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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 tactics developed by the RAF were to be tested. Early skirmishes with the Luftwaffe would lead to valuable lessons being learned, this would see changes in the tactics employed by the aircraft of Fighter Command.

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 tactic that was developed was known as Fighter Area Attacks (FAA) and was 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 formations fly in very tight three aircraft Vic formations with only the lead aircraft able to search for enemy aircraft. Once they were spotted the formation would position themselves behind their target and each section would attack one-by-one.

Throughout the Battle a typical Royal Air Force fighter squadron consisted of twelve aircraft, sometimes less and down on the sixteen normally required to form a squadron, 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

Therefore as part of the Fighter Area Attack every section of the squadron would operate in the Vic formation with two Vics making up one flight which was known as either 'A' or 'B' as shown in the diagram below, by the time the Battle of Britain began though 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 FAA 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. This had been developed after their combat experience in the Spanish Civil War during 1936 – 1939 and would be called Finger-four by the RAF which was a more flexible tactic. 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. Allowing the pilots to focus on looking for enemy aircraft and 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 when operating as a squadron they would be divided into three sections as opposed to the Vic formations four sections.

Finger-four squadron formation

Another tactic used by the Royal Air Force was known as the Big Wing, this would see between three to five squadrons (36 – 60 aircraft) 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 Douglas Bader and comprising of Nos. 242, 312 (Czech) Squadrons flying Hawker Hurricanes and No. 19 Squadron flying Supermarine Spitfires formed together to patrol North Weald but arrived to late to stop the airfield being attacked. 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

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.

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