Originally published in Canadian Military History, Volume 9, Number 2, Spring 2000, pp 59-71.
The history of tactical air power in the battle of Normandy has been fraught with both misunderstanding and contradiction. Largely ignored by the army-centric historians who have written the histories of the campaign, it has been asserted on the one hand that Allied air power was overwhelming and on the other that the system for controlling it was cumbersome and ineffective. On the face of it, at least, there would appear to be some tension between these two schools of thought. Which is more accurate?
In order to examine that question, it is important to begin with an understanding of the doctrine for tactical air power - the contemporary doctrine of the time - and disputes about both that doctrine and the role of air power in the campaign. What emerges is that there is enough blame to go around for all parties - and enough credit. In truth, the doctrine of the time was under-developed, and this simply reflected some of the larger doctrinal weaknesses of the Western Allies' militaries.
The painting portrayed above is one of the more famous images from the campaign. It is an excerpt from Rocket Firing Typhoons over the Falaise Gap, Normandy 1944 by Frank Wootton. It captures a traditional view of Allied air power over the Normandy battlefield - crushing air supremacy that doomed the Germans. Chester Wilmot made this point early in his classic history of the war, The Struggle for Europe: "The value of this air supremacy can hardly be overrated."( 1) He is seconded in this opinion by virtually all of the Germans who fought in the campaign, in particular by the famous Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel. A much quoted 12 June 1944 message from Rommel to Berlin reads:
Our own operations are rendered extraordinarily difficult and in part impossible to carry out [owing to] the exceptionally strong and, in some respects overwhelming, superiority of the enemy air force.( 2)
It is perhaps somewhat paradoxical, therefore, that there is another theme running through commentary on the Battle of Normandy, and that is criticism of air support. Many critics have complained - some vociferously if not downright viciously - that the RAF( 3) was intransigent, uncooperative and sometimes downright stinting in its provision of air support to the land campaign.
Only a year after the war, Major-General C.C. Mann, who as a brigadier had been the Chief of Staff at First Canadian Army headquarters throughout the Northwest Europe campaign, made a striking and surprisingly blunt accusation. He described the basis of the British and Commonwealth doctrine for air support as "unsound."( 4)
Mann strongly believed the RAF air support had been stinting and unresponsive during the campaign in Northwest Europe. And this was not just his opinion upon reflection after the fact. In the midst of some of the worst fighting of the Normandy campaign, he had felt strongly enough about this to have taken the time to pen a long memorandum to Lieutenant-General H.D.G. Crerar, the commander of First Canadian Army.
The situation as it stands at present makes it quite impossible to expect that there can be any heavy or effective air attacks within a matter of several hours, to say the least, which require resources beyond those within the capacity of the Tactical Group supporting the Army concerned.( 5)Mann was especially disturbed by a particular air support request which he outlined in great detail. In the end, the RAF had declined to fill it. Mann considered this unacceptable.
In my opinion, the action of the ground forces is sabotaged, rather than supported, by the present practice of the Tactical Group with whom we have been cooperating.( 6)
This issue of timeliness, or perhaps more accurately responsiveness - getting close support air attacks on target as quickly as possible after Army request - has dominated consideration of the tactical air support issue from the very start. It was the issue that drove the first British efforts to reform their air support system after the debacle at Dunkirk and it was the issue that was central to complaints from the Army about air support throughout the Overlord campaign, the most vociferous example being (then) Brigadier Mann's accusations. Indeed, the timeliness issue has dominated the historiography of the issue down to the present day. Many commentators have discussed it, in tones generally disapproving of the RAF.( 7) Most recently Ian Gooderson, in his analysis of Allied tactical air power, stated:
The British system proved very successful in processing pre-planned air support strikes, but the more difficult test was how quickly air support could be provided in response to impromptu requests from forward troops, where speed was vitally important. In this respect, both in Italy and in the early stages of the campaign in North-West Europe, the process was simply not fast enough.( 8)
Are such accusations fair or accurate? In large part this question comes down to doctrine. After all, just what is the best way to apply air power against an enemy army in the field? Think of it this way - in June 1944 the Western Allies had over 9,000 aircraft in their various tactical air forces, the British and Commonwealth with over 2,000 in 2nd Tactical Air Force, specifically dedicated to OVERLORD. Now, having amassed such a vast armada, what should be done with it? Bomb German defensive positions right along the front? Attack supply depots further in the rear? Try and shoot up columns on the move? All of the above? Which is more profitable? Which is more effective? Where should the emphasis go? This is the nub of the doctrinal question, and as one might expect, there was not unanimity.
But first of all, this whole discussion poses an obvious question: just how fast was the response to army requests for air support? Significantly, after making the above sweeping accusation, Gooderson does not answer this question. In order to answer it, we need a quick overview of the air support doctrine of the time.
By 1944, British air support doctrine had gone through an extensive evolution. The war began in 1939 with some considerable enmity between the Army and RAF, even by the normal standards of inter-service rivalry. Indeed, the Army (and the RN) had at various times tried to have the RAF dissolved and its assets divided between the two older services.( 9) For its part, the RAF had preached the new doctrine of strategic bombing, which the RAF's founders and early leaders believed would render the older services themselves obsolescent, if not entirely obsolete.( 10) "The bomber will always get through," as the saying went. In this environment, not only did the RAF not allocate any significant amount of support to armies in the field, but they did not think very much about that particular issue either.( 11) The result of all of this was a system of air support in France in 1940 that was cumbersome, slow and ineffective - one of the contributing factors to the debacle at Dunkirk.
While convinced that strategic bombers would win the war, even the RAF's hierarchy realized that air support would have to be improved, and shortly after Dunkirk Air Marshal A.S. Barratt, who had been the commander of the RAF force in France in 1940, was made commander of a new command within the RAF - Army Cooperation Command. And within this new command two officers, both veterans of the recent disaster in France - Brigadier J.D. Woodall of the Army and Group Captain A. Wann of the RAF - were sent to the quiet backwater of Northern Ireland to jointly study the problem of air support to armies and propose solutions.( 12) This they did, producing what came to be known as the "Wann/Woodall Report." The key feature of the Wann/Woodall recommendations was the creation of an elaborate system of radio links, to allow the rapid passage of air support requests via a special communications network, outside of the normal chain of command. This report formed the basis for what became British and Commonwealth doctrine for air support. After some experimentation, the Wann/Woodall approach was exported to North Africa, where some independent developments had been made in the field. Together, these two strands of development gave rise to what became known as "Tactical Air Forces," the first such tactical air force being the famous Desert Air Force or "DAF."( 13)
Notwithstanding this progress being made at the working level, fierce Army/RAF disputes over command and control of air forces continued. The Army was keen to have air forces for ground support organic to their own service, or at least under Army command. This the RAF stoutly resisited, and even while the new tactical air force idea was coming together in North Africa the bureaucratic turf war over command and control escalated all of the way up to Prime Minister Churchill himself.( 14) He produced a compromise slightly favourable to the RAF. Contrary to the Air Staff's original wishes, a considerable portion of the RAF's resources would be devoted specifically to army support in the tactical air forces. But against the Army's demand, these air forces earmarked for army support would remain a part of the RAF, under sole RAF command. The Army and RAF remained separate services, and they operated under separate commanders, even in the furtherance of one combined plan. As the contemporary doctrine put it:
The Army Commander tells the Air Force Commander what he wants to achieve, and the Air Staff, having examined the problem, make Air plans with the Army's aim constantly in view.( 15)
Under this system, headquarters were paired at each level of command. For Operation OVERLORD, 2nd Tactical Air Force (2nd TAF) itself was in support of Montgomery's 21st Army Group, and both of these formations had a headquarters which were deemed to be co-equal. At the next level down, 83 Group and 84 Group were to be in support of Second British and First Canadian Armies respectively. This arrangement is important, because the principle of joint command meant that contrary to the Army's wishes, at no level could Army commanders order air support. Air forces were never under the command of Army commanders: both services remained under their own, completely separate, chains of command. In fact, the lowest level at which the two chains of command met was in the person of the Supreme Commander himself, General Dwight Eisenhower.( 16) As Brigadier Mann's accusations make clear, this was a contentious issue.
By the time of the Normandy campaign, British doctrine for army/air operations had matured considerably. Drawing upon the development process begun by the Wann/Woodall report and the experience of the DAF, two authoritative pamphlets were released in early 1944: Army/Air Operations: Pamphlet No, 1 - General Principles and Organization, and Army/Air Operations: Pamphlet No, 2 - Direct Support.( 17)
This doctrine distinguished between "indirect" and "direct" support. Indirect support was defined as "attacks on objectives which do not have immediate effect on the land battle, but nevertheless contribute to the broad plan."( 18) Typically that involved attacking enemy lines of communication, shipping, bases, rail targets and the like by heavy or medium bombers, but figher-bombers could be used against such targets as well. Direct support, on the other hand, was defined as "attacks upon enemy forces actually engaged in the land battle."( 19) Typical targets included defensive positions, hostile batteries of artillery or concentrations of armour. "Direct Support" is thus generally analogous - but not identical - to the modern term "close air support," which did not appear in the official British terminology of 1944. When targets such as panzers or artillery concentrating just to the rear were discovered, air strikes on these targets could be requested, and this was considered "direct support." Direct support was thus a slightly broader term than the modern close air support. It included not just close support, but also that air power applied behind the lines, but still within the immediate battle area.( 20) The most common means of dispatching such direct support into the German rear was by means of a mission known as "armed reconnaissance."
Armed reconnaissance, or "armed recce" as it was commonly known, was a mission type in which a unit of fighter-bombers patrolled a given route or area behind German lines. They would range over this area, collecting valuable intelligence and attacking any targets of opportunity, with bombs, rockets or guns.( 21) This was the mission type that led to so many shot-up German columns on the Norman roads, and it came to be perhaps the most important - and contentious - mission type of the campaign.
Direct support was further categorized on the basis of urgency, distinction being made between "impromptu" and "pre-arranged" requests for air support.( 22) Pre-arranged attacks were planned through the dedicated staff process, sometimes weeks ahead of time, but routinely for the next day. Impromptu requests were originated in the heat of battle by leading Army elements and sent via the special air request radio network first envisioned in the Wann/Woodall report.
Perhaps the most famous means of providing air support was "CABRANK", a system of close support in which a package of fighter-bombers, normally four Typhoons but sometimes an entire squadron, circled a specific point just behind the front, available to swoop down upon a target as soon as a forward controller called for support.( 23) If the ground troops were advancing, the CABRANK could advance with them. This procedure was immensely popular with the Army, perhaps because the circling aircraft were so reassuringly visible to friendly troops, but also because it meant that air support was available literally within minutes.
The centre of the process for planning pre-arranged air support was the air conference at Army/Group headquarters, which was meant to be held every evening but which in practice met only approximately every other day.( 24) These were quite large affairs, often attended by some 20 staff officers and chaired by the Army headquarters Chief of Staff. This conference would discuss the situation and routine operations for the next day and after the conference executive orders for the flying wings would be issued by the Group headquarters, usually by teleprinter. Additionally, specific conferences would be called as necessary to produce "Air Programmes" for major operations.( 25)
Since all of these elements were tied together on a single radio network specially dedicated to air support requests, information could be passed quickly. The intent was to allow the forward outstations, often with divisional or even brigade headquarters, to pass air requests directly back to Group/Army headquarters, without passing through the intermediate divisional and corps levels of command. The Army/Composite Group joint air staff could then either authorize or deny the request.( 26) If a forward controller was present with a CABRANK overhead, air strikes could be ordered without reference back to the Army/Composite Group headquarters.Diagram of the Standard Impromptu Requests
So, let us return to the question we started with. Just how responsive was RAF air support in Normandy? As we have seen, response time varied widely, depending in large part on what type of request was being made, but a full answer would be:
It is not clear that this is such a poor performance. Indeed, in the case of CABRANKs with a forward controller, response could be faster than the guns. Admittedly, CABRANKs were the exception rather than the rule, but CABRANKs were an extremely costly means of employing air power.( 28) In most cases a CABRANK consisted of between four and 12 Typhoons. Given loiter time, flying time, reloading and refueling time, to keep just one CABRANK filled generally required an entire wing (three squadrons) of Typhoons. There were only six Typhoon wings in all of 2nd TAF. So CABRANKs were reserved for when they were really needed - those comparatively rare cases when immediate close support really was essential.( 29) It was used sparingly, but it was available when necessary, such as at the spearhead of major attacks.
So what can be said about the Army criticisms of Air Force responsiveness? It would be tempting to conclude straight off that these Army/RAF problems were a hangover from the prewar inter-service rivalry which had so thoroughly poisoned relations between the two services. At the time, this was certainly the view of the Army in general and Brigadier Mann in particular. Since then, many historians have maintained that the primary motive behind alleged RAF intransigence was fear of coming under Army domination, and a desire to stress the RAF's independence.( 30)
Surely however, that view is too simple. It is difficult at best to peer into the minds of men long dead and discern their personal motives. Whatever those may have been, personal acrimonies should not be allowed to obscure the fact that there was a substantive intellectual dispute. Reflecting a theme that stretched at least back to the 1930s, the RAF was genuinely concerned to ensure that its air power was centralized for concerted blows, rather than "penny packeted out" to every army formation along the length of the front. Thus, the RAF preferred not to farm out all of their resources to a CABRANK for every division or corps along the front.
Furthermore, it has to be asked, why would an Army suddenly need air support of a weight "beyond ... the capacity of the Tactical Group supporting the Army concerned," as Mann put it?( 31) Presumably only in the event of an unexpected, very large scale, enemy offensive movement, or conversely some sudden and unexpected enemy collapse that they wished to capitalize upon. Does that really describe the requests Brigadier Mann was complaining about? The fact is, that on those occasions when there really was such a sudden great need, 2nd TAF's resources were indeed quickly concentrated - for instance during the German counteroffensive around Mortain, or during the battle to close the Falaise gap. Once again, it must be stressed that if it really was important to have air support on call really quickly, a CABRANK could be laid on. Finally, it should be pointed out that if a concentration of corps or army level artillery was required at a specific point, beyond the capacity of the normal divisional artillery in that sector, to paraphrase Brigadier Mann, then it could have taken days to move the guns and artillery shells needed into position. By that standard even routine pre-arranged requests for air support were lightning fast.
The debate, then, really hinges on the issue of the desired function for tactical air power. Was it meant to be, in essence, additional fire support for the forward troops, a supplement to the artillery? In that case, timeliness of response would be critical. Or was it meant to deny the Germans freedom of manouevre and subject them to a grim attritional battle? Alternatively, the doctrinal intent could have been to disrupt higher level German plans and intentions. In either of the latter two cases, timeliness of response would be far less critical; indeed, in those cases the priority of effort would be far behind the German lines.
Not surprisingly, given RAF attitudes, air support doctrine in 1944, such as it was, stressed the importance of central and independent control of air power, so as to be able to strike at the decisive points. The key doctrinal manual of the time, Army/Air Operations (1) General Principles and Organization,stated:
The air effort will be concentrated on a vital target at the decisive point. The tendency to fritter away the effort on relatively unimportant targets must be sternly resisted.( 32)
In the same vein, Army/Air Operations (2) Direct Support added:
The temptation to abuse the flexibility of air power by attacking targets that may appear to be favourable, but which in fact are not vital to the battle, must be resisted; otherwise the forces available may be dissipated and not used to the best advantage of the operation as a whole. The maximum effort must be concentrated at the decisive place.( 33)
What is perhaps surprising is that this doctrine had been produced, not by the RAF or the Air Ministry, but by the War Office.( 34) In fact, the principal author and editor of the above two quotations was an Army officer.( 35)
It is all very well to say that air power should be concentrated in some decisive way - the RAF's explanation for turning down so many Army requests. What actual targets should be attacked to effect such decisive concentration? What should be done when no decisive target is clear? Who should decide what constitutes a "decisive" target? These questions are the nub of the problem. As we have seen, under the doctrine of joint command "the Army Commander tells the Air Force Commander what he wants to achieve, and the Air Staff, having examined the problem, make Air plans with the Army's aim constantly in view.( 36) The British Army's immediate postwar analysis of air support contains some particularly bitter words aobut this approach.
The theory that the army should confine itself to stating the problem in general terms, and the air forces should then decide the method in all its detail has proved quite impracticable when applied literally in combined operations.( 37)
In support of this, the report goes on to point out:
It is educative to realise that, in this campaign, out of every hundred attacks carried out from the air by the tactical air forces, it is estimated that at least ninety five have been on targets selected, named and annotated by the army alone, including in many cases the provision of the actual aiming points. With the exception of those targets directly related to the enemy air forces, it has been the army almost exclusively which has produced the targets, and which has been the principal contributor to the preparation of the air plan in direct support of a particular battle.( 38)
This is almost certainly a fair criticism, for the RAF system did not in fact include much provision for targeting. Targets were expected to come from either the daily planning conferences - where it would be the Army that raised them - or up through the air support request net, which would also be, therefore, from the Army. Second TAF lacked the necessary staff to select any actual targets for attack other than through those two mechanisms from the Army. More critically, the RAF overall lacked the expertise and doctrine for target selection in a land campaign.( 39) After all, just what are the best targets to attack with air power - especially given the technical limitations of the time - when one wants to, for instance , ensure that "enemy road movements ... [are] continually harassed."( 40) Bridges? Road choke points in villages? Columns on the move?
The basic air support doctrine of the time had little to say about this. Quite simply, the doctrine of the time had not thought these issues through. If the RAF wanted to maintain that air officers were the sole experts on the application of air power, then reasonably they should have addressed the targeting issue more rigorously.
Another issue that the RAF must answer for is its actual efforts to concentrate its air power. Having nailed their colours to the mast of "concentrating air power" as their reason for turning down Army requests, just how did they concentrate their air power?
The simple truth is that with the exception of major offensives, the close support effort was not particularly focussed, being driven from the "bottom-up", rather than the "top-down" (i.e. requests were initiated by forward troops, almost always in response to local emergencies, rather than determined by higher commanders, in accordance with planned operations). A perception of unfocused effort is furthered by the means used to direct the armed recces, which was the mission type that consumed the most sorties.( 41) Armed recces appear to have been allocated largely on a simple geographic basis. Headquarters 21st Army Group and 2nd TAF designated areas for armed recce coverage to each of the Composite Groups, and these areas were further sub-divided and allotted to Wings by the respective Group Control Centre (GCC).( 42) At the time the RAF considered this an effective system because air reconnaissance information arrived at the GCCs first, and could therefore be used immediately to direct the armed recce effort.( 43) This was doubtless true, but the larger issue is that since the GCCs were purely RAF organizations dedicated to air control (as opposed to the Joint Battle Room formed at the Army/Composite Group co-located headquarters), the distribution of armed recces was in fact being determined by RAF planners in isolation from the Army. Presumably they simply directed armed recces to what were thought to be fertile hunting grounds within their assigned area. Most critically, there was no routine mechanism to concentrate armed recces in areas that would complement and enhance the overall ground scheme of manouevre or campaign plan. It appears that armed recces were largely shot-gunned out on the basis of aircraft availability and what were perceived to be fertile hunting grounds within arbitrary geographic areas that had been designated not to concentrate 2nd TAF's air power, but primarily as a deconfliction control measure.( 44)
It is very clear that the system developed to control air support, whatever its doctrinal origins, was a technical marvel. It could indeed rapidly concentrate air power against the enemy, as demonstrated around Mortain and the mouth of the Falaise gap. Furthermore, it did include specific provisions for getting air support onto targets within moments of request - the CABRANK system.
So what are we to make of the criticisms from some quarters of the Army camp that air support was intransigent, or at least unresponsive? Such criticisms seem to come down to the complaint that 2nd TAF would not delegate on-call fighter-bombers to every local commander along the front who wanted them, as they wanted them. As we have seen, that would have been to ignore the principle of concentration of force. In fact, in doctrine and policy statements the Army did officially acknowledge that air power should be concentrated. Some Army commanders appear to have had false expectations about air support, and to a certain extent those false expectations have become conventional wisdom.
The nub of the issue is that the only way to make the air support system more responsive to every Army request from the front would have been to allocate a greater weight of effort to CABRANKs - at the expense of other mission types. Inevitably, that would have dispersed the air effort, concentrating it nowhere. It is not clear that overall this would have been more effective. It is clear, on the other hand, that at those times when it was considered important to concentrate air power for direct intervention in the land battle - for major offensives, around Mortain, and during the closing of the Falaise gap - 2nd TAF's effort was devoted whole-heartedly to direct support.
All of this touches upon what is perhaps the central historical debate of the Normandy campaign - the performance of the Allied armies, in particular at the operational level. Many historians have been sharply critical of the Allied commanders' handling of the campaign.( 45) What appears to have happened is that as breakthrough attempt followed breakthrough attempt - without success - the Army became ever more dependent upon firepower to batter their way forward. This propensity later led Air Marshal Arthur Tedder to wryly observe: "The Army having been drugged with bombs, it is going to be a difficult process to cure the drug addicts."( 46) The Army commanders also became increasingly fixated upon the tactical level of fighting, losing their sense of the operational art. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the air support they called for was narrow in nature, tending towards a desire for on-call tactical help everywhere, with massive heavy bomber strikes to precede any advance.
To be fair to the Army critics, however, it is equally clear that the RAF was not properly prepared for fighting a land campaign. They lacked the expertise and machinery for effective targeting, and by default this central function fell into the Army's lap. This while the RAF was stoutly maintaining that only air officers were expert in the application of air power. As a result, 2nd TAF's efforts throughout the campaign were not as focussed as they perhaps could have been.
Why did this happen, when the air support doctrine of the time stressed concentration and even included prescient warnings against "the temptation to abuse the flexibility of air power" by "frittering away the effort on relatively unimportant targets." It seems that in the heat of battle - and clash of personalities between key commanders - practice ran away from doctrine. Arguably this reflected the difficulty of the moment, and the inherent limitations of the doctrine in the first place. Certainly the Army critics would view it that way.
However, air support doctrine was not really fully developed. Because of the all-consuming Army/RAF arguments over air power and strategic bombing, neither side gave much serious thought to applying air power in a land campaign. When it was finally decided, very late in the game, to form tactical air forces for just this role, all of the available time and energy were consumed by frantic efforts to knit together a working organization and solve the myriad immediate practical problems. In this an extraordinary success was achieved, but little time or energy was left over for contemplation of the more subtle - and difficult - doctrinal questions, such as where to concentrate the air effort and how to effect the actual targeting. Doubtless too, this doctrinal lapse on the RAF's part reflected the larger doctrinal failure of the Allied forces at the operational level.
Nevertheless, the campaign was in the end successful for the Western Allies. Given the near-run nature of that success, all of the Allied contributions were critical. Second TAF did succeed in helping defeat the German armies in the West. Although its doctrinal and technical limitations made it a somewhat blunt instrument, it was a powerful one.
Endnotes1. Chester Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe (London: Collins, 1954) p 289.