Skip to main content
British Lancaster bombers flying in formation

3 RAF Bomber Command raids that helped win World War II


Created in 1936, RAF Bomber Command was the modest yet effective service that helped turn the tide of World War II in the Allies’ favour. Often overlooked for the fast-paced heroics of the fighters of the Battle of Britain, RAF Bomber Command comprised over one million men and women across multiple auxiliary and ground roles. However, the greatest losses were felt by the airmen.

In total, 72% of the airmen that flew were killed in action, seriously injured, or captured as prisoners of war. A death rate of 44% meant that RAF Bomber Command was the deadliest posting of any Allied unit. Despite this, Bomber Command’s role in providing an assertive presence in the skies over Europe proved vital in the overall war effort.

Here are three examples of Britain’s Bomber Command and how they helped to win the war.

1. Operation Chastise

Better known today as the ‘Dambusters’, the airmen of Operation Chastise undertook the daring but incredibly dangerous task of destroying key dams in the Ruhr Valley. Led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, 617 Squadron was faced with a seemingly impossible task.

The dams were integral to the German war efforts and were heavily defended. Providing water to much of the surrounding area and generating electricity that was being used to manufacture weapons and ammo, the dams were protected by torpedo nets and anti-aircraft guns that prevented any Allied attacks from getting close enough to risk any significant damage.

Unable to successfully penetrate these defences without risking significant losses, the Allied forces had to get creative. British engineer Barnes Wallis found the solution in his back garden. Armed only with a handful of marbles and a water tub, Wallis invented the Bouncing Bomb. He initially thought that the creation might help with the destruction of moored ships, but it soon became an integral part of something much larger.

Following extensive testing, the drum-shaped bombs needed to be skillfully dropped onto water from 60 feet and at a ground speed of 232 mph. This would create the required level of spin to bounce it across the top of the water before driving down the wall of the dam and under the water where it could create maximum structural damage.

Just 24 years old at the time, Wing Commander Guy Gibson led 617 Squadron through countless hours of training. Needing to be experts in low-level flying and navigation, the squadron would be flying Lancasters adapted to carry the unique bombs to their destination.

Deep in the heart of enemy territory and at higher risk due to their lower altitude, on 16th May, the squadron set off in waves throughout the night. Wing Commander Gibson flew at the head of the squadron and was the first to attack the Möhne.

All told, over 133 airmen in 19 Lancasters struck in three waves. Of the 133 men, 53 were killed, and three were captured. Those who survived returned to England as heroes and Wing Commander Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on the night.

617 Squadron became an expert bombing uni, and would later test and experiment with new bomber technology designed by Wallis.

2. Operation Manna

Between 29th April and 7th May 1945, more than 7,000 tonnes of food were airdropped into the occupied west Netherlands. As the war was drawing to a close, more than three million Dutch residents were growing desperate. The first act of airborne humanitarian aid in history, Operation Manna saw over 250 Lancaster and Mosquito bombers delivering vital aid to the occupied Netherlands.

As the Germans entrenched themselves, they closed off vital supply lines. Starving from the lack of basic food and necessities, it became clear that something had to be done to support the trapped civilians. 200,000 people died of starvation, and another 980,000 were severely malnourished.

Desperate to stay alive, people had resorted to eating poisonous tulip bulbs and even their beloved pets. Through a ceasefire negotiation, Allied forces were given aerial avenues where they could fly safely to deliver the aid. Suspicious, however, the German forces still stationed anti-aircraft guns at some of the six drop sites to ensure that no troops were dropped with the aid parcels.

In total, units from the RAF, Canada, New Zealand, and the Polish air force made 3,301 sorties to deliver aid to the Netherlands. Tinned food, dried food, tea, and chocolate were delivered to the six sites with the intention of it being redistributed evenly throughout the famine region.

Unfortunately, due to desperation, many began eating the food right away and fell victim to refeeding syndrome, a condition that affects the severely malnourished. Other areas struggled to redistribute the food, meaning that many of those in the occupied area didn’t receive adequate food supplies until they were liberated.

Despite this, the aid efforts were greatly received by the Dutch residents, who left messages of thanks in the fields for the airmen to read as they flew over and cheered and waved as the bombers made their drops.

3. Operation Margin

Also known as the Augsburg Raid, Operation Margin was the first daylight bombing raid against German industrial targets. Targeting the MAN U-boat factory, which was responsible for the production of half of Germany’s U-Boats, 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron and 97 Squadron set off in their brand new Avro Lancaster bombers in the late afternoon of 17th April.

600 miles into enemy territory and with a target only the size of a football pitch, Operation Margin was a risky raid from the offset. While bombing in daylight hours meant that there was more chance of a direct hit, it also meant that the bombers were at higher risk of engagement from enemy aircraft. Worse still, British fighter planes could only escort them for the first 200 miles before having to turn back and refuel, meaning the bombers were sitting ducks.

Bomber Command had a plan, however. At the same time that 44 and 97 Squadron were to embark on their journey, a Circus operation was to take place further down the coast. Made up of a large volume of bombers and fighter planes, the feint was designed to draw the firepower of the Luftwaffe away from the flight path of 44 and 97. Anyone that spotted the small flight might assume that it was a diversion for the larger bombing raid being held further down the coast and not the other way around.

Timed so that 44 and 97 would be dropping their payloads in the last moments of daylight (allowing them the cover of darkness on the 600-mile return journey), synchronisation by both 44 Squadron and 97 Squadron, and all those involved in the Circus operation was integral.

Unfortunately, a miscommunication meant that the Circus operation further down the coast took place 40 minutes ahead of schedule. As 44 Squadron, who were off course and flying further north than the intended route, flew over a French airfield in Normandy, they were met by the German fighters returning from the distraction further down the coast. The 97 Squadron managed to slip past unnoticed and continue to the target destination while 44 Squadron engaged the enemy.

Despite 97 Squadron reaching the target and successfully dropping their payloads, the damage done to the MAN factory was insignificant compared to the losses to 44 and 97 Squadron. Only five planes returned of the 12 that had originally set off, and those five were severely damaged. The loss rate of 58% was stark in comparison to the minimal damage done to the U-Boat factory.

The raid was still considered a great victory, despite heavy losses almost from the outset. The surviving airmen were used in publicity by the government as examples of the best of Bomber Command and helped build national morale towards the war effort. Churchill himself spoke of the raids and declared it a win for Britain.