Douglas Bader’s “Big Wing” Controversy

Dilip Sarkar

The WW2 ace, famously played by Kenneth More in Reach for the Sky, was part of wider argument that went all the way to 10 Downing St.
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Squadron Leader Douglas Bader (centre), the legless, swashbuckling commander of 242 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Credit: Dilip Sarkar

In 1931, a young RAF fighter pilot, Douglas Bader, crashed whilst performing unauthorised, low-level, aerobatics. Within his mangled biplane, the pilot lay dreadfully injured, his life only saved by the subsequent amputation of both legs. A lesser man would have died, but Bader was possessed of an incredible iron-will and courage – which saw him master artificial legs, lead a full life and even return to the cockpit. During the Battle of Britain, Bader became a decorated fighter ‘ace’, the story of this lion-heart being  a wartime propagandist’s dream. Already a household name, in 1956, upon publication of Paul Brickhill’s best-selling biography, Reach for the Sky, and Daniel Angel’s film of the same name, Bader’s global fame was confirmed. Even today, Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader arguably remains the most famous RAF pilot of the war, held in awe by the public – and remains an inspiration to many. His actual wartime story, however, frequently departs substantially from Brickhill’s romanticised tale – which makes no mention of a shameful intrigue to which Bader, inadvertently, became central.

Based at Coltishall, and later Duxford, in 12 Group, Bader was exasperated at not being at the action’s forefront – seen here, second right, awaiting the call to scramble that rarely came. Credit: Dilip Sarkar

Cutting a long story short, when the Battle of Britain began in July 1940, Bader was commanding the Hawker Hurricane equipped 242 (Fighter) Squadron at Coltishall, in Norfolk, this, significantly, being in Fighter Command’s 12 Group, commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory. 12 Group’s role was to defend East Anglia, the Midlands and industrial North, in addition to protecting the airfields of Air Vice-Marshal Park’s 11 Group, which covered London and the south-east, whilst the latter’s fighters were  engaged further forward. With German air attacks approaching England largely from north-west France, 11 Group was the frontline, and to preserve his limited resources, Park chose to fight using small, flexible, formations of a squadron or pair of squadrons, rather than commit his fighters to battle en masse. Whilst Park’s pilots were in action constantly, conversely, 12 Group’s pilots simply continued their monotonous round of convoy protection patrols, training, chasing off the odd, lone, German reconnaissance bomber, or simply standing idly by for the call to reinforce 11 Group – which never seemed to come. For the irrepressible Bader, it was intolerable that he and 242 Squadron should be playing second fiddle. During mid-August 1940, however, 11 Group had requested help from 12, but Leigh-Mallory’s fighters arrived too late to protect certain of Park’s airfields being bombed. 11 Group charged their neighbour with reacting too slowly, whilst 12 Group argued assistance had been requested too late. As the summer wore on, relations between the two commanders and their groups deteriorated into a bitter controversy with far-reaching consequences.

Squadron Leader Bader discusses tactics at Duxford with the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair. As Lord Dowding later charged, ‘Young Bader was the cause of a lot of the trouble’… and ‘It does rather take your breath away’. Credit: Dilip Sarkar

On 30 August 1940, 11 Group again called for help, and 242 Squadron, their swashbuckling leader at their head, successfully intercepted German bombers and their escorts. After what was his first such action, Bader opined, loudly, that had more fighters been under his command, more damage would have been inflicted on the enemy. Leigh-Mallory – who had no personal experience of fighters – agreed, and so it was that on 7 September 1940, Bader led the three squadron-strong ‘Duxford Wing’ into action for the first time. Leigh-Mallory then ordered two further squadrons to be added, creating what became known as the ‘Big Wing’ – the combat claims of which were extraordinary, and, apparently accepted with little scrutiny, strongly suggested that 12 Group had got it right, with this mass formation, whilst Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Fighter Command’s Commander-in-Chief, and Air Vice-Marshal Park – two of the most experienced fighter leaders outside Germany at that time – were wrong. Ultimately this argument over tactics and formations spilled out of Fighter Command and into the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster.

The ‘Big Wing’ overclaimed by as much as 7:1, it is now believed, following rigorous post-war analysis, but even at the time Air Chief Marshal Dowding considered 12 Group’s claims little more than ‘Thoughtful wishing’. Credit: Dilip Sarkar

After the First World War, air power doctrine revolved around the mistaken belief that future wars would be won not by land forces but a ‘knock-out blow’ from the air. It was also believed that the bomber ‘would always get through’, so the emphasis was on expanding the bomber force. Dowding, however, and Park, who at the time was his chief’s senior staff officer, disagreed, arguing that security of base was pre-requisite, because unless defended by a strong fighter force, the enemy could deliver a ‘knockout blow’ before RAF bombers had an opportunity to sally forth. Totally dedicated to creating a sound system of air defence and accumulating enough modern fighters to defend Britain, Dowding and Park refused to compromise, resisting pressure from the Air Staff and Westminster – winning few friends in the process. Unlike Dowding and Park, though, Leigh-Mallory was a political animal with friends in high places. Moreover, Squadron Leader Bader’s adjutant was an MP, who, subordinately, took the matter directly to Churchill, leading to senior politicians talking first-hand to the legless squadron commander. In his burning desire to propel 242 Squadron and himself, their leader, to the forefront of the action, the newsworthy but naïve Bader found himself used by men with axes to grind and personal ambitions to further.

The outcome of the ‘Big Wing Controversy’ was the abrupt replacement, after the Battle had been won, of Dowding and Park by Air Marshal Sholto Douglas and Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory respectively – who pushed through the use of three-squadron-strong wings, based at all sector stations, as standard in both defence and attack. In 1941, Fighter Command’s new chiefs went on the offensive, carrying the war across the Channel by day with massive formations of fighters. Today, we know that in reality Bader’s ‘Big Wing’ actually overclaimed by as much as 7:1, incorrectly informing and influencing the future, therefore, and during 1941 Fighter Command lost the day-fighter war by possibly up to 4:1. Many experienced RAF fighter pilots and leaders ended up killed, missing or became prisoners of war that year, men the service could ill-afford to lose – including, ironically, Wing Commander Douglas Bader DSO DFC, who was captured in August 1941.

Without doubt, Dowding and Park were the true architects of victory in the Battle of Britain, and their shabby treatment after winning this unprecedented aerial conflict is a story all of its own, the roots of which lie in the ‘Big Wing Controversy’. It is interesting to ponder, however, what would have happened had Douglas Bader been posted to 11 Group, where he would have found all the action he so craved.

Dilip Sarkar is a historian and writer and author of Bader’s Big Wing Controversy, published by Pen and Sword Books.