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The whole defence system of Fighter Command in 1940 was based on radar. The experiments had been successful. The new device worked. There were some 32 Chain Home radar stations, each involving 350 foot steel lattice masts, side by side, with 250 foot wooden masts. These were complemented by the Chain Home Low stations which had been developed by army scientists to detect aircraft flying at low altitude. On the steel masts were the radar devices sending out the pulse signals which got reflected from incoming aircraft. These reflections were picked up on the apparatus on the wooden masts. In their hut below, Airmen and WAAFs, known as Clerks-Special Duties, watched their cathode ray screens for the tell tale blips generated by incoming aircraft. Each such station was connected by landline, laid specially by the GPO to Bentley Priory. There, the signals came into a filter room designed to weed out false messages. Having got through that, the signal went on to the control room where a set of WAAFs, circulated around a very large scale map of Britain. There, they used the signals to place small blocks of wood representing the aircraft, red for the Germans which they called Bandits and black for ours. Above all this was a platform on which Dowding and his staff could watch the proceedings, as the WAAFs pushed the markers around.

Another important ancillary part of the organisation was played by the Observer Corps. With its 30,000 strong membership, spread amongst the one thousand observer posts dotted around the country, they fed their sightings of aircraft, enemy and friendly, through to their headquarters and from that to Bentley Priory. Each Observer Corps post was equipped with tin hats, apparatus for measuring the height of aircraft, telephones which connected them with the system, and, most important of all, tea making apparatus. The Observer Corps role was to keep track of aircraft over land. Radar only observed over the sea, pointing outward from the coast.

All this information which came into Bentley Priory was disseminated onwards to the four Groups. Each Group had a similar setup with WAAFs pushing markers around a map of their area. Executive responsibility for instituting action was held at Group level. The Group Commander decided which squadrons to send up, in what number, and which should be held in reserve. He actually fought the battle. It was on his skill and judgement that the outcome and confrontation with the enemy would depend. Each Group had its sector stations. These had the controllers who were in direct contact with the squadrons. They remained in touch with them after take off, giving them interception courses to fly which were marked on the Sector plotting tables. This is how Fighter Command was to operate throughout the battle. Its operations were invariably in response to what the radar was showing, which was plotted at HQ Control and then at Group Control. The whole thing worked like a coordinated machine. At the time, the system was absolutely unique, there was nothing else like it. It was to play a vital part in the battle.

Over in France, the scene was of methodical but urgent activity. On 14th June, the Germans had marched into Paris. The Luftwaffe was doing the job it did best. As a tactical air force it was settling in to new quarters. The French campaign had been hugely successful but at the same time it had been costly. A large number of aircraft had been lost. Air operations, as part of a successful campaign involving hugely ambitious thrusts on the ground, inevitably meant taking big risks. Most of them came off but even when they didn’t, there was a high cost to pay. Many replacements were needed. At the same time, new headquarters had to be set up. Luftflotte 2, under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, chose Brussels for theirs. It was a city with excellent communications. Down in France, the airfield at Epinoy, halfway between Cambrai and Douai, was extensive but still needed to be put shipshape, German fashion. Communications had to be established with headquarters in Brussels. Spares and ammunition had to brought in, workshops set up, catering staff had to be recruited, food ordered, but in a couple of weeks this was all done. The Luftwaffe was used to it. It was their purpose in life. Now they were at least operating without opposition. For them it was a relatively easy task.

Luftflotte 3, had its headquarters in Paris, with its fighter HQ in Cherbourg. From there, it controlled a number of bases in Brittany and Normandy. They were under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, a very large bear-like man, who was, nonetheless, a very professional man. He liked everything done properly. Under his command it was. Preparations were in hand from Brittany in France right along the coast up to the northern most tip of Norway. It was here that Luftflotte 5 was based, to cover the North Sea, with headquarters at Stavenger and under the command of Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff.

Britain was faced, therefore, with the enemy getting ready across the sea on the western coast of Europe. It was still too early to be clear about what would happen next. But the Luftwaffe was preparing for every eventuality, even an air battle over Britain itself.

After the momentous events of the last few weeks, June was to constitute a relative lull for the British. The political crisis endured by Churchill in the first few weeks of his premiership was now over. He had achieved a remarkably smooth working relationship with Chamberlain, one of the five members of his War Cabinet. Bearing in mind that Chamberlain was Churchill’s former boss and previous antagonist, when it had come to the question of whether talks with Hitler should be entertained, he had made it absolutely clear that in his, Chamberlain’s view, the man could not be trusted, and there was simply no point in thinking of it. Chamberlain carried the day and Halifax was given the job of telling Hitler there was to be no parley. In Parliament, Churchill was establishing his ascendancy. This was, of course, hugely helped by his wonderful oratory. He had started by telling the truth: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’.

This was the month when both the RAF and the Luftwaffe spent valuable weeks getting ready, filling gaps, doing repairs and generally catching up, following the extremely demanding weeks they’d just been through. For Fighter Command, it was a crucially important period to start rebuilding its strength. Following the French campaign, it only had 520 operational fighters. Production of aircraft was a priority. In May, Churchill had appointed Lord Beaverbrook as Minister of Aircraft Production. A combination of Beaverbrook’s bullying, the effects of the ‘shadow factory’ scheme starting to bear fruit, and sheer hard work by factory workers, saw production dramatically increase during June.

For the RAF, a good example of what was involved occurred in 242 Squadron up in Coltishall in 12 Group, above London. The squadron had returned from France in tatters. They’d had an extremely difficult time during the fighting there – flying at all times of the day in combat, for much of the time seeing their comrades shot down, and losing their CO. All the while, they had been scrambling from one inhospitable airfield to another. Finally, they had suddenly to pack up and get out before the Germans arrived. Now back in Britain, they had few possessions, other than their Hurricanes parked outside. They looked a motley bunch down at the dispersals where they lounged about in a disconsolate manner.

But this day their lives were, so to speak, to be switched on again. A strange figure had walked into the dispersal. He lurched a bit when he walked. Not surprising really, he had artificial legs. Quite a feat to walk at all. But more than that, he purported to be a pilot on active service. And to cap it all, he was about to be their CO. One of the Canadians, who was half asleep on a sofa, cocked an eye at the apparition and then shut it again. To send them this figure as their CO was the last straw.

Douglas Bader took in the scene. He obviously had a problem. Talk wouldn’t get him out of the difficulty. These chaps needed more than that, if he was to lift them out of their lethargy and depression. So he walked out of the dispersal, over to his Hurricane. With the ground crew’s assistance he got into the cockpit, strapped himself in and taxied out. He took off and then proceeded to cut the sky into ribbons. He had, at least, to show them he could fly. As he landed and taxied in, the Canadians had got up and were all watching as he returned. Bader strode in. He got chatting to them straight away. He heard their stories. He ticked them off for being scruffy in the Mess. One of them, however, spoke up, ‘We’ve nothing but what we stand up in. We lost all our kit in France’.

‘Ok’ said Bader, ‘there’s an outfitter in town, go down and order yourselves uniforms and put it down to me. Tomorrow we fly at 8’ o clock. See you in the Mess’. He stumped out.

Fighter Command was having to repair the ravages it had suffered in the battle of France and the retreat to the coast, together with providing cover for the evacuation. All had cost it dear. Now it would have to work hard to get itself ready for a new battle – this time, the big one.


June 2010
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