Flying to Victory, a Book Review

Bechthold, Mike (2017) Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941. University of Oklahoma Press. 296 Pages. ISBN: 9780806155968

The Second World War saw the formation of many famous Allied air forces. The Flying Tigers, the Cactus Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, RAF Bomber Command, and RAF Fighter Command are among the best known. In the Mediterranean, perhaps none was more famous than the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF). This is the tactical air force that helped Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army defeat Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in 1942. The victory was the result of an effective combination of air and land power according to an air support doctrine developed by Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham.

9780806155968Coningham owes more to his predecessor, Air Vice-Marshal Raymond Collishaw, than historians have realized. Collishaw commanded No. 202 Group – and later No. 204 Group, which would later become the WDAF – between the opening of the war in the desert and November 1941. In that time, Collishaw’s command achieved much success, demonstrating the features of tactical air doctrine later associated with his successor. Mike Bechthold’s new monograph, Flying to Victory, offers us a new layer for understanding the development of Allied air support during the Second World War.

Raymond Collishaw was a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. During the First World War, Collishaw became one of the Empire’s leading flying aces, destroying 61 enemy aircraft and eight observation balloons with Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force squadrons. Authors often celebrate his air-fighting prowess. In fact, some historians have gone as far as to say that his aggressive spirit made him ill-suited for commanding air forces at the end of tenuous supply lines. In Flying to Victory, Bechthold defuses these arguments.

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Raymond Collishaw in the cockpit circa 1917

Collishaw’s experience with close army support missions during the 100 Days campaign at the end of the First World War taught him how wasteful these operations could be. He came out of the war believing that only emergencies – such as the Kaiser’s spring offensive in 1918 – warranted a heavy close air support focus. This and his experiences commanding various air units during Britain’s interwar conflicts served to prepare Collishaw for command in the Western Desert. He was well-suited to command operations at the end of a tenuous supply line while working jointly with army and naval commanders.

Collishaw first demonstrated the difference that an effective air support doctrine could make during early fighting in the desert and Operation COMPASS. In 1940-41, No. 202 Group faced an Italian Royal Air Force (IRAF) with superior numbers and quality of aircraft. Collishaw’s command achieved air superiority in spite of these disadvantages. While the IRAF squandered its superior resources by focusing on providing defensive screens for the Italian Army, Collishaw directed his forces to focus on disrupting and destroying IRAF aircraft and infrastructure. With air superiority secured, Collishaw’s forces focused on impeding the Italian logistical network and applying close-support attacks at the army’s request in special circumstances. Alongside Lieutenant-General Richard O’Conner’s Western Desert Force, the British offensive drove the Italians out of Egypt and Cyrenaica, completely destroying the Italian Tenth Army in the process.

Although Operation COMPASS was a model of cooperation between the army and air force, this model would soon be forgotten amid British retreats in the Western Desert, Greece, and Crete in spring 1941. The Germans had joined their Italian allies in the Mediterranean war. During Operation BREVITY, an attempt to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk, Collishaw commanded No. 204 Group (which had absorbed No. 202 Group in April 1941). He once again proved the usefulness of interdiction operations, though army commanders were disappointed that the RAF considered attacks on tanks on the battlefield to be impracticable. His forces immobilized counterattacking German units at critical junctures that saved army units, though the overall operation failed to relieve Tobruk.

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Raymond Collishaw circa the Second World War

The overall failures of BREVITY and Crete put the air force in a tough position. The Royal Navy had lost many ships to Axis air attacks during the evacuation of Crete. During Operation BATTLEAXE, another attempt to relieve Tobruk, the army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, Collishaw’s immediate superior, made a calculated move. With Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal’s blessing, he ordered Collishaw to accede to the army’s requests. This way, the RAF could avoid blame for failing to cooperate with the army even though this was a misemployment of resources that ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.

BATTLEAXE effectively settled the debate over tactical air power raging between the RAF and army early in the war. Before BATTLEAXE, Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed the army’s view of air support. After BATTLEAXE, he fully endorsed the RAF’s view. Churchill accepted that attacks on enemy airbases, ports, and lines of communication were more effective even though the army would not be afforded the comforting sight of friendly aircraft overhead. The result was “The Middle East (Army and RAF) Directive on Direct Air Support”, a document that marked the beginning of designing the war-winning air support system the Allies would continue to develop in 1942. This document reflected the operations and exercises that Raymond Collishaw commanded. Tedder and Coningham went on to refine and improve this system.

Air Marshal Tedder, the conduit for Collishaw’s early application of winning air support doctrine to Portal and Churchill, replaced Collishaw with Coningham in November 1941. Promoted from air commodore to air vice-marshal, Collishaw commanded No. 14 Group defending Scapa Flow, Scotland until July 1943, when the RAF involuntarily retired him. Bechthold’s evidence suggests that Tedder held a bias against Collishaw. Largely ignoring the results he achieved in the desert, Tedder and historians since have assessed Collishaw as incapable of running a larger command organization and delegating responsibility to his staff. Bechthold encourages us to avoid this speculative analysis of potential and instead focus on his war record. The result is an excellent profile of a man and – as it turns out – a largely misunderstood air campaign in the first year of warfare in the Western Desert.

Collishaw Street

Raymond Collishaw isn’t completely forgotten in Canada, although he is mostly celebrated for his First World War exploits. This is Collishaw Street in Moncton, NB.

Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers

Operation HUSKY’s Air Battle by the Numbers

In 1991, Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Fredrich von Stauffenberg published The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory. In it, they offer a scathing review of the performance of the Allied militaries in Operation HUSKY, the 1943 invasion of Sicily. Theirs is the common interpretation about the battle for Sicily: the Allies bungled total victory through national squabbles which allowed the Germans to mount a skilful withdrawal even against complete Allied air and naval supremacy while outnumbered by Allied armies by factors of up to 8:1.[1]

Part of their critique is the effectiveness of the Allied air forces. They call into question claims Allied commanders made at finding 1,100 Axis aircraft littering aerodromes and landing grounds across the island. According to Colonel Lioy of the Italian Air Force historical division, Allied claims vastly overstated the reality as the island had long harboured aircraft cemeteries from previous battles. He believes that the Allied bomber offensive only accounted for 100. Lioy pegs total Axis aircraft losses from 3 July to 17 August at not over 200. Finally, Mitcham and von Stauffenberg note that Axis statistics they consulted show that the Germans and Italians lost 225 and 95 aircraft respectively to all causes between 1 July and 5 September 1943.[2]

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Vertical aerial reconnaissance view of Castelvetrano airfield, Sicily, the day before a successful attack was made on it by Malta-based Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons RAF. A number of Junkers Ju 52 and Savoia Marchetti SM 82 transport aircraft, many of which were destroyed during the raid, can be seen parked around the airfield perimeter. (Source: © IWM (C 4183))

These figures do not stand up to the scrutiny of other sources. First, Williamson Murray’s excellent study of the Luftwaffe, Strategy for Defeat, cites reliable quartermaster general figures for German losses throughout the war. German losses in the May to August period in the Mediterranean Theatre stood at 1,600, matching those of the other major fronts. This number includes 711 German aircraft lost in July 1943 alone, a figure 27 percent higher than that of the 558 German aircraft lost on the Eastern Front during the massive battles of Kursk-Orel in July.[3]

Second, Adolf Hitler also disputes Mitcham and von Stauffenberg’s figures. Hitler was particularly displeased with the ground organization in Sicily and southern Italy. On 13 July, he sent a message to Benito Mussolini complaining of “more than 320 fighters destroyed on the ground as the result of Allied aerial attack in the last three weeks.” When the two dictators met at Feltre on 19 July, Hitler further noted that between 300 and 400 aircraft out of 500 to 600 were destroyed on the ground in the recent Allied air offensive.[4]

Perhaps Hitler was particularly upset with a 15 July raid on Vibo Valentia, where the bulk of the remainder of the German fighter force had settled after withdrawing from Sicily. A force of 117 B-25 Mitchells and B-26 Marauders apparently caught Jagdgruppe Vibo on the ground. Lieutenant Köhler, a German ace with over 20 victories to his credit, wrote:

Toward noon 105 [sic] bombers came and destroyed the Jagdgruppe Vibo Valentia, which had about 80 aircraft. Not a machine was left intact, not even the [Junkers] which had just landed. Fuel trucks, hangars, aircraft, autos, everything was burning. The German fighters in Italy have been wiped out.[5]

Specifically, the raid eliminated Steinhoff’s JG 77, I/JG 53 (which lost 20 aircraft), and much of II/JG 27. After the raid, only survivors of II and III/JG 27 remained operational in southern Italy.

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Wrecked and damaged Italian fighters outside bomb-shattered hangars at Catania, Sicily, under the scrutiny of an airman, shortly after the occupation of the airfield by the RAF. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1352))

The weight of evidence seems to go against Mitcham and von Stauffenberg’s conclusions. Furthermore, while it is true that many of the 1,100 aircraft abandoned on Sicily were from previous battles, the Allies still denied their use to Axis salvage details. Italian losses during the campaign are less easy to come by. However, one source notes that they may have been as high as 800 aircraft over two months – although the same source lowballs the German figure at 586.[6]

The Mediterranean was a meat grinder of Axis aviation. For the war, Axis aircraft losses in the Mediterranean stand at 17,750, much higher than the 11,000 on the Eastern Front, and closer to the 20,419 on the Western Front than one might assume.[7] The air superiority battles around and above Operation HUSKY in the summer of 1943 were a significant milestone in the air war against the European Axis. Indeed, Williamson Murray described Sicily as “the greatest air battle of the Mediterranean war” based on the scale of German losses.[8] This result was achieved by an effective Allied air force that has often been denied the credit it so rightfully earned.

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Supermarine Spitfire Mark Vs of No. 243 Squadron RAF undergo maintenance at Comiso, Sicily. Photographed over the tail section of an abandoned Messerschmitt Bf 109G of 6/JG53. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1029))

Header Image: A line of Macchi MC200 fighters on Reggio di Calabria airfield under attack by cannon fire from two Bristol Beaufighter Mark ICs of No. 272 Squadron RAF Detachment flying from Luqa, Malta. (Source: © IWM (CM 1298))

[1] See Lee Windsor, “‘The Eyes of All Fixed on Sicily’: Canada’s Unexpected Victory, 1943,” Canadian Military History Vol. 22, No. 3 (Summer 2013): 6-7 for a summary of this literature. General Max Ulrich, commander of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division offered the 8:1 ratio when comparing the odds his forces faced.

[2] Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Fredrich von Stauffenberg, The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007), 305.

[3] Williamson Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945 (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University Press, 1983), “Table XXX”, 148.

[4] Albert N. Garland and Howard M. Smyth, The United States Army in World War II, The Mediterranean Theatre of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Washington, D.C.: US Army Center of Military History, 1993[1965]), 240 and 243.

[5] Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia and Frederick Galea, Spitfires over Sicily: The Crucial Role of the Malta Spitfires in the Battle of Sicily, January – August 1943 (London: Grub Street, 2000), 166.

[6] Hans Werner Neulen, In the Skies of Europe: Air forces allied to the Luftwaffe, 1939-1945 (Ramsbury, Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd., 2005), 72.

[7] Robert S. Ehlers, The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015), 403.

[8] Murray, 164.

Commanding Far Eastern Skies, a Book Review

Preston-Hough, Peter (2015) Commanding Far Eastern Skies: A critical analysis of the Royal Air Force air superiority campaign in India, Burma and Malaya 1941-1945. Helion & Company Ltd. 308 Pages. ISBN 9781910294444

f2c6286f-cdef-4d7b-9bf7-7ef0bd8ed871_1.26c34f7bfda8cbacd827d4bca4f727e3 (2)Peter Preston-Hough’s PhD dissertation, Commanding Far Eastern Skies, examines the fight for air superiority in what many refer to as a forgotten theatre – the Far East. Instead of taking a strictly chronological approach to the campaign, he examines four themes.

First, Preston-Hough examines the Japanese air superiority victory in 1941-1942 from the perspective of the RAF’s early warning organization. He finds that the British inability to establish an efficient early warning organization – including human observers and radar and communications equipment – played a significant role in the Japanese air superiority victory. Of particular interest is the British development of radar equipment better-suited to local weather and topography. Once they established a more effective organization in 1943 it could work together with superior aircraft types – Beaufighters and Spitfires – to intercept Japanese raiders. This was an important factor in the air superiority battle ahead.

Next, he compares Allied and Japanese aircrew, tactics, and aircraft and the effects of these on the air superiority battle. Early in the war, the Japanese won air superiority with superior aircraft, tactics, and experience aircrew. To shift the battle into their favour, the Allies had to reverse these trends. It wasn’t until late 1943 that the local Allied air forces received superior aircraft types in significant numbers. The Beaufighter as a night fighter, the Spitfire as an interceptor, and the P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang as long-range fighters did wonders for the Allies, while the Japanese generally had the same types that won them air superiority early in the war. The Spitfire, in particular, gave the Allies an aircraft that effectively neutralized Japanese long-range reconnaissance aircraft, the Ki-46 Dinah. This blinded Japanese commanders from December 1943 onwards. Regarding tactics, the Allies came to understand that dogfighting with the much more manoeuvrable Japanese fighters was suicide. Instead, they adopted dive and zoom tactics, which became more effective as new aircraft arrived with superior climb rates. The quality of Allied aircrew also improved while that of the Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) remained consistent, counter to claims made in earlier post-war narratives.

Preston-Hough then examines the RAF and USAAF counter-air campaigns of mid-1942 to the end of the war. He identifies three separate Allied counter-air campaigns. Lack of long-range fighters meant that Allied efforts between mid-1942 and the end of 1943 resulted in a relatively ineffective campaign. The 1944 campaign was much more successful due to the presence of these aircraft. The campaign did not break the back of Japanese air power in the theatre as the USAAF official history claimed. While the Japanese didn’t lose as many aircraft as the Allies claimed – air interdiction still contributed to the air superiority campaign far better than standard air-to-air combat. Sixty Japanese aircraft were destroyed on counter-air operations between March and June 1944, a figure twice as high as those destroyed in air-to-air combat. Counter-air operations were less successful between late 1944 and the end of the war. This was the result of the JAAF having fewer aircraft dispersed around many airfields, making them harder to locate and damage in large numbers.

Finally, Preston-Hough examines how the Japanese fought the war, their aircraft industry, and their strategy to determine its effects on the Far East. The Japanese understanding of air power was arguably obsolete. The JAAF in the Far East used their aircraft almost exclusively for the direct support of ground operations. They did not have the bomber force for strategic strikes and continued to use fighters in a ground support role rather than focusing on the vulnerable Allied supply flights supporting British Fourteenth Army’s advance in Burma. Regarding strategy, while the Far East was a Japanese priority from a resource and political perspective – the Japanese had hopes of establishing an Indian state under their Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere – the defence of the homeland took priority. This meant that the JAAF fought without support from the Japanese Naval Air Force after the initial Japanese victories. It also meant that aircraft and crew reinforcements were few and far between. The Far East did not fully realize the gains the Japanese aircraft industry made in 1943-1944.

Preston-Hough writes in the structure of a PhD dissertation, and the book’s detail is immense. This may turn off the casual history reader. However, the book will be invaluable for a serious researcher. Anyone researching the air wars of the Pacific or the Far East – or indeed, the idea of air superiority in general – will be well-served by adding it to their collection. The author provides an exceptional framework for analyzing air superiority campaigns the world over. Perhaps the most important idea that Preston-Hough has offered is his reminder that air superiority isn’t something that air forces necessarily win. Rather, enemy air forces often contest it locally, and friendly air forces must maintain it as needed over the battlespace.