The Development of RAF Air Power in North Africa – Conclusion

Here is the conclusion to my work on the RAF’s Desert Air Force. The other two parts can be seen here and here. Much of the conclusion is derived from secondary literary sources notable work about Rommel, Montgomery and Conningham. It would be interesting to one day to dig a bit further and assess the effectiveness of air power North Africa but that is for the future as they say.



Axis Appreciation of RAF Tactical Air Power:

In order to consider the strategic effectiveness of the developments in RAF tactical air power and its evolving doctrines is too see what affect it had upon the strategies and morale of the opposition. In order to do this several memoirs and papers have been consulted in order to gain a picture of the effect of these operations upon the axis war effort. Notable among these memoirs and papers is The Rommel Papers[1] and Colonel Hans Von Luck Panzer Commander.[2]

Morale is one of the tangibles in military history that is hard to quantify and as such, the effect that air power may have on someone one day may not be the same the next.  Morale can be defined as the:  

…condition with respect to discipline and confidence, pride, fixity of purpose, faith in the cause fought for…’[3]

The morale of the German Army of the Second World War has been an often studied subject in an attempt to understand why the average German fought and once he knew the war could no longer be won why he continued to fight. Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz conducted an early study.[4] This study was conducted by interviewing German prisoners of war and Shils and Janowitz concluded that the soldiers fought because of the following factors: small group ties, proximity to other groups, devotion to Hitler, fear of retribution and the paternalism of officer’s and NCO’s among others.[5] The most important of these factors were the small group ties and the paternalism of officers and NCO’s, if these could be broken then it was concluded morale could be affected. This is what tactical air power sought to do as an aside. By effectively utilising, the development in tactical air operations morale of the enemy could be affected. In using CAS/BAI operations morale was affected by breaking the ties inherent in the small group of units and the paternalism of officers and NCO’s that soldiers had come to trust in war. By breaking those ties, morale would be affected and therefore, the effectiveness of the army as a whole would be reduced.

The commander of Axis forces in North Africa was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Rommel had risen to command the DAK after his success during the French Campaign when he commanded the 7th Panzer Division, the so-called ‘Ghost Division, which made an amazing run from the Meuse River to the French coast during that campaign. On the 12 February, Rommel arrived in Africa to take control of the newly formed Deutches Afrika Korps (DAK) and immediately had an impact when he on 31 march his 5th Light Division slammed into British forces at Mersa Brega and eventually forcing the British back into the eastern end of Cyrenaica.[6]

The major source for Rommel’s opinion in this study come from The Rommel Papers previously mentioned. This work was edited by the notable military historian Captain B H Liddell Hart, though it must be noted that much debate has surrounded the work of this historian and his influence on the German Generals,[7] nonetheless he had the aid of Rommel’s wife Lucie-Maria and his son Manfred as well as one of Rommel’s most trusted Generals, Fritz Bayerlain, the future commander of the Panzer Lehr Division who gave exemplary service during the Normandy campaign as well as in North Africa, which helps make this work a good reference for Rommel’s opinions.

Rommel had a great respect for the ability of the Allies to be able to bring to bare their industrial might onto the battlefield especially in the realm of air power. He commented at the Battle of Alam Halfa in September 1942 that:

…non-stop and very heavy air attacks by the R.A.F., whose command of the air had been virtually complete, had pinned my army to the ground and rendered any smooth deployment or any advance by time-schedule completely impossible.[8]

Here we see the effect of both CAS and BAI operations on Rommel’s strategic deployment of his forces. Not only were BAI attacks crippling his army of the much-needed fuel, it needed for his offensives but also CAS operations were causing casualties at the front. Rommel comments that the majority of his casualties, both in personnel and vehicles were caused by the operations of the DAF. He also admits that he had come to the realisation that an army could not effectively operate when the enemy enjoyed command of the air. Something, which was a central tenant of British and allied tactical air operations, gain command of the air and then subject the enemy to attacks from CAS/BAI operations. Rommel admits that he learnt two points from this encounter; these points were to be reinforced later at the Battle of El Alamein and during the campaign in Normandy. The points were that:

(a) the paralysing effect which air activity on such a scale had on motorised forces; above all, the serious damage which had been caused to our units by area bombing.

(b) The British bid to secure complete command of the air and to exercise it to the full.[9]

Therefore, Rommel appreciated the effect the DAF’s operations had upon his ability to wage war against the Eighth Army. As he himself recognised the ability of the DAF to have command of the air meant they could attack Rommel’s forces wherever and whenever they liked.[10] This superiority was converted into the effective use of air power as a supplement to the ground operations of Eighth Army as would be seen later on at El Hamma. Thus, by limiting how Rommel could utilise his forces, because of the lack of air cover he had and his apprehension over attacks by the DAF shaped the North African campaign into a shape, which conformed to British favour.

Field Marshal Kesselring, the German C-in-C in the Mediterranean also recognised the growing ascendancy of British air power in the region and how with its effective application conjunction with the army it proved decisive in destroying the Axis forces in the region. As he comments, ‘With a…powerful air force behind it the Eighth Army was capable of tackling the most arduous tasks…’[11] therefore, again we can see how a high ranking German officer realises the effect the successful application of RAF tactical air power was effecting Axis operations.

Colonel Von Luck’s memoir also offers some interesting insights into the growth of RAF air power in the region. For example, just after the First Battle of El Alamein he comments that a sandstorm kept the ‘…superior RAF from being used…’ and that this was a good thing as it gave his unit a respite from continual strafing and bombing from BAI missions.[12] Accordingly, German sources relate to the observer that in North African campaign, the British with their advances in tactical air power were able to affect their own forces and shape the campaign in their favour. By the end of the end of the campaign, when enjoying air superiority, the DAF was able to attack German troops and supplies whenever they wished, thus limiting German movements.

Consequently, the German sources show how they appreciated the effect the developments of RAF tactical air power were having upon their operations. These effects varied from effecting their supply situation through BAI to preventing the Luftwaffe supporting their own operations, and how the use of CAS missions forced changes in their operational planning and affected the morale of their troops.

British Appreciation of Tactical Air Power:

By the end of the campaign in North Africa, the DAF had evolved into effective tactical air asset and the main component of Coningham’s NATAF. It had begun it’s life in the late 1940’s as a grouping of odd equipment with not much to go on but trial and but had by the last surrender of Axis forces in Tunisia, ‘…an essential part of the whole war effort…’[13] 

Because of the successful co-ordination of the Eighth Army and the DAF, Coningham drafted a pamphlet, subsequently issued by Montgomery, extolling the virtues of effective co-ordination between the army and the air force. It raised certain points relating to the performance and command of tactical air power. Its most important paragraph commented that:

…it follows that control of the available air power must be centralised and command must be exercised through Air Force channels. Nothing could be more fatal to successful results than to dissipate the air resources into small packets placed under command of Army formation commanders with each packets working on its own plan. The soldier must not expect or wish to exercise direct command over air striking forces. [14]

This paragraph summarises the attitude that was to prevail for the rest of the war between the RAF and the British Army. If it had not been for the developments in the desert, and these were as discussed many and varied, this position would never have come about and it is possible at the failures discovered in France may well have continued throughout the war. As Coningham himself noted on the North African campaign, ‘…it was here that the machine which was to sweep North-Wets Europe was forged and tested.’[15]

Therefore, all of the developments forged in North Africa not only shaped the nature of that campaign but also helped to shape the nature of allied strategy and tactics for the invasion of Europe. It lay the foundation of how the allied armies and the supporting tactical air forces would operate. Even though some of the techniques would be refined by the end of the war, they all had their roots in the developments of North Africa. Without the willingness for the army and air force, officers in the theatre willing to overcome the issues with which they were presented then they would not have been conquered. Perhaps the best epitaph for the role the DAF played in North Africa comes from Montgomery who wrote that:

I don’t suppose any army has ever been supported by such a magnificent air striking force. I have always maintained that the 8th Army and the R.A.F. in the Western Desert together one fighting machine, and therein lies our great strength.[16]

British developments not only affected the planning of operations by the Eighth Army but also changed the ideas of Britain’s new erstwhile ally, America. As Michael Bechthold has commented the key for the reorganisation of American forces after the Kasserine Pass debacle was a:

…reorganization… [and]…adoption of the British Eighth Army-Western Desert Air Force model of ground-air cooperation which had proven successful in combat.[17]

The US Army Air Force entered the North African campaign with the manual FM 31-35, Aviation in Support of Ground Forces. This argued that air power be subordinated to the ground commander. This idea was found wanting at Kasserine when American forces were penny pocketed and destroyed. After this, Coningham, in his new role as C-in-C NATAF, instated reforms on the army tactical aviation arms along the British model. This led to the adopting of FM 100-20, Command and Employment of Air Power. This manual extolled all the lessons learned by the DAF in the Western Desert and applied it to USAAF. The system was to be used by both air forces throughout the war, and while problems did occur they were generally overcome but:

This would not have been the case without the experience of North Africa and the successful example of the Montgomery-Coningham team.[18]



[1] Basil Liddell-Hart (Ed.) The Rommel Papers (New York: De Capo Press, 1953)

[2] Hans Von Luck Panzer Commander: The Memoirs of Colonel Hans Von Luck (London: Cassell, 2002)

[3] Anon The Wordsworth Concise English Dictionary (London: Wordsworth, 1994), p. 627

[4] E. Shils and M. Janowitz ‘Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II’ Public Opinion Quarterly, 12 (Summer 1948). A section of which appears in Lawrence Freedman (Ed.) War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) pp. 143-144

[5] N. Kinzer Stewart ‘Military Cohesion’ in Freedman L (Ed.) War, p. 146

[6] During this action, Rommel managed to bag O’Connor and his staffs, so quick were his advances. For detail on these early action see Williamson Murray and Alan R. Millet A War To Be Won, p. 101

[7] For an insight into the debate about Liddell Hart’s influence on the German Generals both pre war and after the war see Azar Gat ‘British Influence and the Evolution of the Panzer Arm: Myth or Reality? Part I’ War in History, 1997, Vol. 4:2, pp. 150-173 and Azar Gat ‘British Influence and the Evolution of the Panzer Arm: Myth or Reality? Part II’ War in History, 1997, Vol. 4:3, pp. 316-338

[8] Basil Liddell Hart (Ed.) Rommel Papers, p. 283

[9] Basil Liddell Hart (Ed.) Rommel Papers, p. 284

[10] Basil Liddell Hart (Ed.) Rommel Papers, p. 328

[11] Albert Kesselring The Memoirs of Field Marshal Kesselring (Novato, CA: Presido Press, 1989) p. 132

[12] Hans Von Luck Panzer Commander, p. 107

[13] Roderic Owen The Desert Air Force, p. 180

[14] Bernhard L. Montgomery Some Notes on High Command in War (8th Army, Tripoli: 1943). Cited in Richard P. Hallion Strike from the Sky, p. 162

[15] 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. 216

[16] Cited in Roderic Owen The Desert Air Force, p. 181

[17] Michael Bechthold ‘A Question of Success: Tactical Air Doctrine and Practice in North Africa, 1942-43′, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 3 (July 2004) p. 821

[18] Michael Bechthold ‘A Question of Success’ The Journal of Military History, p. 852


One response to “The Development of RAF Air Power in North Africa – Conclusion

  1. Already during operation SOMMERNACHTSTRAUM, the raid into Egypt on 14 Sept 1941 21.PD was very heavily hit by the DAF, and I am sure Rommel took note of this.

    There have been some interesting works by hobby historians in Italy, assessing the air battles. Michele Palermo and Ludovico Slongo’s work on the RA’s 1st Fighter Wing, and Palermo’s stand-alone work on the air war during CRUSADER, and I would also highly recommend Hakan Gustawsson and Ludovico Slongo’s ‘Desert Prelude’ in two editions. These are much needed updates to Shore and Ring’s work. All of them go back to the primary sources (ORBs, war diaries, ULTRA intercepts), and provide a much-needed reassessment of the air war in North Africa.

    All the best


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