Codenamed Circus

An image of Spitfire Mk Vb of 92 Squadron in the air.

A Spitfire Mk Vb of 92 Squadron based at Biggin Hill, May 1941. The Mk Vb was the principal Spitfire variant in service during 1941 and 1942. This particular aircraft (serial R6923) was shot down by a Messerschmidt Bf 109 near Dover on 21 June 1941. CH 2929.

An image of Hurricanes of 312 Squadron escorting Short Stirling bombers on a ‘circus’ operation.

Hurricanes of 312 Squadron escorting Short Stirling bombers on a ‘circus’ operation to Lille, 5 July 1941. The use of heavy bombers instead of the more usual Bristol Blenheims was a further attempt to encourage Luftwaffe fighters into the air. C2027.

In late 1940, a few British pilots, demonstrated that British fighters did have the range to conduct attacks on targets or conduct fighter sweeps over Northern France, Belgium and Holland. From the Spring of 1941 to early 1944 the Fighter Command squadrons primary tasks were to conduct seek and destroy missions (Rodeos) Fighter Sweeps (Ramrods) and if the weather was bad small scale attacks on targets of opportunity (Rhubarbs). Collectively these were known as circuses.

The year of 1941 had been a desperate one for the Allies on all fronts. Allied armies in North Africa were on a see-saw of operations back and forth across the desert, Malta was being pounded by Italian and German aircraft, German U-boats were decimating ships bringing supplies across the Atlantic, Russia had been invaded, and in early December Japan had brought America into the war by attacking Pearl Harbor. There had been one or two high spots, such as the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May, and the London Blitz had come to an end that same month, but everything seemed to be going rapidly downhill. Bomber Command was doing its best to strike back, but without the navigational aids and target identification methods that were to come, the damage inflicted was less than supposed, or hoped for.

Fighter Command, along with light bombers from 2 and 16 Groups, and later with Stirlings and Hampdens from 3 and 5 Groups, had taken the air war into the skies of northern France and Belgium, but at what cost? If success was being thought to be made because losses were far less than German aircraft shot down, then success was elusory. In the beginning, the idea was merely to take the air war to the Germans following the hard fought actions during the Battle of Britain. It helped morale if the RAF fighter pilots could hit back and feel they were ‘dishing it out’ rather than constantly ‘taking it’.

After the Germans moved on Russia in mid-June, there was another incentive in taking this air war to the enemy. Russia wanted Britain to harass the Germans in the West in the hope that the pressure in the East could be eased somewhat. Britain’s war leaders thought that by keeping up attacks over northern France, it would force the Germans to reduce the number of aircraft being used on the Eastern Front. As we now know this did not happen, and leaving just two fighter Gruppen in France and the Low Countries was more than enough to cope with these RAF incursions.

The idea that massed fighter sweeps [Codenamed Circus] by Fighter Command would encourage Luftwaffe fighters to rise and do battle was very naïve.  Exactly when the code-word ‘Circus’ came into being is obscure, but one imagines someone of WW1 vintage likened the mass of aircraft to be akin to the German Flying Circuses they had seen above the trenches during 1917–18. In a report on this operation it was referred to as ‘First Fighter Sweep’. While many German pilots were keen to engage in dogfights, if for no other reason than to increase personal victory scores, their leaders saw no percentage in shooting down a few Spitfires or Hurricanes while risking perhaps a similar number of losses. The RAF had found this out in late 1940, knowing that fighter sweeps, or Frei Jagd as the Germans called them, posed no threat to military or civilian targets, and were mostly left alone, thereby eliminating the loss of valuable pilots and aircraft. The Germans had countered by using their bomb-carrying jabo staffels to make it difficult for RAF interceptors to ignore. Now, in 1941, the Germans had to be encouraged to engage by using small formations of bombers as bait, and when this started to pall, the RAF introduced four-engined Stirlings to entice air combat.

As 1941 progressed, the RAF was encouraged by the number of German fighters that were being shot down, or in truth, being ‘claimed’ as shot down. Even in the 1914–18 war it was known that fighter claims bore little or no relation to the number of enemy aircraft that were actually destroyed. In that conflict, the RFC, RNAS and then the RAF, were constantly over the German side of the lines in France, and the chances of a German falling on the Allied side were few and far between. In order to produce some measure of success, the only guide to what damage was being inflicted was by corroborated reports by the pilots themselves.

This was all very well, but put simply, the conditions that prevailed made this a very hit and miss affair. Aeroplanes, and therefore airmen, flying at high speed, and, if they were not stupid, constantly looking out for danger, had very limited access to a clear picture of what was happening around them. Certainly if they were firing upon a hostile aeroplane and it burst into flames in front of them, or perhaps a wing or two came adrift, then it was fairly certain the aircraft was destroyed. Even seeing it go down and strike the ground resulted in making a good claim, but it could rarely, if ever, be known with absolute certainty if the crashing aircraft was in fact the one you had shot at. Several pilots shooting at several aircraft, and as the whirling and turning continued, looked down when an opportunity occurred, and saw an aircraft crash, believed it was the one they had been firing at moments before. In this way, one crashing aircraft produced two or three claims by the squadron as a whole.

Cloudy or misty conditions did not help in the claiming game either. Firing at and seeing an opponent go spinning down into cloud, could never be turned into a confirmed kill, so it was frustrating for the fighting pilots not to be able to claim a definite scalp. Therefore, it was not long before these sorts of actions resulted in what was termed as an ‘out of control’ claim. That is to say, someone else saw the action and confirmed that their colleague had indeed hit an enemy aircraft so badly that it had gone down ‘out of control’ (adding the word completely also helped). Pilots were supposed to understand the difference between an aircraft really out of control, rather than one with a pilot simply spinning out of the fight, and once below the cloud into which he was seen spinning, flattened out and went home, a better and a wiser man. This inevitably became, what in WW2 would be known as a ‘probable’ victory. Of course, the ‘ooc’ aircraft might well have continued down through the cloud or ground mist, to smash to pieces over the French countryside, but unless it was near enough to the lines for an Allied soldier to witness it, the ‘victorious’ pilot could only report one enemy aircraft ‘out of control’.

As things progressed, the word ‘victory’ became synonymous with ‘destroyed’, and the armchair historians in later years, added confirmed victories together with these ‘ooc’ aircraft (or probables) in order to create a total victory list for the man. Therefore, if the pilot was given credit for three enemy aircraft destroyed and four ‘out of control’ his score became seven. In citations for medals this separation was not always recorded and the journalists of the time, and then the pulp fiction writers of the 1920–30s invariably ignored (or did not fully understand) the two types of claims, and listed the victory scores as enemy aircraft destroyed. This in itself didn’t matter a hoot, but this is why many WW1 pilots appear to have achieved a considerable number of victories – of which some, in reality, were merely probables.

In WW2 this did not happen. Fighter pilots could claim an enemy aircraft destroyed, probably destroyed or damaged. If confirmed as destroyed it had to have been witnessed by an independent person and seen to crash, crash in flames, break up in the air, or the pilot take to his parachute. If it merely fell or spun away out of sight trailing smoke or flame but not actually seen to crash, blow up or its pilot bale out, then it was a probable. Even if the victorious pilot reported it had crashed but had no witnesses to the event, the squadron intelligence officer could only give credit for a probable, although it became obvious that certain pilots – those with a track record for shooting down enemy machines – were often given credit. Whatever the result, only those aircraft confirmed as destroyed were credited as victories, and were not, like WW1, added to probables to show an overall score. As camera guns were fitted to day fighter aircraft, often a confirmed victory could be given if the pictures showed the enemy aircraft being destroyed, or at least, so heavily damaged that it was more than probable that it was destroyed. Anything less, even if the attacker saw the aircraft crash after he had stopped firing, was more often than not given as a probable or even a damaged.

The German pilots had similar categories of victory credits, especially the confirmation by another pilot or ground observer. However, neither side, obviously, kept to these rules, as witnessed by the number of claims and credits against actual losses. It was generally a case of the head seeing what the eye did not. If a pilot was convinced that his opponent had been destroyed, even if he had to admit to himself he had not actually seen it, he might easily report it destroyed because he could not believe it could have survived the damage he had inflicted.

If the problem of speed in WW1 contributed to over-confidence in claiming a victory because, having fired at an opponent, then taking his eyes from it to check his own safety, then having turned or banked looked back and saw what he assumed to be the aircraft he had just attacked crash, it was easy to assume it was his. In the Second World War, the speed of combat compared with World War One meant that a pilot very quickly exited the immediate combat zone. It was this more than anything else, especially in a fight where there were several aircraft of both sides involved, that one falling aircraft could become the ‘victory’ of several pilots. And if an aircraft was seen to fall into the sea or crash several thousand feet below, it was easy to say that it was a German aircraft when in fact it might well have been a British one.

Both sides were claiming vastly more of their opponents as destroyed, than were actually lost or even damaged. On Circus operations during 1941, the RAF’s own score of enemy fighters destroyed came to 556, which added to other types of operations that showed 219 victories, the total then became 775. Of the 219, eighty-two were under the heading of ‘fighter sweeps’ and often these sweeps were in support of Circuses, so one could argue that Circuses had accounted for well over 600 victories. As the Germans only lost 103 fighters between 14 June and 31 December on the Western Front in 1941, it does not take a mathematical genius to see that the RAF pilots were vastly over-claiming. Often in good faith one has to say. To say otherwise would not be very gallant. However, there are some examples of pilots being credited with a confirmed victory with untruthful combat report narratives.

Today’s Internet figures record that the Germans lost 236 fighters from all causes, 103 of them in combat. RAF claims, however, amounted to 711 [another source says 731] enemy aircraft, while the RAF lost approximately 411 Spitfires and ninety-three Hurricanes [or about 505 in total].

It is only human nature to discover that if the intelligence officer was not keen in giving a confirmed victory or if a pilot’s report did not mention a realistic demise of enemy aircraft or pilot, that an extra couple of words would make the difference. There is the case of one successful British pilot who claimed a 109 shot down, and ended his report by saying he saw it dive into the sea. We now know from German evidence that this particular German pilot, while heading for the sea, did not crash but pulled out and went home. But as the RAF pilot’s report said it dived into the sea, it helped his claim for a confirmed victory. Don’t forget that most of these RAF pilots were little more than boys and with the adrenalin flowing, heart pumping and breathing heavy, it is all too easy to guild the lily, and come home a champion rather than an also-ran.

It happened on the German side too. One has only to compare RAF losses with German claims to see that the same was just as true as with the RAF, especially on the rare occasions when Blenheims survived the fighter onslaught and all returned home, yet some were claimed as destroyed anyway. Despite the assumed strict confirmation rules, it has to be said that those German aces with growing scores, appear to be among the most prolific over-claimers. Their carrot was the award of the Knight’s Cross for approximately twenty victories, it was a definite aim.

Luftwaffe claims according to one report noted almost 1,500, broken down into 850 Spitfires, 100 Hurricanes, 161 Blenheims, 149 Wellingtons and 1 Lancaster (but no Stirlings).


The Air Ministry – that is to say, the top brass who were over-seeing the day to day, week to week, month to month activities of the offensive operations being carried out – blinkered to common sense, or did they just go along with everything? Did they really think that Fighter Command was actually inflicting so such damage on the Luftwaffe? Surely Intelligence gathering sources could reveal that there was a vast difference between claims of losses and actual losses?

At the end of August 1941 for instance, Fighter Command gave an analysis of enemy casualties during that month. Total enemy losses attributed to RAF fighters was 146 with another seventy-seven as probables. While this did include some sixteen Me110s, He111s, Do17s and Ju88s, it still made 131 Me109s lost by the enemy. Staying with the fighter losses, these figures estimated (and assumed) personnel losses of the same number, i.e. 131, plus a possible sixty-eight more casualties in the probable category, making 199 pilot casualties. This analysis also estimated, by adding total and probable losses together, that the Luftwaffe had suffered a possible loss of 227 during the month.

We imagine that the Chief of the Air Staff and his immediate inner circle read these figures and jumped up and down with joy, believing the war was not far off being won if their fighter pilots could inflict such pain on the enemy. However, there had to be some officers questioning the ‘intelligence’ reports. Presumably everyone looked with less favour on RAF losses. During the year the figure of lost pilots recorded by Fighter Command who had been on Circus operations totalled 296 killed, taken prisoner or were still missing. Another fifty-five had become casualties on fighter sweeps, while overall, for all operations (including Rhubarbs, anti-shipping escorts, etc.), pilot losses were 462.

A good number of these losses were veterans of the Battle of Britain, in fact over 200 pilots that had seen action in the defence of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940 had become casualties from late 1940 and during 1941 – some eighty-two being killed in action with twenty-six others taken prisoner. Some, naturally, had lost their lives in flying accidents – about fifty-three – while about twenty others had been lost or shot down after being sent to Malta or North Africa, but that still meant that over 100 had become casualties, mainly over France and the Channel, while ‘taking the war to the enemy’. A number had also been wounded, some never to return to operational flying. A few had also been brought down, evaded capture and eventually managed to return to England.

During the second half of the 1941 ‘offensive’, the RAF lost around 600 fighters, as opposed to some 920 in the Battle of Britain. Luftwaffe records seem to indicate around 100 Me109s lost.

The two main Geschwaders, JG26 and JG2, generally had around 250 fighters on strength, although serviceability often reduced this overall figure – sometimes by up to a third. After Rolf Pingel was interrogated following his capture in early July, it became clear to Fighter Command leaders that their task of reducing Luftwaffe effort on the Eastern Front so as to counter the offensive over France was not working. It also became clear that German losses were not in accord with RAF claims. Following a conference on 29 July, it was decided to reduce somewhat the intensity of the offensive. Ironically, the RAF failed to realise that their efforts were in fact having some impact on Luftwaffe fighter serviceability which was at this time down to 70 per cent. More ironically, the respite enabled the serviceability to increase to around 80 per cent by August. However, this brief lull was over by mid-August and Circus operations returned to normal. In late August the question of continuing with these operations was still being considered.

1941: The Difficult Year

By Marshal of the RAF Sir Sholto Douglas

The Circus Offensive, 14th June to 31st December 1941




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