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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Early Animosity

Right from the RAF's birth in the immediate aftermath of World War I, there were inter-service rivalries with the two older services. A major factor in this was the RAF's fervent belief that they had found a "better way" to win wars, and that, indeed, they had rendered the two older services obselescent, if not obselete. Wars would be won in the future, the apostles of air power argued, not by massed armies or fleets, but by massed bombers, striking directly to the heart of any enemy's homeland.

Intellectual credit for this argument is usually accorded to Guilo Douhet, who wrote an early and ardent expression of this idea, The Command of the Air. Almost certainly, the RAF did not in fact derive their doctrine from Douhet, but rather independently developed what were essentially the same ideas. Regardless, the doctrine they espoused almost from the first was essentially the same. It has been widely noted by historians that strategic bombing, as an instrument of state policy independent of the other two services, was the raison d'etre for the RAF at its birth. In any case, the RAF fervently argued that "independent" strategic bombing was the war winner of the future.

Rearmament and Air Power

RAF emphasis on bombers rather than army support was first challenged in 1935, when the British government finally began to seriously consider the new German menace. The War Office formally requested that seven bomber and five fighter squadrons of the RAF be allocated to the first contingent of any British field force sent to the continent, with more to follow. The Air Ministry steadfastly opposed this.

Things had scarcely improved when war did eventually come in 1939. In March of that year the Army formally demanded that a strong strike force of bombers be included under the field force envisioned for operations on the continent. Convinced of the strategic importance of independent bombing, the Air Ministry resisted these requests for bombers particularly fiercely. The Air Staff even went so far as to assert that fundamentally, all bombing was the same, regardless of the actual target; therefore no specialization in training or command arrangements were necessary to meet Army needs.

Early War

During the Battle of France the BEF had only two bomber and four fighter squadrons directly assigned to it, plus the six Army Co-operation squadrons which were essentially dedicated solely to reconnaissance. An "Advanced Air Striking Force" or AASF went to France as well, but it remained under Bomber Command's authority. This arrangement was quickly overwhelmed by the speed of the eventual German attack.

After Dunkirk, the RAF quickly reverted to its pre-1935 philosophy . According to its own thinking, the RAF now had three major missions:

  • protection of the home island from air attack (Fighter Command's job);
  • the mounting of a strategic bombing campaign against Germany (Bomber Command's job); and
  • support to the Royal Navy for the Battle of the Atlantic (Coastal Command's job).

The Army's role, in the RAF's view, was restricted to home defence should an invasion come, and subsequently occupation of a Germany that had been defeated by the strategic bombing campaign.

After Dunkirk, the Army strove to change this policy. In March 1942 they demanded the establishment of a force of 109 squadrons to be trained in support by the Army and operated under Army control. In May 1942 an Army/RAF compromise of sorts was reached, but on the crucial issue of command and control they could come to no agreement.

Meanwhile, work on the technicalities of improved interservice cooperation and air support had been proceeding at the lower levels. In neglected Army Cooperation Command of the RAF, in the far backwater of Northern Ireland, a small group of officers had been brought together under the leadership of Group Captain Wann of the RAF and Brigadier Woodall of the British Army. They produced what came to be called the "Wann/Woodall" report, which outlined a system of control for air support which formed the basis of the eventual Tactical Air Force doctrine. The essentials of the Wann/Woodall system was the establishment of a joint Army/RAF headquarters which would control a composite group of aircraft, and the creation of a radio network outside of the normal Army chain-of-command, specifically for the purpose of controlling air support.

It was just at this time that a major new development occured, essentially by coincidence. Fighter Command, languishing somewhat since its glory days of late 1940, was casting about for an offensive role. The commander of No 11 Group, Air Marsahl Trafford Leigh-Mallory, apparently on his own initiative, began experiments in the modification of fighters to carry bombs and attack ground targets. Thus the "fighter-bomber" was born, ironically by a process completely unrelated to the Army's long and persistent demands for effective air support.

The first implementation of the these new ideas -- the Wann/Woodall system and the fighter- bomber concept -- came in the Western Desert. However, acrimony between the RAF and Army remained fierce, and by October 1942 the debate over control of air power had escalated to the level of Churchill himself. On 7 October 1942 he produced a compromise ruling slightly favourable to the RAF.

It is perhaps difficult to imagine today just how bitter the rivalry between the Army and the RAF really was. In 1941, in the midst of the wartime air support debate, Air Vice Marshal John Slessor, then serving as a senior plans officer on the Air Staff, wrote of the Army that:

... the rising generation of soldiers (with about 2 exceptions) are quite unfit to command air forces, by training and tradition -- they are only just adjusting their mentality from 4 to 30 miles per hour, and it will take them another generation to adjust it to 400, by which time what is left of the field army will be a component of the RAF.

This was the environment in which attention to air support was fought out.

Final Resolution

Thus, tactical air forces were born of a long, fundamental, and deeply felt disagreement between the Army and the RAF. It was this feud, and RAF jealousy of their independence, which lies behind the evolution of the complex system of "dual command" developed for tactical air forces.

Nevertheless, despite this unpromising and often outright antagonistic environment, a detailed and complex system for organizing and controlling air power in support of armies was eventually developed, a solution that represented a compromise between the RAF and the Army. Contrary to the Air Marshals' initial wishes, a considerable portion of the RAF's resources were in fact dedicated specifically to supporting the Army. But contrary to the Generals' initial wishes, this air power was to remain centralized under the command of the RAF, and not the Army.

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