Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:13 pm
At the RAF Museum in Hendon, north London, there is a massive aircraft hanger entirely dedicated to bombers. Most of the aeroplanes on display in Bomber Hall are World War Two vintage, some are more recent – and some aren’t bombers at all (so we’ll omit those for the time being). It is an uncomfortable contradiction that weaponry designed, as of course all of it is, to kill and maim fellow human beings, can occasionally evoke intense feelings of pride and comradeship. This is particularly true of aircraft and ships, in which (mainly) young men achieved amazing things, often as part of a close-knit team. And how can something that is intended to perform such an ugly job at the same time sometimes also appear so beautiful?
Perhaps because I was brought up on a cultural diet that included Captain WE Johns, Nevil Shute, heroic biographies and a myriad of old war movies (“On your tail, Algy.”), some of these aeroplanes seem like old friends. Making plastic Airfix kits at an early, impressionable, age can’t have helped. So it is hard not to look at some of these machines without admiration and a sense of nostalgia – even though I hasten to add that I wasn’t there. “OK, chaps, starting my bombing run now…”
Aerial bombardment remains one of the most contentious aspects of warfare. Precision targeting is obviously preferable to indiscriminate blanket bombing, but is cold, clinical – and terrifying because of the seemingly inexorable inevitability of the result, and the intelligent power behind it. Laser-guided missiles that can take out particular buildings were the stuff of science fiction when British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin claimed in 1932, that, “The bomber will always get through”. In the 1930s, it was thought that any future war would be hallmarked by devastating air attacks against civilians, including the widespread use of gas. The destruction of the Spanish town of Guernica by the German and Italian air forces in 1937 seemed to support this theory. Immediately prior to World War Two, military expert Basil Liddell-Hart predicted 250,000 casualties in Britain in the first week of war.
Yet the German Luftwaffe never really seriously developed the sort of heavy bomber that the British and Americans did, instead relying on medium bombers and dive bombers that could be used as mobile artillery – dive bombers were more accurate than the indiscriminate dropping of bombs from a great height. In the initial stages of World War Two, the main protagonists usually shied away from bombing civilians – though the Germans regarded both Warsaw and Rotterdam as legitimate strategic targets. The RAF spent a lot of time dropping propaganda leaflets during the so-called phoney war, before the invasion of Denmark and Norway, and some in Britain regarded the bombing of Germany as an outrage against private property. The reality was that no one had the technical ability to hit specific targets with any real precision – whatever the officials and newspapers said.
Baldwin was right – the bomber always got through, though the human cost was mutually appalling. Some 60,595 British citizens were killed during air raids on the UK in the Second World War, including 8,300 killed by Vergeltungswaffen, ‘reprisal weapons’, the pilotless V1 and V2. The British, joined by the Americans from mid-1942, embarked on a still controversial strategic bombing campaign that was intended to reduce Germany’s ability to continue the war by hitting the means of production, as well as military targets. RAF Bomber Command flew by night, while the USAAF operated by day. However, anything between 305,000 and 600,000 people, including civilians, POWs and slave labourers, died in Germany from Allied bombing between 1939-45. It is estimated that perhaps 45,000 alone perished in the raids on Hamburg in July 1943 and up to 25,000 in Dresden in February 1945, when the concentration of high explosives on both occasions was so great that it caused firestorms – similar to the effects of an atomic bomb. Royal Air Force and US Army Air Force (USAAF) crew were christened, Terrorflieger, ‘terror flyers’, by the Germans. The fear of being caught in a bombing raid is, thankfully, incomprehensible to most of us; helpless, unable to retaliate or take much action that would guarantee survival for themselves or their loved ones, often the only thing people could do was wait, and hope, until it was all over. They were, on all sides, truly victims.
RAF Bomber Command included many nationalities – for example, American, Australian, Canadian, Czechoslovakian, French, Indian, New Zealander, Norwegian, Polish, Rhodesian and South African. It suffered horrendous casualties; 55,573 air crew of Bomber Command died – an atrocious death-rate of 44%, the worst of any branch of the British armed services. USAAF deaths were 26,000 out of 305,000 aircrew deployed in the European Theatre. Many thousands more were wounded or taken prisoner. Most of these were very young men, convinced they were doing a job that would win, or shorten, the war.
All of which is pretty sobering when you survey the impressive exhibits in Bomber Hall. Here is a bit about some of them.
Avro Lancaster I
The ‘Lanc’, designed by Roy Chadwick and initially equipped with four Rolls Royce Merlin engines – the same powerhouse that drove the Spitfire – was the iconic RAF bomber of the Second World War. More than 7,000 were built and it is believed 17 survive, though only two are still airworthy – one in the UK and one in Canada.
The one at RAF Hendon is S-Sugar, a famous aircraft that survived at least 125 operational sorties over Europe between 1942 and 1945, first with 83 Squadron based at Scampton, Lincolnshire, then with 467 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force.
Boeing B17G “Flying Fortress”
Called ‘the Flying Fortress’ because it was so heavily armed, from 1944 this was the mainstay of the 8th Air Force of the USAAF, ‘the mighty 8th‘ operating from Britain over occupied Europe. 12,731 B17s were built – it is said that one rolled off the production line at Boeing’s factory in Seattle every 90 minutes – and they were supplied to air forces all over the world, including the RAF. The Brazilian Air Force was still flying them up to 1968. Hollywood stars Clark Gable and James Stewart both flew in B17s. They were massive aeroplanes, with a crew of 10.
The B17 at RAF Hendon was built in 1945 and was in service until 1956. It was actually flown across the Atlantic to the museum in 1983.
The Halifax took a major part in the night bombing campaign against Germany, dropping more than 25% of the RAF’s bombs. But it suffered major losses and was restricted to less hazardous targets and duties from September 1943.
In April 1942, this particular aeroplane, W1048, attacked the German pocket battleship Tirpitz, anchored in a fjord near Trondheim, Norway, from a height of 200 feet. It was badly damaged in the attack. The pilot, P/O Don MacIntyre, a Canadian, skilfully managed to land the fatally wounded aircraft on the surface of a frozen lake. All six crew got out alive: one was captured by the Germans and the others made their way to neutral Sweden with the help of the Norwegian resistance. The Halifax sunk. The wreck was discovered in 1971 and was recovered in 1973. Amazingly, after 30 years in an ice-cold lake, the instrument panel lit up when connected to a battery.
The B25 ‘Mitchell’ was a highly successful World War II American medium bomber, supplied to air forces all over the world, including the RAF and the Soviet Union. The US mostly employed it in the Pacific theatre and did not use it in Britain. It was 16 Mitchells that took off from the carrier USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo in the famous ‘Doolittle Raid’ of April 1942.
The aeroplane in the museum at Hendon was built in 1944 and served as a training aircraft with American forces until 1959. It was used in two films, Catch 22 and Hanover Street (which I confess I’ve never heard of) and flew to Britain across the Pond in 1978.
Photographed in a separate hanger and now at the RAF’s other museum at Cosford, the V1 ‘flying bomb’ or ‘doodlebug’ was a pilotless aircraft powered by a distinctive-sounding pulse jet. The noise has been described as ‘like a badly-tuned motor-bike’. When the engine cut out, the aircraft would fall silently to earth, the explosive in the nose detonating on impact. It had a limited range. Some 9,500 V1s were launched against Britain from 13th June 1944, of which 6,208 fell to earth, mostly on London. The remainder were shot down over, or fell into the sea; it was discovered that, by skilfully flying precisely alongside and tipping them with the wing of an aircraft, the V1’s gyroscope would be unbalanced and they would crash.
The V2 was a long-range rocket which flew at c3,600 mph and arrived without warning 5 minutes after it had been launched. It could not be tracked. The first one to fall on Britain landed in Chiswick, in West London, in September 1944. It killed 3 people. Initially, to avoid mass panic, the government line was that the explosions were caused by defective gas mains, though it was forced to admit the truth by November. There was no defence against this kind on attack at the time and the rockets only stopped after the launch facilities had been overrun in March 1945. This too was photographed in a separate hanger and may no longer be on display in Hendon, though there is a V2 at Cosford.
Not all of the aeroplanes at RAF Hendon are particularly ancient. The Tornado was jointly developed by the UK, Germany and Italy in the 1970s and was also supplied to Saudi Arabia. Although no longer in production, Tornados are still in service at the time of writing (2017).
The particular aircraft shown on display at the museum was built by British Aerospace at Warton, Lancashire, in 1983. It served in Operation Desert Storm, the Gulf War in 1991, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and with 617 ‘the Dambusters’ Squadron. It was withdrawn from service in 2002.
The distinctive delta-winged Vulcan was one of the RAF’s ‘V bombers’, carrying Britain’s nuclear deterrent until the advent of Polaris submarines in the 1960s. They were operational from 1956 until 1984 and served in the Falklands War of 1982. The aircraft had a range of more than 2,500 miles – and a massive wingspan of almost 100’ (30.3 metres).
The one on display flew with 617, 83 and 27 Squadrons RAF between 1961 and 1981.
The superb RAF Museum at Hendon is within easy walking distance of Colindale tube station – Northern (black) line, Edgware branch. If you’re driving, there is parking on site – which is charged for – but entry to the museum is free. From J4 of the M1 – left, left, steady, right, right, left, steady, hard left now Skipper. OK Chaps, we’re home; all switches off.
Other aviation museums are available; you will find some listed under Places to Visit.