative because of the hydraulic failure.

Post script: They had just enough fuel to make it back to England, gradually losing height all the way, only to discover that their undercarriage was stuck as they came in to land. The remaining crew survived the emergency landing. All the survivors remained on flying duties, only the slightly wounded mid upper gunner had a brief respite.

See Bowman (Ed.) RAF Bomber Stories: Dramatic First-hand Accounts of British and Commonwealth Airmen in World War 2

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Showing 8 people of interest from campaign

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CROFT, Robert McKerlie

Service number 407199
Flying Officer
No. 463 Squadron (RAAF)
Royal Australian Air Force
Born 16 Dec 1916

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FORBES, William Alexander

Service number 414219
Wing Commander
No. 463 Squadron (RAAF)
Royal Australian Air Force
Born 28 Dec 1919

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ROWAN, Percival John Hamilton

Service number 36133
Flying Officer
No. 40 Squadron (RAF)
Royal Air Force
Born 29 Jan 1916

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BELL, Maxwell Herron

Service number 405995
Pilot Officer
No. 19 Squadron (RAF)
Royal Air Force
Born 19 Feb 1923

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Service number 407427
Flight Lieutenant
Operational Training Units (RAF)
Royal Air Force
Born 9 Jun 1917

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KROHN, Henry John

Service number 34017
Flight Sergeant
No. 35 Squadron (RAF - No. 8 Group PFF)
Royal Air Force
Born 30 Sep 1921

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HANIGAN, James Neate

Service number 402120
No. 452 Squadron (RAAF)
Royal Australian Air Force
Born 27 Sep 1917

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SMITH, Colin Hugh Mackenzie

Service number 411397
No. 460 Squadron (RAAF)
Royal Australian Air Force
Born 13 Dec 1911