What were missions like?
Bomber crews and fighter pilots flew and fought in a cold, frightening and dangerous environment.
For the 'bomber boys', combat missions took three to eleven hours in claustrophobic, vibrating and deafening environments. They wore electrically heated suits and heavy clothing as protection against the extreme cold. In enemy airspace they could be attacked by Luftwaffe fighters and anti-aircraft guns at any time, so they also wore a steel helmet and weighty body armour. Tight-fitting oxygen masks and the effects of atmospheric pressure changes added to their discomfort.
The young crewmen (average age 22) were very aware of the dangers they faced; loses were extremely high. In the first year of operations only 36 per cent of heavy bomber airmen had a chance of completing a 25 mission tour. However, each crewman was part of a 10 or 12 man team, bound together by camaraderie in the face of great danger.
The fighter pilot’s experience of war was one of lonely fatigue, strapped in a small noisy cockpit for three to seven hours at a time. To survive, it was necessary never to neglect monitoring instruments and to scan the sky constantly for the enemy.
Fighters flew in pairs. The leader would engage the enemy while his 'wingman' protected him. But lengthy aircraft duels were rare, some pilots never even saw their enemy and the majority of combats were decided by position, surprise or technical advantage.
The task that took the lives of most fighter pilots lost in combat was ground strafing of heavily defended enemy installations. Overall, with enemy action and accident, the fighter pilot’s chance of surviving a 300 hour operational tour was no greater than that of a bomber crewman.