Britain, the Aerial Tactician.

Britain has always been a country that has relied heavily upon her navy; years of total dominance at sea had taught her that it would be safe from the possible threat of invasion no matter who the opponent was and how carefully crafted their plan. It was therefore unknown territory that Britain had now found itself in after the fall of France on the 25th of June 1940. The invasion of her own shores that must now follow may still have to come by sea; but Britain had no means of repelling it if it did not have total superiority in the air. The Royal Air Force had been formed at the end of the First World War by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Though at the time of the end of World War One it was the largest independent air force in the world, the inter-war years were relatively quiet for the RAF. It was only in the summer of 1940 that it would fight its most important and famous campaign – to defend Britain in the skies… or Britain would face defeat on the ground.

The Royal Air Force was spilt into different commands during the Second World War; and the one that would make the crucial difference in the Battle of Britain was Fighter Command under the management of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding – the man that created the most effective aerial defensive strategy the world has ever seen, before or since. The Dowding system was the first multi-functional effective air defence and interception system, which was responsible for maintaining the defence of the skies over the whole of Britain. It worked by using a by using a system of telephones between Radar Stations and Royal Observer Corps posts dotted around the country the, in order to build a single image of the entire UK airspace – fighter aircraft were then despatched from the relevant RAF station and the interception of the Luftwaffe should be made (during the Battle interception rates were higher than 80% with some sorties scoring rates of 100%, pre Dowding System rates were around 30-50%). The country was then split into four ‘Fighter Command Groups’ that included Number 10 Group for the South West of England, Number 11 Group for the South East, Number 12 Group for the Midlands and Number 13 Group for the North and Scotland. Each group then had individual sectors that were under the control of Sector Airfields. The groups had a commander with overall responsibility for the tactics and use of the fighter squadrons under his command. The most important groups were numbers 11 and 12 – with Number 11 bearing the brunt of the Battle. It was under the command of New-Zealander Keith Park a man who worked closely with Dowding to optimise the Defence system and was headquartered at RAF Uxbridge. The sectors and sector airfields within 11 Group that were at the absolute forefront were Sector A (Tangmere), Sector B (Kenley, but also assisted by Redhill), Sector C (Biggin Hill) and Sector D (Hornchurch, but also assisted by Manston). The fundamental success in the structure of the Air Force was key to securing victory as it enabled the British to not waste fuel, aircraft, time and pilots in mounting inefficient and ineffective patrols – instead we were able to ‘see’ which heading the Luftwaffe was flying on, at which altitude it was and how many of them there were. This nearly completely ruled out the chance of a surprise attack and the Luftwaffe soon found that the RAF was always there for them when they arrived.

When fighting an aerial campaign one must never underestimate the training, experience, moral, skill and equipment of the pilots. The Luftwaffe by the time France fell on the 25th June 1940 were a highly skilled, highly experienced fighting force that had proven itself countless times over Continental Europe in the past year and had successfully instilled fear into every single one of her opponents. It was also equipped with one of the most modern and highly effective fighter aircraft that had ever graced the skies – the Messerschmitt 109.  Luftwaffe pilots were therefore brimming with confidence and had most certainly had the feeling of air superiority over any of her past victims; the Royal Air Force would surely be no different. The RAF by the 25th June 1940 was in a very different state; a badly equipped and executed campaign in Northern France had proven just that, in that they were badly equipped and poorly managed. The Pilots had been pushed to breaking point over Northern France and the bad publicity the RAF received over the apparent lack of their presence at Dunkirk had certainly not helped boost pilot moral. However – the Battle of France was crucial in proving the effectiveness of what would become Britain’s main fighting weapon in the Summer 1940; the Hawker Hurricane.

Although severely outnumbered over the Continent it had been able to demonstrate all its key attributes, ranging from being a far more stable gun platform than the 109, and also having a narrower turning circle in the sky enabling it outmanoeuvre even the best German pilots.  It also proved to be incredibly rugged and reliable – having operated from airstrips in terrible conditions that would have never allowed an aircraft with a more delicate undercarriage, such as the 109 or the Spitfire to even land at. Repairing complicated metal airframe structures found on these two aircraft proved to be an absolute nightmare, however this complication was absent from the Hurricane, which had a rear fuselage, made of wood, and a very sturdy wide undercarriage. The Hurricane, crucially, was designed and built by Sydney Camm of Hawkers in Kingston Upon Thames that had been mass-producing aircraft since the creation of its predecessor, The Sopwith Aviation Company, in 1912. It was therefore available in the numbers needed in June 1940 to be able to maintain any sort of effective aerial defence campaign. It took until 1942, by which point the Hurricane had long been out-dated as a fighter aircraft, for Supermarine to match the numbers of deliveries per month for the Spitfire. In 1940 alone Hawkers delivered 840 Hurricanes to the RAF, Supermarine managed only 416 Spitfires – most of which came after the Battle had effectively finished. The reasons behind Supermarine’s lower output mainly centred around the complexity of the Spitfire and their total lack of experience at undertaking large scale projects. Their lack of a large factory at Southampton meant that they were reliant on a chain of sub contractors to provide parts for the Spitfire that became increasingly difficult to manage – it eventually took Lord Beaverbrook from the Ministry of Aircraft Production to bring the Spitfire project in line at a new factory in Castle Bromwich.

Although the strengths of the fighter aircraft were crucial in securing British victory in 1940, the quality and numbers of pilots was of more immediate concern. The majority of Battle of Britain RAF pilots started their training on the Tiger Moth, a two-seat biplane that was perfectly designed for the job of introducing young men to the thrills and dangers of flight. They would then transfer onto the larger and far more dangerous American built Harvard trainer aircraft, which was more like the Hurricanes and Spitfires they would very soon be flying. The only problem was that the RAF had no time to train pilots, as they were all desperately needed in front line Squadrons. Therefore it was not uncommon for new pilots to have only had ten hours training (which was the absolute legal minimum as required by the Air Force) in either a Hurricane or a Spitfire before being posted to a front-line squadron. This was a significant disadvantage for Britain as it had had far less experience than the Luftwaffe at aerial warfare by the time the Battle started; however with the assistance of excellent fighter aircraft, and the added moral boost of flying in a Spitfire the RAF proved its worth in face to face combat. Over the duration of the Battle the Luftwaffe lost 1,977 aircraft whilst the RAF lost only 1,663.

Although the principal fighters, the Hurricane, Spitfire and ME109 were not the only aircraft used during the Battle. One of the main aims of Operation Sea Lion was to destroy the RAF both in the air but also critically on the ground; and to achieve this the Luftwaffe needed bombers. The Heinkel He111, Dornier Do 17 and the Junkers Ju 88 were their main strike bombers that were each individually designed for different types of destruction. The Junkers 88 ‘Dive Bomber’ was used to try and destroy Britain’s Radar stations at the start of the Battle – however the radar stations were very easy and quick to repair so they completely failed to have any sort of medium or long term effect on our early warning capabilities. All the other German bombers and the fighter/bomber Messerschmitt 110 proved no match for the Hurricane or the Spitfire. The RAF also utilised the Bristol Blenheim and Bolton Paul Defiant as fighters; both which proved to be too slow and heavy, with the Defiant quickly being relegated to night time duties. There was also one squadron (247, based at RAF Roborough) of Gloster Gladiators – a biplane fighter that was woefully out-dated by the time of the battle and was hence sensibly restricted in its operations. Several trials were held by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough to determine the differing capabilities of the RAF aircraft against a captured Messerschmitt 109 and found that only the Hurricane and Spitfire were of near equal or equal match.

As the Battle progressed the Hurricane Mk1 started to struggle due to its reduced performance compared to the Spitfire and more importantly the Me109. Although continuing to be able to outmanoeuvre the German fighter it lacked about 40mph from its top speed to be able to continue as an effective force – the arrival of limited numbers of Hurricane MKII’s in August helped ease the problem but the now outclassed aircraft had seen its best days pass; the RAF desperately needed the Spitfire project to become the success that it did. The Supermarine Spitfire was designed by R.J Mitchell, and the prototype first flew on the 5th March 1936 – an entirely new fighter airplane based loosely on Mitchell’s Schneider Trophy winning seaplane designs, it would go on to become the only airplane of World War Two to see service in every theatre of war. Unlike the Hurricane, it had no reached its greatest potential by the time of the Battle of Britain and would continue on to become arguably the greatest fighter aircraft of all time.

There are also clearly logistical reasons behind the Luftwaffe’s eventual defeat – one of the crucial factors in the failure of the Luftwaffe was the rate at which pilots were being shot down over England – they were therefore immediately captured as Prisoners of War, if they had survived the crash. This proved to be a disaster for the Germans who could not train new pilots fast enough to replace them… this was less of a problem for the RAF as should a pilot be shot down and successfully bail out then he could return to his squadron, in some cases, on the same day, and continue the fight. Another key factor was the fact that they had to launch all their aircraft from Northern France which meant that by the time they reached the RAF Stations they were already looking at their fuels tanks to check that they had enough to get home. The RAF obviously didn’t have this problem and were hence at an immediate advantage in a dogfight before it had even started.

Overall the RAF had the better equipment but significantly less of it at the start of the Battle and certainly lacked the training, moral and experience that the Luftwaffe had – therefore I do not believe that the pilots and their machines was the most important factor in securing British victory in the skies in the summer of 1940.

Both sides used very different tactics during the Battle of Britain – both in fighting individual dogfights but also in their own master plan of the Battle. The Luftwaffe under the command of Hermann Goering were initially tasked with the destruction of the Royal Navy in the Channel which they completed with considerable ease. The next natural target for Hitler’s invasion of Britain was to destroy the enemy, which could seriously impact a beach invasion force – The Royal Air Force. This would be done both on the ground and in the air. The Luftwaffe’s first targets were the Radar Stations (however they failed to make an impact with only the station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight taking any considerable damage, but it was also easily repaired). Having given up on trying to eliminate Britain’s ‘eyes and ears’ they conceded themselves to fighting a war where the enemy knew where they were all the time, where they were going and how many of them there were – this was a crucial error. Their next target was the Airfields themselves – with Biggin Hill and Kenley being the main targets. Kenley suffered its worst damage in an attack on 18 August 1940 which destroyed the Operations Room, hit all of the twelve hangars and wrote off twelve aircraft on the ground in one attack (ten of them Hurricanes). The RAF could not have maintained this rate of destruction to its stations – it didn’t matter how many aircraft the factories were making if they didn’t have any Airfields to fly them from. It was then bizarre and a blessing for the RAF that the Luftwaffe changed their tactics right when they were making a difference. On the 7th of September, as retaliation to the RAF’s bombing of Berlin the night before, which in itself was a reaction to the bombing of civilians in South-West London the (which was an error from the Luftwaffe bombers who had not been tasked with this), the Luftwaffe bombed London and the period known as The Blitz had started. The Blitz never broke Britain, it proved largely ineffective in destroying large-scale infrastructure and never damaged moral. The Blitz actually gave time to the RAF to repair the Airfields, get more and more fighters in the sky and start the ‘Big Wing’ trails on the 15th of September. The ‘Big Wing’ was new fighter tactic championed by the commander of Number 12 Group Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory and his strong supporter, leader of 242 Squadron based at Duxford, Douglas Bader. They argued that the most effective method of taking on the enemy was to meet him with as many fighters as possible in groups of three or more squadrons together. This clashed with the views of Dowding and Park who preferred to rely on small ‘flights’ of interceptor fighters. Although the ‘Big Wing’ never caught on, it certainly helped sell the idea to the Germans on battle of Britain Day (15th of September) that they had been fighting a Battle for nearly three months and had gone nowhere. The numbers of RAF fighters in the sky that day were so high they ended up getting in each others way so numbers of German losses were not as high as they could have been – however the psychological blow was enough that on the 17th September, Operation Sea Lion was cancelled. Britain had held out.

It is therefore safe to conclude that although the Blitz would cause around 42,000 civilian deaths – it saved Britain from invasion in 1940 as it enabled the RAF to regroup and hit the Luftwaffe with the ‘Big Wing’. Although British tactics were significant in securing victory, it was the German lack of plan and failure to press home their attacks on the RAF stations that eventually cost them the Battle of Britain.

Contributed by Alex Harmer

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