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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Notwithstanding the elaborate organization dedicated specifically to army support that 2nd TAF constituted, the relationship between the Army and RAF often remained contentious throughout the Normandy campaign. This rocky relationship began before the campaign, and centred in the first instance upon the old issue of command relationships.

Command Relationships

Army commanders such as Brooke had always wanted air forces under Army command, or even as outright integral components of the Army itself. To this old issue was added many personal disagreements between the senior Army and RAF commanders as the campaign unfolded. In particular, the personal relationship between Montgomery, commanding 21st Army Group, and Coningham, commanding 2nd TAF, was especially bad.

Bombing Short

Another issue poisoning relations was air force bombing short and causing Allied casualties. This was a well documented problem, and it made the air force demonstrably unwilling to take on targets too near the front line. Paradoxically, this reluctance to accept targets often further aggravated the Army's perception of the RAF's uncooperativeness.

RAF Uncooperativeness

Heated though these issues were, they were not the Army's chief complaint. Only a year after the war, Major General C.C. Mann, who as a Brigadier had been the Chief of Staff at 1st Canadian Army headquarters during the Normandy campaign, made a striking and surprisingly blunt accusation:

I am convinced that ... this conception -- that war like operations can be conducted with maximum efficiency under a system of Joint Command at this level -- is unsound
Mann strongly believed that the nature of the co-equal command relationship between the paired army and RAF headquarters was unworkable, and that the RAF had been uncooperative and stinting in its support.

Interestingly, the US Army had the same misgivings about their similar command arrangements for air support. As Lee Kennett has noted, to the Army, "the `co-equal' principle seemed debilitating". In 1943 the US Army had argued that: "The ability to strike one great blow with all available means requires quick decision, accurate timing, and prompt execution; it is the ultimate function of command, not of cooperation."

This issue of timeliness -- or perhaps more accurately responsiveness -- getting close support air attacks on target as quickly as possible after Army request -- has dominated consideration of the tactical air support issue from the very start. This was the issue that drove the Wann-Woodall system for close support which ultimately resulted in the ASSUs and 2nd TAF itself. Timeliness was central to the complaints the Army had about air support during the campaign. Indeed, the timeliness issue has dominated the historiography of the issue down to the present day. Most commentators have discussed it, in tones generally disapproving of the RAF. Most recently Ian Gooderson of King's College London had this to say in a scholarly analysis of these issues:

The British system proved very successful in processing pre-planned air-support strikes, but the more difficult test was how quickly air support could be provided in response to impromptu requests from forward troops, where speed was vitally important. In this respect, both in Italy and in the early stages of the campaign in North-West Europe, the process was simply not fast enough.


Are these complaints that 2nd TAF air support was uncooperative and stinting, or at least not responsive, justified? First of all, this whole discussion poses the obvious question: how fast was 2nd TAF response to Army requests? As we have seen, response time varied widely, but a comrehensive answer would include:

  • Pre-arranged missions were generally set out the evening before.
  • Impromptu requests varied, but generally took an hour or two to fill.
  • If a CABRANK with appropriate forward control was available, the response could be within minutes.

It is not clear that this is such a poor performance. Admittedly, this did not generally allow for catching a fleeting target in the open, or "shooting" a quick attack onto its objective -- but those were not the intended roles for air attack. This is precisely why CABRANK was developed. In those (comparitively rare) cases when immediate close support response was essential, it could be laid on. However, CABRANK was an extremely costly means of employing airpower, so it was used sparingly, but it was used when necessary. And when it was used, response would be in mere minutes; sometimes faster than the guns.

It would be simple to conclude straight off that these Army/RAF problems were a hangover from the pre-war doctrinal debates, which had stressed the need for air force independence. That would be too simple, for the Air Force was genuinely concerned to ensure that their air power was centralized for concerted blows, rather than "penny packeted out" to army formations. Viewed this way, the argument about command arrangements for air power rather mirrors the Army's own pre-war internal arguments over the correct grouping for tanks -- concentrated in dedicated tank heavy formations as the Germans did in their panzer divisions or evenly distributed throughout the Army in "infantry support"?.

That being the case, just how did 2nd TAF distribute it's air power? Did they attempt to utilize their independence of command to concentrate their air power in decisive ways? For this we need to review how, in fact, 2nd TAF was employed through out the campaign.

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