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RAF Fighter Command

From Academic Kids

Fighter Command was one of three functional commands that dominated the public perception of the RAF for much of the mid-20th century. It was formed in 1936 to reflect the fact that as the RAF expanded prior to World War II, more specialised control of each type of aircraft: fighter, bomber and maritime patrol was needed.

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Battle of Britain

Over the next few years the Command expanded greatly and replaced its obsolescent biplane squadrons with two of the most famous aircraft ever to fly with the RAF, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. The supreme test of Fighter Command came during the summer of 1940 when the German Luftwaffe attacked the UK in the Battle of Britain. Fighter Command was divided into a number of Groups, each controlling a different part of the UK. No. 11 Group took the brunt of the German attack, as it controlled southeast England and London. It was reinforced by No. 10 Group, which covered southwest England and No. 12 Group, which covered the Midlands. In the end, the Germans were beaten, although the RAF had been eating into its reserves during the middle of the battle. A shortage of aircraft was never a problem. The problem was a shortage of pilots. Pilots were getting shot down and killed faster than they could be trained. It took Fighter Command some months to recover from those losses and to take the offensive.

Winning air superiority over the Luftwaffe

As 1941 began, Fighter Command began the onerous task of winning air superiority over France from the Germans. Fighter sweep missions were dangerous, and most of the factors that had allowed Fighter Command to win the Battle of Britain were now reversed. For example, British pilots shot down in 1940 and surviving would be patched up and sent back to their units as quickly as possible. In 1941, over France, a shot down pilot would, likely as not, end up a prisoner of war.

The task of slowly grinding down the Germans continued into 1942 and 1943. A particularly notable battle took place over Dieppe, France when a raid was mounted there in 1942. The Luftwaffe and RAF clashed in the skies over the French city. In the end, the RAF succeeded in preventing the Luftwaffe from interfering with the shipping, which was its primary aim. However, despite claims at the time that more German aircraft than British had been shot down, postwar analysis did not bear this claim out. In 1943, the most notable event was a very important administrative one. Fighter Command was split up into the Air Defence of Great Britain and the Second Tactical Air Force. As the name of the former suggests, its primary aim was defence of the UK from attack, with the latter concentrating on supporting ground forces after the eventual invasion of Europe.

Invasion of Europe

1944 saw the greatest effort by the Air Defence of Great Britain in its history. Operation Overlord, the invasion of France was launched on 6 June 1944. RAF fighers swarmed over the battle area and, along with their American counterparts, swatted the meagre German opposition aside. They also directly supported the ground forces by strafing enemy positions and transport. Later in the year, the final major test of Fighter Command (renamed back in October 1944) in the war occurred. The Germans began launching the world's first cruise missiles from Belgium to hit targets in England. The V1s, or Doodlebugs or Buzz Bombs were a major challenge for the air defences to handle. They were small and thus hard to spot, both visually and by radar (although by night their exhaust made them easy to see visually). They were also so fast that only a handful of the fastest RAF fighters could catch them and shoot them down. The primary successes in combating this menace went to the Hawker Tempest, although the newly operational Gloster Meteor jet did shoot quite a number of V1s down as well. The aerial bombing of German cities with a civilian death toll of several hundreds of thousands remains a controversial topic, most prominently with regards to the bombing of Dresden that some see as a war crime or a crime against humanity.

Cold War Years

In the aftermath of World War II, the role of Fighter Command was still to protect the UK from air attack. However, its target changed from Germany to the Soviet Union. The Cold War saw the threat of Soviet bombers attacking the United Kingdom loom large. After 1949, those Soviet bombers could be carrying nuclear weapons, and so intercepting them was crucial if the United Kingdom was to be saved during a war. A long succession of fighter aircraft saw service with Fighter Command during the 1950s and 1960s. Particularly notable were the Hawker Hunter and the English Electric Lightning. The latter was the only purely British supersonic aircraft ever developed. That was due to a disastrous defence review in 1957. During the mid-1950s, the performance of the new surface to air missiles was improving at an enormous rate. Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Defence at the time needed to find cuts in the British defence budget, since the UK was in serious danger of being bankrupted by its defence spending. The rate of improvement of surface to air missiles seemed to indicate that they would soon be able to shoot any manned aircraft out of the sky. Consequently, in an infamous statement, the Sandys' review declared that manned aircraft were obsolescent and would some become obsolete. All programmes for manned aircraft that were not too far along were cancelled. The Lightning was the only one of a number of new supersonic aircraft that was too far along to cancel. That decision, combined with the increasing costs of developing aircraft crippled the British aircraft industry and made Fighter Command and the RAF reliant on foreign or jointly developed aircraft.

Strike Command

As the 1960s dawned, the RAF continued to shrink. The three functional commands, Fighter Command, Bomber Command, and Coastal Command had all been formed in 1936 to help command an expanding RAF. It was now becoming clear that the RAF was simply becoming too small to justify their continued existence as separate entities. Consequently, in 1968, Fighter Command and Bomber Command were joined together to form Strike Command, each becoming groups within the new command.

Fighter Command had only existed for 32 years, but in that time it had fought in the largest war in history and had progressed from biplanes to supersonic jets. Its record was glorious, and many mourned its passing.

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