1941: The Difficult Year

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The following text in an excerpt from the dispatch submitted to the Secretary of State for Air on 29th February, 1948, by Marshal of ...
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The following text in an excerpt from the dispatch submitted to the Secretary of State for Air on 29th February, 1948, by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Sholto Douglas, G.C.B., M.C., D.F.C. and former Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Royal Air Force, during the described period.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Sholto Douglas was appointed as head of Fighter Command in October 1940. He remained in this role throughout 1941. In 1942, Douglas was sent to Egypt as Commander in Chief of the RAF in the Middle East. In 1944, he was transferred beck to the UK as C-in-C of Coastal Command. He retired from active duty in 1948 and was awarded a peerage as 1st Baron Douglas of Kirtleside. Douglas died on 29th October, 1969
[Crown Copyright]


At the end of the Battle of Britain, that is to say at the beginning of November, 1940, the strength of the day fighter force amounted to 55½ squadrons, including three and a half squadrons in the process of formation. On paper this was a substantially larger force than the Command had possessed at the beginning of the battle; but really the force available was weaker. Many of our best pilots had been killed, and quantitatively the casualties had proved greater than the training organisation could make good, so that despite such expedients as the transfer of pilots from other Commands, the squadrons were short of their proper establishment of pilots.

[A number of long-term measures were] taken within the Command to ameliorate this situation. In the meantime the position was such as to give some ground for anxiety. Of the 52 operational day squadrons in the Command at the beginning of November, only 26 were, in the strictest sense, first-line squadrons. Another two squadrons were being kept up to operational strength so that they could act as relief in an emergency. The remainder, apart from a half-squadron employed as spotters, had only a few operational pilots apiece and were suitable only for employment in quiet sectors.

The practice of stripping some squadrons of most of their experienced pilots in order to keep others up to strength is clearly indefensible except in a grave emergency, if only because of the invidious distinctions thus created. It had been adopted by my predecessor [Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding] in the late summer only because, in the circumstances of that time, it seemed the sole alternative to “telescoping” or disbanding squadrons. As soon as conditions permitted, I abandoned this system, with its categorisation of squadrons as class “A”, “B” or “C” and all squadrons in turn were given their chance in the more active Sectors.

Although the Battle of Britain is now regarded as having ended on 31st October, 1940, no sharp break was noticeable at the time. Not until some weeks later was it evident that, for the time being, the Germans had abandoned the idea of defeating the Command by a series of mass attacks in daylight. Even then a resumption of these mass attacks in the following spring or summer was regarded as inevitable; and in December I asked for a force of 80 day fighter squadrons to meet this situation.

The Air Ministry were unable to accept the dislocation of their plan for the expansion of other Commands which the attainment of so large a fighter force by the spring or early summer 1941 would have entailed, and eventually the strength to which the day fighter force was to expand by April 1941 was fixed at 64 squadrons.

When April came, this figure had been duly reached. However, once again the position was less strong than it appeared on paper. Of the 64 day squadrons shown in the Order of Battle, two and a half were still in process of formation and two, although formed, were temporarily out of the line. The effective strength amounted, therefore, to 59 and a half squadrons. Many of them had considerably less than their established complement of pilots, and the general level of experience was substantially below that of the previous autumn.

On the other hand, the opposing forces had been weakened numerically by the withdrawal of [Luftwaffe] units to the Mediterranean and Balkan theatres, and were soon to be reduced still further by withdrawals to Eastern Germany and Poland in preparation for the campaign against Russia.

In the event, of course, the mass attacks made by the Germans in the summer of 1940 were never to be repeated on a comparable scale, so that after the opening of the Russian campaign, the day fighter force, although still charged with important defensive duties such as the protection of coastwise shipping and the interception of bomber reconnaissance aircraft flying singly, became largely an instrument for containing enemy forces in Northern France and attempting to compel the return of the [German] units from the Eastern Front.

But even then the strength of the Russian resistance could not be foreseen; it still seemed likely that the Germans might bring the Eastern campaign to a successful conclusion within a measurable time and then renew their daylight offensive in -the West. Accordingly, further additions were made during the second half of 1941 to the day fighter force; which, despite the despatch of seven squadrons overseas in December, reached the end of the year with strength of 75 squadrons.

Operations, November 1940 to February 1941

It has been said that, although October 31st, 1940 is now regarded as the last day of the Battle of Britain, the fact that the battle had ended on that day was not apparent at the time.

Indeed, the first few days of November, far from constituting a lull, were days of exceptional activity. Nevertheless, 1st November did appear to mark the beginning of a new phase of the offensive. For on that day the Germans turned to a form of attack with which they had opened the battle some months earlier, by sending over bombers and dive bombers with fighter escort to attack our shipping in the Thames Estuary and the Dover Strait.

Before this no mass attacks on shipping had been made for many weeks. The [Junkers] Ju 87 dive-bomber, which appeared in substantial numbers on that day, had not been reported in action since – 18th August although it now appears that, unknown to the Command and apparently also to the Air Ministry, these aircraft may have been used against shipping at least once in September. When further attacks followed on the next day, it seemed clear that a new stage of the battle had been reached, and on 4th November the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group [Trafford Leigh-Mallory] issued orders which detailed the tactical measures required to defeat this new move.

Both before and after the issue of these orders the fighters reported excellent results, especially against the German dive-bombers and the Italian aircraft which took part in a few of the attacks. Doubtless for this reason, the mass attacks on shipping ceased on 14th November and from that date the Ju 87 virtually ceased to be employed in daylight operations on the Western Front.

Despite its brevity this phase was important, for it brought to a head a conflict between the claims of shipping and the aircraft industry, which had long been a source of anxiety to my predecessor.

Since the beginning of the War the primary task of the Command, as laid down in a directive issued by the Air Staff and endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff, had been the defence of the aircraft industry. The Command was, of course, responsible for the air defence of the United Kingdom as a whole, and it also had a somewhat ill-defined responsibility for the fighter protection of shipping close to the coast; but the directive made it quite clear that the aircraft industry had the first claim on the Commander-in-Chief’s resources.

So far as action by fighters was concerned the defence of the aircraft industry and the general air defence of the country were practically inseparable tasks, for it was an axiom of air defence – though one which the Minister of Aircraft Production was reluctant to accept – that the best way of defending an objective such as a factory was to deploy fighters over the approaches to it rather than concentrate them near the objective itself.

This principle did not apply to the protection of shipping. The ships moved mostly on the perimeter of the air defence system and it was seldom possible to be sure of intercepting aircraft which might attack them except by detailing specified fighter units to protect them, either by flying standing patrols near the ships or the adjacent coastline or by assuming an advanced state of readiness at airfields near the coast.

The inherent extravagance and relative inefficiency of standing patrols has always been recognised by students of air defence problems; nevertheless there are occasions in which they constitute the only practicable method of defence, and in this case they were the form of protection which the Naval authorities preferred and for which they constantly pressed.

It was not always possible, however, to place our fighters on standing patrol near a convoy without exposing them to the risk of being caught at a tactical disadvantage by the enemy. Another difficulty was that regulations imposed for the benefit of the ships themselves forbade our pilots to come close to the ships, virtually on pain of being fired at.

In spite of these difficulties and uncertainties, loyal attempts were made from the beginning of the War to give every practicable assistance to the Royal Navy in their task of safeguarding the convoys whenever they were within range of our fighters. At the same time, attempts were made to place the matter on a more satisfactory basis, and in. particular to obtain from the Air Ministry a clear statement of the Command’s duties in respect of shipping and the degree of priority to be accorded to them. These attempts culminated at the end of October and beginning of November, 1940, in the receipt of a series of communications from the Secretary of State for Air which gave renewed sanction to the Command’s existing practice of protecting convoys whenever possible by holding fighters at readiness rather than flying standing patrols; confirmed that the defence of the aircraft industry was still the primary task of the Command; but added that convoys, and also flotillas and minesweeping craft, must be protected so long as their protection was practicable.

This pronouncement did not end my predecessor’s perplexities, since, perhaps inevitably, it neither defined the practicable nor assisted him to determine how much of his resources he would be justified in diverting from his primary task to what was clearly a, secondary – and yet, apparently, essential one.

The difficulty of the problem will be the more easily grasped if it is borne in mind that, at this stage of the war, practically the whole resources of the Command could have been expended on either of these rival tasks, without glutting the appetite of the Minister of Aircraft Production in the one case or the Naval authorities in the other.

The renewal of mass attacks on shipping at the beginning of November brought fresh demands from the Naval authorities. Accordingly, my predecessor again asked the Air Ministry, this time by means of a formal letter, to clarify their policy in regard to the fighter protection of shipping. In this letter he placed before the Air Ministry a series of proposals based on the practice which had grown up gradually within the Command.

No reply to this letter had been received when I took up Command, and I therefore assumed the Air Ministry’s tacit consent to the proposals. Henceforward three degrees of fighter protection for shipping were recognized, namely close escort, to be given only in special cases and by prior arrangement; protection, which meant that specified fighter units were detailed to defend specified shipping units in a given area and over a given period, either by flying patrols or remaining at readiness; and cover, which meant that note was taken of the position of the shipping, and arrangements were made to intercept any aircraft which appeared to threaten it.

Fortunately the scale of attack against coastwise shipping declined considerably after the middle of November. In the circumstances the Naval authorities remained, to all appearances, reasonably contented with a standard of protection which would probably not have satisfied them had the attacks of early November continued.

Only four ships were sunk by air action within fighter range in December 1940, and only two in January 1941, as against eleven in November

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By George Greenfield  |  2016-07-08 at 11:27  |  permalink

I’ve always thought Sholto Douglas was a second-rate commander (since discovering he advocated the creation of 10 squadrons of Defiants in 1939) and this account confirms me in that opinion. The Circus concept was militarily pointless, and merely served to cost the RAF the services of many experienced fighter pilots, who were shot down for no good reason (including Douglas Bader, for example). As a result of this mistakenly aggressive policy we gave the Luftwaffe exactly the same opportunity in 1941 as they had given us in 1940, and with an even worse result – the defending side achieved a roughly 2:1 kill/loss ratio, and the attacking side did no damage of significance. Meanwhile, Greece, Crete and Singapore were lost and Malta was beleaguered, all largely due to inadequate fighter defences. It is one of the mysteries of the war why Spitfires were not deployed overseas until June 1942, when Malta was on the verge of capitulation. Sholto Douglas was in charge during that period, and should bear much of the blame.

By David Oldham  |  2018-08-01 at 17:23  |  permalink

Sholto Douglas had a difficult act to follow. Dowding’s vision, risk and singlemindedness enabled a situation where the pilots could withstand the German’s attack. Douglas’ and others politically outsmarted Dowding to get him dismissed and Douglas to his position. The grounds I think were a poor showing against the Blitz, lack of ‘big wing’ enthusiasm and not ameanable to trying things he didn,t think would work. With that background Douglas really needed to have produced something more than ‘the difficult year’.
Douglas’ gentle prose of excuse does not mention action on night bombing. The ‘big wing’ idea seems to have been stopped due to too high losses. Short on vision and singlemindedness for sure. Clearly getting rid of Dowding was a mistake, but the Air Ministry and perhaps Churchill didn’t have the honesty to accept this publically and reinstate him and Keith Park.

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