What was the Duxford Big Wing?
On the morning of the 15th of September 1940, the Luftwaffe began its eighth consecutive day of bombing London. By 11am, hundreds of German aircraft were heading across the Channel towards Britain.
All squadrons of 11 Group were scrambled, and they attacked the oncoming enemy over Kent. Alongside the 11 Group squadrons, Douglas Bader's Big Wing entered the action. This consisted of five squadrons flying together in one large formation - nearly 60 fighter aircraft coming in from Duxford. This footage shows 16 Spitfires flying together at a Duxford Air Show - a Big Wing would have had around 4 times this number in flight. But what should have been a stunning counterattack soon became disordered and chaotic due to the numbers of aircraft involved, with the RAF fighters outnumbering the Luftwaffe raiders.
Following the 15th September, the Duxford Big Wing was only used intermittently, and continued to be a controversial tactic. Head of Fighter Command Hugh Dowding thought it was messy, complicated and unnecessary – and this opinion would even contribute to his downfall.
So was the Big Wing a good idea? And if not, why was it used in the first place? Could it have worked better if it was implemented differently? We’re going to take a closer look and find out.
So, where exactly did the Big Wing come from?
Craig Murray: "The Big Wing is very much a Duxford idea. The man behind it is Douglas Bader, who is squadron leader of 242 squadron at RAF Duxford. What it is basically, or what it becomes, is a five squadron Big wing as a name implies. A standard RAF wing is three squadrons and indeed the Big Wing starts as a standard three squadron wing but it's quite quickly up to this five squadrons. So, anything up to 60 aircraft can be in the air at one time."
But the Big Wing concept was not entirely Douglas Bader’s idea. Italo Balbo who was a fascist general in the 1930s, and he first came up with this idea of using large amounts of aircraft.
Craig Murray: "Although it was used more than a demonstration purpose rather than what Bader envisions it being used for is this off high fire power large number of aircraft strike force against incoming enemy raiders. So as it's used here, it's very much Douglas Bader's brainchild with some input from Trafford Leigh Mallory as well."
The use of multiple squadrons for one large formation had also been used during the evacuation from Dunkirk. But during the Battle of Britain, the primary tactic had been the Dowding System - in which squadrons were scrambled individually based on information received from Britain’s radar network. For more information on this, check out our video on the Dowding System.
But as the battle progressed the idea of large formations of multiple fighter squadrons intercepting enemy raids gained popularity from 12 Group, who were based at Duxford, including Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Acting Squadron Leader of 242 Squadron Douglas Bader. Duxford’s main role as a 12 Group station was originally to defend the industrial Midlands and North from enemy attack. However from late August, the Luftwaffe turned its attention to the airfields of 11 group, who were defending London, and 12 group were increasingly called upon to defend these airfields. But Bader and Leigh Mallory’s ideas for the Duxford Big Wing were not well received by 11 Group, which led to tension with Air Officer Commander Keith Park.
Craig Murray: "They start to come into conflict with 11 Group due to the fact that they're attempting to put up these bigger and bigger wings of aircraft which take longer to form up and often to arrive in time others miscoordination between aircraft. So, in a couple of cases the 11 Group airfields are hit and the case with Debden, five people are killed in one of the raids at which they were supposed to stop."
The Big Wing is difficult to time correctly and organise effectively. Working with that number of aircraft in one formation was incredibly unwieldy. The dispute over whether this tactic should be used was also causing increasing tension between the commanders of 11 and 12 Groups. So why did Bader and Leigh Mallory push so hard to use the Big Wing?
Craig Murray: "The failures don't put off Bader and Leigh Mallory, in fact it's it steals the resolve even more."
On the 7th of September, the Luftwaffe changed tactics – they switched from attacking RAF bases and radar stations to bombing London. This change in tactic took the RAF by surprise, leading Bader, Mallory and others to believe that a show of strength such as the Big Wing was needed.
Craig Murray: "They see at least in their eyes the value of this Big Wing because when you have a massive raid like on the 7th of September when the Luftwaffe come on with nearly a thousand aircraft, it causes huge amounts of surprise to 11 Group who expected to split as it normally does but it comes on as one huge raid. The pairs of squadrons they do get up, can't break up the raid the way they usually do because it's just far too big. It's possible at this point that the Luftwaffe start to believe their own intelligence services at the RAF are actually in their last legs but it's events like this that leads Bader and Leigh Mallory to see the fact the value to them of a large strike force of now three squadrons currently at this point, but as we move in a few days later they agree to up this to five squadrons."
But the Big Wing, more often than not, could not work effectively.
Craig Murray: "The problem with it is it's too big and cumbersome a thing to get up in the air in time, particularly because it's coming from Duxford all the way down to around about the southeast of England. Trying to get that many squadrons up in the air, particularly with three fifths of them are Hurricanes and slower than the Spitfire. As the Spitfires will invariably get to height first but you've got to wait for the Hurricanes then you've all get farm up into a fighting wing then manoeuvre down to the area you're supposed to be at. Then you've got add to the point you've got to get to the height you're supposed to be at and then if you make it the wrong decision as Bader did on one occasion they get bounced by German raiders coming from higher than they are, because the Hurricanes by then are slower to climb."
The Dowding System that Fighter Command used allowed them to have a pragmatic distribution of their forces. But bringing a Wing into combat and getting that many aircraft into their air, meant that the enemy had a chance to strike before they the Wing were even in formation.
The numbers on paper seemed to indicate that the Big Wing was a huge success, but these figures were misleading. The number of kills recorded by the aircrew of the Big Wing was often far fewer than were claimed in reality.
Craig Murray: "It's not through any devious part of the pilots who flew because the pilots flew bravely and well and there was some great pilots involved in the Big Wing, but the problem with so many aircraft was there's a lot of confusion because of the melee nature of aerial combat. Sometimes an aircraft looks like it's hit, it's exhaust fumes pluming as it dives away, you think you've hit it you have a claim, but because there's more aircraft involved the Big Wing tends to over claim. However, that doesn't matter as far as its supporters go and its supporters go high, they go to the Air Ministry and they go to the government, and often by those claims are accepted without any particular criticism. And the thing is as well, the Air Ministry knew exactly how many German raiders were being shot down because they were landing in their country, so they could easily confirm or deny these things but they often didn't. Possibly, due to the fact it was very good propaganda. It was a good thing, it was the kind of thing you put in the news because that's what people want to hear, the Germans are falling like flies you know, we're taking them out every day in huge numbers look at the list so that is a pragmatic element but in the same sense it overstates its importance."
Despite these issues, the Big Wing had support from Air Ministry and the government. Keith Park and Hugh Dowding were falling increasingly foul of those further up the command chain.
Craig Murray: "Whether it's a lack of understanding how fighter control works or whether it's just they like this concept they have a problem with Dowding and Park. Park can be abrasive, he's by far the best Commander we have and by a long way and he's one of the finest Commanders - see he's a New Zealander but he's one of the finest British Commanders and he wins everywhere he goes: he goes to North Africa and wins, he goes to Italy and wins, he goes to the Far East and defeats the Japanese there. He gets accused of not willing to cooperate with the Big Wing, being inflexible."
This wasn’t even entirely true – Keith Park thought that the wings had their uses, just not when the squadrons were needed quickly. Later in the Battle, Keith Park even suggested that they based the Big Wing at one of 11 Group's stations, as a back up to the pairs, but this is not taken up.
Perhaps fortuitously, the Battle was won before the Big Wing could gain any more ascendency. But for Dowding and Park the damage had already been done. By the end of 1940, their removal from command seemed imminent.
Craig Murray: "The eventual fallout between Park and Leigh Mallory and others leads to Park and Hugh Dowding losing their jobs. Park more so of a thing than Hugh Dowding, who would have retired anyway, but he was kept on because he created the Dowding System and he knew how it worked but it's more of the sort of bad taste in the mouth that their departure, what causes their departure, than anything else."
So how much did the Wings system contribute to the Battle of Britain? Should it have been used more, or was it merely something liked by the politicians?
Craig Murray: "I think if anybody had attempted to use the Big Wing idea from the start as a method of defending Britain it couldn't have worked, because it's not rapid and quick. The Dowding System is an incredible system that still fighter control systems today are based off of. The rapid response aspect to the Battle of Britain and the speed those raids come at you doesn't allow for that much time, it's a luxury you don't have. The Big Wing or Wings work well as an offensive tool for ground support when you have complete air superiority; what you need here is rapid response and proportional response to the event."
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The RAF were regularly outnumbered by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, earning them the name of the Few. One solution to this was the Big Wing. The Big Wing strategy involved up to five squadrons of fighter aircraft flying together in one large formation, allowing them to meet the oncoming enemy in strength. This tactic has strong support from 12 Group, based at Duxford, including Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, as well as from Air Ministry and the government. But the Big Wing was a controversial tactic. Among its critics was Head of Fighter Command Hugh Dowding and Air Officer Commander Keith Park – and this opinion that would eventually lead to their downfall.
So was the Big Wing a good idea or not? We’re going to find out.