Bombensturm! (Part IV)

HC Bombs:

[RAF ground crew push a 4,000-lb blast-bomb towards the bomb-bay of a Vickers Wellington of No 419 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force at RAF Mildenhall in 1941.]

[Photo: Imperial War Museums © IWM (TR 11).]

The strategic method to destroy German cities employed by Bomber Command in area bombings was based on fires caused by the incendiary bombs, and to ignite it, Great Britain had to devise a new type of weapon that would accelerate and facilitate its jump from house to house, block to block, eliminating also any obstacle that would stop it - walls and piles. A great power was necessary, which generated a formidable expansive blast wave.

In October 1940, the Air Staff required to design and develop this new range of weapons to “dehouse” the enemy’s cities: these would be named ‘High capacity’ bombs or HC.

Based on the Blitz experiences, the British learn how effective were the air-mines dropped by Luftwaffe bombers and their destructive effects in the city. An air-mine was a sea mine adapted to be dropped on land targets, usually attaching it to a parachute. A clockwork mechanism would detonate the mine 17-25 seconds after impact, detonating at roof level (the force of the blast would disperse laterally) to maximize the explosion in built-up areas and to obtain a huge ‘blast-effect’. The Luftwaffe used several types of these bombs, the most common were the 500 kg Luftmine A and the 1,000 kg Luftmine B and had a high charge ratio of 60-70 percent. They were first used against land targets on 16 September 1940 in the early stages of the air-assault against Britain.

[A German 1,000 kg-Luftmine B (LMB) fitted with a MA1 magnetic acoustic detonator (as
indicated on the nose) being loaded onto a transportation trolley prior to a bombing sortie from a French aerodrome.]

[Photo: Chris Goss. Heinkel He 111: The Latter Years - the Blitz and War in the East to the Fall of Germany. Pen & Sword Books Ltd. 2018.]

[In this photo we can see Police and Army bomb disposal officers with a defused German 1,000 kg Luftmine B during the Blitz in Glasgow, 18 March 1941. The image allows us to appreciate the size of this bomb.]

[Photo: Imperial War Museums © IWM (H 8281).]

The British idea was to create a blast bomb, in a certain way inspired by those German “air-mines”, filled with a high charge ratio in the lightest possible structure, a thin steel case. HC-bombs usually used high charge to weight ratios of 70-88%. The bomb was filled with HE Amatol and sometimes this one was also mixed with TNT and aluminium powder to form ‘Torpex’ and ‘Minol’. Their lightweight construction meant that they collapsed on impact so that they had to be instantaneously fused, delayed action not being an option here. In addition, its high weight made these bombs to fall straight, blowing off roofs and windows like paper so that the small 4-lb incendiary bombs could reach the building interiors, ignite and burn, and creating in the process a flue chimney to help fire to expand.

The HC series introduced the innovator concept of modular construction and all have a crude cylindrical shape with flat noses, resembling a dust bin. The absence of tailfins made these blast-bombs had no ballistic characteristics, so when dropped they could land anywhere. The parachute of the initial series was deleted after test runs proved no need to ‘soft’ their landing and also made more unstable the weapon from 800 to 2,000 feet.

These weapons were known unofficially as ‘Blockbusters because of the idea that they were capable of destroying a whole block of flats in a city. The earliest press reference of this term appeared in a US United Press report dated 29 July 1942, but it didn’t appear in British press until January 1943. The start of the association of this term with the cinema apparently dates back to May 1943, when ‘blockbuster’ was used for the publicity campaign of a RKO’s war film named Bombardier (The tagline of the movie reads: “The block-buster of all action-thrill-service shows!”), and in 1944 in another war documentary called Marines at Tarawa (‘It hits the heart like a two ton blockbuster!’ it said…) and press became to associate it with massive impact and success (Hall S, 2014).

Germans continued to referred to it as Luftminen. British crews called them Cookies, perhaps due to their shape, but it is unknown. Others says this was a codename for an usual bomb-load consisting of a large canister - the HC-, several HE bombs and a thousand incendiaries and for whatever reason the name ‘cookie’ became associated with the canister itself.

[Movie poster of the 1943 war-film Bombardier. Notice at upper left the strike message using the ‘block-buster’ term.]

[Photo: Movie poster 1943 / Traileraddict.]

First of the large HC weapons designed was the 4,000-lb HC bomb - the so called ‘Cookie, required initially as a mine-bomb to drop on naval targets such as harbours and ships. The device had to be able to fit into the Wellington medium bomber bomb-bay and was so big that no bomb trolley was capable of carrying such a bomb at the time. First bomb was ready in November 1940, and the great urgency for the bomb made that several were dropped already in February 1941 (first official use of these new 4,000-pounders were on 31 March/ 1 April 1941 on a raid on Emden). Initial installation of a parachute was dropped later by Air Staff but a nose spoiler was fitted to improve ballistic performance. By August, 226 bombs had been dropped but the type was not officially part of the Command’s inventory until January 1942. Their usual weight was 3,930-lb (1,786 kg). From February 1943 a new ‘proximity fused’ type of 4,000-lb HC bomb, with a wide blast-effect, was used when four Lancasters dropped them for the first time on La Spezia port in Italy. 

[An WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) tractor driver leaving the bomb dump with a 4,000-lb ‘Cookie’ bomb on a trolley, at RAF Mildenhall airbase in 1942.]

[Photo: © RAF Museum ID 707905.]

During the war 68,000 of these bombs were dropped by Bomber Command, other sources indicates a nearly 93,000 figure but it is evident that the 4,000-pounder was the mainstream weapon of the HC range; it was estimated that these bombs were 1.4 times more effective as the same weight of medium bombs at causing structural damage. Each of these blast bombs cost the British Government £163 according to existing data.

[An RAF armourer working on an early variant of the 4,000-lb HC blast-bomb prior to a mission.]

[Photo: RAF museum.]

[In this original colour film we can see British RAF ground-crew around a trolley with a 4,000-lb HC behind one containing six American 500-lb bombs (note the tailfins), prior to be loaded into the bomb-bay.]

[Photo: still from film / Archive of War - Night Bombers. BBC.]

[An Avro Lancaster Mark I, NG128SR-B’, of No 101 Squadron RAF, piloted by Warrant Officer R B Tibbs, releases a 4,000-lb HC ‘Cookie’ (at right) and 30-lb incendiary bombs over the target during a special daylight raid on Duisburg. Notice the large aerials on top of the Lancaster’s fuselage next to the top turret, indicating that the aircraft is carrying ‘Airborne Cigar’ (ABC), a jamming device which disrupted enemy radio channels to confuse German nightfighters and air controllers. This is a still from film shot by the RAF Film Production Unit.]

[Photo: Imperial War Museums © IWM (CL 1404).]

[Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster taken from the bomb-bay camera, by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No 5 Group. A 4,000-lb bomb ‘Cookie’ and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.]

[Photo: Imperial War Museums © IWM (C 4525).]

[A line-up of 4000-lb HC bombs waiting to be loaded on to RAF Lancaster bombers in September 1943.]

Photo: © IWM (CH_010937_1).

[This film was created by the US Ballistics Research Laboratory at Aberdeen, Maryland during the tests made of British 4,000 pound munitions. Video credit: Periscope Film LLC Archive.]


The 4,000-pounder was closely followed by the next variant of this type, the smaller one: 2,000-lb HC bomb. Their usual weight was 1,842-lb (837 kg). Subsequent Mark II and Mark III of this 2,000-pounders differed in detail; the conical nose was replaced with a domed nose and the number of fuzes was increased from one to 3 to guarantee detonation. This is the only ‘blockbuster’ bomb can be carried and dropped by the big Short Stirling heavy bomber due to its narrow bomb-bay.

The number dropped from a 194 figure in the year 1941 to a max point of 16,227 in 1944. Following development of larger bombs, this type was redesigned at the Command’s request and incorporated the use of a ballistic tall unit. The new variant became available for use in August of 1942 and remained a part of the RAF general inventory throughout the remainder of the conflict. A total of 28,633 of these weapons were dropped by Bomber Command during the war.

[Australian armourers load a 2,000-lb High Capacity bomb into the bomb-bay of an Avro Lancaster bomber of No 467 Sqn RAAF at Waddington air base in August 1944. Chalk inscription warning groundcrew that the weapon has her fuses inserted in the bomb dump.]

[Photo: Australian War Memorial (UK1771).]

In 1942, a larger version of the blast bomb was developed by joining together two 4,000-lb HC bomb sections, creating the 8,000-lb High Capacity bomb (‘super cookie’) which although similar in design to the standard ‘Cookie’  were actually shorter in length and of larger diameter, so even the Lancaster bomber had to be modified to carry this weapon (bulged bay-bomb doors).

Their usual weight was 7,860-lb (3,572 kg). Only the front section was fused and this in turn detonated the connecting section by blast wave. These bombs were deployed against similar targets but in shorter numbers, this was because when testing, the sections of the 8,000-pounder were found to be inferior to a single 4,000-lb HC bomb. 1,088 of them were used in combat during the war. 

[An armourer gets inside the fin of an 8000-lb bomb to make adjustments prior a mission.]

[Photo: © IWM CH 12591]

[An 8,000-lb HC bomb (‘super-cookie’) is brought by a David Brown tractor to a waiting Lancaster of No 106 Squadron RAF in its dispersal at Syerston, Nottinghamshire]

[Photo: © IWM (CH 12595).]

Finally, the RAF employed the biggest model of this series, the 12,000-lb HC bomb (5,425 kg was their usual weight) filled with Torpex explosive and fused with three nose position fuzes. This ‘Super-cookie’ bomb was developed in 1942 after a study of the Air Staff for a large weapon. It was created essentially with three 4,000-lb ‘Cookies’ bolted together with the addition of a six-finned ballistic tail, but actually the bomb was shorter due to the need to fit it into the Lancaster bomb-bay; loaded it took aprox. 35 minutes and four men to prepare it. 

But this weapon was rarely used against targets like cities, they were primarily reserved to special precision targets or factories. First use of this bomb was on 14 September 1943 when No 617 Sqn attacked the heavily defended Dortmund-Ems Canal. Just 193 of these big-size bombs were dropped by RAF Bomber Command during the war, most of them expended by the ‘special’ No 617 Squadron with not much success.

[An RAF armourer checks a large 12,000-lb HC device in her trolley before loading it on Lancaster B144/’KC-N’ in a dispersal zone at RAF Coningsby for an incoming bombing operation against the Third Reich on 15 September 1943. This bomber was lost during that very day in a disastrous raid.]

[Photo: Lake, Jon. Lancaster Squadrons 1944–45. Osprey Publishing. 2002.]

[Video credit: Buyout Footage Historic Film Archive.]

The following image summarized part of the RAF’s blast-bombs family: armourers show off bombs for a comparison in size at the bomb dump at RAF Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. In the front are 1,000-lb and 500-lb MC bombs, behind them a 2,000-lb HC Mark I, then a 4,000-lb HC Mark III or Mark IV ‘Cookie’. Finally, at the rear, is a 12,000-lb HC ‘Blockbuster’. 

[Photo: Imperial War Museums © IWM (CH 12450).]

This table shows, by type, the number of HC-bombs dropped by RAF Bomber Command during World War 2. Source: Burls, Nina. RAF bombs and bombing. ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORICAL SOCIETY. Journal 45. 2009.

[Source: Burls, Nina. RAF bombs and bombing. ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORICAL SOCIETY. Journal 45. 2009.]


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Sources and Bibliography:

  • Airminded. Airpower and British society, 1908-1941. The first Blockbuster. <https://airminded.org/2012/11/14/the-first-blockbuster/>
  • Air Ministry. (1954). RAF Armament Volume I: Bombs and Bombing Equipment.
  • The United States Strategic Bombing Survey. Air Studies Division Report: The Economic Effects of the Air Offensive Against German Cities, USSBS.
  • Bowman. (2012). Martin W. Bomber Command Reflections of War. Volume: 2. June 1942-Summer 1943. Pen & Sword Aviation.
  • Bowman, Martin W. (2014). Voices in Flight: the heavy bomber offensive of WW2. Pen & Sword Aviation.
  • Bowman, Martin W. (2015). Voices in Flight: RAF Night Operations. Pen & Sword Aviation.
  • Boyd, David. 4000lb High Capacity Bomb. <http://www.wwiiequipment.com>
  • Burls, Nina. RAF bombs and bombing. ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORICAL SOCIETY. Journal 45. 2009.
  • Fahey, John. (2004). Britain 1939 – 1945: The economic cost of Strategic Bombing. University of Sidney.
  • Falconer, John. (1998). Bomber Command Handbook. The History Press.
  • Friedrich, Jörg. (2002). Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945. Propylaen Verlag, Zweigniederlassung der Ullstein.
  • Goss, Chris. (2018). Heinkel He 111: The Latter Years - the Blitz and War in the East to the Fall of Germany. Pen & Sword Books Ltd.
  • Hall, Sheldon (2014). Pass the ammunition: a short etymology of “Blockbuster”. In: Elliott, Andrew B.R., (ed.) The Return of the Epic Film. University Press, 147-166.
  • Johnson, George. (2014). The last British Dambuster: one man’s extraordinary life and the raids that changed history. Ebury Press.
  • Lake, Jon. (2002). Lancaster Squadrons 1944–45. Osprey Publishing.
  • Middlebrook, Martin. (1988). The Berlin raids. RAF Bomber Command Winter 1943-44. Cassell & Co.
  • Moorhouse, Roger. (2011). Berlin at war. Life and death in Hitler’s capital, 1939-45. Vintage Books.
  • Overy, Richard. (2013). The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. Allen Lane.
  • The Strategic Air War Against Germany 1939-1945 – The Official Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit (Introduction by Sebastian Cox). Frank Cass. 1998.
  • Worral, Richard. (2019). BATTLE OF BERLIN  1943–44. Bomber Harris’ gamble to end the war. Osprey Publishing. 

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