Yet More Rubbish About Fighter Command & the Battle of Britain

I am afraid that Anthony J. Cumming is quite wrong in his article in November 2007’s BBC History Magazine when he claims that later in the Battle of Britain new pilots were going into combat with as little as ‘10 hours of solo training.’  A new pilot would not be able to even fly a Spitfire with that little training, let alone fight in one.

Although flying training was cut as the Battle progressed, it still took around nine months for a pilot to be trained and no-one would have been sent into battle without a minimum of over a hundred hours, and most much more than that. Joe Leigh, a young sergeant pilot who was posted to 64 Squadron in September 1940 is a case in point.  Having joined the RAFVR in June 1939, he was called up at the outbreak of war and began his training in January, and was not posted to an Operational Training Unit until 31 August 1940.  After two weeks’ conversion onto Spitfires he joined 64 Squadron.  It was only in this latter part of training – at the OTU – that training was cut significantly, and it is true that some pilots were entering the battle with as little as ten hours on Spitfires or Hurricanes. These were few, however. In practice, however, few squadron leaders sent new pilots into battle without raising those hours a bit more.  Jimmy Corbin, for example, joined 66 Squadron on 28 August 1940, (having had 27 hours on Spitfires), but was not allowed to become an operational fighter pilot and after a week or so, was temporarily posted to 610 Squadron in north-east England.  There, where the battle was quieter, he was given the chance to gather some all-important experience before rejoining 66 Squadron once more.

It is true that gunnery training was insufficient, but it must be remembered that most fighter pilots learned gunnery through experience, and that very few men on either side had a natural ability to shoot down other aircraft, which is why the majority of aerial victories were achieved by a very small number of pilots.  Even so, the Luftwaffe had the experience of Spain to help them, both in tactics and aircraft design, while the best of the Polish pilots had the Polish campaign of September 1939 to draw on.  RAF Fighter Command had France, but fewer pilots than might be expected who had been based in France during the Blitzkrieg went on to fly in the Battle of Britain. 
Cumming is right to highlight the difficulty of shooting down German bombers with .303 machine guns, but it is also worth pointing out that, in contrast, German fighters had 20mm cannon shells packed with high explosive, and usually, if one of those hit a Spitfire or Hurricane, that would be enough to send it spiralling earthwards.  This meant that theoretically they could spend less time shooting at a target and that their ammunition would go further than their opposite numbers in Fighter Command.  Messerschmitt 109s also had fuel injection, enabling them to dive out of the fray with greater ease.  
 Finally, it is also worth bearing in mind that large numbers of aircraft were lost in ways other than as a result of enemy bullets or cannon shells.  Engine failure, propeller failure, total icing of canopy and windscreens in dives, pilot black-out and human error all contributed to large numbers of losses.  It is safe to assume that in the region of 25-35% of Fighter Command’s losses in the battle occurred in this manner.  The kill/loss ratio would not appear as unimpressive if one only considered losses to enemy action.
In any case, such arguments are in many ways irrelevant.  Despite recent claims from naval historians, Germany’s number one stated prerequisite for an invasion of England was the gaining of air superiority over the landing area.  This they never achieved because they were unable to shoot down enough aircraft and because they lost too many of theirs. 

2 replies
  1. John Grimsley
    John Grimsley says:


    A good spot. With the ever increasing interest in World War Two it is critical that the writing on the period does not become sensationalist.

    Have you seen ‘Down to Earth’ by Squadron leader Kenneth Butterwoth with Owen Zupp? I have just returned from a month in Australia where I work for the Bradman Museum of Cricket. I know Owen through playing cricket with him. He is a Qantas pilot with an interesting military family background. His father fought a commando in WW 2 and as a fighter pilot in Korea. Quite a contrast. He met Kenneth Butterwoth who had retired to the Southern Highlands near Sydney and drew what i think is a fascinating tale from him. He was at Dunkirk, where he crash landed on the beach, Dieppe and D Day. He was reunited with his Hurricane nearly 50 years later after it ‘surfaced ‘from the beaches surrounding Dunkirk.

    All the very best and look forward to March and Italy’s Sorrow.


    John Grimsley

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