Gallipoli, Combined Operations and Air Power

Just a bit that I have been working on lately for my thesis. This is part of my attempt to place air power and combined operations in its historical context and explain where the thinking on air powers use in the type of operation came from. Comments always welcomed and wanted.


The experience of the First World War had a profound affect on the development on all aspects of British military doctrine in the inter-war period and this was no less true of Combined Operations.[1] In October 1919 the Army and the Royal Navy held the first Combined Operations exercise at the Army Staff College (ASC) and it was during this exercise that the importance of air power on Combined Operations was first identified. Major General Anderson, Commandant of the ASC, observed that the most important lessons from the First World War was that Combined Operations ‘…will in the future have to be considered as a combined operation involving all three services..’[2]

The key experience for Combined Operations from the First World War came from operations conducted during the Dardanelles Campaign in 1915 and the small raids conducted along the Flanders coast, the most notable of which was the raid on Zeebrugge on 22/23 April 1918.[3] As for Gallipoli, Kenneth Clifford has noted that ‘The lessons of Gallipoli were more than a past experience…’[4] Thus, it would be this operation that would be the guiding hand on the development of British Combined Operations doctrine during the inter-war years.

The Dardanelles campaign was a failure, on that most historians’ agree. In the aftermath of the campaign the Dardanelles Commission was set up in order to examine the purpose and conduct of the campaign.[5] However, despite its exertions and criticisms, the conduct of air power during the campaign was overlooked as a contributory factor to the problems that the forces deployed during the campaign faced.[6] However, air power did not live up to it expectation as, in line with other campaigns of the First World War, air power did not contribute in the war the airmen expected it to. Eric Ash has noted that, Colonel Frederick Sykes, the senior airmen for much of the campaign, ‘…failed to appreciate the technological limits of air power…’[7] During the campaign the main roles for the air forces deployed were those normally associated with air power in the early years of the First World War; tactical reconnaissance (Tac R) and artillery reconnaissance and spotting (Arty R).[8] However, as the campaign progressed, as in other theatres, other roles came to the fore. For example, during November and December 1915 attempts at Battlefield Aerial Interdiction (BAI) were made upon important logistical centres such as Ferejik and Dede Agach in an attempt to dislocate the battlefield from the Turkish lines of communication.[9] Also throughout much of the campaign Turkish troop movements from railheads became targets of opportunities for pilots.[10] In conducting the withdrawal from Gallipoli the two wings of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) were tasked with maintaining patrols overt the peninsula in order to maintain air superiority and stop Turkish aeroplanes from interfering in the retreat; in this they were successful and an important lesson in combined operations learnt.[11]

Despite some limited success near the end of the campaign the experience of air power for much of it had been frustrating. In June 1915, the aforementioned Colonel Sykes was sent to the Dardanelles to assess the use of air power and the problems it was encountering. Through his subsequent report and his command of the RNAS units employed during the campaign several key problems can be identified. The first key problem was one of command relationships. When Sykes went out to the Dardanelles the RNAS commander on the scene was Wing Commander C R Samson, a man noted to be uncooperative and tactless.[12] The relations between both men can be best described by Vice Admiral de Robeck’s communication to the First Sea Lord at the end of August 1915 when he noted that he hoped that Samson and Sykes would work well together but that ‘…an unfortunate publication…has appeared here…’ in which ‘…Samson [was] criticising Sykes.’[13] However, despite this clash Samson did continue to work with Sykes until his departure in November. Despite the emergence of a status quo between Sykes and Samson, relations with other naval officers remained strained and many refused to recognise Sykes’ naval rank, Wing Captain. This problem of command did not help the difficult conditions facing the air forces deployed to Gallipoli.

The RNAS’ main problem was one of reorganisation and reinforcement. The units sent out to support the campaign at its inception were woefully disproportionate to the task at hand. Samson’s squadron, No. 3 RNAS, was the main unit to be initially deployed, was expected to perform a multitude of tasks from spotting to bombing. However, the biggest problem faced by the squadron was one of logistics and organisation. The squadrons consisted of no less than five different types of aircraft which caused many problems when the need for spare parts arose.[14] Also the squadron’s original base of Tenedos was unsuitable for the squadron and eventually the squadron moved to Imbros in July 1915 where a more effective organisation was built up. Sykes also requested the replacement of the ragtag collections of aircraft equipping his command to be replaced and rationalised into single types in order to ease the logistical issues he faced.[15]

Once Sykes dealt with the organisational and logistical issues that his command faced he identified that his force had two objectives. The first was to act as a means of intelligence and communication between the services and secondly, to prevent reinforcements reaching the battlefield. In order to pursue these objectives Sykes came to realise that he also needed to maintain air superiority in order to stop the Turkish air force from interfering with his primary mission. Thus, he recognised that his role was to support the combined operation that was ongoing. For Sykes as an air power theorist this meant he had to think on the strategic and operational level in order to achieve tactical objectives. This meant he needed to build up air power in the region and then utilise it to dislocate the battle space and allow his command to achieve its primary objectives.[16] However, despite the limited success’ already mentioned the campaign ended before air power could have any significant impact upon its conduct. For example, Ash has noted that despite attempts at BAI they were on the whole insignificant.[17]

Yet despite the technological limitation placed upon Sykes’ command many lessons for future combined operations could and were drawn from this experience. The key lessons learnt were, first, that an effective operating base was needed and this was something that would frustrate the services in the inter-war period. Second, once this was established it was noted that for air power to effectively support the land and maritime operations air superiority would be needed, and indeed this would go on to be the primary objective of air power in the 1938 Manual of Combined Operations, which noted that ‘The main aim of air strategy…is therefore to assert the superiority of out air forces over…the enemy…as to prohibit any sustained attack on the expedition…’[18] Third, once this was achieved support operations could operate successfully within the battle space. Thus, the Dardanelles campaign would provide the lessons and context for the development of inter-war Combined Operations doctrine and the application of air power in support of that type of operation. As the Royal Air Force’s official history notes about Gallipoli, ‘For the first time a campaign was conducted on, under and over the sea, and on and over the land.’[19]

[1] For example, for the experience of the Army see: David French ‘Doctrine and Organisation in the British Army, 1919 – 1932’ The Historical Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2001) pp. 497 – 515

[2] The National Archives, ADM 116/2086 ‘Letter from Major General Anderson, Commandant Army Staff College to the Secretary of the Director of Staff Duties, War Office, 7/01/1920’ p. 1

[3] The literature on the Dardanelles Campaign is vast. Some of the best treatments of the campaign are: Jenny McLeod (Ed.) Gallipoli Reconsidered (London: Frank Cass, 2004) and Timothy Travers Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001). For the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend see Mark Karau ‘Twisting the Dragon’s Tail: The Zeebrugge and Ostend Raids of 1918’ Journal of Military History, Vol. 67, No. 2 (April 2003) pp. 455 – 481

[4] Kenneth Clifford Amphibious Warfare Development in Britain and America from 1920 (New York: Edgewood, 1983) p. 31

[5] Jenny McLeod ‘General Sir Ian Hamilton and the Dardanelles Commission’ War in History, Vol. 8, No. 4 (2001) p. 418

[6] Eric Ash ‘Sir Frederick Sykes and the Air Revolution, 1912 – 1918’ PhD Thesis (University of Calgary, 1995) p. 248

[7] Ash ‘Sir Frederick Sykes’ p. 241

[8] Peter Mead The Eye in the Air: History of Air Observation and Reconnaissance for the Army, 1785 – 1945 (London: HMSO, 1983) p. 112

[9] H A Jones The War in the Air: Being the Story of the part played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, Volume 2 (London: HMSO, 1928 ) pp. 64 – 72

[10] Ibid

[11] Jones The War in the Air, pp. 72 – 77

[12] Ash ‘Sir Frederick Sykes’ p. 243

[13] Cited in Ash ‘Sir Frederick Sykes’ p. 251 and Brad King ‘Gallipoli: The Royal Naval Air Service and the Dardanelles’ The Joint Imperial War Museum/Australian War Memorial Battlefield Study Tour to Gallipoli, September 2000 (2001) p. 8

[14] King ‘Gallipoli’ p. 3

[15] Jones The War in the Air, p. 57

[16] Ash ‘Sir Frederick Sykes’ pp. 253 – 256

[17] Ash ‘Sir Frederick Sykes’ p. 256

[18] TNA, AIR 10/1437 ‘Manual of Combined Operations (1938)’ p. 121

[19] Jones The War in the Air, p. 75


2 responses to “Gallipoli, Combined Operations and Air Power

  1. Interesting. I rate Ash’s book as not as good as John James’ _The Paladins_ much of which is a thinly-disguised biography of Sykes. But that might be because I love James’s style.

    With my supervisor/examiner hat on, I do have to say that while this is all good stuff, it belongs better in an introductory chapter than in the body of a thesis, given the proportion of it which is derived from secondary sources. If that’s where it’s intended to go, then as you were.

    Are you going to look at the role of the air in the Kronstadt attack, or does its lack of an army rule it out of consideration here? More to the point, in practice did the RFC / RAF / RNAS / RN develop the doctrines related to (1) sustained combined operations in support of an army, and (2) a set-piece ‘attack at source’, in isolation or in concert?

  2. Chris – Thanks for the comments.

    I am the opposite. I prefer Ash to James. Higham also has some good in it too.

    The purpose of the chapter this is from is to analyse the development of Combined Operations from the perspective of the RAF. This means looking at Gallipoli and its lessons as it this that is the RAF concentrates on. Even as late as 1942 that DCO, Air Vice Marshal Robb was delivering lecyture on the RAF Staff College’s War Course on Combined Opperations and it is Gallipoli that is the example. Kronstadt is not mentioned though interestingly in the late 1920’s there are a series of exercises that examine combined operation in the Baltic and the problems that is presented.

    In terms of doctrine the Manual of Combined Operations goes through several revisions in the inter-war years, first, in 1922, then in 1925, 1931 and 1938. The RAF is closely involved in all of this, especially in the 1938 edition when the RAF managed to widen up the scope of the manual as the RAF view of combined operation was much wider than the other services. This will be covered later in the first chapter. The RAF’s key lesson is the need for air superiority, hence, the link to Dieppe, in order to allow combined operation to occur. The key elements of the Manual of Combined Operations ends up in the relevant section of AP1300, thus, finding its way into the RAF’s strategic doctrine. I do agree though that it may need cutting down. Something for the re-drafting.


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