Bomber Command Structure
Command. The RAF split into Bomber, Fighter, Coastal and Training Commands. Below Bomber Command were Groups.
Group. – In 1939 there were 6 Groups in Bomber Command, 5 (No 2 Gp to No 6 Gp) the UK and a 6th (Advanced Air Striking Force – AASF) in France. The HQ No 5 Gp was based at RAF Grantham for most of WW2. Groups were normally commanded by an Air Vice Marshall. In 1942 an additional level of command was added below the Group, the Base. By 1945 there were 8 Groups
Base. – The Base was added to simplify command, normally grouping 2 ‘satellite’ airfields to a main airfield. The Base was commanded by an Air Commodore. Below the Base came the stations. Bomber Command expansion to meet the wartime offensive needs in 1942-43 put a severe strain on organisation administration to the extent that the intermediate level of command between Group HQ‘s and Station – the Base – was introduced in March 1943. A Base consisted of a Base Station with 1 or 2 sub-stations. Each Base was initially identified by the name of the Base Station and the role of the Base, eg Topcliffe Training Base, Leeming Operational Base. However, from September 1943 Bases were re-designated by a 2-number identifier, the 1st number indicating the Group and the 2nd the number of the Base within that Group, the first in each Group being the Group’s training Base. The introduction of 4-engined aircraft towards the end of 1940, provided an increase in aircraft servicing problems which the new heavy bombers demanded, including shortages of technical personnel and hangarage. The ban on the use of permanent hangars which had been evacuated during 1940 was relaxed in 1942. Group servicing units were envisaged to undertake all major aircraft servicing within the squadrons of a Group. However with no ‘spare airfields to dedicate to this activity the smaller units of Base Organisations were formed.
Station. – Each station was a separate airbase from which flying squadrons could generate flying sorties. Stations were commanded by a Group Captain. Each station usually hosted 2 flying squadrons.
Squadron. – Each squadron was commanded by a Wing Commander and normally comprised 2 or 3 Flights.
Flight. – A Flight would normally be equipped with 8 aircraft and have a Squadron Leader as Officer in Charge.
Throughout the entire bombing offensive, the bomber organization was highly centralized and controlled by Bomber Command Headquarters. Groups were responsible for ensuring the crews were briefed according to Bomber Command instructions (routes to and from the targets, altitudes, numbers of aircraft and bomb load), while the stations provided the domestic support and the squadrons provided administration and aircraft maintenance only. However, this changed in March 1943, when Bomber Command reorganized into the Bomber Operational Base System; this system brought several small bases under one station commander and it centralized the administration and maintenance on this new large station. This reorganization reduced squadrons to the aircrew and basic servicing capabilities only (gas, oil, starts and parks).
Strategic Bombing Directives – July 1941 saw the Chiefs of Staff make one of their most important statements with respect to bombing operations, signalling their support for total war from the air and an all-out offensive by the only Service able to target the enemy’s centres of gravity effectively at the time.
“We must first destroy the foundations upon which the German war machine runs – the economy which feeds it, the morale which sustains it, the supplies which nourish it and the hopes of victory which inspire it. Only then shall we be able to return to the continent and occupy and control portions of his territory and impose our will on the enemy – it is on bombing on a scale undreamed of in the last war, that we find the new weapon on which we must principally depend for the destruction of economic life and morale.”
Following the extreme attrition of the Bomber Command force during 1941 this was superseded on 14 Feb 1942 by a new area bombing directive.
“It has been decided that the primary objective of your operations should be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers”.
The Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Portal supplemented with his own thoughts.
“I suppose it is clear that the Aiming Points are to be the built up areas and not the dockyards or aircraft factories.”
Almost a year later on 14 Jan 1943 a new directive was received which pulled the weight of effort away from German targets. The continuing U-boat threat caused the U-boat bases on the western French coast to be given priority status. Lorient, St Nazaire, Brest and La Pallice, together with the U-boat construction yards in Germany were targeted. Italian cities were also to be targeted to help force Italy out of the war.
Bombing Operations – Most bombing operations were carried out by night to afford a measure of force protection against ground-based air defences and German fighter aircraft. The small proportion of daylight attacks which were conducted initially used the Blenheim, later Boston, Ventura and Mosquito. Night bombing came into its own in early 1941. The initial target set focused on oil infrastructure and ops were flown by the Wellington, Whitley and Hampden. Targeting priorities soon changed and by Mar 1941 the ports and shipyards associated with capital ships and the U boat threat were the primary target. Other targets in support of the Battle of the Atlantic were the factories and airfields which supporting the Focke Wolfe Condor reconnaissance platform which patrolled the North Atlantic.
Bomber Comand HQ’s – Bomber Command was formed on 14 July 1936 with temporary headquarters in Hillingdon House, at Royal Air Force Uxbridge.
Air Officer Commanding in Chief Bomber Command – 1939/40 Richings Park Mansion/House (Richings Lodge, Percy Lodge) Former Stately Home
The Main Drive to the south of North Park Road led to the Mansion that gave Richings Park its name and the tree-lined route is still in evidence just North of Colnbrook. The Mansion was owned by Earl Bathurst. In 1739 it was under the ownership of the Duke of Somerset, later still the Earl of Northumberland. Many 18th century literary figures, including Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray and Joseph Addison were inspired by the Mansion and its well-timbered park. The original Mansion was destroyed by fire in 1788 and its replacement was bombed during in World War 2. It had become Bomber Command Headquarters for the RAF but they were due to move to a new location being prepared in Naphill, and Walters Ash nr High Wycombe in March 1940 quite hidden away in the Chiltern beech woods.
1939-40 Richings Park Mansion/House (Richings Lodge, Percy Lodge) – The original Mansion was destroyed by fire in 1788, its replacement was bombed in World War 2. It had become Bomber Command Headquarters for the RAF but they were due to move to a new location being prepared at Naphill, Walters Ash nr High Wycombe in March 1940 quite hidden away in the Chiltern beech woods. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Bomber Command at that time was Sir Edgar Rainey Ludlow-Hewitt. Ludlow-Hewitt steered Bomber Command through the difficult pre-war expansion period but still remained realistic enough to recognise the deficiencies of the Command and its un-readiness for combat as war approached in September 1939. He could see that the problems it faced stemmed largely from the rapid expansion which had failed to address the crucial issues of night flying training, navigational aids, and the vulnerability of bombers to enemy fighter attack during daylight raids. By early in 1940 he acknowledged that the pre-war theory of the bomber always getting through had finally been dashed, and he was openly pessimistic about the capabilities of the RAF’s bomber force. He also campaigned for all aircrew to be fully professional which resulted in the trade of ‘Air Gunner’ being officially recognised in 1939. His campaign also brought about the establishment of a Central Gunnery School. A further innovation he foresaw was the need for a ‘speed bomber’ which eventually emerged from De Havilland’s drawing board, thanks to the support of Wilfred Freeman, as the Mosquito. Yet another shortcoming he recognised and tried, unsuccessfully, to have remedied was the need to provide escort fighters to his bombers, which eventually resulted in a night bomber offensive when it became obvious that daylight operations by the bombers of the day would suicidal. Ludlow-Hewitt spent the remainder of the war in relative anonymity. He served as Inspector-General in the RAF from 14 April 1940 till 1945. It was his job to inspect the airfields of the Royal Air Force.
Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal KG, GCB, OM, DSO, MC
C-in-C Bomber Command 1940 – A quiet but likeable man, at 46 years of age ‘Peter‘ Portal was still relatively young when he succeeded Sir Edgar Ludlow- Hewitt on 4 April 1940 as C-in-C Bomber Command, but his prodigious intelligence and determination as a commander singled him out for higher office. Just 6 months into his command at High Wycombe he was appointed Chief of the Air Staff in October 1940, in which role he was later to become strongly committed to using Bomber Command in the fullest way possible to destroy Nazi Germany. During his short time in command at High Wycombe, Portal steered Bomber Command through the dangerous summer of 1940. As a result of the disastrous daylight operation against the German fleet at Kristiansand in April, he sensibly restricted the Command’s Hampdens and Wellingtons to night operations only, like the Whitleys. He took office as Chief of the Air Staff in October 1940, where he remained for the duration of the war, and in April 1942 received a substantive promotion to Air Chief Marshal with seniority of May 1940. In January 1944 he was advanced to the highest rank of Marshal of the RAF.
Air Marshal Sir Richard E C Peirse KCB, DSO, AFC
C-in-C Bomber Command 1940-42 – Appointed by the Air Council in October 1940 to succeed Portal, Peirse had previously been Vice-Chief of the Air Staff where he had been closely involved in British bombing policy. During his 14-month tenure at High Wycombe, he presided over the expansion of the bomber force and the introduction of the Stirling, Manchester and Halifax bombers which promised much, but which in reality failed to live up to expectations. Peirse was in command during a very difficult period that witnessed the painful transition from an inadequately equipped bomber force into the heavy force that his successor Sir Arthur Harris would take forward to victory. Towards the end of 1941, Portal became increasingly dissatisfied with Peirse’s performance as Commander-in-Chief and alarmed at the growing losses being suffered by the Command. In January 1942 Peirse posted away to command the Allied air forces in South East Asia and retired as an Air Marshal in 1945.
Air Marshal Sir J E A Baldwin KBE, CB, DSO, DL
Acting C-in-C 1942 – AVM ‘Jack‘ Baldwin, AOC of 3 Group, acted as caretaker at Bomber Command headquarters until Peirse’s successor could take over. It was during his brief tenure that the Channel Dash occurred when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped from the French port of Brest and fled up the English Channel to the sanctuary of Kiel harbour in northern Germany, despite the attention of 242 bomber Aircraft of Bomber Command. This was partly because all services expected the Germans to time their dash through the Channel so that the most dangerous point at Dover-Calais (where the ships would need to move within range of British Coastal batteries) would be passed by night. However, the Germans considered it far more important to maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible by slipping out of Brest unnoticed at Night, thus avoiding the 12-hour warning that an early daytime departure would have given the British. The British were wrong-footed by the audacious German move.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris : 22 Feb 1942 – 45
C-in-C Bomber Command 1942-5 – Known universally by his nickname ‘Bomber‘, Sir Arthur Harris was the architect of Britain’s strategic air offensive in the 2nd World War and for 3 years pursuing the systematic destruction of Germany with a single-minded determination. Of all the Allied Wartime Commanders, Harris is arguably the most controversial and to this day his name is closely linked with the questionable policy of area bombing. Although he did not invent area bombing, he applied himself rigorously to its execution and demonstrated to the world the importance of strategic air power and the key role played by the RAF in the Allied War Effort. Harris was a man who could express himself clearly and who exuded a clear sense of purpose, although he was seen by some as unrefined and rude, lacking in sensitivity, impatient and totally inflexible. Yet generally he was regarded with affection by his bomber Crews, and with awe by his many minions at Bomber Command Headquarters. When he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command in 1942, the bomber War had scarcely begun. In the 30 months that preceded his arrival at High Wycombe, Bomber Command had dropped about 90,000 tons of bombs and lost some 7,000 Aircrew killed on Operations; during the period of his Command from 1942 to 1945, over 850,000 tons of bombs were dropped but Aircrew casualties climbed to more than 40,000.
Air Vice Marshal D C T Bennett
AOC 8 (PFF) Group, 1943-5 – His technical knowledge and his personal operational ability was altogether exceptional. His courage, both moral and physical was outstanding and as a technician he was unrivalled. He could not suffer fools gladly, and by his own high standards there were many fools.’ Renowned for his bluntness and not disposed towards unnecessary flattery, this was praise indeed for Bennett from his commander Bomber Harris. In 1944, at the age of 33, Don Bennett became the youngest Air Vice-Marshal in the history of the RAF. Bennett was promoted to Wing Commander in December and appointed to command 77 Squadron at Leeming. He later moved on to command 10 Squadron in April 1942 and was shot down on a raid to sink the Tirpitz. He evaded capture and made his way home to England via Sweden. The high point of Bennett’s RAF career came in July 1942 when Harris asked him to form the Pathfinder Force, and which officially came into being the following month. Bennett was promoted Air Commodore in January 1943 and later Air Vice-Marshal. That same year he was awarded the DSO. The success of the Pathfinder Force was due in large measure to Bennett’s relentless drive and vision: night after night for the remaining 3 years of the war, almost every main force raid was spearheaded by the Pathfinders who contributed in a major way to the successful prosecution of the RAF’s strategic air offensive.
During WW2, Hughenden Manor was used as a secret intelligence base code-named “Hillside“. The UK Air Ministry staff at the manor analysed aerial photography of Germany and created maps for bombing missions. It was perhaps best known for being the countryside retreat of Queen Victoria’s trusted Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who lived there from 1848 until his death in 1881. Disraeli’s niece sold the Hughenden estate in 1937 to Mr W.H Abbey. It was requisitioned from him in 1940 for the war effort.
Bomber Command HQ Naphill 22/04/53 to 11/09/1955 OR – A J L Craig, Air Staff (Aged 32)
Bomber Command HQ Air Force High Wycombe began unexpectedly from a remark, at the Air Ministry in 1936, by Wing Commander Alan Oakeshott of Hughenden village, during the discussions of a permanent site for the new Bomber Command. The site had to be in the South of England, in the country and well screened by trees. “Why not hide it among the Beechwoods of the Chiltern Hills?” asked the Wing Commander. Reconnaissance verified that the area around Walters Ash was very suitable. When the Directorate of Works finally decided to build at Walters Ash there were protracted negotiations, since the Station was to be scattered in 4 sites owned by several people. Consequently, although building began in November 1938, most of the conveyances were not signed until 1940. The Site was formerly known as the Bradenham Shoot and perhaps owned then by Mr Ernest Smith a Local Farmer. It was subject to extensive aerial photography in preparation for the proposed HQ in 1936.
Being so close to London the primary requisites were camouflage and difficulty of access to the enemy. As soon as plans were drawn up the contract for the work was signed by the firm of John Laing & Son, Limited. The firm was instructed to complete the works as soon as possible, so they employed 80 specialists and a labour force of 400 men, of whom many were Irish and many local. Lots of these labourers were old and unskilled and thus had to be trained. They embarked on the green buses of the Penn Bus Company nearby what is now the Officers’ Mess.
At that time the Resident Campsite, with Canteen and Recreational Huts, was on the present Officers’ Mess lawn area. Each particular building was planned separately for its own particular location and purpose, and as each was designed, so the plans were passed to the Contractors and the building erected. It is calculated that over 6M multi-coloured, sand faced bricks were used, all being hand-made in the local area. Stone Masonry was carried on side by side with the better-known Brickyards of Walter’s Ash. The sandstone side was run by J Smith & Sons. Stones were commonly found in the deep pits from which the Brickmaker’s Clay had been extracted. Sometimes the stone blocks were found by probing the ground with long instruments called “snipers”. Of particular interest is the level of importance and considerations are given to the protection of the trees. Evidence of this can be seen in diagrams used by the Ministry of Works at the time, where each tree is separately plotted and numbered. Every advantage had to be taken of this natural camouflage. Several new Coppices were planted to cover new works.
A statement delivered by the Air Ministry said:- “The positions of all buildings to be checked and moved slightly, if necessary, to avoid removing trees. Roadway to be detoured to allow as many trees to remain as possible. No trees to be cut down without the sanction of Air Ministry, other than are necessary to site the building.” The original Air Staff Block, completed in 1940 was built with Dormer Windows in the style of a Municipal building or Town Hall. Further inspection of the original buildings leads us to discover the Fire station and old heating building. Built in the form of a cruciform and with a Tower, this building was, from the air, the archetypal Village Church serving the local Village and Manor House (the Officers Mess was built to look like a Country Manor, with grounds stretching out around it). A network of underground tunnels allowed staff to transit from block to block without surfacing. The key building of this network was the Operations Block. A stairway led the 55 ft down to the large Concrete Box that was the Operations block. The roof slabs alone were over 5 ft thick. Over that was a layer of ballast, another 2 ft of concrete covered with a 4 ft cushion of earth and another 5 ft layer of reinforced concrete extending way beyond the walls of the building. This “burster slab” would ensure the detonation of any bomb in the event of a direct hit. Last of all came a considerable depth of earth mounding, on top of which were laid grass turfs. To this day, the Station of RAF High Wycombe remains on 3 separate sites, nestled amongst the Chiltern Forests.
In preparation for the move to this new Headquarters, during March 1940, the Air Ministry directed that in the interests of secrecy, the new Station was to be known as ‘Southdown‘ with a postal address c/o GPO High Wycombe. In 1948, 2 new blocks were built on 3 site, one named Southdown to commemorate the Wartime Station. On 23rd November 1966 the MOD sanctioned a Station Crest for Royal Air Force High Wycombe. The badge consists of a thunderbolt supported by 2 pillars, the pillars indicating the support the Unit gave to Bomber Command. The Station motto “Non Sibi” may be freely translated as “Not for Ourselves”.
In 1937, RAF Bomber Command was drawing up plans for dispersal of their Aircraft in the event of air raids on its stations. Despite efforts to keep new Airfield sites and measures to camouflage them secret, there was little doubt that the potential Enemy knew exactly where they were and would have little difficulty in finding them from the air. Satellite bases were considered one answer to this threat – a landing ground within reasonable road travel distance of the parent airfield to which Aircraft could be diverted if the Home Station was bombed or likely to be attacked. These satellite bases would be equipped with a level of support that would allow operations to take place if the main airbase were taken out of action.
e.g. Alconbury became RAF Wyton’s Satellite under No. 2 Group,
RAF No.3 Group Exning, Suffolk A J L Craig 26th October 1944 to 24th April 1945 Bomber Command HQ
Air Staff No.3 Group Bomber Command H Q, moved to Exning in March 1940
Exning House; where No 3 Group HQ had moved to from Mildenhall, was taken over by the RAF; there was also Landwade Hall used for Billets; about a mile from Exning Village Important decisions were made there to do with the D-day landings.
Craig was stationed here for a 6 Month rest period from Operations and met his wife Mary Stanley Smith a WAAF who was Personal Assistant to Air Vice Marshall Richard Harrison AOC of No.3 Group 1943-46.
Air Vice-Marshal Richard Harrison, CB, CBE, DFC, AFC. Born at Pocklington, Yorkshire, on 29 June 1893, Richard Harrison was educated at High Gate School, Scarborough College and Sheffield University before seeing service in WW1. During the interwar years, he served with the RAF in Palestine, Iraq (where he was twice mentioned in dispatches), and Egypt. During WW2 he was 3 times mentioned in dispatches and was appointed AOC of 3 Group on 27 February 1943. Harrison retired from the RAF in 1946 and died on 18 May 1974, aged 80.
Harraton House would have been the Manor House (in 19th C) and then became Melton House. It was renamed when Matthew Dawson moved there in 1885 as he was winding down his career.
Harraton House, Exning the Headquarters of No.3 Group of Bomber Command overseeing all the many operational airfields which sprang up all over the Eastern Counties. There was a 24 hr staff of P.O. Engineers there to look after the telegraph and telephone equipment. Also, 20 or more WAAF Teleprinter Operators were at their machines when the bomb went through the Main Distribution Frame at Newmarket Exchange leaving just one of them still working. As a consequence main trunk cables from Cambridge to Newmarket and Newmarket to Ely were diverted in and out of Exning to provide alternative routings. A large building with a Conservatory and extensive gardens, located behind the long still-standing wall opposite St Martin’s Church. Melton House has been long demolished: its large space is now occupied by St Martin’s Close and the houses built around the Close.
RAF 3 Group was responsible for most of the RAF Airfields in East Anglia, including Newmarket Heath from which secret agents were flown into France and elsewhere – and also for a time the very secret airfield of RAF Tempsford. For its size, the Village played a very important part in the war effort becoming home to Headquarters No 3 Bomber Group which controlled squadrons based on airfields across Eastern England. The nerve centre was based in a group of inconspicuous houses in the village centre, which later attracted a purpose-built Communications Centre and Telephone Exchange. No doubt plans laid at Exning were responsible for a major part of Bomber Commands Campaign in occupied Europe. An Air Vice Marshall and Senior RAF Officers took up residence in Exning House other ranks were billeted with Village families. Landwade Hall housed a number of WAAF’s who worked in the Operations Room of the HQ. For a period the Village also became home to the Air Ministry’s No 3 Works Department which was responsible for the survey and construction of Airfields from Cambridgeshire to the Coast. This Department occupied a large Racehorse Trainer’s Residence and issued Contracts for the construction of buildings and runways, which at one stage ran into £1M’s daily.
Various units of the Tank Corps camped in the grounds and stables of Beechwood House and were engaged in Training Manoeuvres around the surrounding villages. Tank repair workshops were formed in stables adjoining ‘The Yews‘ in Church Street and in a Barn off Chapel Street. Ernest A. Webb Ltd of Exning Foundry on the corner of Chapel Street and Swan Lane with its then 130 employees (inc 40 ladies) quickly put their Engineering Expertise and experience to the War Effort producing well over 250,000, 3 inch unfilled mortar bombs and 14,850 component parts for Bailey Bridges besides numerous snow ploughs, road surfacing equipment and gritting machines for runway and dockland construction.
Enemy attacks on the village were few, however, a lone Heinkel bomber gunned a Train on the Cambridge to Mildenhall line of Exning Halt resulting in several casualties and incendiary bombs fell in a field to the east of the village opposite the then Isolation Hospital in Fordham.