Aviation History

RAF Controller during Battle of Britain explains why it’s not true that ‘Hurricanes went for the bombers and Spitfires engaged the fighters’

The Messerschmitt Bf 109E during the Battle of Britain

As one of the most famous fighting aeroplanes in the history of warfare, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 series is synonymous with Luftwaffe operations during the Second World War and indeed was both constantly upgraded and in constant production for the entirety of the conflict. In fact, the ground-breaking Bf 109 was already in service at a time when most of the world’s major air forces still had biplane designs as their front-line fighters and incredibly, later variants of the aircraft were still in service at the advent of the jet age. The “E or Emil” variant of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the second most numerous version of the fighter to be produced and the one which served extensively throughout 1940’s Battle of Britain.

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As told by Andy Saunders in his book Bf 109E Battle of Britain, the last appearance of an Emil over Britain took place on Jan. 7, 1942, when the last Bf 109E came down over England when Unteroffizier Kurt Thune was forced to bail out of his Bf 109E-7 of 4(F)./123, a photo-reconnaissance unit, over Ashburton, in Devon, following engine failure. The E-model would not be seen in the skies over Britain again.

Moribund Spitfire

Since by then newer Bf 109 variants along with the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 were in service, the Bf 109E was now well and truly redundant as a fighter. Interestingly, even the Spitfire (which, by now, had evolved into the Mk V) was similarly outdated. Its perceived obsolescence prompted recently retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command in 1940, to write to Prime Minister Winston Churchill on Sep. 8, 1942, saying:

‘The Spitfire has been moribund as a Home Defence fighter for two years and died when the Focke-Wulf 190 made an appearance.’

Messerschmitt Bf 109Es

It was an interesting observation, and one that would seem to imply that Dowding actually believed the Spitfire to have been past its shelf life before the end of the Battle of Britain. If we take the word‘moribund’at its literal meaning, then Dowding rather astonishingly believed the Spitfire to be‘half dead’before the Battle of Britain was even done! And perhaps he had a point. If the consensus were to be that, say, the Bf 109E and the Spitfire I were relatively evenly matched, then one could reasonably advance the suggestion that the RAF needed something better than the Bf 109E. Not something that could match it.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is certainly the case that many would agree with the opinion that, more often than not, the Spitfire and Hurricane were bettered in combat by their Bf 109E opponents during the Battle of Britain.

RAF’s fighters intercepting Luftwaffe aircraft during the Battle of Britain

With the RAF’s fighters scrambled and climbing to the anticipated interception point, and with a rate of climb of just under 3,000ft per minute for the Spitfire and a little less for the Hurricane, it could take ten to 12 minutes to reach the altitude at which the Bf 109s might be operating.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vb – W3257 E-FY – 1941

Meanwhile, the enemy formations would have been advancing inexorably towards their objectives, and the Luftwaffe fighter pilots, way above the bombers and the climbing RAF interceptors, very often got an early view of the climbing Spitfires and Hurricanes. Their position was frequently given away by sun glinting off canopies and metalwork as the eagle-eyed Bf 109 pilots looked downwards for their prey.

Certainly, it was the case that the main objective for the RAF fighters would always be the bomber formations, and although there is a popular notion that‘Hurricanes went for the bombers and Spitfires engaged the fighters’, nothing could really be further from the truth – not as a generally set ‘rule’, in any case.

The reality was simply that the intercepting fighters, Spitfires or Hurricanes, engaged whatever it was they were faced with once the enemy was sighted. And both the Spitfire and Hurricane could battle it out with the Bf 109E.

Suffice to say, however, that the Spitfire I had the edge over the Hurricane I in a one-to-one engagement with the Bf 109E. However, specifically sending Spitfires after Bf 109s was really neither practical nor possible.

Hurricanes went for the bombers and Spitfires engaged the fighters’: a popular notion

Hawker Hurricane

And for one very simple reason, as articulated by Kenley Sector Controller Sqn Ldr Anthony Norman, who explained;

‘The raid counter would only give me the estimated number of aircraft and their height, but I would have no idea as to aircraft type. The first thing I’d see would be a raid counter appearing on the situation map, but this would only give me the estimated number of aircraft, and their height, but I would have no idea if they were fighters or bombers, or both. So, when I was eventually ordered by No 11 Group to scramble such-and-such squadron, this would be the squadron that had been first called to readiness, and Group would be able to see from their state board which squadron that was.

‘It is important, here, to emphasise that it was never the case that Hurricanes were despatched to deal with the bombers and the Spitfires to engage the fighters, although it is often suggested that this is what happened. Actually, that notion is complete rubbish because it was impossible, tactically, as we just didn’t know, anyway, how the raid being intercepted was made up. So, at Kenley [in Surrey], we could end up sending No 615 Sqn’s Hurricanes against fighters and then No 64 Sqn’s Spitfires off after a formation of bombers. It had to be that way because we simply didn’t know the raid’s composition.’

Bf 109E Battle of Britain is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

This model is available to order from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: Imperial War Museum, Ministry of Defence and Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-058-1784A-14 / Eckert, Erhardt / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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