Allied Tactical Airpower in Normandy

An online outline of British/Commonwealth doctrine for tactical air power in Normandy.


Chapter One:

Chapter Two:

Chapter Three:

Chapter Four:

Chapter Five:


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How to bring their surfeit of air power to bear on the enemy represented an enourmous command and staff problem for the Western Allies. Central to this problem was the difficult issue of targeting.


What can be deduced from the history of 2nd TAF's campaign in Normandy? An important factor to unravel is the apportionment of 2nd TAF's air power. What percent of available capacity was consumed by close support missions? What percent by deeper strikes such as armed recces? The answers to those questions should help to clarify exactly what was going on with air support.

Unfortunately, because of the way statistics were kept by the RAF at the time, it is difficult to answer these questions clearly. CABRANK is especially difficult to pin down from the records extant. For instance, the composite groups' Operations Record Books (ORBs) do not give specific mention to CABRANKs at all, merely differentiating between defensive missions, reconnaissance missions, armed reconnaissance, and what is variously termed either "dive bombing", "immediate support" or "close support."

In all, it would appear that about 40 percent of the composite groups' sorties were consumed by defensive fighter missions, 35 percent by armed recce, 15 percent by pre-arranged missions, and 10 percent by impromptu close support. Discounting the defensive fighter sorties in order to focus purely on the effort allocated to the various types of ground attack missions, the figures become roughly:

  • 60 percent armed recce;
  • 25 percent pre-arranged, and
  • 15 percent impromptu.

In other words, impromptu close support was not allocated a great proportion of 2nd TAF's effort, and armed recce was.

Armed Recce

This is unsurprising because armed recce has been singled out, at the time and since, as 2nd TAF's single most effective form of air attack. It is not clear that the army critics fully appreciated the greater utility of air power in the deeper roles. Indeed, the army criticisms, then and now, seem to boil down to the complaint that 2nd TAF would not "whistle up" fighter bombers at a moment's notice where ever some front-line commander happened to come under pressure. As we can see from the contemporary doctrine -- and from the actual apportionment statistics from the campaign -- this has more to do with the relatively low priority assigned to close support than it does to RAF intransigence.

Critics might respond that the low priority given to close support in itself demonstrated RAF instransigence. That would be to ignore that close support was the method of attack doing the least damage to the Germans -- or at least, that the RAF believed that deeper attacks were doing the most damage. And believe this they did, even at the time. An "Operational Research" study undertaken in July 1944, "confirms the overall effectiveness of widespread armed recce in confusing and delaying the enemy's supplies, at the same time inflicting serious losses when targets have actually been located and attacked."

This was a contention that the Army critics have not addressed. Once again, the issue comes back to the envisioned role for tactical air power. Which is more important: more fire support along the front-line or disrupting overall enemy movement?

Target Areas

Another key factor in unravelling what was being done with tactical air power is to consider where it was being applied. What is striking about the patterns of 2nd TAF's effort -- considering the RAF's doctrine and emphasis on concentration rather than "penny packeting" -- is how dispersed 2nd TAF's effort was.

With the exception of major offensives, the close support effort was not particularly focused, being driven from the "bottom-up", rather than the "top-down" (ie requests were initiated by forward troops, either through ASSU channels for impromptu missions or up the Army chain-of-command for consideration at the daily air conference for pre-arranged missions). A perception of unfocused effort is furthered by the means used to direct the armed recces were directed, which appears to have been on a simple geographic basis. There was no mechanism to concentrate armed recces in areas that would complement and enhance the overall Allied scheme of maneouvre or campaign plan. They were largely shotgunned out on the basis of aircraft availability and what were perceived to be fertile hunting grounds within arbitrary geographic areas that had been designated not to concentrate 2nd TAF's tactical air power, but primarily as a de-confliction control measure.

Targeting Troubles

It is all very well to say that air power should be concentrated in some decisive way. What actual targets should be attacked to effect such decisive concentration? This was a key problem and an area where Army criticisms are better grounded. The British Army's immediate post-war analysis of air support contains some particularly bitter words about the RAF's approach:

The theory that the army should confine itself to stating the problem in general terms, and the air forces should then decide the method in all its detail has proved quite impracticable ... It is educative to realise that, in this campaign, out of every hundred attacks carried out from the air by the tactical air forces, it is estimated that at least ninety five have been on targets selected, named and annotated by the army alone, including in many cases the provision of the actual aiming points.

This is almost certainly a fair criticism, for as we have seen the RAF system did not include much provision for targeting. Targets were expected to come from either the daily planning conferences -- where it would be the Army that raised them -- or up through the ASSU net, also from the Army. Second TAF lacked the necessary staff to select any actual targets for attack other than through those two mechanisms. In armed recces, for instance, aircraft were sent off to look for their own targets. More critically, the RAF overall lacked the expertise and the doctrine for target selection in a land campaign. Quite simply, the doctrine of the time had not thought these issues through. If the RAF wanted to maintain that air officers were the sole experts on the application of air power, then reasonably they should have addressed the targeting issue rigorously.

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