Bader’s Big Wing Controversy, by Dilip Sarkar

Matthew Willis

A new book is out on Douglas Bader's involvement in a clash of aviation tactics at the top of the RAF.
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In Bader’s Big Wing Controversy, prolific aviation combat history writer Dilip Sarker MBE FRHists offers a fresh look at a well-worn subject. Any readers who thought they might have absorbed everything it was possible to know about the fabled ‘Duxford Wing’ and its role in the Battle of Britain would still find much to surprise and challenge their preconceptions. Through extensive use of primary sources and reliance on the voices of those who were deeply involved in the controversy, Sarkar offers some interesting new perspectives.

The subject of the book is the increasingly acrimonious tussle over the best tactics to use against the Luftwaffe’s bombers and fighters which were attempting to attain air superiority over Southern England by eroding the RAF’s strength in the summer and autumn of 1940. Specifically, the tactics favoured by 12 Group, the command covering fighter operations in the Midlands and North as opposed to those of 11 Group in the South, which was bore the brunt of the assault. This became more of a political issue within the RAF and Air Ministry, as one faction appeared to use the debate to force a change in Fighter Command’s leadership. At the heart of the conflict was Douglas Bader – the charismatic leader of 242 Squadron famous for returning to frontline flying duties after a crash that cost him both his legs, and the unconventional large formation he headed.

But what caused the controversy? Who was to blame? Was it true that the heads of 11 Group and Fighter Command, Keith Park and Hugh Dowding, refused to adopt tactics that could have won the battle sooner? That they deliberately tried to marginalise Bader and his ‘Balbo’? Or was it that Bader was too much of a ‘loose cannon’ and the ‘big wing’ more of a hindrance than a help?

Sarkar sets out the background to the debate, starting in the First World War and running through biographies of the main players. This includes a description of ‘The System’ – the tactics developed and trained-for before the Battle, reproduced verbatim from a booklet published in 1943.

The meat of the book is a chronological commentary on the employment of the Duxford Wing during the Battle of Britain, in the context of the battle as a whole. This is followed by a discussion of the fall-out – the tactical debates and politics going on in the background, the effects these had on the conduct of the battle and the RAF’s subsequent operations.

The extensive use of primary documents, some even reproduced in full, such as the minutes of the critical meetings about use of ‘big wings,’ is a highlight of this book. Given the intensely partisan nature of the debate – it tended to divide along lines of personal loyalty as well as doctrinal preference – this is a wise choice, letting the facts and the voices of those who were there build up the arguments. Some may surprise, such as the fact that Park used wings as well when he considered it appropriate, contrary to the usual view of him as an advocate of small formations. The study of the politics behind the scenes, and how conscious or not Bader was of being involved by higher-ups in their machinations, are carefully handled.

The real gem is a chapter made up entirely of comments on the use of ‘big wings’ by a selection of 11 and 12 Group pilots who were directly involved. One would expect that the views on the success of wing tactics would divide along group lines, but the results are surprising and a lot more nuanced.

Bader’s Big Wing Controversy is a fine addition to Battle of Britain literature and sheds important new insights into this most contentious of Second World War topics.

Matthew Willis is a historian and writer and author of The Fortress of Malta series.