Big Wing

Big Wing

The Big Wing, also known as a Balbo, was an air fighting tactic proposed during the Battle of Britain by 12 Group commander Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Acting Squadron Leader Douglas Bader. In essence, the tactic involved meeting incoming Luftwaffe bombing raids in strength with a wing-sized formation of three to five squadrons. In the Battle, this tactic was employed by the Duxford Wing, under Bader's command.

The name "Balbo" refers to Italo Balbo, an Italian air force officer famous for leading large formations of aircraft on long distance flights before the war. He is almost forgotten today.

Big Wing vs Park's approach

The Big Wing contrasted with the tactics used by Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the commanding officer of Fighter Command's 11 Group, which was taking the brunt of the Luftwaffe attacks.

Park met the raids with individual squadrons, which he considered to be the most flexible and effective use of his aircraft, particularly in light of the shallow depth of penetration of Britain's airspace by the Germans. He used "hit and run" tactics with an enemy raid potentially being engaged by several squadrons in turn. The tactic had been questioned by many of Park's subordinates, who were appalled by the high loss rates amongst the squadrons of 11 Group. In this battle of attrition they wanted to employ larger formations to provide mutual protection and reduce casualties.

By contrast, Leigh-Mallory, the commander of the neighbouring 12 Group to the north, was a powerful advocate of the Big Wing policy, causing enormous friction in his working relationship with Park. One of Leigh-Mallory's subordinates was the acting leader of 242 (Canadian) Squadron, Douglas Bader, who had flown as part of Keith Park's own Big Wings over Dunkirk just a few weeks earlier. Experience covering the French beaches against air attack had convinced Bader that large formations were essential and with Leigh-Mallory's blessing a special wing was formed at Duxford Aerodrome to try and prove the Big Wing theory. Over a number of days in September 1940, the wing was sent up to try and disrupt the Luftwaffe raiders.

Park himself had experimented with large wings (covering the earlier Dunkirk evacuation) and insisted that they were unwieldy, difficult to manoeuvre into position, and rarely in the right place when needed. 11 Group was closer to the enemy than 12 Group, and Park pointed out that there was insufficient time available over Kent and Sussex to ready a large formation against the incoming raids. Bader countered by pointing out that his wing could be used as a reserve for 11 Group. Positioned well away from the Luftwaffe bases in France he could be in place at altitude when the wing was needed, if adequate early warning was given.

This clash of opinions between the 11 and 12 Group commanders was left unresolved by Leigh-Mallory and Park's commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, commanding officer RAF Fighter Command. Subsequent events, in which Dowding retired from his post at Fighter Command and Leigh-Mallory was promoted to command Keith Park's group, show that Leigh-Mallory's arguments had the sympathies of the senior echelons of the RAF.

Perhaps the most even-handed assessment of the affair was published in the Air Ministry's Air Historical Branch history, written shortly after the battle: " [T] he pity is that a controversy was ever allowed to develop; for far from the two Group commanders representing two contrasting methods of solving one and the same tactical problem they really represented tactics complementary to each other, each of which had a valuable part to play in the common struggle, the more so as together the most economical use of the dangerously limited forces available would have been assured."Fact|date=April 2008

Did the Big Wing work?

In practice, Leigh-Mallory never really had a chance to use the Big Wing defensively. After the Battle of Britain, it quickly mutated from a defensive to an offensive formation, and Douglas Bader would eventually lead one of these new wings on massive fighter sweeps over France. To this day there is debate over the effectiveness of the 'Big Wing' as it was used during the Battle.

On the one hand, although Leigh-Mallory and Bader claimed it was a great success, post-war analysis suggests the actual number of German aircraft shot down by the wing was probably a fraction of those claimed. This would seem to support the idea that, for a 'Big Wing', there were "not enough enemy to go around". In other words, the Wing had too high a concentration of aircraft in the same air space looking for targets.

On the other hand, casualties for the 'Big Wing' were significantly lower than in the smaller formations - suggesting that they did indeed benefit from protection in numbers. It could also be argued that the 'Big Wing' invariably joined combat with the enemy over Northern London, where German fighter escort was at its very limit of range and therefore effectiveness.

Certainly Park's tactics (which had included the occasional use of two- and three-squadron wings) were correct for the conditions he had to fight under. The most powerful argument against Big Wing's use in the Battle of Britain is that without a clear idea of a raid's target as it formed over France, it was impossible for the Big Wing to get airborne and achieve formation in time to meet a raid.

A 'Big Wing' exercise

It is interesting to note that the use of a 'Big Wing' within 11 Group was explored by Fighter Command in paper exercises run by Leigh-Mallory in January 1941. The intention was to prove the superiority of large formations using the circumstances of an actual attack on Kenley, Biggin Hill and Hornchurch sectors on 6 September, 1940. In the event Leigh-Mallory completely mismanaged the operation, permitting the raid to progress unhindered and resulting in Kenley and Biggin Hill airbases being 'bombed' while their aircraft were still on the ground. One of Park's former controllers explained Leigh-Mallory's mistakes to him. He replied that he would do better next time and that if a large-scale raid approached he would permit it to bomb its target and intercept it in force on its return to France. The enemy, he believed, would be so badly mauled that there would be no more raids.

ee also

*British military history of World War II

Further reading

* "", Len Deighton (UK: Vintage, 2008, USA: Pimlico, 2008). ISBN 1845951069.
* "Honour Restored: The Battle of Britain, Dowding and the Fight for Freedom", Squadron Leader Peter Brown AFC (Spellmount, 2005).
* "Bader's Duxford Fighters: The Big Wing Controversy", Dilip Sarkar (Victory Books International, 2006).
* "The Bader Wing", John Frayn Turner (Pen and Sword Books, 2007).
* "The Battle of Britain: Dowding and the First Victory, 1940" (aka "The Battle of Britain: New Perspectives"), John Ray (Cassell, 2000).
* "The Battle of Britain. Royal Air Force Official Histories, Air Defence of Great Britain, vol2", T.C.G. James (Frank Cass, 2000)
* "Spitfire Ace: Flying the Battle of Britain", Martin Davison & James Taylor (Pan Books, 2004).
* "Reach for the Sky: The Story of Douglas Bader", Paul Brickhill (UK: Cassell, 2000, USA: Naval Institute Press, 2001).
* "The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain", Steven Bungay (Aurum Press, 2001).

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