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Royal Air Force Tactics During
the Battle of Britain

During the summer of 1940 as the air war raged in the skies above England 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.


During the years preceding World War 2 the prevalent idea that affected military thinking at the time was as Stanley Baldwin, leader of the Conservatives, stated in a speech to the British Parliament in 1932 was that “the bomber will always get through” therefore limiting the damage enemy aircraft could do would be the responsibility of the Royal Air Force.

RAF Vic formation

The tactics developed by the Royal Air Force as part of their Manual of Air Tactics 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. These were based on the premise that attacking bombers would have to fly from airfields in Germany and would be without effective fighter cover. FAA 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.

Vic and Finger-Four Formation

During the Battle of Britain a typical Royal Air Force fighter Squadron was to have at least sixteen aircraft to enable twelve aircraft to be used whilst the others were being serviced or out of action, although at times some squadrons were unable to meet this number. The squadron would be split into four sections (blue, green, yellow and red) 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 a colour and a 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 England. So when the RAF and Luftwaffe met in the skies above England 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.

When engaged in combat with the Lufftwaffe the ideal engagement would see the Supermarine Spitfire tackling the fighter escort, as the Spitfire was level in terms of performance with the Messerschmitt Bf 109, whilst the slower Hawker Hurricane concentrated on the bombers and was a more stable gun platform.

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

The Big Wing

Championed by No. 12 Group commander Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Acting Squadron Leader 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. This was used for the first time on the 7th September 1940 when the Duxford Wing lead by Acting Squadron Leader Bader and comprising of Nos. 242, 312 (Czech) Squadrons flying Hurricanes and No. 19 Squadron flying Spitfires formed together to patrol North Weald. They arrived to late to stop the airfield being attacked and this would be a familiar story due to the amount of time it took to get the aircraft into formation and it normally wasn't until after the target had been attacked that the Big Wing would make contact with the attacking aircraft.

Big Wing formation

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