During the London Blitz, Duxford Airfield became the home of squadrons of fighters – Spitfires. From Duxford came the Big Wing, a defensive tactic developed by Canadian Acting Squadron Commander Douglas Bader and Air Chief Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory.
The idea behind the Big Wing was to send a large number of fighters out to meet the Luftwaffe, try to get them before they reached England. Until it was formed, defensive tactics during the Battle of Britain were to use small numbers of fighters in each flight to try to shoot down bombers; it was designed to minimise the risk of losing a great number of pilots in one sortee. These tactics were also based in WWI and the tactics that worked for those planes.
The downside was that the Big Wing couldn’t moblise quickly enough and once it was in the air, if they followed bad intelligence information the bulk of the fighters would be in the wrong area of the country. But I am ahead of the story.
Toward the end of August 1940, a squadron of German bombers went off course. Their objective was military bases, but they accidentally bombed London. Churchill, deciding it had been deliberate, went after Berlin. Berlin never saw it coming. Her people were still keeping lights on at night, making the city glow for the English bombers. It was a major turning point in the war and it led to Hitler focussing his energy on bringing England to her knees. The Battle of Britain had begun.
Duxford is north of London, near Cambridge. It was home to 12 Group and flyers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the United States. Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons from Duxford provided air defense to the Midlands, while also providing protection to 11 Group’s airfields. 11 Group protected the south east of the country and London. The Battle of Britain was at its worst here on the Channel coast of England, as has always been the case. Here is where William the Conqueror attacked as well.
The German bombers were mounting successful attacks against the English airfields while the 11 Group fighters were out. It was in protecting these airfields that the Big Wing came into being. Bader and his pilots happened to be out and flying high one day when they came across a flight of German bombers. Because of their position, they were able to bring down a fair number of planes, but Bader realised that had he had more planes, they could have taken out that many more bombers. Large groups of fighters, mobilised early, taking the fight to the Germans while they were still over the Channel was the plan. Air Command kept ordering them to patrol the 11 Group airfields; Bader kept taking his planes to the Germans instead. It was a source of frustration to his Commanding Officers, but the Big Wing had good results. Between September 3 and September 17, 1940, the Big Wing, with Hurricanes down low going after the bombers and Spitfires up high and on the flank going after the German fighters, 165 German planes were shot down.
This came at a point in the war when Hitler thought he had England at his mercy. He was within weeks of mounting a full out cross-Channel offensive. When the Big Wing began appearing, it quickly became clear to Hitler that England had more fire power than Goering had led him to believe. He never did give the order for Operation Sea Lion, which would have sent German ground troops over the Channel; in order for that to succeed he needed air superiority and the Big Wing helped convince him that he would never have that.
The success of the Big Wing is debatable. Whether it was a good plan or not depends on whom you speak to. I leave that to you to decide for yourself. However, key to the Big Wing’s successes was the Spitfire out of Duxford; that, nobody denies.