#BookReview – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945

#BookReview – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945

By Toby Dickinson

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. London: Penguin, 2013. Illustrations. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. Index. xxvii + 852 pp.

overy

Between 1939 and 1945 over 600,000 civilians were killed across Europe in aerial attacks. Over a million more were injured. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, claims had been made in both fiction and theory as to the devastating consequences and strategic utility of bombing against an enemy’s ‘vital centres’ and the ‘will of the people’. While the human consequences were indeed devastating, there is room to question and doubt the strategic utility of the bombing campaigns waged by both sides in the European theatre in the Second World War.

In a work that revises and challenges our existing understanding and analysis of the bombing campaign of the Second World War – including Overy’s prior work on the subject – Richard Overy goes beyond the traditional study of the planning and execution of the Blitz and the Allied bomber offensive to provide fresh insights into this controversial topic.[1] In aiming to provide a narrative of the bombing war in Europe, Overy sought three new treatments of the subject (p. xxv); first, an account that covered the experience of the whole of Europe – Allied, Axis, occupied, and neutral. Second, Overy placed the bombing operations of both sides in their strategic military context alongside other operations and identified the essential supporting, rather than the decisive, character of these operations. Sweeping across Europe, Overy assessed the strategic bombing performance of the Luftwaffe over the UK and the USSR, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Force over Germany, Italy and Axis-occupied Europe. Third, he contrasted the experiences of both the bombers and the bombed, and it is Overy’s treatment of the subject of the bombed that makes this work original and essential.[2] Overy drew on local archives of bombed cities and reexamined existing archives. By using this ‘double narrative’ of what bombing campaigns were designed to achieve and the reality of their impact on populations, Overy has sought to provide a fresh look at the issues of the campaign’s effectiveness and ethical ambiguity. Indeed, the ethical dimensions of the bombing of German targets in occupied Europe was the subject of political debate in the UK, Overy noting that ‘the erosion of ethical restraints’ and the subsequent escalation of bombing efforts against German cities was ‘a simpler issue than the moral dilemma of causing civilian casualties’ in occupied Europe (p. 549).

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Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken over Dresden, Germany, following the two devastating attacks on the city by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 13/14 February 1945. A large number of fires still burn fiercely in the vicinity of the central goods depot and marshalling yards south of the River Elbe. (Source: © IWM (C 4973))

Overy’s analysis is influenced by his adoption of a classical division of bombing actions into ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’, where ‘strategic’ is taken to mean bombing conducted at long range, against economic (or at least non-military) targets, and ‘tactical’ is taken to mean attacks against enemy airfields and interdiction of enemy ground forces. This taxonomy can obscure more than it reveals. If air action against an enemy’s airfields is ‘tactical’ in character as it was by the Allies in 1944-1945, then so were the attacks by the Luftwaffe against RAF airfields in the summer of 1940. Moreover, when discussing the events of 1940, Overy contended that the separation in time of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz into discrete activities is inaccurate and ascribes this narrative to, in part, the Battle of Britain being fought by Fighter Command, and ‘the Blitz by the civil defence forces, anti-aircraft units and small numbers of night fighters.’ While it may be legitimate to see the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as part of a common continuum – as the Luftwaffe did – Overy’s use of force elements and their command states to explain this difference between narratives is problematical. Anti-aircraft units were under the command of Fighter Command during both periods, as were night fighters. The Blitz was not fought by civil defence forces, because their role is not to fight, their role is to manage some of the consequences of some of the enemy’s actions (pp. 73-4). Further, it is legitimate for historians to regard the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as distinct: while the Luftwaffe regarded itself as having fought a single campaign against the UK from July 1940 to June 1941, it clearly has two distinct elements: ‘tactical’ operations against the RAF’s air defences to gain control of the air prior to an invasion, and ‘strategic’ operations against industrial and civilian targets.

A similar ambiguity between ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ operations exists in any analysis of the German bombing campaign on the Eastern Front. Overy noted that aerial attacks on Leningrad were part of the German siege of that city, rather than any independent ‘strategic’ action against industrial targets. More successful were attacks against Soviet lines of communication, in particular, railway infrastructure: stations and supply centres, rather than more easily repaired tracks and bridges (p. 207). Nonetheless, both Overy and several reviewers have noted that there were occasions where Allied or Axis’ bombing was bearing fruit: denying their enemy’s air defences, reducing the production and distribution of key materials. However, the effectiveness of these strikes were reduced as targets were switched: either because of poor intelligence analysis, as with the Luftwaffe’s move away from attacking the RAF’s airfields in 1940 to bombing British cities, or because bomber aircraft were reapportioned from industrial and military targets to political ones as with the switch in effort by RAF Bomber Command to target Berlin in the autumn of 1943.[3]

d 76
 A luminous gas mask case on sale at Selfridge’s department store in London. These gas mask covers were on sale for 2/11. (Source: © IWM (D 76))

Overy also covered in great detail the civilian preparations for an experience of the bombing: the establishment of air raid warning systems, civil defence organisations, and individual preparations by citizens. He recorded systems of compensation for civilian loss of earnings, noting too that as early as December 1940 the German Government banned Jews from receiving compensation for loss of earnings (p. 422). Effective civil defence in Germany is contrasted with almost the total lack of preparation in Italy, which lacked an air defence network and – unlike the other totalitarian regimes fighting in the war – ‘failed to mobilize a large mass movement for voluntary civil defence’ (p. 517). It is new perspectives like these that have led to the book being described as: ‘the standard work on the bombing war…probably the most important book published on the history of the second world war this century.’[4]

In analysing the contribution of strategic bombing to combatant’s overall aims, Overy made it clear that whatever the desires or claims of bomber leaders from Wolfram von Richthofen to Arthur Harris, neither Allied nor Axis strategic bombing efforts were ever more than supporting. Overy noted J.K. Galbraith’s conclusion that the bombing campaign did not win the war, and that the bombing campaigns were all ‘relative failures in their own terms’ (p. 609). Overy also noted that strategic bombing was ‘in the end inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principal assignment and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations’ (p. 633). This has led to at least one reviewer noting that this represents a shift from Overy’s previous works, which took a far more positive view of the strategic contribution of Allied bombing efforts.[5]

cl 2372
 A locomotive and its tender, upended by an explosion during heavy raids by Bomber Command, is inspected by an RAF officer in the railway yards at Munster, Germany. (Source: © IWM (CL 2372))

Scored against their aims, the allied bombing efforts were indeed ‘relative failures’, but it is legitimate to ask whether they had utility as an instrument of strategy in delivering a net positive effect. Viewed through the lens of an indirect strategic approach, one cannot, as Gary Sheffield observed, ignore the fact that Germany was forced to apportion resources to the air defence of the home front that could otherwise have been used to other ends: ‘the Germans were forced to commit resources to home defence – anti-aircraft guns, aircraft, optical sights, manpower – that could not be put to other uses.’[6] It is also important to assess the bombing campaigns not against the fiction of H.G. Wells and others, nor the equally far-fetched prophecies of Giulio Douhet, but in the longue durée of strategic thinking. In an unacknowledged nod to Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that ‘the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive’, Overy noted that the failure of German and Axis bombing operations in the Battle of Britain, and against both the USSR and Malta ‘highlighted the extent to which the balance between air defence and air offence was moving in the defender’s favour’ (p. 626).[7] The same challenge faced the Allies in late 1943: if the Allied bombing campaign drew more resources away from the Eastern Front, at some point, those resources would threaten to impose unsustainable costs on the Allied bomber forces (p. 343). The response to this developing stalemate was an escalation of bombing effort.

In conclusion, commenting on the ‘balance sheet of bombing’, Overy noted that not even the known weaknesses of bomber capability and performance ‘prevented the escalation of all the major offensives’, and that (p. 628) ‘the issue of escalation is central to any judgement about the broader ethical implications of the bomber offensives.’ At its most destructive, the Allied bomber offensive perhaps came closer than any warfare before or since to Clausewitz’s description of war divorced from its political object: ‘a complete, untrammelled, absolute manifestation of violence.’[8]

Toby Dickinson served in the RAF from 2002-2018. He is currently a student on the War and Strategy MA programme at the University of Leeds.

Header Image: The personnel of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF assembled in front of, and on, an Avro Lancaster at Mepal, Cambridgeshire. (Source: © IWM (HU 94991))

[1] In America, Overy’s book has been published under the title, The Bombers and The Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945 (2014). This version misses out significant elements of the early period covered in the UK edition of Overy’s book.

[2] On this theme, see: Tami Davis Biddle, ‘Book Review – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939–1945 by Richard Overy,’ War in History, 21:4 (2014), pp. 553-5.

[3] Adam Tooze, ‘To Break an Enemy’s Will,’ Wall Street Journal, 12 July 2014.

[4] Richard J. Evans, ‘The Bombing War: Europe 1939‑1945 by Richard Overy – Review,’ The Guardian, 27 September 2013.

[5] Biddle, ‘Book Review,’ pp. 553-5

[6] Gary Sheffield, ‘Death from the Skies,’ New Statesman, 142:5179 (2013), pp. 42-3.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 358.

[8] Ibid., p. 87.

Happy New Year and a Look Ahead

Happy New Year and a Look Ahead

By the From Balloons to Drones team

Well, 2019 is finally upon us so here is to wish all our readers and contributors a Happy New Year. We hope to continue to deliver high-quality material throughout the next year, but we can only do this if we receive contributions. As such, if you are a postgraduate student, academic, policymaker, service personnel or a relevant professional involved in researching the subject of air power and you are interested in writing, then please get in contact.

Biplanes at War

Regarding forthcoming titles, it seems as if the early part of 2019 is going to be focused on the US experience with some exciting titles being published. First up, the University of Kentucky Press is releasing the first two titles in their new ‘Aviation and Air Power’ that is edited by our very own Brian Laslie. The first titles are Wray Johnson’s Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915-1934 and Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II, which has been edited by Phil Haun.

Winning Armagedden

Next up, Naval Institute Press has another number of exciting titles coming up including William Trimble’s Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power. Last year Naval Institute Press published Melvin Deaile’s study of the organisational culture of the USAF’s Strategic Air Command and this year they will be releasing Trevor Albertson’s Winning Armageddon: Curtis LeMay and Strategic Air Command, 1948–1957. The final title from Naval Institute Press, James Libbey’s Foundations of Russian Military Flight, 1885-1925, should be a welcome addition to the literature given the paucity of work on Russian air power in the early years of the twentieth century.

Harnessing

Several other publishers have some exciting titles on the cards including Bold Venture: The American Bombing of Japanese-Occupied Hong Kong, 1942–1945 by Steven Bailey and published by Potomac Books. Perhaps the most interesting looking title is Lori Henning’s forthcoming Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939 from the University of Oklahoma Press. This looks to be a fascinating account of how one arm of the army dealt with the rise of an innovative technology that threatened its core role.

If these books are an indication of what is coming in 2019, then we should be in for a good year regarding publications. Hopefully, many of these titles will be reviewed here on From Balloons to Drones.

Header Image: A Convair B-36B Peacemaker of the United States Air Force. (Source: National Museum of the US Air Force)

#BookReview – Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

#BookReview – Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

By Dr Randall Wakelam

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.

Why Air Forces Fail

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.’[1] 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.

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A shot down Dornier ‘flying pencil.’ Two members of the German crew were killed, and two others were taken, prisoner. (Source: © IWM (PL 8096))

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)

[1] Kenneth P. Werrell, ‘Book Review – Why Air Forces Fail,’ The Journal of Military History, 70:3 (2006), pp. 887-8.

#BookReview – Eagles Over Husky: The Allied Air Forces in the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943

#BookReview – Eagles Over Husky: The Allied Air Forces in the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943

By Dr Brian Laslie

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, Eagles Over Husky: The Allied Air Forces in the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943. Solihull: Helion & Company, 2018. Images. Maps. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 192 pp.

Eagles

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.

CNA 1352
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))

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).

CM 5290
A line of Martin Baltimore Mark IVs of No. 223 Squadron RAF at Luqa, Malta, being refuelled and loaded with bombs for a raid on enemy positions around Catania, Sicily. (Source: © IWM (CM 5290))

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.

Header Image: The first RAF Supermarine Spitfire lands at an airfield in Sicily during the drive on Messina. The airfield was converted from a wheat field and is watched by Sicilian farmers who are working on the harvested wheat. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1098))

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

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

By Dr Thomas Withington

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

Emil-Emil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against All Odds

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

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

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

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

Results

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

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

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

The Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

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

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

#AirWarBooks – Dr Randall Wakelam

#AirWarBooks – Dr Randall Wakelam

Editorial Note: In the fourth instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Randall Wakelam discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian. If you are interested in contributing to this series or From Balloons to Drones more generally, find out how here.

Since joining the Air Force more than 45 years ago, I have found that professional education for those working with air power has not been a forte of Canada’s Air Force. Much of what I have learned, I have done so out of curiosity and by selecting graduate courses and by doing graduate research that allowed me to satisfy my curiosity and develop a better understanding of air power. While I am critical of this circumstance in Canada I do not think it is unique; there are too many editorials, op-eds and notes from chiefs of service that attempt to get aviators to read if not write.

Having taught air power at the Canadian Forces College and now at an undergraduate and graduate level to officer cadets and civilian students, I continue to learn. In this teaching, I think I am comfortable with the notion that air power concepts introduced a century ago have now reached maturity regarding what air power effects can be applied and how. What is constantly in flux is the larger Geopolitical context of why and when one wants to apply air power effects.

The one other factor that I would want to bring into the formulation of this list is my desire to get inside the thinking processes of those who have developed air power concepts and then applied them. Thus, several the titles that you will see below are either biographies or studies of the human condition. In the case of biographies, I fully recognise that looking at the life stories of some of these actors comes with risks. Case studies of human and personnel questions are perhaps less risky but not without risk.

And now to the list, which is most certainly too short to do justice to the many other works that I have found important to me.

Philip Meilinger (ed.), The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997). This volume is without question the one work that I keep going back to. Admittedly written from a United States Air Force (USAF) perspective I have found the work balanced and useful in seeing the ‘long duree’ of air power thought and its application. I first read the book just after it came out but even now, twenty years later, do not find it particularly dated. Of great value is I.B. Holley’s summary and commentary. His criticism that the work ignores naval aviation serves as a caution to readers that while highly valuable the volume does have its limitations.

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), A History of Air Warfare (Washington D.C.: Potomac, 2010). This work fills the void of the last two decades since Paths of Heaven was published and provides readers with a different treatment of many of the same ideas and events presented in the former. For that reason, I think it provides a solid bookend to balance the USAF compendium. Also, the reader gets a good dose, perhaps too good of the air campaigns of the post-Cold War decades and three useful studies of current and future themes, most importantly small wars and space. The penultimate chapter, by Martin van Creveld, balances Holley’s commentary and leaves the reader with the ultimate question: has the age of air power come and gone?

Allan D. English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). When I reviewed English’s book about a decade ago, I wrote that it was, for me at least, a volume that captured essential ideas about military culture, ideas that I might have benefited from even from my first days in uniform. In a relatively short but well-focused study, English laid out the elements of culture, looked at them through the lens of the USAF and then from the perspective of the Canadian air arm. At that time there was no the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), as there had been up to the 1960s and as there is again today. The absences of that organisational title and the emotional trappings of an independent air service were all the more reason to read English’s book at the time. The comings and goings of organisations, from squadron to air forces that continue in all nations made and makes this work incredibly insightful.

Henry Probert, Bomber Harris: His Life & Times (Aylesbury: Greenhill Books, 2001). For a long time, I wanted to attempt to understand the thinking of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. Was he the wanton killer of German civilians that he was accused of being? How did he apparently hold the loyalty of his aviators? Probert’s study of the man gave me the answers that others did not. Bullheaded to the point of obstinacy – certainly more than not – but he did set out to apply the concepts and technology available to him to accomplish the task set for Bomber Command. Moreover, in this, we see not bombast alone but also a sharp intellect and a degree of flexibility and accommodation (that I would not have expected) and above all a desire to save the lives of his crews, or at least make their sacrifices count. Probert showed me Harris’ strengths and weaknesses, giving me a good picture of what any operational level leader might look like, warts and all.

Denis Richards, Portal of Hungerford (Tintern, MON: William Heinemann, 1977). If Harris is a good case study in operational level leadership, then Denis Richards biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal makes a good companion. Few of us will ever get to work at or even observe the work of senior air force leaders or to have exposure to the sorts of institutional level challenges they face, both within their service and across governments and coalitions. This book gives us that access, and it allows us to put the better-known struggles of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in its formative years into a more personal context where, as in the case of Harris, personal strengths and weaknesses – the human factor – contribute to success or precipitates failure.

Dewitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events That Shaped the Development of U.S. Air Power (McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1989). This work has been my only deep dive into the USAF, and as I began to think more about culture, doctrines and effects, it seemed to be important to study not just one man or a few, but rather the birth and evolution of an air power community. I believe I found that in this work. It looks at the people and their professional growth, ideas, experiences, small ‘P’ politics and larger organisational conflicts.

John J. Zentner, The Art of Wing Leadership and Aircrew Morale in Combat, CADRE Paper no. 11 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2001). This set of case studies looks at leadership in a flying organisation, arguably one of the hardest notions to explain to army and naval officers who generally lead within plain sight of their followers. Moreover, to be honest, how one leads in the air is often hard to describe, or at least it was before the recent decades of air operations, to aviators. Effective leadership should promote high morale, and Zentner posited that that strong morale is linked to aircrew control over the tactics they are to use in the air. During a period of relative global calm, he set out to test his concept in three case studies. He looked at two fighter leaders, one German and one American in the Second World War, and for a third case flows the leadership of a B-52 Wing Commander during the Vietnam War.

Allan D. English, The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew, 1939-1945 (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 1996). This work is focused on the personnel issues of the RAF and the RCAF, and thus we find an investigation into an aspect of air warfare every bit as important as technologies. English sets out to explore and comment on the impact of what today we recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder on Bomber Command aircrew. To do this he looks at the Royal Flying Corps experiences of recruiting and training during the First World War and how these, and societal cultural norms were adopted by the RAF and to a lesser extent the RCAF in the Second World War. He shows the significant difference in the policy adopted by the RCAF and how rehabilitation of stress casualties rather than their banishment could safeguard critical human resources.

Robin Higham and Steven J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat (Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006). Not every air campaign is a success and not every air service ensures the security of its home nation. In studying failures Higham and Harris edited volume expose us to valuable experiences of things gone wrong. More important than the various well researched and presented case studies is the introduction where the editors lay down a simple truth: ‘other things being equal’ the better air power ‘should’ prevail. They then go on to look at the range of ‘other things’ and here is the true value of the collection: the reader soon realises, or should, that there are almost countless factors in play that can cripple an air force, often long before a conflict begins. To codify these factors, Higham adapts Mahan’s characteristics of a maritime nation to identify where and how air power nations can and have failed.

Robert Grattan, The Origins of Air War: The Development of Military Air Strategy in World War I  (London: IB Tauris, 2009). Grattan, an RAF navigator, turned business professor in his later years, presents a study of air arms in the First World War. He argues that the leaders, flyers and even politicians and industrialists had nothing to go on and so national air arms were sort of a ‘design build’ enterprise with rapid advancement through trial and error. He looks at aircraft, weapons, personnel and tactics studying the advancements of each in relation to the others. The use of the word ‘strategy’ in his title is a bit misleading; ‘air power concepts’ would more accurately describe his focus in my view.

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: A group of pilots of No. 1 Squadron RCAF, gather around one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at Prestwick, Scotland, c. October 1940. The squadron’s commander, Squadron Leader E.A. McNab, stands fifth from the right, wearing a forage cap. (Source: © IWM (CH 1733))

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

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

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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