* Every November 11, Remebrance Day, Canada Alive! honours the memory of all those men and women who have taken part in our nation’s conflicts. The next few posts will continue this tradition.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) operated extensively over Europe during World War Two, most notably in the night-time strategic bombing campaign over Germany. Canada was the main training depot for all Commonwealth aircrew, and the main producer of Britain’s warplanes. By the end of the war in 1945, Canada had the 4th largest air force in the world.
The great victory over Germany came at great cost for the RCAF. Nearly 15,000 Canadian aircrew lost their lives, nearly 1 in 6 who joined. The bombing campaign also became a subject of great controversy after the war, as the deliberate firebombing of German cities resulted in the deaths of nearly 1.6 million people and the flattening of the entire country. RCAF aircrew who survived the war missed out on the parades, medals and ceremonies that marked the great victory, and were shuffled under the carpet by a political class who were ashamed of the bombing war.
Canada joined the Second World War on September 10, 1939, a week after Britain and France. Unlike in 1914, the nation did so with sadness and a real sense of solemn tragedy. There were no celebrations in the streets or a stampede of young men to join the services. The Great War had taught people the true horror of war, and this one promised to be even worse.
At first, Canada began to gear up for war the same way she had in 1914, with an emphasis on infantry and troop transports. Some light rationing of oil and foodstuffs was implemented, but for the most part the nation hadn’t yet converted to total war conditions. Events in Europe would change that.
The German blitzkrieg through Poland was followed by a period of relative calm which the media dubbed the “sitzkrieg”. Then, in the spring of 1940, Hitler’s forces were unleashed all over western Europe. Denmark and Norway fell, followed by the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and a dazzling blitz through France. The British army in Europe found itself trapped against the Channel coast in Dunkirk and was forced to evacuate, leaving behind all their equipment. France fell and Britain stood alone against an impending Nazi invasion.
The 1st Canadian Division, which had recently arrived in England, found itself as the only fully-equipped force in all of the British Isles! The sudden and devastating German attack on the west had taken everybody by surprise, and with the defence of all of England falling on the shoulders of 15,000 Canadians, the government in Ottawa quickly switched the nation’s economy to a true total war footing.
Because England is an island, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, was forced to knock out the British Royal Air Force before an amphibious invasion could be launched. The Germans had at their disposal over 2,000 warplanes of all types, while the RAF could summon 600 fighters. All summer of 1940 the skies over England were filled with battling airplanes as the Nazi war machine threatened to ground the RAF into dust and open the door for invasion. The British, however, hung on and fought back tenaciously, helped out by the new radar technology and an intricate ground-control system, staffed almost completely by women, that allowed operators to direct fighter squadrons to intercept German formations as they came over the Channel.
As the Battle of Britain dragged on over the summer and into the fall, the situation became desperate for the RAF. The pure weight of numbers favoring the Germans was beginning to tell, but then, one night, a German bomber crew got lost over England and decided to ditch their bombs and return home. They were over central London, which had been strictly off limits to bombing under Hitler’s express orders. The bombs hit a movie theatre and killed 40 people. The British, incenses, responded by bombing Berlin the following night. Although the British bombs failed to hit anything, Hitler was enraged (he had promised that Berlin would never be bombed), and he turned the full fury of the Luftwaffe onto London. The Blitz had begun, and with it, the devastating air war that would come to dominate Europe for the next 5 years.
At the highest levels of the War Ministry, organizers were piecing together a plan that would allow England to hit back. The British army was in no shape to take on the German Wermacht, and Hitler had all the resources of the continent at his disposal. Britain turned to her Commonwealth for help. Canada was chosen as the main site for training aircrew and manufacturing warplanes. Canada was out of range of German bombers and the RCMP had locked the country down to German spies. The “Comonwealth Air Training Plan” was born, to which Canadian Prime-Minister MacKenzie-King quickly signed on. Over the next five years, 231 airbases would be built in Canada, and 110,000 men and women from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada would be inducted and trained in everything from radar operations to flying high-speed fighter planes.
In 1941 the first Canadian bomber squadrons were arriving in England to take part in the planned bombing offensive against Germany. Early raids were woefully unsuccessful. German air defences were strong and the Commonwealth air crews who participated suffered apalling losses. The British high command switched to night bombing for better safety. The technology at the time, however, rendered night-time bombing highly useless. It is estimated that only 15% of the bombs ever came within 5 miles of their target! The Whitley and Halifax bombers in use at the time had little armor and limited range. German flak (anti-aircraft guns) defences were growing stronger and the military planners were starting to realize that hitting small targets, such as a factory or a rail junction, at night was impossible.
In June of that year Germany invaded the Soviet Union in what would become the most destructive war in all of human history. Every Luftwaffe plane was needed on the eastern front and the Blitz on England came to an end as German resources were transferred east. The Russians managed to stop the German onslaught at the gates of Moscow, in Hitler’s first defeat. At the same time as the Russians were fighting for their lives outside their capital, Japanese naval forces bombed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the war became global.
With the entry of the US and USSR into the war, and the defeat of Germany at Moscow, victory seemed certain. Allied (as the US and British Commonwealth was now called) planners put together a master strategy for the eventual defeat of Germany. While the Russians battled the Germany army in the east, the Allies would conduct an around-the-clock bombing campaign designed to destroy Germany’s industry. The Americans, with their advanced and powerful bomber fleets, would pound Germany factories by day, while the British and Commonwealth, with their 2 years of night flying experience, would level entire German cities by night. The idea behind the deliberate targetting of German cities was that without a workforce or any infrastructure, Germany couldn’t produce the tanks, bullets, oil and food necessary to wage modern war.
The first big raid of the war was the night of 28 March, 1942. The German port city of Lubeck received a firebombing by 234 heavy bombers. The city was gutted and the surviving population fled in terror to the countryside. Then, a month later, Bomber Command managed to assemble 1,000 British, Canadian and ANZAC bombers together for a terrible night raid on Cologne. The first of the ‘thousand bomber raids’ had begun.
Cologne suffered extensive damage. The fires that were started could be seen 600 miles away in France. 1,000 people were killed and another 45,000 were forced to evacuate. 35 factories were completely destroyed. The cost was heavy for Bomber Command, however. 40 bombers, including 12 Canadian aircrew, were lost to flak.
Flak was the main defensive measure German cities were able to adopt. Most of the bigger cities were ringed by batteries of 88mm heavy anti-aircraft guns and smaller 40mm automatic guns. When a raid was inbound they would fill the sky with a deadly wall of steel that the bombers were forced to fly through. Radar-guided searchlights scanned the night sky, and when one beam caught an airplane, all the others would flick over to illuminate it in a cone of light. Every gun below could then concentrate its fire on that one unfortunate bomber.
At this stage in the war night fighters were not that advanced. Pilots who had proven they had excellent night vision were thrown into the sky to try and meet the incoming Allied bombers, but it was difficult to see anything at best. Sometimes the pale blue glow from an airplane engine would give it away and allow the German fighter to creep up behind it, undetected, and then unleash a hail of machine gun and cannon fire. Most of the time the bombers slipped through the fighter screen to hit their targets.
As the war progressed, so did the technology. German engineers managed to scale down radar sets, and create the first portable computers, so that night fighters could carry their own radar. They no longer needed to strain their sight into the dark skies. Bomber Command also increased its abilities with the introduction of the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber in 1942. These four-engined behemoths would become the iconic workhorses of Bomber Command. With a crew of 7 and carrying radar themselves, they were able to fly to Poland and back with a huge payload of 22,000 lbs of bombs.
The night Bombing War would escalate into a frenzy of mass killing and destruction. By 1943 Canada’s bomber squadrons were organized into one powerful unit, 6 Group, part of the RAF Bomber Command. They were in action every single night. In the early afternoon a Mosquito high-altitude plane would take off to recon a target for weather and defense information. Then aircrews were summoned to a briefing where they were given their targets. Men were then allowed to sleep and eat in preparation for the upcoming night. Most weren’t hungry and fear and fatalism set in during these last hours.
Meanwhile, ground crews prepared the planes and loaded fuel and bombs while women WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) prepared the crew’s equipment, parachutes and the trucks that would take them to their dispersal aprons on the tarmac. WAAFs were also responsible for radio communications, administration (including payroll), map reading, intelligence analysis and radar control.
As the sun set the aircrews would be driven out to their awaiting airplanes, where they would have one last cigarette together and the tail gunner would urinate on the tail wheel for good luck (a tradition common with all air forces around the world). Then the heavily-laden men would climb aboard. Engines would be started and the heavy Lancasters would rumble to their takeoff positions. Each airfield held about 30 bombers, so one after another they planes would roll down the runway, heavily burdened with fuel and bombs, and would barely lift off the ground before thundering over a farm field or small English village.
All the aircraft from all the airfields in England would join up into a ‘stream’, each plane flying independently in the night sky but in the general direction as all the others. The skies over Europe would be filled with the thundering hum of 1,000 heavy bombers as the stream pressed on to its target somewhere in Germany.
German fighters, many with radar, would dart into the stream along its entire length. Brilliant flashes from exploding airplanes would fill the sky for a moment and then die as the burning plan dropped out of the sky into the clouds below. Tail gunners were the first point of contact for enemy fighters. Tail gunners were alone and isolated in their turrent, and spent long hours scanning the night sky with tired eyes. When they did spot a German fighter, it was usually sudden and too late. “Messerschmidt twelve o’clock!” they would scream into their radio, unleashing a burst of heavy machine gun fire from their quad-mounted turret. Then a blast of German cannon fire would decimate rear section of the airplane and smash the wings and engines. The fuel would light up and the plane would go into a burning spin as the crew desperately tried to bail out, held back by powerful G-forces.
For those planes that made it over the target, an eerie site awaited them. Searchlights swept the skies around while bursts of exploding flak surrounded them. The pathfinders, advance aircraft tasked with marking the targets, were dropping their clouds of bright green and red flares over the center of a German city, guiding the rest of the stream in. Then the bombs began to fall. As each plane released its load it would leap into the air with the sudden loss of weight. The explosions on the doomed city below illuminated the entire scene. Suddenly a searchlight cone would snap onto a plane. Its only hope of survival was to dive out of it. The men’s noses and ears would bleed from the pressure of the dive. If the plane escaped it would turn back to England, where German fighters awaited the stream again.
Damaged planes and those with wounded on board received priority landing in England as the sun came up. Many aircraft, badly damaged by German fighters or flak, crashed in England. After every raid the hospitals were filled with burned and maimed men, carried home on limping Lancasters.
This continued night after night, growing in intensity as the sophistication of killing grew.
In 1943, under the name “Operation Ghemorra”, Bomber Command set its sights on the German city of Hamburg. Hamburg had been largely spared bombing, as it had very few military or industrial uses. Nevertheless, in July of 1943, over the course of a week. US and Commonwealth bombers leveled the city in one of the worst disasters in history.
Canadian 6 Group took part extensively in the firestorm of Hamburg. The old wooden and stone buildings of this ancient city were engulfed in flames. As each neighborhood’s fires swirled into each other, a massive fire vortex was created. Cold air rushed into the flaming inferno, and winds of up to 200 kmph sucked people and cars and trees into the inferno. The heat was so intense that the asphalt roads melted. Trees outside of the city burst into flame without cause. There were few underground shelters for the citizens, and more than 50,000 people, the vast majority civilians, were killed in the firestorm. For nearly a week the bombers came over, day and night, hour after hour, and flattened the historic city.
By 1944 the war was irreversably turned against Germany. The Russians had pushed the German army out of the Soviet Union and was advancing into Romania and Poland. Africa and Italy had fallen to the Allies and a massive invasion of France was being prepared in England. Every single German city and large town had been visited by Allied bombers.
The battles in the skies continued. Although German towns were being wiped from the map, the Luftwaffe was growing in desperation and ferocity. German fighter pilots were defending not some political ideal or sense of honour, but their very homes and families, which they could see burning below them. As one Allied planner commented after the war, “We gave the German pilots the one thing they lacked at the start of the war: a clear cause to fight for”. German fighter pilots fought with amazing bravery, often ramming allied bombers once they had ran out of ammunition.
In late 1944, with Allied armies on the Rhine river in the west and the Red Army nearing Berlin in the east, Bomber Command switched its offensive to concentrate the full might of the Allied air forces onto Berlin. Berlin had been bombed repeatedly since 1940, including a week in 1943 that cost the Allies more than 400 airplanes shot down. Now, with the Third Reich in ruins, the Allies were determined to let Berlin have it.
By day the American bombers, now escorted by long-range P-51 fighters, would level Berlin’s industrial suburbs while British and Commonwealth bombers, including Canadians, would gut the center of the city at night. By 1945 the Red Army was approaching Berlin, and the tales of Soviet soldiers raping and pillaging had sent a million terrified refugees into the city. The city was in ruins and most of the essential services, like water and electricity, were gone. Berliner women cynically joked that it was “better a Russian on the belly than an American on the head”, in reference to the non-stop bombing of Berlin.
Canadian bomber crews were in the thick of this battle over Germany for five long years. More than 100,000 Canadians served 6 Group, and 15,000, or 1 in 6, lost their lives. The devastation meted out to the German civilians has haunted the surviving aircrew ever since, and politically it has been a shameful chapter of Canada’s history. The sacrifice, terror and heroism of these men and women, and the civilians in the cities they bombed, must never be forgotten. For better or worse, these young Canadians fought, and died, for something they believed was right.
After the war the full extent of the horror became public knowledge, and many of the returning bomber crews were shamed into silence about their experiences. Many survivors suffered post-traumatic stress, and alcoholism and suicide rates were higher among bomber crews than any other branch of the armed forces.
In 2013, 70 years after the war, the Canadian government for the first time officially recognized the veterans of Bomber Command. A statue in commemoration was built in Ottawa and Prime-Minister Stephen Harper awarded surviving veterans with the Bomber Command bar. This official recognition was a long-time in coming, and for the service, sacrifice of these young airmen, and for the fallen of Bomber Command and the fallen of the German cities, we honour them this Remembrance Day.