World War Two: The Few
To mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, discover the story of R.A.F. Fighter Command who saved Britain from almost certain defeat at the hands of Hitler during World War 2. In the immortal words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, never would so much be owed, by so many, to so few.
The Early Days
In the summer of 1940, in the skies above Southern England, one of the most crucial battles of World War 2 was being fought. If the British lost the Battle of Britain, it would be wide open to German invasion and Europe would have become a Nazi slave empire. Thankfully the British did win the battle, thanks largely to the heroic pilots of Fighter Command.
Born from the scout pilots of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy Air Service, Fighter Command was formed after World War 1. On the 1st April 1918 they were officially merged to become the Royal Air Force, the world's first independent air arm. But by 1923 there were only 3 fighter squadrons available for home defence.
A force of 52 squadrons was then planned for the air defence of Great Britain, one third of which would be fighters. This plan was put back until 1936 due to the relative world peace at that time. However, matters changed quickly with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler's Nazi party in 1933. In March 1935 Hitler unveiled the Luftwaffe, boasting that it was already as strong as the RAF, so the British government subsequently rushed through the expansion plans for the Royal Air Force.
The British Air Defence network was divided up into four separate commands a year later. These were Fighter, Bomber, Coastal and Training. Fighter Command's first Commander In Chief was Air Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding. Highly respected, but stern and abstenious, he was nicknamed 'Stuffy' by his men. When Dowding took charge, there were only 16 squadrons in Fighter Command, each with 12 aircraft and just over 200 pilots, equipped with the relatively primitive aircraft, the Hawker Fury and the Hawker Demon.
These bi-planes lacked speed and the required early warning to engage bombers before they reached their target. But Dowding inherited and encouraged two vital technical developments which would transform his command. The emergence of Radar, the contraction of radio detection and ranging, enabled approaching aircraft to be detected by reflecting radio waves off them.
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Salute to the Royal Air Force
Gearing up for Hitler
A chain of receiving stations was rapidly built along the south coast of England. The first all-metal framed monoplane fighter, the Hawker Hurricane was also introduced, capable of a much greater speed than that of the traditional bi-plane. Then the Supermarine Spifire was also developed, and by the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, the majority of Fighter Command were using these two aircraft. The amount of available pilots had doubled, the backbone of which were the regular officers who had been trained at the RAF academy at Cranwell. In addition there were short service commissioned pilots who had been bound to four years active service followed by 10 years in reserve.
Many came from across the dominions, including New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada etc. There were also non-commissioned pilots who made up 25% of each squadrons' air crew. The regular pilots were supported by the part-time flyers of the RAF's Volunteer Reserve. They were also backed up by the Royal Auxhillary Air Force squadrons, who mainly flew at weekends.
In the summer of 1939, it was still questionable as to how well the young pilots of Fighter Command would perform when confronted with actual combat. This test would soon be upon them.
Ill Equipped and Heading to France
On the 1st September 1939, Hitler's forces invaded Poland, two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany and a British expeditionary force crossed the channel to support the French Army. four Fighter Command Hurricane squadrons went with them. This left Fighter Command's chief Hugh Dowding with just 33 squadrons with which to defend Britain. Three of these were equipped with the Bristol Blenhheim bomber which would have been no match for the modern monoplane fighters at germany's disposal.
Another three squadrons had the Gloucester Gladiator which was virtually obsolete, leaving the rest with Hurricanes and Spitfires. During the 'phoney war' which followed the fall of Poland, Fighter Command's main task was to protect Britain's shipping off the British east coast and the Royal Navy anchorages at Skapa Flow and Rossythe.
On the 16th October 1939, Rossythe was attacked by the Germans and Fighter Command was to have it's first successes of the war.Hurricanes shot down two Heinkel He11 bombers, the fighter squadrons in France also had some success against German recognaissance aircraft. But with the onset of winter, which was to prove exceptionally severe that year, put a halt to the air operations of both the British and the Germans. However, by the spring of 1940 the war intensified once more when the germans invaded Norway and Denmark.
Fighter Command sent a squadron of Gloucester Gladiators to Norway, but these were all lost to German attacks within a couple of days. Dowding had also had to send six squadrons to France by May and when the Germans invaded France, another four squadrons of Hurricanes were sent.
Although these were handling whatever the Luftwaffe gave out, a further 32 Hurricanes were sent out because they were being outnumbered. As the Nazi 'blitzkreig' was overwhelming, the French asked for even more fighters. But Dowding was becoming concerned that his own forces for defending Britain were becoming too thinly stretched, and they decided that no more squadrons be sent to France.
Within 2 weeks the Germans had trapped the British , French and Belgian troops around the port of Dunkirk. Herman Goerring boasted that his Luftwaffe would destroy them on it's own, and they did their best to do just that. But they could not prevent 340,000 Allied troops being brought back to Britain.
Much of the credit for this miracle was given to Fighter Command whose pilots battled bravely to keep the Luftwaffe off the rescue ships. They lost over 400 planes and 153 pilots were killed, but they had forced the Germans to leave Dunkirk and turn their attentions instead to Paris. These were losses Dowding could ill-afford however, as he knew the battle for the skies above Britain was about to take place and if they lost it, a German invasion of Britain would have been imminent.
Radar, the saviour of Britain?
Across the channel in France, the Luftwaffe were readying 1100 bombers. Of these 320 were Junkers Ju87 Stuka divebombers, 800 Me109 sinle engine fighters and 250 twin engined Me110 fighters. Also within range of Britain was a futher 150 bombers and Me110's based in Denmark and Norway.
Dowding's Fighter Command had around 800 fighters, but only 700 of these were the effective Hurricanes and Spifires. If these were to be successful, efficient command, control and communications would be essential.
Dowding had organised this force into four groups, number 10 Group covered the southwest of England, 11 Group were responsible for southeast England, the most critical sector. Number 12 Group controlled the East Anglia and Midlands regions and finally Number 13 Group would cover Northeast England and Scotland.
They were heavily reliant on the chain of radar stations covering the south and east of England for early warning of the approach of enemy aircraft. This system sent the information of the build up of enemy raids direct to the fighter room at Fighter Command's HQ at Bentley Priory on the northwest outskirts of London.
Here, the direction and strength of the raids were identified and the information was simultaneously sent to the operations rooms at Bentley Priory, the Group HQ's and the sector HQ's within each Group. Once the enemy had reached the English coast, their progress was monitored by the Observer Corps which was made up of civilian volunteers. The Group HQ's would decide which squadrons to scramble, while the sector operations rooms within each Group, controlled the fighters in the air, guiding them to the enemy formations.
The British air defences were aided by two other main elements in the Anti-aircraft Command, who controlled the ground-based air defence weapons and RAF Balloon Command who manned the barrage balloons which were designed to ward off the enemy's low level attacks.
Inexperienced and lacking tactical knowhow
For many, the Spitfire has come to symbolise Fighter Command's role in the Battle of Britain. Many pilots found it a delight to fly as it was very responsive and seen as a worthy match for the German Me109 and was used to attack these bomber escorts. The Hurricane too was considered to have many good strengths especially with it's turning ability. The one weakness as far as the pilots were concerned was the lack of effective tactics.
Dowding had no concerns over fighter production however, which had recently been increased, but he was deeply troubled regarding his small reserves of trained pilots. Although training had been expanded in 1940 to produce 115 pilots, instead of 39, every two weeks, it would take time for his command to benefit. Dowding's worries remained severe, especially when casualties began to rise.
In addition to calling up more and more reserves, extra pilots were brought in from overseas. Among them were already combat experienced Polish pilots who had fought against the Luftwaffe on two occasions over Poland and France. Trained pilots from France and Czechoslovakia and some from the United States were also brought into action. These were all totally reliant however, on their ground crews, regardless of their own individual skill as pilots.
The ground crews took great pride in the speed in which they could turn an aircraft round, one particular squadron was refuelled and refitted within 7 minutes of landing to being able to take off again.
Britain's Finest Hour
On the 10th JUly 1940, the Battle of Britain began, during the first month of the fighting, the Luftwaffe attempted to draw out the RAf over the channel by attacking shipping convoys. Dowding would not rise to the bait, although there were some svere air battles over the south coast and particularly around the port of Dover.
Goerring began his main assault on the 12th August, the primary targets were the Radar stations and coastal airfields. The attacks on the Radar stations were not sustained however, and most survived. Three days later the Germans launched a massive assault which they called 'Eagle Day', designed to destroy the RAF once and for all.
The Luftwaffe flew nearly 1500 sorties, but they were handicapped due to the fact that most fighters only had enough fuel for a few minutes of combat over England and they were soon losing two or three times as many aircraft than the RAF were. They lost 45 on that day alone as opposed to the British losing just 13.
On the 18th August, the Germans attacked a number of the crucial 11 Group sector HQ's airfields. Command and control was severely disrupted and the RAF lost 34 aircraft to the Luftwaffe's 71. But despite their losses, the Luftwaffe felt that their superior numbers would prevail, given the pressure, could Fighter Command hold out?
During the late summer of 1940, the intense battle raged on as the RAF crews found themselves in constant action, always outnumbered. On the 24th August, Winston Churchill summed up what the whole nation was thinking with these words: "Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed, by so many, to so few"
Those Few lived with constant fear and threat of death, particularly by burning. The pilots were becoming exhausted by the constant stress. Throughout the day they were on constant standby usually waiting in or just outside their dispersal hut close to their aircraft.
Everyone of the men were on tenterhooks if a telephone rang, it may only be an administrative queery or it could be the order to scramble. Sometimes if the German pressure was severe, the pilots may even have to wait in their cockpits. If they were lucky and it was a quieter period, a squadron may be granted a 24 hour pass, which usually ran from midday until midday the following day. Some pilots may decide to go to London for the evening, others were content to just spend the evening at the local pub.
When they were on duty, a squadron could fly up to five or six sorties a day, many pilots tried to mentally detach themselves from their actual enemy and focus on the plane they were trying to shoot down, rather than the man inside it. Almost inevitably pilots would be missing at the end of a sortie. Some pilots tried to stop themselves making friends in case they never saw that person again.
On August 24th 1940, the Luftwaffe increased the number of escort fighters protecting the bombers and launched a fresh assault on Fighter Command's airfields, especially that of 11 Group protecting the southeastern coast of England. With the squadrons suffering heavy losses and the surviving pilots rapidly becoming exhausted, Dowding replaced the depleted squadrons with some from other groups from around the country, although they often found the standard of the newer pilots was dropping. It looked as though Fighter Command was heading for defeat. That was until, amazingly, on the 7th September, the Luftwaffe suddenly changed their focus and tactics.
A series of tit-for-tat bombing on both London and Berlin had begun a week earlier and this convinced Hitler to focus all his attacks on London instead of finishing off Fighter Command and it's airfields. This prompted many people to assume that the probable invasion of Britain was imminent and all defence forces were put on hightened alert.
However, Hitler on the other hand was beginning to think that his Luftwaffe were failing in the Battle of Britain and he therefore postponed his invasion plan for two weeks. Goerring was determined to make one last final effort to crush Fighter Command. On the 15th September he launched one last massive attack on London in an attempt to draw out Fighter Command's planes in order to destroy them for good.
Dowding's pilots scrambled into the air to confront the challenge. Virtually every available aircraft that Fighter Command possessed was sent into the air. The Luftwaffe lost 60 aircraft compared to Fighter Command's 30. Goerring's last attempt had failed and two days later, Hitler called off the invasion of Britain indefinitely.
The Battle of Britain continued sporadically until the end of October, by which time German attacks on Britain had come mainly at night on major towns and cities and the 'Blitz' continued until may 1941. In the aftermath of the battle, Hugh Dowding retired and many of his men felt that he was not given the due recognition he deserved for his leadership and in getting Fighter Command through it's most difficult period in it's history. However, in 1943 he was made Baron of Bentley Priory by the king.
New Skills, New Planes and a New Chief
During the nighttime attacks on Britain's cities Fighter Command had to devise new defensive skills. These were based on the devlopement of airborne interception. Bristol Blenheims and Beau Fighters were used for this role. The faster Beau fighter had been specifically designed as a night fighter, although it would go on to act as an escort fighter and ground attack aircraft.
During 1942, the faster and more versatile Mosquito was introduced and adapted to the role of tracking down enemy bombers and engaging them. this would require the closest co-ordination skills between the pilot and the navigator who operated the Radar.
Shalto Douglas, a reknowned World War 1 fighter pilot, succeeded Hugh Dowding as Commander in Chief of Fighter Command. Douglas believed that the time was right to go on the offensive and his fighters began two kinds of assault over eastern Europe. These were called a) Rhubarbs - a sweep by small groups of fighters on their own, and b) Circus's - groups of day bombers escorted by fighters.
Douglas made no secret of his tactics, the aim was to draw out German fighters from the airfields in Northern France and destroy them in the air. For the first half of 1941, these operations were pursued sparingly, with equal loss rates on either side. But when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, the tempo was intensified, so as to keep the majority of the Luftwaffe tied down in the west.
This worked successfully as experienced pilots were having to be transferred from the Eastern front in order to replace losses in the West. However, the rhubarbs and circus's were costly, partly as they were operating over hostile territory and being limited on fuel, they had less time that they could spend engaged in combat. The other reason was that the Germans had introduced a formidable new fighter in the Focke Wulfe FW190 which far outclassed Fighter Command's Spitfires.
The British manufacturers in response improved their engines and the Spitfire Mark 9 subsequently reigned supreme against the Germans for the rest of the war. During the summer of 1941 and into 1942, Fighter Command's sweeps were stepped up to assist the Russians. The RAF hoped to inflict a significant defeat on the Luftwaffe, but the Germans shot down twice as many Allied planes as they had lost themselves.
During the spring of 1943, planning for the cross-channel invasion of France began. Fighter Command, who had already had squadrons posted abroad faced a fundamental reorganisation. More of it's squadrons were re-assigned to the Second Tactical Air Force, which had been set up to provide support for the Allied Invsion Force. The remaining squadrons were renamed Air Defence of Great Britain, each of which were under direct leadership of Sir Trafford Lee Mallory.
The Tactical Air Force's role was totally offensive and it took control of Fighter Command's operations in Northern france. The ADGR's remained strictly defensive. One of it's duties was to counter German recognaissance aircraft that were trying to monitor the invasion preparations. Another task was to intercept lightning bomber raids. These roles may have seemed less glamorous than the Tactical Air Force's, but they were soon to be tested in what effectively would be another Battle of Britain.
For the Germans were about to launch another 'Blitz', by early summer 1944 the V1 flying bomb had been developed, which carried an 1800 pound warhead and was capable of flying at over 400 miles an hour.The Allies had become aware of this weapon a year earlier and had launched bombing raids at it's development centre at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast, which set back development by several months.
They also identified and attacked the V1 launch sites which were being built in Northern france, but it proved to be not enough and on the 13th june 1944, a week after the Allies had landed in Normandy, the first V1's were launched against England. faced with this new terror, the Air Defence of Great Britain had to quickly devise new tactics in order to counteract the V1's. As soon as the bombs were spotted approaching the coast, aircraft would be given the warning to scramble, and the pilots would become adept to shooting them down.
The first ever British jet had now been developed to aid in the defence against the V1. The Gloucester Meteor made it's operational debut on july 12th 1944, although they could only fly at an equivalent speed to the V1, there ability to climb rapidly made it easier to intercept the flying bombs. Anti-aircraft guns were also redeployed to the English coast to intercept the V1's before they got inland. Although sporadic V1 raids continued until March 1945, the majority of the attacks had been destroyed by September 1944.
However, Hitler had a devastating new weapon up his sleeve in the V2 rocket, which had a one tonne warhead and was capable of a speed of 3500 miles an hour. The first V2 struck England on the 9th september 1944. There was little that could be done by the A.D.G.B. as the missile flew too high and too fast to be intercepted. The V1 launch sites in france could be destroyed as they were static sites, but the V2 used mobile launchers, making them far more difficult to be spotted and destroyed by Allied bombers. It was only the Allied bombing of German oil and communication networks that brought the V2's to a halt.
The Final Salute
On September 15th 1945, as the 5th anniversary of RAF Fighter Command's epic Battle of Britain, which finally dashed Hitler's plans of invading Britain, a group of veteran fighter pilots gathered at RAF North Weald. Among them was Douglas Bader and Hugh Dowding who had commanded Fighter Command during that critical period in the defence of Britain.
The pilots then took off in their fighters to fly over war torn central London at the head of an armada of 300 RAF aircraft. It was a fitting commemmoration, not only to the end of the war, but to 'The Few', the young pilots who flew in what Winston Churchill described as 'their finest hour'
Although Fighter Command no longer exists in the Royal Air Force, today's jet pilots continue to strive to live up to the vigour and couragous spirit shown by their forebares. Those gladiators in their Hurricanes and Spitfires who ensured that Britain would fight on against Nazi tyrrany.