Book Review – Intelligence and Anglo-American Air Support in World War Two: The Western Desert and Tunisia, 1940-43

[Cross posted at Birmingham "On War"]

Brad Gladman, Intelligence and Anglo-American Air Support in World War Two: The Western Desert and Tunisia, 1940-43. London: Palgrave, 2009. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Cloth. pp. 252

Brad Gladman’s work represents an important addition to the historiography of tactical air power development in both the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force. His work is based around his PhD thesis completed at University College London in 2002. The key importance lies in his elucidation of the development of the system that was developed in the Western Desert and its relationship with command, control, communication and intelligence. This works other importance lies in its attempt re-focus the discussion over tactical air power progress away from the much discussed developments of the Luftwaffe to the largely ignored advances of the western allies. This work also sits well with the recent work of David Ian Hall on the same subject, Strategy for Victory (2007). This work also fits in with the literature that has emanated on key air power commanders, such as Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, which have appeared in the past twenty years.

Gladman’s key argument is that the success of the Western Desert Air Force, and subsequently the US Army Air Force deployed to North Africa, rested as much on the importance of intelligence as it did on doctrine, equipment or command relationships. The timely utilisation of intelligence allowed the RAF to provide effective Direct and Indirect Air Support to 8th Army in its seesaw battles with Axis forces in North Africa.

The work begins with an examination of the state of tactical air power thinking in both the RAF and USAAF during the inter-war years. It is pleasing to this author to see some recognition given to the work of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, then a Wing Commander, during the 1920’s (p. 31). This is something that Hall’s work does not do, which is surprising considering the wider scope of his work. Gladman concedes that while the situation was not perfect there had been a degree of inter-war development and that the RAF’s colonial campaigns had helped kept understanding alive and that it had the elements required for an effective doctrine.

The core of Gladman’s work comes from his analysis of the RAF’s development in North Africa and its utilisation of intelligence. The work follows a chronological format which allows the author to chart the development as the campaign progressed. Each chapter deals with a major portion of the campaign, for example, Chapter 3 deals with the period from Operation CRUSADER to First Battle of El Alamein. Gladman’s description of the intelligence gathering network is well researched and highlights some of the problems with providing tactical, or real-time, information to pilots during fluid operations such as those that were experienced in North Africa. For example, in describing the early work of the Army Air Support Control (AASC) units during CRUSADER Gladman notes that they were a failure due to the difficulty of coordination with the pilots (pp. 51-52). Though through experience the AASC system was refined and proved an invaluable control system that by 1943 was providing the ability to redirect air power when and where it was needed. Though as Gladman notes this was only as good as the intelligence it was provided with (p. 159).

The works discussion of the collection and dissemination of intelligence is integrated into the text and shows a good grasp of the history of the campaign. The description of various sources such as signals and ‘Y’ intelligence illustrates their importance in the development and conduct of effective air support for the armies. The work also describes the various units that were used to interpret the intelligence data that was then utilised by planners. These sources of intelligence played a vital role at the operational level and in the interdiction campaigns that were undertaken by the RAF. However, Gladman does note the failure to utilise human intelligence in the aftermath of the Battle of El Alamein did aid in the failure to cut off the Axis retreat, a failure he attributes as much to Coningham as Montgomery. The work also illustrates the development of the land-air system in the course of the campaign and shows how after the early problems after Operation TORCH lessons were learnt and integrated and became the basis for future operations.

Overall this is an excellent work that adds to our understanding of the development of Allied tactical air power doctrine and its role in the defeat of the Axis. It raises some important points about the importance of the campaign in general and the application of air power in particular, which deserve further examination. For example, why does the relationship between Tedder/Coningham and Montgomery break down in 1943? While outside of this works scope it does open the door to further understanding this command breakdown that was to have an impact in 1944. The works greatest importance lies in bringing to the fore the importance of intelligence in conducting effective air operations; ‘Intelligence is…a fundamental requirement for the success of tactical air operations.’ (p.190). It deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in air power or the campaign in North Africa. What is needed now is a history of the RAF’s Army Co-Operation Command in order to compare the developments occurring in the UK in this period.

N.B Please note that this review first appeared in Global War Studies: The Journal for the Study of Warfare and Weapons, 1919-1945, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 187-188.

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