Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940

Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940

by Mike Bechthold


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806155968
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/06/2017
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #58
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Mike Bechthold teaches history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and is acquisitions editor for military history at Wilfrid Laurier University Press. His research focuses on air power in World War II and Canadian military history. He has also coauthored a number of guides to World War II battlefields.

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Flying To Victory

Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941

By Mike Bechthold


Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5596-8



"I feel that my days of command in North Africa, when we had to outwit and outfight a numerically superior enemy by a combination of deception, superior tactics and fighting spirit, represent by far my best effort." Raymond Collishaw, one of the top aces of the Great War, referred not to his skill and success flying Sopwith Triplanes and Camels, but rather to his command of 202 Group, Royal Air Force (RAF), in the Western Desert in 1940 and 1941, when his small, obsolete force kept a much larger Italian opponent off balance until Operation Compass routed them in the first decisive British victory of the Second World War. As remarkable as this victory was, Collishaw's statement is even more noteworthy coming from an officer who spent twenty-eight eventful years in the air force, fought in two major wars and numerous minor conflicts, and was credited with sixty-one kills over the western front. Having accomplished so much in his career, what led Collishaw to value his command in the Western Desert over everything else?

Through the lens of Raymond Collishaw, this book explores the evolution of RAF–army relations and the development of tactical-air-support doctrine in the Western Desert from the start of the Second World War to the eve of Operation Crusader (November 1941). Allied tactical air support was an issue of fundamental importance in the defeat of Nazi Germany. In the Mediterranean and Northwest Europe, British and American aircraft worked closely with ground forces to destroy the Luftwaffe, obstruct the movement of reserves and supplies to the front lines, and on occasion destroy tanks and other targets in direct support of the army. Without effective Allied air support, the war in Europe would have lasted much longer than it did. The Second Tactical Air Force of the RAF and the Ninth Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Forces emerged from the war as sophisticated organizations that worked closely, if not always harmoniously, with their army groups to defeat the Germans. The situation was much different at the start of the war, however, when the British Army and the RAF held conflicting views on air support. The May–June 1940 campaign in France ended with the expulsion of the British Expeditionary Force from the Continent and much recrimination by the army over inadequate RAF participation.

Differing circumstances in the Middle East resulted in more-harmonious interservice cooperation. Close personal and working relationships between army and RAF officers in Egypt, the distance from Great Britain, and a paucity of theater resources facilitated better cooperation than occurred in France. It was during this period that the basic principles of an effective air-support system were first successfully employed. Operation Compass, launched in December 1940 as a five-day raid, expelled the Italians from Egypt and the eastern region of Libya (Cyrenaica) in a well-orchestrated offensive during which the army and the RAF worked closely to destroy and capture a much larger enemy force. This air campaign demonstrated the fundamental features of the formal Allied tactical air doctrine that would emerge later in the war. The central figure in this success was Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw, who directed his small force to overwhelm the Italian air force, dislocate enemy logistics, and make a substantial contribution to the success of Operation Compass. His accomplishments were guided by his First World War experience, as one of the first specialists in close air support, and years of imperial postings, especially in the Middle East, where he learned to work closely with the other services and operate with minimal resources at the end of a long supply line.

Unfortunately, the early détente in army-air relations was lost soon after the conclusion of Operation Compass. A series of defeats in Greece, Crete, and Cyrenaica led the army to blame the RAF for failing to provide the necessary air support. The next major operation in the Western Desert, Operation Battleaxe (June 1941), an attempt to relieve the trapped British garrison at Tobruk, became a test of the army's view of air support. Political intrigue at the highest levels in London forced the RAF to adopt the army's plan for Battleaxe or again risk being held responsible for any setback. Collishaw advocated against the army's ill-conceived demand for the close fighter protection of its troops, but he was overruled by his commander, Air Marshal Arthur Tedder. The subsequent failure of Battleaxe spurred a wide-ranging reappraisal of the methods of cooperation between the army and the RAF.

Battleaxe was the catalyst for an attempt by General Claude Auchinleck, the army's senior commander in the Middle East, to assume control of all air resources in his region. British prime minister Winston Churchill was forced to remind him that "the Air Force has its own dominant strategic role to play, and must not be frittered away in providing small umbrellas for the Army." Churchill reinforced this statement with a comprehensive directive that fundamentally changed the dynamic of British army-air cooperation and established parameters that guided the provision of air support at the operational level for the remainder of the war. This directive, based on the earlier pattern of air operations in the Western Desert, did not end interservice bickering, nor did it solve any technical problems, but it confirmed the RAF view of mission and target selection. By explicitly endorsing the RAF view of air power, Churchill effectively ended the debate regarding the future form of air support and allowed the army and air force to concentrate on refining the command-and-control elements of support missions. The pattern of operations outlined by Churchill rejected the army's preference to use warplanes for the close defense of its troops and the attack of enemy targets on the battlefield, treating air power in the same manner as the artillery. Rather, his directive reflected the only successful British joint campaign up to that point in the war — Operation Compass and the defeat of the Italians in the Western Desert between December 1940 and February 1941.

Scholarship on the development of Allied tactical air doctrine in the Second World War has largely overlooked this early period. The origins of the air-support system are generally traced to the arrival of Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham in the desert in late 1941. He is said to have transformed the RAF into an effective organization that worked well with the army and resulted in the defeat of the Axis in North Africa. In the aftermath of Battleaxe, significant progress was made at the tactical level on improving the command-and-control aspects of air support as well as improving the mobility and logistics of RAF squadrons. Coningham introduced important improvements to the air-support system, especially in the areas of communications, intelligence, mobility, logistics, and repair, but these changes were effective because Churchill had settled the higher-level debate regarding the RAF's role in land battles. Coningham was an effective commander, but his role was to refine and improve the effectiveness of the Desert Air Force (the successor to Collishaw's 202 Group) using the vastly greater resources at his disposal. This system was later adopted by the Allied air forces in Northwest Europe and served as the template for both American and British tactical air operations in support of the D-Day landings and through the rest of the war. Yet this conventional narrative overlooks the genesis of the Desert Air Force and the fact that Coningham inherited Collishaw's maturing organization, which had already proven itself in battle using exactly the same tenets for which the air vice-marshal would be credited.

The air component of the first British victory was directed by Collishaw, who drew on his considerable personal experience to orchestrate a successful air campaign despite commanding an air force that was obsolescent and outnumbered. His knowledge of ground-support missions from the First World War, combined with his interwar postings to various colonial conflicts, gave him firsthand knowledge of how the air force could best assist a land campaign; he also understood army culture due to his past postings. Collishaw rejected army demands to provide defensive air cover and attack armored fighting vehicles on the battlefield as he knew these types of operations were dangerous, wasteful, and ineffective. To protect the soldiers, it was far more advantageous to take the initiative and destroy the enemy air force through offensive sweeps and airfield interdiction rather than react to their attacks. Having spent nearly five years in the desert starting in late 1935, he understood that the logistical support of the army was vital, and attacks on ports and road convoys affected the ability of enemy forces to fight as surely as destroying them in battle. Most importantly, Collishaw took these principles of tactical aviation and proved that they worked in combat.

At the outset of the Second World War, the British Army and the RAF held very different conceptions regarding the form of air operations required to support the army on the battlefield. Ground commanders considered aircraft an ancillary tactical weapon, like artillery or tanks, which should be used in small numbers, or "penny packets," to attack enemy positions on the front lines to aid the infantry. Army officers believed they should control these air operations locally. Conversely, the RAF viewed air power as a weapon that should be centrally controlled and concentrated to achieve an operational-level effect through the attainment of air superiority and interdiction of enemy forces. Unlike artillery, which acted in a small, defined space, aircraft could operate over a much wider area, perform a variety of tasks, and quickly be redirected against widely separated targets. Only in rare or dire circumstances should air power be applied directly on the battlefield, where targets were fleeting, difficult to find and hit, and severe losses in pilots and aircraft could be expected.

The British Army's experience in Norway, France, Greece, and Crete in 1940 and 1941 reinforced the requirement for its own specialized air force. The RAF countered that air superiority was a necessary precondition for effective support, and without central control, which allowed a concentration of air resources, failure was sure to follow. This acrimonious debate did not end with Churchill's intervention following Battleaxe, but his pronouncement established the army and air force as coequal partners and settled the form of their cooperation at the operational level. Future discussions focused on shaping support operations at the tactical level rather than debate over who controlled the resource.

Collishaw, a Canadian from Nanaimo, British Columbia, was among the top aces of the First World War. He served with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the RAF over the western front and was credited with destroying sixty-one enemy aircraft and eight observation balloons. Early in his flying career, Collishaw was identified as a pilot with leadership, command, and organizational skills, and his confidential efficiency reports consistently remarked upon these talents. In January 1917 Capt. (N) W. L. Elder, his commanding officer in No. 3 Wing RNAS, commented: "Ability to command Very Good Indeed being steady & reliable pilot. Has shown great resource as a fighter pilot. Recommended for promotion." Collishaw combined the rare talents of a great fighter pilot and a capable leader.

Maj. Bertram Bell met Collishaw when he was a flight commander with No. 3 Squadron RNAS and recognized him as "one of the most promising boys in the squadron" when he first encountered the "round, red-faced boy sitting in one corner" of the mess. When Bell was assigned command of No. 10 Squadron RNAS, he brought Collishaw along as one of his flight commanders. Bell was considered an abrasive, "no nonsense" Australian and was not well liked by his pilots, but he was an able commander and turned No. 10 Naval into one of the top Allied squadrons on the western front. He was "completely intolerant" of pilots who did not display his same level of commitment, but he was extremely generous to those, such as Collishaw, who did.

Collishaw, in his first command position, proved Bell's confidence in his leadership ability by quickly putting B Flight in good order. This was the famous "Black Flight," made up entirely of Canadians flying the Sopwith Triplane. Collishaw's aircraft was dubbed "Black Maria"; the other aircraft of the flight were known as "Black Death," "Black Prince," "Black Roger," and "Black Sheep." This unit was one of the most successful fighting groups of the war, destroying eighty-seven enemy aircraft between May and July 1917. Collishaw alone accounted for twenty-seven aircraft destroyed during this period and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Order for his accomplishments.

Although best known as a fighter pilot, Collishaw was one of the first Allied specialists in low-level attack missions. Little mention is made of this in writings about him, but by Collishaw's own admission, half his missions in the last three months of the war were low-level strafing and bombing attacks. In 1918 he commanded No. 3 Squadron RNAS/No. 203 Squadron RAF, which was dedicated to trench-strafing operations to help stop the German offensive in March, and flew in close support of the army during the "Hundred Days Offensive" in the fall of 1918. Collishaw learned a great deal about flying missions against ground targets, including what air power could be expected to achieve as well as the cost and limitations of such operations.

Collishaw discussed the merits of low-level air support in his autobiography. He noted that during the German March offensives, the vast majority of RFC and RNAS units, including artillery cooperation and day-bombing squadrons, had been devoted to direct attacks designed to blunt the enemy advance. Though this use of aircraft was controversial, he believed that the effort was justified by the dire situation. Collishaw admitted that it was difficult to assess the effect these attacks had on German forces, but he quoted German regimental histories that discussed the consequences of these strikes on their troops. Based on these Collishaw concluded, "there seems little doubt that our low-level attack resulted in significant German losses."

The Battle of Amiens, the great Allied victory of August 1918, is remembered as the beginning of the end for Germany in the First World War. It was operationally important as the "black day of the German army," but it also featured the greatest air concentration of any First World War battle. Units flew air-superiority, interdiction, and close-support missions. In many respects it was the first thoroughly modern and comprehensive application of air power on the battlefield and set the standard for future air operations in both World Wars. Collishaw was busy at Amiens flying and directing support missions as the commander of No. 203 Squadron.

Collishaw led his men into the air soon after the offensive commenced. His squadron attacked targets on the front of the Canadian Corps and provided crucial support as the infantry advanced beyond the range of their own artillery. The intensity and tempo of air operations on 8 August matched those of the ground forces. No. 203 Squadron was the most active low-level squadron in I Brigade, RAF, dropping 112 25-pound bombs by midafternoon. Collishaw flew four missions that day, and his final flight ended in near tragedy when his Camel was hit by ground fire and forced down. He recalled, "My logbook shows that I put in 11 hours, 20 minutes in the air during the day, all at heights of 100 feet or less."

It is impossible to quantify the effectiveness of close air support on 8 August, but anecdotal evidence suggests the attacks helped the progress of the infantry. Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of Fourth Army, stated after the battle that "the action of low-flying machines on 'Z' day, though it entailed heavy casualties, had a serious effect in lowering the enemy's morale and inflicting serious losses, as is shown by captured enemy documents. ... In no battle had [the RAF] taken part with greater success in dealing with ground attacks." The war diary of the 5th Canadian Infantry Battalion highlighted the importance of aircraft that day:

In a sunken road between one hundred and fifty and two hundred germans [sic] were caught by Tanks and aeroplanes, and not one got away. The enemy losses must have been terrible. Our planes seemed like things possessed; a plane would streak down from behind to within a few yards of our heads, and with a roar shoot up almost perpendicularly, the cheers of our men following it. Kilometres ahead they could be seen diving at the retreating enemy, and the merry rattle of their machine guns was heard continuously. The air was thick with them, and never an enemy plane to be seen.


Excerpted from Flying To Victory by Mike Bechthold. Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Note on Conventions xiii

1 Introduction 3

2 The Western Desert, 1939-1940 21

3 The Western Desert and the Start of the War 39

4 Operation Compass, Part I: The Battle of the Camps and Bardia 56

5 Operation Compass, Part II: Tobruk and Beda Fomm 99

6 Reversal of Fortune: The Retreat to the Frontier 124

7 The Siege of Tobruk, Operation Brevity, and Crete 145

8 Operation Battleaxe 164

9 After Battleaxe 186

10 Conclusion 203

Notes 213

Bibliography 255

Index 271

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