THE FORGOTTEN MANY
A huge network of men and women kept the pilots and planes of the RAF in the fight during the Battle of Britain
First, let us get one thing straight: the Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain. It is true that many other organisations played their part, and would have played a larger one should the Germans have ever attempted to invade. But that invasion never came because the principal precondition established by the Germans themselves – air superiority over the English Channel and southern UK – was never met. The RAF, and primarily Fighter Command, made sure of this.
However, while pilot confronted and defeating the enemy in the air, their continuing efforts were only made possible by an extensive and complex ground organisation that had been carefully built up since the very earliest days of the RAF’S existence.
This organisation fed, equipped and cared for the pilots on the ground and directed their efforts in the air, while also keeping their aircraft in flying condition and providing the fuel, ammunition and spare parts they needed to get off the ground.
Flying Officer (later Air Commodore) Al Deere of No. 74 Squadron recalled, “Onthe-spot repairs of damaged aircraft were carried out by our own ground crews, who were magnificent. All night long, lights burned in the shuttered hangars as the fitters, electricians, armourers and riggers worked unceasingly to put the maximum number on the line for the next day’s operations. All day too they worked, not even ceasing when the airfield was threatened with attack. A grand body of men about whom too little has been written but without whose efforts victory would not have been possible.”
Growing from some 230,000 personnel in June 1940 to over 350,000 by the end of the Battle of Britain, these men and women are the ‘Forgotten Many’.
Foundations of an air force
Through the 1920s, the RAF was struggling to survive in an age of stringent financial restrictions. Despite the many calls on the RAF and Air Ministry’s purse, the chief of the Air Staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard, resolutely implemented his plans to invest in the future. He established technical schools and apprentice schemes to ensure the long-term flow of adequate numbers of well-trained and educated young men into his noncommissioned ranks – a novel idea, unheard of in either of the other services. In fact, the apprentice schemes were actually quite revolutionary across the whole of society. Apprentices (or at least their
families) usually had to pay their employers, reimbursing them for taking the time and effort to train their students in the mysteries of their trade. However, the members of the Aircraft Apprentices Scheme at No. 1 School of Technical Training, based at RAF Halton, not only received first-class tutoring in a range of engineering and technical trades, they also received pay. Particularly for working class applicants, this made the apprentice scheme a unique opportunity to secure their future, and competition for the 1,000 or so places each year was intense. It made the scheme expensive, but through it Trenchard was laying solid foundations and ensuring the quality of his rank and file for decades to come.
Apprentices could join between the ages of 15 and 17-and-a-half and trained for three years. In the late 1930s, as the RAF expanded, the apprentice scheme was supplemented by a Boy Entrants scheme, where applicants who did not quite reach apprentice entry-level were entered into a slightly lower-level 12-18 month course.
Anyone over the age of 17-and-a-half could join as a man, attending two months of basic training at the RAF Depot at RAF Uxbridge before going for a range of specialist training. No. 3 School of Technical Training at RAF Manston, for example, could turn a man into a blacksmith in a year, a fabric worker in six months, or either a motor transport driver or an aero-engine fitter in four months. At the Electrical and Wireless School at RAF Cranwell, meanwhile, courses ranged between six months and two years on a variety of specialist subjects.
Whether you were a former apprentice
(known colloquially as ‘Halton Brats’) or joined through another route, graduation from these training courses was just the start. Personnel would have to undertake regular further training courses (some as ‘placements’ with manufacturers), and promotions depended on passing ‘Trade Tests’ to prove competence in your chosen area. Particularly for Brats, by the time they reached the ranks of noncommissioned officers, the technical levels of education achieved were not far short of the equivalent of university courses.
Officers faced a different course. Some specialisms existed – engineering officers, for example, went through extensive technical training at the Home Aircraft Depot at Henlow. But the vast majority of officers joined as ‘general duties’, and in the 1930s this required them to qualify as pilots (although of course not all pilots were officers; about a quarter were
“THIS ATTRACTED ADVENTUROUS YOUNG MEN WHO WERE CAPTIVATED BY THE EXCITEMENT AND ADVENTURE OF FLYING, BUT WHO DID NOT WANT TO COMMIT THEMSELVES TO A FULL CAREER”
sergeants). However, officers were always in short supply, so in the mid-1930s the Short Service Commission system was introduced, where men could join for a four-year term, extended to six years in 1939. This attracted adventurous young men who were captivated by the excitement and adventure of flying, but who did not want to commit themselves to a full career in the RAF. They would spend about a year in flying training, before joining a frontline squadron, where their training would continue.
By 1939, about four per cent of RAF officers were on these short-term enlistments. Due to the nature of their commissions and the career structure of the service, it meant that the vast majority of pilots on flying squadrons were Short Service Commission men. By 1940 the mobilisation of the Auxiliary Air Force and RAF Volunteer Reserve had further diluted the number of career officers in squadrons.
These factors meant that in the average squadron during the Battle of Britain, the ground crews were overwhelmingly career professionals, with longer service and more advanced training than the aircrew they supported.
Fighting the Battle of Britain
On 16 July 1940, Adolf Hitler issued Führer Directive No. 16, calling for the destruction of the RAF in preparation for an invasion of Britain. With little progress having been made over the next two weeks, on 1 August he issued Directive No. 17, calling for the Luftwaffe to overwhelm the RAF in the shortest possible time, with an absolute deadline of 15 September. After further preparation, during which small-scale attacks were made on coastal targets, and following delays due to bad weather, 13 August was announced as Aldertag (‘Eagle Day’) – the first day of Unternehmen Adlerangriff (‘Operation Eagle Attack’), the campaign to destroy the RAF.
This first mass blow of the Luftwaffe against the RAF was a failure. Although heavy raids were launched against airfields and radar sites, poor intelligence meant that large parts of the attack were wasted on Coastal and Bomber Command airfields, rather than concentrating on the vital fighter airfields. It was also a fallacy all along to think that the
RAF could be bombed into submission. Fighter Command’s airfields were almost entirely grass fields, and an extraordinary number of bombs need to be dropped evenly across them to leave no space at all for fighters to land. While airfield buildings could be destroyed, improvisation and an excellent logistics system meant that equipment and material could be quickly replaced, and only once was a Fighter Command station closed for more than a few hours due to enemy action during the battle.
Fighter Command’s command and control system was extensive and dispersed over a wide area. Radar stations were hard to
“IT WAS ALSO A FALLACY ALL ALONG TO THINK THAT THE RAF COULD BE THUS BOMBED INTO SUBMISSION”
RIGHT: Pilots engage Messerschmitt 109s over southern England. They were kept in the fight by a vast support network, which brought them to the right place in the sky, kept the pilots fed and ready, and repaired damaged planes and airfieldsLEFT: An RAF apprentice works on an aircraft’s engine. The highly skilled teams on the ground played a vital role in the Battle of Britain
Ground crew aim for a quick turnaround as they refuel a Hawker Hurricane of No. 32 Squadron at RAF Biggin Hill in August 1940, while the pilot waits in the cockpit
Two members of the ground crew chat with Squadron Leader Peter TownsendDSO DFC on their Hawker Hurricane at RAF Wick
Right: An illustration from a pamphlet produced by the Air Ministry in 1941, showing the air defence network, known as the ‘Dowding system’ – although the significant role of radar was omitted, as it was still considered a secret
RAF trainee technical staff going through a small part of their extensive – and never-ending – training