Wednesday, 19 May 2010

RAF Bomber Command goes to war in 1939

On 31 August 1939 the Air Ministry sent an identical telegram to all officers and men of the RAF not currently on duty. It read simply “Report to Unit immediately”. Given the tense international situation of the time nobody who received that telegram could have been in much doubt as to what it meant.

The next day, 1 September, Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France both sent an ultimatum to Germany stating that unless German armed forces pulled out of Poland within two days war would be declared. So it was that on the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939 radio sets in virtually every base of RAF Bomber Command were tuned into the BBC Home Service at 11am that day. The crowds of men and women gathered round the radios heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announce that Germany had not replied to the ultimatum and that as a consequence Britain was at war with Germany.

The general mood in Bomber Command was one of grim acceptance. Most flying crew were young men. They had no experience of combat flying and little idea of what was going to happen. Most expected to be ordered off on a mission that day, or at least the next, and took their aircraft on a short flight to test its airworthiness. Just as likely, many thought, was for the skies to darken with Luftwaffe bombers coming to pound the RAF out of existence. Either way casualties were likely to be heavy within the next few weeks.

Among the ground crews and administrative staff were some men who had served with the RFC during World War I. These older men had seen combat and knew very well what to expect. Most saw their role as calming the nerves of the younger men, giving assurances of the superiority of modern British aircraft or simply by acting in a confident manner. It was a role that some took to well, but that many others found an enormous strain – all the more so once casualties began to mount.

In the event the Luftwaffe was too busy in Poland to bother with attacks on Britain or France. By the time the Polish campaign was over at the end of September, Hitler was expecting Britain and France to make a face-saving peace. When this did not happen, he ordered his generals to prepare a surprise winter invasion of France in January 1940. The Luftwaffe laid its plans to support this ground attack and husbanded its forces.

This is an extract from RAF Bomber Command at War by Rupert Matthews

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