- RAF Fighter Command
Infobox Military Unit
unit_name= Fighter Command
caption= RAF Fighter Command Crest
start_date= 1 May 1936
Royal Air Force
motto= "Offence Defence"
march= Fighter Command March
World War II
Sir Sholto Douglas
Hawker Hurricane Supermarine Spitfire
Fighter Command was one of three functional commands that dominated the public perception of the
Royal Air Forcefor much of the mid-20th century. It was formed in 1936 to reflect the fact that as the RAF expanded prior to World War II, more specialised control of each type of aircraft: fighter, bomberand maritime patrolwas needed.
On 20 May 1926, Fighter Command's precursor organization was established as a group within Inland Area. On 1 June 1926, Fighting Area (as it was then called) was transferred to the
Air Defence of Great Britain. Fighting Area was raised to Command status in 1932 and renamed Fighter Command on 1 May 1936.
Battle of Britain
Over the next few years, the Command expanded greatly and replaced its obsolescent
biplanesquadrons with two of the most famous aircraft ever to fly with the RAF, the Hawker Hurricaneand the Supermarine Spitfire. The supreme test of Fighter Command came during the summer of 1940 when the German Luftwaffelaunched an offensive aimed at attaining air superiority over the Channel and the UK as a prerequisite to the launch of a sea-borne invasion force (codenamed Operation Sealion). Fighter Command was divided into a number of Groups, each controlling a different part of the UK. 11 Group took the brunt of the German attack, as it controlled southeast England and London. It was reinforced by 10 Group, which covered southwest England, 12 Group, which covered the Midlands and East Angliaand 13 Group which covered the North of England and Scotland. In the end, the Germans failed to attain air superiority, although the RAF had been eating into its reserves during the middle of the battle. A shortage of aircraft was never a problem. The problem was a shortage of pilots. Pilots were getting shot down and killed faster than they could be trained. It took Fighter Command some months to recover from those losses and to go on the offensive.
Winning air superiority over the Luftwaffe
As 1941 began, Fighter Command began the onerous task of winning air superiority over North Western
Francefrom the Germans. By May 1941, the Squadrons based at all the main fighter airfields were now to operate together as integral Fighter Wings, under the tactical control of the newly created post of 'Wing Leader', invariably an experienced 1940 veteran of Wing Commander rank. Various types of short-penetration fighter operations were tried out in a bid to draw the Luftwaffe into a war of attrition, and keep inordinate numbers of fighters tied down in France, particularly after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. Large numbers of Spitfires were sent out with small groups of medium bombers in often vain attempts to lure the German fighters into combat. Results of these operations through 1941 were decidedly mixed, as the short range of the Spitfire precluded an overly aggressive stance, and with just two experienced "Jagdgeschwader" units left in Western Europe (JG 2 & JG 26; comprising 180 fighters at most) targets were often few but dangerous. Most of the factors that had allowed Fighter Command to win the Battle of Britainwere now reversed. For example, British pilots who were shot down in 1940 and survived would be patched up and sent back to their units as quickly as possible. In 1941, over France, a shot down pilot would, as likely as not, end up a prisoner of war. The year saw RAF Fighter Command claim some 711 Luftwaffe fighters shot down (although only 236 were lost from all causes, 103 in combat) for losses of approximately 400 RAF fighters lost. [ 'The JG 26 War Diary' (Volume 1), Caldwell (1996) page 199.] As 1941 ended, the appearance of the new Focke Wulf FW-190, with its obvious technical superiority over the current Spitfire Mark V, would make Fighter Command's job that much harder in 1942.
By August 1941, AOC
Air Vice MarshalSholto Douglas himself expressed doubts over the wisdom of continuing such European fighter operations. However, the Western Allies needed to emphasise their continuing support for the Soviet war effort by pressing on with high profile offensive operations such as the fighter sweeps, irrespective of their material effect on the minimal Luftwaffe presence in North Western Europe.
Parallel to the day offensive in 1941 was the ongoing night bomber attacks against the UK. By this time, until May 1941, the Luftwaffe effort was aimed against both civilian and industrial targets. Fighter Command's defences, however improved almost daily during the first six months of 1941. The
Bristol Beaufighterbecame the prime nightfighter, equipped with airborne radar, it proved ever more effective against the bombers, with the ground-based organisation that proved so efficient in 1940 now guiding the night fighters to their targets. An increasing number of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights were also radar-controlled, improving accuracy. From the start of 1941, the Luftwaffe's losses mounted (from 28 in January to 124 in May). With the impending invasion of Russia requiring the movement of air power to the East, the Blitzended in May 1941 with Fighter Command in complete control of the night sky over the UK. This was to remain so until the end of the war. The difficult task of slowly grinding down the Germans continued into 1942 and 1943. The widening nature of the war now drew many of the most experienced pilots and Squadrons into service overseas, leaving those units remaining in No. 11 Group struggling on against the tough and well-equipped Luftwaffe fighter groups. Squadrons also found themselves on tiring defensive patrols as small formations of FW-190s started to fly 'hit and run' nuisance raids all along the South Coast, though Fighter Command's new Hawker Typhoonunits proved capable of catching these fighter-bomber interdictions. The most notable offensive battle took place over Dieppe, Francewhen an ill-fated commando-style raid was mounted there in August 1942 ( Dieppe Raid). The Luftwaffe and RAF clashed in the skies over the French city. Although the RAF succeeded in preventing the Luftwaffe from interfering with the shipping, which was its primary aim, its perceived success was misleading. Despite claims at the time that more German aircraft than British had been shot down (106 kills were claimed by the RAF) postwar analysis showed 88 Spitfires were lost for just 23 Luftwaffe fighters and 24 bombers shot down. [ "The Greatest Air Battle', Norman Franks, (Kimber 1979),page 190 ] 1942 statistics yielded 560 claims (272 German fighters were lost from all causes) for 574 RAF day fighters destroyed. [ 'The JG 26 War Diary' (Volume 1), Caldwell (1996)]
By the autumn of 1942, the arrival of the USAAF 8th Air Force and its daylight bombers would add bomber escort to Fighter Command's tasks. Until American
P-47 Thunderboltfighter groups were operational in May 1943, the Command's Spitfires performed a vital role in protecting the increasing numbers of B-17's and B-24 Liberator's operating over Occupied Europe. The Spitfire's chronic lack of operational range however meant such protection was limited to the Channel and the European coast. In 1943, the most notable event was a very important administrative one. Fighter Command was split up into the Air Defence of Great Britainand the Second Tactical Air Force. As the name of the former suggests, its primary aim was defence of the UK from attack, with the latter concentrating on supporting ground forces after the eventual invasion of Europe.
Invasion of Europe
1944 saw the greatest effort by the Air Defence of Great Britain in its history.
Operation Overlord, the invasion of France was launched on 6 June 1944. RAF fighters swarmed over the battle area and, along with their American counterparts, suppressed the meagre German opposition. They also directly supported ground forces by strafing enemy positions and transport. Later in the year, the final major test of Fighter Command (renamed back in October 1944) in the war occurred against the V-1 flying bomb during Operation Crossbow. RAF fighters also supported the Strategic Bombing of Operation Crossbow, such as with Long Range Intruder Operations that attacked German airfields and aircraft (e.g., at take-off/landing) at the time the Luftwaffe fighters would be scrambled against RAF Bomber Command(see Operation Hydra).cite book |last=Irving|first=David|authorlink=David Irving|title=The Mare's Nest|year=1964|publisher=William Kimber and Co|location=London|pages=p214,249]
During 1939-45, RAF Fighter Command lost 3,690 killed, 1,215 wounded and 601 POW. 4,790 aircraft were lost. [ 'Fighter Command' Chaz Bowyer, 1980]
Royal Observer Corps
As a direct result of their efforts during the Battle of Britain the Observer Corps was granted the title Royal by
King George VIand became a uniformed volunteer branch of the RAF from April 1941 for the remainder of its existence, retitled the Royal Observer Corps(the ROC). The corps would continue as a civilian organisation but wearing a Royal Air Force uniformand administered by Fighter Command.
With their Headquarters at
RAF Bentley Priorythe ROC remained administered by Fighter Command until 31 March 1968 when responsibility was handed over to the newly formed Strike Command.
The ROC was a defence warning organisation operating in the
United Kingdombetween 1925 and 31 December 1995 when it was stood down. Initially established for an aircraft recognition and reporting role that lasted through both world wars, the organisation switched to a Cold Warnuclear reporting roll during the 1950s. The 10,500 ROC volunteers were trained and administered by a small cadre of sixty nine uniformed full time professional officers under the command of a serving RAF Air Commodore.
Cold War years
In the aftermath of World War II, the role of Fighter Command was still to protect the UK from air attack. However, its target changed from Germany to the
Soviet Union. The Cold Warsaw the threat of Soviet bombers attacking the United Kingdom loom large. A Canadian fighter wing, No. 1 Wing, arrived at North Luffenhamin late 1951 to bolster NATO's strength, and was in a position to assist Fighter Command until it relocated to bases in France and Germany in 1954-55. [John D.R. Rawlings, 'The History of the Royal Air Force,' Temple Press Aerospace, 1984, p.204] After 1949, those Soviet bombers could be carrying nuclear weapons, and so intercepting them was crucial if the United Kingdom was to be saved during a war. A long succession of fighter aircraft saw service with Fighter Command during the 1950s and 1960s. Particularly notable were the Hawker Hunterand the English Electric Lightning.
The Lightning was the only purely British supersonic aircraft to enter service. That was due to a disastrous defence review in 1957. During the mid-1950s, the performance of the new surface to air missiles was improving at an enormous rate.
Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Defence at the time needed to find cuts in the British defence budget, since the UK was in serious danger of being bankrupted by its defence spending. The rate of improvement of surface to air missiles seemed to indicate that they would soon be able to shoot any manned aircraft out of the sky. Consequently, in an infamous statement in the 1957 Defence White Paperthe Sandys' review declared that manned aircraft were obsolescent and would soon become obsolete. All programmes for manned aircraft that were not too far along were cancelled. The Lightning was the only one of a number of new supersonic aircraft that was too far along to cancel. That decision, combined with the increasing costs of developing aircraft crippled the British aircraft industry and made Fighter Command and the RAF reliant on foreign or jointly developed aircraft.
As the 1960s dawned, the RAF continued to shrink. The three functional commands, Fighter Command, Bomber Command, and
Coastal Commandhad all been formed in 1936 to help command an expanding RAF. It was now becoming clear that the RAF was simply becoming too small to justify their continued existence as separate entities. Consequently, in 1968, Fighter Command and Bomber Command were joined together to form Strike Command, each becoming groups within the new command.
Fighter Command had only existed for 32 years, but in that time it had fought in the largest war in history and had progressed from biplanes to supersonic jets. Its record was glorious, and many mourned its passing.
Air Officers Commanding-in-Chief
*14 July 1936 -
Air Chief Marshal SirHugh Dowding
*25 November 1940 -
Air MarshalSir Sholto Douglas
*28 November 1942 - Air Marshal Sir
*15 November 1943 - Air Marshal Sir
*14 May 1945 - Air Marshal Sir James Robb
*17 November 1947 - Air Marshal Sir William Elliott
*19 April 1949 - Air Marshal Sir
*7 April 1953 - Air Marshal Sir
*1 January 1956 - Air Marshal Sir
*8 August 1956 - Air Marshal Sir
*30 July 1959 - Air Marshal Sir
*18 May 1962 - Air Marshal Sir
*3 March 1966 - Air Marshal Sir
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