Tactical Air Power Development in the RAF

The development of tactical air support doctrine within the RAF in Britain during the Second World War has been largely ignored by historians until very recently.  The topic forms a large component of David Ian Hall’s work Strategy For Victory: The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1919-1943.[i] In his work, Hall argues that tactical air support doctrine was developed almost exclusively outside of Britain by the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF) and that it was this work that would help form the basis for close air support use in France in 1944.  Another work that looks to broach this subject is the memoir of Charles Carrington, Soldier At Bomber Command.[ii] Whilst an army officer by trade Carrington was seconded to Bomber Command for much of the conflict and was heavily involved in the development of tactical air doctrine in Britain.  Carrington argues that the doctrine eventually used when the fighting in Europe resumed was developed in Britain by people such as Group Captain A. Wann and Colonel J.D. Woodall.  The ideas developed in Britain were then used to form the fighting doctrine that would be used in the Western Desert and North Africa where it would be further tested in combat and developed.[iii] Ian Gooderson has looked at this topic from an Allied perspective through its use after the invasion of Italy in 1943.[iv]

The doctrines developed by those at Army Co-operation Command, based largely on experiments conducted in the wake of the Battle of France, 1940 by Wann and Woodall,[v] and those in the Western Desert are remarkably similar.  David Syrett claims that ‘due to poor communications between staff and field units in Great Britain and between the Western Desert Air Force and Air Ministry, RAF units in the United Kingdom had little or no knowledge of the evolving methods’.[vi] Syrett is correct that the information flow between the RAF in Britain and those based in the Western Desert was poor.  However the claim that those in Britain were not aware and not evolving their own methods is open to interpretation.  Two similar close air support doctrines were developed in parallel and that many of the initiatives and developments that occurred in Britain would go on to form a major part of the doctrine that would be used on the continent.  The WDAF would be involved in this process by modifying techniques and practises in light of battle experience.  The similarities in the doctrines, such as the communications systems and the aircraft involved, are due mainly to the fact that both the WDAF and Army Co-operation Command were part of a greater organisation.  In the wake of the Battle of France, Wann and Woodall were tasked with improving the RAF’s ability to conduct close air support for the British army.  They were influential in developing a communications system in which any extra support required by ground troops could be requested on a separate wireless network, thus avoiding other wireless traffic that was being sent between commanders and their troops.  These requests would then be considered by Army and Air Force officers whose headquarters were co-located.  When a decision had been reached as to whether or not the request was approved the troops could be informed of the decision on the same network.  The communication controls were then established as Air Support Signals Units.  Carrington added to this system by placing reconnaissance aircraft on the same signals network.[vii] This communications system is also remarkably similar to that had been developed by the Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War.[viii]

John Terraine claims that the first dedicated flight for close air support was developed in South Africa on 1 April, 1941 by the South African Air Force.  This flight consisted of four Gladiators and four Hartbees.[ix] The use of close air support in the Western Desert was plagued by similar problems to those experienced during the Battle of France.  One of the most basic of these problems was soon resolved by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder upon his arrival in the Western Desert.  The RAF and Army headquarters were in different locations, Tedder simply moved his headquarters so that both were co-located.[x] As shown above however this simple but effective remedy had already been noted by Wann and Woodall.  The communications system that was developed in the Western Desert was very similar to that already developed in Britain.  Ian Gooderson has claimed that this was due to a UK trained communications team (No. 2 Army Air Support Command) being sent out to fight during the Gazala Battle in 1942.  This team was able to reduce the time taken for support to arrive on the battlefield to thirty minutes.[xi] Given the similarities that existed between the communications system of the Luftwaffe, Army Co-operation Command, and eventually the WDAF, it must be questioned as to how much influence this latter group had, given later struggles with communications.  It must also be noted the effectiveness that all three systems had in battle and also be taken into consideration that through trial and error changes would be made to improve the system, as occurred in the Western Desert.

The work done in Britain on developing a workable close air support doctrine during Second World War has been largely overlooked.  Army Co-operation Command was influential in developing such a doctrine.  The work done by individuals such as Wann, Woodall, and Carrington would enable the RAF to support their ground troops when fighting in Italy, France and Germany.  Whilst many of the developments can also be seen in the Western Desert doctrine, they can first be seen in the ideas being developed in Britain.  The main role that the WDAF played in this process was the trial and modification of these ideas in light of battle experience.

By Matthew Powell

[i] David Ian Hall, Strategy For Victory: The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1919-1943 (Praeger Security International: Westport, Connecticut and London, 2008)

[ii] Charles Carrington, Soldier at Bomber Command (Leo Cooper: London, 1987)

[iii] This argument has been strongly disputed in the introduction of Carrington’s work by John Terraine Ibid., p.ix

[iv] Ian Gooderson, Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe 1943-45 (Frank Cass: Portland, OR. and London, 1998)

[v] The report that followed from these experiments can be found at The National Archives, Kew, TNA AIR 39/42, Experimental Training in Close Support Bombing by Grp. Cpt. A. Wann and Lt. Col. J.D. Woodall, 5/12/1940

[vi] David Syrett, ‘The Tunisian Campaign, 1942-43’, in B.F. Cooling (ed.), Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support, (Office of Air Force History: Washington D.C., 1990), p.159

[vii] Carrington, op. cit., pp.10-1

[viii] James S. Corum, ‘The Luftwaffe’s Army Support Doctrine, 1918-1941’, Journal of Military History, 59:1, (January, 1995), p.68

[ix] John Terraine, The Right of The Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939-1945 (Sceptre: London, 1985), p.324

[x] Brad Gladman, ‘The Development of Tactical Air Doctrine in North Africa’, in Sebastian Cox and Peter Gray (eds), Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo (Frank Cass: London and Portland OR., 2002), p.191

[xi] Gooderson, op. cit., p.26


3 Responses to “Tactical Air Power Development in the RAF”

  1. 1 Ross March 21, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I think Syrett’s claim has to be tempered. The RAF, in particular Fighter Command, were busy fighting an air superiority campaign in 41/42. Thus, not able to spend much time assimilating ideas, however, by 43 when the TAF is being formed this changes. Indeed Leigh-Mallory visits North-Africa to examine the suitability of composite groups for the TAF.

    I also think the Terraine/Carrington ‘arguement’ is a useful starting point for an anaylsis for the effectivenes of Army Co-Operation Command’s contribution to tactical air power doctrine. Have you read Gladman’s Book?

  2. 2 Jay April 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    May I suggest two more secondary sources for your consideration.

    Thomas A. Hughes, ‘Air Lines: Anglo-American Tactical Air Operations in World War II’, Air and Space Power Journal, Winter 2004, (http:www.airpower.Maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj04/win04/Hughes.html)

    W.A. Jacobs, ‘Air Support for the British Army, 1939-1943’, Military Affairs, December 1982, Vol. 46, no. 4, pp.174-182

    I think you will find that it was Coningham who established his headquarters next to the Army in the field. RAF Middle East, which Tedder commanded, was located in Cairo, near to General Headquarter Middle East.

    My major heartburn with the argument that most of the problems surrounding Tactical Air Support to the ground forces were fixed by experiments in Northern Ireland by the Army Cooperation Command (ACC), centers on the abysmal performance of the Eastern Air Command in North Africa after Operation TORCH. Various other factors such as poor weather, bad planning of the loading of the support equipment in the transports, and inexperienced allies contributed to the poor performance.(1) However, if the ACC had been doing everything that some writers suggest they had been doing, then why was the RAF so woefully prepared to work with the Army in North Africa?

    I suspect both services were a fault and that the “lessons learned” from the desert were being ignored or treated with distain. On the part of the RAF this is indicated by the fact that both the Officer Commanding 242 Group and the Bisley Wing Commander requested permission to visit the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF) during the planning states of TORCH to see how the WDAF was organizing their operations. Permission denied by Air Marshal Welch.(2) On the part of the Army, they were still fighting the battle over control of the available air power and wanted to decide how to use it. Their competence was demonstrated in the destruction of a Bisley Squadron.(3) Neither service was ready for operations.

    1. PRO, AIR 2/8805, Air Marshal Sir William Welsh’s Reports, p.9 regards shipping and p.28 regarding lack of radar
    2. PRO, AIR 37/1115, Formation of the NWAFF by AVM Robb
    3. B. Michael Bechthold, ‘A Question of Success: Tactical Air Doctrine and Practice in North Africa, 1942-43’, Journal of Military History, July 2004, No. 68, p. 836 (Available through Project Muse)

    Sorry I can’t make the footnotes link up in the reply. Lack of IT experience on my part.

  3. 3 Ross April 12, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Jay well spotted on the co-location point. It should be noted that this was nothing new in the Desert as Collishaw had co-located 202 Groups HQ with the Western Desert Force in 1940.

    In terms of lessons learnt there was plenty to learn from WDAF as Leigh-Mallory visited in 43 to examine the structure in planning for the composition of the TAF in the UK. I suppose it raises the question of whether or not ACC was a misused asset givn the fact that such a key officer made a personal visit to the theatre as he could not get sufficient information in the UK.

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