VE Day 75
On VE day, more than a million men and women of many nationalities and ethnicities were wearing the RAF blue. And the final victory on 8 May 1945 was very much theirs.
Although the Battle of Britain is well known, it was not a decisive victory. The German Luftwaffe quickly replaced its losses and remained a powerful opponent. After the Battle, Fighter Command was tasked with going from the defensive to the offensive but struggled with this change. The first raids on occupied Europe proved to be both ineffective and costly, while Bomber Command, forced to fly over Germany under cover of night, was unable to find its targets, let alone bomb them accurately.
With a bomber force unable to destroy German armaments factories, the decision was taken to defeat Germany by attacking its civilian work force through an area bombing strategy. City after city was bombed and reduced to rubble with half a million German civilians, including women, children, and elderly perishing. Beside questionable from a modern-day moral perspective, the terror attacks totally failed in their objective as they did not lead to a collapse in morale and did not bring Germany to its knees. Conversely, the brave crews of Bomber Command suffered heavy losses. Of the 120,000 who served with Bomber Command during the war, 55,573 paid the ultimate price.
Although the bombing offensive inflicted enormous damage and forced the Germans to divert huge resources from the Soviet Union to the home front, Nazi war production continued to rise. It was only in the spring of 1944 that the war strategy shifted to attacks on the Nazi’s chemical industry, which produced most of Germany’s oil and explosives.
Such specific targets had become achievable as navigation technology had taken great strides forward. The best bomber crews were selected to serve in ‘pathfinder’ units, which would find and mark the target with coloured flares, prior to the arrival of the main bomber force. The Pathfinder Force’s most important aircraft was the fantastic de Havilland Mosquito, equipped with the ‘Oboe’ blind-bombing system and the ‘H2S’ navigation and bombing radar.
Aiding the bombers was an elaborate system of deception. Bombers of No. 100 Group carried various jamming equipment, capable of disrupting German radar and radio communications. The best-known device was called Window, which was nothing more than thousands of thin aluminium strips. When dropped, they would overload the German radar readings. A less-know tactic was Operation Corona. This has nothing with the virus but involved German-speaking RAF personnel impersonating German ground control officers. They would tune to the German radio frequency and countermand Luftwaffe instructions, confusing the German night fighter crews. It even happened that German and RAF operators would argue on air who were the real Luftwaffe operators.
The attacks on the German chemical industry were, unlike the area bombing, tremendously successful. German production of fuel and explosives plummeted and never recovered. German tanks were abandoned with empty fuel tanks, and artillery batteries fired shells filled with inert rock salt. The Luftwaffe, starved of aviation fuel, could neither train new pilots, nor conduct large-scale operations.
The fuel paralysis prevented the Luftwaffe’s new wonder weapon reaching its lethal potential. The Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter was faster than any Allied aircraft. It instantly showed to all sides the jet was the future of aviation. But without fuel to fly them, most Me 262s never took to the skies. Those that did were swamped by superior numbers of Allied fighter aircraft such as the venerable Supermarine Spitfire, which was still the main British fighter at the end of the war. The RAF also had its own jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor. Compared to the Me 262, it was a more conventional design, but as a result, also more reliable. Improved versions of the Meteor served worldwide until the late 1950s.
The Meteor was used to counter another German threat, the V1 ‘doodlebug’ flying bomb. These were the first examples of cruise missiles, albeit unguided. Powered by a simple pulsejet engine, they were launched from ramps in France pointed in the direction of their target, usually London. Only the Meteor jets and the fastest propeller fighter aircraft, such as the North American Mustang or Hawker Tempest, could intercept this unmanned robot. Shooting at a bomb posed obvious dangers to the RAF pilots until it was discovered that flying close to the wing of the V1 disrupted its airflow, thereby overpowering the gyroscopic autopilot, and bringing the V1 crashing down.
As the Luftwaffe had by then become a shadow of its former self, such unmanned missiles were all Nazi Germany had to attack Britain. The RAF and other Allied air forces had conquered complete air superiority. Short Sunderland flying boats and Consolidated Liberator long-range bombers had driven the German submarines out of the seas. Without fear of interception, Douglas Dakotas dropped thousands of paratroopers behind enemy lines. Tactical bombers like the Hawker Typhoon patrolled the battlefields waiting to unleash their weaponry on anything daring to move. North American Mitchells played havoc on German infrastructure by bombing railway yards, bridges, and other tactical targets. German Messerschmitt Bf 110 and Junkers Ju 88 night fighters, built to shoot down RAF bombers at night, had become the prey to the versatile Mosquito night fighters.
Increasingly unopposed, Bomber Command had grown to an impressive and unprecedented force of 1,600 operational Avro Lancaster, Handley Page Halifax and other strategic bombers. Although the attacks on German industry and infrastructure had proven to be very effective, the British government and Arthur ‘Butcher’ Harris, head of Bomber Command, continued to push for terror attacks with Dresden in February 1945 as an eternally controversial coda. It is for this reason that Bomber Command crews had been tragically overlooked for far too long in post-war celebrations.
These young men did, as did every other man or woman in the RAF, their duty to the best of their abilities. Above all, VE Day should commemorate the almost 80,000 RAF casualties who gave their lives for their comrades, their family, their country, and our freedom.