Bomber Command

The Command Chiefs

Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt GCB, GBE, CMG, DSO, MC

C-in-C Bomber Command 1937-40

Although not a very approachable man, Ludlow, as he was known, was widely respected for his immense Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt knowledge of the RAF and lauded by Bomber Harris as the only officer in any of the services 'who so completely commanded and earned the faith and respect of his subordinates'. Ludlow-Hewitt was one of the few RAF commanders who kept abreast of new techniques and who actually bothered to maintain his skills as a pilot.

The son of a clergyman, Edgar Rainey Ludlow-Hewitt was born in Co. Cork on 9 June 1886 and educated at Radley and Sandhurst. Commissioned into the Royal Irish Rifles in 1905 he later learnt to fly at Upavon and was appointed to the RFC in August 1914. The following year he joined 1 Squadron in France where he saw action over the Western Front during the battle of Neuve Chapelle and in the fighting at Hill 60. Later he commanded 3 Squadron and was promoted Wing Commander and temporary Lieutenant-Colonel to command the 3rd Corps Wing at Bertangles. He was awarded the MC in 1916, the Croix de Chevalier, Legion of Honour in 1917, the DSO in 1918, and was mentioned in dispatches six times during the war, and in 1918 he was Chief Staff Officer at the RAF headquarters in France. Between the wars his career developed quickly with appointments as Commandant of the RAF Staff College (1926-30), Director of Operations and Intelligence at the Air Ministry, and Deputy Chief of Staff (1933-5), AOC India (1935-7), followed in 1937 by appointment as C-in-C Bomber Command.

Ludlow-Hewitt steered Bomber Command through the difficult pre-war expansion period, but still remained realistic enough to recognise the deficiencies of the Command and its unreadiness for combat as war approached in September 1939. He could see that the problems it faced stemmed largely from the rapid expansion which had failed to address the crucial issues of night flying training, navigational aids, and the vulnerability of bombers to enemy fighter attack during daylight raids. By early in 1940 he acknowledged that the pre-war theory of the bomber always getting through had finally been dashed, and he was openly pessimistic about the capabilities of the RAF's bomber force.

In early 1940 Ludlow-Hewitt was posted away from Bomber Command in what some observers believe was a fit of pique by certain personalities within the Air Ministry, scornful of Ludlow's insistence on the formation of more OTUs at the expense of some front-line aircraft and crews to fuel the training programme. However, his appreciation of the value of operational training was to be the salvation of Bomber Command in the years that followed. Bomber Harris later commented that 'without this policy of Ludlow's, the dog would have eaten its own tail to hurting point within a few weeks, and would have been a dead dog beyond all hope of recovery, within a few months. Ludlow-Hewitt saved the situation - and the war - at his own expense.'

From 1940 to 1945 Ludlow-Hewitt became Inspector-General of the RAF and retired from the service in the year the war ended as an Air Chief Marshal. In the same year he was appointed Chairman of the Board of Governors of the College of Aeronautics where he remained until 1953, whereupon he was made Deputy Lieutenant for Wiltshire. Ludlow-Hewitt died on 15 August 1973, aged eighty-seven.

Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal KG, GCB, OM, DSO, MC

Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal

C-in-C Bomber Command 1940

A quiet but likeable man, at forty-six years of age 'Peter' Portal was still relatively young when he succeeded Sir Edgar Ludlow- Hewitt on 4 April 1940 as C-in-C Bomber Command, but his prodigious intelligence and determination as a commander singled him out for higher office. Just six months into his command at High Wycombe he was appointed Chief of the Air Staff in October 1940, in which role he was later to become strongly committed to using Bomber Command in the fullest way possible to destroy Nazi Germany.

Born Charles Frederick Algernon Portal on 21 May 1893 at Hungerford, he was educated at Winchester and Christ Church, Oxford, before joining the Motor Cyclist Section of the Royal Engineers on the outbreak of war in 1914. As a Corporal he was mentioned in dispatches the following month and was commissioned in September the same year. Transferring to the RFC as an observer in 1915, Portal was regarded as a pilot by 1916. He became a squadron commander in 1917 and a Lieutenant-Colonel, RAF, in June 1918, at the age of twenty-five, and with the MC and a DSO and bar.

Between the wars his RAF career progressed quickly, being promoted to wing commander in 1925 followed by the command of 7 (B) Squadron in 1927. In 1934, as a Group Captain, he was appointed commander of British forces in Aden, followed in 1937 by promotion to Air Vice-Marshal and appointment as Director of Organisation at the Air Ministry where he served until appointed to the Air Council in 1939 as Air Member for Personnel. On the outbreak of war he was granted the rank of acting air marshal and remained on the Air Council until chosen to succeed Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt as C-in-C Bomber Command in April 1940.

During his short time in command at High Wycombe, Portal steered Bomber Command through the dangerous summer of 1940. As a result of the disastrous daylight operation against the German fleet at Kristiansand in April, he sensibly restricted the Command's Hampdens and Wellingtons to night operations only, like the Whitleys.

He took office as Chief of the Air Staff in October 1940, where he remained for the duration of the war, and in April 1942 received substantive promotion to Air Chief Marshal with seniority of May 1940. In January 1944 he was advanced to the highest rank of Marshal of the RAF.

Portal was a member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in which capacity he played a full part in presenting to the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet the advice of the Chiefs of Staff on Allied strategy and other important matters of military policy. He was also present at all the wartime conferences of the Allied leaders, culminating in the meetings of 'the big three' at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam.

The Portal-Harris axis in the Second World War proved very important for Bomber Command and had its genesis before the war when both men had commanded bomber squadrons at Worthy Down. The effective teamwork and close relationship that had grown up between them in the 1920s developed further during the war years, shaping the growth of Bomber Command in a significant way. Portal was acutely aware of the influence that Harris could exert on Churchill and he actively encouraged this liaison, even going so far as to help Harris plan his approaches to the Prime Minister, but then leaving him to proceed alone. Portal and Harris did have their differences, and at times these were forcibly expressed, but never did they allow such sentiments to affect their personal friendship or professional relationship.

Portal was created a Baron in the honours announced on the resignation of the Churchill government in August 1945, and in the New Year honours of 1946 was raised to the rank of Viscount. He was also one of the seven war leaders who were appointed Knights of the Garter in December 1946. From 1946 to 1951 Portal was Controller of Atomic Energy at the Ministry of Supply and in 1960 he was elected Chairman of the British Aircraft Corporation. As well as being an authority on falconry and a keen fisherman, he was also president of the MCC in 1958-9. He died on 22 April 1971, aged seventy-seven.

Air Marshal Sir Richard E C Peirse KCB, DSO, AFC

Air Marshal Sir Richard E C Pierse

C-in-C Bomber Command 1940-42

Appointed by the Air Council in October 1940 to succeed Portal, Peirse had previously been Vice-Chief of the Air Staff where he had been closely involved in British bombing policy. During his fourteen-month tenure at High Wycombe he presided over the expansion of the bomber force and the introduction of the Stirling, Manchester and Halifax bombers which promised much, but which in reality failed to live up to expectations.

Born on 30 September 1892, Richard Peirse was an only child and came from a naval background. His father, an Admiral, later became C-in-C East Indies, during the First World War. Richard was educated at Monkton Combe School near Bath, HMS Conway, and at King's College, London, before being commissioned into the Royal Naval Reserve for service in the RFC Naval Wing. He served with distinction as a pilot during the First World War, seeing much action along the Belgian coast, attacking submarine bases and winning the DSO in 1915. In 1919 he was awarded the AFC and a permanent commission as squadron leader in the RAF, eventually rising to become commander of British forces in Palestine and Transjordan from 1933 to 1936. Returning to England, he was made an Air Vice-Marshal in 1936 and in the following year became Director of Operations and Intelligence at the Air Ministry, and then Deputy Chief of the Air Staff (from April 1940 this post was redesignated Vice-Chief of the Air Staff). In 1939, Peirse was made an additional member of the Air Council and promoted acting Air Marshal.

Appointed C-in-C Bomber Command on 5 October 1940, Peirse was in command during a very difficult period that witnessed the painful transition from an inadequately equipped bomber force into the heavy force that his successor Sir Arthur Harris would take forward to victory. Towards the end of 1941 Portal became increasingly dissatisfied with Peirse's performance as Commander-in-Chief and alarmed at the growing losses being suffered by the Command. In January 1942 Peirse posted away to command the Allied air forces in South East Asia and retired as an Air Marshal in 1945. Sir Richard Peirse died on 6 August 1970, aged seventy-seven.

Air Marshal Sir J E A Baldwin KBE, CB, DSO, DL

Air Marshal Sir J E A Baldwin

Acting C-in-C 1942

AVM 'Jack' Baldwin, AOC of 3 Group, acted as caretaker at Bomber Command headquarters until Peirse's successor could take over. It was during his brief tenure that the Channel Dash occurred, when the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped from the French port of Brest and fled up the English Channel to the sanctuary of Kiel harbour in northern Germany, despite the attentions of 242 bomber aircraft of Bomber Command.

AOC 3 Group, 1939-42

A cavalry officer in the First World War, for a little over three years in the Second, John Baldwin presided over 3 Group, witnessing the heavy casualties of the early daylight raids, the transition to the night offensive and his group's re-equipment with the RAF's first four-engined monoplane heavy bomber, the Short Stirling. A popular officer, he occasionally flew on operations with his crews, a practice frowned upon and actively discouraged by Command headquarters.

Born on 13 April 1892, John Baldwin was educated at Rugby and Sandhurst before being commissioned into the 8th KRI Hussars in 1911. He transferred to the RAF in 1918 and was appointed ADC to King George V (1931-3). A succession of high-level appointments followed culminating with AOC 3 Group from 28 August 1939 to 14 September 1942. Baldwin's final RAF appointment was as AOC 3rd Tactical Air Force in 1943-4 and he retired from the RAF at the end of the war. Thereafter he re-established links with his old regiment, the 8th KRI Hussars, and became their Colonel from 1948 to 1958. Baldwin died at Stamford, Lincolnshire, on 28 July 1975, aged eighty-three.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris GCB, OBE, AFC

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris

C-in-C Bomber Command 1942-5

Known universally by his nickname 'Bomber', Sir Arthur Harris was the architect of Britain's strategic air offensive in the Second World War and for three years pursued the systematic destruction o

f Germany with a single-minded determination. Of all the Allied wartime commanders, Harris is arguably the most controversial and to this day his name is closely linked with the questionable policy of area bombing. Although he did not invent area bombing, he applied himself rigorously to its execution and demonstrated to the world the importance of strategic air power and the key role played by the RAF in the Allied war effort.

Harris was a man who could express himself clearly and who exuded a clear sense of purpose, although he was seen by some as unrefined and rude, lacking in sensitivity, impatient and totally inflexible. Yet generally he was regarded with affection by his bomber crews, and with awe by his many minions at Bomber Command headquarters.

When he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command in 1942, the bomber war had scarcely begun. In the thirty months that preceded his arrival at High Wycombe, Bomber Command had dropped about 90,000 tons of bombs and lost some 7,000 aircrew killed on operations; during the period of his command from 1942 to 1945, over 850,000 tons of bombs were dropped but aircrew casualties climbed to more than 40,000.

Although promoted Marshal of the RAF in 1945, unlike the other main leaders of the war years Harris did not receive a peerage in the 1946 New Year honours. Politicians, including Churchill himself, were quick to distance themselves from the bomber offensive now that the war had been won, and Sir Arthur Harris and Bomber Command became victims of post war political expediency. Arthur Travers Harris was born at Cheltenham on 13 April 1892, the son of an official in the Indian Civil Service. He was educated privately but later fell out with his parents when they insisted on him joining the Army. Instead, the young Harris travelled across the world to Rhodesia where, at the age of sixteen, he tried his luck at gold mining, driving horses, and tobacco planting. When war broke out in 1914 he joined the Rhodesia Regiment as a bugler and fought in the campaign in German South West Africa. When the regiment disbanded on completion of the campaign he returned to England where he learned to fly at Brooklands and was commissioned into the RFC in November 1915. Harris was posted to France where he served on the Western Front until returning to England late in 1917. Promoted to Major in 1918 he was given command of a home defence squadron (No 44) and acquired something of a reputation as a pioneer in night flying and night fighting with 191 Squadron. He was awarded the AFC in November 1918 and granted a permanent commission in the RAF the following year.

During the interwar years Harris commanded several bomber squadrons in India and Iraq, demonstrating to those in authority his belief in the efficacy of large bomber aircraft and their direct employment against the enemy, and not as adjuncts to the other services. From 1925 to 1927 he commanded 58 (Bomber) Squadron at Worthy Down, during which time he effected great improvements in the squadron's navigational methods and in bombing by night. Between 1930 and 1933 he was employed on staff duties in the Middle East before returning home once more, this time as a Group Captain to command 210 Squadron, a flying boat unit based at Pembroke Dock, and where one of his flight commanders was a young and talented Australian named Don Bennett who would later become his AOC of the Pathfinder Force. Harris spent the next four years at the Air Ministry as Deputy Director, Operations and Intelligence, and later Director of Plans in which role he played a major part in inter-service planning. Promoted Air Commodore, he became the first AOC of the newly formed 4 Group in June 1937 where he remained until July the following year when he was posted overseas again, this time as AOC in Palestine and Transjordan with the unenviable task of helping the Army keep civil order between Arab and Jew. He was invalided home to England in July 1939 suffering from a duodenal ulcer, but was soon given command of 5 Group in September where he remained until his appointment as Deputy Chief of the Air Staff in November 1940. Six months later he was chosen to head the RAF delegation in Washington and it was from this post that he was appointed in February 1942 to succeed Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse as Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command.

As Commander-in-Chief, Harris presided over the rapid expansion of Bomber Command with the introduction of better aircraft in greater numbers, improved bombs and bombing tactics, and the effective use of radar technology. He succeeded in turning what had been a poorly equipped force with mediocre results into an efficient and deadly weapon of war, a situation brought about largely by dint of his personal commitment and strength of character. With the first 1,000-bomber raid in May 1942 Harris sent out a strong signal to Bomber Command's detractors, particularly in the Royal Navy, that he meant business, and that his command was not going to be dismembered and its resources shared out between the other two services.

Not surprisingly, Harris had very firm views about how his force should be employed: he resisted the formation of the Pathfinder Force in 1942 and fought every attempt to transfer Bomber Command's efforts from area to precision bombing. But after the heavy mauling of his bomber squadrons over the winter of 1943/4 in the battle of Berlin, the Air Staff became sceptical of his assertion that Bomber Command alone could bring Germany to its knees and insisted instead on selective attacks against industry. Despite the misgivings of Harris, Bomber Command was notably successful in the bombing of selective targets and in later precision attacks. In the closing months of the war, Bomber Command's aircraft could range far and wide over Germany with virtual impunity and strike at will in a manner that would have seemed inconceivable in 1941.

Promoted Marshal of the RAF in 1945, Harris retired from the RAF in the following year and with his wife and daughter left for South Africa where he ran a shipping line until 1953. He then returned to England where he lived in active retirement until his death on 5 April 1984, aged ninety-one.

The information on this page is taken from 'The Bomber Command Handbook 1939-1945'
by Jonathan Falconer. For more information on this book,
click here

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