Just a week after the furious aerial engagements of the 15th September the weather changed and the tempo of the battle over south east Britain suddenly subsided. Fog and thick cloud kept many of the Luftwaffe fighters grounded. It was the clearest indication yet that the Germans had failed to overcome RAF Fighter Command and would not have the time to do so before the weather changed for the worse and the seasons turned.
The pause in operations was welcomed by the many of the exhausted pilots, and there was time to take stock. Nineteen year old Pilot Officer Tom Neil was well on the way to establishing himself as one of the top scoring pilots of the battle. At 249 Squadron at North Weald, he was right at the front line of the battle:
For the next several days, the weather was marginal and the Huns soporific – except at night. I flew two or three times, through and between massive cloud banks and towering pyramids of cumulus, but intercepted nothing.
Down at dispersal, where we seemed to spend most of our life, besides eating, sleeping, sitting around and talking, the games of L’Attaque and Totopoly were very popular. As with snooker, Crossey seemed always to beat me at L’Attaque but I did rather better at Totopoly, winning as much as five shillings — almost half-a-day’s pay – on several occasions. There were many raised voices in the course of the games, Butch, in particular, becoming positively animated.
Such periods of comparative inactivity also allowed us to give more attention to the intelligence summaries which appeared at regular intervals.
Those produced by 11 Group, gave details of each squadron’s achievements over the preceding several days and always included a list of the more successful pilots and their tally of Huns. There were also comments, sometimes in the plainest of language, on the situation in general and the manner in which 12 Group had repeatedly failed to provide reinforcements in time.
The 12 Group summaries were largely similar, except that the virtues of the large formation were constantly being extolled and accounts of what had recently occurred given in terms scarcely flattering to II Group.
As the weeks passed, this peevish tiff — because it was nothing more dignified than that — became so childishly acrimonious that even I, who had no interest in the politics of command, began to feel that the group commanders, Air Vice Marshals Park and Leigh-Mallory, were demeaning themselves. Did high-ranking officers really speak to each other in such a way? To us, as might be expected, Park was the hero and Leigh-Mallory the villain, although never once did we even approach the point of being openly critical of either.
Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, of 242 Squadron, the protégé of Leigh-Mallory and a person of considerable influence in 12 Group, was generally regarded as being the main advocate of the Balbo [the Italian originator of the ‘Big Wing’ formation] and usually led the huge formations we encountered from time to time.
Acknowledged everywhere as being a tremendously gutsy character, flying as he did with artificial legs, he also had the less enviable reputation of being somewhat over-devoted to his own interests, a characteristic which did not endear him to everyone, particularly those of us who suffered as the result of his personal enthusiasms.
All too frequently, when returning to North Weald in a semi-exhausted condition, all we saw of 12 Group’s contribution to the engagement, was a vast formation of Hurricanes in neat vics of three, steaming comfortably over our heads in pursuit of an enemy who had long since disappeared in the direction of France. Our reactions on such occasions, though mostly of resigned amusement at first, grew to be more harshly critical later on.
Tom Neil was to live to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the war, flying in a memorial flight on Battle of Britain Day 2015, when Prince Harry gave up his seat in a Spitfire for him. He continued to be very open in his views on aspects of the battle, which he makes clear in his memoir, and in this interview with the Daily Mail:
We had the wrong aircraft. The Hurricane Mark 1 was pretty useless and the Spitfire wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, either.
By the end of the war, they’d produced 24 different Spitfires and some of them were first-rate, but for the first few years we had a lot of problems.
I’m afraid the Messerschmitt 109 was the better plane in many ways.
The Spitfire could fire continuously for just 14.7 seconds on each run and then you were out of ammunition and had to go home. The Me109 could last 55 seconds.
It was smaller, with a bigger engine and had better fuel injection. The Hurricane was slower and had exposed fuel tanks. One hit and they could turn the cockpit into a barbecue in three seconds.
This led to the question why they had won the Battle of Britain?:
Because we never, ever, for one moment had the slightest doubt that we would win. Defeat just simply didn’t occur to us.
And we had this brilliant replacement system. Churchill and Beaverbrook [Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister for Aircraft Production] had got all these factories going.
I remember we lost seven planes in a matter of minutes and the squadron was back to full strength with aircraft the next lunchtime. If we crash-landed, we could repair some of our planes. And if we baled out and survived, we could get back up again the same day.
But if a German crashed or baled out over Britain, that was it. They wouldn’t get another chance. And in the end, they decided that they didn’t like fighting over Britain.