The Joys of the Archive…

[Cross-posted at Birmingham “On War”]

One of the advantages of being a researcher is the little gems of information that crop up from time to time in the course of examining new files. Having recently completed my MPhil I was pleased to come across to extra pieces of information in the course of my PhD research that supported the general conclusion I had reached with regards to the performance of the RAF over Dieppe. My general argument had been that the RAF had performed well in the course of the operation because Combined Operations doctrine had argued that the key role for air power was to fight and maintain air superiority over the attack force. This was its primary role before role such as aerial interdiction and direct air support could be affected in the battle area. Therefore, the key lessons learnt at the Dieppe for the RAF was the reinforcement of this idea and it is obvious that in subsequent Combined Operations the desire to attain air superiority was of paramount importance to the planners involved. This is not to say that Dieppe holds a central place in this source of information but that given the plurality of experience in 1942 this was the general conclusion reached.

The first source I came across was of even more use because it is a German source and was found in the papers of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor.[1] The file in question is entitled ‘The Effect of Air Power’ and was compiled by the Air Historical Branch based upon captured documents.[2] The following extract from an 8th Abteilung Staff Study written in 1944 states that:

…The large-scale coastal landing operations which have taken place in the present war would not have been practicable without the co-operation of the air force…During the landings at Dieppe on August 19th 1942, support by the Air Force and consequent air supremacy, was necessary to equalise the position in view of the numerical inferiority of the ground troops landed and the weakness of the naval forces. Air power was also essential to protect the very vulnerable Allied transport shipping…

…As a result of the experience gained during the Dieppe operations as to the necessity of air supremacy, the Allies made certain of such supremacy in all subsequent landing operations…[3]

It is interesting that the Germans use the term air supremacy for the air actions over Dieppe. I would characterise the RAF as gaining a degree of air parity i.e. enough to stop the Germans seriously interfering with the operations on the ground. At most we might consider the RAF having a degree of local air superiority though the loss of HMS Berkeley might bring this into question. Also it is interesting that the Germans also draw a more direct line from Dieppe to subsequent operations than I do. I find hard to ignore the lessons learnt in late 1942 and 1943 in the Mediterranean. However, this study, written in 1944, does not mention this.

I’ll post the other source later…

By Ross Mahoney

[1] Slessor’s paper are to be found in AIR 75 at the National Archives, Kew

[2] TNA, AIR 75/147, The Effect of Air Power

[3] TNA, AIR 75/147, The Effect of Air Power, p. 9


2 Responses to “The Joys of the Archive…”

  1. 1 Jay April 17, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    Ross, I don’t disagree with anything you said. However, your comments about the situation over Dieppe indicate that some people have a fundamental misunderstanding over the terminology of Air Superiority and Air Supremacy.

    These definitions are from a more modern source than World War II, but they have proved remarkably consistent. From NATO, AJP 3.3 Joint Air & Space Operations Doctrine, May 2002, NATO Standardization Agency (also in AAP-6)

    Air Superiority. Air superiority is that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a given place and time without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.

    Air Supremacy. Air supremacy is that degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference.

    The fact that the Royal Navy lost a single ship during the course of the operation does not mean that the RAF lost Air Superiority. Nobody on the Allied side was suffering (for that time and date) prohibitive losses from the air. If they had lost several ships or were routinely bombed and the ground troops continuously under air attack, then maybe yes, the RAF failed to gain air superiority over the landing area.

    Further to your sources at TNA, have you looked at the numbered studies at AFHRA? Numbers 150-194 were written by German sources and translated after the war. Available for (slow download because they are really big files at

    The island campaign in Southwest Pacific under Macarthur and Kenny also demonstrates the point of achieving air superiority over the point of attack during amphibious operations. They never wanted to depend on carrier aviation, (mainly because they didn’t own it, Nimitz could take them back at any time) so kept taking small islands to advance their land based air coverage.


  1. 1 The Joys of the Archive… « Birmingham "On War" Trackback on September 7, 2010 at 12:41 pm

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