The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain
A Briefing Note
The Association of RAF Fighter Control Officers
Over the last 75 years, an increasingly popular perception has been that the Battle of Britain was won by the Few, supported by the many. There is an element of truth in this, in that there were many who were indirectly involved in delivering victory but there were two other constituent parts that contributed directly to victory in the battle itself that have not received the prominence they deserve. In this regard, it is important to distinguish between those that provided support either indirectly from the industrial base to those delivering national resilience to air attacks or directly such as the maintenance and support teams within Fighter Command which were vital to sustaining fighting capability from those that were central to fighting the battle itself.
Once the enemy were engaged there were three, wholly interdependent, constituent parts of Fighter Command, that delivered victory in the battle itself and they were: the mastery of the operational commander Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, the skill of the personnel who manned and operated the Dowding system and the Few - the fighter pilots.
Air Chief Marshal Dowding was the supreme commander during the battle and his command was both numerically very large and extended over the whole of the United Kingdom. Dowding was a consummate Commander-in-Chief and he delegated operational and tactical control to his Group Commanders who in turn delegated tactical control to their Sector Commanders. The Group that stood astride the majority of the main enemy advances during the battle was Number 11 Group and it can be justifiably claimed that the battle was won in the 11 Group fighting area. Air Vice Marshal Park was the Air Officer Commanding 11 Group and it was his agile and intelligent ‘generalship’ that positioned the ‘chess pieces’ and the skill of his Sector controllers in directing the fighter forces into the right three dimensional place at the right time that set the stage for Fighter Command to prevail over the enemy.
The Dowding System - The System That Delivered Victory
The ability of the commanders to influence and manage the ebb and flow of battle would not have been possible had it not been for 'a most elaborate instrument of war' as Churchill dubbed the system of command and control that became known as the Dowding System.
Broadly speaking, there were two elements to the Dowding System. The first was concerned with constructing a picture, in as near real time as possible, of the air situation that distinguished between hostile and friendly aircraft. It was this picture that the commanders used to fight the battle. The picture was the 'eyes of the commander' not the 'eyes of the few'.
The other system element was the mechanisms and processes to command, control and manage the weapons, both active and passive, which included seven divisions of Anti Aircraft Artillery and searchlights, barrage balloons and the most challenging of all and the first line of defence - the fighter force.
The fighters were the first and principal means of air defence but controlling them was complex and this fell to the Sector Commander and specifically the Sector Controllers who, using the recognised air picture, directed fighter formations with the aim of positioning them in a tactically advantageous position before the bombers could deliver their attack
The system was complex as well as extensive and it shaped the battle management tactics used by commanders at all levels.
The Recognised Air Picture
At the front line were the radar units looking out over the sea approaches to the UK. They were deployed in two forms the long range high-level surveillance system known as Chain Home and the short range low-level surveillance system known as Chain Home (Low). During the period of the battle the overland tracking was undertaken by visual and sound reports from the Observer Corps. Radar was the technology that underpinned the Dowding System but raw information from the radars was unusable and so the lynchpin of the Dowding System was a process that was known as filtering which took place at the Filter Centre at Fighter Command. It was here that a number of things happened. First, using often numerous radar reports on one aircraft or a formation a three dimensional track of aircraft moving in defended airspace was compiled and uniquely referenced. Secondly, an assessment as to whether it was a hostile or friendly aircraft was made – this was vital to ensure enemy air was engaged as quickly as possible and to prevent fratricide. The picture put together at the Filter Centre was then disseminated to operations rooms at Fighter Command, Groups and Sectors and other operations rooms such as those of the Anti Aircraft Artillery.
Controlling The Battle
The operations rooms were the hubs from which commanders fought their own part in the battle and at the heart of the operations room was the air picture as it pertained to their area of responsibility. It was vital that this picture should be as up-to-date as possible and accurate – there was no room for error. The operations rooms also contained large amounts of other information necessary for a commander to exercise effective control of his assigned forces.
Air Marshal Park would assess an enemy advance and order the most appropriate sectors to meet the attack. The Sector Controllers would launch fighters from their airfields and calculate the best interception position and then using a network of radio transmitters vector the aircraft to a tactically advantageous position. High Frequency radios provided a constantly updated fix of where the fighters were when overland which was the other important ingredient in enabling timely interception. These positions were plotted on the Sector operations room air situation picture.
Park and his Sector controllers were continuously assessing an attack as it developed responding to feints and other manoeuvres the enemy were making. Frequently there would be multiple attacks and Park had to husband resources to cover follow-up attacks but, at the same time, making sure his fighter aircraft were not caught on the ground.
The Forgotten Victors of the Battle of Britain
The men and women who ‘manned’ and operated this complex and extensive system from the front line radar units through the filter centre to the numerous operations rooms, including the sector controllers who directed the minute to minute battle did not face mortal combat with a determined enemy day upon day like the pilots. They were, however, subjected to fierce attack in the forward radar units and in the sector operations centres and they were an integral and indispensible component of Fighter Command’s fighting capability. The Dowding System veterans of the Battle of Britain deserve recognition of their part in delivering victory not ‘as supporting the Few’ but as operators of the most complex command and control system in the world at the time which provided both the canvas and instrument which allowed the commanders to control the ebb and flow of battle and to direct the fighter forces to prevail over the enemy.
Quite simply there were many factors that contributed to success during the Battle of Britain but only three wholly interdependent aspects delivered victory in the battle itself and they were the mastery of the operational commander AVM Keith Park, the skill of the personnel who manned and operated the Dowding system and the Few, the pilots of Fighter Command – had any one of these ‘Components’ failed the battle would have been lost. Redefining the way the battle was fought does not in any way demean the Few – this is quite simply not possible because their achievements, as the ‘point of the spear,’ were nothing short of remarkable - but it does allow the direct and crucial contribution and achievements of the Dowding System personnel to be put into their proper war-fighting context.
Whilst Dowding was the architect of victory with overall command it was Park that delivered victory in battle; he determined when and how the fighters were to respond to attacks and were he alive today he would probably not take too kindly to be consigned as one of ‘the many’ and he would certainly take issue with any implication that his role was to support the Few. Perhaps a more balanced view of the battle would also help to bring the wider perception of both Dowding’s and Park’s achievements onto a par with those of Nelson and Wellington.