The ‘Big Wing’ was the name given to a tactic for fighter planes during the Battle of Britain and beyond. ‘Big Wing’ was much favoured by Trafford Leigh-Mallory, head of No 12 Group. During the early stages of the Battle of Britain, it quickly became apparent that the pilots from Fighter Command would always be outnumbered when they went into aerial combat. This was because a fighter squadron in the RAF consisted of between 9 to 12 aircraft whereas a Luftflotte consisted of between 30 to 40 aircraft – though a combination of bombers and fighters.
The bulk of the Battle of Britain was fought in the skies guarded by No 11 Group commanded by Keith Park. Fighter planes under his immediate command were tasked with defending London, the southeast coastline and among others Chatham and Portsmouth naval docks and the Spitfire factory at Southampton. As a result of this responsibility, Park adopted what was viewed as a conservative approach to fighting the battle. Park was acutely aware that loss of aircraft was not the primary issue – but loss of pilots was. When attacking an incoming enemy, Park preferred to use small groups of fighters that could get airborne quickly and attack bombers while attempting not to engage Me-109’s. Park believed that this approach not only gave him the best way of defeating the bombers – and therefore saving Fighter Command’s bases in the initial days of the battle – but also gave him a greater chance of seeing his fighters return to base to fight again.
When Park needed extra fighters he could call for support from No 10 Group, which covered southwest England and from No 12 Group, which covered the Midland and East Anglia.
Trafford Leigh-Mallory commanded No 12 Group. He believed that each Group would present itself as a more formidable foe if it attacked the incoming Luftwaffe in large numbers as opposed to attacks made by a limited number of fighters. He also believed that Fighter Command should meet the Luftwaffe over the Channel and attack before German aircraft crossed the coastline. Rather than wait for the enemy to cross over the coast, Leigh-Mallory envisaged a more aggressive approach. This was the ‘Big Wing’ plan. It took time to get all the squadrons suitably assembled but its potential was to give Fighter Command a much greater ability to destroy enemy aircraft before they had the opportunity to drop their bombs. His views were not shared by either by Keith Park or Hugh Dowding.
The time factor is where Park and Leigh-Mallory clashed.
Park did not believe that Fighter Command had time to assemble a ‘big wing’ and that his attacks by a smaller number of fighters were far more important in that they broke up the enemy’s formation and therefore greatly hindered it in its final desire – to accurately drop bombs on a chosen target. Park believed that his fighters should fight as near to Fighter Command bases as was possible so that they could be re-fuelled and re-armed as quickly as was possible. This practice did not include fighting over the Channel. Park also believed that a pilot shot down over land had a better chance of survival than one shot down over the Channel.
Leigh-Mallory envisaged attacks by three to five squadrons (as many as 60 aircraft if there were 12 planes per squadron), which would give any attack huge ‘hitting’ power. There were many who agreed with his aggressive stance, one of the more famous being Douglas Bader who formed a wing at Duxford based on Big Wing theory.
Park had himself used Big Wing tactics during the Dunkirk in 1940 evacuation but he had found it inflexible and difficult to control. The most pressing criticism he had of Big Wing was that if it was sent to the wrong place, there was nothing in reserve to combat the Luftwaffe if they were elsewhere and there would also be a time delay before the Big Wing moved to its new position. This is why he used much smaller squadron tactics for No 11 Group.
A counter-argument put forward was that a ‘Big Wing’ formation could already be in flight and ready for action when Chain Home picked up any information about an incoming raid and simply directed it to where it was needed.
How effective ‘Big Wing’ would or could have been if used by No 11 Group in the Battle of Britain is open to debate. The removal of Dowding and the promotion of Leigh-Mallory to command No 11 Group meant that ‘Big Wing’ became an offensive tactic as opposed to a defensive one when the Allies went on to the attack. There were those in Fighter Command who believed that one complimented the other if used properly and that the real problem was the clash between Park and Leigh-Mallory as it was believed that Leigh-Mallory was furious that No 11 Group seemed to be getting all the publicity for its part in the Battle of Britain and that No 12 got little.