United Kingdom

UK

 

NOTE:
The text comprising "United Kingdom" and it's associated pages was extracted from "Eighty years of service; A history of the Royal Air Force, 1918 -1998" by Chris Hobson and published in "The Royal Air Force Air Power Review" Volume 1, Number 1, 1998.

There is no doubt that when war broke out in september 1939, Britain was far from being prepared. Numerically inferior, the Royal Air Force also lacked the experience of modern aerial warfare which the Luftwaffe had acquired during the Spanish Civil War.

It was indeed most fortunate that the so called 'phoney war' period provided 8 months of badly needed breathing space in which to build up strength and re-equip with new aircraft types.

During the German Blitzkrieg which devastated France and the Low Countries in May 1940, the RAF fought valiantly against great odds and provided air cover from airfields in France and England for the retreating British and French forces. The losses were enormous, amounting to about half of the RAF's front-line strength, and would have been even greater had not Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding insisted that his fighters be conserved for the defence of the United Kingdom.

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN AND THE BOMBER OFFENSIVE

The RAF's magnificent defence against the German onslaught during the Battle of Britain is now legendary. Against odds of four to one, Fighter Command pilots and ground crews operated their Spitfires and Hurricanes, often beyond human endurance, to defeat the Luftwaffe and put an end to Hitler's plans to invade Britain. Helped by radar and an efficient method of aircraft control from sector stations like Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and Tangmere, Fighter Command withstood each successive wave of German bombers and their Messerschmitt fighter escorts despite serious damage to many airfields and a growing shortage of experienced pilots. Victory, when it came was by a very narrow margin indeed. Although the Luftwaffe lost a total of 1,887 aircraft and over 2,600 airmen, the much smaller Fighter Command lost 1,023 fighters with 537 pilots killed. It took many months to replace these grievous losses and rebuild the command in terms of both strength and experience.

Fighter Command's brilliant performance during the daylight fighting in the Battle of Britain couldnot, however, be reproduced in the subsequent German night offensive against towns and cities in the South and Midlands. By the middle of 1941 the Blitz had visited many parts of England, causing particularly severe damage to London, Southampton, Portsmouth and Coventry. The RAF's night fighter forces and equipment at this stage were totally inadequate and it was not until the radar – equipped Beaufighters and Mosquitoes entered service that any real defence against night raids could be offered.

The summer of 1940 may have been the 'finest hour' for the fighters but that of the bombers had yet to come. In September 1939 Bomber Command had fewer than 400 operationally ready aircraft, including many obsolescent Hampdens and Battles. It fell to the more capable Wellingtons and Whitleys to carry the offensive to Germany for the first 2 years of the war.

Like the Luftwaffe, Bomber Command soon gave up daylight raids and operated mostly at night and even then suffered severe losses. The first of the RAF's four engine bombers, the Stirling, entered service in February 1941 and was joined soon after by the Halifax and then the Lancaster a year later. By the middle of 1943 the 4 engine 'heavies', using rudimentary forms of electronic warfare equipment, were bearing the brunt of the bomber offensive.

COASTAL COMMAND AND OVERSEAS OPERATIONS

Just as important as the Battle of Britain or the bomber offensive was Coastal Command's struggle against the U-boat. From the day war broke out through to VE day, the Command's Sunderlands, Hudsons, Liberators and Wellingtons waged an unremitting and initially unrewarding war against the deadly submarines which threatened Britain's lifelines.

Through technological developments such as the Leigh light and ASV radar, and through the immense determination and tenacity of it's aircrews, Coastal Command played a major role alongside the Royal Navy in defeating the submarine menace. By May 1945 the RAF had destroyed 186 German submarines while air power as a whole accounted for around 50% of all U-boats sunk at sea during the Second World War.

Elsewhere in the world, commitments were considerable. In the Middle East and North Africa, after initial setbacks, the RAF played a major part in defeating the Axis forces. A brilliantly co-ordinated and executed close air support and interdiction campaign in support of the Eighth Army drove Rommel's forces into the sea, thus securing the Mediterranean for the Allies. the invasion of Italy, using the once beleaguered island of Malta as a forward base, marked a further milestone in the war and illustrated the increasingly close co-operation between the RAF and the United States Army Air Force.

In the Far East, the swing from the defensive to the offensive was a little later in coming. The fall of Malaya and Singapore had been a major blow and the RAF was hard pressed to offer any effective resistance to the well equipped and relentless Japanese invasion forces. After re-equipping with more modern aircraft, including Spitfires, Hurricanes, Mosquitoes and Thunderbolts, the RAF fought back alongside the USAAF and eventually annihilated the Japanese air forces in Burma. A major feature of the air war in the Far East was the extensive use of transport aircraft, mostly American built Dakotas, to resupply troops at forward bases in the jungle. this experience in airborne operations would later be of great value during the fight to regain a foothold in Europe.