Fighter Command was divided into four specific groups, within each of these groups were the main airfields generally positioned well inland called Sector Stations, each of these Sector Stations had what is known as forward airfields or satellite stations positioned further towards the coastline. Each of these airfields were allocated a number of squadrons, the number varied depending as to the intensity of the combat action in any one designated area. Squadrons could be shifted around from one airfield to another to rest them from main combat areas to airfields where there was less action.
For example, 11 Group was divided into a number of sectors: Debden, North Weald, Hornchurch, Biggin Hill, Kenley and Tangmere. Open up the map then minimise and open it as required:
Take the "Hornchurch Sector" as an example. Close to London you will see Hornchurch aerodrome, this is the sector station for the Hornchurch Sector. The sector controller would be stationed at Hornchurch and would be in communication with 11 Group headquarters. You will also see that there are a number of other airfields within the Hornchurch sector, these included Rochford, Gravesend and Manston. The controller would move a number of his squadrons to some of these forward bases or "satellite" airfields as they were often called. These forward airfields formed an integral part of the Fighter Command system. Being usually closer to the coast than the main sector station, they could intercept the enemy much quicker than the squadrons based at the sector station, especially just prior to the Battle of Britain when the Luftwaffe was attacking the channel convoys. But later their important task was to intercept and disperse the incoming Luftwaffe formations slowing down their progress, so that when the squadrons from the main sector stations arrived air combat often became so intense that in a number of instances they caused the Luftwaffe missions to be aborted. Careful placement of the squadrons by the Sector Controller was critical, especially as the Luftwaffe was maintaining varied attacks and not concentrating on any one target area for any long period of time.
Squadrons attached to these forward airfields did not have the luxuries that the squadrons had at the sector stations. Pilot accommodation was often in tents with bedboards as beds, often they did not even have these. Meals on the station were often non-existent and many pilots preferred the local pub or cafe. These forward airfields did not have an operations room, usually just a wooden hut that was equipped with a telephone that linked them with their main sector station. Most of these airfields were not designed with the comforts of home in mind, priorities were given to fuel and ammunition dumps so that aircraft could return, refuel and rearm quickly and efficiently. But, some of the forward airfields were almost as good as their sector stations, but these were far and few. But as primitive and uncomfortable that they were, the squadrons that operated from these forward airfields were often the first to engage the enemy, and quite often suffered many casualties and loss of aircraft.
Squadrons that did come in for some heavy punishment, could be withdrawn back to the main sector airfield by the Station Controller and fresh squadrons or portions of a squadron (called flights) moved forward to replace tired and weary squadrons. Life was not easy for the squadrons at the forward stations, but they served well and often under the most difficult of situations maintained the task at hand.
It has always been the basic organisational structure within the Royal Air Force and one that was maintained during the Battle of Britain that each squadron would be equipped with twelve aircraft and that these would be flown by the squadron strength of eighteen pilots. Depending on as to how close each of the airfields were to the main combat action, each Sector Station could have been allocated three or four squadrons at any given time, and combined together they were known as Wings. It was normal practice within Fighter Command that squadrons fly individually unless called upon by the Station Controller to assist another squadron should the situation arise where combat action was exceptionally heavy. It would be more likely that should a squadron require assistance, then Group headquarters would use another squadron from another airfield so as not to deplete any airfield of all of its squadrons. The only time that squadrons flew as a Wing was in 12 Group and became was was later to be known as "The Big Wing".
But squadrons did not fly together as one unit, each of the squadrons was further divided up into two sections called 'Flights' generally called A and B flights with each of the Flights consisting of six aircraft divided into two sections of three aircraft. To distinguish one Flight from another, each of these Flights was given a coded colour, maybe red, blue, yellow or green. Each Flight was given a Flight Leader and he would always be known as number one, although during communications he would be known by his Flights coded colour and the word leader, hence Red Leader. The other two pilots/aircraft would be known as one and two respectively, hence Red 1 or Red 2.
As the Battle of Britain progressed, it was realised the disadvantages of the three aircraft 'vic' formation. It was proved difficult in sudden changes in direction and many pilots had agreed that the 'vic' formation used early in the battle was the cause of many losses. They did however use a formation later in the battle based on the Luftwaffe 'schwarme' and called by the RAF as 'The Finger Four' because in plan view, if you laid out an outstretched hand, there would be an aircraft at the tips of each of fingers. The leader would take up position at the tip of the longest finger, his number two would be at the tip of the index finger while number three and four would be at the tips of the other two fingers. This formation was adopted by all squadrons with greater success for the rest of the battle.
SQUADRONS THAT TOOK PART IN THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
1 SQUADRON: Hurricanes, Coded JX, Operated from Northolt & Tangmere
The Royal Air Force drew its men for flying training with the purpose from a number of sources. The final outcome would be that the RAF could at any time call upon these men if ever the need was to arise.
Fighter pilots are not made, they are created. One of the ways was a commonwealth training scheme where anybody wishing to fly for their country could be trained in flying, navigation, communication and combat. As early as 1935 the British government discussed the possibility of the Empire Training Scheme where future pilots could be created in the dominions of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Both New Zealand and Australia welcomed the idea and gave it all their support, but the largest and closest commonwealth country Canada, through its Prime Minister Mackenzie King refused to discuss the proposal even though British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin offered to pay for both the training and the aircraft. It was not until 1939 that Canada agreed to the scheme and commenced in all three dominions on April 29th 1940, far too late to train pilots for the Battle of Britain.
Before the war the RAF trained men in the Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) and in the Auxiliary Air Force (AAF). Many of Britain's prestigious universities also had flying schools known as University Air Squadrons which later were to be swallowed up within the Auxiliary Air Force. Short Service Commissions were another form of training where pilots done their basic training with the air force of their own country, then the Royal Air Force would offer a limited number of these pilots to join the RAF in Britain to undergo more comprehensive training with one of the RAF squadrons.
ROYAL AIR FORCE VOLUNTEER RESERVE: Introduced in 1936, the RAFVR was formed and allowed young men from civilian life between the ages of 18 and 25 to learn to fly in their spare time. They were paid during training by the government which meant that it was funded at the taxpayers expense. All training was carried out at weekends at local flying schools and during evenings to carry out basic fundamentals needed for the purpose of becoming a pilot.
UNIVERSITY AIR SQUADRONS: Many of Britain's universities such as Oxford, Eton, Winchester and Cambridge had their own prestigious flying clubs known as University Air Squadrons. Learning to fly at university was not compulsory and was to include only student volunteers. Most of these pilots of the University Air Squadrons were to join the Auxiliary Air Force at the outbreak of war and many of these once student pilots were to become legends in their own right during the Second World War.
AUXILIARY AIR FORCE: This was formed as early as 1926 as part of Lord Trenchard's plan for the rebuilding of Britain's air force after WWI. When such a formation was suggested by Trenchard, there was considerable opposition to its instigation stating that military flying and operations was far too dangerous and complicated for weekend and part time fliers. Trenchard argued back that even the regular pilots of the Royal Air Force had to commence training at some stage and if the RAF could train potential pilots in an auxiliary capacity they would become an important asset to the regular squadrons if the time and need arose.
The AAF when ahead despite the opposition and commenced with just four squadrons. These young men were trained at weekends both at a desk and for more practical training, and by 1939 the AAF boasted no less than twenty squadrons. Many of the squadrons attracted a special type of man, one who was well educated, wealthy or had a prominent position in a large company.
More than one pilot was less enthusiastic about the AAF squadrons. Skilled RAFVR Sergeant pilots such as "Ginger" Lacey posted to an AAF squadron, sometimes found them "a rather snobbish preserve of the rich." "Johnnie" Johnson another of the RAF's top fighter aces, remained convinced that he had failed to get into an AAF squadron when the interviewing officer discovered that he was not a fox-hunting man. On another AAF squadron there was always 'a social test' in which a prospective officer candidate would be given Sunday lunch, and "several glasses of sherry" to discover "if his parlance was no longer that of a gentleman." Said one of them, "Auxiliaries are gentlemen trying to be officers. Regulars are officers trying to be gentlemen. VRs are neither trying to be both......THE ROYAL AIR FORCE: The regular squadrons of the Royal Air Force were the full time members most who had signed on for a pre-determined period. At the outbreak of the war, those aircrew on short service commissions were placed into regular squadrons, and members from the dominion countries serving in Britain had to stay in Britain to continue service as long as the duration of the war.
SHORT SERVICE COMMISSIONS: In Great Britain the minimum age for a short service commission was eighteen years and once accepted a period of five years had to be served. For dominion countries a selection was made for a limited number of pilots to be transferred from the air force of the country that they were serving in to the RAF. They too had to serve the minimum of five years and those that were accepted thought it to be a great honour to have been selected.
The Battle of Britain - 1940 website © Battle of Britain Historical Society 2007