RAF Training Policy for Combined Operations

Bernard Fergusson in his history of Combined Operations, The Watery Maze, has described the RAF as having a nonchalant attitude towards the subject of Combined Operations by stating that they were inclined to take the view that ‘…there was nothing particularly tricky in supporting an amphibious operation.’[1] As has already been illustrated there is little evidence of this being true, however, due to the pressures of the war effort the RAF did have problems in preparing units for possible Combined Operations. It took until November 1941 for any movement to take place in providing COHQ with any form of permanent advisor on air operations; though it should be noted that until this point Combined Operations had been small and required minimal air support. Mountbatten wrote to the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, requesting the posting of an officer of the rank of Group Captain to fill the post of Assistant Advisor on Combined Operations (Air) in order to allow him to carry out his duties as Advisor on Combined Operations.[2] CAS replied on 5 November agreeing to release Group Captain Willetts to serve on Mountbatten’s staff.[3] At the same time as this appointment, Mountbatten chaired the first meeting of an Inter-Service Committee that was charged with examining questions of training, equipment, inspection and administration for Combined Operation. From an air power perspective, the key conclusion of the first meeting of this committee was that there was a need for greater RAF participation in order for COHQ’s training programme to be met. In response to this meeting Mountbatten again wrote to CAS to request suitable officers and equipment be seconded to COHQ. Mountbatten stated that ‘At present we have no tested doctrine…for the employment of air forces in combined operations…’; the key word here being tested as there certainly already existed a doctrine on the use of air power Combined Operations as laid out in the 1938 Manual of Combined Operations and in the RAF’s War Manual AP1300.[4] He argued that in order to rectify this situation the only suitable solution was the positing of a ‘…competent and representative body of airman…’ to work alongside officers from the RN and Army.[5] Mountbatten in this letter points out that one of the key issues that had not yet been grappled with for the RAF were some of the more practical issues such as the capture and preservation of aerodromes, which while discussed had not as yet been analysed and competently examined. However, it was noted that the primary aim of air power, as laid out in pre-war doctrine, was the maintenance of air superiority. In a reply to this letter, CAS vigorously picked up the issue and requested that the Director of Plans examine the issue forthwith.[6] The decision was taken initially to appoint a senior staff officer, Air Commodore Walker, a signals officer and administrative officer.[7]

While a nucleus staff was being set up the more pressing question of equipment and the role of the unit based Inverary was being raised by December. The question of the formation of a development flight was dealt with by a meeting of relevant personnel on 24 December 1941.[8] It was at this meeting, brought forward to 23 December, that the decision was taking to form No. 1441 Combined Operations Development Flight. The units remit was to act as an experimental establishment that was to explore aerial problems inherent to Combined Operations and to take part in exercises with the Commando units at Inverary. Initially the unit was to be equipped with Westland Lysnaders but it was envisaged that these would be replaced as soon as possible with more suitable fighter types, specifically the Hawker Hurricane.[9]

At the same time as the formation of No. 1441 Flight there was raised the question of control of air operations in any Combined Operation by Mountbatten. In a letter to Air Marshal Sir Richard Peck, ACAS (G), of 7 February 1942, Mountbatten queried a directive issued to Air Commodore Fullard reference the appointment of force commanders for the air aspect of a Combined Operation.[10] Mountbatten referred to a decision taken at a meeting on 28 December 1941 where it had been decided that until any foothold had been gained on the continent command of any air contingent would fall on the Air Advisor on Combined Operations and then afterward it would devolve onto a force commander.[11] Mountbatten argued that the directive to Fullard was at variance with his role and the role initially given to the Air Advisor in a directive of 6 February 1942 and required clarification of the procedure for the appointment of a force commander from the RAF.[12] This issue of force commander and the role of Mountbatten’s air advisor were clarified in a memo from DCAS to the Director of Plans, which stated that in the opinion of CAS the force commander should be the AOC-in-C of the predominant command involved in the operation and not the Air Advisor on Combined Operations, thus in Operation JUBILEE command would devolve onto Air Marshal Sir Trafford Mallory rather than the Air Advisor on Combined Operations.[13]

With the appointment of an air staff to the COHQ set-up, attention turned to the issue of training the appropriate RAF units in preparation for their participation in projected Combined Operations. A meeting was planned for 9 February 1942 to discuss the training of RAF units in Combined Operations; however, the meeting was pushed back to 16 February. At the top of the agenda of this meeting was which type of training was to be the priority of No. 1441 Flight. These included, first, fighter support and control, second, smoke laying, third, close support and finally, recognition of ships.[14] The meeting agreed that in meeting the first method of training the methods utilised by No. 1441 Flight should match those of Fighter Command as closely as possible in order to ease interoperability for training.[15] Based on a statement by CAS that ‘The RAF will make available in turn six fighter squadrons for training with the Expeditionary Force.’ discussions took place exploring the efficacy of rotating squadrons from operational commands in order to take part in training.[16] Air Commodore Whitworth-Jones, the Director of Fighter Operations, noted that up to fifteen squadrons had been earmarked for exercises and experiments with the then forming expeditionary force and that initially it would be from these squadrons that the initial training units would come from. It was noted that there was a need for Bomber Command squadrons; in particularly those from No. 2 Group, to train and that, the matter was to be discussed with Air Chief Marshal Harris, C-in-C Bomber Command.[17]

Director of Plans, Air Marshal Dickson, had by the end of March issued operational orders to the C-in-C’s of the functional commands involved with Combined Operations; Fighter, Bomber and Army Co-Operation Commands, and took up the issue of supplying appropriate squadrons for training vigorously. The orders, sent out under the aegis of DCAS, Air Vice Marshal Bottomley, note that it was the intention of the Air Ministry to ‘…press forward as rapidly as possible with training and preparation for combined operations.’[18] Air Chief Marshal Douglas, AOC-in-C Fighter Command, was instructed that the intention to train all fighter squadrons in army air support had now been extended to include the ‘…special conditions of Combined Operations.’[19] It was made clear to Douglas that the Air Staff were aware that his command was under sever operational pressures and that the system of rotation being implemented in order to affect the training of units was to be worked out in conjunction with the CCO. Douglas was also ordered to aid Army Co-Operation Command by providing battle experience for three fighter-reconnaissance squadrons.[20] It was also made clear to Douglas that RAF participation in Combined Operation fell into two categories, first, air cover over the area of the operation and, second, support of ground troops in the land phase of the battle.[21] DCAS, in his minute to the Deputy Director of Fighter Operations reference the extent of Douglas’ knowledge, makes it clear that it is his opinion that it is in the second category that he believes that the greatest degree of training is required and that if it makes training more economical and effective then a wing of six squadrons should be made available at any one time depending on operational requirements.[22]

A similar operational order was issued to the AOC-in-C of Army Co-Operation Command.[23] In response to this directive Air Vice Marshal Barrett responded by noting that he had already earmarked three squadron, No. 225, No. 239 and No. 241, to partake in Combined Operations training exercises.[24] However, Barratt raised the issue of the equipment of his squadrons and noted that the current equipment of his units was not appropriate for what it was being asked to perform.[25] This was a similar issue that effected No. 1441 Flight. Barrett believed that if this issue was not dealt with it would seriously impair their training. No. 239 Squadron was to take part in Operation JUBILEE and at the time of this communication it was equipped with Curtiss Tomahawks, which Barrett deemed unacceptable, however, by the time of the operation it had been re-equipped with North American Mustang MkIA’s.[26]

A draft directive was prepared for Bomber Command but not issued. The draft letter directed Harris to provide squadrons from No. 2 Group for training particularly with reference to smoke laying operations.[27] However, the Director of Pans sent the letter to VCAS for verification due to the wide-ranging operations, which No. 2 Group was then undertaking, and it was felt that the addition of another operational requirement could cause problems.[28] At this point, the light bombers of No. 2 Group were involved in a wide range of activities, which were split into operational and training issues. In terms of operations, the group was involved in CIRCUS, Intruder and Channel Stop operations.[29] The key issue for DCAS was to avoid interference in Bomber Commands operations while meeting the requirements for training in Combined Operations and he directed that this be included in any directive to Harris.[30] At the same time, the draft letter was sent to the Director of Bomber Operations who was concerned that certain assurances would have to be given to Harris in particular with reference to the re-equipment of No. 2 Group.[31] Subsequently VCAS, Air Chief Marshal Freeman, wrote to Harris directing him to provide squadrons for training but noting that this activity should not influence operations unnecessarily.[32] Freeman’s letter, and a letter sent on 15 April by Air Commodore Lewis-Roberts, the Director of Operation Training, who outlined the RAF’s training policy with regards to Combined Operations, received a swift reply from Harris who was characteristic in his forthright delivery of his opinion on the plans to provide squadrons for operations that he described as a ‘…hypothetical operation.’[33] The training policy outlined that Bomber Command must train four light bomber squadrons in Combined Operations and that in particular they must familiarise themselves with recognition techniques, close support bombing and smoke laying.[34] Harris noted that this policy was wasteful and that he thought that given the turnover in crews it would be ineffective. Harris suggested that the most effective means of providing training for his crews in these forms of operation would be in the Operational Training Units.[35] Harris received a swift reply from DCAS who re-iterated that the semi-official directive given to him by VCAS on 7 April stood firm and that it was the intention of the Air Staff to proceed promptly with this policy.[36] Thus, Harris was expected to implement the policy despite his apparent objections.

However, despite the objection of Harris, the decision to train units in support of Combined Operations was in the main received positively by the operational heads of the commands responsible for possible support operations. On 1 May 1942, Douglas at Fighter Command received a directive from DCAS on his priority of tasks for future operations. The letter referred to the recent discussions that had taken place on the subject of training for Combined Operations. DCAS prioritised the operations of Fighter Command as:

(a) The intensification of the day fighter offensive which calls for reinforcement of 11 Group with Spitfire squadrons.

(b) Maintenance of a proper state of readiness of squadrons ear-marked for operation “Region”

(c) The training of fighter squadrons in rotation in Combined Operation[37]

Thus, by May 1942, training for a ‘hypothetical’ operation had clearly become one of the primary tasks of Fighter Command in particular and the other functional commands in general. It was noted that units that were earmarked for Operation BLAZING should be the first to rotate through the training program.[38] No. 239 Squadron was the first squadron to go through the training at RAF Abbotsinch and would later serve during Operation JUBILEE. Thus, by the time planning and training was moving forward the RAF had in place a policy and doctrine that not only took account of the need of Combined Operations but that also made it a leading priority in the training tasks of the appropriate functional commands.


[1] Bernard Fergusson The Watery Maze: The Story of Combined Operations (London: Collins, 1961) p. 82

[2] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Letter from Rear Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten to CAS’ 1 November 1941

[3] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Letter from CAS to ACO’ 5 November 1941

[4] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Letter from ACO to CAS’ 6 November 1941

[5] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Letter from ACO to CAS’ 6 November 1941

[6] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Memo from D. of Plans to VCAS, AMP, AMSO and DWO’ 7 November 1941; AIR 20/5011 ‘Letter from CAS to ACO’ 8 November 1941

[7] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Letter from CAS to ACO’ 8 November 1941

[8] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Memo from D. of Plans to DGO, DWO and DTO’ 21 December 1941

[9] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Minutes of a Meeting held in the Air Ministry, Whitehall, on 23rd December to discuss formation of an Air Section at Combined Training Centre, Inverary, and of a Combined Operations Development Flight’

[10] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Letter from Mountbatten to ACAS(G)’ 7 February 1942

[11] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Annex to Agenda fro Meeting of Combined Operations Air Committee’ 29 December 1941

[12] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Directive to Vice Admiral, Combined Training’ 6 February 1942, p. 2

[13] TNA, AIR 20/5011 ‘Memo from DCAS to D. of Plans’ 23 February 1942

[14] TNA, DEFE 2/812 ‘Agenda – Meeting to Discuss the Training of RAF Units in Combined Operations’ 5 February 1942, p. 1

[15] TNA, DEFE 2/812 ‘Minutes of the Meeting to Discuss the Training of RAF Units in Combined Operations’ 16 February 1942, p. 1

[16] TNA, DEFE 2/812 ‘Agenda – Meeting to Discuss the Training of RAF Units in Combined Operations’ 5 February 1942, p. 1

[17] TNA, DEFE 2/812 ‘Minutes of the Meeting to Discuss the Training of RAF Units in Combined Operations’ 16 February 1942, p. 3

[18] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 4A – Letter from DCAS to AOC-in-C Fighter Command’ 31 March 1942, p. 1

[19] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 4A – Letter from DCAS to AOC-in-C Fighter Command’ 31 March 1942, p. 1

[20] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 4A – Letter from DCAS to AOC-in-C Fighter Command’ 31 March 1942

[21] TNA, AIR 20/829 ‘ Minute from DCAS to Deputy Director of Fighter Operations’ 21 March 1943

[22] TNA, AIR 20/829 ‘ Minute from DCAS to Deputy Director of Fighter Operations’ 21 March 1943

[23] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 5A – Letter from DCAS to AOC-in-C Army Co-Operation Command’ 31 March 1942

[24] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 12A – Letter from AOC-in-C Army Co-Operation Command to DCAS

Ref. Training of AC Squadrons in Combined Operations’ 4 April 1942, p. 1

[25] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 12A – Letter from AOC-in-C Army Co-Operation Command to DCAS

Ref. Training of AC Squadrons in Combined Operations’ 4 April 1942, p. 2

[26] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 12A – Letter from AOC-in-C Army Co-Operation Command to DCAS

Ref. Training of AC Squadrons in Combined Operations’ 4 April 1942, p. 2; Norman Franks The Greatest Air Battle: Dieppe, 19th August 1942 (London: Grub Street, 1997) p. 224

[27] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 6A – Draft Letter from Director of Plans to AOC-in-C Bomber Command’

[28] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘Minute by Director of Plans to VCAS reference File 6A’ 31 March 1942

[29] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘Minute by Director of Plans to VCAS reference File 6A’ 31 March 1942

[30] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘Minute by DCAS to Director of Plans reference File 6A’ 31 March 1942

[31] TNA AIR 20/829 ‘Minute by Director of Bomber Operations to DCAS’ 20 March 1942

[32] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 11A – Letter from VCAS to AOC-in-C Bomber Command’ 7 April 1942

[33] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 18A – Letter from AOC-in-C Bomber Command to the Under Secretary for State for Air reference Training Combined Operation – Bomber Command’s Commitment’ 26 April 1942 p. 2; AIR 2/7697 ‘File 20B – Letter from Director of Operation Training to Operational Commanders’ 15 April 1942

[34] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 20B – Appendix ‘A’ – RAF Training Policy and Training Requirements in Combined Operations’

[35] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 18A – Letter from AOC-in-C Bomber Command to the Under Secretary for State for Air reference Training Combined Operation – Bomber Command’s Commitment’ 26 April 1942 p. 2

[36] TNA, AIR 2/7697 ‘File 19A – Letter from DCAS to AOC-in-C Bomber Command’ 30 April 1942

[37] TNA, AIR 20/829 ‘Letter from DCAS to AOC-in-C Fighter Command reference Fighter Command: Priority of Tasks’ 1 May 1942, p. 1

[38] TNA, AIR 20/829 ‘Letter from DCAS to AOC-in-C Fighter Command reference Fighter Command: Priority of Tasks’ 1 May 1942, p. 2

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