The Development of RAF Air Power in North Africa – Main Body

This is the second piece of my analysis of RAF tacical air operation during the north african campaign.


The main body of this work will aim to analyse the various factors, which led to the supremacy of the DAF over the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica during the North African campaign. It will do this by looking at the following factors of tactical air power:

  1. The Equipment of the DAF
  2. Command and Control of the DAF
  3. Air Superiority
  4. Intelligence and Reconnaissance
  5. Air Interdiction

Before looking at these factors a discussion of the nature of the war in the Western Desert is necessary because as one author has commented nothing ‘…anything like it before’ in human history had been fought over.[i] This area of the world had not seen battle for over three thousand years. This was mainly because of the conditions that were prevalent in the area. It was dry and arid and while man had learnt to spend some time there, he could not survive there permanently.  With the coming of colonialism and industrialism this all changed. Egypt became a protectorate of the British Empire and Libya was born out of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania in 1936.[ii] With this, the protagonists were set, especially when Fascist Italy declared war on 10 June 1940.

The Western Desert was a battlefield with two flanks, the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara desert. Between this lay the coastal desert over which British, Australian, New Zealanders, Poles, Indians, Ghurkhas, Free French, South Africans, Greeks, Germans, Italians and Libyans would fight. They would bring with them the all which modern warfare could supply them with. The greatest feature of this area is the coastal escarpment west of Mersa Matruh. The Western Desert is an illusory place, at first; it appears flat but in fact provides many hidings places for vehicles.[iii] It was the perfect battleground for modern combined arms warfare and would provide the learning ground for many ideas relating to this modern form of warfare. A form of warfare, which tactical air power, was intrinsically linked. Thus, because of the nature of the Western Desert, the battles ebbed and flowed across Libya and Egypt and only in 1942 with the help of American aid; Britain was able to push the German-Italian armies back towards Tunisia. As Bungay comments the fighting was much more akin to fighting on the high seas rather than warfare on land.[iv] Thus air power linked in very well with this style of fluid warfare, but many important lessons would have to be learnt before it was decisive.

The Equipment of the DAF

One of the major issues facing the RAF’s air war in North Africa and the Western Desert, and one, which held back early attempts to provide the army with air support, was the lack of necessary equipment for the task. As one historian has commented, ‘The Army had to be content with what the RAF could make available…’[v] This position was born out of the failure of inter war planning for the air force’s needs in terms of adequate airframes for army support. Some discussion did occur between the staffs on what aircraft would be right for tactical air operations, these discussions led to the ordering of the Brewster Buffalo and Vultee Vengeance but by time these started to arrive they were diverted to the Far East as the DAF had already settled upon the fighter-bomber concept.[vi] Why this occurred needs to be examined and the answer can be found in the equipment that was provided to the DAF, and its parent formation, the Middle East Command, in the period 1940-1942.

On the outbreak of war against the Italians in 1940, the Middle East Command under Air Chief Marshal Longmore, KCB, DSO, was equipped with what can only be described as a motley collection of aircraft. This state was the same as No. 202 Group, the DAF forebears, and as Phillip Guedella commented, Longmore, and Air Commodore Collishaw, were in effect ‘…bluffing a full house with a couple of pairs…’[vii] In 1940 the command was equipped with aircraft that were already obsolescent by 1940. No. 202 Groups principal equipment was the Gloster Gladiator biplane fighter and the Bristol Blenheim I light bomber. The Gladiator while gallantly gaining fame during the siege of Malta was woefully inadequate for the pressures of modern warfare due to its limited turn of speed and limited firepower, which placed it at odds with the all-metal monoplanes, armed with eight machine guns, which the enemy was typically equipped.[viii] The Blenheim was, like the Gladiator, outdated by its design. The Battle for France showed up the limitations of this design in that it carried a small bomb load and was also too lightly armed, which made it vulnerable both to flak and enemy fighters, which made it inadequate for Battlefield Aerial Interdiction (BAI) operations, it was also outpaced by enemy fighters whom it was envisaged that it could outpace when it was originally developed in the thirties.[ix] Despite these limitations, it soldiered on for a time in No. 202 Group and took part in the first successful operation against the Italian air base at El Adem.[x] This raid taught the DAF an important lesson in that it resources could easily be wound down easily;

The experience of this first raid on the Western Desert showed that much caution would have to be exercised if our slender resources were not to be depleted by constant casualties.[xi]

This early raid therefore showed the importance of superiority both in the air and in logistics, which would be one of the deciding factors of the campaign.

The final aircraft equipping No. 202 Group at this time was the venerable Westland Lysander, an aircraft that would go on and gain fame in the shadow operations of the Special Operations Executive. It was developed as an army co-operation platform that would perform Tac R and Arty R operations. It was to prove an unsuitable type for the operations it was asked to perform because just like the previous two aircraft it was totally outclassed even by 1940. The Official History described it, as being unsuitable because it had not, the range required or the protection needed for the hazardous operations it was required to perform.[xii] Therefore, it was quite common to find the Lysander squadrons also equipped with a modern fighter with which to escort it. This was a distinct dilution of the DAF’s effort.

The lack of adequate aircraft in 1940-41 led the DAF to re-evaluate what it sought from a platform that was needed to provide support army operations. These considerations had to take into account two important aspects. First, the aircraft had to be able to gain superiority in the air, an important pre-requisite to effective tactical operations. It then also had to be able to deliver a payload in Aerial Interdiction (AI) operations. This coming together of requirements led the DAF to settle upon the idea of the fighter-bomber concept because as Ian Gooderson comments, ‘…the desirability of providing fighter aircraft with a measure of striking power against…targets was acknowledged…’[xiii] Though it must be remember this owes much to the RAF’s rejection of the dive-bomber as an effective weapon as well.[xiv]

The first attempt to create fighter-bombers came with the order that Hawker Hurricane I’s which had recently been deployed to the desert should be used to strafe enemy targets on their way back from fighter sweeps. The deployment of the Hurricane came about because of the inadequacy of Gladiator in dealing with enemy fighters. In this role, the Hurricane proved adequate but it was to gain more fame as an AI platform. The arrival of the Hurricane II had a profound effect upon CAS operations as it was significantly up gunned and armed with heavier cannon’s, which led to its better use in CAS. The development of the MkII owes much to the Air Fighting Development Unit (AFDU), which worked on upgrading it to carry two 250lb bombs on under wing racks, MkIIb, and to carry four 20mm cannons, MkIIc.[xv] These modified version of the Hurricane became operational in the DAF by early 1942, before then the DAF modified its Hurricane I’s with under wing racks capable of carrying up to eight 40lb fragmentation bombs. These developments led the Hurricane to be a very successful CAS platform and gave the ground commanders what had been described as a ‘…reassuring…capability on call…’[xvi]

The other significant CAS platform in the DAF was the Curtiss P-40, this aircraft being the first major example of American aid to Britain’s war effort in the Western Desert. The Warhawk represented a good combination of what was need in a fighter-bomber, the ability to handle itself and the ability to absorb damage.[xvii] The P-40 was so successful a platform that at the height of the Second Battle of El Alamein the P-40 squadrons were flying on average four sorties a day.

The arrival of the Supermarine Spitfire in theatre gave the DAF something, which it had been lacking, a high performance interceptor that could take on enemy fighters, and most importantly win.[xviii] Thus, the Spitfire was important for the DAF’s inventory as it gave it the chance to challenge for air superiority over the battlefield and so enable the DAF to give uninterrupted support to the ground forces. The Spitfire other most important role was in the area of Tac R over the battlefield. Because of its high speed, it was perfectly suited to this job.

As for larger aircraft used in the BAI role, the mainstays of the DAF were the Bristol Beaufighter and the American trio of the Douglas Boston, Martin Maryland and Baltimore. While these aircraft could carry a useful bomb load and attack targets deep inside enemy lines they all shared one failing. That is, due to their nature they were large and easily attacked by enemy fighters and in high intensity air space where neither side enjoyed air superiority they became vulnerable, and they only became effective when either escorted by fighters or when the DAF enjoyed local air superiority, most notable just after the Battle of El Alamein, where these aircraft performed superb work attack the retreating Panzerarmee Afrika.

Thus, as has been seen as the North African and Western Desert theatre gained importance in British strategy so did its allocation in superior airframes to improve its equipment. Thus, these improvements led to a gradual superiority over Axis aircraft and led to developments of tactics most notable with the new fighter-bombers.

Command and Control of the DAF

One of the major issues brought up by the RAF’s failing in the Battle for France was lack of command and control of its constituent formations that were operating in support of the army. This became especially prevalent when the German Panzers moving up to encircle Dunkirk split Barrett’s command. North Africa provided an opportunity to solve this issue of how to control tactical air power effectively and to get them to support the army in as quick a time as possible.

While most of the credit for the eventual success in the desert has usually been credited to Air Vice Marshal Arthur ‘Mary’ Conningham.[xix] There had been some thoughts on the subject before his arrival in July 1940. One area that has traditionally been quoted as being owed to Conningham is the co-location of command headquarters. In fact, this was already the state of play in the desert because when Major General O’Connor took over the Western Desert Force in June 1940 he found his headquarters at Maaten Baggush co-located with that of Collishaw’s No. 202 Group.[xx] Thus even before effective communications had been formed for the ground troops and airmen the higher commanders already had a working headquarters which eased some of the problems which had been discovered in France, most notable the dislocation of the air headquarters from that of the BEF. Thus, the co-location of similar higher formation headquarters continued throughout the war, a system that owes its innovation to the early attempts of the ‘colonial’ officers to work together rather than issues rose in co-operation by the ‘home’ officers of the service who disliked working together.[xxi]

The next significant advance in command and control came during 1941 with the development of the ‘Forward Air Support Link’ (FASL) system in September/October 1941. In effect, this development saw the reduction in response times from the RAF to Army requests because the old system relied on information being passed through corps headquarters and then being forwarded to RAF units proved o out of date to be used.

Much of the credit for the development of the FASL and Air Support Control (ASC) goes to Major General Penney and Group Captain Mann, both of whom were the respective chiefs of the signals section of the Army and RAF in the Middle East.[xxii] The aims of these two officers was to provide a series of channels through which information could be passed and through which all the essential ground and air elements were linked into a comprehensive system.

In essence, the system worked on the principle that FASL parties were co-located with the brigade and division headquarters in the desert and would relay information given to them by reconnaissance aircraft to the corps headquarters. At the corps headquarters was located an ASC team, which would then request air support to the appropriate group headquarters through the Rear Air Support Link team (RASL), this was dependent upon the nature of the operation, either CAS or BAI. The aircraft then on route would receive further information about their targets on route from the FASL at brigade or division headquarters.[xxiii]

The first test of this system came during the CRUSADER offensive of November 1941. This offensive, while enjoying some success, due to the refinement in the command and control of the RAF, still suffered from some of the old problems of aircraft being too late. Though it must be noted was not the fault of the new system, but much rather as Terraine has pointed out the problem of the system being develop too soon before an offensive, and that it was too

…late for teaching two Services to change the habits of a lifetime, with a major operation impending…[xxiv]

The end of 1941 also saw another bow being added to the DAF string in terms of refining response times and controlling the units at its disposal. This was the arrival of No. 2 Army Air Support Control (AASC) team, this unit had been working with Barrett’s Army Co-Operation Command and had been developing similar theories to what the DAF had been putting into practice, it was therefore sent out to the Western Desert to gain some practical experience, though it would not become operational until the Battle of Gazala in May 1942.[xxv] The arrival of this unit helped to decrease the reaction time of CAS missions. For example, during OPERATION CRUSADER the reaction time of the DAF was in the region two hours where as by the time of the Gazala battles this had reduced to just thirty minutes.[xxvi]

Thus, these developments in North Africa led to a system that would be used for the rest of the war. It may well end up being refined, with the development of systems such as CABRANK and ROVER, which would help refine the reaction times of the tactical air forces, but in essence, the theory was still the same as that used in North Africa. Thus as Gooderson comments:

…as a result of a combination of theory, experimentation…and practical experience in North Africa, a British air support system had been created by the end of 1942.[xxvii]

It may also be noted that these eventual ‘development’ in FASL has its roots in some of the inter war operations in colonial control and some of the theoretical writing that was alluded to in the introduction, for example as Portal commented on operations in Palestine:

…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.[xxviii]

Air Superiority Operations of the DAF

The importance of air superiority in any combined operations seeking to achieve success is paramount. Air superiority is not to be achieved for its own but as one author has commented it ‘…is not its own object but a precondition to success in other operations…’[xxix] Thus, without air superiority all other operations can and will face significant losses that can not be sustained, so in order to pursue effective support missions it must be the prerequisite of any tactical air forces to achieve some form of air superiority, be it even just a local advantage. This was a lesson learnt early on by the DAF, especially after the arrival of Luftwaffe in 1941. However, it must be noted that the importance of air superiority was learnt early on during OPERATION COMPASS when the RAF managed to sweep the Regia Aeronautica from the skies.[xxx] Coningham confirmed this idea of air superiority coming first before any type of operations in his lecture to the Royal United Service Institute in 1946 on the ‘Development of Tactical Air Forces.[xxxi]

The major issue for the DAF in gaining effective air superiority lay in the quality of it’s equipment, because as eluded to in the section dealing with equipment the DAF was low on the list for effective aircraft that may be able to challenge for command in the air. For example, even by the time of CRUSADER the majority of DAF fighter squadrons were equipped with Hurricane I’s, which was then completely outclassed by the main fighter of Fliegerfuhrer Afrika, the Messerschmitt ME 109F, the Hurricane II and P-40 Tomahawk could only just hold there own against it.[xxxii] It would not be until the arrival of the Spitfire in theatre that a continual cover of air superiority could be achieved over the battlefield. This had occurred by the time of OPERATIONS LIGHTFOOT and SUPERCHARGE at El Alamein in late 1942.

Two of the methods in which air superiority can be achieved, with the exception of the destruction of the enemy in the air, is through AI operations, which will be discussed later, and through a good logistics and maintenance system in order to achieve the highest possible rates of serviceability of aircraft. Through this superiority over the enemy can be achieved. The superiority of the DAF over Fleigerfuhrer Afrika was aided in no small way by the arrival in theatre of Air Vice Marshal G G Dawson who took over as the Air Officer Commander in Chief (AOC-in-C) of maintenance.[xxxiii] Partly due to his political influence, he had worked with Lord Beaverbrook at the Ministry of Aircraft Production; Dawson was sent out to the Middle East to ascertain the state of affairs in theatre. His recommendations were so sweeping that he was permanently posted to the region and from this point on worked tirelessly to improve the state of affairs in terms of supply, maintenance and serviceability. His reforms in the maintenance led to greater rates of serviceability; for example, during OPERATION CRUSADER the DAF was able to field five hundred and fifty planes to Fliegerfuhrer Afrika’s two hundred and twenty eight.[xxxiv] Also by the time of the Battle of Gazala serviceability rates had improved from sixty seven percent to eighty-two percent.[xxxv] Thus as John Ellis comments:

These enormous advantages in logistical support, mobility and reinforcement were slowly but surely translated into a crushing aerial superiority…[xxxvi]

Another aspect, which was vital for the attainment of air superiority, was the question of re-supply. North Africa became a problem theatre in terms of re-supply because normally all supplies in peace time came to the command via the Mediterranean Sea by way of Gibraltar and Malta, but with war the Mare Nostrum, as Mussolini termed the Mediterranean, effectively became shut off because of the activity of the Regia Marina and the Luftwaffe, in the form of Fliegerkorps X on Sicily, and the Regia Aeronautica who wrecked havoc with allied convoys in the area. Because of this, most aircraft delivered to the DAF came via the Takoradi air route, starting in the Gold Coast on the Africa’s east coast. Aircraft were delivered to the port in crates and at this point were rebuilt to flown on a route which took them over Nigeria, French Equatorial Africa, the Sudan and finally into Egypt.

Up to 1943 over five thousand aircraft were dispatched to Egypt via this route, as Guedalla comments ‘…victory in Egypt came by the Takoradi Route…’[xxxvii] Tedder even commented, after coming to the Middle East Command via the route, that it was ‘…a first class piece of improvisation…’ and that all involved were ‘…imbued with the urgency of passing every aircraft up the line as quickly as possible…’[xxxviii] Thus the improvement in the delivery of aircraft and their maintenance and serviceability had a lot to do with the establishing of DAF air superiority that would eventually aid in the defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa.

The Importance of Intelligence and Reconnaissance in DAF Operations:

Hostile armies may face each other for years, striving for the victory which is decided in a single day. This being so, to remain in ignorance of the enemy’s condition simply because one grudges the outlay of a hundred ounces of silver in honours and emoluments, is the height of inhumanity

Sun Tzu, The Art of War[xxxix]

The importance of intelligence and reconnaissance has been recognized since the earliest times. To attempt to go and wage war without knowing your enemies intention has been considered by al the great military thinkers of history as imprudent. The advent of air power in the twentieth century gave the commander an extra dimension to his intelligence gathering. During the campaign for North Africa and the Western Desert, intelligence and reconnaissance took on a two-fold importance. Firstly, intelligence enabled the DAF to effectively target Axis supply columns and deprive Rommel’s Panzerarmme Afrika much of its necessary supplies. Much of this work was done with information gained from ULTRA. Secondly, reconnaissance operated by the Tac R squadrons of the DAF helped shaped the nature of the Eight Army’s operations by pointing out concentrations of enemy forces.[xl] As Brad Gladman points out:

The skilful use of intelligence was crucial to the effective application of air power in north Africa…because of the unique environment of the Western Desert[xli]

The intelligence assets of the DAF can be split into three distinct categories, strategic, operational and tactical, of which the first two are the most useful for an analysis of air power in North Africa.[xlii]

The major impact of ULTRA based intelligence came in the BAI campaign waged by the DAF on Rommel’s supply lines reaching back as far Tripoli. Early on in the campaign, before the effect of ULTRA, the main method for targeting Axis supplies was to hit the supplies at there point of origin, the ports, but this was limited by the aircraft used, the Blenheim I, which could only reach Tobruk. Thus, this became a major target for operations early on instead on Benghazi, which offloaded a far greater amount of Axis shipping.[xliii] The Official History then goes on to admit that this is a waste of effort by the DAF mainly because of the inadequacy of it’s equipment.[xliv]

An excellent example of strategic intelligence comes in the analysis gathered by the intelligence sections of the Eighth Army and RAF Middle East on the reconstruction of Panzerarmee Afrika’s supply situation at the time of OPERATION CRUSADER. The intelligence gathered via capture enemy documents provided information on how supplies were being shipped via steamers from Tripoli to Benghazi and then loaded on to trains to a railhead near the front line.[xlv] This knowledge gathered could then be passed on to the DAF’s reconnaissance assets, which could then confirm its validity and then could be passed on to units for a strike against the targets. The major use of strategic intelligence enabled the DAF to tailor its assets to specific mission and to determine whether the operation ‘…was worth the price…’[xlvi] Strategic intelligence was gathered in several ways from the use of ULTRA based intelligence to Signal intelligence through ‘Y’ units. DAF and British Army units dealing in low grade German Wireless and Radio Traffic (W/T and R/T) were able to pass information along to units involved in the DAF AI campaign.[xlvii] Information also came in via interrogation reports, which came in via the Combined Services Detailed Intelligence Centre (CSDIC) in Cairo.[xlviii] Here Prisoners of War (POW) were debriefed and information gathered for intelligence purposes which then could be utilised in shaping DAF operations against Axis supply lines.

ULTRA, the codename for the Enigma decrypts, despite not being of direct operational value to the DAF, did play a vital role in formulating the DAF’s strategy in regard of its AI operations. It also informed the commanders of the effect the operations were having on the enemy position in relation to its supply situation.[xlix] ULTRA also helped reveal which ports were most commonly used by axis shipping therefore helping the DAF to concentrate its effort on these ports and the supply routes, which emanated from them. ULTRA also had a reverse effect upon the British commanders in North Africa and the Western Desert, especially the DAF commanders. The debacle of OPERATION BREVITY had been brought around by utilising one form of intelligence to intensely and therefore, by relying on this form of intelligence the operation ran into certain operational difficulties.[l] The post operation analysis led to the blame being place, as commented, on the use of one singular sources of intelligence, a position, which would not be repeated again. For example, post BREVITY, the DAF made greater use of its reconnaissance and intelligence assets, strategic and operational, to confirm information.

As for operational intelligence, or reconnaissance, there are a few good examples, which show its effectiveness on the battlefield, and how it helped shaped operations. Operational intelligence was often guided by information gathered via strategic intelligence. Early on in the campaign operational intelligence showed its worth during OPERATION COMPASS No. 208 Squadron provided over flights of the camps south of both Bardia and Sidi Barrani and with these photo mosaics.[li] These photos enabled General O’Connor plan the direction of his attacks on the camps. For example at the camp at Nibeiwa, O’Connor was able to dictate that the advancing amour and infantry enter the camp from the west and thus would lie in the middle of the Italian Army, and consequently would be sheltered from attacks by the Regia Aeronautica. The reconnaissance also showed that this entrance to the camp was un-mined and therefore, the advance would not be slowed down by mine clearing operations.[lii] Therefore, the use of operational intelligence was able to shape the operations of the ground forces and without which the opening phases of COMPASS may have come out differently.

The other example of the influence of operational intelligence was in finding targets for BAI operations. The Operations Record Book of 285 Air Reconnaissance Wing provides a useful example of its effect. Its passage for 26 August 1942 comments that:

‘…a reece had been made of the road east from Gambut, locating two convoys moving east one of these was later attacked by Beaufighters with good results.’[liii]

No. 285 Wing was the main reconnaissance element in the DAF and provided copious amounts of information, which helped shaped the DAF’s AI operations. In terms of No. 208 Squadrons, one the component units of the wing, the Official History comments that the ‘…Eighth Army and the Desert Air Force had good reason to be grateful…for the information it stove so hard to obtain.’ [liv] Therefore as can be seen intelligence and reconnaissance assets were vitally important to the DAF’s campaign in north Africa as it not only shaped the nature of it’s campaign but also its reconnaissance operations helped shaped the nature of Eighth Army’s operations too.

Air Interdiction Operations of the DAF

This section will deal with the pure mechanics of how missions by the DAF were conducted against Axis forces in North Africa. Aerial interdiction can be split into two distinct sections, BAI and CAS, both of which can shape the nature of a campaign. Before moving on some definition of what these terms actually mean is necessary. The RAF’s most recent doctrinal manual, AP 3000, defines BAI as:

An air operation conducted to destroy, neutralize or delay the enemy’s military potential before it can be brought to bear effectively against friendly forces at such a distance from friendly forces that detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of friendly forces is not required.[lv]

AP 3000 then goes on to define CAS operations as:

Air action against hostile targets which are in close proximity to friendly forces and which require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.[lvi]

All of the operations conducted by the DAF required the successful application of the principles discussed above, without them it would not have been possible for the DAF to conduct the campaign in the way that it did, though it must be noted that it was at the ‘sharp end’ that the physical application could only be used. If the techniques were not in existence to effectively deliver the payload all the development in command and control and intelligence gathering would have been for nothing. A major example of the successful application of the DAF tactical air assets occurred during General Montgomery’s advance in Tunisia in 1943. Halted at the Mereth Line, Montgomery, in conjunction with the new commander of the DAF, Air Vice Marshal Broadhurst planned an operation, which made full use of the developments in CAS operations in order to force a path through the Axis positions.[lvii] This came about because of the failure of Montgomery’s frontal attack on the Mereth position. Montgomery was forced to send the 2nd New Zealand Division on a flanking march supported by the 1st Armoured Division and subsequently supported by the full weight of the DAF.

The positions around the Tebega Gap, which the New Zealanders were to assault, succeed because the DAF had complete air superiority in the area. This was mainly because the other elements of Northwest African Tactical Air Forces (NATAF), RAF 242 Group and the US XII Air Support Command had concentrated on eliminating the Luftwaffe threat to the area, which meant that the DAF could use its full force in the operation, some eighteen squadrons.[lviii] The CAS provided by the DAF literally delivered what the Official History describes as ‘…a truly formidable air ‘blitz’…’[lix] The DAF was able co-operate fully in-conjunction with the attacking units and provide virtual on the spot support for them. This level of support provided by the DAF meant that the armoured units of Eighth Army, which had flowed through the positions taken by the New Zealanders, carried on attacking through the night on to the Axis positions at El Hamma, where the DAF once again provided sterling support to against the strong positions set up at this point.[lx]

The operations around Mereth and El Hamma in the main succeeded because the DAF was able to apply all the lessons learnt through several years of war. The equipment used was the most advanced then in use by the Western Allies. For Example, the Hurricane IID’s used by 6 Squadron were armed with twin 40mm Cannons, which could literally blow tanks off the desert, for example, on the 21 March during the operation at Mereth, 6 Squadron broke up a concentration of forty tanks that were threatening the operations of the New Zealanders.[lxi] The DAF also made excellent use of the advances made in command and control in order to attack where the army wished them to attack, in essence to cut off possible choke points in the advance. El Hamma also saw the first use of the CABRANK system, a updated version of ASC system, which came about mainly due to advances in command and control methods, which now meant that up to date information coming from the FASL being sent up to pilots already on station.[lxii]

Intelligence also played an important role in that it informed the CAS units where the Axis units would be in order to interdict them both in CAS of the ground force but also in BAI operation at the start of the operation. Intelligence also helped the DAF’s supporting formation NATAF by locating concentrations of Luftwaffe units, which could then be attacked in order to gain air superiority in support of the DAF’s operation.[lxiii] Therefore, the action at El Hamma brought together all of the aspects which had been developed over the past three years into one coherent form, but to argue that CAS and BAI operations became effective at this late stage of the campaign is to miss out some of the valiant efforts made before the end of the campaign. For example, during OPERATION CRUSADER aircraft from No. 258 Wing, comprised of Tomahawks and Hurricanes, managed on 26 January to hold up the enemy advance on Msus by bombing and strafing the Axis columns.[lxiv] Also during OPERATION’S LIGHTFOOT and SUPERCHARGE, the Battles around El Alamein in October 1942, the DAF again provided sterling service flying over the battlefield providing CAS with cannon armed Hurricane’s and Kittyhawks, and attacking Field Marshal Rommel’s supply lines with BAI missions.[lxv] Much of the success of the DAF can be attributed to the successful application of effectively delivery platform, the Hurricane’s and Kittyhawk’s, and the use of newly developed command and control measures and the use of intelligence to plan strikes against vital targets.

[i] Stephen Bungay Alamein (London: Aurum Press, 2003) p. 3[ii] Ibid.[iii] Robin Neillands Eighth Army: From the Western Desert to the Alps, 1939-1945 (London: John Murray, 2004) pp.  2-4[iv] Bungay S Alamein p. 2

[v] W. A Jacobs ‘Air Support for the British Army, 193-1943 Military Affairs, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Dec. 1982) p. 176

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Phillip Guedella Middle East. 1940-1942: A Study in Air Power (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1944) p. 157. Longmore’s command consisted 29 squadron spread over a vast area. Therefore, Guedella’s comment is apt as his aircraft were spread thinly over this vast area ranging from East Africa to Iraq.

[viii] Gladiators of No. 261 Squadron were the main defence for a long time during the siege of Malta. Eventually the last three were dubbed, ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ by the islanders. See Denis Richards Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Volume 1: The Fight at Odds (London: HMSO, 1953) pp. 261-265

[ix] Owen Thetford Aircraft of the Royal Air Force since 1918 (London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1995) pp. 84-85

[x] John Terraine The Right of the Line, pp. 311-312

[xi] Air Historical Branch, AHB/II/117/8(A) Middle East Campaigns, p. 33

[xii] I. S. O Playfair History of the Second World War: The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume I (London: HMSO, 1954) p. 193

[xiii] Ian Gooderson Air Power at the Battlefront p. 57

[xiv] The only dive-bomber used by the RAF was the Vultee Vengeance, which was diverted out to the South East Asia Command. For information on its effectiveness see: The National Archives (NA), AIR 23/2830 Dive Bombing: Combined Operational Data 1944

[xv] NA, AIR 20/12766 Tactical trials of the 4-Cannon Hurricane Mk II, AIR 20/12767 Tactical Trials with Hurricane Aircraft Fitted to Carry Bombs

[xvi] Alfred Price ‘Fighter Development, Mid-1941 to Mid-1945′ in Philip Jarrett (Ed.) Aircraft of the Second World War, p. 81

[xvii] John Buckley Air Power in the Age of Total War, p. 148

[xviii] The Spitfire MkVb had a top speed of 374mph when equipped with the Vokes filter for desert service. This meant it could handle any Luftwaffe or Regia Aeronautica could put up against it. Owen Thetford Aircraft of the Royal Air Force, pp. 303-308

[xix] Conningham’s nickname is a corruption of Maori in respect of his New Zealand origins. Richard P. Hallion Strike from the Sky p. 152

[xx] Philip Guedella Middle East p. 83, Correlli Barnett The Desert Generals, 2nd Edition (London: Cassell, 1999) p. 22

[xxi] This system continued throughout out the war, for example in North West Europe 2nd TAF supported the Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group with 83 Group supporting the British 2nd Army and 84 Group supporting Canadian 1st Army. Each of these formations typically co-located their headquarters in order to ease co-ordination. Richard P. Hallion Strike from the Sky, p. 193

[xxii] Denis Richards and Hilary Saunders Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Volume 2: The Fight Avails (London: HMSO, 1953) p. 161

[xxiii] Denis Richards and Hilary Saunders Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Volume 2, pp. 160-162, Richard P. Hallion Strike from the Sky, pp. 154-155, Ian Gooderson Air Power at the Battlefront, p. 26

[xxiv] John Terraine The Right of the Line, p. 346

[xxv] Shelford Bidwell and Dominic Graham Fire-Power: The British Army Weapons and Theories of War, 1904-1945 (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2004) pp. 267-268, Ian Gooderson Air Power at the Battlefront, p. 26

[xxvi] NA, WO 279/491, Notes from Theatres of War: No 1; Cyrenaica, 1942, Shelford Bidwell and Dominic Graham Fire-Power, p. 269

[xxvii] Ian Gooderson Loc Cit

[xxviii] 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

[xxix] Martin Van Creveld with Steven L. Canby S L and K Brower Air Power and Maneuver Warfare, (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2002) p. 232

[xxx] I. S. O. Playfair The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume I, p. 357

[xxxi] Arthur Coningham, Air Marshal Sir, KCB, KBE, DSO, MC, DFC, AFC ‘The Development of Tactical Air Forces, (lecture) May, 1946′ Royal United Service Institute Journal, 91 (1946: Feb/Nov) p. 215

[xxxii] Roderic Owen The Desert Air Force, p. 84, for information on the comparative performance of the ME 109F see, NA, AIR 40/191, Messerschmitt ME 109F Aircraft, 1941 Aug.-1944 Mar.

[xxxiii] I. S. O Playfair History of the Second World War: The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume II (London: HMSO, 1956), p. 235, John Ellis Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War (London: Andre Deutsch, 1990) p. 266

[xxxiv] Denis Richards and Hilary Saunders Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Volume 2, p. 166, John Ellis Ibid

[xxxv] John Ellis Ibid

[xxxvi] John Ellis Brute Force, p. 267

[xxxvii] Philip Guedella P Middle East, p. 192

[xxxviii] Arthur Tedder With Prejudice: The War Memoirs of Marshal of Royal Air Force Lord Tedder G.C.B. (London: Cassell, 1966) p. 36

[xxxix] Sun Tzu The Art of War (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995) p. 89

[xl] Unfortunately, the effect which intelligence has upon the nature of air campaign in the Second World War has had little attention paid to it. The only major academic work found by this author is, Brad Gladmam ‘Intelligence and Anglo-American Close Air Support in the Western Desert and Tunisia, 1939-1943′, PhD Thesis, University College London, 2001

[xli] Brad Gladman ‘Air Power and Intelligence in the Western Desert, 1940-1943′, Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Winter 1998) p. 144

[xlii] Brad Gladman ‘Air Power and Intelligence’, Intelligence and National Security, p. 145

[xliii] I. S. O. Playfair History of the Second World War: The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume I, p. 112

[xliv] I. S. O. Playfair History of the Second World War: The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume I, p. 193

[xlv] NA, AIR 41/25, The Middle East Campaigns, Vol. II: Operations in Libya and the Western Desert, June 1941 – Jan. 1942, The Enemy Supply Situation in Libya, Appendix Z, 10 Nov. 1941

[xlvi] Brad Gladman ‘Air Power and Intelligence’, Intelligence and National Security, p. 146

[xlvii] Brad Gladman ‘Air Power and Intelligence’, Intelligence and National Security, p. 148

[xlviii] Brad Gladman ‘Air Power and Intelligence’, Intelligence and National Security, p. 150

[xlix] For example see, Ralph Bennett Ultra and the Mediterranean Strategy (New York: Morrow, 1989), Ch. 12

[l] Brad Gladman ‘Air Power and Intelligence’, Intelligence and National Security, p. 147

[li] Denis Richards Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Volume 1, p. 269, Peter Mead The Eye in the Air: History of Air Observation and Reconnaissance for the Army, 1785-1945 (London: HMSO, 1983) p. 167

[lii] Correlli Barnett Desert Generals, pp. 35-38

[liii] NA, AIR 26/402, Operations Record Book, No. 285 Wing, RAF M.E., 26 Aug. 1942

[liv] I. S. O. Playfair History of the Second World War: The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume III (London: HMSO, 1958), p. 380

[lv] Anon, AP 3000: British Air Power Doctrine, Third Edition (London: TSO, 1999) p. 3.13.1

[lvi] Anon, AP3000, p. 3.13.2

[lvii] By this time, Coningham had been promoted to take over and command a grouping of all tactical air forces in theatre, Northwest African Tactical Air Forces (NATAF, the equivalent of an army group command. Richard P. Hallion Strike From the Sky, p. 171, Vincent Orange Coningham: A Biography of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (London: Methuen, 1990) p. 131

[lviii] Roderic Owen Desert Air Force, p. 169, Christopher Shores Ground Attack Aircraft of World War II (London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1977) p. 65

[lix] Denis Richards and Hilary Saunders Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Volume 2, p. 266

[lx] NA, AIR 23/1708, The Eighth Army Break-Through at El Hamma, 26 March 1943′

[lxi] Denis Richards and Hilary Saunders Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Volume 2, p. 265

[lxii] Nigel Hamilton Monty: Master of the Battlefield, 1942-1944 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983) p. 203

[lxiii] Roderic Owen The Desert Air Force, p. 169

[lxiv] Denis Richards and Hiliary Saunders Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Volume 2, p. 185

[lxv] Denis Richards and Hilary Saunders Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Volume 2, pp. 233-241


9 responses to “The Development of RAF Air Power in North Africa – Main Body

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  5. “For example, during OPERATION CRUSADER aircraft from No. 258 Wing, comprised of Tomahawks and Hurricanes, managed on 26 January to hold up the enemy advance on Msus by bombing and strafing the Axis columns.[lxiv]”

    I presume this relates to the following sentence?

    “On 26th January the Tomahawks, Kittyhawks and Hurricanes, repeatedly harrying the enemy as he pressed forward along the desert tracks, claimed 120 lorries destroyed or damaged. For the moment the advance on Msus was held.”

    I am afraid this appears to be fantasy. Neither the war diaries of D.A.K. or of 15. PD, nor the short combat report for Jan 42 of 21. PD mention any air attacks on that day and the D.A.K. was already based at Msus on 26 Jan 42. What D.A.K. did on the day was push recce towards the north (15.PD) and north-east (21.PD), and this was mistaken by 8 Army command as a major attack, IIRC. But the RAF attacks appear to have had zero influence on the actions of the day, which for D.A.K. was primarily to gather the booty captured at Msus.

    And just to be certain, I also checked 25 Jan 42, which was the actual day of the advance on Msus. No mention of the RAF, other than the 12 planes captured that day on Msus LG.

    I would strongly counsel not to rely on the often outdated and quite often also biased official histories. It is hard to understand why the authors, who could have accessed the original records, made such statements.

    All the best

    Andreas (

  6. Actually, just for good measure I also checked the WD of the D.A.K. QM. No mention of air attacks on 25/26 Jan 42, but mention of attacks on supply columns and losses due to them for 27 Jan, and also for 29 Jan. For the night of that day heavy attacks on rear services are reported. The QM actually lost his Ordonnanz (orderly?) due to the attack he suffered on 27 Jan (DoW).

    So the operational impact appears to have been (if any at all) due to supply column interdiction caused after Msus was captured, rather than caused by engaging the spearhead.

    All the best


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  8. Andreas,

    You should realise that that the Germans were notorious for leaving out details of losses. The Luftwaffe did this habitually. While one has to be wary of old histories and hyperbole, one can also be misled by incomplete War Diaries. It doesn’t prove anything.

  9. Daniel, I know war diaries are not the be-all. But if the official history claims that it stopped the German move on Msus the day AFTER the Germans occupied it, I don’t need to question the war diaries. The absence of reporting of losses is just the icing on the cake. It’s the cake itself. The OH claims that on 26 Jan it stopped the advance on Msus. The Germans were there since Jan 25. What else do you need to know?

    All the best


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