#BookReview – Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941

#BookReview – Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

Mike Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 296 pp.

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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.

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Squadron Commander Raymond Collishaw in Sopwith F1 Camel aircraft, Allonville, France, 1918. (Source: Wikimedia)

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.

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Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw, the Air Officer Commanding No. 202 Group, surveys the ruined buildings on the airfield at El Adem, Libya, following its capture on 5 January 1941 during the advance on Tobruk. (Source: © IWM (CM 399))

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.

This post first appeared at Fighter-Bomber’s Blog.

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.

Header Image: Pilots of No. 3 Squadron RAAF study a map on the tailplane of one of their Gloster Gladiators at their landing ground near Sollum, Egypt, before an operation over Bardia during the closing stages of Operation COMPASS. Left to right: Flying Officers J.R. Perrin, J. McD Davidson (squatting), W.S. Arthur and P. St G. Turnbull, Flight Lieutenants G.H. Steege and A.C. Rawlinson, Flying Officer V. East, (unknown), Squadron Leader I.D. McLachlan (Commanding Officer) and Flying Officer A.H. Boyd. (Source: © IWM (CM 355))

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

From Balloons to Drones – Top Posts of 2016

By Ross Mahoney

Happy New Year!

Now we have reached 2017, and that From Balloons to Drones has been up and running for around six months, it thought it would be worth posting our top five posts of 2016 based on views.

  1. At the head of the list is ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training.’ This is the first of a three-part article by Jeff Schultz that examines the use of the North American T-28 during the war in Laos in the 1970s. Parts two and three can be found here and here.
  2. In second place is my research note on ‘Air Power and the Challenge of Professional Military Education’ that was based on my thoughts on an excellent conference at the Royal Military College of Canada in November. An important subject that I hope to return to in 2017.
  3. In third is Brian Laslie’s commentary, ‘TheF-35 is here!’, which deals with some of the issues surrounding this program and the important role that training will play in developing the aircraft’s use.
  4. In fourth, and timed in conjunction with the types eventually retirement for the United States Air Force, Mike Hankins provided a timely discussion of the development of the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II in his piece ‘Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time.’ The second part of this article can be found here.
  5. Finally, but no means last, Alex Fitzgerald-Black’s research note ‘Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers’ provided a useful discussion of the importance of the air battles fought during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

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 airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: A row of T-28s in Laos. (Source: USAF)

#ResearchNote – Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers

#ResearchNote – Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

In 1991, Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Fredrich von Stauffenberg published The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory. In it, they offered a scathing review of the performance of the Allied militaries in Operation HUSKY, the 1943 invasion of Sicily. Theirs is the standard interpretation about the battle for Sicily: the Allies bungled total victory through national squabbles which allowed the Germans to mount a skilful withdrawal even against complete Allied air and naval supremacy while outnumbered by Allied armies by factors of up to 8:1.[1]

Part of their critique is the effectiveness of the Allied air forces. They called into question claims Allied commanders made at finding 1,100 Axis aircraft littering aerodromes and landing grounds across the island. According to Colonel Lioy of the Italian Air Force historical division, Allied claims vastly overstated the reality as the island had long harboured aircraft cemeteries from previous battles. He believed that the Allied bomber offensive only accounted for 100. Lioy pegged total Axis aircraft losses from 3 July to 17 August at not over 200. Finally, Mitcham and von Stauffenberg noted that Axis statistics they consulted show that the Germans and Italians lost 225 and 95 aircraft respectively to all causes between 1 July and 5 September 1943.[2]

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Vertical aerial reconnaissance view of Castelvetrano airfield, Sicily, the day before a successful attack was made on it by Malta-based Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons RAF. A number of Junkers Ju 52 and Savoia Marchetti SM 82 transport aircraft, many of which were destroyed during the raid, can be seen parked around the airfield perimeter. (Source: © IWM (C 4183))

These figures do not stand up to the scrutiny of other sources. First, Williamson Murray’s excellent study of the Luftwaffe: Strategy for Defeat, cited reliable quartermaster general figures for German losses throughout the war. German losses in the May to August period in the Mediterranean Theatre stood at 1,600, matching those of the other major fronts. This number included 711 German aircraft lost in July 1943 alone, a figure 27 percent higher than that of the 558 German aircraft lost on the Eastern Front during the massive battles of Kursk-Orel in July.[3]

Second, Adolf Hitler’s own figures are at variance with Mitcham and von Stauffenberg’s statistics. Hitler was particularly displeased with the ground organisation in Sicily and southern Italy. On 13 July, he sent a message to Benito Mussolini complaining of ‘more than 320 fighters destroyed on the ground as the result of Allied aerial attack in the last three weeks.’ When the two dictators met at Feltre on 19 July, Hitler further noted that between 300 and 400 aircraft out of 500 to 600 were destroyed on the ground in the recent Allied air offensive.[4]

Perhaps Hitler was particularly upset with a 15 July raid on Vibo Valentia, where the bulk of the remainder of the German fighter force had settled after withdrawing from Sicily. A force of 117 B-25 Mitchells and B-26 Marauders apparently caught Jagdgruppe Vibo on the ground. Lieutenant Köhler, a German ace with over 20 victories to his credit, wrote:

Toward noon 105 [sic] bombers came and destroyed the Jagdgruppe Vibo Valentia, which had about 80 aircraft. Not a machine was left intact, not even the [Junkers] which had just landed. Fuel trucks, hangars, aircraft, autos, everything was burning. The German fighters in Italy have been wiped out.[5]

Specifically, the raid eliminated Steinhoff’s JG 77, I/JG 53 (which lost 20 aircraft), and much of II/JG 27. After the raid, only survivors of II and III/JG 27 remained operational in southern Italy.

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Wrecked and damaged Italian fighters outside bomb-shattered hangars at Catania, Sicily, under the scrutiny of an airman, shortly after the occupation of the airfield by the RAF. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1352)

The weight of evidence seems to go against Mitcham and von Stauffenberg’s conclusions. Furthermore, while it is true that many of the 1,100 aircraft abandoned on Sicily were from previous battles, the Allies still denied their use to Axis salvage details. Italian losses during the campaign are less easy to come by. However, one source noted that they may have been as high as 800 aircraft over two months – although the same source lowballs the German figure at 586.[6]

The Mediterranean was a meat grinder of Axis aviation. For the war, Axis aircraft losses in the Mediterranean stand at 17,750, much higher than the 11,000 on the Eastern Front, and closer to the 20,419 on the Western Front than one might assume.[7] The air superiority battles around and above Operation HUSKY in the summer of 1943 were a significant milestone in the air war against the European Axis. Indeed, Murray described Sicily as ‘the greatest air battle of the Mediterranean war’ based on the scale of German losses.[8] This result was achieved by an efficient Allied air force that has often been denied the credit it so rightfully earned.

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Supermarine Spitfire Mark Vs of No. 243 Squadron RAF undergo maintenance at Comiso, Sicily. Photographed over the tail section of an abandoned Messerschmitt Bf 109G of 6/JG53. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1029))

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.

Header Image: A line of Macchi MC200 fighters on Reggio di Calabria airfield under attack by cannon fire from two Bristol Beaufighter Mark ICs of No. 272 Squadron RAF Detachment flying from Luqa, Malta. (Source: © IWM (CM 1298))

[1] See Lee Windsor, “The Eyes of All Fixed on Sicily’: Canada’s Unexpected Victory, 1943,’ Canadian Military History, 22:3 (2013), pp. 6-7 for a summary of this literature. General Max Ulrich, commander of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division offered the 8:1 ratio when comparing the odds his forces faced.

[2] Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Fredrich von Stauffenberg, The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007 [1991]), p. 305.

[3] Williamson Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945 (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University Press, 1983), “Table XXX”, p. 148.

[4] Albert N. Garland and Howard M. Smyth, The United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theatre of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Washington, D.C.: US Army Centre of Military History, 1993[1965]), p. 240 and p. 243.

[5] Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia and Frederick Galea, Spitfires over Sicily: The Crucial Role of the Malta Spitfires in the Battle of Sicily, January – August 1943 (London: Grub Street, 2000), p. 166.

[6] Hans Werner Neulen, In the Skies of Europe: Air forces allied to the Luftwaffe, 1939-1945 (Ramsbury, Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd., 2005), p. 72.

[7] Robert S. Ehlers, The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015), 403.

[8] Murray, Strategy for Defeat, p. 164.

Hammer and Anvil: Catching the Axis in a Catch-22

Hammer and Anvil: Catching the Axis in a Catch-22

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

USAAF Captain John Yossarian, fictional protagonist, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Political Scientist Robert A. Pape published Bombing to Win in 1996.[1] In that work, Pape argued that air power be of limited effectiveness when attacking purely strategic targets such as the enemy’s morale, leadership, or communications. Instead, the most effective use of air power is alongside ground forces in a ‘hammer and anvil’ approach.

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Four Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark IIIs of No. 112 Squadron RAF based at Agnone, Sicily, in stepped line-astern formation, flying south along the Gulf of Catania. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1136))

The air force acts as the hammer while the field force serves as the anvil. Theoretically, any army confronted by an air force with air superiority and an opposing army is in a predicament. The commander can choose to concentrate his forces, leaving them open to the hammer – tactical air power. Alternatively, he can disperse his troops, at which point the anvil – the opposing army – can isolate and destroy these smaller units in a piecemeal fashion.[2] This is what makes air superiority so tantalising in modern warfare. It forces one side into a catch-22. The fundamental principle is that air superiority denies the opposing force freedom of movement. It does not always work out as cleanly as the hammer and anvil concept suggests (and as the below examples illustrate), but removing the opposing force’s freedom of movement is a sure way to win a battle or, perhaps, a war.

The Allies caught the Axis armies in a hammer and anvil catch-22 in Sicily in 1943. The successful Allied landings in Operation HUSKY and the ensuring air battles won the Allies air superiority over the island. Heavy losses in the invasion’s first days and the threat the well-positioned landings posed to their airfields forced the German and Italian air forces to withdraw from the island days into the battle. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring had to rely on ground troops to hold the island and keep Italy in the war as long as possible. To achieve their aim, the Allies needed to secure the island and use it as an advanced staging ground to force Italy from the war.

Some of the heaviest fighting occurred in the island’s centre, on the inland hinge of the Etna Line. Kesselring hoped to hold the Allies at bay using a mountainous ring around Sicily’s active volcano, Mount Etna. 1st Canadian Division, undergoing its baptism of fire in this war, drew the task of punching a hole in the Axis line alongside their counterparts in 1st US Division, the Big Red One.

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Armourers load a Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark III of No. 239 Wing RAF with 250-lb GP bombs and re-arm the machine guns in the wings, at Agnone, Sicily, for a forthcoming sortie against enemy positions in the foothills of Mount Etna. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1134))

As the Americans engaged in heavy fighting near Troina to the north, the Canadians advanced on Regalbuto to the south. In this attack, the Canadians leant heavily on artillery and air support. Air power was to focus primarily on reaching beyond the range of artillery where Allied intelligence expected much enemy traffic movement:

[i]t was believed that the enemy would withdraw when the assault developed, and it was hoped that the air attack would pin him down to the ground and prevent this operation.[3]

Allied intelligence also believed that the Germans were using the town as a motor pool for their vehicles and guns.

The Canadian anvil struck as the hammer waited overhead. Allied fighter-bombers claimed over 40 enemy motor vehicles destroyed on 2 August between Regalbuto and Adrano.[4] Between the fighting in and around Regalbuto and losses sustained during their withdrawal on Highway 121, the Hermann Göring Division’s panzer engineer battalion was effectively ‘eliminated as a combat force.’[5] The Allies successfully flushed the Germans from their positions after a gruelling attritional struggle. They forced the Germans to use the roads in large numbers, increasing already heavy casualties.

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A German Mk III tank knocked out during the fierce street fighting in Centuripe during the drive on Messina. (Source: © IWM (NA 5389))

A similar situation developed in the Battle of Troina. This time, however, the Germans made a much longer stand. Between 31 July and 6 August 1943, 15th Panzer Grenadier Division lost 1,600 men; 10 percent of the division’s strength or 40 percent of the fighting troops. The German commander, General Eberhard Rodt, later noted that losses from heavy artillery fire and massive carpet bombings on the hills and firing positions around the town were very high.[6] Allied aircraft caught a large amount of Axis motor transport on Highway 120 between Troina and Randazzo. Fighter-bombers claimed 50 vehicles strafed and bombed near Cesaro on 2 August.[7] It is possible that this was a reinforcement or supply column for the Troina garrison. Finally, Rodt notes that while his men were able to break contact with the Americans, they were often attacked and suffered losses from low-level aircraft while moving from Troina towards Bronte and Randazzo. Again, the Allies forced an Axis withdrawal to occur in daylight, adding to losses from the earlier attritional struggle.[8]

The German Army was just starting to get used to fighting with minimal support from the Luftwaffe. Air superiority over Sicily enabled the Allies to make use of this hammer and anvil to significant effect. Although elements of four German divisions escaped across the Strait of Messina in mid-August, those units were hollow shells of their former selves.[9] Air power and the catch-22 Allied air superiority forced the Axis into played a significant role in this outcome. The loss of Sicily opened the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, supported the Russians on the Eastern Front, and drove Italy ever closer to surrender.

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Flying Officer Colin Edmends from Australia and his fitter, D. McMinnemy, inspect the tail of his Curtiss Kittyhawk after it was damaged during a sortie over Catania. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1139))

Robert Pape’s writing on air power remains fairly controversial. Other air power theorists argue that the opposing force’s command and control, specifically regarding leadership and communications, are ideal targets. Foremost among these advocates is Colonel (Ret.) John Warden III, who wrote The Air Campaign, while he was at the National War College in the mid-1980s. However, in the estimation of this author, due to the case study examined above, Pape’s hammer and anvil approach have merit. As Philips Payson O’Brien notes in How the War Was Won, ‘except for killing every one of the combatants fighting against you, the only way to “win” a war is to stop your enemy from moving.’[10] Both theories advocate a solution to this problem. The difference is that one gives air power a complimentary role while the other affords it the leading role. In the Second World War, the debate was between the theatre air power school and the victory through air power school. The RAF and USAAF each had advocates for both of these approaches. This debate continues to this day.

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.

Header Image: A Martin Baltimore of the Tactical Bomber Force of the North West African Air Forces, flying over its target by a road in Sicily, while bombing retreating German forces heading for Messina, August 1943. (Source: © IWM (C 3772))

[1] Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).

[2] Robert A. Pape, ‘The True Worth of Air Power,’ Foreign Affairs, 83:2 (2004), p. 119.

[3] Directorate of History and Heritage [DHH], Canadian Military Headquarters [CMHQ] Report No. 135, ‘Canadian Operations in Sicily, Part II Section 2, The Pursuit of the Germans from Vizzini to Adrano, 15 July to 6 August,’ p. 92.

[4] DHH, CMHQ Report No. 135, p. 92.

[5] Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Friedrich von Stauffenberg, The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007), p. 254.

[6] US Army Military History Institute, D.739.F6713, Foreign Military Studies [FMS] C-077, ‘15th Panzer Grenadier Division in Sicily,’ report by Eberhard Rodt and staff, 18 June 1951, p. 25.

[7] DHH, CMHQ Report No. 135, p. 92.

[8] Rodt FMS C-077, p.26.

[9] Lee Windsor, “The Eyes of All Fixed on Sicily’: Canada’s Unexpected Victory, 1943,’ Canadian Military History, 22:3 (Summer 2013), p. 31.

[10] Philips Payson O’Brien, How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 487-488.

#BookReview – How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II

#BookReview – How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

Phillips Payson O’Brien, How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Figures. Maps. Tables. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. xix + 626 pp.

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The Second World War is known for its decisive battles. The Battle of Britain, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Midway, and the Battle of Normandy are among the most popular. However, what if there was no such thing as a decisive battle in the greatest conflict in human history? This is what Dr. Phillips Payson O’Brien of the University of Glasgow argues in How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II, a monograph in the making for at least a decade and a half.

O’Brien seeks to contest the now standard argument that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the German onslaught. The Red Army broke the back of German power while the Western Allies played a relatively modest role according to this view. This is one of the main themes in Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won, a well-reputed study of the war from the mid-1990s. Western access to Russian archives emerged as the Cold War ended. Overy and other scholars took the opportunity to learn more about the war from Russia’s perspective. What emerged was a significant criticism of Western scholarship for downplaying the USSR’s role in the victory over Nazi Germany.

O’Brien’s analysis turns this thinking on its head. Those who laud the Soviet contribution do so within a paradigm that understands the contribution to victory through manpower. O’Brien cannot deny that the USSR engaged a larger percentage of the Wehrmacht than the Western Allies. His argument is that the Second World War was primarily a mechanized war. The production and destruction of equipment are what decided the war in spite of the human cost of 70 million dead (civilians included).

The production of air and sea weaponry far outstripped that of land weaponry. As such, O’Brien argues that the air-sea war was more significant than the fight on the ground. For instance, the German Army received only between 30-35% of production when it was lucky. A plurality of production effort was generally aimed at air weaponry. For instance, in May 1943 40% of German production efforts were spent on aircraft. American, British, and Japanese production efforts were similar, with the UK spending approximately one-half of its production efforts on aircraft from 1940 onwards. Naval production for each of these four nations also typically outstripped that of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) associated with the great land battles.

Air and sea power allowed for the most efficient destruction of Axis equipment. This destruction could be achieved in three phases. ‘Pre-production’ destruction prevented the Germans and Japanese from producing weaponry in the first place by damaging factories and destroying or preventing the arrival of raw materials. ‘Production’ destruction meant destroying equipment as it was being assembled in the factories. ‘Deployment’ destruction refers to equipment lost as it was in transit from assembly plants to the front lines. The Western Allies – mainly Great Britain and the United States – were primarily responsible for these equipment losses. The Russians did not maintain a very large navy, nor did they invest in many large, four-engined bombers to strike at the German economy.

The great land battles were not decisive. The incredible attrition sustained by the German and Japanese war machines on a daily basis was decisive. O’Brien’s argument is that this super-battlefield of air and sea weaponry mattered most. Few battles were decisive regarding equipment destroyed. German AFV losses at the Battle of Kursk, commonly lauded as the greatest tank battle of the war, were a meagre 0.2 percent of German armaments production in 1943; German AFV losses at the great British victory at El Alamein were a paltry 0.1 percent of 1942 armaments production. O’Brien does note an exception to this: the Battle of Midway. At that near-decisive naval engagement, the Imperial Japanese Navy lost four aircraft carriers, vessels that could not be replaced for some years. Consequently, it is little surprise that an image of Japanese carriers under attack at Midway graces the cover of the book.

O’Brien does leave some unanswered questions. He does not discuss the role – real or imagined – of initiative in the conflict. Battles are often considered decisive, not only for the casualties or equipment losses they incurred but for their role in shifting perceptions of how the war was going. His assessments of certain Eighth Air Force raids over Germany in 1943 may also be open to some criticism. He notes the efficiency of the air-sea war, but the losses sustained on these raids were anything but efficient. More salient to my research is his mixed treatment of the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. O’Brien acknowledges the significant attrition imposed on Axis air forces there but laments that this was not a more integral part of the Allied strategy. He opposes the Allied decision to focus on the Mediterranean in 1943 instead of mounting the invasion of France.

How the War Was Won is an excellent read for those interested in how the interaction between production, logistics, and combat decided the war against Germany and Japan. This is its greatest contribution to the Second World War’s expansive historiography.

This post first appeared at Fighter-Bombers Blog.

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.

Header Image: A low-level oblique photograph showing incendiary bombs dropped by Lockheed Venturas of No. 2 Group, RAF Bomber Command, during Operation OYSTER, the daylight attack on the Philips radio and valve works at Emmasingel, Holland, 6 December 1942. (Source: © IWM (C 3268))

#BookReview – The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II

#BookReview – The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

Robert S. Ehlers Jr., The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 536 pp.

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The Second World War’s Mediterranean Theatre of Operations was a sideshow, right? The road to defeating Nazi Germany where the Western Allies were concerned lay through Normandy, not North Africa. The Allies launched their great Combined Bomber Offensive from the United Kingdom as this incredible animation from the American Air Museum shows. Other efforts were relatively unimportant and sapped resources from where the real air battle took place. Alternatively, were they?

Robert S. Ehlers Jr.’s The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II offers a valuable counter-narrative. The Mediterranean was not a sideshow. In fact, it was a critical theatre for Allied victory. Adolf Hitler committed the Wehrmacht to the Mediterranean in 1941 to support Benito Mussolini’s faltering armies in Greece and North Africa. Four years later the consequence of this simple plan was 400,000 Italian and 730,000 German casualties. However, human casualties only tell part of the tale. The European Axis lost 42 percent of its merchant shipping in the Mediterranean. The Allies all but destroyed the Regia Aeronautica by mid-1943 while the Luftwaffe lost 17,750 aircraft in the Mediterranean throughout the war. By comparison, the Germans lost 20,419 aircraft on the Western Front while losing only 11,000 on the Eastern Front.

This is just the strategic picture. Ehlers’s work also talks logistics. Historians have often highlighted the importance of tank strength in the Western Desert. The side that could field the most tanks had the advantage. Since both sides had to maintain their forces across long supply chains the ability to retrieve and repair damaged battlefield equipment was crucial. The same was true for aircraft. The Royal Air Force created an efficient system for repair and salvage early in the campaign. Air Vice-Marshal Graham Dawson, the RAF’s Chief Maintenance Officer in the Mediterranean, organized the effort. Dawson was a Battle of Britain veteran who received a Mention in Dispatches for superb engine repair efforts in 1940. He coordinated his crews’ efforts with local Egyptian shops that could repair and manufacturer parts. Dawson’s command was innovative. It created modifications that allowed Hurricane fighters to engage high-flying Junkers Ju 86P photo reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft’s service ceiling was 36,000 feet, yet the modified version achieved its first victory over the Nile at 49,000 feet.

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Air Vice-Marshal Graham Dawson, Director of Maintenance and Supply, Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, is presented with the American Legion of Merit in the degree of Commander, by Brigadier-General Harold A. Barton, Commanding General of the USAAF Service Command, Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, during a parade at Algiers. (Source: © IWM (CNA 2721))

The Mediterranean was ultimately a battle for sea lines of communication or SLOCs. Air superiority was essential to winning this and other battles. With the war in North Africa won, Ehlers argues that the Western Allies were right to take the war to Sicily and then on to mainland Italy. After securing air superiority, the Allied air forces were free to expand their cooperation with Allied armies. The Allies produced great results when the services coordinated their efforts. In the first half of 1944, Operations STRANGLE and DIADEM sought to defeat German forces barring the way to Rome. STRANGLE was an air campaign aimed at depriving the Germans of supplies while DIADEM was a large-scale ground offensive with air support. On its own, air power’s effectiveness was limited. The Germans lost 20 trucks per day during STRANGLE, but that number rose to 100 per day during DIADEM. Pressure from the army kept enemy transports on the road in large numbers, making them easier prey for prowling fighter-bombers. Together these operations cost the Germans Rome and 80,000 casualties.

Ehlers convincingly argues that the final air campaigns flown from bases in Italy shortened the war and saved lives. Targets included the Luftwaffe, the German oil industry, and German lines of communication to the Eastern Front. Instructors who seek to offer their students a fresh perspective on the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations will do well to include this book on their reading lists.

This post first appeared at Fighter-Bomber’s Blog.

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.

Header Image: A formation of five Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 14 Squadron RAF in flight over the Western Desert. A Curtiss Kittyhawk, one of the escorting fighters, can be seen on the far right (Source: © IWM (CM 3108))