Five years ago, on 15 June 2016, From Balloons to Drones was launched. From Balloons to Drones was established with the simple vision of providing an open access online platform for the analysis and debate of air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense, including space and cyber power. Since establishing From Balloons to Drones, we have published 195 posts of various types ranging from articles to book reviews. More recently, in 2019, we started producing a popular podcast series with interviews with leading air power specialists. Overall, the site has received over 130,000 hits since 2016.
None of the above would have been achieved without the support of our editors, contributors, and readers. Personally, I am grateful to all the members of the From Balloons to Droneseditorial team for their continuing hard work, especially as it is all done voluntarily. Indeed, when the site was established, it was run by one person, our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney. However, over time, the editorial team has grown and evolved. In 2018, long-time contributors Dr Brian Laslie, Dr Michael Hankins, and Alex Fitzgerald-Black came onboard as editors. While Alex has moved on, we have continued to build and strengthen the editorial team with the addition of Victoria Taylor and Dr Luke Truxal to the team. As we look forward to the next five years of From Balloons to Drones, I am pleased to announce the addition of two new editors to the team: Dr Maria Burczynska and Ashleigh Brown. Maria is a Lecturer in Air Power Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK, while Ashleigh, a PhD student at UNSW Canberra, is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor. The addition of Maria and Ashleigh will help strengthen the team in several areas, and we are looking forward to what the future holds with them.
I am also grateful to all our contributors and readers. Without our contributors, there would be nothing to publish and, as such, no website. However, we are always on the lookout for new contributions either from established authors or from new and emerging scholars within the air power studies community. If you are interested in contributing, then visit our submissions page to find out how to contribute.
So, what about the future? More of the same but better. We still hold true to our original vision of providing an avenue for debate and discussion about air power. We will aim to continue to refine what we offer in terms of content and build on the success of the past five years. We have more articles, book reviews and podcasts in the pipeline. However, we are always keen to hear your views on what we publish. If there is an area of research that needs to be given more coverage, please let us know.
Finally, as a bit of fun to celebrate our fifth birthday, here are the top five most-read posts since our launch in 2016:
Header image: Pilatus PC-21A aircraft from No 4 Squadron based at RAAF Base Williamtown fly in formation on return from Sydney in support of an Air Force 2021 commemorative service held at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)
Most military historians take a narrative approach in their works. Even when they seek to prove a specific thesis, they offer the evidence to the reader in chronological order. There are, of course, exceptions – and Ben Kite is a notable one. In 2014, he produced Stout Hearts: The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944, a work that focused not on the narrative of the battles in Normandy, but rather how British and Canadian armies (and air forces) operated there. The result was an outstanding reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what it was like for their Commonwealth ancestors who fought there.
In Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 Kite has turned his focus to the skies. His primary aim is ‘to capture the main themes and strands of the war in the air as fought by the British Commonwealth’ (p. xiii). Volume 1 includes 20 chapters spread over four parts, each containing one of these themes or strands. These are usually mission types performed by the air force. In each part, Kite takes particular care to explain changes in the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) tactics and operational techniques along with the advancement of technology. He is more interested in how airmen planned and executed missions than in the role of senior commanders and overarching narratives. As such, this book is not a repeat of John Terraine’s The Right of the Line. Consequently, the experiences of aircrew fighting a deadly war in skies across the globe stand out.
In part one, Kite offers readers a background on pre-war RAF policy and preparations for war. He notes that although the 1920s were lean years, the RAF did receive significant investments in the late 1930s due to fears of the growing Luftwaffe in Nazi Germany. Ironically, although RAF doctrine focused on the bomber, the British bomber fleet was ill-prepared to strike at the German war industry. Much would have to change if the force were to have a chance of inflicting the knock-out blow advocated by influential interwar air power theorists Giulio Douhet and the RAF’s own Hugh Trenchard.
The second chapter of part one examines how the RAF mobilized and trained its manpower. Some readers will find this section a little disappointing since it offers a pretty standard focus on the path of pilots (and observers) through the Empire Air Training Scheme. There is comparatively little about the training regimes of other aircrew positions or the ground crew.
As the prerequisite for successful air operations of all types, Kite begins his examination of air combat with air superiority. The author takes a campaign-centric approach after beginning with the pre-war development of RAF Fighter Command. In northwest Europe, he examines the Battle of Britain, the uneconomical Fighter Command air offensive over Fortress Europe, and defence against German night raiders and V-weapons. Kite samples the battles for air superiority in the Mediterranean through the siege of Malta. Finally, he concludes the section with a pair of chapters featuring the rapid loss of air superiority in the Far East and the effort to turn the tide.
The chapter that stands out in part two takes the reader through a Fighter Command mission during the Battle of Britain. Kite takes an end-to-end approach here. He begins with how pilots began their mornings at airfields across Britain and finishes with sortie debriefings by intelligence officers. It was their job to understand what had happened in the air, including the difficult task of sorting victory claims. Kite affords the relatively unsung role of the fighter controller prominent attention, reminding readers the might of the many backed ‘the Few’ at the sharp end. This effectively illustrates the importance of ‘a good early warning capability and an efficient command and control system’ (p. 193) for effective air defence.
From air superiority, the book moves on to discuss Bomber Command’s role in striking back at Nazi Germany. Kite organizes this section into four chapters. The first offers the reader a general overview of how the offensive developed from unescorted, anti-shipping raids suffering unsustainable losses to night bomber raids of growing strength and sophistication. The chapter focuses on Bomber Command strategy and policy, including the creation of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in early 1943.
No. 6 Group owed its existence to a desire for a highly visible Canadian air effort in the war. Kite outlines the many unintended disadvantages of forming a separate national group within Bomber Command. Unfortunately, this is where Kite ends the story of 6 Group. Although the group faltered in 1943, 1944 was a much better year. New leadership, the shift from targets deep inside Germany to support the Normandy landings, and the arrival of better aircraft ‘enabled No. 6 Group to exceed the performance of comparable bomber groups in the air and on the ground.’ In fact, according to the RCAF official history, from September 1944 until May 1945 ‘the Canadian group could claim as good an operational record as any.’
Despite Kite’s treatment of No. 6 Group, he does well by Bomber Command as a whole. Kite takes the reader through an end-to-end Bomber Command mission in two chapters. The first chapter covers the route to the target, beginning with the role of armourers in loading the aircraft while the aircrew underwent specialized and team briefings. Crew roles, navigation equipment, the aircraft, and German defences all receive attention. The second chapter takes the reader from the run into the target and through the return leg. Except for memoirists explaining their personal slide of the air war, few resources so comprehensively relate the bomber crew experience.
The concluding strike chapter outlines the development of a precision bombing capability within Bomber Command and No. 2 Group, which operated light and medium bombers over Nazi-occupied Europe.
The final part of volume one covers the war at sea fought by RAF Coastal Command and the Royal Navy’s (RN) Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The first two chapters examine anti-submarine operations during the Battle of the Atlantic. Kite highlights the importance of cooperation between the RN and Coastal Command in intelligence sharing and winning the battle of improving tactics and technology. He concludes that while the Allies heavily reduced the U-boat threat by 1943, the RAF senior leadership’s failure to afford a greater priority to Coastal Command ‘nearly cost the Allies the war.’ (p. 321) This criticism mainly revolves around the delay in giving Coastal Command priority for Very Long-Range aircraft. These aircraft could patrol the mid-Atlantic gap, where U-boats operated beyond the range of most land-based aircraft.
Kite concludes the RAF’s role in the volume with two chapters on anti-shipping operations. He begins with early operations from the United Kingdom, especially those focused on the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. In the war’s early years, strikes were effective against enemy merchant shipping. Coastal Command needed better aircraft, tactics, and armour-piercing bombs to achieve success against the German surface fleet. RAF anti-shipping operations matured over time and in parallel with developments in the Mediterranean and the Far East. Missing from Kite’s history of the RAF’s war at sea are the anti-submarine and anti-shipping efforts that went into supporting the Normandy landings in June 1944. It is unclear whether these elements will appear in Volume 2, which promises to cover air support for the army in detail.
Many readers will be pleased that Kite wrote two chapters on the Fleet Air Arm. Some authors would have left the role of naval aviation out of scope, and it is commendable that Kite has included their experiences.
One general critique is the author’s tendency to rely on lengthy quotations from memoirs and diaries. Letting the veterans speak for themselves is a noble effort, but it also means relying on the quality of another’s writing to tell the story. Kite’s retelling of a harrowing anti-submarine patrol by a Sunderland flying boat crew over the Bay of Biscay was outstanding (p. 309-314). I sometimes found myself wishing that Kite had taken this approach more often rather than relying on lengthy and raw veteran’s accounts.
Through Adversity is a treasure trove of information for its readers. Twenty-five appendices or annexes (with source attributions) offer the reader great quick-reference material. The book is exceptionally well illustrated with thoughtful captions. These captions often include the identity and fate of both the aircraft and its crew, closing an otherwise open loop. Finally, Kite’s use of squadron mottos for most of the chapter titles is a nice touch that adds character to the book.
Overall, Volume 1 of Ben Kite’s work on the British Commonwealth’s war in the air is a great achievement. In the 1980s, John Terraine’s The Right of the Line afforded readers an excellent top-down narrative study of the RAF in the Second World War. Kite’s contribution is to capture the airman’s experience within that broader context. Through Adversity is the first half of an excellent reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what the air war was like for their Commonwealth ancestors in skies and at airfields across the world. The military aviation community anxiously awaits the publication of Undaunted: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air – Volume 2.
Header Image: In the shadow of their Handley Page Halifax, ‘Pride of the Porcupines’ aircrew and groundcrew members of No. 433 ‘Porcupine’ Squadron, No. 6 Group RCAF gang up on the miniature English automobile owned by one of the aircrew members. (Source: DND / LAC / PL-29380)
 Greenhous et al., The Crucible of War, 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume III (University of Toronto Press, 1994), pp. 526-7.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the team at From Balloons to Drones. It has been an excellent year for the advancement and study of air power, and it has been a remarkable year for the website as well. We added three co-editors to the site and surpassed our 50,000-hit mark!
As we enter the holiday season, we know that our readers either have some time off coming up or are looking for some recommendations to add to their holiday shopping lists. So, we thought it would be a good idea to have our editors put together a short list of their favourite books from our year of reading and reviewing. However, before we get onto the list here are the top five articles published by From Balloons to Drones during 2018:
James Pugh, The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017). I must admit it has been a slow year for me reading wise and the titles here will be reviewed in the new year. However, onto my list and first up we have James Pugh’s excellent study of the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and its understanding of the concept of control of the air. Control of the air remains a central tenant of modern air power thinking; however, the ideas surrounding this concept go back much further. In this study, Pugh provides an excellent analysis of the development of British thinking about control of the air with specific reference to the RFC and the war over the Western Front. It is a much-needed addition to the literature and worth a read.
Stephen Renner, Broken Wings: The Hungarian Air Force, 1918-45 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016). Ok, this one dates to 2016, but I have only just finished it after reading it on an off since it came out. However, this is an essential study for two reasons. First, small air forces tend to be overlooked in the literature concerning the early development of air power and secondly, there is little in English on-air forces from central and eastern Europe. As such, even for just these reasons, Renner’s book is a welcome addition to the literature. Furthermore, however, Renner provides an excellent study into the challenges faced by the Hungarians in this period, which makes for fascinating reading.
Adam Claasen, Fearless: The Extraordinary Untold Story of New Zealand’s Great War Airmen (Auckland: Massey University Press, 2017). The First World War centenary has seen many books published of which some are good and some not so good. Many of the works on air power have remained firmly camped in the ‘Knights of the Air’ trope that has become so common. Thankfully, however, we have also seen works such as Claasen’s work on New Zealand airmen appear. In this book, Claasen’s firmly places the experience of the around 850 New Zealanders who served in Britain’s air services within their imperial context. In this respect, Claasen’s follows on from the work of S.F. Wise on the Canadians and Michael Molkentin’s more recent work on Australia and is a welcome addition to our understanding of the imperial composition of Britain’s air services in the early twentieth century.
John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Air Power (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018). I reviewed this one here, so I shall not say too much more apart from to reiterate that if you are looking for a good introductory overview about air power, then this is an excellent addition to the library. Olsen has, as usual, brought together an outstanding line-up of scholars to consider critical issues related to air power.
Graham Broad, One in A Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017). The First World War centenary is behind us, but it has left great historiographical additions for us to pour over. Graham Broad’s excellent microhistory of one of Canada’s first aces is three books in one. It is also a how-to book of best practices for historical research and analysis as well as an insightful commentary on the philosophy of history. You will enjoy the author’s engaging narrative as he traces Captain McKay’s life from the rugby pitch to the Wright Brothers School of Aviation, to his fleeting fame and eventual death in the contested and deadly skies above the Western Front. History teachers, especially at the senior undergraduate and graduate level, will also find the book an exceptional resource for training the minds of budding historians.
Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). I picked up this book for two reasons. First, I was recently hired at the Juno Beach Centre, Canada’s Second World War Museum on the D-Day beaches. Second, with the upcoming 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, it was about time that we had a detailed English-language study of the cost suffered by the French people in that great invasion. Readers will appreciate Bourque’s approach in dealing with General Dwight Eisenhower and his air commanders’ lines of action (effort). These targets included everything from airfields and ports to French towns or cities and the bridges, marshalling yards, and factories therein. As we move into this anniversary, it is important to remember that while the Allies were on the right side of history, 60,000 French civilians paid a dear price for their country’s freedom.
Ian Gooderson, Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe, 1943-1945 (London: Frank Cass, 1998). This one is not recent, but I was thrilled to discover that my university library owns a copy. I was struck by just how comprehensive Gooderson’s analysis is, and I found some of his evidence and conclusions comfortably surprising. For instance, although the Allied air forces assumed armed reconnaissance to be safer than close air support, the opposite was true. At the same time, air support was probably of greater value beyond the battlefront (greater opportunity comes with greater danger). The book also impressed upon me the importance of timing air strikes carefully and air power’s psychological effects, for better or worse.
Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, Revised and Expanded Edition (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2016). This was one of the first scholarly history books I ever read as a high school student. Its engaging chapters about how various air forces across the decades have failed to meet their objectives offer complex answers to a simple question: why did they fail? Although, as Randall Wakelam noted, he had hoped for more from the new edition, though newcomers will find the book a valuable addition to any aviation history library.
Dr Mike Hankins
Melvin Deaile, Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). This book is not only an excellent summary of the formative years of Strategic Air Command during the early Cold War, but Deaile gives us a close look at what it felt like to be there. What was the culture like? What was the daily life like for these pilots? What made SAC so unique and such a key component of American defence during the Cold War? Moreover, why is General Curtis LeMay such a big deal? This book gives excellent, substantive answers to all these questions.
Timothy P. Schultz, The Problem with Pilots: How Physicians, Engineers, and Airpower Enthusiasts Redefined Flight (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Flying is hard–much harder than we give it credit for today. The capabilities of modern aircraft all came with difficult times of dangerous experimentation in the fields of medicine, engineering, and technology. The human body was not made to fly, and the limiting factor on advanced aircraft designs has always been humans. How we solved those problems and made complicated, advanced aircraft possible is the fascinating story of this book about integrating man and machine in increasingly sophisticated ways.
Steven A. Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-To-Air Combat, 1950-1980 (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2017). Fighter pilots are a strange breed–they have a unique culture all their own. However, how does that culture evolve when it is faced with new technologies that threaten to automate tasks that fighter pilots hold dear? Former F-15 pilot Steve Fino explores just that in this incredible book. Examining the F-86 Sabre, the F-4 Phantom II, and the F-15 Eagle, Fino explores the evolving relationship between man and machine in the cockpit of jet-age fighter planes. You can find my review of this book here.
Peter Fey, Bloody Sixteen: The USS Oriskany and Air Wing 16 during the Vietnam War (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2018). The USS Oriskany had the highest loss rates of any navy air unit in the Vietnam War. In addition to two massive fires, it was the boat from which Jim Stockdale and John McCain (among many others) became POWs for years. Peter Fey’s accessible, exciting narrative traces the Oriskany throughout its multiple tours and gives a palpable sense of what it was like to be on board and in the cockpit of the A-4 Skyhawks, F-8 Crusaders, and other planes the ship carried. The book is not perfect, but it is an engaging read especially aimed at a general audience.
Dr Brian Laslie
Craig Morris, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017). This book is ‘a twisting tale of individual efforts, organizational infighting, political priorities, and technological integration.’ It is also a book that places the development of American bombing theory firmly in the context of its time and rightly puts individuals into their proper place. Gone is the Billy Mitchell-centric view of air power development to be (rightly) replaced with an emphasis on Benjamin Foulois, Mason Patrick, William Sherman, Lord Tiverton, and others who worked tirelessly on the theories and doctrines of air power. In my opinion, the single best volume on American air power in the inter-war years.
Frank Ledwidge, Aerial Warfare: The Battle for the Skies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). I wrote about this book earlier in the year for The Strategy Bridge and called it ‘the single finest primer on air power covering every aspect from if you’ll excuse me, balloons to drones.’ I stand by that statement. This is the perfect primer for the history of air power. I cannot imagine someone interested in our profession not owning this book. I wish I had copies to serve as stocking stuffers…
David R. Honodel, The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot’s Combat over Laos (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2018). This is a ‘there I was’ and ‘shoot the watch’ book, but it is also an amazingly poignant and honest look about learning to survive in a war the American people were unaware was occurring. It is in the best of its class at conveying the transformation a person can take in the crucible of a forgotten war over the skies of Laos. ‘Buff’ Honodel passed away earlier this year, and as I count my blessings this year, one of them will be for a man like Buff.
Peter Dye, “The Man Who Took the Rap”: Sir Robert Brooke-Popham and the Fall of Singapore (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). This one landed on my desk rather late in the year but intrigued me almost immediately. As someone who has recently written a biography of a relatively unknown figure myself, I was excited to dive into this one, and it does not disappoint. As air power scholarship continues to expand, it has become an enjoyable pastime of mine to read about lesser-known, but equally important contributors to air power development. This book also fills a void for me in expanding my knowledge and understanding of other nation’s air power efforts.
As well as providing you with our Christmas reading list, we would like to recognise the various presses and our social media friends who have been hard at work this year publishing the books above and some not strictly related to air power, but would make great gifts such as Redefining the Modern Military, edited by Tyrell Mayfield and Nathan Finney, and The Colour of Time: A New History of the World, 1850-1960 by Marina Amaral.
The Allied invasion of Sicily, Operation HUSKY, is often viewed as a logical progression from the North Africa campaign (TORCH) through Sicily and on into Italy. It is one of the ‘Big Four’ operations in the European and Mediterranean theatres of operations, which culminated in the invasion of Normandy. Sicily has often been either overlooked entirely or seen through a more ground-centric lens (think of the movie Patton). That being said, there has been some excellent historical work in recent years on the invasion and even some very good historical-fiction by, for example, Jeff Sharra. Perhaps overlooked is too strong a word. Overshadowed is perhaps apter and nowhere is the invasion of Sicily more overshadowed than in the realm of air power. True, there is Robert S. Ehlers excellent work The Mediterranean Air War (2015), which covers the entirety of the theatre, but a singular focus on the air war exclusively over Sicily has been missing.
Alexander Fitzgerald-Black seeks not only to bring HUSKY back into focus but seeks to delve into the often-overlooked role of air power in the Mediterranean theatre, particularly over the skies of Sicily and does so by linking the tactical to the strategic. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxii) states that:
This work reconnects the role of the Allied air forces in the Battle for Sicily to the wider narrative of the air war and to the crucial Allied strategy for engaging Axis forces in the Mediterranean Theater during the Summer of 1943.
Air power itself has been viewed through various lenses, but the most notable narrative through HUSKY was that Allied air power did not live up to the promises it made – Fitzgerald-Black singles out Carlo D’Este for holding this interpretation. The author seeks to turn this traditional narrative on its head, and Fitzgerald-Black argues persuasively that some authors have focused too myopically on the tactical missteps and therefore, missed the greater strategic narrative. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxiii) argues that ‘Allied strategic success in Sicily and the Mediterranean in mid-1943 mattered far more than the failure to prevent German forces on the island from escaping.’ Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe to pay a heavy toll for defending not an only island but the theatre writ large. Also, attacks against the Italian mainland helped drive Italy from the war entirely.
In the buildup to the landings, German and Italian air power was systematically, but not entirely, destroyed. Some authors have pointed this out as a failure of air power showing their preference for a Clausewitzian decisive battle that rarely appears. The Luftwaffe, under the direction Wolfram von Richthofen removed their bombers to the Italian mainland, believing Sicily to be untenable. Attacks on German and Italian bases gained enough air superiority that the invasion took place without prohibitive interference from the Luftwaffe or Regia Aeronautica. The simple fact was that Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica to react in ways it did not want to. Some might say Allied leaders had got inside their enemy’s OODA loop (p. 54, 63).
Again, there exist critiques of Allied air power on the day of the landings, but as Fitzgerald-Black demonstrates, the Germans and the Italians seemed to be to some degree husbanding their resources. Even in doing so, it was difficult for the Luftwaffe to contest control of the skies seriously. Where engagements did occur, the author shows that ‘[E]ffectiveness cannot only be measured by casualties inflicted upon Axis aircraft.’ There were occasions (p. 83) where ‘USAAF and RAF fighters broke up enemy formations and/or forced the bombers to jettison their payloads prematurely […].’ Fitzgerald-Black does an excellent job of interweaving his analysis and engaging prose with numerous first-person accounts from both sides of the conflict. His use of Johannes Steinhoff’s remembrances adds a level of balance to the work, wherein the points and actions of both sides are brought forth. Looking at the battle in retrospect, ‘The success of the German tactical withdrawal pales in comparison to the strategic victory the Allies won in Sicily during the Summer of 1943.’ Italy was knocked out of the war and Germany was now forced to defend Europe on two fronts that soon turned into three with the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 (p. 159).
One final point worth mentioning, and this is more a press decision than a note on the author’s work, but the use footnotes versus endnotes is a welcome change making it significantly easier to check the author’s sources at a quick glance. In the end, Fitzgerald-Black has done an outstanding job of refocusing attention on the air war over Sicily and has contributed to the study of air power history. His work resides alongside Chris Rein and Robert Ehlers in broadening our understanding of the Mediterranean theatre during the Second World War. His expert linking of tactical, operational, and strategic in a clear narrative allows all readers to understand that while one area of a campaign might be deemed a tactical misstep, the overarching importance of the strategic victory cannot be taken for granted.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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].
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. 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.’
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. 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.
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. 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. The German force in Italy would grow to nearly 25 divisions at the time of the invasion of Normandy. 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. 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.
 Library and Archives Canada, R112-104-3 Kardex System, Vol. 10868, War Diaries Canadian Planning Staff Files, March to June 1943, Air Staff Memorandum.
 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.
 Mike Peters, Glider Pilots in Sicily (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2012), p. 3.
 Douglas Porch, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (New York, NY: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 2004), p. 417.
 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.
 TNA, AIR 23/6325, Northwest African Air Force operation ‘Husky’ report, Part A: The Invasion and Conquest of Sicily, pp. 9-10.
 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.
 Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 524.
 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.
 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.
 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).
The other week I mentioned on Twitter that it had been two years since I had touted the idea of creating a group website dedicated to air power history, theory, and practice. While we might quibble about From Balloons to Dronesdate of birth, it was on 15 June 2016 that the first post announcing the creation of the site and calling for contributions was published. As such, it seems apropos to reflect on the past two years.
From Balloons to Drones started out with me as the only editor and we had a couple of dedicated contributors. I am pleased to say that three of those early dedicated contributors, Dr Brian Laslie, Dr Mike Hankins, and Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, have now come onboard as Assistant Editors. All our effort is, of course, done in addition to our other work away from the site. For example, recently, I moved to Australia from the UK and co-edited a special edition of the British Journal for Military History while Brian published his much-awaited book on General Laurence Kuter. Similarly, Alex published his first book on the air war over Sicily in 1943 while Mike completed his PhD on culture and technology in the United States Air Force (USAF) and has now moved to take up a position at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. Nonetheless, despite all these significant personnel and professional achievements, and with my Assistant Editors support, we continue to plan for the future and examine how we might grow the air power core community of interest.
As well as adding Brian, Mike, and Alex to the editorial team, From Balloons to Drones continues to grow regarding the number of contributors to the site; however, we are always looking to add new writers to the team. As such, if you are a postgraduate, academic, policymaker, member of the armed forces or a relevant professional involved in researching the subject of air power then take a moment and look at our submissions page to find out how you can get involved with the conversation.
What about statistics? Well, this is our ninety-fifth post, which, of course, means we are just five away from the magic century. Those 95 posts have consisted of articles, research notes, book reviews, commentaries, and the occasional editorial. We also started a new series of historic books reviews with the first one published here. All told, these posts, excluding this one, have totalled some 157,000 words, or roughly the equivalent of two monographs! We have published a wide variety of articles that have covered both historical and contemporary issues. The top five posts are:
We also worked on a great joint series of articles with our partners at The Central Blue. These articles supported a seminar that the Williams Foundation held in Canberra, Australia that looked at the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st century. This was a great partnership and something we are happy to explore again in the future.
Speaking of the future, there is, of course, the question of what comes next. Well, hopefully, more of the same. We are keen to build on the high-standards we believe that we have set for ourselves. However, we can only do that with your help. So, get in touch and contribute!
As noted, we have started a new series of historic book reviews, and this is an area that we are keen to develop. The series aims to be an accessible collection of appraisals of critical historic publications about air power history, theory, and practice. Many books hold a specific place in the study of air power because of the ideas they introduced or the insights they provided about the institutions responsible for delivering air power capabilities. The reviews will cover several different types of texts from those works that developed air power ideas to crucial memoirs.
Our essential development for the near future is that we are launching a series of podcasts with authors of new air power related titles. This is a project that Mike is working on for us, and we are excited about the prospect of offering something stimulating and hearing from those working in the field of air power studies. We will be realising more information about these podcasts once we have more details.
Overall, myself, Brian, Mike, and Alex have made a concerted effort to develop closer ties not just between ourselves but between those interested in the subject of air power. We think we have done that, but we are always happy to hear any ideas that our readers might have for future developments. Finally, it is to you, our readers, and our contributors that we owe our greatest thanks. Without you, we would not exist. If you do not come and read the material that we publish, then there is little point in this endeavour. That you do come and read our ramblings is appreciated, and we hope you continue to do so for many years to come.
Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor of From Balloons to Drones. He is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and 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 a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Twenty eighteen marks the start of the second full year of operations for From Balloons to Drones. With this, we are pleased to announce a significant change in our editorial line-up. Dr Brian Laslie, Mike Hankins and Alex Fitzgerald-Black have all agreed to become Assistant Editors of From Balloons to Drones. Brian, Mike, and Alex have been keen supporters of From Balloons to Drones since day one, and we are grateful to them for coming on board to add some depth to our operations. You can read their biographies here.
What does this mean for From Balloons to Drones? In short, it means we can come up with more ideas on how we might take the website forward. At the moment we are discussing several ideas which will hopefully see the light of day. One idea being discussed is a series of historic book reviews of crucial air power titles that will sit alongside our already established series of book reviews. We are coming up with a list of titles but if you think of a volume that is deserving of being reviewed then let us know.
Another project that we are currently working on is a collaborative series with The Central Blue, which is the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation in Australia. This set of posts will focus on some of the challenges related to high-intensity warfare in the 21st century, and they will provide the intellectual underpinnings for a seminar being held in Canberra in March on this topic. Posts will start appearing in February and will be posted here and at The Central Blue simultaneously. If you are interested in contributing to this series, then get in contact.
Finally, we are always on the lookout for new contributors to the site as well as ideas for future articles. We encourage potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, policymakers, service personnel and relevant professionals involved in researching the subject of air power. More details can be found here. Also, do not forget that we can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.
Header Image: A French Air Force Mirage 2000C drops away from a United States Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker after refuelling during a combat air patrol mission while participating in Operation ALLIED FORCE, c. 1999. (Source: Wikimedia)
With Architect of Air Power Brian D. Laslie, Deputy Command Historian at NORAD and US Northern Command and an Adjunct Professor at the US Air Force Academy had two mutually supporting goals. The first is to offer readers a biography of General Laurence S. Kuter, one of the select few US Air Force (USAF) officers to serve the majority of his 35-year career as a general officer (the others were Generals Curtis LeMay, Lauris Norstad, and Hoyt Vandenberg). The second is to acknowledge that Kuter’s
[c]areer dovetailed with the rise of an adolescent air power and ended with a fully grown and mature air force capable of global monitoring and response. (p. xi)
In other words, Kuter was an architect of the USAF. Many of the modern USAF’s principles and methods owe their origins to his work.
The biography is organised chronologically, beginning with Kuter’s adolescence and time at West Point and ending with his service as a four-star general commanding the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), retirement, and passing. Laslie has assembled an impressive array of sources to discuss Kuter’s life and career. He draws on Kuter’s incomplete autobiography, collections at the USAF Academy library (including Kuter’s papers and those of several his contemporaries), oral histories, diaries, and letters. One highlight of the book is how Laslie captures Kuter’s relationship with his high school sweetheart and wife, Ethel Kuter (née Lyddon). Ethel’s diary was slowly overtaken by references to Kuter beginning in 1922, and the pair wrote over 1,000 letters to each other during his time at West Point.
Laslie takes his readers on a mission to understand why so little has been written about Kuter. One reason is that Kuter did not make a name for himself with flying exploits or by leading air formations into battle. Kuter did not join the US Army Air Corps because of romantic visions of flight. Instead, he joined to be a better artillery officer. Only later did he become fully immersed in exploring a new kind of warfare – mainly at the operational rather than tactical level. In August 1941, Kuter became one of the authors of AWPD-1, the first comprehensive plan for winning the war against Germany through aerial bombardment. In the early months of America’s Second World War, Brigadier General Kuter (one of the youngest general officers in the US Army) was a go-between for General George C. Marshall and Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold. He also had a significant hand in setting up the latter’s Air Staff as the US Army Air Forces achieved autonomy. Kuter made a name for himself with his organisational skills rather than his combat command ability.
Recognising this, Arnold sent Kuter to Europe in late 1942 to gather command experience. Kuter commanded the Eighth Air Force’s 1st Bombardment Wing under Brigadier General Ira Eaker. One of Eaker’s assistants, James Parton, later claimed that Eaker had fired Kuter for declining to fly on combat missions. Laslie has proven these accusations to be unquestionably false. In fact, while Eaker gave Kuter the worst performance reviews of his career, he also tried to retain Kuter’s services. Laslie believes Eaker did this to provide Kuter with more time to prove himself; he had served under Eaker for only five weeks.
This is another of the reasons for the lack of attention afforded Kuter. He never stayed in one place long enough to make a name for himself. Kuter’s next stop was North Africa. He would serve as the deputy to Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force. He served in this position for only four months, but he still made immense contributions to the war effort and the future of the US air power. Kuter’s brainchild was FLAX, a well-planned and executed operation to destroy the Axis air bridge between Sicily and Tunisia. He also learned how to implement a proper ground support system in the field. When he returned to Washington to work under Arnold his experiences in North Africa were codified in Field Manual 100-20. This document is considered both the air force’s ‘declaration of independence’ and the basis for the USAF’s tactical air power concepts to this day.
Kuter’s next command opportunity overseas was in the Pacific. Now a Major General, Kuter was quickly replaced in a reshuffling of officers following the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. He then moved to Air Transport Command, where he supported General Douglas MacArthur’s buildup in Japan following the island nation’s surrender. After less than a month, Kuter once again returned to Washington. As Laslie notes, ‘as soon as [Kuter] established and organized the flow of men and material, he was pulled from the theater.’ (p. 122)
Another reason Laslie offers us for Kuter’s relative obscurity is the man’s level-headedness. People want to write about innovators and controversial figures, not respectable architects. Laslie makes this observation early in the book: ‘If the famous early aviators – men like Curtis LeMay and Jimmy Doolittle – were cowboys, then Kuter represented the first-generation lawman who came to town to impose order.’ (p. 18) One of the arduous tasks Kuter had to handle while working under Arnold in 1942 were the requests from various theatre commanders for more and better aircraft and properly trained crews. At the time, there just were not enough aircraft to train crews in the United States and supply US Army Air Forces in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. President Roosevelt had also promised the Royal Air Force a share of American aircraft production. This added strain was worth it since many British Commonwealth pilots already had combat experience. Although the theatre commanders could be quite forceful in their requests, Kuter never let it get the better of him, and his level-headedness set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Perhaps, therefore, when Arnold could not attend the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Kuter attended in his place. In doing so, Kuter jumped the queue in front of three-star generals.
Kuter’s Cold War career is equally fascinating. He never held or coveted the positions of Chief of Staff or Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF (perhaps another factor in his relative obscurity). His work establishing the USAF Academy and achieving accreditation for the Air University were architectural moves that produce new generations of air force officers that continue to mould the modern USAF. As a four-star general, Kuter commanded America’s aviation in the Pacific theatre, consolidating these forces under one command: PACAF. He also oversaw NORAD as it dealt with growing Soviet missile offensive capability in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In his preface, Laslie notes the difficulty associated with writing biography suggesting that:
Historians must tread the perilous course of being objective while at the same time proclaiming why subject needs individual attention in the first place. (p. xi)
Laslie has played this balancing act marvellously. He pulls no punches, willingly calling out Kuter when his ideas or actions were wrong, especially his belief in strategic air bombardment as a war-winning approach. Laslie carefully provides the reader with enough context so that he or she may understand why Kuter made these errors. In fact, it is these very moments, so well captured by Laslie, that make Kuter and the history of the USAF such a fascinating subject.
Header Image: Republic of Korea Air Force Lieutenant General Cho Won Kun flies with the 35th Fighter Squadron out of Kunsan Air Base, c. 2009. The 35th Fighter Squadron forms part of the 8th Operations Group of the 8th Fighter Wing. The 8th Fighter Wing is assigned to the Seventh Air Force, which reports to PACAF. (Source: Wikimedia)
The Second World War saw the formation of many famous Allied air forces. The Flying Tigers, the Cactus Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, RAF Bomber Command, and RAF Fighter Command are among the best known. In the Mediterranean, perhaps none was more famous than the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF). This is the tactical air force that helped Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army defeat Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in 1942. The victory was the result of an effective combination of air and land power according to an air support doctrine developed by Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham.
Coningham owes more to his predecessor, Air Vice-Marshal Raymond Collishaw than historians have realised. Collishaw commanded No. 202 Group – and later No. 204 Group, which would later become the WDAF – between the opening of the war in the desert and November 1941. In that time, Collishaw’s command achieved much success, demonstrating the features of tactical air doctrine later associated with his successor. Mike Bechthold’s new monograph, Flying to Victory, offers us a new layer for understanding the development of Allied air support during the Second World War.
Raymond Collishaw was a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. During the First World War, Collishaw became one of the Empire’s leading flying aces, destroying 61 enemy aircraft and eight observation balloons with Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force squadrons. Authors often celebrate his air-fighting prowess. In fact, some historians have gone as far as to say that his aggressive spirit made him ill-suited for commanding air forces at the end of tenuous supply lines. In Flying to Victory, Bechthold defuses these arguments.
Collishaw’s experience with close army support missions during the 100 Days campaign at the end of the First World War taught him how wasteful these operations could be. He came out of the war believing that only emergencies – such as the Kaiser’s spring offensive in 1918 – warranted a heavy close air support focus. This and his experiences commanding various air units during Britain’s interwar conflicts served to prepare Collishaw for command in the Western Desert. He was well-suited to command operations at the end of a tenuous supply line while working jointly with army and naval commanders.
Collishaw first demonstrated the difference that an effective air support doctrine could make during early fighting in the desert and Operation COMPASS. In 1940-41, No. 202 Group faced an Italian Royal Air Force (IRAF) with superior numbers and quality of aircraft. Collishaw’s command achieved air superiority despite these disadvantages. While the IRAF squandered its superior resources by focusing on providing defensive screens for the Italian Army, Collishaw directed his forces to focus on disrupting and destroying IRAF aircraft and infrastructure. With air superiority secured, Collishaw’s forces focused on impeding the Italian logistical network and applying close-support attacks at the army’s request in special circumstances. Alongside Lieutenant-General Richard O’Conner’s Western Desert Force, the British offensive drove the Italians out of Egypt and Cyrenaica, completely destroying the Italian Tenth Army in the process.
Although Operation COMPASS was a model of cooperation between the army and air force, this model would soon be forgotten amid British retreats in the Western Desert, Greece, and Crete in spring 1941. The Germans had joined their Italian allies in the Mediterranean war. During Operation BREVITY, an attempt to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk, Collishaw commanded No. 204 Group (which had absorbed No. 202 Group in April 1941). He once again proved the usefulness of interdiction operations, though army commanders were disappointed that the RAF considered attacks on tanks on the battlefield to be impracticable. His forces immobilised counterattacking German units at critical junctures that saved army units, though the overall operation failed to relieve Tobruk.
The overall failures of BREVITY and Crete put the air force in a tough position. The Royal Navy had lost many ships to Axis air attacks during the evacuation of Crete. During Operation BATTLEAXE, another attempt to relieve Tobruk, the army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, Collishaw’s immediate superior, made a calculated move. With Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal’s blessing, he ordered Collishaw to accede to the army’s requests. This way, the RAF could avoid blame for failing to cooperate with the army even though this was a misemployment of resources that ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.
BATTLEAXE effectively settled the debate over tactical air power raging between the RAF and army early in the war. Before BATTLEAXE, Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed the army’s view of air support. After BATTLEAXE, he fully endorsed the RAF’s view. Churchill accepted that attacks on enemy airbases, ports, and lines of communication were more effective even though the army would not be afforded the comforting sight of friendly aircraft overhead. The result was “The Middle East (Army and RAF) Directive on Direct Air Support”, a document that marked the beginning of designing the war-winning air support system the Allies would continue to develop in 1942. This document reflected the operations and exercises that Raymond Collishaw commanded. Tedder and Coningham went on to refine and improve this system.
Air Marshal Tedder, the conduit for Collishaw’s early application of winning air support doctrine to Portal and Churchill, replaced Collishaw with Coningham in November 1941. Promoted from air commodore to air vice-marshal, Collishaw commanded No. 14 Group defending Scapa Flow, Scotland until July 1943, when the RAF involuntarily retired him. Bechthold’s evidence suggests that Tedder held a bias against Collishaw. Largely ignoring the results he achieved in the desert, Tedder and historians since have assessed Collishaw as incapable of running a larger command organisation and delegating responsibility to his staff. Bechthold encourages us to avoid this speculative analysis of potential and instead focus on his war record. The result is an excellent profile of a man and – as it turns out – a largely misunderstood air campaign in the first year of warfare in the Western Desert.
Alexander Fitzgerald-Black completed his MA thesis, ‘Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943,’ with The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, University of New Brunswick in 2014. He is in the process of turning this work into a manuscript for publication with Helion & Company. Alex lives with his wife in Moncton, Canada. He operates his own blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.
These are just a selection of the highlights of our half year in existence. We are keen to expand our list of contributors and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions then please leave a comments here or emails us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)