22 April 2009

The Biggin Hill Wing 1941 - Peter Caygill

Peter Caygill’s latest work focuses on Biggin Hill’s part in Fighter Command’s 1941 offensive operations as it tried to wrest the initiative from the Luftwaffe. The Big Wing 'formula' is applied to this task and the results, as analysed by the author, are interesting if not surprising.

Following a brief history of Biggin Hill to the familiar, but necessary for context, conflict between 11 and 12 Groups and the subsequent ascendancy of Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory, the Wing’s operations are reviewed in great detail. Opening the ‘action’ with a fascinating and lively chapter on 264 Squadron’s Defiant night-fighter ops (some of the earlier daytime scores for this unit are impressive) during their brief stay, the Wing’s offensive operations really begin to get into gear as finer weather conditions prevail. Like any good unit history, fascinating characters come and go and there are many familiar names – Malan, Wellum, Richey, Duke and Sheen to name a few – in the thick of the action in the air and on the ground. The author has excelled in blending details gleaned from squadron ORBs and combat reports into seamless accounts of each month’s frenetic activity. These accounts are ably supported by fascinating extracts from the ORBs themselves, individual pilots’ memoirs/anecdotes and often obscure biographical details from both sides.

Fighter Command’s campaign is initially successful but the pilots are pushed hard. Don Kingaby’s (92 Sqn) logbook, for example, is recorded as listing 23 shows over France in the first three weeks of April! Escorting small numbers of bombers to entice the defending Germans up for a fight met with varying degrees of success but the defenders soon became adept at waiting to pick off stragglers and aircraft heading home on their own. As the RAF had done during the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe used new radar installations to good effect. These, coupled with the superior climbing performance of the Me 109F and, late in the year, the new Fw 190A, enabled the Germans to dictate when and where they engaged the escort Wings. By the end of the year, it was clear the Germans had, with just two JGs, regained the initiative and, as a result, elements of Fighter Command questioned the effectiveness of the 100+ Circus operations flown.

Unlike the RAF in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe was not forced into the air by large bomber formations that threatened material damage. The organisation of the various escorting Wings also proved difficult at times with missed rendezvous and incorrect altitudes flown - often ending in substantial losses. However, compared to the summer of 1940, Fighter Command could now replace the aircraft and pilots with relative ease. While RAF losses were considerably higher than the defending Luftwaffe fighters, Fighter Command proved itself capable of taking the fight across the Channel and set the ground work for the offensive operations that were to prevail over Occupied Europe in the years ahead. Of course, you could ask whether so many squadrons were needed in the UK when North Africa, Malta and the Far East were screaming out for fighters.

Well-written and with the “serious work” interspersed with moments of humour and high jinks typical of RAF aircrew, The Biggin Hill Wing 1941, is a wonderful look at one airfield’s, and its resident squadrons’, contribution to Fighter Command’s broadening priorities.

A shorter version of this review was included in Steve Darlow's first 2009 issue of his 'Fighting High' e-zine. Pen & Sword produced this first edition in hardback so it will be available on their website and, of course, from places such as Amazon.

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