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The Air Forces Memorial, Runnymede · PDF fileThe Air Forces Memorial, Runnymede ... suffered...

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  • The Air Forces Memorial, Runnymede

    Commonwealth War Graves Commission

    The Royal Air Force saw some of the earliest action of theSecond World War when on 4 September 1939, the day afterwar was declared, Blenheim and Wellington bombers attackedGerman shipping near Brunsbttel and Wilhelmshaven. Inthose raids seven aircraft were lost and twenty-five airmenkilled, the first casualties in what would become a world-widestruggle to gain mastery in the air upon which victorydepended. It was a struggle that would last the war throughand would cost the lives of more than 116,000 men andwomen of the Air Forces of the Commonwealth.

    Many of those who died were lost without trace and theirgraves are unknown. The missing thousands are todayremembered on memorials around the world: at El Alameinand Singapore, at Ottawa and on the island of Malta. Those lostin operations from bases in the United Kingdom and North andWestern Europe - more than 20,000 - are commemorated atthe Air Forces Memorial, Runnymede. Most of these casualtiesserved in the ranks of the Royal Air Force but as the warprogressed, Britain welcomed airmen and women from all theCommonwealth's Air Forces and from other countries too:Americans volunteered for service with the RAF before theUSA entered the war and fought alongside those whosehomelands in Europe had been overrun.

    Some of those who died were killed in service with vitaltransport, training and maintenance units, others as agents inspecial operations in occupied Europe, but most were lostwhile serving with the operational commands of the Royal AirForce in the long and bitter air war over north-westernEurope.

    It was a war that saw periods of desperate crisis and drama,attrition and numbing routine. Throughout, the Air Forcesfulfilled crucial supporting roles to the land campaigns and atsea, and during the long years when Britain stood isolated andvulnerable on the edge of a Europe largely under Germanoccupation, they stood both as the first line of defence and thepotent means of striking back.

  • The Fall of Norway and France

    Germany's invasion of Denmark and Norway in April 1940 brought toan abrupt end the early months of uneasy quiet that followed thedeclaration of war in 1939. The RAF offered crucial air support to thesmall expeditionary force sent from Britain in a desperate butunsuccessful attempt to halt the German occupation. In May, whenGermany made a swift and devastating move on France and the LowCountries, it fell to the RAF to meet the air needs of practically thewhole Allied front.

    With the German offensive gaining momentum, heavy losses weresuffered as fighters and bombers based in France and Britain struck atoccupied airfields and ports, destroyed vital bridges, harassedtransport columns and supply lines, anything to hinder the Germanadvance. Nevertheless, the Allied land forces were soon forced to fallback to the Channel ports for evacuation and while the air battle forDunkirk brought the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe together fortheir first real trial of strength, almost 340,000 British and Alliedtroops were evacuated from the beaches below. By the end of June,France had fallen and the whole coast of western Europe, from theBay of Biscay to the Northern Cape, was under German control.

    The Battle of Britain

    Britain now faced a real crisis. Germany was poised for an invasion,but first she set about securing superiority in the air by destroying thenetwork of airfields and fighter stations upon which Britain's defencesrested. Soon these critical targets were being subjected to heavy andpersistent attack by German bombers with huge fighter escorts.

    For a few short weeks the fighting in the summer skies above Britainwas intense. The number of fighter pilots involved in the battle wascomparatively small but losses were heavy - more than 500 werekilled - and the burden of responsibility they carried enormous.Despite the relentless pressure, the Luftwaffe could not gain theupper hand and on 7 September, when Fighter Command wasreduced to its very last reserves of machines and trained pilots, theGermans turned their attention elsewhere, beginning a series of nightbombing raids on British cities intended to disrupt, destroy andshatter civilian morale; by mid-September the threat of invasion wasreceding; the Battle of Britain was nearing its end and the Blitz hadbegun.

    The devastating raids continued throughout the winter but FighterCommand had recovered quickly and with improved equipment andskill bred of experience, the defending night fighters began to turn thetide. By early May 1941 the worst of the raids were over.

    The War at Sea

    By the summer of 1940, Germany's dominationof Europe's western seaboard introduced a newand deadly threat to Britain's vital supply lines -the U-boat.

    For the next three years, support from the airplayed a crucial part in the Battle of the Atlanticas German submarines and ships were hunteddown and sunk. Between April 1940 and March1943 almost 16,000 mines were laid by BomberCommand in so called 'gardening' operations.Fighter Command made a significantcontribution with air escort and offensive fighterpatrols, particularly in the Arctic, but the leadingrole in the protection of Allied shipping fell toCoastal Command.

    Coastal Command's work was notglamorous. With a constant need forvigilance its squadrons flew thousands ofhours, hundreds of thousands ofkilometres, in reconnaissance patrolscovering an operational area thatstretched from the southern tip ofGreenland to Norway, from the coast ofoccupied France to the Atlantic's WesternApproaches. Scanning the oceans for theelusive submarines, at the mercy of theoften appalling weather and with the everpresent threat of mechanical failure, thiswas attritional warfare at its bleakest.

    Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm and the RoyalAustralian Air Force flew with Coastal Commandfrom 1940 to the end of the war, but even so itsresources were barely sufficient. Even flyingfrom bases in Iceland, its old shore-based aircraftdid not have the range necessary to hunt thesubmarines operating deep in the Atlantic. It wasnot until 1943 and the introduction of new long-range aircraft and improved detection equipmentthat Coastal Command could adopt the moreaggressive role that would be instrumental inturning the tide against the U-boat menace. Bythe end of the war, 727 U-boats had been sunk,192 of them credited to Coastal Command, butthe Battle of the Atlantic cost 11,000 CoastalCommand lives.

    above: A Sunderland flying boat of CoastalCommand watches over a convoy

    left: Disembarking a Sunderland

  • The Bomber Offensive

    For much of the war Bomber Command was the only branch of thearmed forces in a position to take the war to Germany. It flewmissions practically every day and night of the war, its targetsairfields, submarine bases, shipping, troop concentrations andcommunications; but it was not until the German offensive of 1940that it was free to begin the long range strategic bombing of targetsthat would hit the German war economy hardest - her cities andindustry.

    The limited range and capacity of bombers and lack of effectivenavigational equipment meant that results from the earliest raidswere poor but a turning point was reached in 1942 with theintroduction of new four engine bombers and airborne radar. Thefirst 'thousand bomber' night saturation raid on Cologne in Maycaptured the public's imagination and the introduction in August of aspecial Pathfinder Force to guide bombers to their targets increasedeffectiveness further. In 1943, Bomber Command, now joined bythe United States Eighth Air Force, began their 'round the clock'strategic bombing campaign and a series of audacious precision raidsstruck at the Ruhr Dams, the V-rocket research site at Peenemundeand sank the battleship Tirpitz in 1944.

    There was a high price to be paid for these successes though: duringthe course of the war Bomber Command lost 55,000 airmen killed.The average age of its crews was just twenty-two.

    The Normandy Campaign

    By 1944, with Germany under pressure on theEastern Front and in Italy, the time was ripe for arenewed land campaign in France, a campaign thatwould see all branches of the Allied armed forcesworking together in close co-operation andmutual support.

    In the months leading up to the Normandylandings, meticulous preparations were made inwhich the Commonwealth air forces played a vitalrole. Bombers targeted coastal batteries, rail androad networks were destroyed, and specialservice squadrons worked to supply the Frenchresistance. Air reconnaissance units thoroughlysurveyed the proposed battle areas building up astore of information that would later proveinvaluable to the land forces. But most crucial ofall were the weeks of concentrated andremorseless attacks by fighters and light bombersthat systematically destroyed the Luftwaffe inFrance, establishing not just superiority in the air,but supremacy. On D-Day, the Germans flew lessthan 100 sorties in defence of Normandy whilethe Allied Tactical Air Forces had 171 squadrons attheir disposal to support the landings. In thefollowing weeks, as the Allied armies advanced,close fighter support continued from hastilyconstructed airfields on French soil, with BomberCommand responding on demand to calls forstrategic strikes.

    The Final Blows

    By August, the Allies had broken out of Normandyand were in pursuit of a German army in full flight,their heavily congested escape routes presentingeasy targets for Allied raids from the air. As theadvance pressed towards the Belgian frontier,Bomber Command struck at the German

    garrisons cut off in the Channel ports and inSeptember the Allied air forces prepared the wayand offered support to the unsuccessful airborneattempt to seize the Rhine crossing