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The Support Services of Fighter Command

Every pilot that flew his fighter aircraft into battle, and every aircraft that flew in the skies against this formidable enemy was supported by thousands of civilian and military personnel in the support teams. Without them, these fighter aircraft and their pilots would never have left the ground on operational duties. For every Spitfire or Hurricane to become airborne and fly of into battle, nearly two hundred people would have been responsible for keeping it in the air and getting it safely back to its base. These support teams were the unsung heroes of the Battle of Britain. They worked behind the scenes, many of them throughout the nights to keep Britain's defence system working.

Some of these support teams are:

  • The designers and engineers at Supermarine, Hawker and Rolls Royce
  • The radio designers and technicians who strove to improve communications
  • The fitters and engineers of the RAF ground staff
  • The refuellers of the RAF ground staff
  • The armourers of the RAF ground staff
  • The CRT operators at the radar stations
  • The servicemen of the Observer Corps
  • The radio operators and plotters in the filter rooms
  • The personnel of the Anti-Aircraft Regiments
  • The RAF Intelligence
  • The Air Transport Auxiliary
  • The doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers
  • Civilian gas, electricity and water technicians
  • The many civilians who helped crash-landed pilots get back to their bases
All these people in some way or another assisted to keep the aircraft flying and in the air. Women too, were to play their part. Many preferred women as radar operators and plotters because they appeared to be far more sharp and accurate than their male counterparts. Women also drove cars, trucks and even flew aircraft in a ferrying capacity, but they were never allowed to fly on combat operations.

Listed below, are some of the factors that were to play a very important part in Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.


RADAR
Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, gaining on his personal experience in the First World War when he was a squadron commander, he could see some of the disadvantages when it came to defence. He spoke of the times when you did not know when the enemy would attack until they were over your lines and within visual sighting distance....and your aircraft were still on the ground!!

"If only we knew when they were coming....we could be up in the air and waiting for them" he said. He mentioned that they did have forward observation posts, but communications left much to be desired and many messages that should have alerted us of the enemy approaching never got through to us.

It was back in 1934 that the Army acoustics section had devised two huge dishes some 200 feet long and 25 feet high and placed them on the high ground of Romney Marsh in Kent facing out towards the channel. Each of these dishes had microphones fitted along the entire length and were supposed to pick up sound waves of approaching aircraft. The experiment proved that such a venture was not at all practical as it could hardly pick up the sound of approaching test aircraft flying at 7,000 feet and at only 65-70 miles per hour. Not only that, it did pick up sounds of nearby motor cars, boats offshore and the hundreds of sea birds that frequent the cliffs along the coastline.

That same year, at the Air Ministry, there was a Mr H. Wimperis a scientific research director and a Mr A.P.Rowe who was on Mr Wimperis's staff. Mr Rowe, on studying the records at the Air Ministry were astounded to find that there were less than fifty documents out of thousands that related to the subject of air defence. Because of the importance of defence, Mr Wimperis suggested to the Air Ministry that a committee be formed. This was approved and the committee under the chairmanship of a well known physicist, Mr Henry Tizzard with both Rowe and Wimperis on the committee.


Robert Watson-Watt
 
Wimperis considered many alternatives, from perfecting the sound locaters that were tried earlier in 1934, to something along the lines of a "Death Ray" often mentioned in science fiction books. On these matters Wimperis consulted a Robert Watson-Watt who had worked for a number of years on high frequency radio signals. Watson-Watt did not completely discount the theory of the "Death Ray", but had previously come up with the idea in tests that short wave radio signals that were transmitted had been interfered with by aeroplanes, where the signal was bounced off the aircraft and reflected the signal back. Watson-Watt suggested that this theory could be worked on with the possibility that the radio signal being bounced back could be picked up by a receiver and the impulses then displayed on a cathode ray tube. This way, because of the length of time that it took a signal to be returned and picked up by the receiver, it would be possible to determine the distance from signal source to aircraft.

The theory seemed possible, and the committee looked upon the suggestion with great enthusiasm. But, as Wimperis pointed out to Watson-Watt and Hugh Dowding who was then Air member for Research and Development, holding the rank then of Air Vice Marshal, that all this was simply just theory as no such instrument had yet been designed or constructed. Dowding was full of enthusiasm, and even more so later when Watson-Watt said that he could get hold of a BBC short wave transmitter of just ten kilowatts at Daventry. By setting up a receiver and a cathode ray tube twenty miles distant, it was hoped that the theory would work by using a light bomber as the enemy aircraft.

On February 26th 1935, a full test was arranged. A Heyford light bomber flew along a pre-determined line and the scientists stood holding their breath as they had no idea if the theory would work. Then suddenly a green line appeared on the screen, it moved from right to left for a while then as the aircraft turned and came towards them the line got slightly bigger and bigger. They were elated. Without looking for a visual sighting of the aircraft, they watched the cathode ray tube oscillograph, that looked something like a small television set. They could track the Heyford bomber without even looking up into the skies.


This was the beginning of radar, the first time that such a test had been conducted and it gave Watson-Watt and his team something to build on. Radio waves sent out by the transmitter were reflected back from the bomber and were displayed on the CRT screen. The small green line indicated that the aircraft was some distance away, but as the aircraft got closer the line got bigger. The results were very promising and when word got back to the Department of Research and Development, Dowding was elated with the results saying "If we can produce such apparatus it would become the 'eyes' of our defence system and the greatest innovation we could dream of".

Over the next three years, and with an allocation of 10,000 to continue with the experiments. the team of Wimperis, Watson-Watt and Rowe concentrated on radio direction finding. There were a few disappointments, and there were successes in further tests, but slowly it was all coming together. Once it was discovered that they could determine the height and direction of detected aircraft, further work was carried out in getting this information to the various departments so that the RAF could dispatch aircraft quickly and meet the intruders before they reached the British coast. Radar, as it became known, although its correct name was Radio Direction Finding (RDF) had been born.

Read more about RDF (Radar) in [ Document 12 ]


THE OBSERVER CORPS

'Early stone age' was Churchill's description in 1939 of the aircraft-warning system over land. He was then visiting Bawdsey to see the progress of radar. The great towers on the coast could look far out to sea, but behind them over the countryside and towns they were almost blind.

Special constables who were members of the Observer Corps spent many hours of their spare time watching from hill-tops and plotting in stuffy rooms. They would doubtless have been incensed at Churchill's remark, but, Stone Age or not, their work was vital. Where radar ended at the coast the whole weight of responsibility for accurate records of aircraft movements lay with the Observer Corps and its telephone network.
Derek Wood & Derek Dempster The Narrow Margin p148 McGraw Hill 1961

In the early days of the 'Corps', its compliment was generally made up of special constables and constables who voluntarily gave up their spare time and went 'aeroplane watching'. But as it was realised that all responsibility was passed on to them after enemy aircraft had crossed the coast, more and more people were drafted into the 'Corps' and it became a military establishment controlled by Fighter Command.

In total, the Observer Corps boasted a strength of over 32,000 men and between then manned in excess of 1,400 command posts scattered all around the coastal areas of Britain, although the bulk of them were posted to the southern and south-eastern coast around Hampshire, Sussex, Kent and Essex.


Their main duties were to observe, locate and estimate enemy aircraft strength, height and direction. But other important duties were to report the location of crashed aircraft of both the RAF and the Luftwaffe. They also had to watch out for pilots that had parachuted to safety and accurately observe their location, especially if they happen to be out over the sea. This speeded up the process of the RAF Air-Sea Rescue or Coastal Command reaching pilots before they either suffered from water immersion or before they drowned. This was especially the case should the pilot have sustained any serious injury.

The men of the Observer Corps, which was given the prefix "Royal" in 1941 made a valuable contribution to the Battle of Britain, for without them Fighter Command would have been 'blind' once enemy aircraft formations had crossed the coast.
Read more about the Observer Corps in [ Document 13 ]


AIR INTELLIGENCE Another service that was vital to Fighter Command was those that determined which aircraft were the enemy and which were friendly. Many that have made a study of the Battle of Britain would have heard about what became known as "The Battle of Barking Creek". It was simply the failure to identify fighters of the RAF and hostile enemy aircraft and the result was that three Hurricanes of the RAF were shot down by friendly Spitfires.

One of these methods used to distinguish friendly and enemy aircraft was "Identification Friend or Foe" or IFF as became known. Basically the workings of IFF, was that aircraft of Fighter Command were fitted with a radiating device that would radiate a much stronger signal back than the signal that it received. Air intelligence, on receiving the blips on their screens would see a much stronger blip than normal thus it could then be identified as a friendly aircraft.

Read more about IFF and High Frequency Direction Finding[ Document 14 ]
Read more about Air Intelligence [ Document 15 ]

The old building, once a stately home then later becoming a school for girls until it gave way to become Bentley Priory the Headquarters of Fighter Command. This was the nerve centre of all operations although many were conducted from the headquarters of the individual Group Headquarters in various parts of the country. It played one of the most important parts during the Battle of Britain to which Bentley Priory will always be associated.
Read more about Bentley Priory [ Document 16 ]



Have you checked out all the documents linked from this page
Document 12.   The Radar Document
Document 13.   The Observer Corps Document
Document 14.   IFF and High Frequency Direction Finding
Document 15.   The Air Intelligence Document
Document 16.   ACM Hugh Dowding and Bentley Priory


The Battle of Britain - 1940 website Battle of Britain Historical Society 2007