History Lessons: Could This Be the Royal Air Force’s Best Fighter Ace?

 In Germany, GDI, India, Air, France

Bombed almost daily for sev­er­al months and in fear of an immi­nent German inva­sion, the British were hang­ing on by their fin­ger­nails when September 1940 came.

With the fate of Western free­dom in the bal­ance, history’s first major air battle raged as Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes of Royal Air Force Fighter Command rose to chal­lenge relent­less for­ma­tions of Luftwaffe bombers over south­east­ern England. Aerial suprema­cy was vital to the Germans, and the British had to be soft­ened up before Nazi dic­ta­tor Adolf Hitler could mount his post­poned inva­sion, Operation Sea Lion. Otherwise, the English Channel assault was con­sid­ered too risky.

A September 14 direc­tive from the impa­tient Führer gave Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring, com­man­der of the Luftwaffe, until the 17th to batter the RAF into sub­mis­sion. So, as dawn clouds cleared and the sun rose early on Sunday, September 15, the pow­er­ful Luftwaffe pre­pared to launch its supreme attempt.

The Battle of Britain and Bader’s “Big Wing”

The cli­mac­tic day of the Battle of Britain unfold­ed qui­et­ly. “It was one of those days of autumn when the coun­try­side is at its loveli­est,” observed Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, the able com­man­der of No. 11 Fighter Group. Royal Air Force patrols report­ed an empty, cloud­less sky, and no enemy air­craft appeared until mid-morn­ing, apart from recon­nais­sance flights.

At Chequers, his Tudor coun­try seat in Buckinghamshire, Prime Minister Winston Churchill took note of the fine weath­er and guessed that the enemy might soon be active. So he called for his car and was driven to Park’s 11 Group head­quar­ters at Uxbridge, on the west­ern edge of London. In the bombproof oper­a­tions room 50 feet below ground, Park said to Churchill, “I don’t know whether any­thing will happen today. At present, all is quiet.”

But 15 min­utes later, at 11 am, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force plot­ters began to bustle about the 11 Group map tables. Ominous reports fil­tered in from coastal radar sta­tions: 40-plus enemy planes assem­bling in the Dieppe area, then a force of 20-plus, and then anoth­er of 40-plus. It was not until 11:30 am that these for­ma­tions began to move north­ward. The Luftwaffe was launch­ing the assault with­out its usual feints and sub­sidiary attacks aimed at luring Fighter Command planes pre­ma­ture­ly into the air.

Air Marshal Park had been given 30 min­utes to orga­nize his squadrons. Fuel tanks were topped and mag­a­zines filled, and 17 RAF fight­er squadrons were deployed by 11:30 am.  They includ­ed one from No. 10 Group and five from Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s No. 12 Group, based at Duxford, north of London. Heading south­ward toward the action, Leigh-Mallory’s three Hurricane and two Spitfire squadrons com­prised a single “Big Wing” for­ma­tion under the tac­ti­cal com­mand of Group Captain Douglas R.S. Bader.

Staunchly advo­cat­ed by Leigh-Mallory and the leg­less Bader, the Big Wing con­cept was based on tac­tics ini­ti­at­ed by the famed Italian airman, General Italo Balbo. It called for large fight­er for­ma­tions to hit an approach­ing air fleet with max­i­mum strik­ing power, rather than with what Bader called “penny pack­ets.” The tactic would trig­ger much con­tro­ver­sy in Fighter Command.

A 25 Minute Dogfight Over London

Before noon on that fate­ful Sunday, the first of the esti­mat­ed 200 German planes — the largest bomber force yet dis­patched — crossed the English coast at Dover. Dornier Do-17 and Do-215 bombers escort­ed by many Messerschmitt Me-109 fight­ers zigzagged over Kent and Sussex and headed for London. RAF fight­ers attacked, dog­fight vapor trails skeined the blue skies, and burn­ing planes plum­met­ed and para­chutes bil­lowed down. The battle seethed toward London, and bombs fell all over the cap­i­tal.

Along with sev­er­al other RAF squadrons, the Big Wing from 12 Group tore in to break up enemy for­ma­tions. “This time, for a change, we out­num­bered the Hun,” report­ed Bader, “and believe me, no more than eight got home from that party…. It was sudden death that morn­ing, for our fight­ers shot them to blazes.” He attacked a Dornier Do-17 and watched its rear gunner bail out. “But his para­chute caught on the tail,” said Bader. “There he was, swing­ing help­less­ly, with the air­craft swoop­ing and diving and stag­ger­ing all over the sky. That bomber went crash­ing into the Thames Estuary, with the swing­ing gunner still there.”

Dogfights raged above London for 25 min­utes, and by 3:15 that after­noon the German for­ma­tions had been ripped apart with the loss of an esti­mat­ed 60 planes. Still harassed by Spitfires and Hurricanes, enemy strag­glers headed back across the English Channel to their bases along the French coast. Although few people real­ized it at the time, Fighter Command had decid­ed the Battle of Britain. Two days later, Hitler post­poned the inva­sion indef­i­nite­ly. September 15 was there­after com­mem­o­rat­ed as Battle of Britain Day.

The Big Wing’s Success Over London

The RAF’s fierce oppo­si­tion and the timely role of the 55 fight­ers of Leigh-Mallory and Bader’s Big Wing on September 15 squelched a German myth that Fighter Command was a beaten force that had to call on its “last 50 fight­ers.” The Luftwaffe suf­fered a blow to its morale from which it never recov­ered. After a few more heavy raids on London and other cities, the main day­light blitz qui­et­ly fiz­zled out.

Some con­ven­tion­al thinkers in Fighter Command, includ­ing Park, believed that the Big Wing’s results did not jus­ti­fy the expen­di­ture of effort, but Leigh-Mallory and Bader — both uncom­pro­mis­ing, strong-minded men unafraid to buck the estab­lished system — stout­ly defend­ed their tac­tics. In 15 sor­ties between September 7 and 27, the Duxford Big Wing claimed 135 German planes destroyed, apart from “prob­a­bles” and others severe­ly dam­aged, with the loss of seven RAF pilots. When the Luftwaffe encoun­tered the Big Wing, said famed strate­gist Basil H. Liddell Hart, it received “a very unpleas­ant shock.”

Douglas Bader’s Upbringing

Group Captain Bader, a vet­er­an of the air bat­tles over Dunkirk before becom­ing an ace and inspi­ra­tional fight­er tac­ti­cian, was a fear­less mav­er­ick. He refused to let a severe dis­abil­i­ty keep him on the ground and out of uni­form and emerged as the most famous RAF pilot of World War II.

Douglas Robert Steuart Bader was born on Monday, February 21, 1910, in the fash­ion­able St. John’s Wood dis­trict of London. He was the second son of Frederick R. Bader, a heavy-set civil engi­neer on fur­lough from India, and his tall, black-haired wife, Jessie. After their father was com­mis­sioned in the Royal Engineers and sent to France at the out­break of World War I, Douglas fol­lowed his older broth­er, Derick, to the Colet Court (London) and Temple Grove (Eastbourne) prepara­to­ry schools.

Impulsive and lively, Douglas held his own in fist­fights with bigger boys and excelled in rugby, gym­nas­tics, crick­et, run­ning, soccer, and hockey. He and his broth­er learned archery, and a retired chief petty offi­cer taught the younger boy to shoot. Douglas tried his utmost on the sports field, but, obsti­nate like his strong-willed mother, he was lazy in the class­room. He picked up Latin and Greek with ease but detest­ed math­e­mat­ics and other sub­jects.

A Cadet in the RAF

In 1922, a War Office telegram informed the family that Major Bader had died of head wounds in St.-Omer, France. Though not slack­en­ing his sports activ­i­ties, Douglas then buck­led down to seri­ous stud­ies and won a schol­ar­ship to St. Edward’s School at Oxford University. While there, the young man spoke with a vis­it­ing grad­u­ate who was now attend­ing the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire and decid­ed that flying might be fun. Douglas wrote to his uncle, Cyril Burge, who was per­son­al assis­tant to Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, vision­ary father of the RAF, and asked what his chances were of becom­ing an air cadet.

After an RAF exam­i­na­tion in London in the spring of 1928, Douglas was informed that he had fin­ished fifth and won a cadet­ship to Cranwell. He was in high spir­its and acquired a second-hand Douglas flat-twin motor­cy­cle. In the second week of September 1928, he strapped two small suit­cas­es to the pil­lion, kissed his doting mother good­bye, and roared off for Cranwell.

Four miles from the col­lege, a stray cow wan­dered across the road. Douglas swerved, and he and his machine som­er­sault­ed over the verge and a steep bank. Bruised and shaken, he start­ed off again. Eight min­utes later, he rode through the gates of Cranwell and into the Royal Air Force.

At Cranwell, then just a col­lec­tion of cav­ernous hangars, wooden huts, and two run­ways, Bader and the other cadets drilled in bowler hats before being issued uni­forms and learned mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline from caus­tic war­rant offi­cers. A few days later, on a sunny autumn after­noon, Bader was taken up by a flying offi­cer for his first flight — in a flimsy Avro 504 biplane. The cadet was exhil­a­rat­ed.

On the fol­low­ing day, Bader’s instruc­tor let him take the con­trol column, and in October, after 61/2 hours of dual instruc­tion, he soloed. He flew and landed smooth­ly and proved to be a nat­ur­al flier. Inspired after read­ing about Royal Flying Corps aces in World War I, Bader decid­ed that he wanted to be a fight­er pilot.

Source: National Interest

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