Posts Tagged 'RAF'

The Principles of War

[Cross-posted at Thoughts on Military History]

Given the title of the post I suspect many of you are expecting a diatribe on strategy, well not quite. I spent yesterday going through the papers of Air Marshal Stephen Strafford, who in 1944 served as Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory‘s Chief of Operations and Plans at the Allied Expeditionary Air Force.

In his papers I came across an interesting pamphlet entitled, More Asp Ad Astra: The Lighter Side of Ten Years ‘Hard’, 1938-1948. This is a collection on light-hearted poems and verses written by various officers including Air Chief Marshal Dowding. In it I found this great poem on the principles of war.

By day and night we sit and plan,

Devising means whereby we can,

Forget all we have learned of yore,

And flout the principles of war.

Napoleon, at the crucial spot,

Might concentrate all he had got,

Napoleon’s dead; his teaching’s worse;

Disperse, we say, disperse, disperse,

The why should we maintain the aim

And think on Monday just the same

As we had thought on Friday night?

Variety is always right.

Mobility to us implies

Some wild and hare-brained enterprise.

Wherein our meager forces are

Sent furthest from the real war.

‘The air force weapon is the bomb’;

So says our manual, but from

Such horrid thought we always shrink

And only of the fighter think

One principle alone we heed –

To mystify and mislead;

The only folk we don’t surprise

Are those we term our enemies

This was written by Air Vice Marshal E B C Betts and despite it lighthearted nature it actually really explores the problems of strategy and the confusion it brings to even those at the highest levels. His comments on the importance of the bomb seem especially pertinent.

By Ross Mahoney

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

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

Views of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory

[Cross-posted at Thoughts on Military History]

I think our normal view of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory has very much been skewed by his portrayal in the popular media. The most famous portrayal comes in the 1969 Battle of Britain. arguably the best film on the subject, having been based on Wood and Dempster’s The Narrow Margin, however, it does not portray him in the best of lights and follows what I describe as the Park version of the battle.

Now I am not saying this to detract from Park’s important role but there is an important point here that due to his untimely death in November 1944 Leigh-Mallory was never able to defend his actions through the publication of a memoir, autobiography or authorised biography. Thus, we tend to get a skewed interpretation of his ability. One that is more hagiographical than accurate to the record.

However, I quite like this portrayal of Leigh-Mallory. It is very much the physical representation of of Fighter Commands role in 41/42 when the command was order to ‘reach into france.’ I found it in Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s papers at the RAF Museum this past Thursday. It shows Leigh-Mallory running a rapier through Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering. I think it is great euphemism for the battle between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Also it shows Leigh-Mallory as the valiant fighter against the evil enemy, perhaps a link to the perhaps a link to the aces ideal of the ‘Knights of the Air’ in combat. It is noted dated but I suspect it is from late 1942 when Leigh-Mallory had taken over from Douglas as head of Fighter Command. Also if anyone knows who the artist is let me know. There is an artist’s mark in the corner.

By Ross Mahoney


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