British Aero-Naval Co-Operation in the Mediterranean and the Formation of RAF No. 201 (Naval Co-Operation) Group

[Cross posted from Birmingham "On War"]

Created in October 1941, RAF No. 201 (Naval Co-operation) Group existed as an independent unit until February 1944, with a complex mechanism of control shared between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. This article examines British aero-naval co-operation in the Mediterranean during the Second World War and the role of 201 Group within this. It incorporates the conflicting policies and strategies of both services, along with the roles of the major personalities involved from each of them, in what was yet another aspect of friction between the junior and senior services.

By taking the debate over the establishment of an overseas RAF Coastal Command, and the subsequent formation of 201 Group, as a case study, it demonstrates that British aero-naval co-operation in the theatre was a compromise between strategies that satisfied neither party. The group itself did make an immediate contribution to relations between the services in the Mediterranean and had an impact upon the maritime war there. Successes were limited though, and the Group could potentially have achieved much more with greater priority in the allocation of resources. However, the greatest innovation regarding 201 Group was not its creation and subsequent operations, but rather its legacy. The article will conclude by showing how it laid the foundations for important innovation in aero-naval co-operation overseas, influencing later and much larger multi-national commands and operations, in both the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

By Dr Richard Hammond, University of Exeter

(This is an abstract from our forthcoming book on transformation and innovation in the British Military)

Operation JUBILEE and the Transformation of Air Support for Combined Operations: The Case of Command and Control and Aerial Bombardment

[Cross posted from Birmingham "On War"]

Operation JUBILEE, the raid on Dieppe on 19 August 1942, has remained an area of intensive and divisive debate amongst historians. Debate remains over questions relating to the reasons for the operation, authorisation for the raid, and the argument over lessons learnt. One area of the operation that has received scant attention from historians is the question about the performance of the RAF during the operation. What attention has been paid to the role of air power has concentrated on the issue of the lack of air bombardment in support of the raid. Brain Loring Villa has remarked that ‘There was a degree of callousness in Portal’s allowing a largely Canadian force to go in without the bomber support they needed.’ However, this concentration on the issue of bombardment ignores the state of Combined Operations doctrine in the early years of the Second World War, which stressed the importance of ‘Control of the Air’.

In addition, Operation JUBILEE has been criticised for Earl Mountbatten of Burma‘s claim over the ‘Lessons Learnt’ from the raid and the impact this had on Operation OVERLORD. However, a careful examination of sources illustrates that the raid did have an impact on future operation, albeit not in the direct way that Mountbatten suggested. Therefore, this chapter examines the ‘Lessons Learnt’ thesis with reference to the transformation of air support for Combined Operations. It contends that JUBILEE formed an important catalyst to changing thoughts over the use of air power in Combined Operations. It will do this by examining the development of Command and Control systems and the use of aerial bombardment. It will illustrate that Dieppe formed an important element of the experience gained in 1942/43. This chapter argues that while there may not be a direct link to Operation OVERLORD in 1944 operations at Dieppe had an impact during 1943 and needs to be considered as one line of development in parallel with those from other theatres of war.

By Ross Mahoney, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

(This is an abstract from our forthcoming book on transformation and innovation in the British Military)

Some more thoughts on an Air Force Records Society

[Cross posted from Thoughts on Military History]

I have written elsewhere there has been some discussion of whether there is a need for an Air Force Records Society. I have prepared a briefing paper that has been sent round to various people working in the field. However, I thought I would post part of it here to try and gain further ideas on this project. I am interested in any thoughts people may have on this.

Overview

Both the Royal Navy and Army have a Records Society. To date the Naval Records Society, founded in 1893 by leading figures including Professor Sir John Knox Laughton, has published over 150 volumes. The Army Records Society has published thirty-one volumes to date. Both organisations have been successful in promoting the history of their respective services by bringing together collections of documents to highlight the past.

The history of British air power is now more than one hundred years old. An important question exists, should there be a records society that deals with the Royal Air Force. The RAF and its predecessors, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, have a rich documentary heritage that should be preserved. The society would provide a valuable source for serving officers, scholars and all those interested in British air power history and the development of air power generally.

As noted below publications could include a variety of strands. However, to begin with there are several obvious sources that could be explored. These included the papers of Lieutenant General Sir David Henderson or Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard. Possible unpublished memoirs include the fascinating work written by Air Marshal Sir Edgar Kingston-McCloughry, which is a refreshing honest and critical work that was never published, and languishes in his papers at the Imperial War Museum. There is also the possibility of publishing significant works that are now out of copyright. In addition, it may be worth looking into the possibility of publishing key volumes from the Air Historical Branch Narrative collection.

Aim of the Society

The object of an Air Force Records Society would be to edit and publish manuscripts relating to the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm, and their antecedents’, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, and to reprint works of military interest.

Council/Committee

The society will require a council in order to run it effectively. It should consist of a:

  • President
  • Vice-President
  • Treasurer
  • Secretary
  • Editor
  • Councillors’

Members should come from leading figures in the field of air power history. Terms of service and responsibilities will be laid out in a constitution that can only be revised at an annual general meeting.

Membership

Membership should be drawn from anyone who has an interest in the history of the RAF and FAA and their antecedents’. It is hoped that membership will be drawn from members of academia, the Ministry of Defence the heritage sector, students, serving and retired members of the RAF and FAA.

Possible Volumes

As with the NRS and ARS, the society would look to publish one volume per year. The society would aim to publish volumes that deals with the following areas:

  • Personal Papers
  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Unpublished Memoirs/Autobiography
  • Themed Documents Collections
  • Miscellany

Challenges

There are several challenges that will need to be surmounted in order to see an Air Force Records Society come to fruition:

  • Setting up a committee
  • Produce a constitution for the society including terms of service for council members
  • Advertising the society
  • Developing a relationship with relevant archival collections
  • Developing a relationship with a relevant publisher in order to produce volumes
  • Receiving proposals for future publications
  • Developing a website

Thoughts welcomed

‘Despised and Neglected': Transformation and Innovation in British Air Defence, 1922-1935

[Cross posted at Birmingham "On War"]

The conventional wisdom is that British air defence was, in A. J. P. Taylor’s words, ‘despised and comparatively neglected before the war’ and that victory in the Battle of Britain was the result of innovations: of radar, the Spitfire and the Hurricane, and their combination in the ‘Dowding System’. This chapter examines British air defence transformation and innovation from the creation of the Home Defence Air Force in 1922 until the formation of Fighter Command in 1936. Counter-revisionist interpretations of appeasement recognise the government’s wholly defensive military strategy abandoned France and failed to deter Hitler, despite Britain’s relative military strength. Yet air defence is somewhat neglected in the historiography of British interwar air power, which focuses on Trenchard’s strategic bombing doctrine and its failure in 1939-42. This chapter challenges the conventional wisdom by arguing that successive interwar governments comparatively prioritised air defence, which was seen as a continuation of Britain’s long-standing maritime strategy, shaped by the need for economy, and the public fear of the bomber and of bloody land conflict. Furthermore, though successive Chiefs of the Air Staff favoured strategic bombing as a means of deterrence and to reinforce the RAF’s independent strategic role, there remained a strong commitment to, and expertise in, air defence throughout the Service. In contrast to its blind faith in strategic bombing, the RAF transformed its air defence scheme following cabinet direction in 1922-23, because of the French air menace, and again in 1934-35, following the identification of Germany as the long-term threat to Britain. On each occasion, the RAF further developed the innovative system of early warning, centralised control and co-ordinated fighter and anti-aircraft gun engagement zones devised to defend London in 1917-18, and which was fundamental to the Service’s formation. The transformation of air defence used objective evaluation, bespoke aircraft design and scientific advice to both drive and incorporate innovation.

By John Alexander, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

(This is an abstract from our forthcoming book on transformation and innovation in the British Military)

A Forgotten Revolution? Army Co-operation Command and Artillery Co-operation

Jonathan Bailey has written that the First World War was the time of a true revolution in military affairs about the development of artillery firing.[i] One of the first major developments that took place was the creation and refinement of the ‘clock code’ system.[ii] Using this system, a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner to the Royal Air Force, was able to correct the fall of shot of the artillery by passing to the artillery battery commander details of how far from the target the guns were. The pilot would correct the shooting of the artillery by pointing out how far away and in what direction the shells of the guns had landed. The distance would be passed on using numbers and the direction using the picture of a clock face. The target was placed in the middle of the clock face and shells that fell beyond the target and on a straight line to the target would be corrected with a call of twelve, if it fell short on the same line the call would be six, at ninety degrees left of the target nine and ninety degrees right three. Any other direction would be corrected by using the hour on the clock with which it corresponded. This system would prove to function perfectly well throughout the whole of the First World War and was the system that the RAF went to war with in 1939.

The system of correcting artillery fire remained unchanged until 1938. The Air Council of the Air Ministry were against making alterations to the clock code system as they felt that it was adequate to meet the needs that the army would face in future conflicts. They felt that light aircraft could not be kept in action close to artillery units, as had been the case in the First World War.[iii] The Air Council were also fearful of introducing a new, untried and unfamiliar system with the growing tensions in Europe at this time. The War Office were unimpressed with the Air Councils attitude and pushed for more to be done. The Air Ministry agreed to trials between the AOC-in-C 22 [Army Co-operation] Group and the Commandant of the School of Artillery in December 1938.[iv] The results of these trials and further trials conducted in order to test aircraft as well as procedure. The results were that light aircraft over the battlefield could observe fire with the ‘clock code’ system.[v] Spitfires conducted mock attacks on the aircraft and the Taylorcraft light aircraft observing the artillery fire had a good chance of dodging the fire of a modern fighter.[vi] There was, however, no training for pilots in registering targets for the artillery. If an artillery officer required an appraisal of a prospective target, the request would have to be sent along the command chain via an air liaison officer. When the artillery battery received the information, it was usually out of date.[vii] There was also pressure from within the War Office to establish a Flying Observation Post (Flying OP) and to begin plans to train Gunner Officers to fly. A Flying OP was to work in conjunction with Ground Observation Post (Ground OP) in establishing targets to be engaged and operating deep behind their own lines in order to be afforded the protection of friendly anti-aircraft guns.

The first of these Flying OPs was established in February 1940.[viii] This force was established ‘to determine in the light of practical experience obtained under war conditions the possibilities and limitations of the Flying OP, the most suitable type of aircraft and the most suitable organization [sic]’.[ix] The tests were to be conducted in three parts. The first was an initial training period. The second a practical training with the French, and a final test in the French Army area in conditions of actual warfare including shoots against German targets it was at this time that the term Air Observation Post (Air OP) was adopted.[x] The flight was sent to France on 19 April 1940.[xi] The first of the three tests were conducted after the flight had moved to the continent. The final of the three tests was due to be carried out in early May and the forces were established ready to conduct the tests on 9 May 1940.[xii] The following day the Germans began to implement Fall Gelb (Case Yellow): the invasion of France and the Low Countries.[xiii] The artillery designated for the tests were forced to move back to their formations leaving the Air OP Flight (D Flight) waiting for the campaign to stabilise, when it was clear that this would not happen D Flight was recalled to England.[xiv]

One of the first official moves at changing artillery co-operation policy was a letter regarding the subject sent from the Director of Military Co-operation Air Commodore Victor Goddard to Barratt at Army Co-operation Command. In this letter, Goddard states that the Air Staff were against the formation of ‘special air units for artillery observation or reconnaissance, unless it can be clearly shown that there is an urgent requirement for such units which cannot be met by Army Co-operations squadrons’.[xv] The School of Artillery recommended that a certain number of aircraft should specialise in artillery work and should be trained by the School of Artillery so that they had the same tactical knowledge and the same the understanding of gunnery as an artillery officer.[xvi] This was just one aspect to an idea by the School of Artillery to allow aircraft to have tactical control over the fire of artillery batteries. In order to facilitate this the school further advised that a multi-seater aircraft should be employed in this work to allow an artillery officer to conduct the shoot according to artillery methods without the need for the artillery officer learning to fly. Artillery officers were also to be seconded to army co-operation squadrons specifically for artillery work.[xvii] The co-operation between the School of Artillery and Army Co-operation Command is evident and is surprising given the general relations that existed between the army and RAF in the wake of the Battle of France and the fall out that it had caused between the two services.[xviii]

Barratt wrote in a letter to the Under-Secretary of State for Air that ‘I consider that in order to get a true and undistorted picture of this problem, it is first desirable to set out the problem as the Army [sic] sees it, and to show in this picture what they conceive to be their requirements…’[xix] Again the desire to see the problem from a view that would almost certainly be contradictory to the RAF shows that Barratt and his command were willing to adopt a different approach and attitude in co-operating with at least one part of the army. Barratt also voiced his concerns regarding the ability of the Air OP to operate in the face of enemy action. It was felt that ‘the Air OP must be entirely vulnerable to any enemy fighters which cares to shoot it down’.[xx] Barratt’s concern over the safety of his pilots who may be conducting shoots using the Air OP system was to be a recurring issue in the development of artillery reconnaissance.

Barratt also voiced his concerns regarding the ability of the Air OP to operate in the face of enemy action. It was felt that ‘the Air OP must be entirely vulnerable to any enemy fighters which cares to shoot it down’.[xxi] Barratt’s concern over the safety of his pilots who may be conducting shoots using the Air OP system was to be a recurring issue in the development of artillery reconnaissance. Barratt’s response to the trials was one of scepticism and he considered ‘that body of experience gained in the late war and since has all pointed to the advantages of the ‘Clock Code’ system’.[xxii] Barratt’s belief in the ‘clock code’ system stemmed more from the fear of false conclusions being drawn from brief experiments than from any sense of conservatism about changing the system used for artillery reconnaissance.[xxiii] This became a realisation when Barratt was forced to explain to the Under Secretary of State for Air about the lack of efficiency regarding artillery co-operation in Army Co-operation Squadrons. ‘I feel that much of the falling off in efficiency in this part of the Army Co-operation Squadron task has been due to the propagation of rumour as to other and better methods than those shown in AP 1176’.[xxiv] Further trials were conducted using the artillery method during April 1941 and the conclusions reached were similar to those seen previously. These were that the ‘artillery methods of ranging by corrections to line and range are simpler, quicker, and more efficient than any method based on the ‘clock code’.

The failures of the ‘clock code’ system in France combined with further problems faced in the fighting in Libya led to a loss of confidence in the system in the army.[xxv] Barratt’s response was that the ‘clock code’ system was not at fault in these operations but that the aircraft employed in it were operating in the face of intense enemy opposition. He was concerned that the trials had been too few and were skewed in favour of a positive result by the School of Artillery.[xxvi] Whilst these concerns may be interpreted as simply blocking a new development that had been shown to work in order to preserve the autonomy of the RAF whilst conducting army co-operation work. The evidence of co-operation between Army Co-operation Command and the School of Artillery, shown above, leads more to the conclusion that Barratt felt that the procedure could not be successfully carried out, and wished to see more trials conducted before it would receive his approval.

The procedure for artillery reconnaissance first developed during the First World War was only suitable for the conditions of that war. The lack of fluidity and almost stable front lines allowed a system to develop, quickly, this system, however, was only suited to those conditions. This was very quickly discovered during the first major test of this procedure against the relatively quicker and more mobile warfare of the German Wehrmacht in 1940. The attitudes of both the British Army and the RAF to co-operation during the inter-war period, in Britain at least, did little to improve the situation before the British Expeditionary Force was stationed in France. This left those charged with the responsibility of modifying the existing procedure with only the experience of the First World War to guide them and on which to base their expectations. Much co-operation between the School of Artillery and Nos. 70 and 71 Groups of Army Co-operation Command occurred, despite the general feeling of animosity still felt by both services in Britain.[xxvii] This co-operation was the most that had been seen between the army and RAF since the formation of the RAF as an independent force in 1918. Barratt’s move to block the adoption of the new procedure that was being trialled during 1941 can be interpreted in several ways. His reasoning for doing so, however, appears to be that of confirming the results already achieved through more rigorous and testing trials in order to confirm the results. Through further testing at a higher level the procedure, as well as those responsible for carrying it out, would be exposed to more stress and so a greater degree of authenticity could be achieved. Trials of this nature would also confirm if the procedure could be implemented with ease by the majority of pilots whose responsibility would be increased from observing the fall of shot to conducting shoots, potentially in the face of enemy opposition. Barratt’s major concern with the new system appears to be its increased complexity and he was rightly concerned after his experiences in France that pilots would be unable to conduct the shoot if they had to continually keep a lookout for enemy fighter activity.

By Matthew Powell, PhD Cadidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham


[i] Jonathan Bailey, ‘Deep Battle 1914-1941: The Birth of the Modern Style of War’, Field Artillery Journal, (July-August 1998), pp.21-7.

[ii] Ralph Barker, A Brief History of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I (Constable & Co.: London, 2002), p.63.

[iii] H J Parham and E M G Belfield, Unarmed Into Battle: The Story of the Air Observation Post 2nd Edition (Picton Publishing: Chippenham, 1986), p.14.

[iv] Ibid., p.14.

[v] Ibid., p.14.

[vi] Ibid., p.14.

[vii] Darrell Knight, Artillery Flyers at War: A History of the 664, 665, and 666 ‘Air Observation Post’ Squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Bennington, Vermont, Merriam Press: Bennington Vermont, 2010), p.27.

[viii] Parham and Belfield, Unarmed into p.15.

[ix] Ibid., p 15.

[x] Ibid., p.15.

[xi] Ibid., p.16.

[xii] Ibid., p.16.

[xiii] Karl-Heinz Freiser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Naval Institute Press: Annapolis Maryland, 2005), 79.

[xiv] Parham and Belfield, Unarmed into, 16.

[xv] The National Archives [TNA], AIR 39/47, Letter from Air Commodore Goddard, Director of Military Co-operation to Barratt regarding Artillery Co-operation Policy, 8 December 1940.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] For more information on the army’s reaction to the Battle of France see TNA CAB 106/220, Bartholomew Committee Final Report.

[xix] TNA AIR 39/47, Letter from Barratt to Under-Secretary of State for Air regarding co-operation with the Royal Artillery, 29 January 1941.

[xx] Ibid., Appendix A, 29 Jan 1941.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid., Letter from Headquarters Army Co-operation Command to Headquarters No. 70 Group, Artillery Reconnaissance Trials, 12 April 1941.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid., Letter from Barratt to Under Secretary of State for Air, 14 April 1941.

[xxv] Ibid., Letter from CGS on Artillery Reconnaissance, 5 May 1941.

[xxvi] Ibid., Letter from Barratt to Major-General Otto Lund, GHQ Home Forces, in response from letter from CGS on Artillery Reconnaissance, 10 May 1941.

[xxvii] Cf. David Ian Hall, Strategy for Victory: The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1919-1943 (Praeger Security International: Westport, Connecticut and London, 2008), pp. 89-103.

Naval Wing Good, Military Wing Bad? An Orwellian inspired analysis of British Aviation Doctrine, 1912-1914

Here is the first of the air power related abstract to our fortcoming book, A Military Transformed? Transformation and Innovation in the British Military, 1792-1945.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————

In light of the historiographical consensus regarding the innovative dominance displayed by the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps (NW), this essay sets out to readdress this position and stress at least one aspect of innovation in which the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps (MW) took the lead: the production of doctrine. Undoubtedly, it was not the nature of the doctrine being produced that was innovative; rather it was the philosophy behind its production, reflecting a modern and progressive understanding of the nature and functions of doctrine.

This exploration of British aviation doctrine between 1912 and 1914 begins by briefly examining the historiography before moving to analyse the specific doctrine produced by the separate Wings of the Royal Flying Corps. The diverse approaches of the Wings are then set in the wider context of military and naval attitudes in relation to doctrine. It is argued that, prior to the First World War; the British Army was an organisation possessing a culture that was positive in its attitudes to doctrine. This had a direct impact on the manner in which the MW produced its doctrine. In contrast, the Royal Navy, with its focus on the technical and material, embraced a culture that rejected the production of formal doctrine. Again, this affected the nature of NW attitudes to doctrine.

A concluding section then evaluates the effectiveness of the particular approaches adopted by each Wing. On reflection, there is significant evidence to re-evaluate the historiography and, in particular, it is possible to offer some profound criticisms of Naval Wing policy prior to 1914. It is argued that, as a direct consequence of these differing approaches to doctrine, the MW was better able to integrate air power, materially and philosophically, within its parent service.

Whilst the focus of the essay is aimed at an examination of formal doctrine – i.e. official manuals etc., informal doctrine is not neglected and an assessment of demi-official lectures, essays and articles is also a feature.

By James Pugh, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

A New Book – A Military Transformed?

As I have noted over on Birmingham “On War” I have just signed the contracts for my first book. It is a collection of essays from the symposium from April on Transformation and Innovation in the British Military. I will be editing it with Stuart Mitchell and Dr Michael LoCicero. It is to be entitled, A Military Transformed? Transformation and Innovation in the British Military, 1792 to 1945. You can follow updates to it over on the War Studies blog. However, there will be several interesting air power chapters that will be of interest to readers. Here are the air power chapters:

  1. James Pugh (University of Birmingham) ‘Naval Wing Good, Military Wing Bad? An Orwellian inspired analysis of British Aviation Doctrine, 1912-1914’
  2. John Alexander (University of Birmingham) “Despised and Neglected’: Transformation and Innovation in British Air Defence, 1922-1935’
  3. Ross Mahoney (University of Birmingham) ‘Operation JUBILEE and the Transformation of Air Support for Combined Operations: The Case of Command and Control and Aerial Bombardment’
  4. Richard Hammond (University of Exeter) ‘British Aero-Naval Co-Operation in the Mediterranean and the Formation of RAF No. 201 (Naval Co-Operation) Group

These were really interesting papers so should be excellent papers. The book will be published by Helion and Company and will be out in 2013.


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