Authors: Bickers Richard Townshend
THE GREATEST BATTLE IN THE
HISTORY OF AIR WARFARE
ICHARD TOWNSHEND BICKERS
AIR MARSHAL SIR DENIS
KCB, CBE, DSO, DFC, AE
book like this would be impossible to produce without the help of many individuals and organisations, and the publishers are grateful to everyone who contributed to the success of this project. We would like to thank all who helped by granting interviews and giving permission to use personal memoirs and quotes. Special thanks are due to: David Bickers and the Douglas Bader Foundation; Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, GCB, DSO, OBE, and Wing Commander N. P. W. Hancock, DFC, of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association; Air Vice-Marshal A. V. R. (Sandy) Johnstone, CB, DFC, AE, DL; Andrew Cormack and the staff of the RAF Museum at Hendon; Lt. Col. Dr. Dieter Rogge, Oberlieutnant Peter-Jorg Wiesener, Regierungs-oberinspektor Hartmann and the staff of the Luftwaffenmuseum in Hamburg; Andy Saunders and the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum Trust; Tony Gilberts and the 39/45 Warbirds Club; the late Paul Smith; and the RAF Air Historical Branch.
ome people may think that, over the years, more than enough books have been written on the Battle of Britain and there can be little new ground to cover. I believe, however, that this volume comes as a timely reminder of what was at stake in those dark hours of 1940. So let us consider for a moment, more than half a century on, how different history would have been had the German air force gained that vital air superiority over Britain â so necessary before there could be any thought of the invasion that Goering had boasted could be launched within a matter of weeks, with forces moving across the Channel unmolested by air attack to achieve final occupation.
First, there would have been no American intervention and support in arms or men, no massive bombing offensive against Germany, and no base from which to launch a second front. Hitler's war machine could have been largely committed to the defeat of Russia and under these circumstances it could well have been successful. Also, having no disruption in their nuclear research and development work, it is conceivable that Germany would have had the atomic bomb within a few years, thus further strengthening her position as the master of Europe. Britain could well have been an occupied country to this day.
So I believe it is right that we, as a nation, should once again be invited to look back to a time in history, now half a century ago, which proved to
be the turning point leading to the eventual defeat of Hitler's Nazi Germany.
1940 was the year that air power truly came of age. The success of all campaigns that followed depended heavily upon gaining and sustaining air superiority. When General Montgomery (as he then was) returned home in triumph after the battle of Alamein I was present at a talk he gave at Camberley. He told us in his forthright manner that he had rewritten âthe principles of war' and his first new principle was, as he put it, âto win my air battle'. He never moved his forces without being sure of his air cover from then on.
This new publication also brings to mind some of the vital factors affecting the outcome, some happening well before, and others during, the Battle. For instance, the British public to some extent still look down on Neville Chamberlain for deceiving the country in September 1938 with âpeace in our time' and with the Munich agreement and appeasement of Hitler, but it is clear that Chamberlain was not deceived by Hitler, and in fact, on his return, accelerated the rearmament programme.
Admittedly, the situation in 1938, had we gone to war, would have been different in many ways. But had events then led to the Germans reaching the Channel, it is worth recording that we would have had only 70 Hurricanes and 9 Spitfires in the front line. Also, the radar detection and fighter control systems, the creation of which Air Chief Marshal Dowding had played a major role in, were still incomplete. It is of interest that the German air force, in their written appreciation covering Operation âSea Lion' (their invasion plan), acknowledged the existence of our radar stations, but showed no knowledge of the use of the information for controlling the fighter force which had been developed to such great effect. In fact, it came as a great surprise to them to find the extent to which their formations were being intercepted.
When the Battle of France showed all the signs of being lost, it was Dowding who first faced up to Churchill and flatly refused to allow any more squadrons to be sacrificed in that contest. Even so, with all the squadrons available in late August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, and with the enemy's continued attacks on our radar installations and airfields, the outcome hung in the balance. At that point, some bombs fell in central London and it was then decided to bomb Berlin in retaliation and to serve as a morale booster at home. Fortuitously, this caused Goering, who had boasted that Berlin would never be attacked, to
switch, with Hitler's agreement, the main weight of attack to London. This crucial misjudgement allowed our fighter stations to recover. Within weeks, the tide in the air battle had been turned and Hitler decided to postpone the invasion indefinitely. By early the next year he finally resolved to turn against Russia regardless of his failure to overcome the United Kingdom.
The Battle of Britain was an attempt to defeat the will of the British people, and the whole country played a part in defeating the German plan.
While the RAF fighter pilots were the tip of the sword, we must also acknowledge the contributions of many others, whether serving in the RAF or elsewhere. The nation has much to âowe' to those bomber crews who battled all the way to Berlin in their comparatively slow aircraft, and who also played a vital part with their attacks on the invasion ports and enemy shipping. I cannot praise them too highly. Nor must we forget other services â Anti-Aircraft Command, the Observer Corps and Civil Defence as well as Coastal Command and the Royal Navy, with its flotilla of light vessels which were ever vigilant in eastern and southern ports, ready to counter the threat of invasion ships and barges. But, in all, the key was âcommand of the air'. We were short of pilots from the start, but fortunately, we were never short of aircraft thanks not only to the aircraft factories but also to the Civil Repair Organisation and RAF Repair Depots, the latter, between them, turning out 60 aircraft per week. It was not just the âFew', it was the âMany'.
As to the conduct of the Battle, day to day operations were in the hands of the 11 Group Commander with the other Groups playing a supporting role as necessary. Dowding at Fighter Command provided the means and the strategy, while the A.O.C. 11 Group, Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, fought and won the critical battle. For this he deserves the highest praise. However, it must be admitted that this subordination of other Groups to 11 Group was the cause of some bad feeling and friction between 11 and 12 Groups, particularly over tactics.
Much has been written over the years about âBig Wing' tactics, leading in some cases to harsh criticism of the parts played by Air Vice Marshal Leigh-Mallory and in particular Douglas Bader. However, we have had available for some time the relevant Air Ministry and Fighter Command files of September/October 1940 covering operations during the battle, and also the reports submitted to Dowding by both Park and Leigh-Mallory.
These subsequently were passed to the Air Ministry, and here I find that some authors have not only been selective in their material, but also biased in their interpretations. For example Leigh-Mallory's first report in September 1940 on Wing Operations was forwarded by Fighter Command to the Air Ministry with the final comment âA.O.C. 12 Group is working on the right lines in organising his operations in strength', while in Park's report it is clear that 11 Group squadrons operated in a âWing' of three squadrons on a number of occasions when conditions and warning time were favourable, and in fact he issued at least two instructions to his units covering the methods and tactics of âWing' operations.
Clearly Park was unhappy, to say the least, with the use the Air Ministry made of the various reports, and he had good reason to be, but there is no evidence that Fighter Command were critical of the way Leigh-Mallory was operating his squadrons, if anything the reverse is true.
It was as a result of these Group Commanders' reports that Air Vice Marshal Sholto Douglas (Deputy Chief of Air Staff) began to take an interest, and set up the now famous meeting in October to âDiscuss future Fighter Tactics'. Douglas Bader only spoke once at that meeting, when invited by the Chairman; but Leigh-Mallory, in bringing him along, had put him in a mighty privileged position for a Squadron Leader. Frankly he had no business to do it, as it was bound to invite comment as to his motives and, of course, upset Park, whose Squadron Commanders in 11 Group had borne the brunt of the battle. Even so, when the minutes of the meeting were circulated, Dowding and Leigh-Mallory had relatively minor amendments. Keith Park submitted a copy of the notes he used at the meeting and requested that they be attached to the minutes, Douglas refused. Here I must add that I know from many conversations I had with Douglas Bader in his lifetime that he had the highest regard for both Keith Park and Dowding. Indeed, he gave the address at the Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Park and he wrote the following tribute to Dowding: â âTo the fighter pilots of 1940 Dowding was the father figure. Seldom seen, many pilots did not know even how he looked. Nevertheless we knew he was there in Fighter Command minding our affairs, so all was well. We held him in esteem which after the war became affection. We read about him; how he had fought the Treasury to get hard runways built on grass airfields, waterlogged and unusable in winter; how he had insisted on bullet-proof windscreens in our Hurricanes and Spitfires. After the war at Battle of Britain dinners we actually saw him and spoke with him. We
were proud that he had chosen to be known as Lord Dowding of Bentley Priory â our home from home â Headquarters, Fighter Command. At last we felt this gruff, withdrawn, inarticulate âStuffy' Dowding really had become one of us. We thought it a bad show that he had not been made a Marshal of the Royal Air Force.'
As I look back now to those days as a young, very junior officer flying daily alongside Douglas Bader, I realise how fortunate I was. It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience which materially shaped my subsequent career. I believe this book will appeal to most. It covers every aspect â pilots, aircraft and equipment â in great detail, and will contribute to our understanding of this key period in our nation's history.