Posts Tagged 'Luftwaffe'

Dowding and the ‘Big Wings’

[Cross-posted at Thoughts on Military History]

Well another good day at the archives, to be honest it was needed after the week I have had but that is another story. Today I was looking through the papers of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Baron Douglas of Kirtleside. There was some useful information in here, especially his correspondence with Robert Wright who served as his writer for his autobiography.

One piece of correspondence that particularly caught my eye was the following extract from Wright to Douglas regarding comments offered by Air Chief Marshal Dowding on his knowledge regarding the so-called animosity between Air Vice-Marshals’ Park and Leigh-Mallory, his chief operational commanders during the Battle of Britain. In a letter dated 28 March 1961 Wright writes the following:

There are two further important points for Chapter 13 of your book which Stuffy Dowding asks if you would consider. I mentioned these to you on the phone this morning.

The first is the “wings” controversy. Stuffy would like to be involved in this as little as possible. On page 13-19 of your script there is a note about it…Stuffy tells me that in actual fact he knew nothing about this until it had reached a fairly advanced stage, when, to his great surprise, the S. of S. mentioned to him the views advanced to him by Leigh-Mallory based on the idea put forward by Bader. Would you consider, for the present and until I am able to complete drafting this piece for your consideration, changing that note so that it reads:

“My personal interest in the controversy over the use that as made in the Battle of Britain of squadrons in wings; the Park school versus the Leigh-Mallory school of thought.”

What are we to make of this admission?

The way I see it there are two possible explanations here. First, if Dowding is accepted at face value then this is an amazing admission regarding his commanding competency. Yes he had devolved operational command to the groups but he still should have been aware of the relations between his commanders and he should have been doing something to deal with it’ the fact that he did not shows him to have failed in managing his commanders properly. The second possible explanation is a worse still. It is that he did know about it and failed to do something about it effectively and by the time of this correspondence he was aware that he had made a mistake and was trying to massage the record. Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this second assumption but considering Wright’s later polemic, Dowding and the Battle of Britain, one can wonder.

The unfortunate issue is that both theories are not palatable for the publics’ perception of Dowding especially this year, the 70th anniversary of the battle. Dowding is perceived to have single-handedly won the Battle of Britain, however, there are times when his must move away from hagiographic analyses and offer some hard truth regarding the public’s perception. This is the only way that we can effectively understand the past. My feelings are it is the former argument, which illustrates some of the failings that Dowding did have as a commander i.e. while he built up and effective system that defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940 he issues when dealing with people either above or below him, a necessary pre-requisite for effective command. Of course it can be argued that Leigh-Mallory had similar failing but that shall be dealt with at a future date. The ‘Big Wing’ controversy, and Leigh-Mallory’s role in it, is something that I shall have to deal with at some point in my thesis so information like this is very useful.

By Ross Mahoney

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

The John Terraine Lecture at the University of Birmingham

[Cross-posted at Birmingham “On War”]

This years John Terraine Lecture at the University of Birmingham’s War Studies Seminar will be delivered by Professor Richard Overy and is on an air power topic. His talk is entitled:

‘The Bombing War in Europe 1939-1945: New Perspectives’

Professor Overy is well-known in the field of air power history with his important work The Air War, 1939-1945. He currently overseas the Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe, 1939-1945 research project funded by the AHRC. This is a joint project between the Universities of Exeter and Reading.

This events will take place on Tuesday 27 April at 5:30pm.

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


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