The summer of 1940 was the Royal Air Force's finest hour. RAF Fighter Command defeated the Luftwaffe in the skies over southern England, and helped save a nation which appeared to be teetering on the brink of defeat. German failure to win control of the air persuaded Hitler to abandon plans to invade Britain. His attention was already turning towards the east and a future attack on the Soviet Union. Although the balance of forces was never as one-sided as legend maintains, the Battle of Britain was undoubtedly a remarkable victory, and is rightly celebrated as one of the most decisive aerial campaigns of the Second World War.
With the daylight battle won, RAF Fighter Command faced a new challenge. The Luftwaffe had switched to a night bombing offensive in the autumn of 1940, hoping to inflict decisive damage on British industry and the morale of the civil population. Many cities and ports were bombed, but London was the most important target. The intensive series of nightly raids between September 1940 and May 1941 would become known as the 'Blitz'.
RAF Fighter Command was now at a disadvantage. The Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes, excellent as daylight interceptors, could not operate as effectively in darkness, although several squadrons were pressed into service. The civilian Observer Corps, so vital during the summer in spotting and reporting the movements of enemy aircraft, was reduced to listening out for the sound of engines in a bid to track the bombers. The RAF did have some dedicated night-fighting aircraft, but they were stop-gaps. The Boulton Paul Defiant – a failure as a day fighter – found limited success in the nocturnal role, and fighter versions of the Bristol Blenheim light bomber were also deployed.
Crucial to an effective defence was radar, but in the autumn and winter of 1940 only a few primitive Airborne Interception (AI) sets were fitted into aircraft, and there was no adequate ground-based system to guide them onto their targets. The German bombers roamed with relative impunity, guided by their own radio beams, which British scientists sought to jam. RAF pilots had to rely mostly on the light of searchlights to find their prey. On the night of the infamous raid on Coventry on 14-15 November, RAF Fighter Command flew 119 sorties but failed to shoot down a single Luftwaffe bomber.
Fortunately, the situation began to improve as new aircraft and radar equipment entered service. The twin-engined Bristol Beaufighter was fast, heavily armed and equipped with AI Mk IV radar. The first Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) stations were set up, so that operators could view a radar map of the action, and guide the night-fighters towards the bombers. Once within two or three miles, the crews used their onboard AI sets to get within visual distance and then, hopefully, make a kill. The new system worked. In March 1941 22 German bombers were shot down. In April the figure was 48 and in May almost 100 enemy aircraft were destroyed by RAF night-fighters.
German night raids tailed off in May 1941 as Luftwaffe bomber units were deployed elsewhere. Meanwhile, single-engined fighter-bombers continued to carry out sporadic daylight attacks, but these were more of a nuisance than a strategic threat. Fighter Command had again proved its mettle in defence. But it now had a new boss and a new mission. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who had been in command during the Battle of Britain, had been edged out in November 1940. In his place came Air Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas, whose primary objective was to take the war to the enemy over occupied Europe.
This new offensive saw fighter squadrons embarking on a variety of routine operations, each given a codename. The simplest was known as a 'Rhubarb', in which small numbers of aircraft – usually just a pair – flew at low-level into France or Belgium to shoot up targets of opportunity on the ground. Rhubarbs were normally flown in bad weather so as to avoid enemy fighters, but this alone made them hazardous. Anti-aircraft fire was another danger and the losses suffered far outweighed the damage caused to the enemy.
Large scale fighter sweeps, known as 'Rodeos', were flown over enemy territory in fine weather at high altitude in the hope of enticing the Luftwaffe into action. But as the RAF had found in 1940, enemy fighters on their own posed a negligible threat and could be safely ignored. Something was needed to persuade the enemy to come up and fight. The result was the 'Circus' – an operation involving several squadrons of fighters covering a small raiding force of bombers acting as bait.
In all these operations range was the limiting factor. The RAF fighters could only penetrate about 60 miles in from the enemy coast at its closest point, and had two Channel crossings to contend with. The Luftwaffe had warning of RAF incursions from its own radar and could pick and choose when and where to intercept. The Germans became adept at 'bouncing' RAF fighters from above. And being over enemy territory, any RAF pilots who survived being shot down were usually captured.
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 put pressure on the RAF to step up its attacks and tie down as many Luftwaffe fighters as possible in France. Operations became larger and more sophisticated. The so-called 'summer offensive' saw about 90 major sweeps, mostly between Rouen and Lille, alongside Rhubarbs and attacks against coastal shipping (known as 'Roadsteads'). The results were disappointing, and costly. Some 300 RAF pilots were lost. The famous British ace Douglas Bader, who had lost both his legs in a pre-war flying accident, was one of those shot down and captured. Nor did the attacks prevent the Luftwaffe from moving most of its force eastwards. Only two German fighter units with about 200 aircraft remained in France, and these proved more than enough to counter the RAF.
The Luftwaffe now also enjoyed a qualitative advantage over the RAF. The Messerschmitt Bf109F was a match for the latest Spitfire – the Mk Vb – and the new Focke-Wulf Fw 190 was significantly superior in performance. The Hurricanes found themselves totally outclassed and relegated to the ground attack role. These 'Hurribombers' had some success on 'Ramrods' – short-range bombing operations against specific targets such as harbours and airfields. But overall, the RAF's offensive operations – especially the Circuses and large-scale fighter sweeps – had become prohibitively expensive, and in November 1941 Fighter Command was ordered to suspend all but the most essential. Routine attacks were limited to coastal areas, well away from the Luftwaffe.
The Germans continued to mount occasional night attacks against Britain, but Luftwaffe bombers were now relatively easy meat for Britain’s increasingly capable air defences. In the spring of 1942 the new de Havilland Mosquito joined the Beaufighter in equipping Fighter Command's night-fighter squadrons. The 'Mossie' arrived at an opportune time. RAF Bomber Command raids on Lübeck and Rostock in February and March prompted an enraged Hitler to order retaliatory bombing attacks. The so-called Baedeker raids (named after a nineteenth century German guidebook to Britain) were directed against some of Britain's most historic, and less well defended, towns and cities, including York, Norwich, Bath and Canterbury. However, damage was minimal and 40 enemy bombers were shot down.
Daylight incursions by enemy fighter-bombers were more of a problem. Fw 190s would fly 'tip and run' raids against seaside towns and inland targets, keeping low and fast most of the way to avoid interception. A solution was found in another new aircraft, the Hawker Typhoon, which entered service in the summer of 1942. The powerful Typhoon was supposed to have replaced the Hurricane as an air superiority fighter, but was much too cumbersome at high altitude. It did however have the speed at low level to catch these so-called 'sneak raiders' and 57 Fw 190s were shot down between October 1942 and June 1943.
In 1942 Fighter Command resumed its own offensive, but owing to the continuing superiority of the the Fw 190 losses remained high. 280 RAF fighters – mostly Spitfires – were shot down in the first five months of 1942. In June Sholto Douglas was once again told to restrict operations to coastal targets. In the meantime a new stop-gap Spitfire variant, the Mk IX, was rushed into service. Its powerful new Merlin 61 engine meant the RAF finally had a fighter to match the Focke-Wulf.
Four squadrons of Spitfire Mk IXs were available in August when Fighter Command fought its biggest battle of 1942, supporting the doomed combined operations raid on the French port of Dieppe. The RAF was tasked with supporting the naval assault, but saw a golden opportunity to inflict a decisive blow on the Luftwaffe which responded in strength. In a ferocious day of combat Fighter Command lost 100 aircraft and 52 pilots killed or captured in exchange for only 48 enemy planes, of which 23 were fighters. It was an undeniable German victory.
In the autumn of 1942 a dozen Fighter Command squadrons were despatched to support Operation 'Torch', the Allied landings in North Africa. Another six followed in early 1943. These deployments were the latest to a theatre which had long been crying out for fighter reinforcements, especially Spitfires. The war in the Mediterranean, and indeed further afield in the Far East, continued to pose a drain on the RAF's domestic strength for much of the war.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1943 Fighter Command, now under Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, still had a sizeable force of around 100 squadrons. The Spitfire Mk IX was in short supply, a situation which would continue for much of the year as priority for re-equipment went to the Italian theatre. Many squadrons had to soldier on with their ageing Mk Vs. The Hurricane, after its swansong as a ground attack aircraft, would soon disappear from the RAF’s frontline, with UK-based squadrons converting to Typhoons.
The range – or rather the lack of it – of the Spitfire was still a major challenge, especially now that bomber escort duties were becoming an increasing part of Fighter Command's workload. As well as the RAF's own light bomber force, demand now came from the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) Eighth Air Force, which had started its daylight strategic bombing campaign in the summer of 1942. At first the targets were in northern France, where Fighter Command could provide a degree of cover, but in 1943 the Americans began to strike at more distant objectives in Germany, where they were on their own. The massive increase in Allied bombing attacks meant that the old-style Circus operations were now redundant. The Luftwaffe in the west had been greatly reinforced, and there was no longer a need to coax it into the air – the defence of occupied Europe and the Reich itself was now a German priority.
Fighter Command's own offensive operations were also stepped up. The Mosquito had already proven itself as the dominant night fighter over the UK, but its speed, range and heavy armament also meant it could be used to advantage on deep penetration 'Ranger' sorties over enemy territory, seeking out enemy aircraft or ground targets. Bomber support was another vital Mosquito role. Some joined the RAF heavy bomber streams and used their radar to hunt enemy night-fighters. Others flew 'Intruder' missions to German airfields, where they lurked in the darkness waiting to pounce on aircraft landing or taking off. The Typhoon was also increasingly used on offensive operations over enemy territory, with shipping, airfields and railways as prime targets.
The focus for Fighter Command was now very much on air support, as the Allies prepared the ground for Operation 'Overlord', the forthcoming invasion of north-west Europe. So important was this enterprise that it necessitated major re-organisational changes. Many RAF fighter squadrons (and Bomber Command's light bombers) were hived off to a new structure – 2nd Tactical Air Force (2 TAF) – whose role would be to provide air support for British and Canadian armies on the continent. In November, what was left of Fighter Command was given a new name – Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB).
ADGB began 1944 with 68 fighter squadrons, but many of these would be transferred to 2 TAF as the year progressed. As before, ADGB maintained its defence of Britain's skies. In January the Germans launched Operation Steinbock, a last gasp offensive using what was left of their bomber force against London and other cities. Once again, Hitler was more interested in retaliation against the civil population than choosing to hit military targets. The so-called 'Baby Blitz' continued until May 1944, but with negligible effect. Britain's superior night defences brought down 253 Luftwaffe bombers.
1944 saw the introduction of a trio of new fighters. The Griffon-engined Spitfire Mk XIV was the latest and fastest iteration of that iconic aircraft. The Tempest Mk V was the successor to the Typhoon and far more effective as a fighter. The American-built P-51B Mustang, fitted with a British Rolls Royce Merlin engine, finally gave the RAF a single-seat fighter with the range to escort bombers on long-range missions or to carry out deep penetration offensive sweeps.
By June most of the RAF's fighters had been transferred to 2 TAF for the support of Operation Overlord. The need to maintain air superiority over the invasion area on D-Day and beyond was paramount. ADGB squadrons also contributed to the huge aerial umbrella over the assault forces. However, no sooner had the Allies got a foothold on the continent than a new threat emerged. On 13 June 1944 the first V-1 'Doodlebugs' were launched against London. Flying at 400mph before their pulse-jet engines cut out and they plunged to earth, only the fastest Allied fighters could catch them, which meant the return of squadrons equipped with the Spitfire Mk XIV, Tempest and Mustang to ADGB control. By August, when the V-1 campaign reached its peak, 22 RAF fighter squadrons were deployed on what were known as 'Diver' patrols. The Tempests were most effective, claiming 638 bombers destroyed. Mosquito night-fighters knocked down a further 471. In total fighters shot down 1,771 V-1s, with anti-aircraft guns destroying a similar number. In September the 'Doodlebug' threat subsided as their launch sites were overrun by Allied ground troops.
In October, the unpopular ADGB label was scrapped and RAF Fighter Command's former title officially restored. By now the home-based squadrons had little aerial opposition to contend with. Fighter Command's principal task was to provide escort – for the 'heavies' of RAF Bomber Command, now frequently operating in daylight, the medium bombers of the Allied tactical air forces and the strike wings of RAF Coastal Command on missions against enemy shipping in the North Sea. While the Spitfire's range had been improved with auxiliary fuel tanks, and aircraft could now put down on friendly territory in France and Holland to refuel, the Mustang was the fighter of choice for this role, and several squadrons were re-equipped with it.
The last major variant of the legendary Spitfire to see service was the Mk XVI, essentially a Mk IX fitted with an American-built Packard-Merlin engine. Nearly all were slung with bombs and used for ground attack sorties. An important target was Hitler's last and most destructive vengeance weapon, the V-2 rocket, used from September 1944 to March 1945 to strike at London and Antwerp. The missiles could not be intercepted in the air, so RAF fighters flew standing patrols in the area around the Hague in Holland from where they were fired, carrying out dive-bombing and strafing attacks on their mobile launchers and storage areas.
One significant new aircraft entered squadron service in the summer of 1944. The Gloster Meteor was the RAF's first jet fighter. It was used to counter the V-1 menace, and in the closing months of the war a few were sent to Belgium in the hope of engaging the Luftwaffe's own jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262. In the event these two aircraft never met in combat, but a new era had dawned for both RAF Fighter Command and aviation in general.
In the last months of the war nearly all the aerial action was taking place over the battlefronts and in the skies over Germany. There were scarcely any incursions over Britain by manned German aircraft. The last significant attempt was Operation Gisela on the night of 3/4 March 1945 when some 200 Luftwaffe night-fighters followed RAF bombers home and shot down 25 of them while landing at their airfields. An attempt to repeat this success later in the month failed and the Luftwaffe was never to appear over Britain again.
RAF Fighter Command had come a long way since the Battle of Britain four and a half years earlier. Ground attack sorties over Holland, intruder operations over France and escort missions over Germany were all a long way from the desperate scrambles of the 'Spitfire summer' of 1940. Throughout the war, Fighter Command succeeded in its primary aim of defending the UK, even though it was never again tested to the extent that it had been during the Battle of Britain. The fighter offensive of 1941 and 1942 was, however, a failure. The many squadrons held in Britain for this purpose might well have been more usefully employed in North Africa or the Far East. When the Germans finally moved substantial forces away from the fighting fronts to defend the Reich's own airspace, it was in response to American bombing attacks rather than RAF Fighter Command’s operations on the fringes of Europe.
As Allied operations focused on support for Operation Overlord, Fighter Command's ground attack and escort role became increasingly important. The introduction of superb new aircraft like the Mosquito, Typhoon and Mustang dramatically increased its capabilities in this regard. But only one type was in production from the beginning to the end. In many ways the Spitfire was Fighter Command. Through continuous development of engines and airframe it maintained its effectiveness, even if its principal failing – its lack of range – was never resolved. Its less advanced, but equally significant, stablemate the Hurricane, so important in 1940, faded from service much earlier, but it is fitting that a solitary example, a veteran of the Battle of Britain, led the RAF flypast over London in June 1946, when the whole nation celebrated victory.