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. Images. Footnotes. Bibliography. Index. 454 pp.
Editorial Note: In 2006, University Press of Kentucky published an edited volume that sought to examine the question of why air forces fail. Edited by the late Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris, Why Air Forces Fail has become an essential volume as air power specialists seek to understand the reasons why some air forces are more successful than others. As one reviewer noted in the Journal of Military History regarding the first edition of this work, ‘one of the more interesting and better books on military aviation to appear in the last few years.’ As such, does this new edition add anything to the original volume?
When the first edition of Why Air Forces Fail was published in 2006, it immediately caught my attention. The title itself was intriguing for here was a work that was going to look not at why, or how, air forces succeed, but why air power at certain times and in certain places and circumstances has failed to deliver victory. Robin Higham was a greatly respected air power historian and had flown in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in the Second World War, and Stephen Harris was and is the Director of History and Heritage for the Canadian Forces and had authored the Bomber Command section of the official history of the RCAF. It seemed that there were many good reasons in this Canadian reviewer’s mind for looking at the collection they had assembled.
Higham’s introduction was particularly thought-provoking. He (1st Ed., p. 1) posited that ‘other things being equal’ it seemed that the best technology generally won. These other things included a series of complex factors which could however greatly impact the effectiveness of air power. Higham looked at and where necessary modified all of the factors upon which A.T. Mahan had conducted his analysis of sea power: national borders, a nation’s physical conformation, aircraft industry, size of the population, characteristics of the population, and nature of government. To these, he added: location and sufficiency of air bases, the terrain being overflown during operations, capabilities of the aircraft and air weapons, and management of war decisions – ends, ways and means. Once these factors were explained to readers, Higham (1st Ed., p. 5) asked two central questions:
Did the loss of air superiority, if it ever existed, cause the collapse of the nation’s defenses? And was that the sole cause [of the nation’s defeat]?
Higham drew his introduction to a close with an attempt to identify lessons or trends but did not attempt to present precise deductions. One had to turn to the conclusion of the collection for a summation of the editors’ thinking. There Higham and Harris posited that the simple presence of air assets does not, in fact, guarantee a victory. The last sentence (1st Ed., p. 354) of the book seems both appropriate and applicable to all nations and military services:
These [observations] suggest that the fall of an air force is the result of long-term failings, not an immediate failure ‘on the day’ by an air arm that is essentially ready for its allotted role.
Such was the first edition but what of this volume? Harris has related to me that Higham had negotiated the second edition, but that much of what he intended passed with him and as such there is little for those returning to the work to note that differs from the original. What the returning reader will find is two additional chapters, one by Harris dealing with RAF Bomber Command’s strategic operations against Germany. Harris focuses on the electronic warfare campaigns, including electronic countermeasures and electronic counter-countermeasures, waged by Bomber Command and by the Luftwaffe’s air defenders. This chapter shows that the RAF could not produce enough technicians to offset German capabilities. The second new chapter by Kenneth Werrell deals with the US services application of air power in the Vietnam conflict and how a range of factors prevented the American flying services from achieving the results sought by military and civilian leaders, particularly in the face of effective opposition. Other than these there is nothing new in the second edition other than two short commentaries on Harris’ and Werrell’s chapters. These remarks are added to the original conclusion along with two additional paragraphs commenting on the growing complexity of aircraft design and procurement in one case and the other the implicit failure of those involved in air power decisions to learn from history. Also, there is a very short, easily missed, dedication to Higham in the front piece of the volume. Why the publishers have taken this very understated approach to acknowledge Higham on the one hand, and the changes to the new edition on the other is baffling.
All this to say, I had hoped for more in this new edition. However, for those who have not read the first edition, this expanded version remains a valuable study of air power and of how and why it cannot guarantee success in conflict.
Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada. After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.
Header Image: F-100Ds of the 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron over South Vietnam in February 1966. Early F-100s were unpainted when they arrived in Southeast Asia like the foreground aircraft, but all eventually received camouflage paint like the aircraft in the back. (Source: National Museum of the US Air Force)
 Kenneth P. Werrell, ‘Book Review – Why Air Forces Fail,’ The Journal of Military History, 70:3 (2006), pp. 887-8.
The weather was mild for early December as scattered showers, and high winds continued to visit RAF Gransden Lodge near Cambridge. It was a shade after 02:00 on the morning of 2 December 1942 when Flight Sergeant Edwin Paulton (Royal Canadian Air Force/RCAF) gently rotated the yoke causing the Vickers Wellington Mk1C of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) No. 1474 (Special Duties) Flight to unstick from the runway and climb into the East Anglian night. Paulton’s sortie that autumnal evening was part of the RAF’s response to the growing intensity of the Luftwaffe’s defensive effort against Bomber Command’s attacks on targets in Germany.
With most of Western Europe’s occupation now complete, and the invasion of the UK postponed indefinitely by Adolf Hitler in September 1940 following the Battle of Britain, the German high command turned its attention towards bolstering the country’s defences against RAF Bomber Command. Even with the commencement of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, which involved a significant effort by the Luftwaffe, this did not deprive Germany of fighter defences to resist the Command’s efforts. These fighters were able to exact heavy losses and between July 1942 when the RAF commenced recording aircraft loss and damage to separate causes, and December 1942 Bomber Command lost 305 aircraft to fighters during the day and night operations; 2.3 per cent of all sorties despatched.
It was imperative for Bomber Command to staunch the bleeding. By late August 1942 Bomber Command understood the workings of the Luftwaffe’s integrated air defence system. The initial detection of incoming bombers was performed by a chain of FuMG-80 Freya ground-based air surveillance radars. A defensive ‘belt’ known as the Kammhuber Line, named after Generalleutnant Josef Kammhuber, the head of the Luftwaffe’s XII Fliegerkorps, stretched from Kiel in northern Germany southwest past Luxembourg. Behind this line lay all of Germany’s major cities and industrial centres including Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, and Stuttgart. Quite simply it was almost impossible for bombers to approach their targets without crossing this line. The line was subdivided into separate ‘boxes’ each covering 247 square miles (640 square kilometres). Within each box were two FuMG-62D Würzburg ground-controlled interception radars. One of these radars would hold the fighter in its gaze while another would search the box for a bomber. A ground controller would coordinate the interception seeing the position of the fighter and bomber on his radar screens. He would then bring these two together. Once the fighter was just short of one nautical mile/nm (1.8 kilometres/km) from the bomber, the ground controller would hand over the interception to the fighter. The crew would activate their Lichtenstein-BC airborne interception radar to locate the bomber and then press home their attack. All the while the fighter and the ground controller would remain in radio contact.
The British Air Ministry issued a report in July 1942 which stated that Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) had revealed that from early 1942 the Luftwaffe’s night fighters had been using a device codenamed ‘Emil-Emil’. Little was known about this beyond the fact that it seemed to assist interceptions and may have used either radar or infrared technology to do so. Initially, this equipment appeared to be used exclusively by night fighters near Vlissingen on the Netherlands’ west coast. Further investigations revealed that by October 1942 Emil-Emil appeared to be in widespread service elsewhere in the night fighter force. Such was the discipline of Luftwaffe fighter crews and their ground controllers that the purpose of Emil-Emil was not betrayed in radio chatter.
Experts from the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), tasked with developing and producing electronic countermeasures for the British armed forces, collected radio signals on the East Coast which revealed transmissions on a 491 megahertz/MHz frequency strongly suspected of being transmitted by Emil-Emil. This information was a breakthrough, but the relationship of these transmissions to Emil-Emil had to be confirmed. The only way to do so would be to fly one of the RAF’s SIGINT gathering aircraft from No. 1474 Flight into hostile airspace where there was a high chance that enemy fighters would be encountered. The rationale was to use the aircraft for two interrelated tasks. First, entice a night fighter into an attack and then record the characteristics of any hostile radio signals it transmitted. By doing this, it would be possible to determine whether Emil-Emil was an airborne interception radar. As always in electronic warfare, once it was discerned that the enemy was using a particular type of radar in a particular way, it would be possible to devise means to jam it.
Paulton and his crew were tasked with collecting SIGINT across an area stretching from the French north coast to Frankfurt in central Germany. The specifics of the mission called for the Wellington, which was equipped with a radio receiver, to lure a fighter into an interception. The aircraft would then record the radio signals transmitted by the fighter. So far No. 1474 Flight had performed 17 sorties, but none resulted in the desired interception. Finally, on the night of 2 December, the Luftwaffe would cooperate, although this would almost cost the Wellington’s crew their lives.
Against All Odds
At 04:31, two-and-a-half hours into the flight, the aircraft was northeast of the Luftwaffe airfield at Pferdsfeld in southeast Germany. Paulton set a course to fly north. As he turned Pilot Officer Harold Jordan, the aircraft’s ‘Special Operator’ tasked with the SIGINT collection, began receiving signals which seemed to match those the crew were tasked to investigate. As the Wellington flew north, the signals became stronger. Jordan warned the crew that a fighter attack was likely. As Jordan received signals, he was passing this information to wireless operator Flight Sergeant Bill Bigoray (RCAF) who coded and transmitted them back to the UK. Ten minutes later the aircraft turned west to head for home while the signals received by Jordan were getting stronger still. At that moment cannon fire from a Junkers Ju-88 fighter slammed into the Wellington. Paulton immediately put the aircraft into a violent corkscrew turn in a bid to shake off the fighter. Jordan was hit in the arm but realised that the signals he was receiving were correct with Bigoray relaying this information back to base. Despite Jordan’s injuries he continued to record the transmissions while Bigoray continued to send coded messages, having received no ‘R’ transmission from base to indicate their reception. Unbeknownst to Bigoray, they had been received at 05.05. Flight Sergeant Everitt Vachon (RCAF), the Wellington’s rear gunner, managed to fire almost 1000 rounds at the Ju-88 but his turret was hit and rendered unserviceable, with Vachon wounded in the shoulder.
The Ju-88 manoeuvred for another attack. This hit Jordan in the jaw but did not stop him operating his equipment and telling Paulton from which side the next attack would occur. Along with Jordan Flight Sergeant Grant, the front turret gunner was hit, as was Bigoray who was injured in both legs as he tried to free Grant from the turret. Grant was eventually being extricated by the navigator Pilot Officer Alexander Barry (RCAF). The third attack hit Jordan again, this time in the eye. Try as he might, he could no longer operate his radio receiver. Instead, he struggled forward to find Barry to show him how to operate the receiver so that the signals collection could continue. Nonetheless, now almost blinded this proved an impossible task.
While Jordan had been trying in vain to instruct Barry Vachon had managed to free himself from the rear turret. He went into the aircraft’s Astrodome to provide a running commentary on the Ju-88’s position. Vachon was hit once again, this time in the hand, and Barry took over. Throughout the engagement, those in the aircraft had been thrown around like ragdolls as Paulton’s evasive actions saw the aircraft descend from 14,000ft to a mere 500ft. The Wellington suffered twelve attacks in total; six of which may have been successful. The damage to the aircraft was extensive: The port and starboard engine throttles were jammed. The front and rear turrets were unserviceable along with the starboard ailerons and trim tabs. The starboard fuel tank was holed and the hydraulics useless, causing both engines to run erratically. The aircraft’s pitot heads were also damaged preventing the airspeed indicator showing the plane’s velocity.
Despite the Wellington’s near-mortal damage Paulton managed to reach 5,000ft altitude and crossed the coast ten miles northeast of Dunkirk at 06:45. Being mistaken for a hostile aircraft was an ever-present danger when RAF planes were returning from operations over the continent. Bigoray switched the aircraft’s IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) Mk.3 transmitter to squawk that the plane was friendly and sent out a mayday message. Deciding to ditch in daylight after realising that the Wellington’s landing light was insufficient to perform a safe water landing, Paulton asked the crew if anyone wanted to bail out. Bigoray asked to do so concerned that his leg would stiffen up so much that he would be unable to leave the aircraft once it was in the water. As he was about to jump, he realised he had not secured the transmission key of his radio to prevent it accidentally retransmitting. Moving back into the fuselage and in much pain, he secured the key and jumped landing near Ramsgate on the Kent coast. Paulton finally ditched the Wellington in the channel near Walmer beach, south of Deal. Even the aircraft’s dingy, packed for such eventualities, was a casualty and despite a valiant attempt by Jordan to plug some of the holes, it was unusable. Instead, the crew climbed on top of the Wellington, being rescued by a small boat some moments later.
The intelligence Paulton and his crew gathered on that fateful December night had implications for the rest of the war. Their actions enabled the TRE ‘boffins’ to not only confirm that the Emil-Emil device was the Lichtenstein-BC radar but also to divine the radar’s characteristics. Once these were known it was possible to develop an Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) in the form of the Ground Grocer jammer. This was installed at Dunwich on the Suffolk coast commencing operations on 26 April 1943. The jammer would blast electronic noise at the Lichtenstein-BC across a waveband of 486MHz to 501MHz. Even for Luftwaffe fighters flying 120nm (222 kilometres) distant from the transmitter could have their radar ranges reduced to 1500ft (457 metres) from their usual range of four nautical miles (eight kilometres). This forced the fighter to come closer to the bomber to detect it in darkness; greatly increasing the chances of the bomber crew hitting the fighter as it commenced its attack. Nonetheless, Ground Grocer was not bereft of imperfections: It tended to work best when a fighter was flying towards the transmitter and was generally used to protect bombers on their outward and return journeys. The official record notes that by the end of June 1943 Ground Grocer had caused six of the seven cases of radar interference reported by Luftwaffe fighter crews to their ground controllers.
Ground Grocer was not the only ECM developed because of the intelligence obtained by the Wellington. By gathering details on the Lichtenstein-BC’s characteristics, the TRE was able to develop several versions of Window, arguably the most famous countermeasure of the Second World War, capable of jamming this radar. Window consisted of millions of metal foil strips cut to precisely half the wavelength of the radar they were intended to jam. The TRE also developed a system known as Serrate based on the same intelligence. This was one of the RAF’s most successful electronic systems of the war. Serrate was installed on De Havilland Mosquito fighters, entering service in September 1943. It detected transmissions from the Lichtenstein-BC allowing Serrate-equipped aircraft to find and attack fighters using the radar. Serrate was employed extensively over enemy territory contributing to the 242 Luftwaffe fighters that the Mosquitoes of Bomber Command’s No. 100 Group shot down following its introduction. Moreover Ground Grocer, Window and Serrate may have hastened the withdrawal of the Lichtenstein-BC which was all but phased out of service by April 1944 in favour of new radars with improved resistance to such countermeasures.
The endeavours of Paulton and his crew were relayed to the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal who told them: ‘I have just read report of your investigation flight […] and should like to congratulate you all on a splendid performance.’ Their deeds were recognised with the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross for Barry and Paulton, Distinguished Service Order for Jordan and Distinguished Flying Medals for Bigoray and Vachon. It is miraculous that the Wellington returned to the UK yet the actions of Paulton and his crew helped pave the way for the development of ECMs which undoubtedly saved Bomber Command lives. Their legacy can still be seen today. Radar jammers are now standard equipment on most military aircraft venturing in harm’s way, illustrating how one sortie on a cold December night would have implications for airpower which are still felt today.
Dr Thomas Withington specialises in contemporary and historical electronic warfare, radar, and military communications, and has written numerous articles on these subjects for a range of general and specialist publications. He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham.
 The National Archives (TNA), AIR 50/503, No. 1474 Flight, December 1942.
 TNA, AIR 20/8962, War in the Ether: Europe 1939 to 1945: Radio Countermeasures in Bomber Command: An Historical Note (High Wycombe: Signals Branch, Headquarters Bomber Command, October 1945), p. 6.