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Douglas Bader leads the ‘Big Wing’ into attack

The RAF met successive waves of German aircraft on the 15th September and came off best, although not as decisively as the contemporary propaganda suggested.

The RAF Fighter Command Squadrons often faced very much larger numbers of German aircraft, both bombers and fighters, as Geoffrey Wellum describes so vividly. It really was the case of ‘the Few’ against overwhelming odds on many occasions. So one response was to try to change the odds through organisation and discipline:

The Squadron, with S/Ldr. D.R.S, Bader, D.S.O., leading Group Wing which also had 302, 310, 19 and 611 Squadrons, assembled over DUXFORD before noon, and proceeded south, the three Hurricane Squadrons at 25,000 feet and the two Spitfire Sqdns. at 27,000 feet.

They were directed to enemy aircraft by A.A. fire and made a perfect approach with the Spitfires between the Hurricanes and the sun and the E/A below and down sun. The Hurricanes had to wait until Spitfires and Hurricanes already engaging the enemy broke away. The Spitfire Squadrons above held the enemy fighters off and 242 Squadron went in with the other Hurricane Squadrons to destroy the bombers.

1 Do.17 destroyed – S/Ldr. D.R.S.Bader, D.S.O.

Pilot, with the leading Section of the formation, attacked the last Section of 3 Do.17’s, of which he attacked the middle one. He opened fire at 100 yards in a steep dive and saw large flash behind the starboard motor of the Do.17 as its wing caught fire and thinks he must have hit the petrol pipe or tank. He attacked other E/A but it was difficult to get them in his sights an the sky seemed to be full of spitfires and hurricanes queuing up to attack E/A.

As all the bombers were destroyed, S/Ldr.Bader’s final comments are worthy of repetition:

“It was the finest shambles I have been in since for once we had position height and numbers. E/A were a dirty looking collection.”

242 Squadron claimed five Dornier 17 bombers and one Me 109 destroyed plus one Dornier damaged in this attack. The original combat report can be read in full at the RAF Museum site.

The ‘Big Wing’ strategy attracted controversy within the RAF at the time and continues to do so. This meant forming up large groups of aircraft composed of several different Squadrons, as described here, to meet the Luftwaffe in strength. It was only ever practiced by the RAF’s 12 Group, commanded by Leigh-Mallory. They were responsible for the area north of the Thames so potentially had the advance warning and the time to form up in this manner. Whereas 11 Group, based south of the Thames and meeting the German aircraft as they came over the Channel, operated a much more flexible approach of scrambling individual Squadrons to meet the various threats as they were plotted.

Although this particular post combat report purports to show that the Big Wing was a resounding success, it was written under the aegis of Douglas Bader who was one of the chief proponents of the practice. Critics of the theory said that it took too long for the Big Wing to form up and that it was often in the wrong place when it did form up, unable to respond to the rapidly changing scale and direction of the raids coming in. The number of kills claimed, which were far more than were subsequently established, made it difficult to evaluate at the time.

‘Over-claiming’ was not confined to the Big Wing Squadrons, it was a feature of all units operating in the Battle of Britain, on both sides. It was one of the reasons why Goring claimed that ‘Britain only has 50 Spitfires left’ : the 15th September was to prove him to be dramatically wrong. Although the contemporary claims of 185 German aircraft shot down were also very exaggerated – the real figure is now put at 56 – the Luftwaffe still suffered disproportionately on the 15th and it could subsequently be seen as a turning point in the battle.

Still from camera gun footage taken by Pilot Officer Keith ‘Skeets’ Ogilvie of No. 609 Squadron showing a Dornier Do 17Z (F1+FH) of 1./KG 76 piloted by Oberleutnant Robert Zehbe under attack, 15 September 1940. The aircraft was later abandoned and flew on until being rammed over central London by Sergeant Ray Holmes of No. 504 Squadron. It crashed on Victoria station with two of the crew baling out. Zehbe was attacked by civilians and died of his injuries the following day.

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