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


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


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

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