Book Review – Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941

Book Review – Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

Mike Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 296 pp. $34.95.

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The Second World War saw the formation of many famous Allied air forces. The Flying Tigers, the Cactus Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, RAF Bomber Command, and RAF Fighter Command are among the best known. In the Mediterranean, perhaps none was more famous than the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF). This is the tactical air force that helped Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army defeat Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in 1942. The victory was the result of an effective combination of air and land power according to an air support doctrine developed by Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham.

Coningham owes more to his predecessor, Air Vice-Marshal Raymond Collishaw than historians have realised. Collishaw commanded No. 202 Group – and later No. 204 Group, which would later become the WDAF – between the opening of the war in the desert and November 1941. In that time, Collishaw’s command achieved much success, demonstrating the features of tactical air doctrine later associated with his successor. Mike Bechthold’s new monograph, Flying to Victory, offers us a new layer for understanding the development of Allied air support during the Second World War.

Raymond Collishaw was a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. During the First World War, Collishaw became one of the Empire’s leading flying aces, destroying 61 enemy aircraft and eight observation balloons with Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force squadrons. Authors often celebrate his air-fighting prowess. In fact, some historians have gone as far as to say that his aggressive spirit made him ill-suited for commanding air forces at the end of tenuous supply lines. In Flying to Victory, Bechthold defuses these arguments.

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Squadron Commander Raymond Collishaw in Sopwith F1 Camel aircraft, Allonville, France, 1918. (Source: Wikimedia)

Collishaw’s experience with close army support missions during the 100 Days campaign at the end of the First World War taught him how wasteful these operations could be. He came out of the war believing that only emergencies – such as the Kaiser’s spring offensive in 1918 – warranted a heavy close air support focus. This and his experiences commanding various air units during Britain’s interwar conflicts served to prepare Collishaw for command in the Western Desert. He was well-suited to command operations at the end of a tenuous supply line while working jointly with army and naval commanders.

Collishaw first demonstrated the difference that an effective air support doctrine could make during early fighting in the desert and Operation COMPASS. In 1940-41, No. 202 Group faced an Italian Royal Air Force (IRAF) with superior numbers and quality of aircraft. Collishaw’s command achieved air superiority despite these disadvantages. While the IRAF squandered its superior resources by focusing on providing defensive screens for the Italian Army, Collishaw directed his forces to focus on disrupting and destroying IRAF aircraft and infrastructure. With air superiority secured, Collishaw’s forces focused on impeding the Italian logistical network and applying close-support attacks at the army’s request in special circumstances. Alongside Lieutenant-General Richard O’Conner’s Western Desert Force, the British offensive drove the Italians out of Egypt and Cyrenaica, completely destroying the Italian Tenth Army in the process.

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Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw, the Air Officer Commanding No. 202 Group, surveys the ruined buildings on the airfield at El Adem, Libya, following its capture on 5 January 1941 during the advance on Tobruk. (Source: © IWM (CM 399))

Although Operation COMPASS was a model of cooperation between the army and air force, this model would soon be forgotten amid British retreats in the Western Desert, Greece, and Crete in spring 1941. The Germans had joined their Italian allies in the Mediterranean war. During Operation BREVITY, an attempt to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk, Collishaw commanded No. 204 Group (which had absorbed No. 202 Group in April 1941). He once again proved the usefulness of interdiction operations, though army commanders were disappointed that the RAF considered attacks on tanks on the battlefield to be impracticable. His forces immobilised counterattacking German units at critical junctures that saved army units, though the overall operation failed to relieve Tobruk.

The overall failures of BREVITY and Crete put the air force in a tough position. The Royal Navy had lost many ships to Axis air attacks during the evacuation of Crete. During Operation BATTLEAXE, another attempt to relieve Tobruk, the army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, Collishaw’s immediate superior, made a calculated move. With Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal’s blessing, he ordered Collishaw to accede to the army’s requests. This way, the RAF could avoid blame for failing to cooperate with the army even though this was a misemployment of resources that ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.

BATTLEAXE effectively settled the debate over tactical air power raging between the RAF and army early in the war. Before BATTLEAXE, Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed the army’s view of air support. After BATTLEAXE, he fully endorsed the RAF’s view. Churchill accepted that attacks on enemy airbases, ports, and lines of communication were more effective even though the army would not be afforded the comforting sight of friendly aircraft overhead. The result was “The Middle East (Army and RAF) Directive on Direct Air Support”, a document that marked the beginning of designing the war-winning air support system the Allies would continue to develop in 1942. This document reflected the operations and exercises that Raymond Collishaw commanded. Tedder and Coningham went on to refine and improve this system.

Air Marshal Tedder, the conduit for Collishaw’s early application of winning air support doctrine to Portal and Churchill, replaced Collishaw with Coningham in November 1941. Promoted from air commodore to air vice-marshal, Collishaw commanded No. 14 Group defending Scapa Flow, Scotland until July 1943, when the RAF involuntarily retired him. Bechthold’s evidence suggests that Tedder held a bias against Collishaw. Largely ignoring the results he achieved in the desert, Tedder and historians since have assessed Collishaw as incapable of running a larger command organisation and delegating responsibility to his staff. Bechthold encourages us to avoid this speculative analysis of potential and instead focus on his war record. The result is an excellent profile of a man and – as it turns out – a largely misunderstood air campaign in the first year of warfare in the Western Desert.

This post first appeared at Fighter-Bomber’s Blog.

Header Image: Pilots of No. 3 Squadron RAAF study a map on the tailplane of one of their Gloster Gladiators at their landing ground near Sollum, Egypt, before an operation over Bardia during the closing stages of Operation COMPASS. Left to right: Flying Officers J.R. Perrin, J. McD Davidson (squatting), W.S. Arthur and P. St G. Turnbull, Flight Lieutenants G.H. Steege and A.C. Rawlinson, Flying Officer V. East, (unknown), Squadron Leader I.D. McLachlan (Commanding Officer) and Flying Officer A.H. Boyd. (Source: © IWM (CM 355))

The Aero Club Which Never Was: Gentlemanly Aeronauts versus The New Breed

The Aero Club Which Never Was: Gentlemanly Aeronauts versus The New Breed

By Dr Michele Haapamaki

The accepted anecdote is that the Aero Club of Great Britain was imagined during a hot air balloon outing over the lush countryside of Kent in 1901. Its instigators were Frank Hedges Butler, officially a partner in his family wine merchant business but more of a gentleman adventurer, his daughter Vera Butler, and the young Hon. Charles Rolls – who would lend his name to the famous automotive company and become one of the first licensed pilots in Britain. The organisation they founded would serve as a sort of gentleman’s club for aviators and gained the patronage of the King in 1910 – thereafter referred to as the Royal Aero Club.

Besides establishing some of the first training fields for flyers, the Aero Club was the sole body tasked with granting pilot’s licenses prior to the First World War. All the men who would join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps or naval flight units first obtained this qualification at their own expense. In the postwar years, the Club was the political and social centre of British flying, hosting annual dinners for the winner of the King’s Cup Air Race. The heydey of the Aero Club is now identified with the apex of British aerial achievement in the interwar years. The early Club, however, invested little energy promoting new technical or scientific developments in the direction of heavier-than-air flight, instead of fulfilling its initial brief as a leisure and sport-oriented ballooning for gentleman amateurs. Hedges Butler seemed preoccupied with rural ballooning competitions and his hobby-horse idea of a volunteer Army Balloon Corps, which initially gained half-hearted endorsement by the War Office but was scuttled prior to the First World War.

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The Wright brothers aircraft at Farnborough being inspected by a small group of soldiers, c. 1910. (Source:  © IWM (RAE-O 615))

A little-known controversy over the Aero Club and a rival club which was never formed is a fascinating way to access larger questions about the development of heavier-than-air flight in early British aviation. Aviation historians will be familiar with the debate over whether ‘official’ Britain – be it government or quasi-official institutions – exhibited a characteristic, haphazard approach to the development of national aviation. Critics, both contemporary and historical, have argued that this lassitude allowed British ‘wings’ to fall behind other nations. Among other shortcomings, the British government may have been amateur in efforts to contact the Wright Brothers or probe their technology.[1] Hugh Driver, in his detailed history of early British military aviation, argued that the lengthy emphasis on ballooning by the Aero Club had ‘a material effect on the development of aviation generally’.[2]

Prior to the inception of the Hedges Butler Club, motor engineer and founder of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, Frederick Simms, was the first to distribute a prospectus for an aeronautical club based on the existing French model. Its primary goal was directed towards the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight and in support of inventors. (Though it should be noted that at the time the French Aero Club also had an early emphasis on ballooning and dirigibles.) Simms was also a successful businessman who acquired rights to the UK manufacture of the internal combustion engine. He founded several eponymous companies, developing the magneto spark plug. As outlined by Driver, ‘Simms had the prior claim to found an aero club as such’.[3] Not only was he the founder of the Automobile Club in 1897, but he was also interested in heavier-than-air flying machines as early as 1896 – cooperating with Hiram Maxim’s attempt to build a steam-driven aeroplane.

His proposed group – the ‘Aero Club of Great Britain and Ireland’ – was intended as a spur to the development of ‘aerial navigation’. With characteristic enthusiasm, he claimed:

I am convinced that it only wants a Club or Society on modern lines to bring together the many British enthusiasts [to solve] this great problem.[4]

The Aeronautical Society, in existence since 1866, would have seemed – at least in theory – to fit the bill. However, it too was established as a ballooning Society and was in a somewhat moribund state at the turn of the century. At the time of Simms prospectus there indeed was a perceivable gap in organised enthusiasm for flight. After several acrimonious exchanges, Simms’ idea lost out to rival Aero Club. Simms and Hedges Butler were probably already acquainted, the latter having been appointed an honorary treasurer of the Automobile Club in 1898. It is therefore doubly unfortunate that the acrimony over the Club remained unresolved.

Class identity was one of the most salient characteristics of the Aero Club. In short, the emphasis was understood to be on the ‘club’ aspect of the name. It consciously modelled itself on the gentleman’s clubs of Pall Mall and St. James and acquired grand premises to match. Stanley Spencer, the aeronaut who piloted the three founders on the balloon outing when they conceived of the Club, was barred from membership due to his status as a ‘professional’. Many engineers, such as Simms, did not adapt readily to the image of an Aero Club man. He was an uneasy attendee at the first meeting of the Club on 3 December 1901 and was not placed on either the Organising or Balloon committees. The hierarchy and direction of the club were firmly established, ensuring that Simms was effectively sidelined from the new organisation, with the result that his prodigious energy (and those of like-minded men) for aeroplane flight was not utilised. To add insult to injury, Simms was asked for a £10 contribution to a balloon fund which he, understandably, refused.

Minutes of early Aero Club meetings, indeed, provide little indication of interests beyond ballooning. A certain Mr A. Verdon Roe was elected to membership in 1906, only for the name to be soon withdrawn. The Club did institute a ‘Technical Committee’ later that year with Charles Rolls, Simms, and John Moore-Brabazon as members. The latter was to become one of the best-known among the early generation of British aviators, though he learned more from time spent in Paris among French pioneers.

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British Army Aircraft I during the first sustained flight. Cody began building the British Army Aircraft I in 1907 with the design similar to the kites and glider that he had successfully flown. Cody made the first sustained flight (lasting 27 seconds and for a distance of around 1390 feet) on the 16th October 1908. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 995))

It is, however, one thing to make observations about the Aero Club and its early focus and yet another to conclude that they had any substantial impact on the larger course of British aircraft pioneering. There are substantial points to be made for a counterview. David Edgerton is well-known for his consistently presented case that the British aeronautical industry was thriving and well-supported in the Edwardian years and prior to the First World War.[5] Some evidence for this is the fact that the first flight on British soil, by the flamboyant American showman Samuel Cody, was in an army aircraft produced by the Balloon Factory at Farnborough.

Others have suggested that British aviation needed to take its own course in its own time, and in fact benefited from a lack of meddling from ‘boosters’ of different varieties. For the most part, no amount of progress was ever enough for some aviation buffs who tended to be of strong and unmoderated feeling; it could be argued that the hand-wringing was merely that. Aviation journalists, such as C.G. Grey of The Aeroplane, traded on histrionics over the fate of the British nation due to some aerial oversight or another by both government and, on occasion, private industry.

There is also the view that there was little of concrete import that an Aero Club could have produced in the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight in the early 1900s. Indeed, when it did become a reality on European soil with the 1908 demonstrations of the Wright brothers at Le Mans, France, the Club soon pursued these capabilities. They established one of the first aerodromes at the Isle of Sheppey, near the mouth of the Thames, and partnered with the Short Brothers – who brought characteristic British inventiveness to the manufacture and testing of new aircraft.

One conclusion we may reach is that discussion about the omissions of the organisations such as the Aero Club, both then and now, suffice to highlight the level of anxiety within British aviation circles – whether the basis for these worries was real or imagined. Was it inevitable that any such Club conceived during the Edwardian years would be (at least initially) unimaginative, snobbish, and genteel? Perhaps so. The episode of the duelling Clubs does provide an illuminating insight into the early world of British aviation, which the self-taught engineers and inventors were just on the cusp of breaking into. Those of the Hedges Butler ilk would soon be superseded by a new aviation elite which was, while not entirely a meritocracy, certainly closer to it than the sporting aeronauts would have imagined.

Header Image: A close-up of Cody in the cockpit of Cody aircraft mark IB. The cloth seat as opposed to a plough seat along with the control that Cody is moving differentiate this from the other marks of aircraft that Cody built. According to the caption, this was the aircraft that Cody intended to fly from London to Manchester in. Due to a mechanic failing to close a tap between the sump and the freshly filled oil tank the engine ceased up after fifteen minutes of flight. Fortunately, Cody was able to land safely. Shortly afterwards this aircraft was scrapped and Cody started work on a new one. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 1075))

[1] See; Alfred Gollin, No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984) and The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (London: Macmillan Press, 1989)

[2] Hugh Driver, The Birth of Military Aviation: Britain, 1903-1914 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1997), p. 32.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

[4] Ibid.

[5] David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1991).

Call for Submissions – From Balloons to Drones

Call for Submissions – From Balloons to Drones

Over the past two decades, airpower has become the “Western way of war” […] because it offers the prospect of military victory without large-scale destruction and loss of life. Airpower, however, cannot be decisive or even effective under all circumstances […] The utility of airpower is highly situational (emphasis added).

John Andreas Olsen[1]

From Balloons to Drones is an online platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense including space and cyber power.

Since its emergence during the First World War, air power has increasingly become the preferred form of military power for many governments. However, the application and development of air power are controversial and misunderstood. To remedy this, From Balloons to Drones is an online platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power through the publication of articles, research notes, commentary and book reviews. From Balloons to Drones welcomes and encourages potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, and practitioners involved in researching the subject of air power.

Submissions can take the following forms:

  • ArticlesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish informative articles on air power that range from historical pieces to the analysis of contemporary challenges. These well-researched articles should attempt to bridge a gap between the specialist and non-specialist reader. They should be around c. 1,000 to 1,500 words, though From Balloons to Drones will accept larger pieces though we reserve the right to publish them in parts. References can be via footnotes and hyperlinks.
  • CommentariesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish opinion pieces on recent on a recent piece of news, either on a contemporary or historical subject. These are to be responses to such piece and should be no longer than c. 1,000 words.
  • Research NotesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish research notes related to contributor’s currents research projects. These take the form of more informal pieces and can be a discussion of a source or a note on a recent research theme. Unlike other pieces published by From Balloons to Drones, they can be written in the first person, though they can include references. These should be c. 500 to 1,000 words.
  • Book ReviewsFrom Balloons to Drones publishes occasional book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of appraisals of recent publications on the subject of air power. If publishers are interested in having a publication reviewed then, please contact us via the email address below.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format. Also, please include a 50-100 word biography with your submission. However, if you are not sure if your piece fits our requirements, then please email us with the POTENTIAL SUBMISSION in the subject line. References can be used, and, given the readership of this site, please be careful to explain any jargon used.

If you are interested in contributing, please email us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or use our contact page here.

Header Image: Chinooks celebrate the 100th anniversaries of Nos. 18(B) and 27 Squadron from RAF Odiham and 28 Squadron from RAF Benson. (Source: Defence Imagery, Mod)

[1] John Andreas Olsen, ‘Introduction – Airpower and Strategy’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), p. 2.

Research Note: A Different Kind of Shooting: A Photo-Recon Pilot’s Life in 1944

Research Note: A Different Kind of Shooting: A Photo-Recon Pilot’s Life in 1944

By Mike Hankins

One of the lesser known large contributors to Allied victory in World War II was the role of aerial photographic reconnaissance. The allies relied on up-to-date photographs from the air. Flying these photo ‘recce’ missions could be every bit as harrowing as combat sorties. Recce planes flew over enemy territory with their guns removed and replaced with cameras. If they were attacked, pilots had no choice but to try and escape using only speed and manoeuvring, hoping to hide inside cloud cover or just to outrun the enemy. Up until the D-Day invasion, many of these missions were flown at extremely high speed and low altitude, as low as five to fifteen feet over the beaches of Normandy. Pilots likened these missions to throwing dice across a gambling table and called them ‘dicing’ missions. To get an in-the-cockpit view of what flying recce missions could be like, I am going to outline a brief period in the career of First Lieutenant George Adams, Jr., who joined the 30th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (PRS) in Toussus le Noble, France at the end of July 1944.

Adams flew the F-5, which was a Lockheed P-38 Lightning modified to take photos. The P-38 was not an uncontroversial plane, drawing mixed reviews from those that flew it. Ace fighter pilot Captain Jack Ilffey called it ‘a beautiful monster.’[1] Famed pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds, later noted for his contributions to air combat in the Vietnam War, first earned ace status in a P-38 in World War II. As he recalled,

I loved the P-38 but I got those kills in spite of the airplane, not because of it. […] The P-38 Lightning was too much airplane for a new kid and a full-time job for even a mature and experienced fighter pilot. Our enemies had difficulty defeating the P-38 but, as much as we gloried in it, we were defeating ourselves with this airplane.[2]

Although, from an air combat perspective, the P-38 was not nearly as effective as other fighter types, such as the North American P-51 Mustang, the Lightning’s high speed, long range, and sheer toughness allowed it to excel in the role of photo reconnaissance. Allied forces had learned early on that a group of F-5s together was easily spotted, so to reduce the likelihood of being seen, photo reconnaissance missions were often flown by single planes, unescorted and completely alone, usually deep over enemy territory.

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Adams after landing in Mussidan, France. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

Adams happened to arrive at a time when the 30th PRS was busier than it ever had been. The official unit history referred to August of 1944 as the ‘month of months.’ Ten August 1944 saw more missions take to the air than on D-Day itself. [3] For Adams, however, that month witnessed one of the defining moments of his career and very nearly cost him his life.

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Adams welcomed in Mussidan. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

On 3 September, Adams was flying a reconnaissance mission over Belgium, when the weather took a turn for the worse. Due to extremely limited visibility, Adams flew far off course. With his fuel tanks almost empty, he had no choice but to land in the town of Mussidan in southwestern France. Luckily, just over one week previously on 25 August, the town had been liberated by the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). The townspeople welcomed him as a hero and gave him a place to stay at a nearby hotel for three days. The French resistance was able to purchase some German gasoline, and at the first sign of clear weather, on 6 September, Adams took off. After signalling his thanks by flying a few victory laps around the town, he headed back to Toussus le Noble.[4]

Adams’ ordeal was not over. The weather, which the 30th PRS unit historian called, ‘the airman’s most relentless foe,’ again proved troublesome for Adams on his flight back to base. After becoming lost in rough weather and losing all radio contact with his commanding officer, Major William Mitchell (not to be confused with the other Billy Mitchell, author of Winged Defense), Adams attempted to land in a field near Morannes and slammed his P-38 into a grove of trees. Adams himself was unharmed, but the aircraft was disabled. There was a military group at Morannes, and Adams stayed with them before travelling to an airstrip at Le Mans, about thirty miles away. Cooperating with intelligence services at Le Mans and the FFI, Adams tried to contact Major Mitchell but was unable to do so. The officials at Le Mans eventually brought Adams to Versailles on 8 September, where he was able to reconnect with the 30th PRS, and he returned to flying duty the next day.[5]

4-The wreckage of Adams' P-38 near Morannes
The wreckage of Adams’ P-38 near Morannes. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

Typically, the weather of the winter months limits photo recce missions. However, that was the least of the allies’ problems in December of 1944 as eight panzer divisions tore their way through the Ardennes forest, beginning what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 30th PRS joined the battle, providing valuable photographs to aid ground units. However, the weather again reared its head. Only five days before the end of the year were suitable for taking photos. The 30th managed to squeeze out 96 missions in those five days. Adams and his fellow pilots flew as much as possible, including flying multiple missions on Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and New Year’s Eve. The squadron set a record for a number of photographs processed: nine miles of film, consisting of 44,306 negatives that produced 153,579 prints.[6]

On New Year’s Day, 1945, ground forces requested an urgent, secretive mission to be flown over a particularly well-defended area of the German lines during the Battle of the Bulge. The nature of the photographs needed required a low-altitude approach of 2,000 feet, rendering the reconnaissance planes especially vulnerable to ground defences. Adams and six other pilots volunteered for the job. Four of them, including Adams, flew out twice. Despite the heavy risk and the intrusion of adverse weather conditions, the mission was a success, providing valuable intelligence to the front lines. The secretive nature of the mission prevented much discussion of it at the time, however, several months later, on 21 July 1945, Adams was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying his ‘unarmed photographic aircraft under circumstances entailing utmost courage and skill.’[7]

In the popular memory of World War II, we often tend to celebrate or romanticise the fighter pilots or bomber crews that engaged in seemingly heroic combat actions. However, Adams and his fellow recon pilots should not be forgotten. They took serious risks and made key contributions to the Allied victory in World War II.

Header Image: Ground personnel of the 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group fit cameras into a Lockheed F-5 Lightning before a long-range mission. Image by Staff Sergeant Robert Astrella, 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group. (Source: ©IWM (FRE 5390))

[1]    Robert F. Dorr, ‘Why the P-38 Flunked in Europe,’ Aviation History 24 (May 2014), 22.

[2]    Ibid.

[3]    US Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell AFB, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of August, 1944; Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3, George Adams Pilot Information File, August 1944. Hereafter, the Adams Papers.

[4]    AFHRA, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of September, 1944; Testimony of Labattu de Montpon, as related in email from Mayor Stephane Triquart to Bruce Adams, 21 January 2016.

[5]    AFHRA, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of September, 1944.

[6]    Ibid.

[7]    AFHRA, Recflash, Vol. 2 No. 1, Highlight Missions, 2, attached to Historical Records and History of Headquarters 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Month of January 1945; Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Adams Papers, Box 3, Quote from Distinguished Flying Cross award citation, General Orders 116, 27 June 1945.

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

By Alan Stephens

This week marks the 74th anniversary of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, arguably the most significant action fought by Australians during World War II.

Between December 1941 and April 1942, Imperial Japanese forces shocked Australians with their victories over the United States at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines; and over the British Commonwealth in Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Rabaul. When enemy forces occupied northern New Guinea, an invasion of Australia, with its unthinkable consequences, seemed possible. However, supported by their American and British allies, Australia’s servicemen and women regrouped and fought back.

From mid-1942 onwards, Australian victories with American support at Milne Bay and Kokoda, and the triumph of American naval air power at Coral Sea and Midway weakened Japan’s hold on New Guinea. Further Allied successes on New Guinea’s northeast coast at Buna, Gona and Sanananda between November 1942 and January 1943 left the Japanese position substantially weakened.

Then, intercepted radio messages revealed that an enemy convoy would sail from Rabaul with reinforcements for the vital Japanese garrison at Lae on the northeast coast of New Guinea in late-February. This was likely to be Japan’s last throw of the dice in New Guinea. If the convoy were stopped, then so too would be the likelihood of an invasion of Australia

Allied Air Forces under the command of the American General George Kenney immediately began preparing for an all-out assault against the convoy. A critical factor was the brilliant plan largely conceived by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Group Captain William “Bull” Garing. Garing had already fought in Europe for two years with the RAAF’s No. 10 Squadron, and his experience of maritime warfare was to prove decisive.

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Group Captain Garing RAAF (standing, right) hands over information to his successor Group Captain McLachlan, seated at the office desk, c. 1943. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

It was Garing who convinced General Kenney of the need for a massive, coordinated attack. Garing envisaged large numbers of aircraft striking the convoy from different directions and altitudes, with precise timing.

Initially, the allies would rely on reconnaissance aircraft to detect the convoy, which would then be attacked by long-range United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombers. Once the convoy was within range of the allies’ potent anti-shipping aircraft – RAAF Beaufighters, Bostons and Beauforts, and American Mitchells and Bostons – a coordinated attack would be mounted from medium, low, and very low altitudes.

During the waiting period, crews practised their navigation and honed their formation flying, bombing, and gunnery skills.

Six thousand four hundred Japanese troops embarked at Rabaul between 23 and 27 February 1943, and the convoy of eight merchant ships and eight destroyers sailed just before midnight on the 28th, planning to arrive at Lae on 3 March. Air cover was provided by about 100 fighters flying out of bases in New Ireland, New Britain and New Guinea.

The enemy convoy initially was favoured by poor weather, which hampered Allied reconnaissance. It was not until mid-morning on 2 March that USAAF B-24 Liberators sighted the ships. General Kenney immediately launched eight B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, followed shortly afterwards by another 20. The B-17s attacked from an altitude of 2000 metres with 450-kilogram demolition bombs. Later in the day, another strike was made by 11 B-17s whose crews reported that vessels were ‘burning and exploding […] smoking and burning amidships’ and ‘left sinking’.

By nightfall, the enemy was only hours from Lae, which meant that in the morning it would be within range of the entire allied strike force. If the coordinated attack were to succeed, the precise location of the convoy had to be known at daybreak; consequently, throughout the night, it was tracked by an RAAF Catalina from No. 11 Squadron, which occasionally dropped bombs and flares to keep the Japanese soldiers in a state of anxiety. Also during the night, eight RAAF Beaufort torpedo bombers from No. 100 Squadron took-off from Milne Bay to try to use the darkness to their advantage. The heavy frontal weather made navigation hazardous, and only two aircraft found the convoy. Neither scored a hit.

The moment the Allied Air Forces had been waiting for came on the morning of 3 March 1943, when the Japanese convoy rounded the Huon Peninsula. For much of the time the adverse weather had helped the enemy avoid detection, but now clear conditions favoured the allies. Over 90 aircraft took-off from Port Moresby and set heading for their rendezvous point. While the strike force was en route, RAAF Bostons from No. 22 Squadron bombed the enemy airfield at Lae.

550px-battle_of_the_bismark_sea

By 9:30 a.m. the AAF formations had assembled, and by 10:00 a.m. the Battle of the Bismarck Sea had begun.

The allies attacked in three waves and from three levels, only seconds apart. First, 13 USAAF B-17s bombed from medium altitude. In addition to the obvious objective of sinking ships, those attacks were intended to disperse the convoy by forcing vessels to break station to avoid being hit.

Second, 13 RAAF Beaufighters from No. 30 Squadron hit the enemy from very low level, lining up on their targets as the bombs from the B-17s were exploding. With four cannons in its nose and six machine guns in its wings, the Beaufighter was the most heavily armed fighter in the world. The Australians’ job was twofold: to suppress anti-aircraft fire, and to kill ships’ captains and officers on their bridges.

The Beaufighters initially approached at 150 metres above the sea in line astern formation. The pilots then descended even lower, to mast-level height, set full power on their engines, changed into line abreast formation, and approached their targets at 420 kilometres an hour.

It seems that some of the Japanese captains thought the Beaufighters were going to make a torpedo attack because they altered course to meet the Australians head-on, to present a smaller profile. Instead, they made themselves better targets for strafing. With a slight alteration of heading the Beaufighters were now in an ideal position to rake the ships from bow to stern, which they did, subjecting the enemy to a withering storm of cannon and machine gun fire.

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 A Japanese transport on fire during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

According to the official RAAF release:

[e]nemy crews were slain beside their guns, deck cargo burst into flame, superstructures toppled and burned.

With the convoy now dispersed and in disarray, the third wave of attackers was able to concentrate on sinking ships. Thirteen American B-25 Mitchells made a medium level bombing strike while, simultaneously, a mast-level attack was made by 12 specially modified Mitchells, known as ‘commerce destroyers’ because of their heavy armament. The commerce destroyers were devastating, claiming seventeen direct hits. Close behind the Mitchells, USAAF Bostons added more firepower.

Following the coordinated onslaught, Beaufighters, Mitchells and Bostons intermingled as they swept back and forth over the convoy, strafing and bombing. Within minutes of the opening shots, the battle had turned into a rout. At the end of the action:

[s]hips were listing and sinking, their superstructure smashed and blazing, and great clouds of dense black smoke [rose] into a sky where aircraft circled and dived over the confusion they had wrought among what, less than an hour earlier, had been an impressively orderly convoy.

Overhead the surface battle, 28 USAAF P-38 Lightning fighters provided air defence for the strike force. In their combat with the Zeros which were attempting to protect the convoy, three of the Lightnings were shot down, but in turn, the American pilots claimed 20 kills. Apart from those three P-38s, the only other allied aircraft lost was a single B-17, shot down by a Zero.

With their armament expended the allied aircraft returned to Port Moresby. However, there was to be no respite for the enemy. Throughout the afternoon the attacks continued. Again, B-17s struck from medium level, this time in cooperation with Mitchells and RAAF Bostons flying at very low level. (Incidentally, the Bostons were led by Squadron Leader Charles Learmonth, after whom the RAAF’s present-day base in north-west Australia is named.) At least 20 direct hits were claimed against the by-now devastated convoy.

That was the last of the coordinated attacks. The victory had been won. For the loss of a handful of aircraft, the Allied Air Forces had sunk twelve ships – all eight of the troop transports and four of the eight destroyers – and had killed more than 3,000 enemy soldiers.

The brilliantly conceived and executed operation had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea and had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded. In the words of the supreme command of the Southwest Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was ‘the decisive aerial engagement’ of the war in the Southwest Pacific.

However, there was still a terrible yet essential finale to come. For several days after the battle, Allied aircrews patrolled the Huon Gulf, searching for and strafing barges and rafts crowded with survivors. It was grim and bloody work, but as one RAAF Beaufighter pilot said, every enemy soldier they prevented from getting ashore was one less for their Army colleagues to face. Moreover, after fifteen months of Japanese brutality, the great immorality, it seemed to them, would have been to have ignored the rights of their soldiers.

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A Japanese destroyer steaming astern while under attack by USAAF bombers during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Japanese media never mentioned the battle, but in a macabre footnote, two weeks later, Tokyo announced that in future all Japanese soldiers were to be taught to swim.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a master-class in air power. The RAAF and the USAAF had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea; they had forced the enemy into a defensive posture from which ultimate victory was unlikely, and they had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded.

This was arguably Australia’s most important victory in World War II.

This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

Header Image: During the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in which the Japanese suffered heavy losses while attempting to reinforce their garrison at Lae, a RAAF Beaufighter attacks a camouflaged Japanese transport. A burst is poured into the burning vessel. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice

‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice

By Ross Mahoney

If there is one description of the multi-national and cosmopolitan composition of Allied forces in the Mediterranean theatre during the Second World War, it is ‘complex.’ This comment may seem obvious at first; however, were there not only British and American troops in the theatre but also forces from the Commonwealth and Empire and ‘free’ forces such as those from France and Poland. Also, in the aftermath of the Italian surrender in September 1943, there were also those of the former regime.

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The first Prime Minister of Italy after the fall of Mussolini, Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio with the Head of the Military Mission in Brindisi, Lieutenant General Sir Noel Mason-MacFarlane. Photograph taken at the Italian Naval Headquarters at the Castle, Brindisi. (Source: © IWM (NA 7029))

By the terms of the instrument of surrender, units of the Italian navy and air force were to be transferred to the control of Allied forces. Once the Italian government under Marshal Badoglio moved to Brindisi, and the long terms of surrender were signed, the Allies set up a Control Commission to enforce the surrender terms. However, even before the Control Commission was established, General Eisenhower had dispatched a Military Mission to Brindisi to transmit military instructions to Badoglio, collect intelligence, and most importantly, co-ordinate the use of Italian armed forces in the war against German.[1]

It is clear that the use of Italian forces was designed, where possible, to complement Allied combat power in the Mediterranean theatre; however, this came up against a number of challenges that highlight the problem of integrating former enemies into the Allied force structure. Furthermore, as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, who at the time was in charge of the Mediterranean Air Command, reflected in his wartime memoirs that, while he was keen to support the use of the Italian air force, that Services needs came secondary to the Allied war effort.[2] Challenges for re-building the Italian air force included administrative, logistical, resource and personnel issue as well as cultural and language difficulties.

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Air Vice-Marshal Robert Foster, Air Officer Commanding the Desert Air Force, sitting in his office trailer at DAF Advanced Headquarters at Cesena, Italy. (Source: © IWM (CNA 3338))

The head of the air section of the Military Mission was one Air Commodore Foster, later Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Foster who later commanded the Desert Air Force and the 2nd Tactical Air Force in Germany in the early 1950s. In Foster’s personal papers, held by the Royal Air Force Museum in London, is an interesting record of his service with the Military Mission between September 1943 and March 1944.[3] In this recollection, which is what it is as it is clearly entitled the ‘Personal Record of ACM Sir Robert Foster’ and as such probably written after his retirement in the 1950s, Foster details the work he undertook.

The first challenge recalled by Foster was that of morale and linked to that the issue of attitude. Italian forces had by the time of surrender been fighting on multiple fronts and, for a variety of reasons, suffered significant defeats. Added to this, as Foster recollected, was the fact that the Italian’s were being asked to fight with their former enemies against their former allies. Furthermore, motivation was considered to be challenging because of conditions in Italy for the civilian population and the separation of personnel from their families. This was an outcome of the character of the Italian campaign and German failure to withdraw from the peninsula. That Foster identified this as his first requirement was hardly out of character. It was recognised by British forces that the generation of combat power was related to good leadership, command and morale. As such, managing issues such attitude, culture, identity and loyalties were essential to ensure the provision of an effective force. As Foster wrote:

It was perfectly clear […] that the first step must be to establish a sense of purpose and to find officers with sound qualities of leadership, with good operational experience, and with the basic enthusiasm which would make their Air Force and efficient and useful addition to the allied war effort.[4]

Foster was aided in attempting to implement his first step by recognising the need to gain support from Badoglio’s government and to help with that he appointed Squadron Leader Roger Francois whom both spoke Italian and was a ‘firm Italophile.’

Importantly, it was agreed that Italian units would be grouped to maintain identity, though the Allies would provide stores and logistical support and eventually re-equipment of units. Linked to this were administrative challenges concerning issues such as an operational headquarters to control units that not only served the purpose of Italians but also fitted with existing Allied arrangements. Added to this was the need to communicate to Allied air commanders that the addition of Italian units would be of benefit to the war effort. Foster recollected the ‘excellent service’ of his Italian staff officers fondly and that ‘at heart, the Italian Air Force air crew were dissimilar to ours.’[5]

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An Italian Macchi C.205 Veltro aircraft found on Catania airfield, Sicily by personnel of No. 450 Squadron RAAF and subsequently serviced by the squadron’s fitters. (Source: Wikimedia)

Ultimately, without further research, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of Foster’s effort to rebuild the Italian air force on the Allied war effort. At a simple level, were the outcomes achieved greater than the effort expended? One thing is certain, while an attempt was made to utilise the Italian air force it was hampered by the fact that the Allies secured only some 300 aircraft and that many continued to be used by forces that remained loyal to the regime in Northern Italy. This led to Italian units being used by the Balkan Air Force and re-equipped with Allied types. Nevertheless, perhaps the key outcome of this effort was that it laid the foundation for the post-Second World War Italian air force, as such, while the Service might not have been militarily effective in reinforcing Allied combat power, it served a political purpose in the longer term.

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the effort to rebuild and utilise Italian forces after the 1943 surrender; however, while it is dangerous to draw historical parallels, the experience of Italian forces after 1943 begs the question of the purpose of rebuilding forces of defeated enemies and the challenges inherent in that process. It is evident from Foster’s recollection that while there were technical and logistical challenges, the key to his ‘success’ was the need to recognise the problem of working with the Italians to ensure that they felt part of the Allied team. A need to maintain some form of identity was paramount to Foster’s work and the subsequent integration of Italian forces who subsequently felt valued as they were able to ‘prove [their] worth under the new circumstances.’[6]

Header Image: A formation of Macchi C.200 of the Regia Aeronautica, c. 1941 (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] On the development of the Allied Control Commission, see: C.R.S. Harris, Allied Military Administration of Italy, 1943-1945 (London: HMSO, 1957), pp.105-28.

[2] Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, With Prejudice (London: Cassell, 1966), p. 469.

[3] Royal Air Force Museum, Personal Papers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Foster, AC75/34/8/23, Personal Record of A.C.M. Sir Robert Foster of Service with the Italian Air Force, September 1943-March 1944, N.D..

[4] Ibid, p. 2.

[5] Ibid, p. 5.

[6] Ibid, p. 6.

Commentary – The RAF and the F-117

Commentary – The RAF and the F-117

By Ross Mahoney

In the past couple of days, several sources have reported on the fact that in 1986, the US President, Ronald Reagan, offered Britain the opportunity to co-operate on stealth technology and purchase the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Details of the project, codenamed MOONFLOWER, have become known through the recent release of files by the British National Archives. This release is part of the material coming out of the Prime Minister’s files for the 1980s and the specific reference for MOONFLOWER is PREM 19/1844. An important issue to note with these files is that they have not been digitised and were opened just before the New Year. This is an important consideration when reading many of the reports on the internet as it is probable that the one in The Guardian – from which most derive – has only cited certain parts of the file. Indeed, I have not read the file yet.

The F-117 remains one of the most iconic aircraft of the latter part of the Cold War. Announced in 1988, the F-117 emerged from Lockheed’s Have Blue project and was developed by the company’s Skunk Works division. The F-117 was first operationally used in the US invasion of Panama in 1989, but it was during Operation DESERT STORM that it rose to prominence. During the 1990s and 2000s, the F-117 was used in other conflicts, and one was shot down in 1999 during Operation ALLIED FORCE, and it was eventually retired in 2008.

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A USAF F-117A Nighthawk flies over Nellis Air Force Base during the joint service experimentation process dubbed Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02). (Source: Wikimedia)

What appears to have got people talking is the fact that Britain was offered the F-117 at a time when it was still officially a ‘black’ project i.e. before it existence was officially acknowledged. Moreover, according to the various reports, the key reason that Britain did not pursue purchasing the F-117 was for this very reason. However, while this may be one reason for rejecting the F-117, it should be noted that while the release of British files is interesting, this is not strictly a new story, though it is potentially a new dimension. Several histories of the F-117 cite the fact that in 1986, several Royal Air Force (RAF) test pilots were sent to fly the aircraft. For example, Paul Crickmore reflected that the RAF ‘had its chance to evaluate the F-117’ as a thank you for British support of Operation EL DORADO CANYON.[1] However, what these secondary sources lack is the archival evidence to understand why the evaluation took place. It is probably – though I would not like to say for certain until I see the file – that this assessment formed part of this project.

As already noted, the reason cited in the reports for the RAF not purchasing the F-117 was the ‘black’ character of the project; however, I have to wonder how well this aircraft would have fitted into the Service’s force structure and concept of operations in the 1980s. Moreover, it will be interesting to see if anything more is mentioned in the file as to why the F-117 was not purchased. Nevertheless, a few issues come to mind that may have been challenges. First, the RAF operated at low-level in small packages, and I am unclear how the F-117 would have fitted into this concept of operations. Second, by 1986, the RAF was in the middle of purchasing the Panavia Tornado that had been designed for the low-level role, as such; again, what additional capability the purchase of the F-117 would have added to the RAF at this point remains unclear. Finally, there is the issue of numbers. The F-117 was never built in significant numbers, and it seems unlikely that the RAF would have bought more than the United States Air Force, as such, again, what additional capability would the addition of a highly complex piece of equipment have added to the RAF? Yes, it would have added a stealth capability but this needs to match a concept of operations, and in my mind, this remains a murky area. As such, this is more an interesting example of the so-called ‘special relationship’ rather than a significant ‘What-If’ for the RAF.

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An F-35B in RAF Markings. (Source: Royal Air Force)

This is not, however, where the story ends as in 1995, Lockheed once again tried to sell the RAF an improved F-117 that included locally produced content, such as GEC-Marconi supplied avionics.[2] This approach was in response to the RAF’s Staff Target (Air) 425 that began the process of looking at replacing the GR4 variant of the Tornado, which became known as the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS). FOAS closed down in 2005 and was rolled into Future Joint Combat Aircraft project that has seen the purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II – an aircraft with a stealth capability.[3]

Header Image: A pair of specially painted F-117 Nighthawks fly off from their last refueling by the Ohio National Guard’s 121st Air Refueling Wing, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Paul F. Crickmore, Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2014), p. 26.

[2] Guy Norris, ‘Lockheed Martin targets RAF and USAN for F-117,’ Flight International, (28 June to 4 July 1995), p. 4.

[3] Louisa Brooke-Holland, ‘The UK’s F-25 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter,’ Standard Note (SN06278) UK House of Commons Library, (6 February 2015), pp. 5-6.