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Big Wing

From Academic Kids

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

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's orders were to meet 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. However, the tactic had been questioned by many of Park's subordinates, who were appalled by the high loss rates amongst the 11 Group squadrons. In this battle of attrition they wanted to employ larger formations to provide mutual protection and reduce casualties.

Leigh-Mallory, the commander of the neighbouring 12 Group, 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 (a double amputee who became one of the most famous and decorated pilots of the war), 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.

To this day there is debate over the effectiveness of the wing. Leigh-Mallory and Bader claimed it was a great success, though post-war analysis suggests the actual number of German aircraft shot down by the wing was a fraction of those claimed. However, casualties for the Balbos were significantly lower than in the smaller formations and benefited from protection in numbers.

Conversely the ratio of fighters deployed for actual enemy aircraft destroyed was lower for the Big Wing compared to Park's "tip and run" continuous disruption of raiders by smaller formations of fighters "staged" along the route of the raid - though they suffered greater casualties by being outnumbered more often. The most often quoted reason for the Big Wing failure being that there were "not enough enemy to go round" as the Wing had too high a concentration of aircraft in the same air space looking for targets. Leigh-Mallory's tactic represents a rare occasion when concentration of force does not produce a knock out blow.

Keith Park had experimented with large wings and insisted they were unwieldy, difficult to maneuver into position, and rarely in the right place when needed. Park pointed out their use was inappropriate in 11 Group which was closer to the enemy than the Midlands-based 12 Group. The wings took a long time to form up and there was insufficient time available over Kent and Sussex to ready large formations to tackle the incoming raids. He preferred smaller, two-squadron wings which were more flexible and had issued orders on 2 September to dispatch these 'little wings' where appropriate. 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, if adequate early warning was given, be in-place at altitude when the wing was needed. However, 11 Group always asked for assistance too late, making it difficult for him to make a timely appearance.

The general view with hindsight is that the Big Wing's reputation was, due to a combination of honest errors and self-promotion, grossly inflated by Leigh-Mallory and Bader. Park's tactics (which included the occasional use of two- and three-squadron wings) were correct for the conditions he had to fight under. However, for a brief nine-day period from 6-15 September 1940, the Germans were operating at their maximum depth of penetration into British airspace, at a range where their fighters were short on endurance. Big Wing tactics in this brief period were practicable, and failings were in part due to lack of coordination with 11 Group and the absence of VHF radios to allow the wing commander to marshal his squadrons. These were both issues that could have been addressed and made to work with more preparation and goodwill between the commanders. There's no doubt that during this phase of the battle the Big Wing had a morale impact on the German aircrews, who were often told by their superiors how the RAF was down to its "last fifty Spitfires". The repeated appearance of the Bader wing soon put paid to that lie.

The clash of opinion 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. This was a crucial failure of leadership at a critical point in the battle. Relations became acrimonious, with Park demanding the Duxford squadrons be used to protect his 11 Group airfields while Leigh-Mallory insisted his Big Wing be unleashed to deliver a knockout blow on the Luftwaffe. Bader's tendency to freelance across southern England with his wing also added to the ill-feeling.

However, Trafford Leigh-Mallory's arguments had the sympathies of the senior echelons of the RAF. Park didn't help himself by exaggerating his own case, for example claiming that a single fighter could break up large enemy formations. Subsequent events, in which Dowding was removed from his post at Fighter Command and Leigh-Mallory promoted to command Keith Park's group have been blamed on the Big Wing controversy. However, in recent years the suggestion has been put forward that Big Wing was just one element in Dowding and Park's removal. Dowding's inability to get to grips with the night bombing threat has been offered as another reason for his dismissal, as has his failure of leadership over Big Wing and his increasing reputation as a 'difficult' man to work with.

Since the war conspiracy theorists such as Dowding biographer Robert Wright, Park biographer Vincent Orange, and popular history writers such as Len Deighton and Stephen Bungay have pressed the issue of Dowding and Park's sacking. Wright and Orange in particular paint Leigh-Mallory as a malicious schemer who arranged for Dowding's dismissal and present the Big Wing argument as a conflict over the wider handling of the battle. But the record does not support this. Leigh-Mallory never survived the war to pass on his memoirs or refute the personal attacks on him by supporters of Dowding and Park. It was left to his colleague Bader to champion the man and point out that the dispute was never about Park's handing of his own forces in 11 Group but about the massed reinforcement of 11 Group from 12 Group. Minutes of crucial meetings on tactics back this view. Rather than a simple tale of heroes and villains, the Big Wing controversy is a tale of office politics writ large, with all the egotism and petty backbiting on all sides that this entails; only in this instance with the security of the country at stake.

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."

Only later would the use of Big Wings within 11 Group be explored by Fighter Command, when they made a last appearance as a defensive formation 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. Leigh-Mallory completely mismanaged the operation, permitting the raid to progress unhindered and resulting in Kenley and Biggin Hill 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.

But Leigh-Mallory never got to use the Big Wing defensively. By this time it was mutating from a defensive into an offensive formation. Douglas Bader would eventually lead these new wings on massive fighter sweeps over France.

See also

Further Reading

  • Bader's Duxford Fighters: the Big Wing Controversy, Dilip Sarkar (Ramrod Publications, 1997)
  • The Bader Wing, John Frayn Turner (Midas Books, 1981)
  • The Battle of Britain: Dowding and the First Victory (aka The Battle of Britain: New Perspectives), John Ray (Arms and Armour, 1994)
  • RAF Official History: The Battle of Britain, T.C.G. James (Frank Cass, 2000)
  • Spitfire Ace - Flying the Battle of Britain, Davison & Taylor (Channel 4, 2003)
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