The Battle of Britain
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
It really was my intention to minimise accounts and details of British military aviation history. So many far better people have produced vastly superior accounts. However it soon became apparent a bit more work was needed to provide a more balanced picture for this ‘Guide’. It also quickly emerged that the ‘Battle of Britain’ surely has been the singular event to be awarded the ‘Most Significant Aviation Episode’ in our aviation history? And for that matter our national history, ranking alongside Nelson at Trafalgar. Winston Churchill is reckoned to be spot on when he told the British public that never had so many owed so much to so few. Or was he? For example, and for at least three years, the bombing campaign against enemy targets was the only method available for hitting the German 'war machine' and especially the homeland of Germany itself. And the sacrifices by so many in that campaign far eclipse the short 'Battle of Britain' episode.
A PRELUDE - THE BATTLE OF BARKING CREEK
It would seem that this story is well worth telling as it gives some indication of how well the RAF were actually prepared, in some respects at least, for what was to come. Without any doubt whatsover the brilliant defence scheme set up by Air Officer Commanding Dowding played an enormous contribution to the outcome - but what happens when such a scheme is first put into action? The Gremlins come out to play.
There are a few accounts I have come across, all of which differ, but probably the best is by Paul Bingley and Richard E. Flagg in their excellent book: ESSEX: A Hidden Aviation History.
"Fifty-four hours after German troops marched into Poland, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made an announcement to the British people. Britain had declared war on Germany. Thirty minutes later, an air-raid siren wailed across London. The capital was facing the threat of aerial bombardment once more."
"The warning was a false alarm triggered by a French aircraft making its way across the coast. The next day, six Spitfires of No.74 Squadron were scambled from Hornchurch for the first time to intercept another unidentified aircraft. Again, it turned out to be a false alarm. It was a pattern that would be catastrophically repeated a few days later."
"On the 6 September 1939, a searchlight battery at Mersea Island wrongly identified a friendly aircraft crossing the Essex coastline. Hawker Hurricanes from North Weald were scrambled to investigate, but a technical fault with the new RDF station at Canewdon misidentified the Hurricanes as hostile. More fighters were despatched from North Weald, but they, too, were misidentified. The Spitfires of No.74 Squadron were then detailed to engage the 'raid' and immediately took off from Hornchurch."
"Through a combination of 'miscommunication, inexperience and over-enthusiam', two of the Spitfire pilots mistook the Hurricanes for German fighters and attacked, shooting two of them down. Pilot Officer Montague Hulton-Harrop was killed, becoming the first Fighter Command casualty of the Second World War. The other pilot, Frank Rose, managed to crash-land in a nearby field."
It needs to be remembered, that even though Luftwaffe pilots were amazed that we painted 'targets' on our aircraft, mostly aircraft seen from another aircraft, tend to be seen in silhouette if against the sky, and usually too far away to be seen in detail when below the horizon.
A REMARKABLY SMALL AMOUNT?
Just 2917 airmen fought this battle – or so it is claimed. Needless to say the official history is an utter disgrace and we should, as a nation, feel thoroughly ashamed by the ‘official’ accounts - which are just worthless propaganda at best. Basically a bunch of falsehoods, even downright lies, bearing almost no relationship to the truth. The truth being that tens of thousands of people each made a vital contribution to support every airman . What is more, I am certain that every single pilot and crew member was very aware of this. All aircrew are aware of the vast ‘supply chain’ which needs to be in existence, and be very effective, just to get them off the ground. Beyond that goes the very long line stretching to Ministry officials, manufacturing and certainly not least obviously, the initial designers.
TOO LITTLE CREDIT
Far too little credit is given to the people who actually signed the ‘purchase orders’ and cheques to get the Hurricane and Spitfire into mass production. Or, perhaps more accurately, gave the authority for others to do so? Surely it stands to reason that some of these ‘faceless minions’ did indeed have a keen appreciation of the worth of these two particular fighter types when faced with an avalanche of other designs from the manufacturers for all sorts of differing roles also needed – bombers, trainers, transport etc. Can we even begin to imagine today, the immense responsibility they had - given the time frame? I doubt it. Today it takes years and years to develop a new complex aircraft and thousands of people are involved in examining every tiny aspect with design and testing procedures not even dreamt of in those days.
THE BEGIININGS OF THE STORY
The beginnings of the 'Battle of Britain' story goes back to the mid-1930s at least. This was when the Hurricane and later the Spitfire were first designed, the Hurricane by Sydney Camm and the Spitfire by Reginald Mitchell. But, we must remember that these now famous individuals headed large teams of people dedicated to the detail and manufacturing methods. Mitchell for example, did not design the Spitfire wings.
And, at that time, the development of the Hurricane was way ahead of the Spitfire and formed the backbone of the RAF fighter force during the 'Battle of Britain' - in fact is was an altogether better weapon for the job in hand. A far better 'gun platform' and only marginally inferior to the Spitfire in manouevrability at high altitude. However, it must be borne in mind that the principal task was to destroy German bombers, and it was here, at lower altitudes, that the Hurricane excelled. Indeed, it has been recorded time and time again, including accounts from several aces flying the type, that they were very proud and pleased to be flying the Hurricane.
A MAJOR ELEMENT
Arguably the most crucial factor was the development of radar, the establishment of a ‘chain’ of radar stations around the southern and eastern coastline of England and the critically important command and communications system. This is where Dowding excelled in his role as Air Officer Commanding Fighter Area (Air Defense of Great Britain). Nothing as good as this had ever been seen before and Dowding was most meticulous in his attention to detail. This system was backed up by observers relaying information from posts around the coast. It was brilliant in its conception and worked very well indeed. However, less senior officers in this chain of command invariably sent directions to the fighters that all to often placed them at a distinct disadvantage. Any officers who disobeyed these orders, to try and place themselves on at least equal grounds for combat, were invariably swiftly posted elsewhere. There are many testimonies from participating pilots to this extraordinary state of affairs. This needs to be made very clear. British fighter pilots who survived the first few conflicts very soon realised they needed to take command of the situation. Radar vectoring was a huge help of course but once in combat it was every man for himself. The Germans greatly assisted their eventual destruction by forming huge ‘wings’ or echelons over the French coast. In effect they got in each others way, especially when trying to defend the bombers. But, despite combat experience in the Spanish Civil War, the German High Command had never come across such a large and determined enemy as the RAF defending their country .
ANOTHER CRUCIAL ELEMENT
As mentioned before, another crucial element was the gearing up of industry to produce aircraft, a truly incredible achievement, and, this would not have been possible without some truly foresighted and very capable civil servants totally committed to the cause. These few pivotal people are very rarely accorded recognition in the list of ‘Battle of Britain’ “heroes”. For example 3,800 aircraft were provided to the RAF in the two years up to 1936 whereas 12,000 were provided by early 1938.
A SHORT CHAIN OF COMMAND
Also of great importance, (with little if any doubt?), was the remarkably short chain of essential direct command – Churchill, Dowding and Park – without which the campaign surely could not have succeeded? Especially the New Zealander Air Vice-Marshall Sir Keith Park, without whom we wouldn’t have stood a chance? Indeed, as Lord Tedder, (then the chief of the RAF), wrote of Park in 1947: “If any one man won the Battle of Britain he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save not only this country, but the world.” If Dowding ran the ‘Battle’ from day to day, Park ran it hour by hour.
A SHORT HISTORY OF KEITH PARK
The history of this most remarkable man is well worth looking into. In his excellent book Fighter Heroes of WW1 Joshua Levine includes this account by Frank Ransley of 48 Squadron fighting on the Western Front in WW1. “Our orders were to go as low as possible and concentrate on shooting up German troops or any other worthwhile ground targets. The ‘Brisfit’ being a two-seater was much larger than a scout machine and had a bigger wing spread and was not built for low flying. I cannot remember how many machines I flew that were put out of action by fire from ground troops. The mechanics and riggers worked non-stop at this time to put us in the air again. Major Keith Park inspired us all with his calm certainty that we should win through although he hated sending us out on these near suicide missions. So we soldiered on.”
Just over twenty years later, and now an Air Vice-Marshall, Keith Park was doing the same thing again. Doing his best to understand the reality, stamping his authority on the strategy and commanding great respect. ‘Stuffy’ Dowding on the other hand was making some very serious mistakes, like deciding to place Sector Control rooms on airfields, a decision made in 1936. When, with hindsight, we can now say that anybody with any sense would know they should be placed, and well hidden, (albeit fairly close for practical reasons), ‘off-site’. But here again, a war of this nature had not been envisaged - nothing even remotely akin to it had been seen before.
I think it is highly significant that Park would often fly into various RAF Stations in his Hurricane without any ceremony and plonk himself down in the mess to listen to what the pilots were saying. Obviously a very gifted and imaginative man. Hardly surprising to learn that as soon as the ‘Battle of Britain’ was deemed to have been won he was removed from command. By whom I wonder…and what was their agenda exactly? Dark forces were abroad in those days and very few have sought to uncover the story. The same happened to Dowding - almost as soon as the 'Battle of Britain' had ended, Dowding was removed from his post in November 1940.
THE CONTRIBUTION OF FOREIGN AIRMEN
Another very important point concerning the 'Battle of Britain' is that of those 2917 airmen, 583 were foreigners and their contribution was far greater than their numerical value. Indeed, without the Polish and Czech pilots it can now be very well argued the ‘Battle’ would have been lost. This is not opinion, it is fact. The Czech and especially the Polish pilots had combat experience with the Luftwaffe, and flying obsolete aircraft in which they didn’t stand a chance. This led them to devise attack methods, now flying Hurricanes, so extreme and dangerous the RAF hadn’t even considered them. But, they were very, very effective.
One thing needs to be understood. If the RAF had only British fighter pilots drilled in RAF set attack procedures and adhering to orders the ‘Battle’ would have been lost very quickly.
THE THREAT OF AN INVASION MYTH
Even if air superiority had been won by the Luftwaffe over southern England , this would not have resulted in an invasion. There is no doubt Hitler had ordered an invasion of England, but Hitler hadn't the slightest idea about how such an invasion of England could take place. His ideas were of a grandiose scale and, supported by many of his high ranking military officers with their campaign over land, the Blitzkreig approach had so far been devastatingly successful. Invading across the sea was altogether vastly more problematical - as the D-Day invasions proved when the Germans had no naval support and virtually no air support.
The fact of the matter is that constant photo-reconnaissance by the RAF revealed that the 'so called' invasion force became nowhere near a threat. However, for political reasons at the highest levels, it was expedient to keep the British public in a state of alarm. Another factor is that the Germans, if they had launched an invasion, would have done so at night, when the RAF were powerless. The fact of the matter appears to be that the Royal Navy could quickly have had fighting vessels outnumbering the German Navy on a scale of up to seven to one! Plus, the fighting potential of, for example, a British Navy Destroyer or Corvette was something to behold - commanded by officers who were utterly fearless - and quite prepared to attack German battleships! In effect it would have been, for the Royal Navy, an exercise of shooting fish in a barrel. Plus, if any invasion barges had got through this, their arrival on the coast would have recieved a fearsome barrage of gunnery plus a huge amount of substantial defences placed along the beaches. In effect it was a 'no-goer' from the very start.
DOWDING STOOD HIS GROUND
Although now a revered figure, and quite rightly I suppose, Winston Churchill got many things wrong in his estimation of what was needed to be done in the early stages of the war. ‘Stuffy’ Dowding stood his ground against Churchill, and, he didn’t shy from putting young totally inadequately trained British pilots as ‘cannon fodder’ into the ‘Battle’. A WW1 tactic in effect. He thought he had no other option than to do this. This was a crucial issue, we didn’t lack aircraft, we lacked competent pilots! The ‘Battle of Britain’ was fought over less than four months, from the 10th July to the 31st October 1940.
Also, what few competent pilots we did have, were as often as not hamstrung by having to try and look after 'rookies'. Rather than sending up formations in 'fours', just two highly competent pilots working together, would have been, without any doubt, highly effective.
Also without any doubt, viewed with hindsight of course, the strategy Dowding envisaged was quite wrong. He was partially correct in insisting small ‘Wings’ were the answer rather than the utterly ludicrous Leigh-Mallory ‘Big Wing’ But the concept of the RAF having fighters going into combat in very close formation and the pilots wearing ties was bordering on madness – and virtually suicidal. We really must remember that the RAF as a fighting force, when WW2 arrived, was one of the most generally incompetent and useless air forces the world has ever seen. But again, a conflict of this nature, had never been encountered before, so how do you plan tactics for the unknown?
Can we even imagine today how those RAF fighter pilots must have felt, faced with a sky full of invading aircraft.
What we really can be immensely proud of, and which nobody can deny, is that within just a couple of years the RAF became a most formidable force. But make no mistake about it, very harsh measures were introduced to turn the RAF around. Perhaps the biggest disgrace the RAF still has to admit to, and still not officially recognised, is the sheer amount of aircrew killed in training. I firmly believe a significant monument should be erected in a prominent place to recognise this. In my opinion at least, any aircrew killed in training had every bit a total commitment to the greater cause as those killed in combat.
A SMALL MYTH EXPLODED
Without too much doubt the amount of damage to the reality of the 'Battle of Britain' in popular terms can be largely attributed to the film 'Battle of Britain' which is almost farcical in the way it portrayed these events. Arrant nonsense at best. For example most people probably remember the scene, often replayed, of Winston Churchill asking Keith Park when in the 11 Group ‘Bunker’ at RAF Uxbridge, “How many are in reserve?”, to which Park replied, “None.” This meant none in 11 Group. The RAF had something like 75%, (perhaps more?), of their aircraft and aircrew not much involved in the ‘Battle of Britain’.
And, when asked to provide help, Leigh-Mallory, in charge of 12 Group, appears to have been reluctant to offer much of his force to assist. A story not often told even today.
THE ROLE CALL
To set the record straight about the huge debt we owe to ‘foreign’ pilots fighting in the ‘Battle of Britain’, (repeated elsewhere in KENT as a reminder), here is the listing regarded as being the best to date:
New Zealand: 126
South Africa: 25
United States: 11
To address this singular issue of the ‘Battle of Britain’ I have made a separate category in the listings of sites regarding the various squadrons and were they were based at the start of the ‘Battle and during that period’. They were often moved around to other Stations even on any given day. A strategy that without any doubt, along with radar, and a fully integrated system for deploying the available resources hour by hour, helped saved the day. But, quite why squadrons were moved so often afterwards defies logic, unless of course there were people in ‘command’ positions, determined to undermine the effectiveness of the British air offensive?
This is not to say it worked very well by and large, it obviously didn’t. But, fortunately the German High Command had even less of an idea about what was required and made major strategic blunders galore. As somebody has said the Germans had a huge 'bear' to command over the land, the British a 'whale' in the oceans. Neither of which could fight effectively in that slim stretch of water we call the ‘English Channel’.
Consequently the Germans were faced with a new problem. Relying on their air force, the Luftwaffe, to do the job alone for once. Again we were fortunate because the mostly drugged up head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, had no ideas worth talking about for this campaign. He blustered and boasted to Hitler but nothing seemed to work. Without any doubt the woeful lack of competence from the Luftwaffe people charged with interpreting aerial reconnaissance photographs played a significant part. The major fault with the German campaign under Goering being his 'big wing' strategy. In effect, by the time these 'big wings' had assembled to cross the 'Channel' the top level fighters had already consumed at least half of the fuel required for the mission.
As seems the case in every war the reality is a very sorry case of general incompetence within the top officers regarding any military endeavour? Certainly so in the ‘Battle of Britain’ when the aircrews not only had the Luftwaffe to fight, but were also being shot at by the Army, Navy and even RAF anti-aircraft gun crews! It might seem incredible but RAF pilots baling out over England were shot at. In fact it soon became such an issue the Air Ministry took steps to try and inform those with these guns that not everybody descending by parachute was a German!
I suppose we must also remember that the majority of British people, even when bearing arms, especially in rural areas (?), were barely literate or numerate. To the extent they didn’t realise a single person descending by parachute hardly constituted the commencement of a German invasion force. There were cases of British fighter aircraft trying to shoot down German aircraft also being targeted by Ack-Ack crews, and sometimes getting shot down.
THE 'BATTLE OF BRITAIN' AIRFIELDS
I have marked the base airfields at the beginning of the Battle of Britain with *. The same applies for these sites in the County listings.
At the time of the Battle of Britain the UK was divided up by Fighter Command into four Groups:
11 Group looked after south east England with airfields at; *BIGGIN HILL, *DEBDEN, *CROYDON, DETLING, EASTCHURCH, FORD, *GRAVESEND, HAWKINGE, *HENDON, *HORNCHURCH, *KENLEY, LYMPNE, *MANSTON, *MARTLESHAM, *NORTHOLT, *NORTH WEALD, *ROCHFORD, STAPLEFORD TAWNEY, *TANGMERE, THORNEY ISLAND, WESTHAMPNETT & WEST MALLING. LEE-on-SOLENT and GOSPORT were shared RN/RAF airfields
10 Group had the southwest of England and south Wales; BOSCOMBE DOWN, COLERNE, *EXETER, FILTON, *MIDDLE WALLOP, *PEMBREY, ROBOROUGH, *St EVAL & WARMWELL
12 Group were looking after central England; *COLLEYWESTON, *COLTISHALL, *DIGBY, *DUXFORD, *FOWLMERE, *KIRTON-in-LINDSEY, TERN HILL & *WITTERING
13 Group had the rest, northern England and all of Scotland; *ACKLINGTON, *CASTLETOWN, *CATTERICK, *CHURCH FENTON, *DREM, DYCE, *GRANGEMOUTH, *LECONFIELD, *TURNHOUSE, *USWORTH & *WICK
The business of constructing so many more military airfields as WW2 progressed is of course possibly the biggest civil engineering task ever undertaken anywhere on earth before this period? Certainly in such a short time frame.
Many excellent books have been written about the ‘Battle of Britain’ but by far the best I have discovered is ‘Battle of Britain’ by Patrick Bishop. It really is a tour-de-force examining every aspect. Autobiographies from the surviving pilots such as ‘A Willingness to Die’ by Brian Kingcome shed much understanding and books such as ‘The Few’ by Alex Kershaw relating the stories of some of the American pilots to participate are especially valuable.
However, none of these excellent authors seem to have grasped the bigger picture. Namely that the ‘Battle of Britain’ should never have been fought in the way it was. It was an utter nonsense to have a single fighter based in Kent for example, except for a few dedicated to low-level interception duties. Our fighters should have been based just outside of the ‘range ring’ of the Me.109. The proof being that when the decision was made to bomb London, the Luftwaffe bombers suffered such appalling losses, they reverted to night time operations. Which left us defenceless in the air.
A NEW LOOK
Having now studied the subject in depth it is now obvious all this ‘Battle of Britain’ history is misleading. The RAF defence strategy being almost designed on purpose to give every advantage to the Luftwaffe. It is obvious that Dowding and even Park, (who at least tried to understand what was going on), had no idea about the almost fatal flaws in their strategy. Typically, because none of the RAF High Command had any idea about flying the latest fighters, or for that matter, even a basic understanding of what air combat then involved, an almost fatally flawed strategy was implemented - for 11 Group at least, destined to bear the brunt of the attack.
To explain, when the Luftwaffe invasion force arrived the RAF should not have had most of their fighters based within Kent. To do so was inviting the Luftwaffe to ‘shoot fish in a barrel.’ Which they did, especially for all those low hours pilots; those poor sods had their lives wasted, chucked in the bin. A futile loss of life and machines which achieved absolutely nothing. Banging on about how incredibly brave they were, taking off on suicidal missions, is just a side issue produced by propogandists. It was an utter disgrace to employ these pilots in such a way, and the RAF should be thoroughly ashamed, forever.
The main thrust of the Luftwaffe formated over France before crossing the Channel, with their fighters up to 30,000ft. This meant that their single-engine fighters, (the Me.109), had almost no fuel left to engage in combat over London. The twin-engine Me.110 had longer range, but was no match for a battle-hardened Hurricane or Spitfire pilot.
Simple calculations of aircraft performance shows that anybody flying out of ‘Forward Airfields’ such as Manston or Hawkinge had everything against them. They would be climbing, mostly more or less into sun, and had almost no chance of reaching an altitude to engage the highest flying Luftwaffe fighters on equal terms. Even those flying from Biggin Hill in Kent, Kenly in Surrey or even Tangmere in Sussex didn’t usually have enough time to manoeuvre to best advantage. Indeed, from what I can glean about RAF standing orders regarding tactics, these pilots were expressly forbidden from ‘flying clear’ to adopt the best position and altitude to attack. In the early days at least they had to fly in close formation before breaking to attack. Only an ignorant fool would issue such ridiculous orders of course, but sadly the RAF top brass echelon was chock-a-block with such idiots.
SOME HAD OTHER IDEAS
Oddly enough, those pilots tasked with attacking the bomber stream, which flew at lower levels, stood more chance of success, especially if adopting the highly dangerous head-on tactic. But this required very skilful flying of course….and a lot of luck. It does appear that all to often another dangerous part of the sortie was trying to return to base, ammunition exhausted, pilot exhausted, and very often with a damaged aircraft. Knowing full well that those Luftwaffe fighter pilots who had the nerve to stay high, now had a sitting duck to attack. And the British ack-ack crews also trying to shoot them down to cope with.
CUTTING TO THE QUICK
To cut a long story short, as stated before, when the Luftwaffe decided to bomb London, having expended so much effort to destroy the RAF airfields in Kent, the pasting they got from RAF fighters based at airfields beyond the ‘normal ring’ was absolutely devastating. So much so they very quickly decided that bombing by night was the only option. Therefore, the ‘Battle of Britain’ was mostly a waste of time and resources on both sides! The whole sorry episode achieved virtually nothing gained. Hardly a popular opinion - but look at the facts.
When the Luftwaffe decided to bomb at night the RAF had nothing worth mentioning to defend us. And so the Blitz period arrived with German bombers devastating city after city virtually unhindered. So, the 'Battle of Britain' only delayed this, it didn’t prevent it. Obviously most Luftwaffe bomber aircrew were proficient in night flying. This wasn’t the case in RAF Bomber Command. But here again it appears that myth supersedes reality, in that most Luftwaffe bomber crews were not fully trained in night flying.