Although it is often overshadowed by the Avro Lancaster, the Halifax was still the second most important bomber to serve with Bomber Command during the Second World War. While the 227,000 tons of bombs it dropped was only just over a third of the total of 608,612 tons dropped by the Lancaster, the Halifax did drop five times the weight of bombs of the third highest scoring Bomber Command aircraft, the Wellington, which dropped 41,800 tons.
The Halifax entered service much quicker than the Short Stirling. Six months passed between No. 7 Squadron receiving the Stirling and its first raid on 10-11 February 1941. In contrast, elements of No. 35 Squadron had been training on the prototype Halifax. In November 1940 they received the first production aircraft, and four months later, on 10-11 March 1941 carried out their first raid, against Le Havre.
No. 76 Squadron was next to receive the Halifax, being formed from No. 35’s “C” flight on 1 May 1941, and making their first raid on 12 June. A third Halifax squadron, No. 10, was in place by the end of 1941. The year was an uncertain one for Bomber Command. A study of Bomber Command’s operations, prepared for Churchill, had revealed the limited results of the Command’s efforts, with inaccurate navigation and inaccurate bombing the biggest problems.
1942 saw “Bomber” Harris promoted to head Bomber Command. Harris had two main priorities – first to expand his force of heavy bombers, and second to concentrate them against his favourite targets – German industrial cities, especially Berlin and the Ruhr. Aware that his force was not capable of carrying out precision bombing at night, Harris felt that area bombing was the best use of his command. At the start of 1942 this was certainly true, although later in the war as bombing accuracy increased, Harris did not adapt.
The Halifax remained Bomber Command’s premier aircraft for a very short period. On 3 March 1942 the Avro Lancaster carried out its first raid. Although it would take some time for the Lancaster to catch up with the number of Halifaxes (until February 1943) in use it was already clear that the Lancaster was a better bomber than the Merlin powered Halifax. This would remain the case throughout 1942 and 1943. Despite this, the number of Halifax squadrons continued to increase, reaching a peak in 1944.
Harris had a grand plan to save his command. He boldly announced that he would launch a 1,000 Bomber Raid against a German target, with the intention of overwhelming the German defences. This was a very ambitious idea – Bomber Command rarely had even half that many aircraft operational at any one time. It took a combination of almost 100% serviceability and a dangerous use of aircraft from training units, but on 30/31 May 1942 Harris was able to send 1,047 bombers against Cologne (Köln). 131 Halifaxes made up the largest contingent of four engined heavies, with 88 Stirlings and 73 Lancasters. The Vickers Wellington accounted for 602 of the 1,047 bombers sent to Cologne. Loses were low – only four Halifaxes were lost – and damage heavy. Two more 1000 Bomber Raids followed. Harris had made his point, and Bomber Command was safe. Over the rest of 1942 the heavy bomber force continued to grow, until in February 1943 the heavies made up 642 of the 1,091 front line aircraft in the command.
January 1943 saw the formation of No. 6 Group, made up entirely of Canadian squadrons. This group would use the Halifax. The number of Halifax squadrons would continue to expand, although in February it was overtaken by the Lancaster as the most numerous of the heavies. Despite the Lancaster’s numerical superiority, it was the Halifax and the Stirling that first used the new H2S navigational aid, leading a raid on Hamburg on 30/31 January 1943. The same month had also seen Bomber Command return to Berlin on 16/17 January for the first time since 1941. In the gap the bomber force had been transformed – in place of the small raids of 1941, this raid saw 201 Halifax and Lancaster bombers attack the German capitol.
1944 saw the Halifax reach its peak, both as an aircraft, and in numerical terms. The much improved Hercules powered Mk III began to appear in numbers early in the year, and soon replaced the Mk II in Bomber Command. It entered service during the battle of Berlin (November 1943-March 1944), a determined series of heavy attacks on the German capital that ended in a clear defeat for Bomber Command and the loss of over 1,000 aircraft.
The attempt to batter Berlin into submission had to stop when the entire RAF was diverted to prepare for D-Day. Much to his annoyance, “Bomber” Harris had to use his heavies to attack tactical targets in France, most important of which were the transport links the Germans would need to rush troops to the invasion beaches. The Halifax played its part in this offensive – by D-Day 22 squadrons split between No 4 and No 6 Groups were equipped with the Halifax. These squadrons carried out 4,428 sorties during this campaign, and lost only 99 aircraft, which must have come as a great relief after the heavy losses earlier in the year.
Harris did not regain complete control of Bomber Command until 14 September 1944. Raids on Germany had already resumed, and this time German resistance was much lower. The once-excellent night fighter forces were in the process of being destroyed in daylight operations, and lose rates fell to less that 1%, a tenth of those being suffered at the start of the year. The final year of the war saw No. 6 Group convert to the Lancaster – at least eleven Halifax squadrons finished the war with the Avro bomber.
The main problem for the Halifax and its advocates was that the excellent Mk III did not appear until in significant numbers until 1944, by which time the Avro Lancaster was well established as the premier bomber. Average performance figures for the two types can be somewhat misleading, as they rarely distinguish between the Hercules and Merlin powered aircraft. Even with the Hercules powered aircraft included, the average Lancaster still dropped 50% more bombs than the average Halifax before being lost. One Halifax was also more expensive to produce than one Lancaster. With the obvious advantages that concentrating on a single type of aircraft would bring in ease of support, it is hardly surprising that Bomber Command was beginning to concentrate on the Lancaster towards the end of the war.
One area where the Halifax was still gaining in importance at the end of the war was in electronic counter measures. No. 100 Group was formed in November 1943 to provide support for the main bomber stream. One Halifax squadron (No. 192) joined the group. Their role was to carry Mandrel equipment, which actively jammed German radar and to drop Window, which performed the same job in a more passive way. Despite initial hostility from Harris, No. 100 Group quickly proved its value – so quickly that it received the new Halifax Mk III in January 1944. Between then and the end of the war the entire group was to reequip with the Halifax – in the end four entire squadrons and two flights used the Halifax. This was a role for which the Halifax, with its spacious fuselage, was much better suited than the Lancaster, with its spacious bomb bays.