"Dowding is the Architect of Victory"
The Battle of Britain is often defined by images of Spitfires and Messerschmitts duelling in the skies. But what if the deciding factor in this fight for air supremacy was actually based on the ground? IWM Duxford Curator Craig Murray takes a look at the Dowding System and explains how it turned the battle decisively in Britain's favour.
By the summer of 1940 things were not looking good for Britain.
Archive Clip: "the jaws of the Nazi whale were set to swallow Jonah".
The French had surrendered to Germany's blitzkrieg and the British forces evacuated from Dunkirk had left almost all of their heavy equipment behind in France. It was an unenviable situation. After a failed attempt to make peace, Hitler ordered his commanders to make Britain the next target with a preliminary date set for invasion later in the year with the code name Operation Sea Lion.
Archive Clip: "Six weeks of final preparation went into those plans, six weeks to determine the history of a thousand years".
There were some problems however, in order to carry out a successful invasion of the British isles Germany first needed control of the skies and thus the stage was set for the Battle of Britain. Should the Royal Air Force be destroyed then Britain would be open to invasion, should it survive then Britain was safe. The stakes couldn't have been higher.
The RAF was fresh off the Battle of France and it had incurred severe casualties both in its bomber and its fighter aircraft. It had a lack of pilots and a lack of aircraft over there and by the end of it things were significantly worse. The RAF often goes up and doesn't see anything to shoot at and if you have nothing to shoot at you can't shoot it down.
The key then for Britain in the upcoming battle was to maximize her resources. With far fewer pilots to spare, RAF Fighter Command had to drastically improve its interception rate, ensuring that every fighter that went into battle actually met the enemy. Luckily the head of the RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding had been preparing for this problem for a number of years.
Yeah Hugh Dowding has basically taken what was the system for defending the country during the First World War which is relatively primitive, he's also come into contact with the people developing radar and if you will a light bulb's going off in Dowding's head and he realizes this is the crucial aspect of what he hopes to build.
In 1940 radar was still a relatively new invention, but it formed the first key part in Britain's air defences It worked by firing off radio waves into the air and then using the waves which bounced back off of aircraft to calculate their position, direction and speed. Britain's radar system, known as Chain Home, consisted of a system of tall lattice work towers situated along the southwest and east coasts of England. They could give warning of raids as soon as the Luftwaffe took off from Calais which gave the RAF a huge advantage.But that was just the first step in what would become known as the Dowding System.
One of the things Dowding inherits from the defence of Great Britain is the Observer Corps. At this point radar cannot look inwards. We always think of radar as this spinning thing that can see 360 degrees, now that's going to be about 1942 or late 41 before you see that happen. So once the enemy have crossed the coastline it's up to the eyes and ears of the Observer Corps. These volunteers who sit in observer posts, maybe a couple of men, and it's their job using binoculars, radios, sextants, these type of instruments, to record the height, the number, and the direction of the aircraft. This information will be sent back to their filter rooms.
Archive Clip: "They're hurricanes, three hurricanes on their tail". "All yours partner".
The key word in all of this was 'filter' the Filter Room at Bentley Priory took in all these different streams of information, which you can see on the desk in these tokens which indicate different reports on the height, number, direction, speed, and type of aircraft. This information was then filtered down into something more usable.
Archive clip: "The assessment acts as a sieve, the result of the sieving being shown in the form of a 'track' which gives only the basic and essential detail".
And that key information was then updated every few minutes and sent along the line to the Sector Stations and the people that needed it most.
Archive clip: "Everyone in fact, who must know of the movements ofaircraft beyond our coast, receives information which the filter room is able to supply".
It's a combination of these two streams of information that end up ultimately on the sector tables of places like RAF Duxford. It's very information in and then out to the right people, and it ultimately ends up with the squadrons in the air.
Archive clip: "Tally ho! There they are, Jerries!"
The impact of the Dowding System was doubled by Germany's failure to see its importance. They rarely targeted these radar stations that made Dowding so successful.
Luftwaffe intelligence is remarkably poor. It's always 'well we reckon their down to their last 50 Spitfires'. The beleaguered then they rather tired German fighter and bomber pilots start to have this sort of macabre in-joke every time they appear it's 'oh here come the last 50 spitfires again' as they appear raid after raid after raid.
The Battle of Britain reached its climax on the 15th of September 1940, on what is now called Battle of Britain day. In Germany's largest attack yet over 1,500 aircraft battled in the skies over London, with the RAF repealing the assault and inflicting heavy losses on the Luftwaffe. Two days later, with invasion now seemingly impossible, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion until further notice. The RAF had survived.
Dowding is the architect of victory in the Battle of Britain, this system ensures that the Luftwaffe cannot win. It was always going to be a difficult battle to win for the Luftwaffe, they're fighting over enemy soil, the fighters generally are usually at the end of their fuel line, and they're also shackled to their own bombers protecting them. But the system takes away the German element a surprise. the RAF tends to know where they are at all times, they know exactly how many aircraft to set up. The system ensures
the Luftwaffe cannot win the Battle of Britain.
The Luftwaffe continued to pile pressure on Britain in the hope of forcing a surrender, but from now on this mainly took the form of night raids on British cities marking the beginning of the blitz. Victory in the Battle of Britain did not win the war for the Allies, but it did make winning a possibility. Four years later the allies would launch their invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe from British shores, an action which would prove decisive in bringing the war against Germany to an end.
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It's 80 years since the Battle of Britain took place so there's no better time to visit IWM Duxford, an airfield that was on the front line of the battle there's a ticket link in the description.