Posts Tagged 'Battle of France'

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.

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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

1940 and the Problems of Coalition Air Power

[Cross-posted at Thoughts on Military History]

It would be difficult to assume that any air power historian, or for that matter any general military historian, is not aware of the letter that Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding wrote to the Secretary of State for Air on 14 May 1940 declaring that not one more squadron should be sent to France lest the fighter force be drained away and lead to the irrevocable defeat of the United Kingdom. Indeed it has pervaded the public imagination most notably in  the 1969 film The Battle of Britain as seen below. Personally I have watched the film enough that I can now virtually recite the main passage verbatim. However, the letter is most important as the starting point for the removal or control of the no. of squadrons that were being sent to France to reinforce Air Marshal Barratt’s British Air Force in France (BAFF).

While searching through the AIR files at the National Archives I came across an interesting letter, see below,  from General Vuillemin, the commander of the French Air Force in 1940, to Barratt that struck me as having similar tones to Dowding’s letter.[i] It was written on 3 June and predicted defeat in France if more fighters were not sent to France. Possibly the most emotive paragraph, and the one that had a similar tone to Dowding’s letter, stated that:

The failure to obtain from the British supreme authorities the complete and immediate assistance required will probably result in the defeat of French forces and the loss of the war for Great Britain as for France

Therefore, in essence he is arguing the opposite of what Dowding argued in that he is asking for more forces to be concentrated in France to aid in the defence of his country. In many respects this is a natural response given his predicament.

From the British perspective it is worth considering the context of this letter. It is written as DYNAMO is being completed and the French forces and the remnants of BAFF are retreating over the Somme in preparation to fend off the second phase of the German operations, Fall Rot. That France was defeated was not completely clear at this point and indeed the RAF was sending forces to Southern France to deal with the entry into the war of Italy in Operation HADDOCK. Also the second BEF, under the command of General Alan Brooke, was in the process of being sent to Normandy so it might be argued that it should be natural for the RAF to reinforce BAFF if the army was prepared to do the same. However, the difficulty for the RAF was the rapidity of the German advance and the problem of setting up effective bases. This problem was being made even more difficult as BAFF was retreating on its own lines of communications.

Barratt, the man caught in the middle of communications with the French and the Air Staff back in Britain, wrote a three page letter with a copy of Vuillemin’s to lay out the argument for reinforcing the forces in France.[ii] He did his best to convince the Air Ministry that using fighters based in Britain was inefficient.  However, the rest of the correspondence shows what views were being taken back in Britain. Churchill sent a memo to General Spears in Paris stating the Vuillemin’s demand were unreasonable.[iii] Given that the request was for twenty squadrons it is not difficult to see the response that this elicited in London.[iv] However, despite the protestations that no more squadrons’ should be sent on 7 June both No. 17 and 242 Squadrons were sent over.[v] However, both of these squadrons would be back in the Britain shortly.

What is important about this episode? Firstly, I think it illustrates the problems the operational commander, in this case Barratt, faces when trying to deal with a coalition partner that is in need of help but is also aware of the dire state this ally was in. It says much for Barratt that despite probably being aware of the situation of the ground he was still willing to fight for Vuillemin in trying to get more aircraft sent across the channel. Secondly, it highlight the problems between the strategic and operational level in the decision-making process with regards to deciding what help is given to an ailing coalition partner. In the end the reticence of the Air Ministry to reinforce BAFF did not lead to French defeat but it had the effect of insuring that enough squadrons, and most importantly their effective cadres of experience pilots, were in Britain to aid in the defence of the country. So whose impassioned plea was the right one? Dowding or Vuillemin?

Perhaps Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sholto Douglas sums it up best, at the time he was DCAS and dealt with many of the issues relating to the reinforcement of BAFF, when he wrote in his autobiography that:

We would have been left wide open to defeat in the air battle against Britain which we were sure was about to be launched by the Germans.[vi]

By Ross Mahoney


[i] TNA, AIR 2/3198, General Vuillemin to Air Marshal Barratt, 3 June 1940

[ii] TNA, AIR 2/3198, Air Marshal Barratt to the Under-Secretary State for Air, 3 June 1940

[iii] TNA, AIR 2/3198, Churchill to General Spears, 5 June 1940

[iv] TNA, AIR 2/3198, General Vuillemin to Air Marshal Barratt, 3 June 1940, Denis Richards Royal Air Force, 1939-1945: Volume 1 – The Fight at Odds (HMSO, 1953) p. 145, John Terraine The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939-1945 (Wordsworth, 1997) pp. 159-160

[v] Stuart Peach ‘Air Power and the Fall of France’ in Sebastian Cox and Peter Gray (Eds.) Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo (Frank Cass, 2002) p. 164, Richards, The Fight at Odds, p. 145, Terraine, Right of the Line, p. 160

[vi] Lord Douglas of Kirtleside with Robert Wright Years of Command: The Second Volume of the Autobiography of Sholto Douglas (Collins, 1966) p. 71


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