Top fighter pilot reflects on ‘Big Wing’ tactic

Journalists from Dominions newspapers watch a flight of Hawker Hurricane Mark Is of No. 56 Squadron RAF taking off for a sortie over France from North Weald, Essex. In the foreground another Hurricane Mark I of the Squadron, P2764 'US-P', stands at its dispersal point near the perimeter track on the south-western edge of the airfield.

Journalists from Dominions newspapers watch a flight of Hawker Hurricane Mark Is of No. 56 Squadron RAF taking off for a sortie over France from North Weald, Essex. In the foreground another Hurricane Mark I of the Squadron, P2764 ‘US-P’, stands at its dispersal point near the perimeter track on the south-western edge of the airfield.

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.

Two fighter pilots of No. 249 Squadron RAF at North Weald, Essex. Flight Lieutenant T F Neil (left) saw action in the Battle of Britain and, by November 1940, had shot down 11 enemy aircraft and shared 2. At the time of this photograph he was a flight commander on the Squadron, soon to proceed to Malta where he increased his score to 17 by December 1941. Flying Officer R G A Barclay (right), had returned to operations with 249 Squadron after being shot down in November 1940 with 5 enemy aircraft credited to him. He commanded No. 601 Squadron RAF in April 1942, and from July, No. 238 Squadron RAF in North Africa. He added a further 2 to his score before being shot down and killed on 17 July 1942.

Two fighter pilots of No. 249 Squadron RAF at North Weald, Essex. Flight Lieutenant T F Neil (left) saw action in the Battle of Britain and, by November 1940, had shot down 11 enemy aircraft and shared 2. At the time of this photograph he was a flight commander on the Squadron, soon to proceed to Malta where he increased his score to 17 by December 1941. Flying Officer R G A Barclay (right), had returned to operations with 249 Squadron after being shot down in November 1940 with 5 enemy aircraft credited to him. He commanded No. 601 Squadron RAF in April 1942, and from July, No. 238 Squadron RAF in North Africa. He added a further 2 to his score before being shot down and killed on 17 July 1942.

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.

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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.

Groundcrew refuelling a Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 32 Squadron from a refuelling truck whilst the pilot waits in the cockpit, Biggin Hill, August 1940.

Groundcrew refuelling a Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 32 Squadron from a refuelling truck whilst the pilot waits in the cockpit, Biggin Hill, August 1940.

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Vic June 27, 2016 at 4:34 pm

“Defeat just simply didn’t occur to us” attrib. to Tom Neal. The Luftwaffe also considered themselves ‘Invincible’, especially after the Fall of France. Nevertheless, they failed in Hitler’s objective. So many factors contiributed to the failure of Fall SeeLowe; On the negative side were the poor intelligence on the part of Johannes Martini and the Luftwaffe intelligence service. Goering’s failure to understand the nature of the Chain Home radar system and the associated, highly sophisticated for its time, network that Dowding had doggedly set up, despite Air Ministry reluctance or downright opposition. The German Kriegsmarine had a radar controlled anti-aircraft gunnery control system which used far more advanced technology than the British equipment of the time. They dismissed the effectiveness the enemy’s radar, without appreciating that the organisation behind it was the real key to Britain’s success later in the Battle. As well as Beaverbrook’s great improvements in the supply of fighter planes that contributed greatly to the RAF’s success, was the simple fact that probably both sides were unaware of the discrepancy between the size of basic fighter units. This would lead to errors in estimating the enemy’s relative losses and so affect the combatant’s understanding of how the battle was going. If the Luftwaffe fighter units operated with between 9 and 12 aircraft in a Staffel, their basic adminstrative unit and they assumed that the RAF’s basic unit was the same size, then by tallying the losses claimed by their aircrew, they would come to a conclusion as to the size of the RAF’s remaining fighters. But since the size of an RAF fighter squadron was considerably larger (in the region of about 18) than its Luftwaffe equivalent, the German’s estimate of enemy losses would always be an underestimate.

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