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.