Rescue of Downed Airmen
Throughout the Battle, of course, fighting continually occurred over the sea, and German aircraft, damaged over England, had to return across the Straits of Dover or the English Channel. Far more German than British crews fell into the sea. The Germans therefore developed an elaborate system of sea rescue. Their Bombers had inflatable rubber dinghies, and various other rescue devices were adopted. Crews were provided with bags of a chemical known as fluorescine, a small quantity of which stained a large area of water a vivid green. Floating refuges with provisions and wireless sets were anchored off the French coast. “E-boats” and rescue launches were extensively employed, and white painted floatplanes, marked with the Red Cross, were used even in the midst of battle. We had to make it known to the Germans that we could not countenance the use of the Red Cross in this manner. They were engaged in rescuing combatants and taking them back to fight again, and they were also in a position, if granted immunity, to make valuable reconnaissance reports. In spite of this, surviving crews of these aircraft appeared to be surprised and aggrieved at being shot down.
Our own arrangements were less elaborate. Life-saving jackets were painted a conspicuous yellow, and later the fluorescine device was copied. Patrol aircraft (not under the Red Cross) looked out for immersed crews, and a chain of rescue launches with special communications was installed round the coast. Our own shipping, too, was often on the spot, and many pilots were rescued by Naval or Merchant vessels.
This is perhaps a convenient opportunity to say a word about the ethics of shooting at aircraft crews who have baled out in parachutes.
Germans descending over England are prospective prisoners of war, and, as such, should be immune. On the other hand, British pilots descending over England are still potential combatants.
Much indignation was caused by the fact that German pilots sometimes fired on our descending airmen (although, in my opinion, they were perfectly entitled to do so), but I am glad to say that in many cases they refrained and sometimes greeted a helpless adversary with a cheerful wave of the hand.
Training of New Pilots
In the early days of the war the question of the provision of Operational Training Units (or Group Pools, as they were called at that time) was under discussion. It was referred to in the correspondence which I have mentioned previously in this despatch. At that time I was so gravely in need of additional fighter squadrons that I was willing to do without Group Pools altogether while we were still at long range from the German Fighters.
The functions of these Group Pools, or O.T.Us., was to accept pilots direct from Flying Training Schools or non-fighter units of the Royal Air Force and train them in the handling of fighter types, formation flying, fighting tactics, and R/T control and interception methods. I realised that the fighters in France could not undertake this work and must have a Group Pool allotted primarily to meet their requirements, but I felt that, so long as we at home were out of touch with German fighters, I would prefer to put all available resources into new squadrons and to undertake in service squadrons the final training of pilots coming from Flying Training Schools, provided that they had done some formation flying and night flying, and had fired -their guns in the air.
Of course, when intensive fighting began, final training of pilots in squadrons could no longer be given efficiently, and at the time of the Battle three O.T.Us, were in existence. It was found that three weeks was about the minimum period which was of practical value, but that a longer course, up to six weeks, was desirable when circumstances permitted.
During the Battle the output from the O.T.Us. was quite inadequate to meet the casualty rate, and it was not even possible to supply from the Flying Training Schools the necessary intake to the O.T.Us.
The lack of flexibility of the training system, therefore, proved to be the “bottleneck” and was the cause of the progressively deteriorating situation of the Fighter Command up till the end of September. This statement is in no sense a criticism of the Flying Training Command; The problem, as I state it here, can have no ideal solution and some compromise must be adopted.
Assuming that in periods of maximum quiescence the fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force require an intake of x pilots per week, in periods of intense activity they require about ten times the number.
It is necessary to start the flying training of a pilot about a year before he is ready to engage enemy fighters, and therefore the training authorities should be warned a year ahead, of the incidence of active periods. This is obviously impossible. If they try to be ready for all eventualities by catering for a continuous output to meet a high casualty rate/ the result is that, during quiet periods, pilots are turned out at such a rate that they cannot be absorbed, or even given enough flying to prevent their forgetting what they have been taught. If, on the other hand, they cater for the normal wastage rate, fighter squadrons are starved of reinforcements when they are most vitally needed.
Replenishment of Fighter Command
The fundamental principle which must be realised is that fighter needs, when they, arise, are not comparative with those of other Commands, but absolute. An adequate and efficient fighter force ensures the security of the base, without which continuous operations are impossible.
If the fighter defence had failed in the Autumn of 1940, England would have been invaded. The paralysis of their fighters in the Spring was an important factor in the collapse of the French resistance. Later, the unavoidable withdrawal of the fighters from Crete rendered continued resistance impossible.
Day bomber and Army co-operation aircraft can operate when their own fighters are predominant, but are driven out of the skies when the enemy fighters have a free hand.
I submit some suggestions by which the apparently insuperable difficulties of the problem may be reduced.
- (a) Start by aiming at a fighter output well above that needed in quiescent periods.
- (b) Ensure that at Flying Training Schools, pupils earmarked for other duties may be rapidly switched over to fighter training.
- (c) Organise the O.T.Us. with a “Normal” and an “Emergency” syllabus, the latter lasting for three weeks and the former twice as long.
- (d) Fill up the service fighter squadrons to a strength of 25 pilots, or whatever the C-in-C considers to be the maximum which can be kept in flying and operational practice.
- (e) Form reservoirs, either at O.T.Us, or in special units where surplus pilots may maintain the flying and operational standard which they have reached.
- (f) When the initiative lies in our hands (as, for instance, when we are planning to deliver an offensive some time ahead), the intake of Flying Training Schools should be adjusted to cater for the additional stress which can be foreseen.
- (g) (And this applies principally to overseas theatres of war where rapid reinforcement is impossible.) Let the day bomber and army co-operation squadrons have a number of fighters on which they can fly and train as opportunity offers. This is a revolutionary suggestion, but it is made in all seriousness. If then fighters are overwhelmed the day bomber and army cooperation units will not be able to operate at all. No very high standard of training should be attempted, especially in radio-controlled interception methods: but the intervention of these units as fighters, working in pairs or small formations, might well prove to be the decisive factor in a critical situation.
For reasons stated before we must be prepared for the appearance of the pressure-cabin bomber, flying at a height unattainable by any non-pressurised fighter. I should perhaps explain that there is a height, about 43,000 feet, above which the administration of any quantity of oxygen at atmospheric pressure becomes ineffective because it cannot be inhaled and a pressure cabin or a pressure suit becomes essential. Of course, a pressure-cabin bomber is inefficient and vulnerable, because it is difficult to operate free guns from a pressure cabin, and pressure leakage from holes made in the walls of the cabin will prostrate the crew. The threat from pressurised bombers is therefore serious only if we have no fighters to meet them, and for this reason we should always possess a limited number of pressurised fighters.
Various other lessons were learned from the experience of fighting at extreme altitudes. One very tiresome feature was that a considerable proportion of ultra-high-flying raids was missed by the intelligence systems, or reported so late that time was not available to climb and intercept. This made it necessary to employ standing patrols just below oxygen height – about 16,000 feet. These patrols climbed to intercept at extreme height when ordered to do so. This cut at the roots of the Fighter Command system, which was designed to ensure economy of effort by keeping aircraft on the ground except when required to make an interception.
Another lesson was that the system of using an “Above Guard” should be retained even when an attack was initiated from extreme altitude.
Flying and fighting fatigue increases with altitude, and the comfort of the pilot requires unremitting attention. Cockpit heating and the meticulous pursuit and elimination of air leaks are of great importance. Attention should also be paid to the elimination of icing on cockpit hoods, which are apt to freeze immovably, and on the inside and outside of windscreens.