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RAF Fighter Command Escort Tactics 1941

Historians usually give the 31 Oct 1940 date as the end of the Battle of Britain, but this is just an arbitrary date. At the beginning of 1941, the Luftwaffe was still on the offensive and delivering painful blows to the British industry. This offensive, conducted at night, was a strategic bombing campaign running in parallel with RAF’s Bomber Command own strategic offensive over Germany.

During daylight, the Luftwaffe carried sweeps and fighter-bomber attacks while the British, starting on 10 Jan 1941 launched operations called ‘Circuses’. These were day bombing raids with light bombers heavily escorted by British fighters.

Between Jan and May, only 11 circuses were launched, but the pace grew drastically once the Luftwaffe moved most of its units to the East to attack the Soviet Union.

The British intended to force the German fighters into a fight in the air to cause them losses and to press them to increase their defenses and thus, reduce the pressure on the Soviets.

The ‘circus’ tactics attempted to force the Luftwaffe to fight on British terms, but things did not turn as expected.

The RAF usually employed one or two flights (6-12 aircraft) of light Blenheim bombers from Bomber Command supported by three wings of Fighter Command’s fighters (each wing with 2-3 squadrons and each squadron with 12 a/c fighting in three 4-ship flights). Therefore, 6 bombers could be escorted by up to 108 fighters. The ratio of fighters-to-bombers far exceeded the usual Luftwaffe practice.

The fighter squadrons were disposed on layers over the bombers which bombed from 17000 feet. An escort wing arranged one close escort squadron behind the bombers and 1000 ft above them with strict orders only to attack German fighters that assaulted the Blenheims. Two additional escort squadrons positioned themselves to the left and right of the close escort squadron higher up (see infographic). They had orders to intervene if German fighters got too close to the bombers.

Protecting them was a High Escort wing with three squadrons deployed in V (one squadron in the center and two to the sides) but stepped up from 25000 to 30000 ft. The highest squadron was called the ‘top cover’ and the intention was that it would not intervene unless the lower squadrons were in dire straits. The other two high escort squadrons were meant to bounce on the Germans that tried to engage the bombers or their close escort.

Finally, a mop-up wing brought up the rear. When the bombers and fighters returned they became vulnerable since they offered their rear quarter to the German interceptors. This mop-up wing protected the retreat allowing the high escort wing to do most of the fighting.

Despite the heavy escort and significant numerical superiority over the Germans from June 1941, Fighter Command failed to achieve air superiority over the coasts of France. 


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