Battle of Britain in the Words of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding

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Utilisation of British Forces I must pay a very sincere tribute to the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, Air Vice-Marshal K. R. Park, ...
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Utilisation of British Forces

I must pay a very sincere tribute to the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, Air Vice-Marshal K. R. Park, C.B., M.C., D.F.C., for the way in which he adjusted his tactics and interception methods to meet each new development as it occurred.

Tactical control was, as has already been stated, devolved to the Groups; but tactical methods were normally laid down by Command Headquarters. During periods of intense fighting, however, there was no time for consultation, and Air Vice-Marshal Park acted from day to day on his own initiative. We discussed matters as opportunity offered. He has reported on the tactical aspects of the Battle in two very interesting documents, which are, however, too long to reproduce here.

A close liaison was kept between Nos. 10 and 11 and 12 Groups. It sometimes happened that, in the heaviest attacks, practically all 11 Group Fighters would be in the air. 11 Group would then ask 12 Group to send a formation from Duxford to patrol over the aerodromes immediately East of London so that these might not be attacked when defenceless.

Mutual help was also arranged between Nos. 10 and 11 Groups. When Portsmouth was attacked, for instance, No. 10 would help No. 11 Group, and vice versa when the attack was on Portland or some Convoy to the West of the Isle of Wight.

It will be observed that, at the end of the second phase of the Battle, the power of reinforcing by complete units had substantially disappeared. We still possessed an effective reserve of trained pilots, but they could be made available only by stripping the squadrons which were not engaged in the South and South- East of England.

The effective strength of the Command was running down, though the fact was not known to the public, nor, I hoped, to the Germans. They for their part must certainly be feeling the effect of their heavy losses, but there was very little indication of any loss of morale, so far as could be seen from a daily scrutiny of the examinations of prisoners of war. Our own pilots were fighting with unabated gallantry and determination.

The confidence of the German High Command probably received something of a shock about this time. The sustained resistance which they were meeting in South-East England probably led them to believe that fighter squadrons bad been withdrawn, wholly or in part, from the North in order to meet the attack. On the 15th August, therefore, two large raids were sent, one to Yorkshire and one to Newcastle. They were escorted by fighters. The distance was too great for Me. 109s, but not for Me. 110s.

If the assumption was that our fighters had been withdrawn from the North, the contrary was soon apparent, and the bombers received such a drubbing that the experiment was not repeated. I think that this incident probably had a very depressing influence on the outlook of the German High Command.

As I have said, our own pilots were fighting with the utmost gallantry and determination, but the mass raids on London, which were the main feature of the third phase of the Battle, involved a tremendous strain on units which could no longer be relieved as such. Some squadrons were flying 50 and 60 hours per day.

Many of the pilots were getting very tired. An order was in existence that all pilots should have 24 hours’ leave every week, during which they should be encouraged to leave their station and get some exercise and change of atmosphere: this was issued as an order so that the pilots should be compelled to avail themselves of the opportunity to get the necessary rest and relaxation. I think it was generally obeyed, but I fear that the instinct of duty sometimes overrode the sense of discipline. Other measures were also taken to provide rest and relaxation at stations, and sometimes to find billets for pilots where they could sleep away from their aerodromes.

Squadron Command in the Air

Some of our worst losses occurred through defective leadership on the part of a unit commander, who might lead his pilots into a trap or be caught while climbing by an enemy formation approaching out of the sun. During periods of intense activity promotions to the command of fighter squadrons should be made on the recommendation of Group Commanders from amongst Flight Commanders experienced in the methods of the moment. If and when it is necessary to post a Squadron Leader (however gallant and experienced) from outside the Command, he should humbly start as an ordinary member of the formation until he has gained experience. Only exceptionally should officers over 26 years of age be posted to command Fighter squadrons.

The experience of the Battle made me a little doubtful if the organisation of a squadron into two Flights, each of two Sections of 3 aircraft, was ideal. It was, of course, undesirable to make any sweeping change during the Battle, and I relinquished my Command shortly after its termination; but the weakness lay in the Section of 3 when it became necessary to break up a formation in a dogfight The organisation should allow for a break up into pairs, in which one pilot looks after the tail of his companion. A Squadron might be divided into 3 Flights of 4 (which would limit the employment of half-squadrons), or it might consist of 2 Flights of 8, each comprising 2 Sections of 4. This latter suggestion would upset standard arrangements for accommodation.

The matter is not one which can be settled without consultation with various authorities and branches of the Air Ministry. I therefore merely raise the point without making any definite recommendation.

A vic of Spitfires in line astern. This three-aircraft formation formed a nucleus of RAF fighter tactics in the air which turned out to pose many problems. Its major weakness was that the aircraft, when attacked, could not split in pairs, making mutual protection in combat impossible. The choice of 3-aircraft section, however, was deeply rooted in the organisational structure of the RAF fighter squadrons, and this fact largely prevented the rapid change even at the time when its disadvantages became well-known. [Crown Copyright]

The Big Wing Considerations

During the third phase of the Battle the problem arose, in an acute form, of the strength of fighter formations which we should employ. When time was the essence of the problem, two squadrons were generally used by A.V.M. Park in No. 11 Group. He had the responsibility of meeting attacks as far to the Eastward as possible, and the building up of a four-squadron formation involved the use of a rendezvous for aircraft from two or more aerodromes. This led to delay and lack of flexibility in leadership.

On the other hand, when No. 12 Group was asked to send down protective formations to guard the aerodromes on the Eastern fringe of London, it was often possible to build up big formations, and these had great success on some occasions, though by no means always.

Because a similar situation may well arise in future, I think that it is desirable to enter into some detail in this connection.

I may preface my remarks by stating that I am personally in favour of using fighter formations in the greatest strength of which circumstances will permit. In the Dunkerque fighting, where we could choose our time and build up our formations on the outward journey, I habitually employed four-squadron formations as a preferable alternative to using two-squadron formations at more frequent intervals; but, during the attacks on London, the available strength of fighters did not admit of this policy, nor was time available.

Quoting from Air Vice-Marshal Park’s report: “The general plan adopted was to engage the enemy high-fighter screen with pairs of Spitfire squadrons from Hornchurch and Biggin Hill half-way between London and the coast, and so enable Hurricane squadrons from London sectors to attack bomber formations and their close escort before they reached the line of fighter aerodromes East and South of London. The remaining squadrons from London sectors that could not be despatched in time to intercept the first wave of the attack by climbing in pairs formed a third and inner screen by patrolling along the lines of aerodromes East and South of London. The fighter squadrons from Debden, Tangmere, and sometimes Northolt, were employed in wings of three or in pairs to form a screen South-East of London to intercept the third wave of the attack coming inland, also to mop up retreating formations of the earlier waves. The Spitfire squadrons were redisposed so as to concentrate three squadrons at each of Hornchurch and Biggin Hill. The primary role of these squadrons was to engage and drive back the enemy high-fighter screen, and so protect the Hurricane squadrons, whose task was to attack close escorts and then the bomber formations, all of which flew at much lower altitude.”

I think that, if the policy of big formations had been attempted at this time in No. 11 Group, many more bombers would have reached their objectives without opposition.

Air Vice-Marshal Park also quotes the results of the ten large formations ordered from Duxford into No. 11 Group in the last half of October, when the Germans were employing fighter types only. Nine of these sorties made no interception, and the tenth destroyed one Me. 109.

Estimation of Casualties

The decisive features of the Battle were: the ratio of casualties incurred by ourselves and the Germans, and the ratio of casualties to the numbers actively employed on both sides.

As regards our casualties, we generally issued statements to the effect that we lost ” x” aircraft from Which ” y ” pilots were saved. This did not of course mean that ” y ” pilots were ready immediately to continue the Battle. Many of them were suffering from wounds, burns or other injuries which precluded their return to active flying temporarily or permanently.

It might also be assumed that all German crews who were in aircraft brought down during the Battle, were permanently lost to the Luftwaffe because the fighting took place on our side of the Channel. Such an assumption would not be literally true, because the Germans succeeded in rescuing a proportion of their crews from the sea by means of rescue boats, floats and aircraft which will be later described.

I must disclaim any exact accuracy in the estimates of enemy losses. All that I can say is that the utmost care was taken to arrive at the closest possible approximation. Special intelligence officers examined pilots individually after their combats, and the figures claimed are only those recorded as “certain”. If we allow for a percentage of over-statement, and the fact that two or more fighters were sometimes firing at the same enemy aircraft without being aware of the fact, this can fairly be balanced by the certainty that a proportion of aircraft reported as “probably destroyed ” or “damaged ” failed to return to their bases. The figures, then, are put forward as an honest approximation. Judging by results, they are perhaps not far out.

The German claims were, of course, ludicrous; they may have been deceived about our casualties, but they know they were lying about their own.

I remember being cross-examined in August by the Secretary of State for Air about the discrepancy. He was anxious about the effect on the American people of the wide divergence between the claims of the two sides. I replied that the Americans would soon find out the truth; if the Germans’ figures were accurate they would be in London in a week, otherwise they would not.

Our estimate of German casualties, then, may be taken as reasonably accurate for practical purposes; but our estimates of the strength in which attacks were made is based on much less reliable evidence. The radio-location system could give only a very approximate estimate of numbers and was sometimes in error by three or four hundred per cent. This is no reflection on the system, which was not designed or intended to be accurate in the estimation of considerable numbers; moreover, several stations were suffering from the effects of severe bombing attacks. As the average height of operations increased, the Observer Corps became less and less able to make accurate estimates of numbers, and, in fact, formations were often quite invisible from the ground.

Even the numerical estimates made by pilots who encountered large formations in the air are likely to be guesswork in many instances. Opportunities for deliberate counting of enemy aircraft were the exception rather than the rule.

Although secret intelligence sources supplemented the information available, it is possible that on days of heavy fighting complete formations may have escaped recorded observation altogether.

This is unfortunate, because it is obviously of the greatest importance to determine the relative strengths of the attack and the defence, and to know the ratio of losses to aircraft employed which may be expected to bring an attack to a standstill in a given time. History will doubtless elucidate the uncertainty, but perhaps not in tune for the information to be of use in the present war.

My personal opinion is that, on days of slight activity, our estimates are reasonably accurate, but that they probably err on the low side on days of heavy fighting when many and large formations were employed.

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2 Comments

By Michael McBride  |  2011-04-13 at 12:17  |  permalink

I have read Churchill’s History of the Second World War several times and was always interested in reading this despatch but until now unable to locate it. A masterful work written in a way mlost comparable to Churchill’s writing, the master of words himself.
Thank you for making it available.

By Armyn Hennessy  |  2012-08-05 at 03:06  |  permalink

Thank you for words out of the mouth of Dowding himself. They really do lay flat on the table what the true situation was by the time the Battle of Britain began. I had never understood why July 10th was thought to be the start of the BoB, or that it was his analysis to choose that date. The man from Moffat with the dour Scots face didn’t get proper treatment before, during or after the battle, did he. As a result of not having the planes he needed, and Hitler successfully bombing our airfields to bits, what it boiled down to as the saving of Britain, was, it seems, the itsy bitsy teeny weeny tiny winy fiddly piddly little mistake one of Hitler’s bomber pilots made in dropping a few bombs on London (accidentally) on August 24th and Churchill’s instant response to bomb Berlin, that enraged Hitler into one of those big bad goofs he was capable of, the Blitz of London. And so we kept flying! And real thanks, Lord Beaverbrook, too.. Whew..

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