The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: On 19 September 2018, our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney delivered a paper on the subject of ‘The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists’ at a seminar organised by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Power Development Centre in Canberra. A precis of this paper was published in the Pathfinder bulletin issued by APDC, which can be found here. The Pathfinder series covers a range of issue from strategy, historical analyses, operations, administration, logistics, education and training, people, command and control, technology to name a few. Irrespective of the subject though, Pathfinders will always be focused on the relevance to air power; they are not intended to be just a narrative but deliver a measure of analysis. Apart from the addition of some minor changes to make this precis applicable to From Balloons to Drones as well as the inclusion of footnotes and further reading suggestions, this article appears as published in Pathfinder. We are grateful to APDC for permission to re-publish the piece, and the views in this article and the associated Pathfinder are not necessarily those of the RAAF.

‘[t]he study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.’

Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, (1912)[1]

‘The word history carries two meanings […] It refers both to what actually happened in the past and to the representation of that past in the work of historians.’

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Third Edition, (1999)[2]

What is history? What is its relevance to an air power strategist? These are important questions; however, as Richard Muller, a senior member of the faculty at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, reflected in 2016, ‘as a rule air forces have not embraced historical study to the same extent as have their army or navy counterparts.’[3] Nevertheless, in 1912, a year after an Italian aeroplane dropped the first ‘bomb’ over Libya, noted US naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan reflected on the link between military history and ‘sound military conclusions.’ However, history does not provide clear lessons. Nevertheless, the study of the past does offer a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

This article considers some of the issues related to applied military history beginning with an outline of the purpose of history and the challenges of applying the past to the present. It also considers how air forces have used the study of the past as a tool for education while concluding with some tentative thoughts on how history can be used to educate strategists in the continuing challenge to achieve professional mastery.[4]

To start with, the term ‘education’ is used in this narrative in a broad context and incorporates both formal and informal learning. Similarly, the term ‘strategist’ is used in a collegiate manner and assumes that modern air forces seek personnel who are professional masters, well-versed in the core knowledge that underpins the application of air power.

As the British historian John Tosh reflected, the term history is ambiguous at best. Is history a collection of facts related to what has happened or is it the scholarly discussion and representation of the past? If the latter statement is accepted as being correct, then it can also be assumed that the interpretation of the past is an argument without an end. While a hackneyed observation, history is a dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and reinterpret the past. Linked to this is the extent of historical information available to historians and, by default, strategists who seek to apply lessons from the past to the present. The archival records and evidence that underpin the interpretation of the past are normally incomplete. For example, the National Archives of Australia only preserves a small amount of the material generated by the Australian Government.

Moving beyond the above understanding of history, the field of military history can be split into three subfields: popular, academic, and applied history.[5] There is a degree of overlap between the latter two. The main criticism of applied military history is that it is a form of weaponising the past to cater for the present.[6] Underpinning this criticism is a view that those writing such history do so without sufficient understanding of the context in seeking to deduce lessons learnt. Unfortunately, this criticism is currently directed at academics working at institutions delivering professional military education. These institutions use history to illuminate and provide context to the ambiguous challenges that officers attending them are likely to confront in the future.

Historically, the criticism of weaponising the past does carry some weight, and therefore air power strategists could be criticised for the poor use of history to support their arguments. Indeed, as Sir Michael Howard, a distinguished military historian, noted in his 1961 lecture on ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’:

[W]hen great [interwar] pioneers of air war…advocated striking at the homeland and at the morale of the enemy people…they were basing their conclusions on their interpretation of past wars’. (emphasis added)[7]

Warden

More recently, Colonel (retired) John Warden III’s book, The Air Campaign, has been criticised for his use of a selective reading of history to fit the theory being propounded in it.[8] Admittedly, Warden is not a historian. However, such selective use of history becomes problematic to the broader task of delivering professional education when such texts appear in, for example, Staff College reading lists where they can reinforce a narrow, and at times wrong, understanding of some of the officers they are meant to educate. Despite this criticism, it is clear that many air power thinkers have recognised the value of a broad reading of history. For example, in a 1921 article on ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Group Captain John Chamier of the Royal Air Force reflected on the challenge of deducing appropriate principles for the use of air power given the brief history of air warfare till then. Nevertheless, Chamier recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history’, and he recognised that examples from ‘naval and military strategy’ could provide the necessary framework for a discussion of ‘air strategy.’[9]

While history and the application of its lessons by air forces is fraught with challenges, its importance as a didactic tool for the military cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the study of history has been, and remains, an element of the curricula at educational establishments of most air forces. However, considered in a broad manner, the study of history has been unbalanced. For example, in the late-1940s and 1950s, history and related subjects featured little on the curriculum at the RAAF College. As Alan Stephens has noted, the RAAF of this period identified itself as a ‘narrow technocracy’ with knowledge of the Air Force’s core business to be deduced from its ‘technical components’ rather than a ‘study of its history and ideas.’[10]

To conclude, there are several areas where the contemporary study of history plays a key role in the education of air power theorists and strategists. Perhaps most important is that a deep and contextual study of history provides an important understanding for military personnel seeking to gain professional mastery of the profession of arms. Indeed, if it is accepted that the aim of learning is to develop the cognitive ability to understand and deal with ambiguity, rather than to provide clear-cut answers to current problems, then the study of history has a role to play.

The skills associated with historical analysis refines human cognitive areas such as the ability to make considered judgements. An important contributor to the effectiveness of this learning process has been the increasing civilianisation of the academic delivery at institutions catering to professional military education. At a practical level, the use of Staff Rides as a learning tool could also ensure that history could be used as a means to explore ideas outside of the confines of the traditional education environment. However, this process also has its own challenges.[11] In the final analysis, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s remark that the study of history needs to form an essential part of a ‘balanced diet’ of education for the military professional in order for them to develop the knowledge to be effective, rings completely true.[12]

Key Points

  1. Even though history may not provide clear lessons, the study of the past offers a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces;
  2. History could be considered a rather dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and re-interpret the past;
  3. It is recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history.’

Further Reading

  • Gray, Peter, ‘Why Study Military History?,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 151-64.
  • Muller, Richard R., ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Bailey Jr., Richard J., Forsyth Jr., James W., and Yeisley, Mark O., (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016).
  • Murray, Williamson, and Sinnreich, Richard Hart (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Dr Ross Mahoney is the editor and owner of From Balloons to Drones as well as being an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: An Architect’s perspective drawing of the proposed RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell. (Source: © IWM ((MOW) C 1081))

[1] Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, 196:680 (1912), p. 78.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999), p. viii.

[3] Richard R. Muller, ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), p. 113.

[4] On professional mastery in air forces, see: Sanu Kainikara, ‘Professional Mastery and Air Power Education,’ Working Paper, 33 (Canberra: RAAF Air Power Development Centre, 2011).

[5] John A. Lynn III, ‘Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History,’ Academic Questions, 21:1 (2008), p. 20.

[6] Kim Wagner, ‘Seeing Like a Soldier: The Amritsar Massacre and the Politics of Military History,’ in Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds), Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Conflicts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), pp. 25-7.

[7] Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History (lecture),’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 107:625 (1962), p. 10.

[8] John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 78-9. In a similar vein to Warden, Colonel John Boyd’s work ‘cherry-picked’ history ‘to provide illustrations and empirical validation for patterns he observed in combat.’ However, it should be recognised that Boyd was an airman who was a general strategist rather than an air power thinker per se, though his ideas do have applicability to the air domain. See: Frans Osinga, ‘The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 53-4.

[9] Group Captain J.A. Chamier, ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 66 (1921), p. 641.

[10] Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.

[11] On the challenges associated with staff rides, see: Brigadier R.A.M.S. Melvin British Army, ‘Contemporary Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Military Practitioner’s View,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 59-80,Nick Lloyd, ‘Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Useful Learning Experience?,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 14:2 (2009), pp. 175-84.

[12] John P. Kiszely, ‘The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: A British View’ in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 32.

Bringing It All Back Home: How one sortie by the No. 1474 Flight RAF in December 1942 helped save the lives of countless aircrew

Bringing It All Back Home: How one sortie by the No. 1474 Flight RAF in December 1942 helped save the lives of countless aircrew

By Dr Thomas Withington

The weather was mild for early December as scattered showers, and high winds continued to visit RAF Gransden Lodge near Cambridge.[1] It was a shade after 02:00 on the morning of 2 December 1942 when Flight Sergeant Edwin Paulton (Royal Canadian Air Force/RCAF) gently rotated the yoke causing the Vickers Wellington Mk1C of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) No. 1474 (Special Duties) Flight to unstick from the runway and climb into the East Anglian night.[2] Paulton’s sortie that autumnal evening was part of the RAF’s response to the growing intensity of the Luftwaffe’s defensive effort against Bomber Command’s attacks on targets in Germany.

Emil-Emil

With most of Western Europe’s occupation now complete, and the invasion of the UK postponed indefinitely by Adolf Hitler in September 1940 following the Battle of Britain, the German high command turned its attention towards bolstering the country’s defences against RAF Bomber Command.[3] Even with the commencement of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, which involved a significant effort by the Luftwaffe, this did not deprive Germany of fighter defences to resist the Command’s efforts.[4] These fighters were able to exact heavy losses and between July 1942 when the RAF commenced recording aircraft loss and damage to separate causes, and December 1942 Bomber Command lost 305 aircraft to fighters during the day and night operations; 2.3 per cent of all sorties despatched.[5]

C 5477
A low-level aerial reconnaissance photograph of the ‘Freya’ radar installations at Auderville, taken using an F.24 side-facing oblique aerial camera. (Source: © IWM (C 5477))

It was imperative for Bomber Command to staunch the bleeding. By late August 1942 Bomber Command understood the workings of the Luftwaffe’s integrated air defence system. The initial detection of incoming bombers was performed by a chain of FuMG-80 Freya ground-based air surveillance radars. A defensive ‘belt’ known as the Kammhuber Line, named after Generalleutnant Josef Kammhuber, the head of the Luftwaffe’s XII Fliegerkorps, stretched from Kiel in northern Germany southwest past Luxembourg. Behind this line lay all of Germany’s major cities and industrial centres including Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, and Stuttgart. Quite simply it was almost impossible for bombers to approach their targets without crossing this line. The line was subdivided into separate ‘boxes’ each covering 247 square miles (640 square kilometres). Within each box were two FuMG-62D Würzburg ground-controlled interception radars. One of these radars would hold the fighter in its gaze while another would search the box for a bomber. A ground controller would coordinate the interception seeing the position of the fighter and bomber on his radar screens. He would then bring these two together. Once the fighter was just short of one nautical mile/nm (1.8 kilometres/km) from the bomber, the ground controller would hand over the interception to the fighter. The crew would activate their Lichtenstein-BC airborne interception radar to locate the bomber and then press home their attack. All the while the fighter and the ground controller would remain in radio contact.[6]

The British Air Ministry issued a report in July 1942 which stated that Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) had revealed that from early 1942 the Luftwaffe’s night fighters had been using a device codenamed ‘Emil-Emil’. Little was known about this beyond the fact that it seemed to assist interceptions and may have used either radar or infrared technology to do so. Initially, this equipment appeared to be used exclusively by night fighters near Vlissingen on the Netherlands’ west coast. Further investigations revealed that by October 1942 Emil-Emil appeared to be in widespread service elsewhere in the night fighter force. Such was the discipline of Luftwaffe fighter crews and their ground controllers that the purpose of Emil-Emil was not betrayed in radio chatter.[7]

Experts from the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), tasked with developing and producing electronic countermeasures for the British armed forces, collected radio signals on the East Coast which revealed transmissions on a 491 megahertz/MHz frequency strongly suspected of being transmitted by Emil-Emil.[8] This information was a breakthrough, but the relationship of these transmissions to Emil-Emil had to be confirmed. The only way to do so would be to fly one of the RAF’s SIGINT gathering aircraft from No. 1474 Flight into hostile airspace where there was a high chance that enemy fighters would be encountered. The rationale was to use the aircraft for two interrelated tasks. First, entice a night fighter into an attack and then record the characteristics of any hostile radio signals it transmitted. By doing this, it would be possible to determine whether Emil-Emil was an airborne interception radar. As always in electronic warfare, once it was discerned that the enemy was using a particular type of radar in a particular way, it would be possible to devise means to jam it.

Paulton and his crew were tasked with collecting SIGINT across an area stretching from the French north coast to Frankfurt in central Germany.[9] The specifics of the mission called for the Wellington, which was equipped with a radio receiver, to lure a fighter into an interception. The aircraft would then record the radio signals transmitted by the fighter. So far No. 1474 Flight had performed 17 sorties, but none resulted in the desired interception. Finally, on the night of 2 December, the Luftwaffe would cooperate, although this would almost cost the Wellington’s crew their lives.

Against All Odds

At 04:31, two-and-a-half hours into the flight, the aircraft was northeast of the Luftwaffe airfield at Pferdsfeld in southeast Germany. Paulton set a course to fly north. As he turned Pilot Officer Harold Jordan, the aircraft’s ‘Special Operator’ tasked with the SIGINT collection, began receiving signals which seemed to match those the crew were tasked to investigate. As the Wellington flew north, the signals became stronger. Jordan warned the crew that a fighter attack was likely. As Jordan received signals, he was passing this information to wireless operator Flight Sergeant Bill Bigoray (RCAF) who coded and transmitted them back to the UK. Ten minutes later the aircraft turned west to head for home while the signals received by Jordan were getting stronger still. At that moment cannon fire from a Junkers Ju-88 fighter slammed into the Wellington. Paulton immediately put the aircraft into a violent corkscrew turn in a bid to shake off the fighter. Jordan was hit in the arm but realised that the signals he was receiving were correct with Bigoray relaying this information back to base. Despite Jordan’s injuries he continued to record the transmissions while Bigoray continued to send coded messages, having received no ‘R’ transmission from base to indicate their reception. Unbeknownst to Bigoray, they had been received at 05.05. Flight Sergeant Everitt Vachon (RCAF), the Wellington’s rear gunner, managed to fire almost 1000 rounds at the Ju-88 but his turret was hit and rendered unserviceable, with Vachon wounded in the shoulder.[10]

The Ju-88 manoeuvred for another attack. This hit Jordan in the jaw but did not stop him operating his equipment and telling Paulton from which side the next attack would occur. Along with Jordan Flight Sergeant Grant, the front turret gunner was hit, as was Bigoray who was injured in both legs as he tried to free Grant from the turret. Grant was eventually being extricated by the navigator Pilot Officer Alexander Barry (RCAF). The third attack hit Jordan again, this time in the eye. Try as he might, he could no longer operate his radio receiver. Instead, he struggled forward to find Barry to show him how to operate the receiver so that the signals collection could continue. Nonetheless, now almost blinded this proved an impossible task.[11]

While Jordan had been trying in vain to instruct Barry Vachon had managed to free himself from the rear turret. He went into the aircraft’s Astrodome to provide a running commentary on the Ju-88’s position. Vachon was hit once again, this time in the hand, and Barry took over. Throughout the engagement, those in the aircraft had been thrown around like ragdolls as Paulton’s evasive actions saw the aircraft descend from 14,000ft to a mere 500ft. The Wellington suffered twelve attacks in total; six of which may have been successful. The damage to the aircraft was extensive: The port and starboard engine throttles were jammed. The front and rear turrets were unserviceable along with the starboard ailerons and trim tabs. The starboard fuel tank was holed and the hydraulics useless, causing both engines to run erratically. The aircraft’s pitot heads were also damaged preventing the airspeed indicator showing the plane’s velocity.[12]

Despite the Wellington’s near-mortal damage Paulton managed to reach 5,000ft altitude and crossed the coast ten miles northeast of Dunkirk at 06:45. Being mistaken for a hostile aircraft was an ever-present danger when RAF planes were returning from operations over the continent. Bigoray switched the aircraft’s IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) Mk.3 transmitter to squawk that the plane was friendly and sent out a mayday message. Deciding to ditch in daylight after realising that the Wellington’s landing light was insufficient to perform a safe water landing, Paulton asked the crew if anyone wanted to bail out. Bigoray asked to do so concerned that his leg would stiffen up so much that he would be unable to leave the aircraft once it was in the water. As he was about to jump, he realised he had not secured the transmission key of his radio to prevent it accidentally retransmitting. Moving back into the fuselage and in much pain, he secured the key and jumped landing near Ramsgate on the Kent coast. Paulton finally ditched the Wellington in the channel near Walmer beach, south of Deal. Even the aircraft’s dingy, packed for such eventualities, was a casualty and despite a valiant attempt by Jordan to plug some of the holes, it was unusable. Instead, the crew climbed on top of the Wellington, being rescued by a small boat some moments later.[13]

Results

The intelligence Paulton and his crew gathered on that fateful December night had implications for the rest of the war. Their actions enabled the TRE ‘boffins’ to not only confirm that the Emil-Emil device was the Lichtenstein-BC radar but also to divine the radar’s characteristics. Once these were known it was possible to develop an Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) in the form of the Ground Grocer jammer. This was installed at Dunwich on the Suffolk coast commencing operations on 26 April 1943.[14] The jammer would blast electronic noise at the Lichtenstein-BC across a waveband of 486MHz to 501MHz. Even for Luftwaffe fighters flying 120nm (222 kilometres) distant from the transmitter could have their radar ranges reduced to 1500ft (457 metres) from their usual range of four nautical miles (eight kilometres). This forced the fighter to come closer to the bomber to detect it in darkness; greatly increasing the chances of the bomber crew hitting the fighter as it commenced its attack.[15] Nonetheless, Ground Grocer was not bereft of imperfections: It tended to work best when a fighter was flying towards the transmitter and was generally used to protect bombers on their outward and return journeys. The official record notes that by the end of June 1943 Ground Grocer had caused six of the seven cases of radar interference reported by Luftwaffe fighter crews to their ground controllers.[16]

C 5635
A Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster bomber over Essen dropping WINDOW to interfere with ground gunners during a 1000 bomber raid on the city. (Source: © IWM (C 5635))

Ground Grocer was not the only ECM developed because of the intelligence obtained by the Wellington. By gathering details on the Lichtenstein-BC’s characteristics, the TRE was able to develop several versions of Window, arguably the most famous countermeasure of the Second World War, capable of jamming this radar. Window consisted of millions of metal foil strips cut to precisely half the wavelength of the radar they were intended to jam. The TRE also developed a system known as Serrate based on the same intelligence. This was one of the RAF’s most successful electronic systems of the war. Serrate was installed on De Havilland Mosquito fighters, entering service in September 1943. It detected transmissions from the Lichtenstein-BC allowing Serrate-equipped aircraft to find and attack fighters using the radar. Serrate was employed extensively over enemy territory contributing to the 242 Luftwaffe fighters that the Mosquitoes of Bomber Command’s No. 100 Group shot down following its introduction.[17] Moreover Ground Grocer, Window and Serrate may have hastened the withdrawal of the Lichtenstein-BC which was all but phased out of service by April 1944 in favour of new radars with improved resistance to such countermeasures.[18]

The Legacy

The endeavours of Paulton and his crew were relayed to the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal who told them: ‘I have just read report of your investigation flight […] and should like to congratulate you all on a splendid performance.’[19] Their deeds were recognised with the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross for Barry and Paulton, Distinguished Service Order for Jordan and Distinguished Flying Medals for Bigoray and Vachon. It is miraculous that the Wellington returned to the UK yet the actions of Paulton and his crew helped pave the way for the development of ECMs which undoubtedly saved Bomber Command lives. Their legacy can still be seen today. Radar jammers are now standard equipment on most military aircraft venturing in harm’s way, illustrating how one sortie on a cold December night would have implications for airpower which are still felt today.

Dr Thomas Withington specialises in contemporary and historical electronic warfare, radar, and military communications, and has written numerous articles on these subjects for a range of general and specialist publications. He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham.

Header Image: A Vickers Wellington Mark IC (R1448) of No. 218 Squadron RAF on the ground at RAF Marham, Norfolk. R1448 was presented to the RAF by the Gold Coast Fund. This was the mark of Wellington flown by No. 1474 Flight during the operation described in this article. (Source: © IWM (CH 3477))

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] Monthly Weather Report of the Meteorological Office, December 1942.

[2] The National Archives (TNA), AIR 50/503, No. 1474 Flight, December 1942.

[3] TNA, AIR 20/8962, War in the Ether: Europe 1939 to 1945: Radio Countermeasures in Bomber Command: An Historical Note (High Wycombe: Signals Branch, Headquarters Bomber Command, October 1945), p. 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume IV, Annexes and Appendices (Uckfield: Naval and Military Press, 2006), pp. 429-39.

[6] TNA, AIR 20/8962, War in the Ether, p. 9.

[7] Air Historical Branch, The Second World War 1939-1945 – Royal Air Force Signals, Volume VII: Radio Countermeasures (London: Air Ministry, 1950), p. 151.

[8] Ibid.

[9] TNA, AIR 27/1156, No.1474 Flight Operations Record Book.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Air Historical Branch, The Second World War 1939-1945, p. 153.

[15] TNA, AIR 20/8070, Glossary of Code Names and Other Terms Used in Connection with RCM; AIR 20/8070, Ground Grocer.

[16] Air Historical Branch, The Second World War 1939-1945, p. 154.

[17] M.W. Bowman and T. Cushing, Confounding the Reich: The RAF’s Secret War of Electronic Countermeasures in World War Two (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2004), pp. 235-42.

[18] Air Historical Branch, The Second World War 1939-1945, p.154.

[19] TNA, AIR 27/1156, No. 1474 Flight ORB.

A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

By Dr Michael Hankins

In March 2018, Air University Press released a new edition of Colonel John Boyd’s A Discourse on Winning and Losing with a new introduction by Grant Hammond. On top of his heavy influence in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, Boyd was one of the most influential and often cited officers in the history of the US Air Force (USAF), but unlike most famous strategic thinkers, he published almost nothing. Thus, this new edition promises to be possibly the most widely disseminated and studied edition of Boyd’s intellectual output.

JohnBoyd_Pilot
John Boyd during his service in Korea. (Source: Wikimedia)

Boyd is, however, a controversial figure. Among USAF officers, Boyd is either loved or hated. Hammond’s introduction refers to him as ‘legendary,’ ‘a great original thinker,’ and ‘a paragon of virtue – loved by many […] for his character and integrity.’[1] On the other hand, former fighter pilot and USAF Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak summarised the opposing view: ‘Boyd is highly overrated […] In many respects he was a failed officer and even a failed human being.’[2] Boyd was the type of person who challenged authority and fought for what he believed. He was also the kind of person that was so profoundly insecure that he stalked food courts to hunt down and physically assault people whom he perceived had not shown him proper respect.[3] However, many younger officers have never even heard of Boyd nor are they familiar with his ideas or character. With the recent release of the new edition of his work, it is worth taking time to briefly summarise Boyd’s significant contributions and provide some context as to why he is both so praised and so controversial.

First, we must deal with the notion of Boyd as – according to Hammond – ‘a premier fighter pilot.’ Some have referred to Boyd as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and many press outlets mistakenly refer to him as an ace. Although Boyd did fly F-86 Sabres during a brief tour in the Korean War, he does not have a single air-to-air kill to his credit. He never fired his gun in a combat situation. This is not necessarily an indictment of his skills. The reason is that in those years, the USAF tended to fly in formations in which only the lead element was cleared to fire, while the wingmen provided protection. Boyd only ever flew in a wingman position, and never got in an opportunity to fire at enemy MiG-15s. Later, Boyd became a flight instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, and he wrote a manual on dogfighting tactics. His reputation as a fighter pilot was built on his time as an instructor, during which he displayed a penchant for defeating incoming students in simulated dogfights (developing his claim that he could always do so within forty seconds). Fans of Boyd laud him for this, although his detractors often wonder why an instructor defeating his students using an oft-repeated manoeuvre is noteworthy, much less a point worth bragging about.

Boyd’s first significant contribution to USAF thinking was ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ (EMT) in the early-to-mid 1960s. This was an application of the principles of thermodynamics to aircraft metrics. Up until that point, the most important metrics for evaluating fighter planes tended to be wing loading ratios, top speed, and acceleration. Many fighter pilots tried to argue that agility and manoeuvrability were more important in a dogfight, but although wing loading could provide a rough idea of how well a craft could turn, it fell far short of an accurate description of a plane’s manoeuvrability. Boyd’s EMT instead analysed how well an aircraft could change energy states – involving speed, acceleration, kinetic and potential energy – essentially giving a numerical value to how well a plane could manoeuvre under various conditions. Charting this value on a graph corresponding to speed and altitude will give a curve of the aircraft’s manoeuvring capability. This method gave fighter pilots a way to talk to engineers in their ‘language,’ and describe dogfighting in mathematical terms, which had a significant influence on aircraft design. Beginning in the late 1960s, EMT became a significant factor in designing and evaluating American aircraft.

EMT.jpg
This chart, a typical example of the types of charts Boyd produced, compares the agility of an F-4 Phantom II and a MiG-21, but specifically under conditions of a 5g turn. (Source: USAF Academy Department of Aeronautics)

Although Boyd appears to have come up with these ideas independently, he was not the first to do so. A decade earlier, in 1954, an aerodynamics engineer working for Douglas named Edward Rutowski had the same concept. Rutowski’s work did not apply to dogfighting, but to calculating fuel ranges of various types of aircraft.[4] However, the equations – and the charts – are almost the same as Boyd’s, who later admitted to copying the charts after denying it for years.[5] One element that Boyd did add, however, was overlaying the EMT curve for one aircraft on top of another, to show where one aircraft had an advantage in manoeuvrability. These comparisons, first done in the late 1960s, showed that Soviet aircraft of that time might have a distinct advantage in dogfighting compared to the American fighters of the day (which, in that period, were mostly interceptors, not traditional fighters). Thus, while not necessarily completely original, Boyd did more to popularise the EMT concept and apply it to fighter design and tactics training, which then became part of a push within the USAF to design aircraft that were more specialised for air-to-air combat.

Boyd had a hand in the design of those planes. The first major USAF project to design a dedicated air superiority fighter was the F-X program, which eventually resulted in the F-15 Eagle. Boyd was brought in partway through this project and attempted to influence the design toward being more dedicated for dogfighting. To Boyd, this meant making it as small as possible and gutting it of sophisticated technologies, especially radar. The more massive the radar dome in a fighter’s nose, the larger the entire plane needed to be. Making the radar as small as possible (or, as Boyd advocated, eliminating it), could make the plane smaller and lighter. Boyd managed to have a significant influence on the design of the F-15, but he did not get everything he wanted. The plane was significantly more extensive and more sophisticated than he advocated, so in disgust, he turned to another project.[6]

f-15a_first_prototype_1
McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)

Using a combination of subterfuge, connections with high-level decision-makers, stealing unauthorised time on USAF computers, and meeting with aircraft manufacturers in secret using coded language, Boyd pressured the Air Force to procure a smaller lightweight fighter. Boyd wrote the requirements for that plane, which happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker. That plane eventually became the F-16 Fighting Falcon—his ideal true dedicated air-to-air dogfighter. However, Boyd was also disappointed by the modifications made to that aircraft. The USAF made it heavier and more sophisticated than he wanted, and so Boyd denounced it in disgust.[7] Indeed, although his vision for the F-16 was a pure dogfighter, the plane has rarely been used in air superiority missions by the USAF and has achieved zero air-to-air kills for the US.

YF-16_and_YF-17_in_flight
An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft, side-by-side, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, c.1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

After his retirement in 1975, Boyd went back to work in the Pentagon as an analyst, and it was during this time that he completed most of the intellectual output in the recently released new volume. This began with a short essay entitled ‘Destruction and Creation,’ which argued that societies and systems only really change when they are destroyed and recreated, rather than reformed from within. In 1976, Boyd received a NASA grant to study the differences in pilot behaviour between simulators and reality. Instead of focusing on that, Boyd produced a study titled ‘Fast Transients Brief,’ which consisted of carefully picked historical examples with which Boyd argued that victory in war was the result of being quick, unpredictable, and agile, with the goal of producing confusing in the enemy. This brief was essentially the first draft of what became a larger briefing called ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ which Boyd continually expanded to include more historical examples of his point. This briefing continued to grow, including more examples, until it became the final form under the new title ‘A Discourse on Winning and Losing.’ In this form, it was a fourteen-hour briefing split into two days. Boyd refused to shorten his briefings or to distribute summaries or slides to those who did not attend, insisting on being given the full amount of time, or nothing.[8]

Also embedded in these briefings was his evolving idea of the OODA loop, which stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, act.’ This was Boyd’s description of the process by which decisions are made at all levels from the tactical to the strategic. Boyd argued that all combatants in a conflict are going through that cycle, and whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor. Fans of this theory tend to argue that this insight is revolutionary and secures Boyd’s place alongside thinkers such as Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. Others claim that this idea is very simplistic and offers very little in the way of insight or practical application. Interpreting and applying Boyd’s theory to subjects ranging from warfare to business has become something of a cottage industry. The OODA loop is still taught at US professional military education institutions. Love him, hate him, or merely indifferent, one cannot deny that Boyd has left a legacy and influence.

One final component of Boyd’s life that one must be aware of is his involvement in ‘The Reform Movement.’ During his time in the USAF, he and his followers who pushed for lightweight, dedicated air-to-air combat planes began referring to themselves as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and saw themselves at odds with the US government – to the point of depicting themselves as participating in a guerilla war against a government that they deemed as corrupt and ineffective. After Boyd’s retirement, this group morphed into what became known as ‘The Reform Movement’ and moved away from just fighter planes to becoming politically active on broader defence issues. This effort included a litany of journalists, military officers, and politicians who went as far as to form their congressional caucus, as well as non-governmental organisations with the goal of lobbying for particular policies.

The group wanted all US military hardware to be cheap and ‘simple.’ Simple in this context meant technologically unsophisticated relative to the mid-1970s. They argued for cancelling expensive ‘complex’ weapons such as the F-15 and the M-1 Abrams tank and replacing them with cheaper, ‘simple’ alternatives, such as relying on the older M-60 Patton tank or replacing F-15s and F-16s with swarms of F-5 Tigers. ‘The Reform Movement’ was more political than the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and although the movement attracted some moderates and left-leaning individuals such as James Fallows (journalist for The Atlantic) and Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), it tended to skew conservative. Over time, it grew more conservative with the addition of politicians such as Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Dick Cheney (R-WY), and possibly its most prominent and active member (who coined the term ‘the Reformers’): self-proclaimed monarchist and white supremacist William Lind.[9] For this group, Boyd was seen as a messiah, and he was often discussed in religious terminology as a saviour preaching a new gospel.

Although this movement had an influential voice in the early 1980s, it had begun to stagnate by the end of that decade, and the 1991 Gulf War discredited many of their arguments.[10] However, despite that war demonstrating the effectiveness of all the weapons systems that the Reformers (and Boyd) had argued against, Boyd himself took sole credit for the success of that war. Boyd claimed he had been the actual author of the ground attack plan, which was not true, and that it would have been even more successful if his ideas had been implemented further.

Boyd is a complex figure, and his influence on the US military, especially the USAF, is impossible to deny. Although the bulk of his work has been floating around the internet for years, having a new edition of his work in an easily accessible and well-produced print edition is extremely useful and quite welcome.

Bibliographical Note

For more information on Boyd, the best place to start is most likely John Andreas Olsen’s 2016 article, ‘Boyd Revisited: A Great Mind with a Touch of Madness’ in Air Power History while the best examination of Boyd’s intellectual output is Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2007). Several authors further explore Boyd in Olsen’s edited work Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (2015). A genuinely scholarly biography on Boyd’s life has yet to be written. Hammond’s brief biography, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (2012) is a useful starting point but leans into praise for Boyd to a level that some readers might be uncomfortable with. Robert Coram’s popular biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002) has its uses but is little more than hagiography and should be read with a sceptical eye.

Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and and Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 40 aircraft after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a mission over Iraq on 10 June 2008.  (Source: Wikimedia)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] Grant Hammond, ‘Introduction to “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” in Colonel John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, edited and compiled by Grant Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018), pp. 1-2.

[2] Carl Prine, ‘Q & A with Merrill ‘Tony’ McPeak,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 23 November 2017.

[3] See, for example, a story of Boyd seeking out a former colleague who had expressed doubt in Boyd’s ideas years before. Boyd put out his cigar on the man’s clothing, then began shoving him and shouting obscenities at him, all in public. Told in more detail in Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002), pp. 179-80.

[4] Edward S. Rutowski, ‘Energy Approach to the General Aircraft Performance Problem,’ Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, 21 (1954), pp. 187-95.

[5] USAF Historical Research Agency, K239.0512-1066, John Boyd, Corona Ace Oral History Interview, 22 January 1977.

[6] For details on the development of the F-15, see Jacob Neufeld, The F-15 Eagle: Origins and Development, 1964-1972 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1974).

[7] On this issue, see: Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012).

[8] These briefings are most thoroughly explored in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[9] For a brief summary of Lind’s extremism (he was known for keeping a portrait of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in his office), see Bill Berkowitz, “Cultural Marxism’ Catching On,’ Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August 15, 2003. Lind’s radical right-wing viewpoints are evident from his voluminous writing as the former Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, and his many columns in a variety of conservative websites and magazines. His 2014 novel Victoria not only celebrates a violent militia movement overthrowing the American government but glorifies deportations and executions of non-whites and other minorities he deems undesirable, including Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and it favorably depicts the use of nuclear weapons against African-American populations.

[10] For a summary of ‘The Reform Movement,’ see: John Correll, ‘The Reformers,’ Air Force Magazine (February 2008), pp. 40-4. To see them discuss their ideas in their own words, see: James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1984) and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).

Smashing the Axis: How the Allied Air Forces Supported the Purpose behind Operation HUSKY

Smashing the Axis: How the Allied Air Forces Supported the Purpose behind Operation HUSKY

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

In June 1943 a staff officer with 1st Canadian Infantry Division examined planning documents for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. The operation to begin the Allied assault on Festung Europa’s soft underbelly was just weeks away. During his preparations, the officer came across an air staff memorandum. It read:

Owing to the small size of Malta which limits the number of fighter squadrons which can be based there, and the distance from the beaches, it will not be possible to maintain standing patrols over the assault areas except for the first few hours after the battle starts.

The large number of Air Forces taking part in the operation […] will be employed in bombing and “sweeping” enemy airfields and communications in order to gain air supremacy and prevent Axis aircraft from interfering with our assault forces. It is probable, therefore, that few friendly aircraft will be seen by our forces on the beaches after the first few hours and the reason for this should be carefully explained to assaulting troops […] it should be made clear that, although few Allied aircraft are visible immediately over their heads, considerable air forces are, in fact, operating continually in support of them.[1]

The Canadian division was entering combat for the first time. However, it was to fight as part of British Eighth Army, famous for its victory at El Alamein under Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. Years of fighting the Germans and Italians in the desert had allowed the Royal Air Force (RAF) to hone its support for land campaigns. Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw and Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham put into practice an air support doctrine that privileged concentration of force.[2] The priority for an air force supporting the army (or navy) was to secure air superiority. The second was to disrupt the enemy movement of reinforcements and supplies behind the lines. Close air support of ground troops in combat with the enemy was third, much to many army commanders’ dismay.

3 - Italy roads and airfields (rails) FINAL
Italy’s Aerodromes and Railways (Source: Dr Mike Bechthold)

Many (but not all) British Army commanders felt that this order was incorrect. Instead, they desired control of their own air force in support of ground operations and an air umbrella that would protect their advancing forces. The British Army had tried this approach and failed in the Western Desert. During the attempt to relieve Tobruk in Operation BATTLEAXE the British Army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Under Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, the RAF caved to the British Army’s requests, even though they believed this to be a highly inefficient use of resources. This decision ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.[3]

From then on, the RAF in the Mediterranean guarded against the tendency of army commanders to request for what senior airmen called ‘penny packets,’ smaller groups of aircraft assigned to a ground commander. They also endeavoured to convince their army counterparts that the RAF’s optimal use in support of ground forces was as long-range artillery. This explains why the Air Staff memorandum included in planning documents issued to the assault forces. Aircraft should be concentrated against Axis airfields, ports, transportation networks, or shipping beyond the reach of land or sea forces to stop or limit the enemy’s ability to interfere with the land operation. During Operation HUSKY, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commander of all Allied air forces, used his air forces effectively according to the priorities set out above.

20 Naples 1
This photograph provides an excellent visualisation of concentrated targets in Naples, Italy. Numbers 1 to 5, 7, and 8 indicate wrecked or damaged vessels at the docks, while numbers 6 and 9 indicate a grain elevator and airframe works respectively. The railway yard is immediately above the airframe works (Source: US Air Force photo 27493 AC)

I have discussed the air superiority and close air support functions in previous posts. The remainder of this article will focus on the role of interdiction strikes in support of the army and its purpose in Sicily.

Why were the Allies landing in Sicily? At the Casablanca Conference in early 1943 superior British staff work and arguments led to the decision to invade Sicily once the Allies secured North Africa. General George C. Marshall, America’s top soldier, argued for Operation ROUNDUP, a cross-Channel invasion from the United Kingdom in spring 1943. He felt that this was the best way to ease pressure on the Soviets in the east. Marshall’s British counterpart, General Sir Alan Brooke, had a different assessment. There were 42 German divisions in France, more than enough to contain whatever force the Anglo-Americans could get across the Channel in 1943.[4] The Eastern Front would benefit little from Marshall’s plan. However, what if the Allies knocked Italy out of the war in 1943? The Italians had some 54 divisions, 2,000 aircraft, and the still-formidable Italian navy.[5] If Italy surrendered, it was logical to expect that the Germans would replace these losses with their forces. Nazi Germany had already shown a willingness to send forces to the Mediterranean in a crisis. They had done it in the Balkans and the Western Desert in 1941 and Tunisia in late 1942. Forces defending southern Europe could not support operations on the Eastern Front. Nor could they stand watch on or behind the Atlantic Wall waiting for the inevitable cross-Channel invasion. This was the plan the Allied air forces supported.

As news filtered in about the success of Allied landings in Sicily (under temporary air umbrellas established by fighters based in Malta, Gozo, Pantelleria, and even Tunisia), Tedder was already looking ahead to future operations in support of the Allied strategy. He wrote to his superiors in London:

Should the next week’s operations go well, I have been considering possibility of staging really heavy blows at, say, three vital centres in Italy. The whole of the Liberator force on Naples before it has to stand off to train for Tidalwave, the whole B.17 force on Rome, and if possible Harris’s Lanchester force on another shuttle service attack on suitable targets in N. Italy. All attacks simultaneous. Feel moral effect of such operations might be vital, especially if attack by shuttle service included [sic].[6]

With the landing force firmly ensconced in Sicily, Tedder unleashed his strategic bombers in another round of attacks. He hoped that Italy – tired of three years of war, having suffered massive casualties at Stalingrad and Tunis, and with Allied forces on their doorstep – was ripe for capitulation. Allied bombers in North Africa targeted Naples and Rome in particular. Both were significant as transport hubs, but Rome had the added prestige of being an Axis capital.

The Allied air forces had already paralysed the Sicilian railway system; now their focus shifted to the mainland. Naples was southern Italy’s most important railway junction. From 15 to 18 July 1943 the city suffered bombardments from United States Army Air Force B-17s, B-25s, and B-26s by day and RAF Wellingtons by night. Some RAF Boston light bombers even acted as pathfinders for a force of American B-25s, operating at night. The raids targeted the city’s marshalling yards, war industries, and nearby aerodromes.[7] According to a report by Solly Zuckerman’s Bombing Survey Unit using evidence assembled after the Allies took the city in October, ‘Naples was wiped out as a railway centre after the July attacks.’[8]

On 19 July the skies darkened over Rome as a combined force of nearly 600 medium and heavy bombers struck railway yards, war industry, and aerodromes within or near the city. Realizing the enormous political ramifications of this raid, the American aircrews were thoroughly briefed. They were to avoid targeting the Vatican, and the raid was preceded by dropping leaflets to warn the local population of the pending attack. Despite these and other efforts to prevent civilian casualties the bombers still killed between 1,700 and 2,000 people.[9] The raids effected a 200-mile gap in the railway system from Rome to Naples for 48 hours and contributed to the wider campaign of paralysing the Italian railway system by destroying rolling stock, locomotives, and their repair facilities. The trains were no longer running on time in Italy.[10]

24. Littorio 2
Wrecked rolling stock at the Littorio Rail Yards near Rome, Italy (Source: US Air Force photo B-62176 AC)

More importantly, the raid on Rome helped to drive the Italians out of the war. At the time of the raid, Benito Mussolini was meeting Adolf Hitler at Feltre in northern Italy. Mussolini’s task for this meeting was to secure his country’s removal from the war. He failed as an irate Hitler shouted him down, complaining about the failure of the Italians to provide adequate bases for the Luftwaffe and the resulting heavy losses the Germans had suffered defending Sicily.[11] Mussolini returned to Rome when he heard about the raid and less than a week later King Victor Emmanuel III replaced him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The new government set about contacting the Allies to sign a separate armistice, which they did on 3 September 1943.

Popular accounts feature Hitler’s response in the form of the operation to rescue Mussolini. What is more critical is Operation Achse. This was a plan for German forces to disarm Italian forces in Italy, the Balkans, and southern France in the event of an Italian defection or surrender. In addition to the four German divisions fighting in Sicily, a further ten were already on their way to Italy or had just arrived.[12] The German force in Italy would grow to nearly 25 divisions at the time of the invasion of Normandy.[13] Even without counting the German forces arrayed in southern France and against Tito’s Partisans in the Balkans, the Allied strategy set out at Casablanca had worked.

The Allied aims for Operation HUSKY were to open the central Mediterranean to Allied shipping, topple Italian fascism, force the Nazi high command to defend southern Europe on its own, and secure bases from which to continue the war in Italy. The American, British, and Canadian armies fighting in Sicily played their role in this mission with the support of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force, capturing the island by 17 August 1943. However, so too did the Strategic Air Force. Their raids on mainland Italian railway transport made Axis resupply efforts difficult and forced the enemy to use other less efficient methods to move their forces and supplies. This approach would later become the basis for the Transport Plan in support of Operation OVERLORD in 1944.[14] These same raids brought pressure on the Italian state to shed Fascism and change sides in the war. In this way, the strategic mission of the Allied soldiers and the Allied airmen (even those flying missions hundreds of miles away from the front) were one in the same.

Author’s note: As an aside, while the Allied air forces managed to paralyse the Sicilian and southern Italian railway systems in mid-1943, they were also unable to stop the Axis evacuation of Sicily in August. Should air commanders be held to account for failing to prevent the successful Axis evacuations across the Strait? I will save this topic for a future post, but you can always read Eagles over Husky to examine my answer.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and is a Master of Arts in Public History candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s first book, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943, was published in early 2018. His research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He operates a blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: Armourers are fuzing a 4,000-lb HC ‘Cookie’ bomb at Kairouan West, Tunisia, before loading it into a Vickers Wellington MkX of No. 205 Group RAF, during preparations for a night bombing raid on Salerno, Italy, before Operation AVALANCHE in September 1943. Another airman carries winches aft of the bomb-bay to manoeuvre the bomb underneath the aircraft. (Source: © IWM (CNA 4071))

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] Library and Archives Canada, R112-104-3 Kardex System, Vol. 10868, War Diaries Canadian Planning Staff Files, March to June 1943, Air Staff Memorandum.

[2] For a new interpretation that gives Collishaw proper credit for these developments, see: Mike Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), p. 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mike Peters, Glider Pilots in Sicily (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2012), p. 3.

[5] Douglas Porch, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (New York, NY: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 2004), p. 417.

[6] The National Archives (TNA), Kew, UK, AIR 20/3372, Cypher telegram from Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder to Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, 10 July 1943. There had been earlier shuttle runs using Avro Manchester and Lancaster bomber aircraft. These runs were deemed logistically unsound and Bomber Command settled for attacking the industrial cities of northern Italy from bases in the United Kingdom.

[7] TNA, AIR 23/6325, Northwest African Air Force operation ‘Husky’ report, Part A: The Invasion and Conquest of Sicily, pp. 9-10.

[8] The Solly Zuckerman Archive, University of East Anglia, Bombing Survey Unit/6/7, Air Attacks on Raid and Road Communications, Appendix II, Part 3.1: Naples pp.98-99.

[9] Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 524.

[10] Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2018) pp. 112-6.

[11] Albert N. Garland & Howard McGraw Smyth, The United States Army in World War II: The Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1965) p. 243.

[12] List compiled from Ibid., P. 248 and 293, and Helmut Heiber & David M. Glantz (eds.), Hitler and His Generals: Military Conferences 1942-1945 (New York, NY: Enigma Books, 2004).

[13] Porch, The Path to Victory, p.656.

[14] Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), p. 152.

The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

Baron Manfred von Richthofen was killed in air combat on 21 April 1918. He was unequalled in having shot down 80 enemy aircraft in aerial combat during the First World War to become the most famous ‘Ace of Aces’ in the early history of air combat. He was the pride of the German Imperial Army and respected by military aviation historians as the ‘Red Baron.’ A study of Richthofen’s aerial victories highlights the importance of critical thinking to identify and repeat the rules for success in aerial dogfighting. Evidence-based analyses of his behaviours and medical forensics in the months before his death indicate how the war may have been exacting an increasing toll on his judgement and decision-making abilities. The combination of seemingly discrete events that occurred during on 21 April triggered his abnormal behaviours and poor decisions, which had an accumulative effect that led to his ultimate downfall.

4108464
Flying officers attached to Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr Von Richthofen’s squadron, Jasta 11, c. April 1917. Richthofen himself is seated in the Albatros D.III. aircraft. From left to right: standing: unidentified (possibly Leutnant Karl Allmenroeder); Hans Hintsch; Vizfeldwebel Sebastian Festner; Leutnant Karl Emil Schaefer; Oberleutnant Kurt Wolff; Georg Simon; Leutnant Otto Brauneck. Sitting: Esser; Krefft; Leutnant Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of Manfred. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Manfred von Richthofen and Learning Lessons

The British called him the ‘Red Baron’, the French scorned him as the ‘le diable rouge’ (Red Devil) while his 1917 autobiography was called Der Rote Kampfflieger, which broadly translates as the ‘Red Battle Flyer.’[1] F.M. Cutlack, the official historian of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), described him as the ‘star of stars in the German Air Force.’[2] On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a Royal Flying Corps Sopwith Camel low over enemy-controlled territory, breaking one of his fundamental air combat maxims, and was fatally wounded. Until then, Richthofen had strictly followed Dicta Boelcke and his critical-thinking of air combat to be scorned, feared, and respected as the highest scoring air ace of the First World War.[3]

The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 182.

One of the reasons behind his significant success in air combat was his adherence to doctrinal maxims that guided his judgements in deciding when and how he would enter an action in the battlespace and engage a target. The Dicta Boelcke was named after their developer: Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s first air ace, with a total of forty victories. While early aircraft commanders were still seeking to understand roles for aircraft as the newest war machines to enter the battlespace, Boelcke is recognised as being one of the first fighter aces to apply critical thinking to air combat. Boelcke drew on his observations in air combat, reviewed his successes and failures, and critically analysed them to identify the critical decision points, ethical behaviours, and practical tactics that he considered would lead to repeated successes in the air. Boelcke tested and evaluated his air combat rules before recommending them as ‘rules for success’ that should be applied by other German pilots when flying into air combat as individuals or as a group in a squadron.

Boelcke promoted his lessons-learned as dicta to increase the chance of success in air combat by the pilots under his command, especially those who were new and inexperienced. His aerial warfighting principles were endorsed by the German Army to all its airmen, as Dicta Boelcke. After Richthofen was assigned to serve in Boelke’s squadron, Boelke became Richthofen’s mentor, instructor, squadron commander, and close friend. Richthofen became a keen practitioner of Dicta Boelcke.

We were all beginners. None of us had had a success so far. Consequently, everything that Boelcke told us, was to us, gospel truth.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 109.

Richthofen fully embraced Dicta Boelcke and, after gaining his own experiences in aerial combat, he learned to apply his critical-thinking to identify his maxims to improve and complement his list of successful air combat tactics doctrine. One of his doctrinal maxims to complement Dicta Boelcke was to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent’ or, having initiated a dogfight in favourable circumstances, know when to break off the attack when the situation has changed and is no longer favourable. He did not adhere to this principle, later, in his final mission.

3988465
General von Falkenhayn and Richthofen inspecting a Fokker triplane. Mr A.H.G. Fokker is seated in the cockpit and General von Falkenhayn is on his right. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Richthofen’s Final Mission

On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a British Sopwith Camel piloted by novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid May of No. 209 Squadron. May had just fired on the Richthofen’s cousin, Lieutenant Wolfram von Richthofen. On seeing his cousin being attacked, Richthofen flew to aid his cousin and engaged May, causing the latter to disengage from his dogfight with Wolfram. In turn, Richthofen was attacked by another Sopwith Camel piloted by Canadian Captain Arthur ‘Roy’ Brown. Richthofen successfully evaded his attacker and, even though his Spandau machine guns had now jammed and could only be fired manually, resulting in single shots, he decided to resume his pursuit of May.

Richthofen was known to be very calculating in his observations of air battles before deciding when and whom to engage. Engagement only occurred when circumstances were likely to result in a favourable outcome. On this day, Richthofen’s judgment might have been affected by wanting to pursue the attacker who threatened his cousin, despite the circumstances – going against the aforementioned dicta that he considered critical for air combat success. Additionally, Richthofen had a reputation of being a skilled hunter on the ground with a single-shot rifle, and he may have decided that a victory with a single-shot Spandau machine gun be well within his capabilities and would significantly enhance his reputation and the morale of his flying Jasta.

May sought to escape Richthofen by rapidly descending to fly low across the front line into Allied-held territory. May later explained that his aircraft guns had jammed while being pursued and unable to out-manoeuvre Richthofen, he decided to fly low across the ridge into friendly territory, to ‘make a dash for a landing as his only hope.’[4] Eyewitness accounts reported seeing the Richthofen pursue May down to rooftop heights over the nearby village, which had a church with a bell-tower, and hearing the repeated cracking sounds of single gunshots coming from the aerial pursuit as the aircraft passed.

Richthofen appeared to decide to break one of his fundamental rules that he had previously applied so consistently in air combat by persisting in chasing May without regard for the new dangers arising around him. Richthofen was now flying low over Allied-held territory, with a strong easterly wind causing his aircraft to drift further behind enemy lines, and he was now flying low enough to be within the range of the Australian machine-gunners watching from the trenches. Richthofen seemed to have lost his situational awareness in focusing on May. Richthofen was then observed by the gunners in the trenches to fly up suddenly as if suddenly recognising the new dangers around him and only then decided to break off his pursuit of May – but it was too late. While pulling-up to ascend to a higher altitude above the trenches and ground troops, Richthofen was fatally struck by a single .303 round

He who gets excited in fighting is sure to make mistakes. He will never get his enemy down.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 137.

Mortally wounded, Richthofen managed to execute a controlled crash landing, on the Australian-held battleground, before dying in the cockpit. Australian soldiers were quick to attend the crash site and seek to recover Richthofen.

Medical forensic analysis has indicated that Richthofen seemed to suffer from an uncharacteristic episode of ‘target fixation’, breaking his own rule to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent.’ Medical researchers considered that this uncharacteristic error in judgement might be attributed to a persistent head injury from a head wound caused by a machine gun projectile ricocheting from his head during a dogfight that occurred nine months earlier.[5]

There has been controversy over multiple claims as to who was responsible for the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen; was it fired from a pursuing aircraft or one of the machine-gunners in the trenches? Although Brown was initially credited with the victory, medical forensic analyses of the wound ballistics, conducted in detail in later years, have indicated that Richthofen was struck in the chest by groundfire and not from an airborne shooter. Australia’s Official Historian, C.E.W. Bean, gathered eyewitness accounts from the battlefield that indicate it was most probable that Sergeant Cedric Popkin, an Australian Vickers machine gunner in the trenches, had fired the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen.[6]

Members of No. 3 Squadron, AFC, assumed responsibility for Richthofen’s remains as it was the Allied air unit that was located nearest to the crash site. Richthofen was buried in a military cemetery in France, with full military honours, by members of No 3 Squadron. A British pilot flew solo over the German air base of Jasta 11 to airdrop a message to respectfully inform them of the death of their celebrated commander, Baron Manfred von Richthofen on 21 April 1918.

6220692
The funeral cortege of Baron Manfred von Richtofen moving along to the cemetery at Bertangles, 22 April 1918. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Enduring Lessons for Modern-Day Aerospace Professionals

While accepting the challenges associated with extrapolating lessons from a historical example, Richthofen’s development and experience as a fighter pilot in the First World War does, however, highlight several enduring lessons for those flying in today’s operating environment. A key lesson is the need to develop critical thinking amongst military professionals who can effectively analyse their operating environment and develop solutions to challenges.

Boelcke was one of the first air aces to apply critical thinking to air combat and draw out best-practices as a way to increase the probability of success for other pilots, especially new and inexperienced ones. This was something that Richthofen built on, and he recognised the need for what in the modern vernacular might be referred to as a system-of-interest whereby in the operation of aerospace systems, the air vehicle, operator, and operating procedures and tactics need to work effectively in combination to achieve success. However, the recognition that a weapon, such as an aeroplane, was only as good as the person who operated it, and the training, tactics and procedures used by that individual, was only one part of the critical thinking process.

It was also necessary for the likes of Richthofen to capture lessons learned in the combat environment and regularly test and evaluate critical systems to improve performance. This also required pilots such as Richthofen to learn from personal mistakes and those of critical peers through ongoing discourse with both subordinates and superiors. The next step in this process was the ability to apply them in operation. Nevertheless, these lessons learned processes were all for nothing if not usefully applied as evidenced by Richthofen’s final flight where we see the significance of high-consequence decision-making and the failure to reduce risk.

The accumulation of seemingly small discrete decisions made by Richthofen on his last flight, where each decision had a seemingly minor consequence when reviewed in isolation, resulted in an accumulative effect that ultimately resulted in catastrophe. As such, it is essential that organisations need to develop the right culture, management systems, and training programs to reduce catastrophic risks to a minimum. Indeed, in Richthofen’s case, arguably, someone should have ensured that he did not fly on that fateful day as he was neither in the right physical or mental condition to fly effectively. Pilots and aircrew are expensive assets to train and maintain, and unnecessary losses such as Richthofen’s impact on operational effectiveness. Richthofen’s state on 21 April 1918 affected his judgement as he ignored one of his critical dicta – to never obstinately stay with an opponent.

Finally, it is worth reflecting that innovation and inventiveness never rest. Sometimes it is beneficial to study the past before looking to the future and look for opportunities to build on the experiences and inventiveness of others rather than starting at an experience level of zero. As Richthofen himself reflected:

Besides giant planes and little chaser-planes, there are innumerable other types of flying machines and they are of all sizes. Inventiveness has not yet come to an end. Who can tell what machine we shall employ a year hence in order to perforate the atmosphere?

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 222.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is currently serving in the Royal Australian Air Force at the Air Power Development Centre in Canberra, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future applications air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force or the Australian Government.

Header Image: The remains of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s plane and the two machine guns. Most of these officers and men are members of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] Der Rote Kampfflieger was first published in 1918. The quotes in this article are taken from the 1918 translation by T. Ellis Barker, with a preface and notes by C.G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane. This edition published by Robert M. McBride & Co. can be found on the Gutenberg.org site.

[2] F.M. Cutlack, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume VIII: The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918, 11th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 215.

[3] R.G. Head, Oswald Boelcke: Germany’s First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat (London: Grub Street, 2016), pp. 97-8.

[4] Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, p. 251.

[5] P. Koul, et al, ‘Famous head injuries of the first aerial war: deaths of the “Knights of the Air”,’ Neurosurgical Focus, 39:1 E5 (2015).

[6] ‘Appendix 4 – The Death of Richthofen’ in C.E.W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume V: The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918, 8th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), pp. 693-701.

Air Power and the Battle of Hamel

Air Power and the Battle of Hamel

By Dr Michael Molkentin

Editorial Note: The 4th of July 2018 represented that 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Le Hamel. While Hamel was important, its place as a model on which subsequent operations were based has been overplayed. Furthermore, notable popular Australian historians have also distorted the significance of the battle. Nevertheless, as Dr Michael Molkentin highlights in this article, Hamel was valuable in highlighting the evolution of, and the diverse roles played by, air power in support of land battles during the First World War.

In the historiography of the First World War, the Battle of Hamel (4 July 1918) has frequently been cited as an example of significant tactical innovation and a ‘model’ on which subsequent British offensive operations were planned. While neither interpretation bears up to scrutiny when the battle is viewed within the broader context of British Army operations on the Western Front, relative to its size the Australian Corps’ capture of Hamel integrated air power to a hitherto unprecedented extent and, in hindsight, provides a revealing case study of the varied, distinct and specialist air power roles that had evolved during the conflict.

The Australian Corps’ headquarters, commanded by the recently appointed Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, planned the capture of the village of Hamel (located south of the Somme) as a line-straightening operation. Besides the troops of his own corps’ 4th Division, Monash had ten infantry companies from the US 33rd Division, 60 tanks from the British 5th Tank Brigade (including the new Mark V tank) and 639 artillery pieces. Monash planned to launch a surprise assault behind a creeping barrage and tank screen (much like British Third Army had done at Cambrai the previous November); he anticipated that his infantry could secure their objectives – two kilometres deep on a seven-kilometre wide front – within an hour and a half.

4083779
A unique photo of a disabled British RE8 aircraft diving towards earth during the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade attack at Vaire Wood in the Battle of Hamel. It was subsequently discovered that the machine had been hit by a presumably faulty shell. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Monash’s staff also worked with the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) V Brigade to organise substantial and multi-layered air support for the operation. The Australian Corps’ corps squadron, No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps (AFC), would conduct the ‘majority of the tactical work’ during the battle. Its airmen would maintain a continuous presence over and directly beyond the battlefield to follow the progress of the Australian infantry (contact patrols), watch for enemy counter-attacks (counter-attack patrols), identify and direct artillery fire onto active German batteries (artillery patrols) and to photograph the new front line once it had been secured. New maps would then be produced and issued to troops in the front line within a matter of hours.[1] Assisting No. 3 Squadron with providing tactical air support, the RAF’s No. 8 Squadron would co-operate with the tanks while No. 9 Squadron parachuted ammunition to troops at their objectives. The night-bombers of No. 101 Squadron flew above the staging area on the night before the battle to mask the noise of the tanks as they moved up to their starting line.

The squadrons of 22nd (Army) Wing were also assigned to support the land battle: three of its four fighter squadrons would fly ground-attack sorties while its Bristol Fighter unit watched roads, railways and debussing points as far east as Proyart (10 kilometres east of Hamel). The army wing’s two bomber squadrons would meanwhile raid known German bivouacs. This aspect of the air plan reflected the RAF’s preference for interdiction over ‘trench strafing’ – the belief being that it was better to harass German troops and artillery behind rather than on the battlefield itself.[2] GHQ allocated three additional fighter squadrons from, IX Brigade, the RAF’s strategic reserve, to provide air superiority and the neighbouring Third Army’s fighters extended their offensive patrols south to cover the rest of Fourth Army’s front.[3]

Probably no other division-sized operation of the war enjoyed the combined support of aircraft from three wings, that is, 13 squadrons, or 230-odd aircraft. As well as the multi-faceted and highly integrated function that air power had assumed by this stage, the air plan, devised by the Australian Corps’ BGGS in collaboration with V Brigade illustrates the British Army’s growing reliance on machinery and firepower to reduce casualties and compensate for dwindling manpower.[4]

As the plan dispensed with a preliminary bombardment, No. 3 Squadron’s artillery spotting began at zero hour. For the first few hours, airmen reported batteries neutralised by the barrage so that artillery commanders could switch their guns onto active targets. The plan also allocated five heavy batteries to answer zone calls, airmen being briefed on where the Germans might move batteries once the battle started.[5] No. 3 Squadron issued 80 zone calls and co-operated in the neutralisation of at least 17 batteries (‘in many cases’ airmen did not see the artillery’s response to zone calls).[6] Although not entirely preventing it, the Australian Corps counter-battery arrangements suppressed the German artillery’s response adequately during the advance and consolidation.[7]

Counter-attack patrols flew beyond the German lines to ‘an unheard of distance’ with instructions to transmit zone calls on concentrations of German troops and engage them with bombs and machine guns.[8] One crew reported a concentration of enemy infantry just before 0700 but otherwise, seeing no enemy counter-attacks the airmen, as Lieutenant Arthur Barrett put it, ‘bombed and machine gunned everything we saw.’ Crossing the line just after zero hour he and his pilot halted a train, silenced several machine gun positions and strafed a pair of limbered guns, overturning one. Descending below 300 feet, Barrett’s eyes ran from gas in the barrage.[9] 3rd Squadron’s airmen dropped 138 bombs and fired 9,500 rounds on 4 July 1918.[10] Combined with the record 54,000 rounds and 850 bombs expended by 22nd Wing’s fighter pilots, this had a considerable impact on such a narrow battlefront.[11] ‘Several’ prisoners attested to the ‘moral effect’ of air attacks and noted how:

[t]hey prevent men getting machine guns into action almost as effectively as a barrage […] it was almost impossible to look over the top without getting machine gunned from the air.[12]

Corroborating this is German Second Army orders that noted ‘heavy casualties caused by machine gun fire from low-flying enemy machines’ at Hamel and issued instructions for dealing with British aircraft.[13]

Although Australian infantry had been signalling to aircraft since operations at Poziéres in 1916, contact patrols represented a new role for 3rd Squadron at Hamel. Despite difficulties experienced during the 1916-17 campaigns, the general staff recognised that aircraft provided the shortest possible passage of information from the battlefield to corps (and, atypically at Hamel, divisional) headquarters.[14] Dropped by airmen returning from the line, contact patrol reports reached headquarters staff in 24 minutes on average – up to half the time taken by a wireless message and a third of that usually taken by carrier pigeon.[15] Experience indicated that staff needed to synchronise contact patrols with the infantry’s timetable carefully. At Hamel, No. 3 Squadron had instructions to call for flares on the objective at 90 minutes after zero.[16] No. 8 Squadron followed the tanks across the battlefield and ‘in one or two cases were able to give information as to those which had been put out of action.’[17] The infantry’s clockwork progress and minimal resistance at the objective allowed the infantry and tanks to respond ‘well’ when contact patrol pilots sounded their klaxon horns; the airmen delivered ‘exceedingly accurate’ reports.[18] It remained to be seen, however, how the system would cope during running battles and exploitation operations when it would be arguably more crucial for staff to keep track of their troops.

4090362
A parachute, used as an ammunition carrier, caught in the trees at Vaire Wood, during the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918, when the supply of ammunition to the infantry by means of parachutes was a feature of aircraft cooperation. The picture was taken the day following, during shelling by the enemy of newly won Australian positions. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

For the first time, at Hamel, the RAF organised battlefield resupply using equipment designed and built at No. 3 Squadron’s aerodrome under the direction of ‘B’ Flight’s commander, Captain Lawrence Wackett. The idea apparently came from the Luftstreitkräfte’s (German Air Service) attempts at dropping ammunition to troops on the battlefield during the spring offensives.[19] At Hamel a detachment from No. 9 Squadron carried out the work, dropping 111,600 rounds to Australian troops at their objectives and at dropping stations close behind the line.[20] Endorsing Wackett’s claim for a £1,000 inventor’s fee from the British government (he received £350), Monash declared the scheme ‘an unqualified success’, noting how it permitted the rapid resupply of troops in ‘isolated and exposed positions’ and saved casualties among carrying parties.[21] His subordinates, though more prosaic, also indicated the trial’s success. 4th Australian Infantry Brigade’s CO described it as working ‘satisfactorily’ while 6th Brigade’s commander noted how the scheme ‘worked very well,’ delivering ammunition within 10 yards of one machine gun position.[22] Though faster, aircraft lacked the carrying capacity of other transportation available to the Australian Corps: a single tank could deliver four times as much ammunition as each of No. 9 Squadron’s aircraft, plus 300 grenades, 450 litres of water and a vast quantity of food and other trench stores.[23] Employed in all subsequent British offensives (the RAF delivered 30-60,000 rounds each day during the Amiens offensive), ammunition drops by corps squadrons thus remained an ‘emergency’ adjunct to other forms of battlefield logistics.[24]

The RAF’s tactical support was enabled, to a substantial extent, by the air superiority that British airmen exercised over the battlefield. Throughout the day, the fighter squadrons of 22nd (Army) Wing and three additional fighter squadrons attached from IX Brigade, ranged east of the battlefield to intercept any German aircraft that attempted to interfere. It was RAF policy to employ air superiority patrols offensively, east of the lines, rather than as a protective screen or close escorts. The airmen of the Luftstreitkräfte made no sorties over the Hamel battlefield until 9.30am – some five hours after the Australian infantry had secured their objective line. German fighters after that became ‘fairly active’ over the area, and there were ten air-to-air combats. In the largest of these, the SE5as of No. 24 Squadron engaged a mixed formation of 20 Fokker DVIIs, Pfalz scouts and Albatros DVs over Cerisy, six kilometres east of Hamel. The British pilots claimed three enemy aircraft and lost none themselves.[25] It is noteworthy that No. 24 Squadron was one of the 22nd (Army) Wing fighter units allocated to bomb and strafe targets on the ground behind German lines – its involvement in this dogfight illustrates the integration of air superiority and interdiction roles that British airmen had begun to undertake at Third Ypres the previous year.

Altogether, of the hundreds of sorties flown by the RAF in support of the Hamel operation, only three resulted in the loss of an aircraft to air combat– and only one of these involved one of the aircraft involved in direct tactical support over the battlefield. All other British losses resulted from ground fire, to which the pilots of low-altitude contact patrols and ammunition drops, were considered vulnerable.[26] The RAF’s efforts to maintain air superiority, therefore, appear to have been overwhelmingly successful – although the woeful deficiencies in material (especially fuel) that the Luftstreitkräfte faced in the summer of 1918 need to be recognised when evaluating the success of the British air plan.

4093525
The remains of RE8 C4580, which was shot down at Hamel Wood, by the enemy, after it had succeeded in dropping ammunition to the forward troops by means of parachutes. This aircraft was flown by No. 9 Squadron RAF during the Battle of Hamel and used for ammunition drops to the forward troops. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

The Battle of Hamel, therefore, indicates the extent and sophistication to which the application of British air power in support of surface operations had evolved during the First World War. The efforts of British airmen to support of Monash’s troops were not only extensive but organised carefully, through a variety of distinct air power roles, to provide a range of tactical and operational-level services that, considering the aircrafts’ technical limitations, functioned effectively. Indeed, the operation represented the high-water mark of efficacy in air-ground cooperation in the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. As a limited, set-piece battle, Hamel drew on structures, procedures and technologies that had evolved during four years of trench warfare. Subsequent British operations during the ‘Hundred Days’, in which exploitation and pursuit replaced carefully planned set pieces, would test this system of integrating air power with surface forces and in some respects undermine the efficacy of British close air support. The war’s final battles would, in some respects, force airmen to begin their ‘learning curve’ all over again.[27]

Dr Michael Molkentin is a head teacher at Shellharbour Anglican College and an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales Canberra. He has a PhD in History from the University of New South Wales and is the author of three books, including Australia and the War in the Air (OUP, 2014). His next book, a biographical history of Sir Ross Macpherson Smith and the 1919 England to Australia air race will be published in 2019.

Header Image: An R.E.8 aircraft, serial number A3662, ‘J’, presented to the Australian Flying Corps by Mr H. Teesdale Smith of Adelaide, South Australia. This was the type of aircraft used by No. 3 Squadron AFC at the Battle of Hamel. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] Australian War Memorial (AWM), Canberra, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron War Diary, 4 July 1918.

[2] For a clear expression of this idea, see the Royal Flying Corps’ plans for defence in the German spring offensives: H.A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, Vol. IV, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1934), p. 445.

[3] The National Archives (TNA), London, AIR1/677/21/13/1887, Air Historical Branch, The Western Front Air Operations, May-November 1918, pp. 54-5.

[4] TNA, AIR1/1592/204/83/17, Brigadier-General Thomas Blamey, BGGS Australian Corps to GOC 4th Australian Division and GOC V Brigade RAF, 29 June 1918; Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities (London: Review, 2002), p. 236.

[5] AWM, AWM26 364/12, Counter-battery Australian Corps HA Operation Order No. 7, 1 July 1918.

[6] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918; TNA, AIR1/1009/204/5/1289, RAF Headquarters, Notes on corps squadrons work on the First and Third Army fronts during recent operations, 14 September 1918.

[7] AWM, AWM4 1/48/28 Part 1, 4th Division general staff war diary, 4 July 1918. The divisional staff noted that enemy artillery was ‘not very active’ and that retaliation against the Australian barrage was ‘weak’.

[8] AWM, AWM 2DRL/0053, Lieutenant Arthur Barrett to mother, 30 August 1918.

[9] AWM, AWM 2DRL/0053, Barrett to mother, 30 August 1918.

[10] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918.

[11] TNA, AIR1/1592/204/83/17, CO 22nd Wing RAF, ‘Summary of Operations’, 11 July 1918.

[12] TNA, AIR1/2124/207/74/3, Summary of air intelligence, 18 July 1918; AWM, AWM4 8/14/2, RAF Communiqué No. 15, 17 July 1918.

[13] TNA, AIR1/2124/207/74/3, Summary of air intelligence, 18 August 1918.

[14] General Staff, SS 205 – Notes on Observation from Aeroplanes (France: Army Printing and Stationary Services, February 1918), p. 10; AWM, AWM4 8/6/18, Captain Errol Knox, recording officer, 3rd Squadron to 3rd Squadron flight commanders, 3 July 1918.

[15] Jonathan Boff, ‘Air/land integration in the 100 Days: the case of Third Army’, RAF Air Power Review, 12:3 (2009), p. 82.

[16] AWM, AWM4 8/6/18, Knox to 3rd Squadron flight commanders, 3 July 1918.

[17] TNA, AIR1/677/21/13/1887, Air Historical Branch, Western Front air operations May-November 1918.

[18] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918.

[19] F.M. Cutlack, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918: Volume VIII – The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1939 [1923], p. 272; EML Gorrell papers, Series M, Item 14, GHQ AEF, Summary of Air Information, No. 29, 19.6.18.

[20] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918.

[21] AWM, AWM10 43/13, Lieutenant-General John Monash, GOC Australian Corps to The Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, 13 May 1919.

[22] AWM, AWM4 23/4/34 Part 1, Fourth Australian Infantry Brigade Intelligence Summary, 6am 3.7.1918 to 6am 4.7.1918; AWM4 23/6/35 Part 1, Brigadier-General J. Paton, CO 6th Australian Infantry Brigade, Preliminary Report on Operations of 6th AI Brigade on 4-7-1918.

[23] AWM, AWM4 1/48/29 Part 3, Fourth Australian Division Report on Operations- August 7th to August 10th 1918.

[24] Jones, The War in the Air, Vol. VI (1937), p. 484; TNA, AIR1/1009/204/5/1289, RAF Headquarters, Notes on corps squadrons work on the First and Third Army fronts during recent operations, 14 September 1918; TNA, AIR1/1591/204/83/8, 15th Wing Operation Order No. 112, 17 September 1918.

[25] AWM, AWM4 8/14/2, Royal Air Force Communique No. 14, 10 July 1918.

[26] Trevor Henshaw, The Sky their Battlefield II: Air Fighting and Air Casualties of the Great War, (London: Fetubi Books, 2014), p. 187.

[27] This argument is expanded in Michael Molkentin, Australia and the War in the Air (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 196-206.

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

By Dr Peter Layton

Editorial Note: In the second part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War. The first part of this article can be found here.

In retrospect, during the Cold War, the dice were stacked against armed unmanned aircraft.  Improving aircrew survivability in a major war – the primary requirement – involved operating in a very hostile, sophisticated air environment in the presence of extensive jamming that could defeat the data links necessary to control unmanned aircraft. Furthermore, the computers, aircraft systems and onboard sensors needed to make such an aircraft work were all big, cumbersome, unreliable and costly. Even when cost was not an issue as in the case of Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System project of the late Cold War, the unmanned aircraft designs ended up being very large, technically challenging, of doubtful effectiveness and somewhat inflexible in operation.

In the 1990s the stars radically realigned to favour armed unmanned aircraft. In the early 1990s, armed violence erupted in Yugoslavia. The conflict was slow paced with a need for protracted surveillance rather than episodic reconnaissance, but none of the existing systems seemed quite right. Manned aircraft lacked persistence while satellites had predictable orbits and known overhead times, could not easily be repositioned to survey new areas and were impacted by bad weather. Meeting the new requirements driven by the wars in the Balkans was however eased somewhat by the air environment now being permissive with little threat from air defences. In the winter of 1992, the US Joint Staffs and the Office of the Secretary of Defense initiated a quick reaction program for a long-endurance unmanned aircraft. First flight came within six months of contract award, and a year later the General Atomics Predator unmanned aircraft was in operations over Bosnia.

Seemingly quick, the Predator’s rapid entry into service exploited some 15 years of DARPA experiments, trials, partial successes and utter failures. The overall airframe design was point-optimised for the particular mission with a slender fuselage with pusher configuration, long sailplane-like wings, inverted V-tails and a ventral rudder. The engine was a horizontally-opposed, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, geared piston engine with a minimal frontal area that offered high power at a moderate rpm, very low fuel consumption and very low vibration. The Vietnam-era unmanned jet aircraft saved weight by not being fitted with an undercarriage but were difficult to launch and recover. Predator’s used a tall, lightweight fixed undercarriage that gave considerable ground clearance.  This design meant that the Predator had a maximum speed of only some 120kts, but they could loiter for almost a day flying at 70kts at an altitude of 12-15,000 ft. This performance was adequate – if not sparkling – for the new requirement for long persistence albeit useless for the earlier Cold War type missions where survivability was critical.

In design terms, the airframe and engine were skillful but somewhat primitive having more in common with the 1944 TDR-1 unmanned aircraft (see Part One here) than a 1990s military aircraft. The real innovations that addressed the big technological challenge – how to fly and operate an unmanned aircraft in combat for 24 hours or more without on-board humans – lay in the electronics. Computer advances now allowed dramatic increases in computing power, speed and reliability while communication advances connected the Predator literally to the world, changing everything.

Controllability was addressed using a purpose-built flight control computer more powerful than that used in the F-16 fighters of the time. This made the Predator stable in flight in all weathers and easy to control remotely especially during the problematic take-off and landing phases. Navigation was addressed using the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). Earlier unmanned aircraft had significant navigation problems with Vietnam era aircraft often missing their planned target by some 10-12 kilometres. GPS was a real breakthrough that provided an off-board, ubiquitous, highly accurate navigation method. However, it was new communications technology that made armed unmanned aircraft practical.

Over its first few years of operational service, the Predator system took advantage of and was integrated into, the rapidly advancing online world. It broke away from being dependent on line of sight control with the fitment of high bandwidth satellite communication data links. This has made the armed unmanned aircraft both remarkably flexible and remarkably useful.

Remote Split Operations endowed remarkable flexibility. A small team at a forward airbase launched a Predator using a line-of-sight wireless link and then transferred control to operators located anywhere globally who used satellite communications links. These remote operators then flew the long-duration operational part of each sortie, changing crews throughout the mission as necessary. After the mission, the Predator was handed back to the small forward deployed team which landed the aircraft and turned it around for the next mission. This way of operating meant the forward team was small, requiring only very limited support and minimising the people and equipment needed to be deployed.

The second aspect – that of being remarkably useful – was made possible using modern communications technology that allowed data from the unmanned aircraft to be sent worldwide in near-real-time.

By the late 1990s, sensor technology had considerably advanced allowing relatively small high-quality daylight and night television systems to be made for an affordable cost. Moreover, these, when combined with a laser rangefinder and the onboard GPS navigation system, allowed an unmanned aircraft to now very accurately determine the location of the object being looked at. Such pictures and the position data though were of limited use if access to them had to wait for the aircraft’s return to base. Now with high-bandwidth satellite communication systems, full-motion video tagged with its accurate location could be sent to distant locations. Multiple users worldwide could access real-time imagery of events as they occurred.

The impact of this was that not just the aircrew controllers could see the video and make use of it. Now local land, sea and air commanders could have instant access to the imagery allowing more active command and control of assigned forces. High-level commanders and government ministers at home could also gain an appreciation of the tactical events unfolding. These live feeds from the world’s battlefield were compelling viewing; the term ‘Predator Porn’ was coined – you cannot take your eyes off it.

As importantly, imagery analysts and other exploitation specialists at locations worldwide could now bring their expert skills to bear to provide instantaneous advice on niche aspects to the complete command chain, including the operators controlling the Predator. The satellite communications links allowed many skilled people to be ‘onboard’ the unmanned aircraft flying in some distant theatre of operations, making its operations much more useful than a manned aircraft traditionally could be.

161208-F-YX485-100
A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper awaits maintenance 8 December 2016, at Creech Air Force Base. The MQ-1 Predator has provided many years of service, and the USAF is transitioning to the more capable MQ-9 exclusively and will retire the MQ-1 in 2018 to keep up with the continuously evolving battlespace environment. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The final technological piece in the armed unmanned aircraft jigsaw came together with the fitment of air-to-ground weapons. On operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, Predator’s provided imagery that was used to cue manned aircraft to essential targets, so they could deliver weapons on them. This worked well but sometimes the manned aircraft were not readily available and hours might elapse before they were overhead. This delay meant that hostile forces could group and attack civilians or friendly forces before defensive measures could be taken.  To overcome this, lightweight, small-warhead Hellfire missiles were fitted to the Predators that could be fired by the remote aircrew controllers against time-urgent targets. The range of weapons that could be fitted greatly expanded in later Predator developments but the fundamental constraint of needing to be lightweight to allow the unmanned aircraft to fly long-duration missions remained. Manned aircraft were still necessary for the battlefield situations and targets that required large warhead weapons.

In the early part of the 21st Century, armed unmanned aircraft finally came of age. This occurred with the coming together of several factors. Firstly, in the operational circumstances of the time, the air environment was much less hostile allowing simple aircraft to survive and potentially undertake meaningful roles. Secondly, there was now a pressing operational need for persistent surveillance; a task manned aircraft were unable to meet. Thirdly, aircraft technology has sufficiently mature to allow an unmanned aircraft to be controllable, navigate successfully, carry suitable sensors and incorporate satellite communications equipment. Lastly, in the internet age, once a video stream was received anywhere, it could be sent worldwide to allow anybody with an authorised computer terminal to access and use it.

After more than half-century of development, the aircraft was the easy bit. It was the electronics onboard and overboard, the ground controlling equipment, the complex support base and the large numbers of skilled staff involved at every level that made the whole operation work. It was not surprising then that defence forces pivoted to talk less of unmanned aircraft and towards terminology such as Unmanned Air Systems. Predators and their ilk were a system of systems, mostly ground-based but with one element that flew.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.