Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Great Britain, Air Force

The future of the Royal Air Force (RAF) appeared bleak at the end of World War I. With extensive personnel and aircraft drawdowns, the RAF’s existence as an independent service remained in doubt until the appointment of General Sir Hugh Trenchard as chief of the Air Staff in January 1919. As dogged as he was visionary, Trenchard proved the viability of the third service, and by the mid-1920s he secured the RAF’s future. In search of a mission, the RAF turned to imperial policing, especially in Somaliland, Aden, Palestine, India, and Iraq, where it proved highly successful.

Still, growth in force size was slow due to economic difficulties and an ever-shrinking defense budget. Of the 52 squadrons approved in 1923, only 42 had been established by 1934. In 1935, the transition to monoplane designs began, a process resulting in the most successful British fighter aircraft of the early war years—the Hawker Hurricane designed by Sydney Camm, which entered service in 1937; and the Supermarine Spitfire, designed by R. J. Mitchell, which appeared in 1938. In 1936, future manpower needs were addressed with the establishment of an RAF Volunteer Reserve. By January 1939, the total RAF establishment consisted of 135 squadrons.

Despite advancements in fighter types as defense against strategic bombers, the prevailing attitude throughout European air services reflected the airpower theories of such visionaries as Brigadier General Billy Mitchell in the United States and Guilio Douhet in Italy, both of whom argued the primacy of the bomber. To overcome the loss of strategic mobility, a difficulty that was suffered by the armies of the Western Front in World War I, Britain embraced the concept of strategic bombing. This concept was based on the theory that long-range bombing would inevitably undercut an opponent’s will and civilian morale, as well as cripple his economic ability to wage war.

The beginning of World War II in September 1939 found the RAF considerably better prepared than it had been only four years earlier. The Bomber Command order of battle included 54 squadrons equipped with Bristol Blenheims, Vickers Wellingtons, Armstrong Whitleys, and Handley Page Hampdens. The critical weakness lay in the match between air strategy and the instruments of war available in 1939. The RAF had no heavy bomber capable of delivering the crippling physical and economic blows necessary for strategic bombing success. Not until the Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber entered service in late 1940 did Bomber Command possess a heavy bomber that could carry the air war deep into enemy territory.

Fighter Command entered the war considerably better prepared in terms of equipment capability. The 35 home-based fighter squadrons with first-line Hurricanes and Spitfires were enhanced by a series of coastal radar stations known as Chain Home. Though relatively primitive, the radar network soon proved robust and difficult for the German Luftwaffe to destroy. Thus with a total of 1,466 aircraft, of which roughly 1,000 were first-line, the RAF faced Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe.

The first months of the war can best be characterized as a sparring match characterized by mainly frustrated attempts by the RAF to attack German navy warships. In France, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, commander in chief of Fighter Command, insisted on sending only squadrons for the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) that were equipped with older, less robust aircraft such as the Gloster Gladiator. He feared losing first-rate aircraft and stripping home defense of fighting capability. Despite Dowding’s conservatism, the RAF lost nearly 1,000 aircraft in the Battle of France, half of them fighters.

The Luftwaffe had high hopes of quickly dispatching the undermanned and outgunned RAF when as a precursor to invasion it launched Operation SEA LION, Germany’s main air offensive against Britain, on 8 August 1940. However, Dowding’s prewar innovations soon showed their worth. Fighter Command employed the group/area command-and-control system, in which each group was subdivided into sectors encompassing forward and primary airfields. Initially, groups 11 and 12 covered the country; they were later further divided into four groups. Within each sector and group, an operations room controlled activities; the whole enterprise was coordinated at Fighter Command Headquarters. Connected by telephone to the Chain Home system and the Observer Corps, the command-and-control system allowed for a reaction to a raid in a matter of minutes with an appropriate number of aircraft being vectored to target. The system allowed Fighter Command to husband resources, identify incoming raids, scramble appropriate units, vector aircraft to target, and essentially ambush incoming German raids. This combination of the Chain Home system, coordinated sector control, and superior air frames—all due in large measure to the prewar efforts of Dowding—proved to be the decisive factors that led the United Kingdom to win the Battle of Britain.

In the first phase of the Battle of Britain, the Germans sought to draw the RAF into the air and destroy its fighting strength by attrition. By late August, that strategy had failed, and the Germans turned to destroying British airfields south of the Thames. This far more dangerous threat to RAF viability took a great toll of RAF men and machines by early September. Dowding estimated that three more weeks of such assaults would destroy Fighter Command’s ability to mount any viable defense. Then, on the night of 24 August, German bombers were dispatched to strike an oil storage depot near London. Their navigation was faulty, and they dropped their bombs on London. Churchill immediately ordered the bombing of Berlin on the night of 25 August. One hundred and three British aircraft took off that night for Germany, 89 of them for Berlin. Only 29 bombers actually reached Berlin because of clouds and poor navigation equipment. The raid was certainly not a success, but it led Adolf Hitler to order a concentration on London. The Luftwaffe’s primary target became the destruction of London rather than the vastly more important RAF airfields and production facilities. The shift to bombing London on 7 September allowed Fighter Command to repair airfields and facilities. For the next several months, British cities suffered through an almost nightly bombing campaign dubbed the Blitz, a failed strategy to attack civilian morale. Although the Chain Home radar network did not operate especially well at night, improved radar and night fighters, including the Beaufighter, proved capable of challenging German night bombing, and German losses mounted. In early autumn 1940, Hitler canceled SEA LION, and by May 1941 the air assault abated. Of the more than 3,000 pilots who flew in the RAF in the Battle of Britain as Winston Churchill’s “few,” some 500 died in combat.

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