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Royal Air Force Tactics During the Battle of Britain

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During the summer of 1940 as the air war raged in the skies above Britain the pre-war Fighter Area Attack tactics developed by the RAF were tested against the Luftwaffe, who had honed their tactics during the Spanish Civil War where they gained valuable combat experience. Early skirmishes saw Fighter Command learn some valuable lessons leading to a change in tactics.

Fighter Command Structure
Squadron Structure
Vic & Finger-Four Formation

Aircraft Strength
Engaging the Luftwaffe
The Big Wing


During the years preceding the Second World War (1939 - 1945) the prevalent idea that affected military thinking at the time was as Stanley Baldwin, leader of the Conservatives, stated in a speech in the House of Commons on the 10th November 1932 that “the bomber will always get through” as it was envisioned that in a future war the enemy would deliver a decisive blow from the air. Therefore limiting the damage enemy aircraft could do would be the responsibility of the Air Defence of Great Britain, which was established on the 1st January 1925, and was part of the Royal Air Force which was tasked with defending the UK's airspace. As the RAF continued its expansion Training Command was formed on the 1st May 1936 and was followed on the 13th July 1936 when the Air Defence of Great Britain was disbanded and replaced on the 14th July 1936 by three new commands, Bomber, Coastal and Fighter alongside Training Command. Fighter Command with Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding as its Commander-in-Chief was responsible for the defence of the UK's airspace.

RAF Vic formation

The tactics developed by Fighter Command as part of their Air Fighting Manual called for tight formations of three aircraft in a Vic formation to perform Fighter Area Attacks of which there were six different scenarios to attack enemy aircraft depending on the amount and type of aircraft intercepted. Fighter Area Attacks would see the squadron fly in a very tight three aircraft Vic formation over four sections with two sections per flight, known as either 'A' or 'B' flight, meaning a total of twelve aircraft. With the required tight formation only the lead aircraft of every Vic was able to search for enemy aircraft as the other two aircraft in the Vic had to focus on keeping formation. Once they spotted the hostile aircraft the squadron would position themselves according to the Fighter Area Attack chosen. However this was based on the premise that attacking bombers would have to fly from airfields in Germany and would be without effective fighter cover which wouldn't be the case in the summer of 1940.

Fighter Command Structure

When the Battle of Britain began on the 10th July 1940 Fighter Command, whose headquarters were at Bentley Priory, was still commanded by Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding and was structured as follows:

No. 10 Group
Commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Sir C J Quintin Brand
Headquarters: RAF Box
Covering: South West England and South West Wales
No. 11 Group
Commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park
Headquarters: RAF Uxbridge
Covering: South East England and London

No. 12 Group
Commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory
Headquarters: RAF Watnall
Covering: East Anglia, Midlands, Mid and North Wales
No. 13 Group
Commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Richard Saul
Headquarters: RAF Newcastle
Covering: North England and Scotland

No. 14 Group
Commanded by Group Captain Philip F. Fullard (1)
Headquarters: Drumossie Hotel, Inverness
Covering: Scotland
No. 9 Group (2)
Commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Wilfred McClaughry
Headquarters: RAF Barton Hall
Covering: Northern Ireland and North West England

1. Replaced by Air Vice-Marshal Malcolm Henderson on the 20th July 1940.
2. Formed on the 16th September 1940.

Squadron Structure, Vic and Finger-Four Formation

During the Battle of Britain a typical Royal Air Force fighter squadron was to have twelve aircraft and pilots available for operations. So the ideal number for the squadron was at least sixteen aircraft to cover those being serviced or out of action. To cover pilots who were on leave or unable to fly it was intended for the squadron to have at least 20 pilots to call upon, although at times some squadrons were unable to meet this number.

The squadron would be split into four sections (red, yellow, blue and green) with three pilots (one, two and three), with two sections making up one flight of aircraft. Each section was led by a section leader with two wingmen, with red and yellow normally making up 'A' flight and blue and green normally making up 'B' flight, with a colour and number identifying each aircraft. So for example, as shown in the squadron structure diagram below, the red section leader would be known as red one.

Structure of a typical RAF squadron during the Battle of Britain

When the battle began the Luftwaffe were able to operate from airfields in France enabling German fighters to escort their bombers all the way to Britain. So when the RAF and Luftwaffe met in the skies above Britain and the English Channel the ineffectiveness of the Fighter Area Attack tactic was soon exposed. As with only the lead aircraft able to look for the enemy whilst the other aircraft concentrated on keeping formation an attacking aircraft could catch the formation by surprise. Although the tactic was later modified so that the forth Vic would weave casualty rates among these aircraft were high.

Typical RAF squadron formation during flight in the Battle of Britain
RAF Finger-four formation

Despite complaints about the Vic formation no official change was forthcoming so some squadrons adapted a tactic being used by the Luftwaffe called Schwarm, which was a more flexible tactic. This had been developed after the combat experience of the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) and would be called Finger-four by the RAF. This involved four aircraft flying in formation, but operating in pairs. This allowed the attacking aircraft to be covered by his wingman with the overall formation spaced at about 200 meters apart and flying at various altitudes. This meant the pilots could focus on looking for enemy aircraft and also protect each other, and if the formation was attacked the two pairs would split up, one going left the other to the right. The Finger-four tactic also meant that the squadron formation changed as it would now be divided into three sections of four as opposed to the Vic formations four sections of three.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Britain Fighter Command modified its tactics in 1941, before, in 1942 the Finger-four formation was officially added to pilots training.

Finger-four squadron formation

Aircraft Strength - 10th July 1940

In terms of aircraft Fighter Command had 656 aircraft consisting of 29 Hawker Hurricane, 19 Supermarine Spitfire, 6 Bristol Blenheim and 2 Boulton Paul Defiant squadrons. It could also call on Nos. 804 and 808 Naval Air Squadrons, the former equipped with Gloster Sea Gladiators and the latter Fairey Fulmars, who were on loan from the Fleet Air Arm.

The Luftwaffe could call on over 2,000 aircraft to begin their campaign to gain air supremacy over Southern England, one of the requirements for 'Operation Sealion' the invasion of Britain to take place. Mainly comprising Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters, Heinkel He 111, Dornier Do 17 and Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined bombers and Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers.

Engaging the Luftwaffe

When an incoming raid had been plotted by Britain's Air Defence System, also known as the 'Dowding System', squadrons would be scrambled by controllers as and when needed, as opposed to a large formation, allowing an enemy raid to be under constant harassment by the Royal Air Force which also had the effect of breaking up the Luftwaffe formations. Most enemy raids were intercepted by the RAF but fighter sweeps by the Luftwaffe were not a priority for Fighter Command.

The 19th August 1940 saw a change in tactics when an order from Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, head of No. 11 Group, Fighter Command was issued prioritising German bombers as targets and for RAF fighters to operate only over land or gliding distance to the coast.

Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park then issued new orders on the 11th September 1940 that when contact was made with the Lufftwaffe formation the Spitfire should tackle the fighter escort, normally Messerschmitt Bf 109s or Messerschmitt Bf 110s, whilst the Hurricane concentrated on the bombers as it was a more stable gun platform. However as radar couldn't differentiate between the aircraft in a raid it wasn't always possible for this to happen.

The Big Wing

The use of multiple squadrons for one large formation wasn't a completely new tactic for Fighter Command as they had been used during 'Operation Dynamo' the evacuation from Dunkirk, France. The issue with these larger formations was if vectored to the wrong position missing the enemy formation there may not be any reserve squadrons available to intercept the raid instead. As the battle progressed the idea of large formations of multiple fighter squadrons intercepting enemy raids resurfaced championed by No. 12 Group, Fighter Command commander Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Acting Squadron Leader of No. 242 Squadron Douglas Bader

The idea of the Big Wing was to get three to five squadrons (36 – 60 aircraft) to form together and engage enemy aircraft in numbers. Known as the Duxford Wing it was used for the first time on the 7th September 1940 lead by Acting Squadron Leader Bader and comprising of Nos. 242 and 310 Squadrons flying Hurricanes from RAF Duxford and No. 19 Squadron flying Spitfires, operating at the time from Duxford's satellite airfield RAF Fowlmere, formed together to protect RAF North Weald whilst its squadrons were in combat. They arrived to late to stop the airfield being attacked but did engage the Luftwaffe and for the loss of one claimed eleven German aircraft. This would be a familiar story due to the amount of time it took to get the aircraft into formation it normally wasn't until after the target had been attacked that the Big Wing would make contact with the attacking aircraft.

One of the successes of the Big Wing was its psychological effect on Luftwaffe aircrews who were being told the Royal Air Force was close to being defeated to then come up against a formation of upto 60 fighter aircraft.

Big Wing formation

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