From 1936 to 1968, RAF Bomber Command was responsible for Britain's bomber forces. It played a central role in the strategic bombing of Germany during the Second World War. 

1955 saw the first of the 'V bombers', the Vickers Valiant, become operational. By 1957, together with the Avro Vulcan and the Handley Page Victor, they formed Britain's nuclear strategic bomber force.

They maintained Britain's nuclear deterrent while being prepared to strike if Britain was targeted first. Later developments in Soviet missile technology in the 1960s left the V bombers highly vulnerable and resulted in the responsibility for Britain's nuclear deterrent to be passed to the Royal Navy submarine fleet.   

For 32 years, the men and women of Bomber Command served in many different roles in the air and on the ground, each with a vital role to play.

Offering a snapshot into IWM's unique photographic archive, Bomber Command showcases 50 iconic photographs of the aircraft and crew that led Britain and its Allies to victory during one of the longest, most expensive and controversial of the Allied campaigns during the Second World War.

Bomber Command's vivid collection of photographs is the latest in IWM's Photography Collection series and is available to buy from the IWM Shop. The striking collection traces Bomber Command through each stage of its development.

The rise of Bomber Command

Book cover of Bomber Command from IWM's Photography Collection Series
© IWM

Bomber Command arose from the growing threat of war in Europe during the 1930s.

With the expansion of the Royal Air Force deemed vital to Britain’s security, Bomber Command assumed responsibility for Britain’s bomber squadrons in July 1936, and Fighter Command for Britain’s fighters.
 

Heavy Conversion Units

The crew of Short Stirling I, N3676, of No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, walk dressed in full flying kit beneath the nose of the aircraft, while the ground crew run up the engines.
© IWM TR_000009
The crew of Short Stirling I, N3676, of No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit, walk dressed in full flying kit beneath the nose of the aircraft, while the ground crew run up the engines.

The crew of Short Stirling I, N3676, of No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit were based at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire.

The specialist unit was formed to covert newly trained aircrew onto the type of aircraft they would fly operationally. 

 

 

The Bristol Blenheim Mk IV

A Bristol Blenheim Mk IV, piloted by Wing Commander Basil Embry, the Commanding Officer of No. 107 Squadron, circles a British oil tanker on fire and sinking in the English Channel after a German attack in May 1940. The Blenheim’s serial number and unit codes were censored by the British government at the time to prevent sensitive information reaching the enemy.
© IWM C_001785
A Bristol Blenheim Mk IV, piloted by Wing Commander Basil Embry, the Commanding Officer of No. 107 Squadron, circles a British oil tanker on fire and sinking in the English Channel after a German attack in May 1940. The Blenheim’s serial number and unit codes were censored by the British government at the time to prevent sensitive information reaching the enemy.

The Blenheim’s design originated from plans for an inter-war civil airliner but developed into a bomber due to its speed compared to other aircraft of the time.

Introduction of the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber,1942

A member of the crew of Avro Lancaster B.III, LM429, of No. 50 Squadron disembarks from the aircraft, while two members of the groundcrew can be seen reflected in rainwater beneath the aircraft.
© IWM CH_012343
A member of the crew of Avro Lancaster B.III, LM429, of No. 50 Squadron disembarks from the aircraft, while two members of the groundcrew can be seen reflected in rainwater beneath the aircraft. LM429 was shot down over Belgium on the night of 10–11 May 1944, with the loss of all the crew.

The introduction of the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber in late 1942 also marked a turning point for Bomber Command.

Alongside the Handley Page Halifax, the Lancaster formed the mainstay of Bomber Command for the remainder of the war.

A safe return home

Aircrew from No. 106 Squadron walking across the dispersal area at RAF Syerston, Nottinghamshire.
© IWM CH_017504
Fourth from the right is Pilot Officer David Shannon, who the following year took part in Operation Chastise (Dambusters Raid), the famous attack on the German dams.

Aircrew from No. 106 Squadron walking across the dispersal area at RAF Syerston, Nottinghamshire, after safely returning from a raid on Genoa, Italy, 22–23 October 1942.

Celebrating 100 operations, May 1944

Personnel of No. 467 Squadron RAAF gather with Avro Lancaster B.1, R5868 ‘S for Sugar’, at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, to celebrate the aircraft’s successful completion of 100 operations in May 1944.
© IWM TR 01795
Personnel of No. 467 Squadron RAAF gather with Avro Lancaster B.1, R5868 ‘S for Sugar’, at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, to celebrate the aircraft’s successful completion of 100 operations in May 1944. R5868 entered service with No. 83 Squadron RAF in June 1942.

By the end of the war the Avro Lancaster B.1, R5868 ‘S for Sugar’ aircraft had flown over 100 sorties with the RAF and RAAF.

This photograph of personnel from No. 467 Squadron RAAF celebrating the milestone was taken at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. 

The Avro Vulcan B.2, XH534

Avro Vulcan B.2, XH534, takes to the skies in 1962.
© IWM ZZZ_099654_H
Avro Vulcan B.2, XH534, takes to the skies in 1962.

The XH534 was the second B.2 produced.

This aircraft was originally operated by Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at MOD Boscombe Down as a trials aircraft, before serving with No. 230 OCU and No.27 Squadron.

Handley Page Victor B1a

Handley Page Victor B1a, XH648, of No. 15 Squadron RAF drops its load of 1000lb bombs during the Indonesian Confrontation in 1963.
© IWM HU_081578
Handley Page Victor B1a, XH648, of No. 15 Squadron RAF drops its load of 1000lb bombs during the Indonesian Confrontation in 1963.

The Handley Page Victor B1a, XH648, is the only Victor to have dropped a full bomb load.

It is now on permanent display at IWM Duxford following major restoration work.

The V bombers

The V bombers in flight together from RAF Gaydon, January 1958.
© IWM RAF T 0531
The V bombers in flight together from RAF Gaydon, January 1958. The first Handley Page Victor B.1 delivered, XA931, of No. 232 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), is on the left, led by Avro Vulcan B.1, XA904, of No. 83 Squadron, with Vickers Valiant B(K)1, XD869, of No. 214 Squadron on the right.

In 1955 the first of the ‘V bombers’ – the Vickers Valiant – became operational, followed by the Avro Vulcan in 1956 and the Handley Page Victor in 1957.

Together they formed Britain’s nuclear strategic bomber force, primarily serving as a deterrent but also prepared to strike if Britain was targeted first.

Bomber Command is available to buy now from the IWM Shop

It is the fifth title in the IWM Photography Collection series. Purchase other titles in this series below: 

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