Bomber Command

The Chain of Command and Order of Battle


The Chain of Command

Bomber Command came into being on July the 14th, 1936. Previsously part of the Home Defence Force, it was recognised that the Royal Air Force would have a wide remit in times of war, and thus when the Home Defence Force was reorganised, so Fighter, Bomber, Coastal, and Training Commands were born.Within each of the Commands was a hierarchal structure. Beneath the overall Command came "Groups", and within each Group were a number of "airfields", upon which would be one or two "Squadrons" or other flying units. At the outset of the war in September 1939, this system worked well, but as the war went forward, and the number of airfields, squadrons and aircraft in Bomber Command continued to rise, it became an almost impossible task for the Group Commander to organise and so, the system was revised, and extra tiers of command introduced in 1942.

At Group level, the C-inC of a Group (normally an Air Vice Marshall) would have control over all of the "Bases" in his Group. A Base was normally three airfields, all relatively close to each other, with one main and two "Satellite" airfields, with the Officer in Charge of that Base normally holding the rank of Air Commodore. At each of the airfields (each with an officer of the rank of Group Captain in charge) would be one or two "Squadrons" or other flying units (the Officer in charge of a squadron normally held the rank of Wing Commander) , and within each of those squadrons would be "Flights". Normally there were two or three flights to a squadron, each with about eight aircraft.

In September of 1939, at the outset of the war, Bomber Command comprised six Groups, five of them in Great Britain, and one (the Advanced Air Striking Force - essentially 1 Group under a different guise) in France. Within the Groups there were 34 front-line squadrons, 5 so-called "Reserve" squadrons, and the training squadrons of 6 Group, which came to 14 in total, 13 if you didn't count 98 Squadron who were on detachment to Fighter Command at the time. All were comprised of twin-engined medium bombers of the Blenheim, Wellington, Whitley, and Hampden varieties, save for the Battle equipped squadrons of the AASF and some of the 6 Group training squadrons. Essentially, Britain was woefully ill-equipped for war as far as its air force was concerned. Things did change quickly however - compare the three Orders of Battle further down this page and see how things rapidly changed between September 1939, March 1943, and April 1945. In March 1943 the Command was a mix of the older types of twin-engined bomber and the new "Heavies", whilst in April 1945 the Command's front-line operational squadrons were comprised totally of the four-engined heavy bombers, with the exception of the twin-engined Mosquito then serving in 8 Group. The total number of operational squadrons in April 1945 was 97 (98 if you include the Bomber Support Development Unit who were also operational, but with only a small number of Mosquitoes), almost three times that shown in the September 1939 Order of Battle.

Below is a brief history of each of the Groups that made up Bomber Command, and further down again you will find links to the three Orders of Battle mentioned above. The Group histories only cover the war years, but if anyone would like a more comprehensive history of the Group from formation to disbandment, please email us and we will see what we can do for you.

1 Group
1 Group was formed from the Home Defence Force in 1936, and inherited three airfields and ten squadrons, namely Abingdon (15, 40, 98, and 104 Sqns), Bircham Newton (18, 21, 34, and 39 Sqns) and Upper Heyford (57 and 218 Sqns). Each of these squadrons was equipped with the Hawker Hind. Two years later, and the number of squadrons that the Group commanded had increased to seventeen, spread across eight airfields. However, by 1939 the Group had reduced in size again to ten squadrons, and was soon overseas in France, where it went on September the 9th 1939 as the "Advanced Air Striking Force" (AASF). There it suffered very heavy losses with its outdated Fairey Battles. The remnants of the AASF returned to the UK in June 1940 at the end of the Battle of France, and 1 Group was re-formed, with its HQ at Hucknall in Notinghamshire, and still with its outdated Battles, although conversion of the Group's squadrons to Wellingtons began towards the end of the year. In July 1941 the Group also moved its Headquarters, to Bawtry Hall, in the village of Bawtry just outside of Doncaster. By the end of the year, conversion of the Group's squadrons to Wellingtons was underway, and was completed in the first part of 1942. 103 Squadron had converted to "Heavies" by mid-1942, flying the Halifax from Elsham Wolds, and 101 Squadron, later to be equipped with "Airborne Cigar", joined the Group in the autumn, and commenced flying from Holme-on-Spalding Moor. Conversion to Lancasters by the first of the Group's squadrons began at about the same time, and 103 and 460 were fully operational on the type before the end of the year, when 100 Squadron joined the Group and took up residence at Waltham. Air Vice-Marshall Rice took command of the Group on the 24th of February 1943 from Air Vice-Marshall Oxland, and the Group then spent the rest of the year making their contribution to the offensive against Germany, with the end of the Battle of the Ruhr in the spring giving way to the Battle of Hamburg in the summer, followed by a mixed bag in September and October, which included some of the Italian targets, before entering into the Battle of Berlin in the winter of 1943/44. The summer of 1944 saw the Group follow Command policy and supporting the Allied Landings, and into the autumn continued its fine record of bombing. Early 1945 saw a change of C-in-C when Rice gave way to Air Vice-Marshall Blucke. Following the last bombing mission towrd the end of May, the Groups Lancasters took part in Operation Manna dropping food to the starving Dutch, and Operation Exodus, bringing back POWs from Europe. At the end of the war, the Group was all-Lancaster equipped, and totalled 14 squadrons. Post-war the Group went on to take delivery of the "V" Bombers, and survived until Bomber Command was amalgamated with Fighter Command to form Strike Command on April the 30th 1968.

Wartime statistics show that between 1939 and 1945 the Group flew in the region of 56,430 sorties during the war, dropping 238,356 tons of bombs and 8,147 sea mines, all at the cost of 8,577 aircrew.

2 Group

2 Group was formed in1936 at Abingdon, and initially comprised of just two squadrons - 21 and 34 - both flying the Hawker Hind. It was the first Group of the war to send Bombers to Germany on September the 4th 1939. At the time, the Group consisted of seven operational Blenheim squadrons, although this had increased to ten squadrons by the following month. Headquarters was at Castlewood House in Huntingdon. In the spring of 1940 the Groups squadrons assisted with operations against the German battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prince Eugen during the German sgips famous "Channel dash." The Group remained a light bomber force throughout the war and carried out some of the most daring attacks made, including the first daylight attack on Berlin, low-level attacks on the Gestapo HQ and SS barracks, "Operation Jericho" during which the walls of Amiens Prison, holding many Resistance peisoners, were burst open by accurate bombing. At the end of May 1943, the Group left Bomber Command and joined the Tactical Air Force, based on the Continent.

Wartime statistics show that 14,460 sorties were flown whilst the Group was with Bomber Command, at a cost of 542 aircraft lost.

3 Group
3 Group was formed on May the 1st, 1936, with its Headquarters at Andover in Hampshire. A move to Mildenahll was made the following year, and the HQ remained there until March 1940, when another move of HQ to Exning in Suffolk was made, where it stayed until the end of the war. In October 1938, the Group was the first to receive the Vickers Wellington, when 99 Squadron took delivery of the first of theirs, and by the time the war started the following year, the Group was completely equipped with the type, with six operational and two reserve squadrons at five airfields. In the spring of 1940, one of the Group's squadrons (115) became the first Bomber Command unit to attack a European mainland target when Stavanger/Sola airfield was bombed. June 1940 saw some of the Group's squadrons move to France to support attacks against Italalian targets, although these were withdrawn soon after when the French collapsed at the might of the German onslaught. The Wellingtons began to be replaced by Stirlings when the first ones arrived at 3 Group squadrons in late 1940. 138, 161, and 192 Squadrons formed part of 3 Group, and all of these squadrons played a most important role in dropping agents behind enemy lines, utilising various types of aircraft including Halifaxes, Lysanders, Hudsons, Havocs, Wellingtons, and Mosquitoes. As well as this important role, the Group also became the only Group to use "G-H" , a blind bombing radar device. G-H enabled bombers to bomb "blind" through cloud, and it produced some spectacularly succesful results, in particular against the flying-bomb sites in Northen France in the summer of 1944. Following the end of the bombing war in the spring of 1945, aircaft of 3 Group took part in Operation Manna, and also operation Exodus. Wartime Commanders were Air Vice-Marshall Baldwin, who gave way to Air Vice-Marshall Cochrane in September 1942. From February 1943 until the end of the war, Air Vice-Marshall Harrison took over. War time statistics show that in 66,613 sorties were flown by aircraft of the Group, who lost 1,668 aircraft whilst doing so.

4 Group

4 Group, for whom no Group badge was ever authorised, was formed on April the 1st 1937 at Mildenhall, although by 1940 it had moved its Headquarters to Heslington Hall in York, where they were to remain for the rest of the war. At the outbreak of war, the Group consisted of just six Whitley squadrons, five of which were operational, with one as a reserve. The squadrons were immediately put into action on the first night of thr war when 51 and 58 Squadrons undertook leaflet drops over the Ruhr Valley, Hamburg and Bremen. June 1940 was maeked by several of the Group's Whitley squadrons undertaking an attack on Turin - the first attack made by Bomber Command on an Italian target. In early 1941 the Whitleys of the Group started to give way to the four-engined Halifax, which by the end of the war would equip all of 4 Group's eleven squadrons. In May 1942 Bomber Command, by then under the leadership of "Bomber" Harris sent 1,000 bombers to Cologne, as part of Operation Millenium. 4 Group contributed 154 aircraft toward this total, and just a few nights later when again 1,000 plus aircraft were sent to Essen, 4 Group managed to contribute 142 aircraft. Early 1943 saw some of 4 Groups airfields and squadrons forming part of the new 6 (RCAF) Group, including Linton-on-Ouse, Middleton, Leeming and Topcliffe airfields, and 405, 424, 425, 426, 427, 428, 429, and 431 Squadrons. However, the only French Air Force squadrons to serve in Bomber Command did so under the auspices of 4 Group, when 346 and 346 squadrons took up residence at Elvington, just outside York.

The spring of 1944 saw Bomber Command direct its efforts toward key communications targets in France, in the lead up to D-Day, and as part of this 4 Group and its Halifax squadrons did sterling work on daylight attacks to railway yards, gun batteries, and a whole host of other important targets, including the V-weapon sites. Later in the year, 4 Group undertook an transport role temporarily when fuel was transported to Brussels, thereby aiding the British Second Army who were locked in bitter and fierce battles at Arnhem. All together, nearly 433,000 gallons of fuel were flown over by Halifaxes. Just after the war ended, 4 Group was transferred from Bomber Command to Ransport Command, but the Groups record during the war was an admirable one. In 57,407 sorties, 200,000 tons of bombs were dropped and 7,000 sea mines laid, although at a cost - 1,509 aircraft were lost, with Halifaxes accounting for 1,124 of these losses.

5 Group

5 Group were formed from 3 Group on September the 1st 1937. Initially its Headquarters were at Mildenhall, but by the time of the outbreak of the war, the HQ had moved to St. Vincent's House in Grantham, Lincolnshire. An all-Hampden Group at the beginning of the war, with six operational and two reserve squadrons at four airfields, its C-in-C was non other than Sir Arthur Harris, who would later rise to lead the whole of Bomber Command. The winter of 1940/41 saw the Group start to convert to the ill-fated Manchester, which also coincided with Air Vice-Marshall Bottonley replacing Harris as the man at the top in 5 Group. The Group performed admirably throughout that winter, and into the spring of 1942 contributed its might to Operation Millenium. In the Spring of 1942, 5 Group introduced the mighty Lancaster into service, when 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron became the first to be so equipped. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron went on to become the first to lose a Lancaster (Minelaying in the Heligoland Bight on the night of 3/4 March 1942), and shortly after contributed six Lancasters to the famous Augsburg raid, when 5 Group sent twelve Lancasters on a daring low-level raid to attack the MAN Deisel factory in the Southern German town. This was not the only occasion when 5 Group found itself in the eyes of the British public during the war, as they also undertook various other daring raids and set precedents. In October of 1942 5 Group sent 94 Lancasters attacked the Schneider factory at Le Creusot, attacking at very low level in broad daylight. Five nights later , 5 Group sent 112 Lancasters to Genoa, resulting in one of the most succesful raids of the war on that city, and on the night of 24/25 October 1942, Milan was the focus of 5 Group and its Lancaster force, by now developing a well-earned reputation as a hard-hitting, and very accurate, force. The spring of 1943 saw 617 Squadron, newly-formed in 5 Group, carry out the daring "Dambusters" raid, which made the front page of every British paper. The winter of 1943/44 saw Bomber Command undertaking the Battle of Berlin, and again, 5 Group and its Lancasters made an invaluable contribution. % Group liked to think of themselves, and with good reason I might add, as being somewhat more capable than the rest of Bomber Command, even to the point of developing their own target marking techniques, despite the existence of 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group, and often undertook their own raids, including target marking, without the assiatance of the Pathfinders. In the closing stages of the war, specially modified Lancasters of the Group dropped the 12000 pound "Tallboy" bombs on selected targets, followed shortly after that with the use of the mighty 22,000 pound "Grandslam" bomb, used against the railway viaduct at Bielefeld amongst others. War time statistics show that 5 Group, an all-Lancaster Group by March 1943, had flown 70,357 sorties, for the loss of 1,888 aircraft, 1,389 of them Lancasters.

6 (RCAF) Group

6 (RCAF) Group was formed on October the 25th 1942, with its Headquarters at Allerton Hall, Knaresborough, in Yorkshire. It was composed entirely of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadrons, and indeed it was paid for by the Canadian Government. Starting initially with Halifax and Wellingtons, it swapped the Wellingtons for Lancasters in 1943 and by the end of the war in the first half of 1945, was equipping fourteen squadrons with various Marks of Lancaster and Halifax. Officially becoming operational on New Years Day 1943, the Group flew its first operations three nights later when 427 Squadron sent six Wellingtons minelaying off the Frisian Islands. More squadrons and airfields continued to be added to 6 Group as 1943 went on, with Wombleton and East Moor airfields joining 429, 432, and 434 Squadrons amongst a host of others coming under the control of the Group. Group performance was routine but impressive throughout the war, and many of the Canadian-built Mk.X Lancasters were flown over from Ontario to serve with squadrons in 6 Group. June to November 1943 saw several of the Wellington squadrons detached to North West Africa Command. at the end of hostilities in 1945, squadrons of 6 Group were employed on Operation Exodus, with the Group accounting for 4,329 repatriated POWs in just three days. 126,122 tons of bombs were dropped by the Groups aircraft in no fewer than 40,822 sorties, but at a cost of 814 aircfat and their crews missing.The Group was disbanded shortly after the war with Japan came to a close (since the end of the war in Europe, many 6 Group squadrons had been earmarked for "Tiger Force", but the cessation of hostilities with Japan bought to an end the requirement for a Far East bomber force), at the end of August 1945, cutting short the life span of 6 Group after just a shade under three years.

8 (PFF) Group

"The Pathfinders" - the name bestowed upon 8 Group. The "cremem de la creme" of the bomber crews, and a name which rings with pride even now, 54 years after the Groups disbandment after just a few short years of hectic activity. The formation of 8 (PFF) Group was at the request of the Air Ministry, and initially was comprised of one squadron from each of the other Bomber Command Groups, although this soon changed, and anyone who was thought good enough to join the Group was invited to do so. The reason behind the formation of the Pathfinders, as 8 Group was commonly known, was as a direct result of the Butt Report, and the need highlighted in that report for a force to be able to mark a target accurately before the arrival of "Main Force." Everyone who flew with the Pathfinders volunteered to do so - you could not be made to join them if you did not wish to do so - as joining them entailed flying extra operations. However, those who did were the very best at their trade, whatever crew position they occupied. The Navigators in particular were well above average ability for men of their trade, and together with the blind-bombing aids that came into use by Bomber Command as the war lengthened, the Pathfinders were able to mature to became a crack force. At the outset of 8 Group, squadrons transferred in with whatever aircraft they were operating, but eventually only the Lancaster and the Mosquito were used by the Group, and by April of 1945 the Group consisted of no less than twenty operational squadrons (including three "on-loan" to 5 Group), including a Canadian one (405 Squadron). Air Vice-Marshall Don Bennet commanded the Pathfinders for the entire duration of the war, and he oversaw their development. New devices such as H2S and Gee were trialled by squadrons within 8 Group.

Post-war, after the defeat of Japan, the need for the Pathfinder Force passed, and in December 1945 they were disbanded, having flown 51,053 sorties during the war for the loss of 675 aircraft, and 3,700 members of aircrew. The Air Officer Commanding remained Air Vice-Marshall Don Bennet throughout the war, handing over to Air Vice-Marshall Whitley in May 1945.

100 Group

100 Group were formed on November the 23rd 1943, with their headquarters at Radlett in Hertfordshire, although they soon relocated to Bylaugh Hall at Swanton Morley in Norfolk. Also known as "100 (Bomber Support) Group, they were the "clandestine" side of Bomber Command. Their trade was electronic warfare, radio countermeasures, radar jamming, and night-fighter activities. They flew a wide and varied assortment of aircraft, predominantely from airfields in East Anglia. From the fast twin-engined Mosquito to the four-engined "Heavies", 100 Group sent them all up, and by the end of the war had played a huge part in reducing the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe night-fighters and ground defences. although disbanded in December 1945 with the same Commander as it has started out with (Air Vice-Marshall Addison), it had played a large part in giving credibility to the new form of conflict - electronic warfare.