A brief history
"Nothing Without Labour"
The move to Mildenhall in January 1937 was a direct result of the Air Ministry’s decision to form two new bomber Groups and reorganise it’s existing Groups. No.3 Group was initially equipped with the ungainly Vickers Virginia and Handley Page Heyford, which was the RAF's last biplane heavy bomber. Both aircraft types had a good service record within the group and where generally liked by the crews that operated and maintained them. In February 1938, the first of a number of changes in Group command took place when Air Commodore Arthur Thomson replaced AVM Playfair. With the arrival of the then revolutionary twin engined Vickers Wellington it was decided that No.3 Group would be tasked with introducing the type into front line service. The first squadron in Bomber Command to be equipped was No.99 Squadron based at Mildenhall, on 10 October 1938.
Tragically Air Commodore Thomson was killed on August 8th 1939 while viewing the bombing up of a Vickers Wellington of No.115 (B) Squadron. While under the fuselage, he slipped and was struck on the head by the rotating airscrew. His replacement, and No.3 Group’s last pre-war commander was Air Vice Marshall John Baldwin who assumed command on August 29th 1939.
By September 1939 the entire group (totalling six front line squadrons and two reserve squadrons) was fully equipped with an all-Wellington force totalling over 100 aircraft located at five East Anglian airfields.
Within hours of the declaration of war on September 3rd 1939 No.3 Group HQ had instructed two squadrons to prepare for offensive operations, and aircraft drawn from No.37 and No.149 Squadrons were dispatched to attack German warships leaving Wilhelmshaven, but due to a combination of bad weather and faulty intelligence the aircraft found nothing. A day later on September 4th, 6 Wellingtons of No.9 Squadron led by Squadron Leader Lamb, accompanied by eight Wellingtons (flying in two sections) of No.149 Squadron and led by Squadron Leader Harris and Acting Flight Lieutenant Duguid, carried out an attack on two German Battleships moored at Brunsbuttel. This unsuccessful operation resulted in the Group’s first losses in World War 2 when two Wellingtons and their crews from No.9 Squadron failed to return.
Group losses would steadily increase over the next few months when squadrons were called upon to attack well-defended targets in broad daylight. Two squadrons were transferred to bases in Northern Scotland and had barely settled in before the Germans invaded Norway and Denmark. With the benefit of hindsight, the reasoning behind these daylight attacks by inadequately armed Wellingtons was questionable to say the least, but the courage and determination of the predominantly pre-war aircrew who were carrying out these raids at this point in the war is beyond reproach.
Within a few hours of the declaration of war by Italy on 10 June 1940, No.3 Group had two squadrons dispatched to Salon in the South of France to operate against targets in Italy. After two operations, carried out in bad weather and at night, the units were withdrawn when the fall of France was announced
1940 would witness a gradual increase and then decrease in Group strength and offensive capability. No. 311 Squadron was formed at Honington, Suffolk, on 29th July 1940, from Czech Air Force personnel who had formerly served in France and had escaped to this country at the time of the French collapse. The squadron first went into action on the night of 10th/11th September 1940,
In September 1940, No.7 Squadron joined the group from No.4 Group. Re-formed in August 1940 at Leeming, No.7 became the first squadron in Bomber Command to be equipped with the Short Stirling four-engined bomber, and by early 1941 the squadron had moved to Oakington.
Four further squadrons joined during the early winter of 1940. These squadrons were former Fairey Battle and Bristol Blenheim squadrons, which had fought so valiantly with the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) during the bloody and costly French campaign. The first unit to arrive was No.15 Squadron, which joined the Group on November 1st. No. 15 Squadron had recently converted to the Vickers Wellington. On the night of 2lst/22nd December 1940 the Squadron used them for the first time for a raid on the dockyards at Bremen. The second squadron to join was No.40 Squadron followed shortly after by No.57 and No.218 Squadrons. Sadly two of the Group’s finest pre-war squadrons were lost in November when No.37 and No.38 Squadron were ordered to the Mediterranean theatre of operations.
From 1941 onwards the group took the war to the very heart of Nazi Germany and participated in all of the major operations. In 1941 alone the Group lost 382 aircraft on operations, more than any other Group.
On the night of 10/11th February 1941, No.7 Squadron made its first bombing attack with the Short Stirling - the target was the oil storage tanks at Rotterdam, and then within two months the squadron paid its first visit to Berlin. As would beset any new aircraft the early Stirlings were plagued with technical problems, and its contribution to the bomber offensive was initially minimal, although this would gradually change.
1942 was in many ways the most important year in the Group’s history. However it started off badly when yet another established squadron was the lost when No.99 Squadron, a pre-war unit, was sent to the Far East in February. No 3 Group provided over a quarter of the bombers sent on the first 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne on 30 May 1942 as part of “Operation Millennium”. By August 1942 No.3 Group had expanded to 14 front-line squadrons, a total it would never surpass, and its contribution in terms of both operational sorties and tonnage dropped was unparalleled at that point during the war. An indication of the major effort by the group is reflected in the fact that the Group lost more aircraft than any other Bomber Command Group during 1942, with over 500 aircraft and crews lost.
The Group also carried out experiments in secret over the Isle of Man in 1942 with Target Flares, the results of which would ultimately be used to help define the role and tactics of the Pathfinder Force.
August and September would see the Group’s strength almost halved when No.7, No.156, and No.109 Squadrons were posted out en masse to help form the newly created No.8 Group – the celebrated Pathfinder Force. However, No.109 and No.7 Squadrons would remain affiliated to No.3 Group for a period. The provision of aircrew for these two units would initially be meet by 3 Group, as would all administration. As if the loss of three squadrons to the Pathfinder Force was not bad enough the Group lost No.9 & No.57 Squadrons to No.5 Group, No.311 (Czech) Squadron was transferred to Coastal Command, and finally the Vickers Wellington-equipped No.101 Squadron was transferred to No.1 Group, where they would ultimately distinguish themselves in the “Airborne Cigar” radio countermeasures role.
The year also sure a change in command, when after a brief spell as acting AOC in C Bomber Command, Air Vice Marshall Baldwin was replaced in September by Air Commodore Sir Ralph Cochrane. Cochrane’s presence was immediately felt throughout the Group. Initially critical of the Groups performance in regards to serviceability, Cochrane and his staff set about getting the very best out of each of the Squadrons in his new command, and by February 1943 the evidence suggested that he had. Sir Ralph Cochrane’s forthright approach and his tireless struggle for operational perfection instilled a sense of great pride to the weary aircrews and ground staff of the Group.
February 1943 witnessed the departure of Air Commodore Cochrane to command No.5 Group, and his replacement was Air Vice Marshall Richard Harrison. The appointment of Harrison as AOC 3 Group was not a simple one. Prior to Baldwin’s departure it was originally considered that the Group should be commanded by Harris’s Deputy, Air Vice Marshal Saundby, who was at the time was serving as Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) at Bomber Command Headquarters in High Wycombe. Harris was opposed to this appointment, not wanting to lose his long-standing friend and right hand man, but he let Saundby decide, and his answer was “no”, Saundby wishing to continue to serve with Harris. Harris and Air Chief Marshall Portal then considered Air Vice Marshal H.P Lloyd, but by Lloyd’s own admission he had gone ‘maritime’.
The previous year, in a letter dated July 5th 1942 to Portal, Harris wrote. “ Alternatively, Harrison my Deputy SASO, would entirely suite me as AOC 3 Group. He is a fine commander, though rather junior. He would be the first AOC in this war with personal operational experience of the war, and that in itself has many attractions…”
1943 would also see the realisation that the Short Stirling’s contribution towards the bomber offensive was gradually declining to an extent that it’s value as a front line bomber was questionable. Beset by numerous mechanical problems and burdened by the design specification set by the Air Ministry in 1936 that severely limited its operational ceiling, the Stirling was, by the start of 1943, struggling when compared her more able sister “heavies” the Halifax and Lancaster.
A letter from ACM Sir Arthur Harris, C in C Bomber Command, to the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, sums up the despair felt at HQ Bomber Command and by Harris in particular: -
“… The Stirling and the Halifax are now our major worries. They presage disaster unless solutions are found. I understand that the Stirling is to go in favour of the Lancaster as fast as the changeover can be achieved. The Stirling Group has now virtually collapsed. They make no worthwhile contribution to our war effort in return for their overheads. They are at half strength, and serviceability is such that in spite of the much-reduced operational rate and long periods of complete idleness due to weather I am lucky if I can raise 30 Stirling’s from No.3 Group for one night’s work after doing a week of nothing, or 20 the night after. There should be a wholesale sacking of the incompenedents who have turned out approximately 50% rogue aircraft from Short and Harland’s, Belfast and Austin’s, not forgetting the Supervisories responsible at the parent firm. Much the same applies to the Halifax issue, nothing ponderable is being done to make this deplorable product worthy for war or fit to meet those jeopardies, which confront our gallant crews….”
Undaunted, the Group continued the offensive. Throughout the successful Ruhr campaign in the Spring of 1943 the Group flew 4,585 sorties and dropped 11,469 tons of bombs for the loss of just over 150 aircraft and crews. Hamburg and Peenmunde soon followed. Three new Short Stirling squadrons joined the Group during the summer of 1943 - the first was No 620 Squadron, which was formed at RAF Chedburgh on 17 June 1943. No. 622 Squadron soon followed, this squadron was formed at Mildenhall, Suffolk, and finally No.623 was formed at Downham Market, Norfolk - both these units were formed on 10th August 1943. Joining the Stirling was the Avro Lancaster Mk.BII equipped No.514 Squadron. No. 514 Squadron was formed at Foulsham, Norfolk, on 1st September 1943. The first 3 Group squadron equipped with the Avro Lancaster was No.115 in March 1943. It was decided that the Bristol Hercules engined Mk.II Lancaster’s would be allocated to No.3 Group due to the group’s familiarity with the Hercules equipped Stirling.
Throughout the summer of 1943 it became increasingly apparent that the losses suffered by the Stirling-equipped squadrons were becoming critical. A steady increase in operational losses and early returns during this period forced Bomber Command HQ and No.3 Group to re-deploy the squadrons on less distant targets. From November onwards the Stirling’s fate had been decided - it had to be replaced. In the interim it was decided that the Stirlings should be used to attack targets in the occupied territories and step-up its mining laying capability. In early 1944, group aircraft were occasionally used in the S.O.E supply-dropping role to supplement the Group’s two established SOE squadron’s, namely No.138 & No.161 Squadrons. Utilising the Stirling’s superb low-level manoeuvrability various front line squadrons were actively involved in the clandestine supply-dropping role.
No.138 & 161 Squadron were the only squadrons in the whole of Bomber Command tasked solely with this essential cloak & dagger work. Like the squadrons of No.38 Group, they suffered grievous losses in both men and aircraft. Such was the strict secrecy that surrounded these operations it was not until recently that the Group’s contribution was in part realised.
The Avro Lancaster equipped units, No.15 No.115, No.514 and No.622 Squadrons continued to operate throughout the late summer and winter of 1943, including the bloody and costly Berlin campaign. The period between November 1943 and June 1944 was perhaps the Group’s lowest point throughout the war. Its contribution to the bomber offensive was, when compared to the other Groups, minimal. The Group’s ability to adapt, however, and continue to operate even with the Stirling, is a testament to the Group and all those who served within it. Not only did it continue to operate, the Group was at the forefront of new era in bombing techniques.
It was not until all the squadrons in the Group had finally converted to the Avro Lancaster in mid-1944 that they once again took their rightful place in the Command Battle Order. A combination of three factors decided the future role of the Group - a role that would see it attack, mark and bomb targets independently of the other Groups. The superlative Avro Lancaster, the relatively new and accurate Blind Bombing aid “G-H”, and lastly the experienced gained by the crews of No.3 Group in attacking the less than glamorous targets in France, Holland and Belgium. Targets such as railway yards, communication centres and “noball” sites (V1 Launch sites) were frequently attacked by the Group in early 1944 while the Lancaster and Halifax Groups continued to attack targets in Germany prior to the onset of the Transportation Plan in April 1944.
Between late 1943 and D-Day in 1944 the Group’s Stirling squadrons were tasked with targets mostly situated close to towns and cities in the occupied terroritries. Accuracy while attacking these targets was a necessity. The possibility of innocent civilians being killed due to inaccurate allied bombing was an ever-present danger during these operations and the Group took every reasonable precaution to avoid civilian deaths. The lower than average losses suffered by the Group during this period meant that within its ranks there was a high number of officers and men with considerable operational experience – this experience would be used to the full from the late summer of 1944 onwards.
From October 1944 onwards, No.3 Group Bomber Command attacked independently a variety of targets by both day & night. The decision to equip the group with “G-H” late 1943 was a fortuitous one, and the first “G-H” operation carried out was on November 3rd / 4th 1943 against the Mannesmannrohrenwerkes situated on the outskirts of Dusseldorf. The attack carried out by Avro Lancaster-equipped No.115 and 514 Squadrons was a complete success. The success was however short lived, as the “G-H” was hastily withdrawn on the orders of Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris on the grounds that there was insufficient sets available and that until such a time as there was, no further operations over occupied Europe with the equipment would be undertaken. The other and perhaps more far reaching reason was the ever-present danger that such a valuable piece of equipment could fall into the hands of the Germans, allowing them to create a counter-measure and thus thwarting it’s true potential from the outset. It was re-introduced to the Group’s aircraft from early 1944, but predominantly to assist Minelaying operations. It would be much later in 1944 before the Group would re-equip on a large scale with “G-H” and use it against large German targets.
On October 18th 1944, 128 Avro Lancaster’s drawn from nine squadrons carried out the Group’s first independent “G-H” bombing raid. The attack carried out in daylight was directed against the German town of Bonn and was a complete success. The reason for the choice of Bonn was simple, it had until then received relatively little damage from bombing, and as a result of this raid the very heart of Bonn was burnt out and destroyed. For the next seven months almost daily raids were made against Germany’s railway networks, marshalling yards, synthetic oil and benzol installations and communication networks. All of these targets received extensive damage due to the accuracy of “G-H”.
Not only did the “G-H” equipped Lancasters of the Group mark and attack their own targets independently of both No.5 & No.8 Groups, but they would often lead other bomber Groups. Unlike other Groups who were restricted by bad visibility, 10/10th cloud cover over the target area did not cause any unnecessary problems, as a visual identification was not required with “G-H”. Especially trained “G-H” Leader crews would bomb on their equipment and the following gaggle would release instantly the G-H crew bombed, and the results were often impressively accurate.
The Group’s last bombing operation of WW.II was carried out on April 24th 1945 when 107 Lancaster’s drawn from No.31 & No.33 bases attacked the railway yards located at Bad Oldesloe - no aircraft were lost. This was not quite the end however, as on the night of May 3/4th 1945 No.15, No.622, No.90 and No.75 (NZ) Squadrons dispatched a total of 12 aircraft to mine the waters off the Kattegat, the operation was cancelled soon after take-off.
From the wilderness years of 1942-43 the group had turned full circle.
Three Victoria Crosses were awarded to aircrew sering in the Group during World War II. A New Zealander, Sergeant VH Ward (No.75 NZ Squadron) received the award for his action on 8 August 1941, climbing out on to the wing of his aircraft to put out a fire while returning from a raid on Germany. The VC also went to an Australian, Flight Sergeant RH Middleton, (No.149 Squadron) on 14 January 1943, for bringing back his bomber from Turin after the aircraft had been heavily damaged by flak and he had been severely injured. The third went to Flight Sergeant AL Aaron, DFM, (No.218 Squadron) who was mortally wounded during a raid on the same target and yet refused to hand over control of his aircraft until he had landed it safely in North Africa.