The Development of RAF Tactical Air Power in North Africa – Introduction

Background: 

Traditionally the campaign in North Africa has been seen as a strategic backwater that offered no real advantages to the conduct of the war against Germany. It has been seen as an area where men and material were poured into for no real advantages in the defeat of Germany. For example, in Williamson Murray’s and Alan Millett’s A War to Be Won, the chapter dealing with the Mediterranean theatre is entitled ‘Diversions in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, 1940-1941.’[i] This follows the interpretations offered by American Generals during the war, in that they believed the war could not be won in this theatre and that it could only be decided in North-West Europe. This is, and was, a misunderstanding of the complexities of the war and the failure to realise the problems inherent in an invasion of Europe, which could only be overcome with experience.  

This interpretation of the events needs to be questioned as the Mediterranean theatre pre 6 June 1944 had a lot to offer the war effort in that it taught many important lessons that would be utilised in the defeat of Germany. These areas included logistics, amphibious warfare and most importantly, the subject of this project, tactical air power. It must also be remembered that it was for a long time the only theatre were Britain could exert any form of power as until America’s greater involvement a cross-channel attack was out of the question.Tactical air power has in the past few years become a ‘fashionable’ subject with Richard Hallion, Ian Gooderson and Eduard Mark all having produced works on the subject.[ii] While these have offered important analyses on the development of tactical air power, they have been too widespread to concentrate on its effectiveness, most notably Hallion’s work, or have concentrated upon the later part of the war, Gooderson’s work.  

Air power in North Africa has received little in the way of discussion since the publication of Roderic Owen’s Desert Air Force in 1948.[iii] Even this title offers little in the way of a comparative analysis of the merits of the developments in tactical air power. The few discussions that have occurred deal with the failure of American air power at the Battle of Kesserine Pass.[iv] Therefore, what this project hopes to discuss is the developments of the Desert Air Force (DAF) in the campaign. 

An inter-war doctrine? 

It has often been argued by some historians, and contemporaries of the period, that the Royal Air Force (RAF) entered the war with a singular purpose in mind, to win the war by strategic bombing.[v] This interpretation has been based upon the role of Marshal of the RAF Lord Trenchard and his distinct effect upon the role of the RAF. As Williamson Murray has commented: 

…senior [RAF] air leaders held fast to Trenchard’s ideological belief in the bomber. This approach rejected co-operation with the other services.[vi] 

Lord Trenchard’s role in protecting the RAF from the inter-service squabbling, which occurred in this period of intense political retrenchment and naivety, has become central to the understanding of the development of the service. In order to defend the service from the budget cut backs, typified by the Ten-year rule, Lord Trenchard pushed strategic bombing forward as the services raison d’etre.[vii] Thus this is what a significant amount of the literature on the inter war RAF has concentrated upon.[viii] This was done in part because of the problem inherent in funding a well-equipped force, which could perform all of the necessary roles linked to the use of air power. Therefore, Lord Trenchard put his faith, and that of the service, in the one aspect of air power, which he believed to be decisive.[ix] 

While the development of a strategic bombing theory gave the RAF it’s raison d’etre, it certainly did not define what the service was. Many younger officers recognised the need to develop the service and one of the ways to do this was by showing how the service could be dominant on the battlefield in support of army. The one way this occurred was through the RAF’s operation in Britain’s colonies and protectorates of the Middle East. As one historian has commented ‘…a distinction must be drawn between the conditions in Britain as compared with those on the fringes of the Empire.’[x] The use of RAF air power as a substitute for the army and navy in colonial control operations brought around some innovations in command and control measures needed to operate aircraft against ground targets. Operations outside of Britain were also a training ground for some of the future leaders of the RAF, especially those who were to go on and gain fame in the realm of tactical air power. Among these were Marshals of the RAF Lord Tedder and Sir John Slessor, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham and Air Chief Marshal Harry Broadhurst, each of these officer had at some point in the inter-war period served in the colonies. Undeniably, for example, the eight squadrons based in Iraq provided excellent support for the British infantry brigade based in the region and as Air Commodore Portal, the future Chief of the Air Staff, comments on the operations in the Middle East: 

The use of the air-bomb and the machine gun in close support of troops on the ground has proved of the utmost value in police operations on the Indian frontier and elsewhere. It was brought to a very high state of perfection in the recent operations in Palestine where small bodies of troops were often held up by the fire of armed bands occupying strong positions. When this occurred, a W/T [Wireless] message was sent by the troops and so good was the organization what at almost any point in Palestine a formation of bombers would arrive within fifteen minutes of the origination of the message.[xi]  

While his claim of fifteen minutes response time may be a slight exaggerations based on what occurred during the Second World War we can certainly the see the nascent beginnings of a command and control network in these colonial operations that would be replicated in the coming war. Another advantage of these operations is what one historian has argued as there being a ‘…small cadre of…officers sensitized to the problems of…mobile operations.’[xii] 

As commented before it has traditionally been argued that the RAF’s pre-occupation was with strategic bombing in the inter-war years but as seen above this was not entirely the case in particular with reference to colonial operations. These operations not only had practical lessons but also had a great deal of theoretical effect on the writing of the period. One book, which should probably held up with Guilio Douhet’s Command of the Air, as a theoretical basis for all aerial operations is the future Marshal of the RAF Sir John Slessor’s Air Power and Armies.[xiii] While Douhet’s work dealt with strategic bombing Slessor’s work dealt with the application of air power in relation to the battlefield. This is probably the main reason why it has been forgotten in the analysis of the period.  

During his early service, Slessor earned a reputation as a tactical expert and served on staff at the Army Staff College as the RAF instructor. This was because the previous holder of that position had not been able to discuss the broader aspects of air power and Trenchard had promised the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Field Marshal George Milne a more capable officer.[xiv] Slessor had also been tasked by Trenchard to re-write the RAF’s manual on co-operation with land forces. His work was revolutionary for the time and he concluded that a ‘…carefully organized attack on the enemy system of supply…’ would produced positive results as this is where they are ‘…vulnerable…’ especially if the enemy is highly organised.[xv] In this manual, we can see the basis of theories on air interdiction operations in support of land forces. Slessor would continue to expand on these ideas in Air Power and Armies while on his tour of duty in India. 

To argue that Slessor was the only one to make arguments for the use of air power in support of the army is to miss some of the important work, which appeared in the pages of the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute in the inter-war period. During this period there was no less than twelve articles written on the subject of co-operation between the two services. Some of the future leading lights of both services including Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory, future commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces during D-Day and the subsequent campaign, and Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Pile, who commanded the army’s Anti-Aircraft Command, wrote some of them.[xvi]  As Leigh-Mallory commented in his lecture on co-operation between aircraft and mechanised forces: 

‘While…aircraft may influence the operations of armoured forces…armoured forces may exercise considerable influence over air operations [thus] it is evident that these two modern arms can exercise a considerable influence on the…other.’[xvii] 

While it can be argued that a lot of theory existed in the inter-war period, the major issue was that despite Slessor’s efforts, and many other junior officers, in the RAF’s manual AP 1176, tactical air power was low ranking in the services priorities and that very little of the theory was turned into official doctrine. Thus this affected the operational effectiveness of the armed services especially co-operation between the RAF and the Army, who shared a mutual enmity towards each other. Thus because of inter and intra-service parochialism, Bomber command saw Fighter and Coastal command as just as large threats as the Army and the Royal Navy, there was as Williamson Murray and Brian Bond have suggested ‘…a general lack of inter-service and inter-arms co-operation that spilled over into the Second World War with disastrous results.’[xviii]  Thus, this is the position the RAF would enter the Second World War, a service with a great deal of theory on the application of air power in relation to ground operations but with not much official doctrine. Soon its limitation, based around unsuitable equipment and attempt to initiate a doctrine on support for ground operations, would be realised in the Battle for France.


[i] Williamson Murray and Alan R. Millett A War To Be Won (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000) pp. 91-109
[ii] Richard P. Hallion Strike from the Sky: The History of Battlefield Air Attack, 1911-1945 (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1989), Ian Gooderson Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe, 1943-45 (London: Frank Cass, London: 1998), Eduard Mark Aerial Interdiction: Air Power and the Land Battle in Three American Wars (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2002)
[iii] Roderic Owen The Desert Air Force (London: Arrow Press, 1958)
[iv] Daniel R. A. Mortenson A Pattern for Joint Operations: World War II Close Air Support, North Africa (Washington D.C.: Office of Air Force History and the U.S. Army Center of Military History,  1987)
[v] General Lord Ironside, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) at the outbreak of the Second World War, saw the RAF’s main role as strategic bombing as he believed them incapable of supporting the army sufficiently. He even pushed in discussion with the Air Staff for attacks on the Ruhr, as he believed it would be ‘decisive’.  Brian Bond ‘Ironside: Field Marshal Lord Ironside’ in John Keegan (Ed.) Churchill’s Generals (London: Abacus, 1999) p.23
[vi] Williamson Murray War in the Air 1914 – 45 (London: Cassell, 1999) p. 88
[vii] The basis of this rule was that ‘…the British Empire will not be involved in any large war over the next ten year…’ W. D. Gruner, ‘The British Political, Social and Economic System and the Decision for Peace or War’, British Journal of International Studies, 6 (1980), p. 212. Cited in Richard Overy The Road to War (London: Macmillan, 1989) p. 65. Also see Stephen Roskill  ‘The Ten Year Rule – The Historical Facts’ Royal United Service Institute Journal, 117:1 (1972: Mar)
[viii] Examples of this interpretation are Barry Powers Strategy Without a Slide Rule: British Air Strategy 1914-1939 (London: Croom Helm, 1976) Malcolm Smith British Air Strategy Between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) and more recently Tami Davis Biddle Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002)
[ix] For aspects of Trenchard’s effect upon the RAF see John Terraine ‘Beginnings’ and ‘Disarmers and Bombers’ in The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939-1945 (London: Wordsworth Editions, 1997) pp. 3-15
[x] Brad Gladman ‘The Development of Tactical Air Doctrine in North Africa, 1940-43’ in Sebastian Cox and Peter Gray (Eds.) Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo (London: Frank Cass, 2002) p. 189
[xi] Charles F.A. Portal, Air Commodore, DSO, MC ‘Air Force Co-operation in Policing the Empire’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 82 (1937: Feb/Nov) p. 346
[xii] Richard R. Muller ‘Close Air Support’ in Williamson Murray and Alan Millett Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 171
[xiii] Gulio Douhet Command of the Air (London: Faber & Faber, 1942), John C. Slessor Air Power, and Armies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936). Of interest in is widely claimed that Douhet had a wide effect on airmen of the period but in recent years, this has come in for some scrutiny from revisionist historians. See ‘The Douhet Myth’ in John Buckley Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999) pp. 74-77
[xiv] ‘John C. Slessor and the Genesis of Air Interdiction’ in Philip S. Meilinger Airwar: Theory and Practice (London: Frank Cass, 2003) pp. 66-67
[xv] RAF Museum, RAF Hendon, File 8951 ‘Employment of Army Co-Operation Squadrons’ RAF Manual AP 1176, 1932, Ch. V
[xvi] Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Wing Commander, DSO ‘Air Co-Operation with Mechanized Forces’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 75 (1930: Feb/Nov) pp. 565-577, Frederick A. Pile, Lieutenant Colonel, DSO, MC, psc, Royal Tank Corps ‘The Army’s Air Needs’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 71 (1926: Feb/Nov) pp. 725-727
[xvii] Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Wing Commander, DSO ‘Air Co-Operation with Mechanized Forces’ pp. 576-577
[xviii] Brian Bond and Williamson Murray ‘The British Armed Forces, 1918-39’ in Alan R. Millett and Williamson Murray (Eds.) Military Effectiveness: Volume II, The Interwar Period (London: Allen and Unwin, 1988) p. 111

9 responses to “The Development of RAF Tactical Air Power in North Africa – Introduction

  1. You’re right that tactical airpower is neglected compared (and because of) strategic airpower. (Not that I’m going to be doing anything to help redress the balance!) It’s surprising that there’s been so little written about the North African air war, though.

    On Douhet, I’m firmly in the revisionist camp: http://airminded.org/2007/04/07/the-douhet-dilemma/
    Except that I’m not sure if it really is revisionist? Do any aviation specialists (as opposed to to popular writers) actually argue that Douhet was influential in Britain? (I do know of some who argue for his influence in Europe, such as James Corum and Scott Palmer, but I can only speak to the British case.)

    On Slessor, have you come across Robin Higham’s The Military Intellectuals in Britain, 1918-1940? It’s dated now (1966) but it’s got quite a bit on him.

  2. Brett

    I agree that the lack of any real work on North Africa is a shame. There are bits but the only meaninfull assessment was a PhD by Brad Gladman a few years back but that has not come into publication.

    From what I have read Douhet is not widely read at all. I think in Britain the approach to airpower in the inter-war years was fairly pragmatic. There was a belief in what it could do but Trenchard and co were to busy fighting for the survival of the survice, hence the turn to colonial control. It has tended to become accepted dogma that the RAF saw strategic air power as the be all and end of all the matter. This is simply not true though. My current research actual shows that the RAF has quite a great deal of influence on combined operations doctrine and that the addition of air power specialists in such fields added much to the development of such doctrine.

    As to Slessor, Higham is useful though nothing can beat his own body of work. Vincent Orange has just done his biography but fails to deal with his inter-war service with any real rigour which is a real shame. Meilenger has done some work on him too.

  3. Good article.

    It’s interesting to see the comments on British ground troops calling in air support when in contact with insurgents/enemy. Have things (tactics not weapons systems) really moved on in that type of operation?

  4. Ali

    Cheers. It is only part one. More to come soon.

    To be honest theory has always moved faster than reality. The basic tactics, and the needs that saw them emerge have always been there too a degree. The tacitics have been refined over time but that has been because of the effect of technology. With the C4ISR revolution of the past 15 years CAS is now virtually on tap. The emergence of net-centric warfare with sophistictaed command and control links though diverse and wide ranging telecommunication systems have made it easier to call on support. However, the basics were there in the Second World War and even to some degree in the First World War. However, it just took a bit longer to get there. Early in North Africa it took several hours for support to arrive and by the time of CRUSADER it was down to 30 minutes.

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