The Crew - Bomb Aimer

  It took a team to fly a bomber in WWII. While the pilot was the team captain and each of the other members of the crew contributed to getting an aircraft to and from the target safely, the reason they were all there was because of what the bomb aimer did.


 Bomb aimer "Dickie" Newcomb, Courtesy of Jonny Cracknell and Adrian Stevens

On a bomber, bombing was what it was all about. In the first world war, bombing had been done by the second man in the aircraft, the so-called "Observer" who was responsible for everything except flying -- i.e. navigation, defense and dropping the bomb(s). The term "Observer" continued in use into the early years of WWII, but with the advent of the four-engine bombers it was replaced by the more specialized terms "navigator," "air gunner" and "bomb aimer" (bombardier in U.S. jargon). 

Many, if not most, bomb aimers started their careers in the RAF wanting to be pilots,  but had "washed out" in training. Washed out pilots were given the option of "re-mustering" for another trade in aircrew and many chose bomb aimer training. The latter course was one of the shortest for aircrew, just 14 weeks and included rudimentary navigation as well.

Because their principle function (bombing) took place only over the target in a very condensed period of time (as little as ten to fifteen minutes and rarely more than thirty), bomb aimers also manned the nose guns, sometimes assisted with navigation, or took on other odd jobs such as dropping strips of metal designed to confuse German radar (codenamed "window.")

Over the target, the bomb aimer effectively took command of the aircraft. Although the pilot remained at the controls, he was supposed to obey his bomb aimer's instructions. The bomb aimer had responsibility to drop the aircraft's load of explosives as directly over the designated target as was humanly possible with the equipment then in use. In reality, this was never very precise. 

Indeed, bombing accuracy was to prove one of the most persistent and frustrating challenges of the entire war. To improve the accuracy of bombing the "Pathfinder" force was created and built up. "Target illuminators" were invented to light up the sky low over the target to enable the Pathfinders to accurately deploy "target indicators" (in various colors) to guide the "main force" bombers to the target. Target indicators were even developed for deployment above clouds to enable bombing on the many night when the target itself was obscured by cloud. Meanwhile, the targeting equipment carried aboard (bombsite)  became increasingly sophisticated. Last minute changes in wind speed and direction could be fed into the "computers" of the sites, while switches were wired to enable the bombs to drop in a sequence that did not disrupt the trim of the aircraft. 

Yet when all was said and done, neither the RAF nor the USAAF (the latter bombing by daylight and using the famous Norton bombsite) could consistently achieve precise bombing results over a sustained period. The British leadership gave up pretending they were being precise and admitted (internally at high levels) that they were doing "area" bombing. The USAAF kept up the pretense of "precision," but with results that were not significantly better than the RAF. One laconic postwar assessment concluded that the RAF did precise area bombing while the USAAF did precise bombing over a wide area.

This does not meant there were not some spectacular instances of precision bombing. The most spectacular example of all was the raid on the Gestapo prison in Amiens. This held a large number of French resistance fighters including several key leaders. All were being subjected to torture and the risk was high that they would break and betray many secrets -- including information that might compromise the upcoming Allied invasion of the Continent. The RAF was tasked with -- if possible freeing the prisoners. This attacking in such a way that the prison walls were breached and the guards killed but the men inside were not slaughtered. In addition, collateral casualties in the French city had to be kept to a minimum. The RAF sent in three waves of six Mosquitos each. The first six Mosquitos arriving at midday on Feb. 18 came in so low they had to pull up to avoid crashing into the prison block. Their bombs broke down the outer walls. The second wave obliterated the guard-houses in a like manner. There was no need for a third wave. Roughly four hundred French prisoners of the Gestaspo escaped, including key leaders who were able to regroup and aid the D-Day invasion four months later. Similarly, Group Captain Cheshire VC pioneered with low-level marking and was able -- most of the time -- to get a supremely trained and experienced squadron such as 617 to bomb extremely precisely. Sometimes, as during the raid against the Gnome-Rhone aero engine factory at Limoges in Feb. 1944, Cheshire first "buzzed" the factory from low level to warn the (French) workers to get out, and then the squadron bombed so precisely that there were no French casualties. 

But most squadrons didn't have crews as experienced and highly trained as 617. So they did the best they could with what they had and that meant bombing from between 16,000 and 20,000 feet in the darkness, guided by flares that were burning out and whose smoke was blowing away, amidst an increasing conflagration caused by the bombs of hundreds of bombers. In the big raids involving 500 to 1,000 aircraft, the aircraft at the end of the bomber stream were flying toward a sea of smoke and fire that spread out often over miles. 

The procedure was for the bomb aimer to lie flat on his stomach in the nose of the aircraft looking out of the perspex nose and through the bombsite to guide the pilot to the target by calling "Left, left!" or "Right" or "Steady" while the pilot attempted to keep the aircraft flying level and at a steady and precise speed through the slipstreams of other bombers. Meanwhile, searchlights sought them out and if an aircraft was found, the lights "coned" in on it to help the anti-aircraft (flak) aim better. Near misses jolted, shook and shoved the aircraft this way and that. Flak bursts rained debris on them, and shrapnel often tore holes in the fabric of the aircraft. Partial hits often started fires, sheered off parts of the wings or tail, damaged radio antennae, hydraulics, engines or injured personnel, all making a return more difficult and possibly impossible. Direct hits were lethal. Meanwhile, German night-fighters lurked just beyond the flak waiting to strike. 

As a rule, it is fair to say that bomb aimers needed exceptionally strong nerves.

My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. 

Riding the icy, moonlit sky, 

they took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. 

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

It is intended as a tribute to them all.  

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Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at:







"Where Eagles Never Flew" was the the winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at:

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