2003 History Conference - Air War Europe

The Men of Bomber Command
Don Charlwood

Who were the men of Bomber Command, the youngsters who flew at an average age of 22 or 23 and suffered such casualties? Largely they were products of the Great Depression of the 1930s. They were a generation much more cynical about war propaganda than their fathers had been, much less inclined to “flock to the colours”. But they did flock to the Air Force because there you could be paid to learn to fly. So it was throughout the British Commonwealth. The heroes of their boyhoods had been Kingsford Smith, Jimmy Mollison, and Bert Hinkler. If they had to go to war, then let it be as fighter pilots rather than “going over the top” in bayonet charges through mud and barbed wire.

As it eventuated, most of these volunteers were not destined to become fighter pilots at all. They might become Bomber Command pilots, or Coastal Command pilots, but it was much more likely that they would become other members of bomber crews – navigators, wireless operators, and air gunners – for Bomber Command was where the losses were. But for most of them the opportunity to learn to fly was the initial attraction. It might even be said that they were young men of greater sensibility than most, and that they saw war in the air as being “cleaner” than war on land or at sea. In retrospect then, it is ironic that those who went to Bomber Command had no choice but to bomb combatants and civilians alike.

In 1940, 60,000 men applied for the first 4,000 training places in Australia. Interview panels were set up all over the country – inexperienced panels by today’s standards. How could they hope to assess the potential of so many? Only a small minority of applicants had a tertiary education: most had not gone beyond fourth form at secondary school. The school-leaving age was still only 14. The interview panels lacked tests for intelligence and aptitude. They could only try to determine how well each applicant might have done in life had he been given opportunity for higher education. Thus, it became important for interviewers to determine motivation: how keen was each applicant?

Fortunately, the Air Force did not have to depend on these initial panels: they were only a rough starting point. The men they selected had many further hurdles before them. Next they would have to pass the stringent aircrew medical examination. Droves of them failed. The remainder were placed on the Air Force Reserves and had to undertake the “Twenty-one Lessons”, a course of training in mathematics, basic physics, and navigation. For a minority that had recently left, say, fifth form of secondary school, this presented no great difficulty. It was much harder for those whose school days were well behind them. Additionally, reservists had to learn the mind-numbing Morse code. Some reservists found these requirements either too demanding or too time-consuming and switched to other services.

For clarity, I can only go now to my own sequence of training. I was 11 months on the Reserves and was not called up until May 1941 for the six-week Initial Training Course. On this course more were weeded out. At the end of the course, we each faced a Category Selection Committee. For my part, I hoped to be a navigator. But many of those confident of becoming pilots faced bitter disappointment. This was indeed a test of one’s “keenness”. These men had been keen to be pilots; could they now transfer their keenness to other aircrew categories?

The next phase of training most likely took place in Australia or Canada. I was posted to Edmonton, Alberta. On our course of 25 there were at least seven “scrubbed pilots”: men who has failed at some stage of pilot training short of gaining their wings. This was an even greater test of one’s “keenness” to remain in aircrew. But we were plunged so soon into classroom work and demanding air exercises that the scrubbed pilots’ disappointment tended to diminish.

The Empire Air Training Scheme was remarkably well co-ordinated and standardised; Canadian training followed on smoothly after Australia training and eventually RAF training built well on both. During training the selection process continued: two of our men failed and were returned home, and two were put back a course.

Just two months into training in Canada, Pearl Harbor was bombed. There was at once consternation among Australians training in Canada: should we be going on to England, or should we be going home? Two months later, Singapore fell and Darwin was bombed. In Australia, Britain’s stocks fell as rapidly as Singapore. This was to have repercussions for all Australians involved in the air war against Germany, not just for the rest of the war, but for ever after. We were seen as being “over there” when we were needed “here”. Indeed, I remember the late Sir James Rowland, former Pathfinder pilot, opening an address in 1990 with the words, “When I arrived home in Australia in 1945, I found I had been to the wrong war!”

We were concentrating on our last weeks of our training in Canada when the Australian Government took the step of sending officers from the High Commission in Ottawa to speak to trainees. Go on to England, we were told. Gain operational experience there and you will be of more use to Australia. Neither the speakers nor we ourselves could know how relatively few of us would return, or know that the RAAF in Australia would have small regard for Bomber Command experience anyway.

So to England we went. We were stationed for some weeks in Bournemouth. There we tended to feel exaggeratedly Australian as we marched about the beautiful town with trainees of the RAF, the RCAF, and the RNZAF. We were not going to be browbeaten by bloody Poms! A couple of times we were given leave and gravitated to London. I believe it was there that I had an awakening I am sure it was shared by many others. It was not so much seeing the devastation around us and the Londoners going about their daily work, or even seeing the bombed-out East Enders sleeping in bunks on the platforms of the underground. It was more the unanticipated sight of the different nationalities among servicemen in the streets. There were Poles, Norwegians, Free French, Czechs, and Belgians. These men, we realized, had made perilous escapes and had left behind members of their families, possible hostages to Nazism. There were men, too, of British regiments that had escaped from Dunkirk, numerous men of the Canadian army, and also the first of the Americans. Uniformed young women were in numbers such as we had never seen. There was a remarkable spirit of bonding between all these troops, a feeling in the air that these people would prevail. And it was a humbling experience for us to be thanked by civilians for what we had done before we had done anything at all. Our nationalism began to seem pretty small. The challenge we faced was how to fit into this international team? Something else was very evident: Bomber Command was one of the primary forces sustaining both troops and civilians, for it was the only force able to hit back against a victorious enemy entrenched a few miles away.

When we started operational training we were instructed by ex-RAF aircrew, men already experienced in operations over Germany. They possessed qualities we had thought of as being Australian. They were easy-going, jocular, and, in their battered caps and sagging battle dress, rather scruffy. They were an extraordinary cross-section of British life. On squadrons, they told us, no one bothered much about spit and polish. Provided crews were ready to fly, they were pretty much left alone. What mattered most was to have self-discipline and crew discipline in the air. They were ready to pass us hints as to how best we might survive.

To survive, there was the rub! Thirty “operational sorties” over Europe were demanded of us as a first tour; the “chop rate” just then was running a bit over 5 per cent on each operation. How was it, we began wondering, that some of these men has survived considerably more sorties than thirty? Some had survived second tours. It baffled us that they still seemed eager to get back to a squadron and, as they put it, “dice”. We did not foresee that in time, survivors from among ourselves would also become high on their own adrenalin and be ready to dice again with death. Nor did we realize that these men we met and admired were the tip of the iceberg of the missing.

At Operational Training Units, we were left to ourselves to form into crews. Most crews were mixed – Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders combining with RAF aircrew. In my case, only my skipper and I were Australians. He was 26; I was 27. We carried out 12 training flights, six by day and six by night. Gradually we learned how utterly dependent we were on each other. At this stage, our first casualties began. They were caused by a deadly combination: inexperience, poor weather, crowded skies, worn-out planes – in 1942 the only planes available to us. By war’s end, no fewer than 8,000 men had been killed in training.

Our training over, we Australians could be posted to an RAAF squadron – which would have a sizeable RAF element – or to a mixed squadron. We went to a mixed squadron, and to an artificially created “village” of something over two thousand people, isolated on the Lincolnshire wolds. It had a permanent population of young men and women and a transient population of aircrew.

In the months ahead I began to feel that mixed crews and mixed squadrons developed attitudes not as readily fostered in national groups. National groups, I believe, tended to grouch more among themselves; men in mixed crews and on mixed squadrons were inclined to think, “If this Belgian – or Dutchmen, or Canadian – can cope with this life, then so can I”. We soon recognised that each nation produced its own quota of courageous, dependable men. In this mixed company I believe our horizons expanded, and our “best mates” were not only Australians; it was like the mateship between mixed nationalities on early Australian goldfields. Aircrew training had been a great leveller. Men who had made it this far, wherever they had come from, were a special breed. We were not unaware that we were an elite, that our temporary village existed only to get us and our bombs over Germany.

Like all squadrons, ours was constantly haemorrhaging, but the transfusions from Training Command were equally steady, so that numbers of men never diminished, only faces changed. They arrived shining with an air of invincibility, like today’s P-plate car drivers. They who lasted awhile matured rapidly. As for the rest, we were never witness to their death on operations, just as we were never witness to the victims of our bombing.

We always retained brotherly interest in the Australians we had trained with in Canada before each one of us had married into a crew. They were scattered now on various squadrons. Eighteen of us had gone to Bomber Command. I have written elsewhere that these men suffered losses fairly typical of that time. Two of us reached thirty operations; two that had missed flying when their usual crew was lost went on to reach 53 and 78 operations. One other switched to Mosquitoes after 25 operations on Lancasters and flew a total of ninety operations. There was one prisoner of war. Twelve of the 18 were killed.

Early in 1944 as I prepared to leave England, the years behind me – the Canadian training, the operations over Europe, the camaraderie of these best of men – began to seem like a long and tragic play. I shall close with a few lines from my book, Journeys into night, to try to share the feeling I had then, and have still, for the men of Bomber Command:

We were beckoned off stage and told there were young actors waiting to replace us. We could pack our belongings now and return to our places of origin – The director’s assistants shook hands with us and wished us well. We lingered in the wings, reluctant to leave those of our countrymen still playing roles of Warriors killed in Battle. There were so many more of them than of us. We hoped that they might soon get up and make their exit with us. It was taking the play too far to leave them lying there forsaken.

I did not imagine that all my life I would look back on the play, questioning myself about it.


Don Charlwood was one of thousands of Australian airmen who participated in the bomber offensive against Germany. Since the war he has written a series of exquisite and moving books – such as No moon tonight (1956) and Journeys into night (1991) – reflecting on the course of his life and his experiences with Bomber Command.