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A Case Study in Army-Air Force Co-Operation The Western Desert Air Force and the Battle for the Mareth Line, 19 th – 29 th March 1943.

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Presentation on theme: "A Case Study in Army-Air Force Co-Operation The Western Desert Air Force and the Battle for the Mareth Line, 19 th – 29 th March 1943."— Presentation transcript:

1 A Case Study in Army-Air Force Co-Operation The Western Desert Air Force and the Battle for the Mareth Line, 19 th – 29 th March 1943

2 Introduction Perception of tactical air powerPerception of tactical air power –Flexible and adaptable 1940 – 1942 – a period of difficult gestation1940 – 1942 – a period of difficult gestation Often derided as the Royal Absent ForceOften derided as the Royal Absent Force Hard fought lessonsHard fought lessons Coninghams principles:Coninghams principles: 1.Air superiority 2.Concentration of force 3.Effective planning 4.Centralised control 5.Flexibility 6.Command relationships

3 A Hawker Hurricane Mark IID of No 6 Squadron, Royal Air Force, demonstrates the effect of its firepower on an abandoned enemy tank in Tunisia

4 Strategic Situation By January 1943 2 key problems were identified:By January 1943 2 key problems were identified: 1.The speed with which the OKW and Commando Supremo could reinforce their positions in Tunisia 2.The speed with which 8 th Army and WDAF forces could be reinforced Affect of the Kasserine Pass battles – Operation SturmflutAffect of the Kasserine Pass battles – Operation Sturmflut Reorganisation of air power assets in North AfricaReorganisation of air power assets in North Africa –Formation of NATAF under Coningham Logistical issues for the 8 th Army and WDAFLogistical issues for the 8 th Army and WDAF Operation CapriOperation Capri Strength of the Mareth Line positionStrength of the Mareth Line position

5 Initial Planning Basic plan laid out by Montgomery:Basic plan laid out by Montgomery: –Flanking operation by the NZ Corps under Freyberg To be supported by X CorpsTo be supported by X Corps –Frontal attack on the Mareth Line by XXX Corps Role of the air forces:Role of the air forces: –Broad strategic outline for future operation dictated by Coningham at Canrobert, 12 March 1.No. 242 Group and US XII ASC to attack airfields maintain theatre wide air superiority 2.WDAF to operate in support of 8 th Army operations –In support of the 8 th Army attack against the Mareth Line operations would consist of: 1.Light bombers to conduct attacks on landing grounds – Starting 15 March 2.Fighters to maintain command of the air in the battlespace 3.Fighters to operate in support of the ground forces 4.Medium bombers to wear out German positions –5 fighter wings, 3 light bomber wings, 1 reconnaissance wing and 2 medium bomber wings in support

6 Operation PUGILIST Initial attack went in by 50 th Infantry Division, 20 th /21 st MarchInitial attack went in by 50 th Infantry Division, 20 th /21 st March BAI and air superiority mission took priorityBAI and air superiority mission took priority Limited reaction by Axis forcesLimited reaction by Axis forces During 21 st March BAI missions continuedDuring 21 st March BAI missions continued Failure of frontal attacks on the Mareth LineFailure of frontal attacks on the Mareth Line NZ Corps halted by 21 st Panzer DivisionNZ Corps halted by 21 st Panzer Division Successful use of CAS in support in NZ Corps on 22 nd MarchSuccessful use of CAS in support in NZ Corps on 22 nd March –No. 6 Squadron in Hurricane IID tank-busters Claimed 36 tanks hitClaimed 36 tanks hit Prevention of further operations by bad weatherPrevention of further operations by bad weather German counter-attacks on 23 March against XXX CorpsGerman counter-attacks on 23 March against XXX Corps Forced to shift the weight of the attackForced to shift the weight of the attack

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8 Shifting Priorities Failure of XXX Corps frontal assaultFailure of XXX Corps frontal assault Decision to concentrate on NZ Corps left hookDecision to concentrate on NZ Corps left hook Intention to thrust towards the Gabes Gap via El HammaIntention to thrust towards the Gabes Gap via El Hamma Air effort was to support this new thrustAir effort was to support this new thrust 24 th /25 th March No. 6 Squadron was again in action around El Hamma24 th /25 th March No. 6 Squadron was again in action around El Hamma Continuing attacks on airfieldsContinuing attacks on airfields 20 tanks hit by Hurricane IIDs20 tanks hit by Hurricane IIDs Maintenance of air superiority by actions of No. 242 Group and XII ASCMaintenance of air superiority by actions of No. 242 Group and XII ASC Army held up at El HammaArmy held up at El Hamma

9 Operation SUPERCHARGE II Problem of geographyProblem of geography A frontal assault would be costlyA frontal assault would be costly Broadhurst suggested a possible solutionBroadhurst suggested a possible solution –An air blitz Use of air power of roving artillery on a fixed patternUse of air power of roving artillery on a fixed pattern This would allow movement by 1 st Armoured DivisionThis would allow movement by 1 st Armoured Division Situation on other frontsSituation on other fronts Broadhursts appreciationBroadhursts appreciation NZ Corps Operation Orders driven by the air planNZ Corps Operation Orders driven by the air plan

10 Air Support – The Breakthrough at El Hamma Exploitation of allied air superiorityExploitation of allied air superiority BAI operation to proceed the air blitzBAI operation to proceed the air blitz Outline of the air blitzOutline of the air blitz –15:30 26 th March – 3 waves of light and medium bombers launched pattern bombing –On lines laid by a pre-planned artillery programme –Relay attacks launched immediately after its completion by fighter-bombers –A strength of 2.5 squadrons was maintained over the battlespace –Relays arrived at quarter hour intervals –No. 6 Squadron Hurricane tank-busters attacked concentrations of tanks –Air superiority maintained by a roving patrol of one Spitfire squadron Infantry advanced at 16:00 at a rate of 100 feet a minuteInfantry advanced at 16:00 at a rate of 100 feet a minute –Positions marked by flares By 29 th March 1 st Armoured Division had breached the Gabes GapBy 29 th March 1 st Armoured Division had breached the Gabes Gap

11 Command, Control, Intelligence and Reconnaissance Role of 285 WingRole of 285 Wing –Reconnaissance in support of army preparations Based on the Woodall systemBased on the Woodall system Lessons of No. 2 AASC in the Western DesertLessons of No. 2 AASC in the Western Desert Final perfected use of the Woodall systemFinal perfected use of the Woodall system FACs deployed with 8 th Armoured BrigadeFACs deployed with 8 th Armoured Brigade Use of Flying FACsUse of Flying FACs Intelligence driven interdiction campaignIntelligence driven interdiction campaign

12 Comments on the Battle at El Hamma An interesting feature of the El Hamma battle was the readiness of the Eighth Army to modify their plans at short notice in order to fit in with what was considered to be the most effective method of employing the air forces. The air operations themselves had no specifically novel features. The conventional rules of war were applied, special attention being paid to surprise, concentrating the maximum force at the right place, and carefully co-ordinating the air plans with those of the land forces. AIR 23/6764 Operations of the Western Desert Air Force from the capture of Tripoli, 23 rd Jan 1943, until the final surrender of Axis forces in North Africa, 13 th May 1943 p. 21

13 Conclusion: A Blueprint for Success? A fusion of lessonsA fusion of lessons The RAF was proactive rather than reactive to army needsThe RAF was proactive rather than reactive to army needs Readiness of army commanders to listen to their air force counterpartsReadiness of army commanders to listen to their air force counterparts Growth in inter-dependence between the army and air forceGrowth in inter-dependence between the army and air force Development of command relationshipsDevelopment of command relationships –Notably Montgomery and Broadhurst Culmination of 3 years of hard fought lessonsCulmination of 3 years of hard fought lessons A notable feature of combined arms operations in Italy and North-West EuropeA notable feature of combined arms operations in Italy and North-West Europe Introduction of WINKLE and TIMOTHY operationsIntroduction of WINKLE and TIMOTHY operations Links to CABRANKLinks to CABRANK Flexible and adaptableFlexible and adaptable


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