RAF in the Battle of Britain: On the Brink? I

Despite the losses, Fighter Command was hardly wasting away. There had been some difficult times during August, but taking the month as a whole, the factories had turned out 251 Hurricanes and 163 Spitfires to replace the 253 Hurricanes and 137 Spitfires lost. On 1 September 1940, the Command still had more fighters than it had at the beginning of the battle, and, for all Dowding’s concerns, more pilots to fly them. The main problem was still the self-imposed handicap of operating a relatively small proportion of the available fighter force in the crucial battle area. Fighter Command had nearly 900 fighters on 1 September, but less than 350 were in Park’s No. 11 Group.

Many of the squadrons stationed outside No. 11 Group were units recuperating from losses in the south, but many could have been used in the south east. The battle-experienced squadrons of No. 10 Group had been side-lined by the Luftwaffe’s shift to the east, and many other squadrons—such as the Polish No. 302 Squadron and Czech No. 310 Squadron, not to mention No. 242 Squadron and its redoubtable commander Douglas Bader—were only able to operate on the fringes of the battle, if at all. On 30 August, No. 11 Group commanders again voiced the general feeling that more fighter squadrons should be moved to the south east, but C-in-C Fighter Command ACM Hugh Dowding felt he had no choice but to stick to his policy. Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, was again sounding the alarm about the vulnerability of British aircraft factories. Dowding still had visions of the German bomber fleet descending on British factories and wiping them out in a single blow. As a reminder of what the German Air Force could do even in the well-protected south, on 15 August a daylight attack on the Short’s factory in Rochester had caused severe damage. Six of the first four-engine Stirling bombers to come off the production line were destroyed—an especially severe blow for an Air Staff that still saw increasing the striking power of the bomber fleet as the priority. On 4 September, AVM Keith Park C-in-C No. 11 Group RAF tentatively asked Dowding for two more squadrons to strengthen two of his sectors. He received one.

Despite the handicaps, Park’s Group was grimly hanging on—indeed, perhaps even doing a little better than this. On the evening of the 1 September, after another fierce day’s fighting, his squadrons mustered on average sixteen pilots, excluding those fresh out of OTUs. Each squadron had around fifteen serviceable fighters, which, after the ground crews had got to work on the machines they could patch up on base, was expected to rise to an average of seventeen the following morning. Some squadrons had been particularly badly hit. No. 85 Squadron had lost five planes in two missions during the day’s fighting and was down to just nine serviceable fighters and nine operational pilots. No. 616 was also down to just nine pilots. Interestingly No. 303 (Polish) Squadron was overflowing with pilots, with twenty-one fully operational and no less than thirteen non-operational. The latter were probably not the typical green British pilot straight out of an OTU. Despite the fierceness of the struggle, Park’s command was still an effective fighting force.

Nevertheless, the pressure was mounting. The first week in September was another tough one for Park’s squadrons. The escorts were now virtually impossible to break through; the Luftwaffe only lost around twenty bombers on missions in the first six days of the month, and many of these were victims of anti-aircraft fire. Attempts to intercept the bombers were turning into the fierce fighter-versus-fighter battles that the Luftwaffe wanted and Dowding did not. Losses on both sides were heavy. Again, fresh squadrons moving into No. 11 Group suffered some of the heaviest losses. On 4 September, No. 66 Squadron, which had just arrived from No. 12 Group, lost five Spitfires in combat with Bf 109s. The next day, it lost another three. No. 41 Squadron, from No. 13 Group, lost five Spitfires on the 5th. The experience of the Polish pilots of No. 303 Squadron could not save them on the 6th, when they were caught climbing by Bf 109s and lost five of their Hurricanes in a single engagement. In the first six days of September, 140 Hurricanes and Spitfires were lost or badly damaged, losses that were well in excess of production. However, the German fighter force was also losing heavily; in the same period, just over 100 Bf 109s and Bf 110s failed to return or were written off on return.

The failure to pass on the lessons being learned in the south did not help squadrons fresh to the battle. AVM Trafford Leigh-Mallory C-in-C No. 12 Group, complained about the lack of information on tactics being used by Park’s No. 11 Group or AVM Quintin Brand’s No. 10 Group. Perhaps justifiably, Park was too concerned with mere survival. There was, however, no overall direction from Dowding about the best tactics to use; squadrons still had to work it out for themselves.

In the relative calm of Leigh-Mallory’s No. 12 Group, there was more time to do this and ponder alternative tactics. So far, Park had used mainly single squadrons, sometimes pairs, to ensure the bombers were intercepted as far forward as possible. So far, this tactic had paid off; German attacks had been disrupted, sometimes to the extent that the raid was completely ineffective. Leigh-Mallory, with his more northerly squadrons, had more time to assemble larger formations. Douglas Bader, the commander of No. 242 Squadron at Coltishall, was very keen on what would become known as ‘big wing’ formations. Bader was a charismatic and pugnacious leader. The loss of both his legs in a flying accident had forced him out of the service, but his relentless determination had seen him readmitted on the outbreak of war, initially as a ferry pilot, but eventually as a combat pilot. His enforced absence had left him well behind many of his contemporaries on the career ladder, and at the age of thirty, he was relatively old to be given the command of his first squadron. He was, therefore, by no means an ordinary Squadron Leader. He was not lacking in self-confidence, and his age lent his opinions a certain authority. Like all the pilots in No. 12 Group, Bader was hugely frustrated that his squadron was not involved in the fierce fighting taking place further south.

On 30 August, Bader’s squadron finally got the chance for some action, being ordered to fly south and cover Park’s airfields. His squadron intercepted a formation of He 111 bombers escorted by Bf 110s and claimed twelve without loss. It would seem to have been a particularly extreme example of over-claiming; his squadron had probably only shot down two German bombers. However, Bader insisted that if he had possessed twice the number of fighters, he could have inflicted twice the losses. It was a simple enough argument, and his Group commander did not need much persuading. Leigh-Mallory had always believed it was the total number of planes shot down that counted, not whether they were shot down approaching or leaving the target. The aim was not to prevent a particular attack on a particular target, but rather to halt the offensive by inflicting the highest possible losses. If using larger formations meant intercepting the bombers later—even possibly after they had delivered their attack—then so be it.

There were other advantages to flying fighters in larger formations. The general expectation in No. 11 Group was that the Spitfires would deal with the escorts while the Hurricanes went for the bombers, but this was difficult to put into practice when all the squadrons were operating individually and often far apart. Flying as part of a much larger formation, it was much easier for the Spitfires to provide protection. With calls to action still rare, Bader had the time to practise his Wing tactics with the Spitfire-equipped No. 19 Squadron, the Hurricane-equipped No. 303 Squadron, and his Hurricane-equipped No. 242 Squadron. The wing used Duxford as its rendezvous point and the formation became known as the ‘Duxford Wing’. Bader would soon have the opportunity to try out his wing in combat.

Across the Channel, minds were also focusing on how more decisive results might be achieved. Outright victory seemed as far away as ever. The numbers of enemy fighters rising to meet the Luftwaffe attacks did not seem to bear out the intelligence estimates that Fighter Command was on its last legs. To try and stop the apparently endless flow of replacement aircraft reaching RAF squadrons, the German Air Force was instructed to target aircraft factories more vigorously. On 2 September, the Luftwaffe bombed the Vickers and Hawker factories at Brooklands. The long-awaited and much-feared offensive against the British aircraft industry seemed to have begun.

An alarmed Dowding instructed Park to make sure the Hurricane factories at Kingston, Langley, and Brooklands and the Spitfire plant in Southampton were covered. No. 10 Group was given the task of patrolling these areas whenever No. 11 Group was involved in major operations. On 4 September, the Luftwaffe returned to Weybridge; in a low-level attack on the Vickers plant, just six bombs killed eighty-eight and injured many hundreds. Two days later, it was the turn of the Brooklands Hawker factory, on the other side of the airfield.

The death tolls were heavy, but the actual damage to the plant was not as devastating as many had feared. It was not as easy as it seemed to knock out aircraft factories. Just one bomb exploding in the middle of the factory might be expected to cause mayhem; the initial destruction looked serious and the casualties were shocking, but once the rubble had been cleared away, it was often found that machine tools had survived and production resumed remarkably quickly. The apparently hugely successful attack on the Vickers plant on the 4th only stopped production for four days. The raid on the Hawker factory caused no loss of output at all.

To have any chance of success, you also have to know where the factories are. The Supermarine factory at Southampton was particularly vulnerable, but it would seem that the Germans were not aware that this was where nearly all the Spitfires were being built. The Castle Bromwich Spitfire plant in the Midlands opened with such public fanfare in the summer of 1938, was the target of some nocturnal raids. According to the management, these worried the workers enough to reduce production on the night shift by 50 per cent. However, the plant was only producing a trickle of planes anyway; the apparently unfortunate publicity given to the opening of the Castle Bromwich plant was perhaps paying dividends. The plant had effectively become a decoy. Overall, German bombing was having very little effect on fighter production.

The battle in the air was causing far more concern. The Prime Minister grimly reported to his cabinet that the battle was becoming precisely what Britain did not want—a contest between the two fighter forces. Losses on both sides were now approximately equal, and the RAF was getting through its reserves of aircraft ‘at a dangerous rate’. In truth, a reduction in the Hurricane/Spitfire reserve from 190 to 151 during the last three weeks of August scarcely seemed to spell imminent disaster. Nevertheless, Dowding continued to spread gloom. On 7 September, he called an emergency meeting with No. 11 Group and Douglas, representing the Air Ministry. Dowding quite bluntly described his command as going ‘downhill’. The purpose of the meeting, he explained, was to decide how best to manage this decline.

Dowding used an array of arguments to demonstrate how desperate the situation was. As always, he was happy to put the worst possible spin on the facts. He claimed that requests for replacement aircraft had not been met; on 4 September, for example, he had wanted fourteen Hurricanes and twelve Spitfires, but none had been delivered. The complaint infuriated those responsible for issuing reserves. Dowding had simply chosen the only day when there had been a temporary problem; on every other day, all requests for replacements had been met immediately.

Dowding insisted that squadrons were so weak they were having to pair up to form effective fighting units. This might have been true in some cases, but using pairs of squadrons was actually a positive decision to give intercepting formations more punch. He suggested the situation was so serious that squadrons not in the battlezone might have to give up their Spitfires and Hurricanes and reequip with American Mohawks and Buffaloes. It seems to have been the first time anyone suggested using the American fighters. There was no relief that such a useful reserve existed; the suggestion was merely supposed to underline how desperate the situation was. He was also worried about pilots. He predicted that at current loss rates, there would be a deficit of sixty-eight over the next four weeks. This scarcely suggested a force with 1,300 pilots was likely to collapse before the autumn.

Douglas refused to accept the picture was as bleak as Dowding was claiming. He pointed out that in August, Hurricane and Spitfire production had far exceeded losses, and Air Ministry figures showed there were nearly 300 fighters in reserve. There was much consternation on both sides that each should see the situation so differently. In fact, both Dowding and Douglas were playing rather free and easy with the figures. Douglas’s loss figures did not include the seventy-odd fighters that were so seriously damaged they had to be sent to the maintenance units for repair. The reserves he quoted included fighters being repaired, most of which would not be available for some time. At the time of the meeting, reserves had dropped to 127 Spitfires and Hurricanes. It was dropping, but there was a reserve, and it was still adequate to cope with losses. The number of serviceable fighters the Command could put into the air had never slipped below 600 during the entire battle, and on 4 September it stood at 700. There were, on average, twenty-two pilots in each squadron, although there were undoubtedly problems with the quality of those straight out of OTUs.

The situation was not as rosy as the Air Ministry was insisting, but it was not nearly as bad as Dowding was claiming. The main problem was still the self-inflicted disadvantage of not focusing the available resources where they were needed. Dowding had to admit his squadron-rotation system was not working; rather reluctantly, he decided to adopt Park’s preferred option of replacing pilots rather than squadrons. Experienced pilots would move from squadrons stationed outside the battlezone, and pilots from OTUs would replace them. Gradually, squadrons outside the south east would lose all their experienced pilots and effectively become Operational Training Units. This had the added advantage of relieving front-line squadrons of the task of inducting OTU pilots. The sectors flanking No. 11 Group in No. 10 and No. 12 Groups were in the front line, so these would also be kept at full strength.

The result was the ABC system. No. 11 Group and the flanking sectors from No. 10 and No. 12 Groups would be entirely equipped with full-strength category-A squadrons. There would be a small number of category-B squadrons, which would be outside the battlezone but kept at full strength, serving as replacements for squadrons needing a rest. The majority of the squadrons outside the south east would be category C. These would guard the less-vulnerable parts of the country, but their main task would be to complete the training of pilots emerging from OTUs. As far as Dowding was concerned, it was a desperate measure for desperate times; in fact, by the back door, Park was beginning to get the concentration of resources he needed. Fighter Command finally had its best pilots where they were needed.

Not that Dowding thought this would make much difference. During the course of the 7 September meeting, he repeatedly emphasised to Douglas that Fighter Command was losing the battle. This was the message he insisted Douglas had to take back to the Air Ministry. Dowding saw no reason why the German offensive would not go on until his force was wiped out. Park, on the other hand, felt sure the Germans would not be able to sustain the existing intensity of operations for more than another three weeks. Dowding was not persuaded; he could see no light at the end of the tunnel. No. 11 Group would do its best—his pilots would fight until the last Spitfire and Hurricane, and then fight on with anything that could fly. It was a grim scenario.

Dowding’s pessimism stemmed from his failure to appreciate the nature of the battle Fighter Command was engaged in. Both Dowding and Park believed they were facing an open-ended air offensive, for which seasons made no difference. The air battle would rage through the autumn and winter until one side or the other was exhausted. This was not the situation—the Luftwaffe was trying to pave the way for an invasion. They did not have even three weeks; the invasion had to be launched before autumnal storms made it impossible, and the last possible date was supposed to be 15 September. The Germans were running out of time, and Dowding was far closer to the finish line than he believed.

The Luftwaffe had the upper hand, but it was still a long way from defeating Fighter Command. It was perhaps easier to come to this conclusion from the distance of a detached Air Ministry, with just the cold figures to analyse. Understandably, the battle looked very different from Dowding and Park’s perspective. Airfields were being bombed, hangars were being smashed, and Air Force personnel were being killed. The pilots were exhausted. However, the squadrons continued to function. Fighter Command was adapting: aircraft were no longer kept in vulnerable hangars, instead being dispersed around the airfields; ground crews became used to working in the open; and bombed airfields were soon made serviceable again, with only two airfields—Lympne and Manston—put out of action for more than a few hours. Engineers, sometimes working in appallingly dangerous conditions, repaired smashed cables and got power running again to airfields and sector control centres. Bombed-out sector stations started up operations from wherever it was possible—on one notable occasion, in a local village shop. In the most difficult of circumstances, Fighter Command was battling through, on the ground and in the air.

The heavier escorts were making life much more difficult for Dowding’s fighters, but even this represented a victory of sorts. The higher proportion of escorts meant the German Air Force was using fewer and fewer bombers. At the beginning of August, on average, the Luftwaffe was flying two and a half escorts per bomber. By the end of August, this had gone up to nearly four and a half. The weight of attack had effectively been halved. The very accurate Ju 87 had been driven from the skies and low-level bombing had proven too risky. These were all very significant achievements.

Who was actually winning the battle depended on which battle was being considered. The Luftwaffe was a long way short of destroying Fighter Command. However, Luftwaffe fighters were succeeding in protecting the bombers. As long as they had an escort, German bombers could operate over the entire south-east corner of England without suffering unacceptable losses. A degree of air superiority had been established; Park was nowhere near defeat, but his force had been worn down. If the invasion had been launched in early September, his squadrons would not have been able to continue defending their airfields and sector stations, protect the Royal Navy, provide air cover for the Army, and escort the Battles, Blenheims, and Banquet bombers.