September 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. In this special feature we provide a snapshot of the part played by the Royal Air Force during that long and bitter conflict.
At the end of the First World War the newly formed Royal Air Force was the largest air force in the world, but a sustained period of disarmament followed and the RAF’s front line strength was cut back considerably during the 1920s.
As the 1930s progressed the political situation in Europe deteriorated rapidly, and another major war with Germany became increasingly likely. Whilst pursuing a policy of appeasement in the hope of avoiding war, the British government was forced to prepare for conflict.
The RAF underwent rapid expansion, the Air Ministry ordering large numbers of new aircraft in a desperate attempt to modernise and close the gap with Hitler’s powerful Luftwaffe. New airfields were constructed and for operational purposes, three separate RAF combat ‘Commands’ were established: Fighter Command, Bomber Command and Coastal Command.
A ‘Balloon Command’ was also set up in due course, to deploy barrage balloons above cities, ports and other key targets.
Some of the new aircraft types procured for the RAF, such as the Bristol Blenheim and Fairey Battle, were already outmoded by the time they entered service in the late 1930s. But fortunately for the RAF, and Britain more generally, two very capable new monoplane fighter aircraft also entered service: the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, both powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin engine.
Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd 1939, after the Germans had invaded Poland and then refused to withdraw. The first few months of the war in western Europe were however relatively quiet as neither the Germans or the Allies mounted a major land offensive.
During this ‘phoney war’ period, the air forces of both sides undertook reconnaissance missions and minor bombing raids. Both sides restricted themselves to attacking military targets, although RAF bombers dropped propaganda leaflets over Berlin in what were known as ‘pamphlet raids’.
At the time RAF Bomber Command was equipped with bomber types that lacked the range, navigational aids, bomb load and defensive fire to be effective, and daylight raids on military targets quickly proved costly. In an attempt to limit its heavy losses, the RAF soon switched its focus to night bombing.
To meet the anticipated high demand for trained aircrews, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was established early in the war, with facilities in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Generally, new pilots received their primary flying training in the Tiger Moth, a biplane that had first entered RAF service in 1932.
The ‘Phoney War’ ended abruptly in May 1940 when the German’s launched their successful ‘Blitzkrieg’ invasion of the Low Countries and France. In the chaos and confusion of the Battle of France, the RAF Hurricane fighter squadrons attached to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fared well in combat against the Luftwaffe but the Fairey Battle light bomber squadrons were decimated.
Spitfires were generally kept in reserve for home defence during the Battle of France but did participate in Fighter Command’s valiant attempt to keep the Luftwaffe at bay during the BEF’s evacuation from Dunkirk. The air battles generally occurred away from the beaches, so soldiers subjected to air attacks whilst waiting to be rescued got the impression that the RAF was absent, and a great deal of animosity towards the RAF arose as a result.
With France defeated, Britain faced the very real possibility of a Nazi invasion from just across the English Channel. Much depended on the Royal Air Force’s ability to stop the Germans from gaining the air superiority they needed to invade successfully.
The Battle of Britain raged from July to October 1940 as the Germans attempted to destroy RAF Fighter Command in the air and on the ground. But despite coming under extreme pressure, the RAF ultimately gained the upper hand, and the Germans were forced to postpone their invasion plans indefinitely.
Whilst the Hurricane and Spitfire both played a vital role during the Battle of Britain, the RAF’s success was aided in no small measure by the foresight of Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding who, in the run-up to war, had conceived and developed a ‘state of the art’ integrated air defence command and control system which included the use of radar.
Britain had also established the Civilian Repair Organisation to coordinate the rapid repair of damaged RAF aircraft by civilian firms, helping to ensure the RAF did not run out of serviceable fighters in the long battle of attrition.
With the invasion of Britain postponed, the Germans switched to a night bombing offensive (dubbed ‘The Blitz’ by the British press) targeting British cities and ports. In London many civilians opted to take shelter overnight in tube stations.
Initially the RAF struggled to intercept the night raiders. But interception rates increased significantly with the arrival of the heavily armed Bristol Beaufighter fitted with AI Mark IV radar, these potent night fighters being directed to their targets by Ground Controlled Interception stations.
After the Battle of Britain, the RAF went increasingly on the offensive in Europe. From 1941, Fighter Command carried out ‘sweeps’ over occupied France in an effort to draw the Luftwaffe into combat but these operations over well-defended territory proved costly in terms of aircraft and pilots. If a pilot baled out he was very likely to be captured, a fate that befell Douglas Bader amongst others.
The disastrous Allied seaborne raid on Dieppe in 1942, partly intended to draw the Luftwaffe into battle, also proved costly for the RAF.
From 1942 onwards, Bomber Command carried out a strategic bombing offensive, targeting cites and industrial centres in Germany with huge nighttime raids. New four-engined heavy bombers were now available: the Stirling, the Halifax, and the Lancaster.
Bomber Command was led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris whose preference for ‘area bombing’ was, and still remains, controversial. The effectiveness of the RAF’s bomber force was greatly enhanced by new technology: the ‘Oboe’ and ’Gee’ radio navigation aids, the H2S ground-imaging radar, the Mk XIV stabilised vector bomb site and electronic jamming devices.
Bomber Command also carried out some audacious precision attacks, including the legendary ‘Dam Busters' raid in 1943 (using ‘bouncing bombs’ carried on specially adapted Lancasters to breach dams in the Ruhr Valley area) and daylight pinpoint attacks on high security buildings utilising the very fast and remarkably versatile Mosquito, nicknamed ‘The Wooden Wonder’.
RAF Coastal Command was very active in the effort to protect sea convoys bringing vital supplies to Britain. Consolidated B-24 Liberators and other long-range patrol aircraft armed with depth charges and other anti-submarine weaponry flew extended missions over the Atlantic to hunt U-Boats with increasing success as the war progressed, assisted by advances in detection technology such as Anti-Surface Vessel radar (ASV) and the Leigh Light searchlight.
Operating from a secret airbase at Tempsford in Bedfordshire, the RAF’s Special Duties Service dropped supplies and agents into occupied Europe on behalf of the Special Operations Executive. Where a clandestine mission required an agent to be extracted from enemy-held territory by air under the cover of darkness, the RAF used the Westland Lysander which had the short take-off and landing capability essential for this task.
The RAF fought on many other fronts including North Africa, the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, Russia and the Far East. But in the early years of the war Britain struggled to deploy sufficient numbers of modern aircraft to support campaigns in these theatres. Thus it was for example that the RAF only had available a tiny contingent of obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplanes to counter the first Axis air raids on Malta.
Operations in more extreme climates often required aircraft to be modified. Hurricanes and Spitfires operating in hot and dusty regions of the world typically had a ‘Tropical’ Vokes dust filter fitted in a prominent fairing underneath the nose.
The RAF played a key role in the Normandy landings in 1944, attacking air and ground targets, transporting paratroops, towing troop gliders, laying smoke screens and participating in elaborate deception operations designed to hoodwink the Germans into believing that attacks were happening elsewhere. The Douglas DC-3 Dakota, the military version of a successful American airliner, was used extensively by the RAF as a paratroop transport and glider tug during the invasion.
In preparation for D-day RAF photoreconnaissance Spitfires and Mosquitos flying from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire gathered important intelligence information about the landing beaches and the wider Normandy landscape.
RAF photoreconnaissance aircraft operating over mainland Europe also helped the Allies to confirm the existence of Hitler’s secret V-weapon development programme that produced the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile.
When in 1944 London came under heavy attack from flying bombs (nicknamed ‘Doodlebugs’), fast RAF aircraft such as the Tempest, the Mosquito and the Mark XIV Spitfire were used to intercept them. In some cases pilots would avoid shooting at a V-1 (to ensure their plane wasn’t damaged by an explosion) but instead would slide their aircraft’s wingtip to within 15 cms of the underside of the V-1’s wing, so that airflow would tip its wing upwards. This would send the V1 into a crash dive.
The RAF’s first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, was also pressed into service to help combat the V-1 menace. So by the time the war ended in 1945, the RAF had already entered the jet age - quite remarkable considering that at the start of hostilities some front line squadrons had still been equipped with biplane fighters.
- The RAF’s first confirmed aerial ‘kill’ came on 27th September 1939 when the gunner of a Fairey Battle on a reconnaissance mission over the Siegfried Line shot down an attacking Messerschmitt BF109D-1.
- In May 1945, No.529 squadron became the first RAF squadron to fly a helicopter (the Vought-Sikorsky Hoverfly) operationally.
For more information, check out the relevant Haynes publications highlighted in this article, plus the Royal Air Force 100 Technical Innovations Manual and the Battle of Britain - RAF Operations Manual, the RAF Bomber Command Operations Manual and the D-Day Operations Manual. Also, visit the Royal Air Force Museum ( https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk ) which has two exhibition sites (in NW London and at Cosford, Shropshire) with free admission.