Tag Archives: RAF

Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost - either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

4 Comments

Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Air War

The Eurofighter Typhoon is capable of supercru...

Image via Wikipedia

Now, in the past I have been among the RAF’s fiercest critics. I am most definitely not anti-air, as I think history has shown that handled properly it can win you wars. But what I am not a fan of is the RAF’s culture when it comes to inter-service rivalries, being something of a self-preservation society. The RAF’s top brass will think nothing of destroying land or sea defence capabilities, if it can salvage something for itself. A ‘junior service’ complex, you might say. And as we have seen with Libya, the RAF’s PR Department is the most active participant in any war. Great if you have wings, but not if you are interested in ‘UK Defence’ overall.

But the RAF provides the most potent element of the Falklands Garrison’s tripwire. Like Malta during the Second World War, the fate of the Falkland Islands in any future conflict is likely to depend on a handful of aircraft – the four Eurofighter Typhoons based at RAF Mount Pleasant. Of course, I am not privy to defence planning, but I would expect that with such a small flight and obviously a limited number of airframes, we would be doing well to have two of them in the air at any one time.

The redeeming factor, however, is the manner in which Argentine air assets have  stood still since 1982. Their Air Force and Navy are flying virtually exactly the same aircraft, even to the point of not having replaced their significant losses during the 1982 war. If the Mirages et al struggled against the Sea Harrier, I really wouldn’t fancy their chances againt the Typhoons. The Typhoons, flown by pilots who in all likelihood have recent battle experience (albeit of ground attack), would probably account for a fair few Argentine aircraft. Their job would be to prevent the Argentines landing on the Islands, or at the very least to severely delay them in doing so. The Argentines would probably be looking to land by air, given their lack of amphibious vessels. In order to do so they would need to overwhelm the air defences at Mount Pleasant, and capture the runways intact in order to fly in troops. One would hope – and expect – that RAF Mount Pleasant would have under the runway demolition charges in the event of a capitulation.

The only offensive aircraft that the Task Force could expect to face are:

  • 21 Mirages of various, eldery types (including Israeli copies)
  • 24 Pucaras (ancient, turbo-prop aircraft)
  • 11 Super Etendards (operational status dubious)
  • 36 or 16 Fightinghawks (update of the old Skyhawk, number uncertain)

Compare those numbers to the 70+ aircraft that the Argentines lost in 1982 (total of all types). Then consider how many of them are actually serviceable, how many pilots they actually have, how experienced they are, and what weapons the Argentines actually have available for use. Suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a bad picture after all.

With the air bridge from the UK to Mount Pleasant via Ascension, reinforcements could be flown in relatively quickly – one guesses that that is the idea with building an air base on the Islands. It saves on basing large forces there permanently, but enables you to fly in reinforcements quickly. These could include extra Typhoons and Tornados for Air Defence – nominally the RAF has 83 Typhoons and 136 Tornados. There would be a requirement for Globemasters, Tristars and Hercules to set up an air bridge, along with tankers for air-to-air refuelling. A ‘wishlist’ for reinforcing the Falklands at short notice by air would probably look something like this – infantry (battalion size initially), air defence (Fighters and Rapier), transport helicopters and Apaches. Whether we have enough long range transport aircraft to effect such an airbridge, I cannot know.

If the islands were lost, then Ascension Island would into play as a vital air hub. Unlike in 1982, the RAF posseses Sentry E3-D. They have a range of around 4,000 nautical miles, so whilst they might not reach the Falklands, they could cover a large part of the South Atlantic. With the demise of Nimrod maritime reconnaisance is a bit of a gap, although the Raytheon Sentinel has a range of some 5,800 miles. Hence early warning and control might be greatly enhanced upon 1982. This should have a knock-on effect for air defence, target acquisition and command and control, in the absence of carrier-borne air cover.

With the demise of not only the Sea Harrier but also the Harrier GR’s, any task force would be fighting without its own fixed wing, carrier based aviation. The Sea Harriers were credited with playing a large part in winning the war in 1982. It is frequently assumed that we could not even contemplate another war without carrier-based air cover. Some suggest that the Type 45 Destroyers with their advanced radar and missile systems could effectively provide this cover, but the proof of this pudding is only really in the eating. Who knows how naval exercises have been playing out?

One significant improvement on 1982, is the ability to operate Army Air Corps Apaches from onboard ships. I identified how useful this might be in my 2009 series, and their usefulness was shown in the recent Libya conflict. A handful of Apaches on something like HMS Ocean would be incredibly useful, for providing firepower support to ground troops, shooting up bunkers, troop concentrations and the like. I’m not sure how much the concept has been explored, but they could also have an anti-surface role, as US helicopters did during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980′s.

Any task force could expect to face less aircraft than it did in 1982, and certainly nothing which would give it any headaches. With the ratio of force that the Argentine Air Force has to offer, one cannot help but think that just one aircraft carrier with a strike wing of Harriers would do the job nicely.

ADDENDUM

A Twitter follower has rightly pointed out that the Argentine Air Force also possesses a number of A-4AR Fightinghawks, a update of the A-4 Skyhawk using avionics from the F-16 Fighting Falcon. 36 were delivered, but various sources state that only 16 are currently active. Any more information on these numbers would be useful.

6 Comments

Filed under defence, Falklands War, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Lord West: Decision to scrap Harrier ‘bonkers’

A former Naval Chief and Government Minister has described the decision to retire the Harrier in favour of keeping the Tornado as ‘bonkers’.

Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and Labour Security Minister, was speaking in the House of Lords. West was also the commander of the Type 21 Frigate HMS Ardent during the Falklands War, when she was sunk under overwhelming air attack in San Carlos Water.

“The decision to get rid of the Harriers and not the Tornados is, I have to say, bizarre and wrong. It is the most bonkers decision that I have come across in my 45 years in the military and I assure you I have been privy to some pretty bonkers decisions in that time. In terms of cost if we remove the Tornado force we are looking at £7.5bn by 2018. With the Harriers we are looking at less than £1bn. So in cost terms that does not make sense.”

If his figures are right, West’s argument does seem to suggest that the decision to retire the Harrier and retain the Tornado is about much more than savings. The RAF clearly lobbied to retire the Harrier -an aircraft the junior service has never been overly keen on - knowing full well that its retirement meant scrapping the Aircraft Carriers that carry them, and thus undermining the Navy. Land-based and naval aviation have never been easy bedfellows. A prime example would be the oft-quoted case where the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to show that they could provide land based air cover anywhere in the world.

The decision to retire the Harrier was supported by Lord Craig, a former Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of the Air Staff:

“No one would wish to see them go, but under the circumstances where a decision has to be made between Tornado and Harrier and more Tornado, Tornado surely produces the better result particularly bearing in mind how many aircraft are needed to be supportive in Afghanistan.”

Craig’s argument is entirely in keeping with the RAF’s policy of maintaining its fleet of fast jets at any cost. There is no evidence to suggest that the Tornado produces better results, particularly when it is due to be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon soon in any case. The Harrier was designed specifically for the job of close air support for troops on the ground, such as in Afghanistan. The Tornado was designed as a Cold War fast interceptor, with the GR variant having a role in ground attack, particularly in attacking airfields. The Harrier on the other hand is more flexible, and can take off from much shorter runways. By ‘produces better results’, does Lord Craig mean that its speedometer goes slightly higher? Another example of defence chiefs looking for gold plated de luxe options when a cheaper turbo-prop counter insurgency aircraft would do the job.

The decision does seem to me to be akin to scrapping a hard-working and reliable Fiesta in order to save a few pounds to keep running an expensive Veyron. It’s amazing how we have come from a few months ago debating ‘what is the point of the RAF?’ to the present where the Royal Navy has been butchered to keep the light blue virtually intact.  Inter-service politics and single-mindedness at their worst.

Elsewhere, a survey of defence experts by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that 90% felt that the Strategic Defence and Security Review was a ‘lost opportunity’, and that Britain’s global role is now undefined and in a vacuum. The RUSI produced a wealth of research material prior to the review, most of which was completely ignored by the coalition Government. There is something bizarre about a Defence Review conducted by a couple of old Etonians (who give the impression of being as rich as Croesus but as thick as shit)  and their ‘special’ advisors, while defence analysts watch from the sidelines with dismay.

27 Comments

Filed under debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

HMS Ark Royal to be scrapped – Defence Review

It’s emerged this morning that the Royal Navy’s Flagship and only operational Aircraft Carrier, HMS Ark Royal, is to be scrapped ‘almost immediately’. The original plan had been to retain Ark Royal And her sister ship HMS Illustrious in service until the new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers reached service. The news is bound to spark outrage, with Ark Royal being such a famous name.

My guess is that Ark Royal will be decomissioned as soon as Illustrious leaves refit, which she is currently undergoing. Bearing in mind that the other Aircraft Carrier, HMS Invincible, is rusting in Portsmouth Harbour and completely useless for operations, this will leave Britain with one Aircraft Carrier for some years. And who knows if Illustrious will survive that long anyway?

The Harrier is due to leave service early, and the Joint Strike Fighter is due (this may slip) to enter service in around 2019, which means that for almost 10 years the Royal Navy will not fly fast jets off their aircraft carriers. This gap in service is very serious – it means that a lot of the skills connected with naval aviation, whilst not completely lost, will be by no means as sharp as they could be, and it will take some time to regain that effectiveness.

And with a sizeable gap with no aircraft carrier available, the Royal Navy will not be able to provide air cover for its own operations, especially vulnberable amphibious operations which depend on air superiority. Which effectively means that Britain cannot mount independent naval operations. As my mum – hardly a defence analyst – said watching the news this morning, “we’d might as well tell the Argies to walk in the front door”. If I were a Falkland Islander waking up today, I would be feeling ever so slightly let down by a Government whose first duty it is to protect its citizens.

On the whole, the RAF seems to have done rather well out of the Review. Retiring the Harrier early is not a huge loss for the junior service, and retaining ‘some’ Tornado Squadrons – even when it is in the process of being replaced by Eurofighter Typhoon – is bizarre in the least. The best solution would be to retain at least some Harrier presence until the pilots can begin transferring to the Joint Strike Fighter, and to retire the Tornado early as the UK has the Eurofighter coming onstream in the fast air interceptor role.

The Army seems to have done OK, with stern lobbying resulting in only low level cuts in numbers of troops, but cuts to many armoured and artillery units – capabilities that are being described as ‘cold war’. But at least a grain of capability is being kept - its easier to expand a tank force, for example, if there is even just a basic capability and experience, than it is to raise one from scratch. Flying US and French jets from British Carriers is pie in the sky stuff – it would be hostage to all kinds of political and diplomatic considerations, and in any case would the French and US Navies have enough jets spare to do it more than once or twice a year?

It might have made more sense, from a naval point of view, to scrap HMS Ocean, which was built to commercial standards as a stop-gap is apparently falling to bits. Then Ark Royal and Illustrious could have been retained with one acting as a Helicopter Carrier if need be. The run-down of Aircraft Carrier capability is also bad news for Portsmouth as the home of Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers. Especially for anyone who saw the considerable report from Plymouth on the BBC News this morning, complete with schoolchildren writing letters to the Prime Minister along the lines of  ‘please save my Daddy’s job’. The BBC’s line seemed to be that Portsmouth can take a hit much more easily than Plymouth could. Which may be true, but still painful none the less.

Other reports suggest that the Royal Navy’s escort fleet – Destroyers and Frigates – will be cut from 24 to 19. My guess is that this will mean the loss of the four Type 22 Frigates (Cornwall, Chatham, Cumberland, Campbeltown) and the remaining Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer (Liverpool). Or, alternatively, if any of the Type 23 Frigates are due for expensive refits then they might be retired early and flogged off.

An even more unbelievable report suggests that while both new carriers will enter service, the first – Queen Elizabeth – may be mothballed and sold after three years in order to recoup the costs of building the thing. The indignity of the Royal Navy selling one of the largest warships that it has ever built, named after the Queen, is fairly evident to even those with a weak grasp of defence politics.

All in all, its a balls up and its wrong of the politicians to insult our intelligence by suggesting anything otherwise. I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything different from a Defence Review that was completed in five months, headed by the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor and largely cut out the Ministry of Defence and Service Chiefs, who now have to pick up the pieces and work with whats left.

52 Comments

Filed under Army, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain by Anthony J. Cumming

The Royal Navy won the Battle of Britain. An argument, I am sure, that would have anyone making it carted off to the historical loony bin. Or, at least, the orthodoxy of British national history would have it so. The problem with such grandiose arguments is that invariably they are filed under ‘revisionist’ simply because they do not agree with the perceived, ie Churchillian, version of the history of the Second World War.

I’ve often wondered just why the Royal Navy is so overlooked in most versions of events of the summer of 1940. While we all know about Fighter Command and ‘the few’, and how they gallantly won the Battle of Britain, no-one sees fit to mention the role that the Royal Navy’s home fleet might have played in defeating an invasion. And not just that, but in deterring the Germans from crossing the channel in the first place. A pertinent point is the time and resources spent in preparing the D-Day landings – could the Germans have really pulled off a similar operation in 1940?

Cumming presents his argument in a masterful way. Firstly, he argues that an invasion was not necessarily inevitable in the summer of 1940, and many German commanders had serious misgivings – and a fear of the Royal Navy. Cumming then examines whether the Luftwaffe would have been able to attack major British warships in a sea battle in the Channel, the conclusion being that although the battleships were not as well armed for anti-air warfare as might have been hoped, they would still have been operating under cover of UK-based aircraft, and the Luftwaffe did not have many aircraft capable of attacking major warships. Whilst ships might have been sunk, it might not have been quite the whitewash that many predicted. Even a couple of big-gun battleships getting through would have wreacked carnage on the invasion barges, especially with a puny Kriegsmarine being able to offer little protection.

Another useful consideration that Cumming makes is whether the RAF truly ‘won’ the Battle of Britain in the first place. Popular wisdom holds that ‘the few’ defeated the Luftwaffe over southern England in the summer of 1940. Cumming makes use of official records that suggest that British Fighters might not have been quite as effective against German aircraft as first thought, including some useful technical data relating to a lack of stopping power with .303 bullets compared to cannons, which the Spitfires and Hurricanes lacked. So, in essence, Cumming is arguing here that regardless of whether the Royal Navy ‘won’ or not, we should not blindly assume that the RAF DID win it. It is no insult to suggest that whilst the RAF by no means defeated the Luftwaffe, it did not lose – which was crucial in itself.

One of the strangest facts about 1940 is how little is known about the Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes. Compared to predecessors such as Jellicoe and Beatty and successors such as Tovey and Fraser, Forbes is a virtual unknown in the annals of naval history. This may well explain why the Navy gets very little credit for the deterrent role that it played in 1940. Perhaps a more dashing and popular Admiral might have been used as a ‘poster-boy’. Finally, Cumming concludes his study by suggesting that the importance of winning American public opinion may have shaped the reporting of the events of 1940 – a heroic battle won by the RAF was easier to sell than an invasion thwarted by the deterrent of the Home Fleet.

These are interesting points indeed, that I have often pondered. Heavens knows why its taken so long for someone to write a book asking these difficult questions. And Anthony Cumming has made a very good job of it too. It would unfair to label his work as revisionism, it goes much beyond that. For me the most interesting point in the book is the conference in which Winston Churchill stated that in the event of an invasion he would expect the Royal Navy to steam into the straits of Dover from both ends. It really wound have been a second Trafalgar – probably more important – and, if I were a German Admiral, it would have had me thinking twice.

The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain is published by The Naval Institute Press

30 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Royal Air Force, World War Two

What’s the point of the RAF?

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, prior to a...

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just listened to a thought-provoking programme on BBC Radio looking at the future of the RAF. It was presented by Quentin Letts, and entitled ‘What is the point of the RAF?’ – somewhat provocative, but a worthwhile question none the less. I’ll summarise some of the main points, and add in my two penneth here and there.

Whilst the Battle of Britain and the Dambusters have given the RAF a lasting legacy in British culture, it is increasingly plausible that future aerial combat will be fought in unmanned aircraft. Therefore, if the RAF in its present state a sustainable entity? The current Defence Review – the most deep-searching and comprehensive for many a year – raises the possibility of a number of ‘sacred cows’ being cut. Quentin Letts describes the current process as ‘scramble time’ for the RAF, in a political dogfight with the other armed forces for funds.

The RAF is the youngest service, formed only in 1918 with the merger of the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (Navy). This youthful existence has given the RAF something of an inferiority complex, and a desire to prove itself and protect its existence, something it has had to do frequently throughout its 92 year history.

Several options have been advanced that might see the end of the RAF. The first – admittedly unlikely – option is that of merging all three services into a defence force. The second option is that of disbanding the RAF and dividing its roles and aircraft between the Army and Navy. The argument is that the RAF was only formed from the Army and the Navy in the first place, so in purely military terms would its disbandment really be such a big issue?

The RAF’s history since 1945 has been anything but smooth. With the loss of the nuclear deterrent role to the Navy in the 1960′s, since then the RAF has placed great store in its fast jet interceptors – Tornados and then Eurofighters – primarily to counter the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in the North Atlantic and over the North Sea. But the Cold War ended over 20 years ago now, and the RAF as an institution – and in particular its commanders – does not seem to have adapted to the new world, simply because it is not one that fits in with their pre-conceived ideas.

There have been frequent complaints from the other armed forces – and the Army, in particular – over the lack of support they have received from the RAF in joint operations. This has led to accusations that the RAF places far too much emphasis on its fast-jet operations, while its ground attack and transport roles are neglected. Yet somehow the RAF has managed to defend itself, mainly through sentiment and warnings of ‘you never know’. But will an unsentimental defence review be so kind?

Tim Collins, the commanding officer of the Royal Irish Regiment in the 2003 Iraq War, is of the opinion that the RAF’s transport fleet is not effective, and that charter airlines could do the job of transporting men and material in all non-combat areas. RAF rotary wing aviation is in the main to support the Army, so why should this not come under the Army’s control? And, Collins suggests, future strike aircraft are likely to be unmanned.

If Tim Collins thoughts are to be believed, the RAF’s existence as a separate entity does sound illogical, and was described by one commentator as a ‘muddle’. But aside from equipment and organisation, the real problem does seem to be cultural. The Cold War did not happen, so why are we still planning to fight it all over again? In any case, history has shown that to fight the last war is folly.

The Eurofighter is symptomatic of this Cold War syndrome. No doubt a fantastic platform – one of the best in the world, surely – it was designed to fit the Cold War. However, thanks to the long lead time needed to develop and order fighter aircraft, we are stuck with an aircraft that costs huge amounts to operate, which no-one can accurately pinpoint what it is actually for. There are mentions of how adaptable it is, how it can be modified, but these sound like clutching at straws. It has been suggested that the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, would not mind the prospect of selling some of our Eurofighters off.

Senior Officers in particular are most partisan about defending their service. Whilst this loyalty is inspiring, is this based on mere tribalism of British defence considerations? While Wing Commanders and Group Captains are full of pride about the RAF, primary loyalties among the bulk of men and women in the forces seem to be based on those with their immediate colleagues. Men and women from all kinds of capbadges serve together regularly, and form bonds that transcend uniforms and old divisions. RAF servicemen on the front line in Afghanistan wear the same desert combats as their Army colleagues – apart from rank slides and other identification, they are the same.

The RAF’s loyalty and sensitivity about protecting its independence has been described as a ‘historical paranoia’. It would be hard to argue with this statement. The Air Force figures whom Quentin Letts interviewed for this programme sounded insular and parochial, and more concerned with defending the RAF than anything else.

Max Hastings may not be quite the military expert that he promotes himself as – even though he did liberate Port Stanley all on his own. But his thoughts about RAF leadership are none the less pertinent. Traditionally the post of Chief of Defence Staff is rotated amongst the armed forces. As the previous Chief was General Sir Mike Walker, and his predecessor was Admiral Sir Mike Boyce, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was appointed. During the past few years, Hastings argues, it has been all too clear that an airman is out of touch in supreme command of the armed forces. A former jet pilot, so the argument goes, is not the best person to have in command while the armed forces are fighting what is largely a ground based, counter-insurgency campaign. RAF figures might argue that Afghanistan is a joint operation, but it is nonsensical to argue that ground forces do not have primacy – that would be like arguing that the Navy was not the major player in the Falklands.

Another argument doing the rounds is that the RAF’s traditional role has changed – traditionally based on manned flight, and the principle of gallant airmen piloting machines, is it possible that this phase in history has passed? With unmanned aerial vehicles being used more and more in Afghanistan and even Pakistan, at what point does the RAF let go of its images as the Douglas Baders and the Guy Gibsons, and moves more towards operating vehicles from offices thousands of miles away? Change is something that military bodies tend to be apprehensive about, but it happens whether we like it or not, and if we do not then we are hamstrung by those who do – evidenced by the horses/tanks arguments of the inter-war period.

Another interesting argument, made by Tim Collins in the programme, is that the traditional three dimensional force areas, based on sea, air and land, now also include the airwaves and cyberspace. Witness how Gary Mckinnion managed to access so many of the US military’s internal systems – imagine if a terorist organisation managed to access, say, the City of London’s trading networks and bring them down? There could be all kinds of political, economic, social, environmental risks. This, Collins argues, is something that the RAF could specialise in. Especially with its reputation as the most technological service and the one that works ‘in the air’. The problem comes if the RAF insists on clinging to its historical image.

Disbandment would have very grave risks for politicians – look at the furore that emerges any time any merger of a regiment is muted – to listen to commentators you would think that the end of the world is night. But the 2006 Army restructuring is a great example of how, while change can be difficult, in the long-run people adapt and move on. We live in a time where difficult choices have to be made, and difficult choices in hard times cannot afford to be based on sentiment. The choice does seem to be, for the RAF, to adapt or die.

57 Comments

Filed under debate, defence, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Defence Review – the rumour mill gathers pace

The mudslinging and inter-service squabbling regarding the Strategic Defence review has reached an undignified level in the past few days.

Firstly, Colonel Richard Kemp was quoted in the Sunday Express as saying that he would rather see an end to the three independent services than see the Army lose a single Infantry Battalion. Its probably worth pointing out that although Colonel Kemp is usually quoted as ‘former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan’, this was quite some time ago, prior to the current Helmand deployment.

In the Portsmouth News today Read Admiral Chris Parry stated that Kemp’s idea was ‘silly’, and that “No one in the services would go for it. The Canadians tried it and it was disastrous from a morale point of view and they couldn’t do their jobs properly.” Parry’s comments sound very much like a hissy fit. And whilst morale is very important, I wonder if the average sailor would be hugely bothered? I wonder whether the Canadian Forces structure is really as bad as Parry suggests – I doubt it.

These retired officers have clearly never heard of the dictum ‘when the armed forces argue, only the Treasury wins’. Will no-one poke their head above the parapet and at least say something constructive and realistic about UK Defence as a whole, rather than arguing their own corner and to hell with everyone else? No-one wants to go down in history as the commander who sold their service down the river, but once again the bigger picture seems to suffer.

By being so partisan and parochial, serving and retired officers are unwittingly making themselves into even juicier targets in the long-run. If they cannot come up with reasonable proposals for restructuring, then there is more chance that the Treasury will simply impose cuts arbitrarily.

This all comes as details emerge of possible cuts in the armed forces as a result of the Defence Review:

Royal Nacy Cuts

  • 2,000 personnel
  • 3 Amphibious Assault Ships
  • 2 Submarines

Apparently the Bay Class Landing Ships are seen as most vulnerable, and there has been talk of mothballing one of the Albion Class LDP’s. Both possibilities are ever so slightly ludicrous – the Bay Class ships have been great value and flexible platforms – landing ships, aid, disaster relief, transports, mother ships… Cutting Amphibious capability severely limits power projection. The possible cost of the 2 new Aircraft Carriers is all too evident now.

Army Cuts

  • 2,000 front line troops, plus 5,000 from Germany by 2015
  • 40% of Tanks, tracked artillery and Warrior armoured vehicles
  • Territorial Army cut from 32,000 to 15,000

It seems that the plan is to draw down the Army’s presence in Germany – this has already been slowly happening since 1990, and recently with the move of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps from Rheindalen to the UK, and 4 Mechanised Brigade from Germany to York. British Forces in Germany are in the main armoured, a legacy of the BAOR of the Cold War. Eventually the Army’s presence in Germany will probably consist of use of the huge Sennelager training area. Most commentators agree that in the current climate the Army is too armour-heavy, although whether 40% is the right level to cut remains to be seen. Cutting the TA by more than 50% is also likely to raise eyebrows.

RAF Cuts

  • 7,000 out of 42,000 personnel
  • All 120 Tornado Fighters/Ground Attack Aircraft
  • Combat Aircraft cut from 250 to less than 200
  • Joint Strike Fighter buy cut from 150 to less than 50

The early retirement of the Tornado before it has been fully replaced will undoubtedly leave a huge gap in the RAF’s inventory, with only a few Squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoons currently in service. In addition, the proposal to buy less than 50 JSF would seriously reduce the RAF’s close air support capability. And what it means for the Fleet Air Arm’s JSF plans, who knows? As with the Aircraft Carriers causing the loss of Assault Ships, it seems that the need to operate Eurofighter comes at the expense of other combat aircraft. Thankfully, there is no mention of any cuts to the RAF’s transport aircraft or helicopters – functions which the junior service has neglected somewhat in the past.

It should be added of course that there has been no indication of where these details actually came from… of course it could be a load of rubbish someone has made up… or, on the other hand, it could be something that the MOD has floated out to gauge opinion?

12 Comments

Filed under Army, debate, defence, Navy, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Flying Officer John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan DFC

On 17 August 1940, Flying Officer John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan, from Southsea and of 56 Squadron RAF, was killed in France. He was 25. There is a full biography of John Coghlan here.

Born in 1914 in Shanghai, Coghlan attended the Imperial Services College, before joining the RAF in 1937. His address in Southsea was 16 Worthing Road. Apparently he was a short, well-built man with darkk brushed back hair and a large moustache, and was friendly and unflappable. However he was also described as overweight and unfit, and had a ‘prodigious intake of ale’. He took over command of A Flight just before the Squadron departed for France in 1940. At one point during an air battle he had exhausted the ammunition in his machine guns, so proceeded to fire his Browning pistol at his enemy, earning the nickname of ‘Nine Gun’.

56 Squadron were based at RAF North Weald in Essex, and were flying Hurricanes in 1940. Part of 11 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, 56 Squadron were in the front line of the Battle of Britain. The Squadron had earlier provided air cover for the evacuation from Dunkirk. During the Battle of Britain his personal aircraft was Hurricane US-N.

His was DFC gazetted on 30 July 1940:

This officer has been a flight commander in his squadron on most of the recent patrols and has led the squadron on some occasions. At all times he has shown the greatest initiative and courage and has personally destroyed at least six enemy aircraft.

The citation for his DFC suggests that he was in the thick of the air battles raging over southern England in the summer of 1940 – to have destroyed at least enemy aircraft was no mean feat. It is also notable that his DFC was announced in the London Gazette on 30 July – several weeks before his death, and indeed, the recommendation for an award would have predated the announcement by some time too. Therefore he may have accounted for even more aircraft.

But there’s more… Coghlan was not actually serving with 56 Squadron at the time of his death. According to acesofww2.com, he had attended a course at the Parachute Practice School at Ringway, Manchester on 7 August 1940. He took off on the night of 17/18 August 1940 in a Lysander aircraft to perform a special duties flight, but both he and the agent he was carrying were captured and executed. Whether this was a war crime or not depends on whether he was in uniform. If he was, Coghlan was entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention. If not, then he was liable to be shot as a spy.

So, a pilot who appeared to be one of ‘the few’, was in actual fact not only one of the few, but one of the earliest of the RAF’s special duties pilots, who was sadly captured and executed in occupied France.

Operational Records and Log Books should – hopefully – tell us a lot more about John ‘Nine Gun’ Coghlan.

6 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 4)

27 decorations were won by 24 Portsmouth airmen who died during the Second World War. 5.7% of Portsmouth airmen were decorated in some way:

Distinguished Service Order
Wing Commander John Buchanan (227 Squadron, Beaufighters)

Distinguished Flying Cross
Flight Lieutenant Gerald Bird (97 Squadron, Manchesters)
Wing Commander John Buchanan (227 Squadron, Beaufighters)
Flying Officer John Coghlan (56 Squadron, Hurricanes)
Flying Officer Thomas Morris (unknown)
Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy (7 Squadron, Lancasters)
Flight Lieutenant Benjamin McLaughlin (unknown)
Wing Commander Frank Dixon-Wright (115 Squadron, Wellingtons)
Flight Lieutenant Donald Courtenay (511 Squadron, Yorks)
Flying Officer John Donohue (635 Squadron, Lancasters)
Flight Lieutenant Dennis Woodruff (15 Squadron, Lancasters)

Distinguished Flying Medal
Flight Sergeant Arthur Smith (38 Squadron, Wellingtons)
Flight Sergeant James Bundle (97 Squadron, Lancasters)
Flight Lieutenant James Potter (233 Squadron, Hudsons)
Sergeant Francis Compton (35 Squadron, Halifaxes)
Flying Officer Frederick Brown (142 Squadron, Wellingtons)
Flight Sergeant Raymond Hayles (15 Squadron, Lancasters)

Mentioned in Despatches
Group Captain Ernest McDonald CBE (144 Maintenance Unit) – twice MiD
Sergeant Arthur Knight (unknown)
Flight Sergeant Herbert Clarke (617 Squadron, Lancasters)

Commander of the British Empire
Group Captain Ernest Mcdonald (144 Maintenance Unit)

Member of the British Empire
Warrant Officer Edgar Juffs (unknown)

British Empire Medal
Flight Lieutenant John Holder (55 Squadron, Baltimores)
Pilot Officer John Philp (149 Squadron, Stirlings)
Flying Officer William Grant (166 Squadron, Lancaster)

Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal
Aircraftman 1st Class Jack Heap (151 Maintenance Unit, captured in Singapore)

Two men won more than one medal – Group Captain Mcdonald CBE MiD (twice) and Wing Commander John Buchanan DSO DFC.

There seems to have been a fairly even split between officers and men winning awards – due to the specific nature of the air war, all men in the air were at the sharp end and had almost equal opportunities for showing bravery. Of course senior officers – pilots and commanders,for example – had more chance of winning leadership awards such as the DSO. Medals could also be awarded for prolonged good service or bravery rather than just one incident – something that was important given how Bomber crews in particular went up into the air night after night.

The vast majority of awards were given for men serving in bombers. Flight Lieutenant James Potter’s DFM was given for service with Hudson’s in Coastal Command. Flying Officer John Coghlan’s DFC was awarded for flying Hurricanes in Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.

Another interesting point to note are two commissioned officers who were awarded Distinguished Flying Medals – an award normally given to NCO’s and men. These medals were obviously won while the recipients were NCO’s and before they were commissioned as officers.

Aircraftman 1st Class Jack Heap’s Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal was awarded posthumously for life saving deeds on 8 November 1944 whilst he was a prisoner of the Japanese after being captured at Singapore.

1 Comment

Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

The Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 by Ian Smith Watson

I’ve got to admit, I didn’t expect much from this book. No matter how you look on it, it just doesn’t sound that interesting. Which makes it all the more pleasing that in actual fact, its a very enlightening read.

I’m quite a latecomer to airshows – I’ve only ever been to one back in the early 90′s at the old HMS Daedelus in Gosport, and the last couple of years at Shoreham airshow. Its quite intereresting to read, therefore, that according to the author airshows were the second biggest participation events in Britain in the twentieth century, after football matches. Where this assertion comes from is not made clear, but all the same, as a spectacle the airshow holds a place in British social history.

The main focus of Ian Smith Watson is the RAF’s own official air displays from 1920, until the remaining annual display at RAF Leuchars. As a relatively young service the RAF has always had to gain the respect of the public, politicians and the other services, and as such it has learnt to market itself very effectively. As the operators of some seriously impressive hardware, the air show has become a valuable tool in the RAF’s PR armoury.

The first RAF airshows began soon after the service’s founding, in the early 1920′s at RAF Hendon. At that time it was still only some 20 years since the Wright brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk, and aircraft were still a novelty and a big draw to the public. Locally, the airshows at Portsmouth’s new airport in the early 1920′s drew thousands of spectators – at the time it was almost the equivalent of NASA displaying the Space Shuttle.

Although interrupted by the war years – when naturally enough the RAF had enough on its plate without putting on displays – after 1945 a return to peacetime conditions ensued. Recognising once more a need to promote the service and engage with the public the Battle of Britain at home days were devised. The anniversary of the Battle of Britain was chosen, as it was seen as the RAF’s finest hour. Its interesting that even so soon after the end of the war the RAF was distancing itself from the fallout of the Bomber offensive. The ‘at home’ concept saw as many RAF bases as possible throwing open their doors to the public, with static and flying displays.

The post-war contraction of the RAF, coupled with the changing performance of aircraft, saw the number of shows gradually decline until they were taking place more on a regional basis, with bases such as Biggin Hill, Abingdon, St Athan, Finningley and Leuchars hosting major events. Gradually official aerobatic display teams were formed, leading to the world-famous red arrows.

One interesting factor that Smith Watson looks at is the involvement of foreign air forces. In the early 1950′s the RAF decided against inviting foreign airforces – apart from the US and Canada – for practical and protocol reasons. Within a few years, however, and with the decline of the RAF’s inventory a u-turn saw much of the ‘at home’ air shows being padded-out with foreign participants. Given the ever-decreasing size of the RAF and operational commitments, sadly the only official RAF airshow is now at RAF Leuchars, and RAF commitment to other civilian-organised shows is on the wane.

Perhaps in places the author is over-nostalgic, for example his dislike for the RAF’s attempt at trialling a new modern kind of airshow in recent years. People change, and so does society, and it takes different ways to engage. The other drawback with this book is that it focuses only on official RAF airshows, whereas in the broader remit there are many other air-minded events that might be interesting to research. But all the same, this book points the reader in that direction.

I think any writer can take a fashionable or well-known subject and churn out a book, but it takes a very gifted writer to take such a specialist subject and make it readable to a wider audience. It might also make interesting reading for an RAF PR officer, thinking about how to promote the service in public minds, especially with spending cuts looming.

The Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 is published by Pen and Sword

3 Comments

Filed under airshow, Book of the Week, Royal Air Force

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – focus on Bomber Command

As such a large percentage of Portsmouth airmen died whilst serving with Bomber Command, it makes sense to take a more detailed look at the manner in which they died.

Of the 208 Portsmouth airmen who died serving with Bombers, we have additional details about 138 of them thanks to the brilliant lostbombers website, which contains crash details for all Bombers lost over North West Europe during the war. The remaining 70 were either ground crew or serving in Bombers overseas. As we can see from the breakdown of where they were targetting, when and where they were lost accurately tells the story of the strategic Bomber Offensive.

Germany – 96

Portsmouth airmen were lost on raids on the following targets:

20 – Berlin
7 – Cologne
6 – Homberg
4 – Mannheim
3 – Dusseldorf
3 – Essen
3 – Frankfurt
3 – Hamburg
3 – Hannover
3 – Krefeld
3 – Mulheim
3 – Nuremberg
3 – Peenemunde
2 – Aachen
2 – Bremen
2 – Brunswick
2 – Dortmund
2 – Mainz
2 – Sterkrade
2 – Wilhelmshaven
1 – Bochum
1 – Chemnitz
1 – Duisburg
1 – Emmerich
1 – Gelsenkirchen
1 – Karlsruhe
1 – Kembs Dan
1 – Kiel Canal
1 – Koblenz
1 – Leipzig
1 – Lubeck
1 – Munich
1 – Osnabruck
1 – Russelheim
1 – Schweinfurt
1 – Stuttgart
1 – Witten
1 – Wuppertal

As we can see, most of the casualties were suffered in two areas – Berlin and the Ruhr. Berlin was heavily targetted due to its status as the Nazi capital. The Ruhr came in for special attention due to its high concentration of heavy industry, its relative closeness to airbases in England, and the ability to navigate to targets their from the coast.

15 of the 20 men killed while targetting Berlin were killed during the offensive known as the Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944. 24 March 1944 was a particularly heavy night, when 4 Portsmouth men were killed. Overall the Battle of Berlin caused the loss of 2,690 airmen and 500 aircraft.

19 men were lost during the period known as the Battle of the Ruhr, between March and July 1943. Raids were launched on Germany’s industrial heartland, and men were killed targetting cities such as Emmerich, Dortmund, Essen, Dusseldorf, Bochum, Cologne, Krefeld, Mulheim, Wuppertal and Cologne. Particularly heavy losses were experienced over Essen on 28 May (2 men killed), Krefeld on 2 June (3 men killed) and Cologne on 29 June and 4 July (2 men killed on each date).

3 Portsmouth men were also killed on the vitally important raid on Peenemunde on 18 August 1943. Peenemunde was the testing site for German V-Weapons. Other interesting targets were the U-boat pens at Wilhelmshaven, the ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt, the Kembs Dam and the Kiel Canal. Interestingly, no Portsmouth airmen were killed in the infamous raids on Dresden or Hamburg.

Another fact that is most striking is the sheer number of targets that Bomber Command hit. Sure, we all know about Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne – but not about Homberg, Mannheim or Krefeld. German industry was spread far more widely than we might think, and part of Bomber Command’s ‘dehousing’ policy was to area bomb these cities and thus demoralise and dislocate the workforce. It was recognised early in the war in the 1941 Butt report that Bombers did not have the accuracy to effectively hit pinpoint targets at night.

France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Czech Republic – 25

2 – Pilsen
2 – Bourg-Leopold
1 – Vierzon
1 – St Leu d’Esserent
1 – Merville
1 – Normandy
1 – Mailly-le-Camp
1 – La Pallice
1 – Laon
1 – Achures
1 – Auberive-sur-Suippes
1 – Berry-au-Bac
1 – Boulogne
1 – Brest
1 – Caen
1 – Turin
1 – V Weapons sites
1 – Haine St Pierre
1 – Colombelles
1 – Courbonne
1 – Ypenburg
1 – Courtrai
1 – Battle Area (1940)

Bomber Command also struck at many targets outside of Germany. Pilsen in Czechoslovakia was targetted as it was the home of the huge Skoda auto works, and Turin in Italy as it was the home of Fiat – both were extremely long haul flights. Many of the targets in France were hit either in 1940 as the Germans advanced towards Dunkirk, or in 1944 either in the run up to D-Day or afterwards in an attempt to help the Allied armies take Caen or break out of the beachead. Notable raids include Merville, the battery that the Otway’s Paras disabled on D-Day; the V Weapons sites in Holland and Belgium, and the U-Boat base at Brest.

Other Missions 15

4 – Minelaying
4 – Anti-Shipping
2 – Communications
2 – Recconaisance
1 – Window
1 – Supply Drop to Resistance
1 – Invasion Ports

Bombers also performed a number of other roles during the war other than attacking German cities. Mines were laid in the North Sea and Baltic (known to the Bomber crews as ‘gardening’), and the Bombers also took on anti-shipping patrols. ‘Communications’ raids were mainly targetted at northern France in the run up to D-Day. ‘Window’ was the practise of dropping bundles of aluminium strips in the air to confuse German radar. One bomber was lost while dropping supplies to the resistance, two whilst performing ‘recconaisance’, and one whilst targetting invasion barges in channel ports in the summer of 1940.

Years

203 Portsmouth Bomber men were killed during wartime:

18 – 1940 (8.87%)
25 – 1941 (12.32%)
20 – 1942 (9.85%)
60 – 1943 (29.56%)
67 – 1944 (33%)
13 – 1945 (6.4%)

In terms of the intensisty of losses, the Bomber war seems to have been split into three distinct phases. From 1939 until 1942 Bomber Command lacked the numbers of both aircraft and crews to hit Germany with any intensity. Once Sir Arthur Harris took over Bomber Command in 1942 he was finally able to unleash a force experienced at flying at night, with increasing numbers, heavier aircraft such as the Lancaster, and with technology such as Oboe, Gee and Window becoming available. 1943 and 1944 saw the Battle of the Ruhr, the Battle of Berlin, the raid on Peenemunde and the raids on targets in France in support of Operation Overlord. Once this phase was completed the Bombers went back to targetting Germany, but with the war ending in May 1945 and with German defences shattered losses were far lower.

2 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 3)

Countries

The number of countries in which Portsmouth’s RAF fallen are buried or commemorated shows not only how the RAF was committed to fight in so many places, but also suggests where the main efforts were concentrated:

203 – UK (49.5%) inc. 70 Runnymede Memorial
46 – Germany (11.22%)
32 – France (7.8%)
25 – Holland (6.09%)
17 – Egypt (4.14%)
15 – Belgium (3.66%)
13 – Singapore (3.17%)
11 – Malta (2.68%)
10 – Italy (2.44%)
4 – Burma (0.98%)
4 – Canada “
3 – Iraq (0.73%)
3 – Norway “
3 – Sri Lanka “
2 – Libya (0.49%)
2 – USA “
1 – Bahamas (0.24%)
1 – Bangladesh “
1 – Gibraltar “
1 – Greece “
1 – Hong Kong “
1 – Indonesia “
1 – Japan “
1 – Kenya “
1 – New Zealand “
1 – Pakistan “
1 – Serbia “
1 – South Africa “
1 – Thailand “
1 – Uganda “
1 – Zimbabwe “

Clearly, the vast majority of men were killed over North West Europe, or at home in the UK. Many of those who died in the UK would have done so due to natural causes, although it is known that several died in crash landings or accidents in Britain.

Obviously Gemany was the main target for much of the war, Bombers had to overfly counties such as France, Holland and Belgium, and many Bomber aircrew are buried there as a result. For several months in 1944 targets in France were also heavily bombed as part of the plan to cripple the transport network in advance of Operation Overlord.

But there are also some other noticeable statistics too – the numbers of men killed in Egypt, for example, suggest how important the Middle East Air Forces were – and also the number of men killed on Malta also points to the intensity of the air battle there. Several men were also killed in Iraq, during an uprising at RAF Habbaniya in 1941 – the RAF had long been the service tasked with administering Iraq.

The sheer spread of casualties around so many countries shows just how far and wide the RAF served during the Second World War. In particular, fatalities in countries such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Bahamas suggest that the RAF was operating transport routes down the East Coast of Africa, across the Atlantic and across South East Asia. Deaths in the US and Canada were probably caused by accidents during training or ferrying operations.

Memorials

104 Portsmouth Airmen – 25.37% – have no known grave and are remembered on various memorials to the missing:

70 – Runnymede Memorial (Europe)
12 – Alamein Memorial (North Africa)
11 – Malta Memorial (Mediterranean)
11 – Singapore Memorial (Far East)

Men on the Runnymede and other Memorials mainly consist of aircrew lost at sea or whose remains could not be found, although other casualties are also included, such as RAF ground crew who were lost in the sinking of the Lancastria in 1940.

Due to the nature of air combat it was not always possibe to identify individual remains when aircraft crashed. As a result 33 Portsmouth airmen are buried in joint or collective graves along with their comrades.

Leave a comment

Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 2)

We know the age of the majority of Portsmouth airmen who were killed during the Second World War. Most of them were incredibly young when they were killed, and also the vast majority of them were killed serving in Bombers.

Age

3 – 18 (0.73%)
14 – 19 (3.41%)
264 – 20′s (64.39%)
51 – 30′s (12.44%)
11 – 40′s (2.68%)
6 – 50′s (1.46%)
1 – 60′s (0.24%)

The age of 60 airmen – 14.63% – is unknown.

Airmen in their Twenties

That such a large percentage were in their 20′s warrants more detailed examination:

40 – 20
62 – 21
39 – 22
31 – 23
16 – 24
26 – 25
9 – 26
9 – 27
14 – 28
18 – 29

As we can see, the majority of Portsmouth airmen were in their early twenties. Overall, 46% of RAF servicemen from Portsmouth who were killed during the war were 23 or younger.

Another feature of RAF service is that men could reach quite senior rank whilst still relatively young. For example, Wing Commander Guy Gibson was 23 at the time of the Dambusters raid in 1943. By contrast, to command a Battalion an officer would have to be in their 30′s, and a major naval ship older still. But as the junior service, the RAF perhaps was less wedded to tradition and more open to promotion on merit rather than seniority.

It will be interesting to look at what parts of the RAF men came from, and whether, for example, Fighter Command or Bomber Command had younger aircrew.

Types of Aircraft

Of the 410 members of the RAF from Portsmouth who died during the Second World War we know what aircraft 267 of them were flying in at the time of their death.

Bombers – 208 (77.9%)

78 – Avro Lancaster (Bomber)
32 – Handley Page Halifax (Bomber)
29 – Vickers Wellington (Bomber)
19 – Bristol Blenheim (Light Bomber)
15 – Short Stirling (Bomber)
6 – Armstrong Whitworth Whitley (Bomber)
5 – Martin Baltimore (Bomber)
4 – Fairey Battle (Light Bomber)
4 – Consolidated Liberator (Bomber)
4 – De Havilland Mosquito (Light Bomber)
3 – Bristol Beaufort (Bomber)
2 – Douglas Boston (Light Bomber)
2 – Boeing Flying Fortress (Bomber)
2 – Vickers Vincent (Light Bomber)
1 – Avro Manchester (Bomber)
1 – Martin Marauder (Light Bomber)
1 – Lockheed Ventura (Bomber)

That such a large percentage of airmen died serving in Bombers is not surprising. Bomber Command was by far the largest part of the RAF, in terms of manpower and aircraft. Each aircraft had up to seven crew members, whereas most fighters had only one. And – particularly from 1943 onwards – Bomber Command launched hundreds of thousands of sorties over Germany and occupied Europe, leading to an incredibly high attrition rate. Research suggests that for every 100 airmen in Bomber Command 55 would be killed on operations, 3 would be injured, 12 would be taken Prisoner, 2 would evade capture, and 27 would survive the war unscathed. Sobering statistics indeed.

The statistics above also suggest the prime importance of the RAF’s big workhorse Bombers – the Lancaster, the Halifax and the Wellington.

Fighters – 22 (8.24%)

9 – Hawker Hurricane (Fighter)
8 – Supermarine Spitfire (Fighter)
3 – North American Mustang (Fighter)
1 – Boulton Paul Defiant (Fighter)
1 – Gloster Meteor (Jet fighter)

On first impressions, we might be suprised that such a small percentage of airmen were killed flying Fighters – after all, we all associate the Spirtfire with the RAF more than any other aircraft, do we not? Yet it is important to remember that Fighter Command was much smaller than Bomber Command. Also, while Bomber Command was in action virtually every night, Fighter Command experienced short periods of frenetic activity, intersersed with defensive patrolling. It would be accurate to think of Fighters as a smaller, more specialised force than Bombers, hence the lower losses – Fighter Pilots were indeed ‘the few’.

Between 1939 and 1945 Fighter Command lost 3,690 men killed. 4,790 aircraft were lost. During the same period Bomber Command lost 55,573 men killed.

Transport – 11 (4.12%)

6 – Douglas Dakota (Transport)
2 – Westland Lysander (Special Ops)
1 – De Havilland Albatross (Transport)
1 – Avro Anson (Transport/Trainer)
1 – Avro York (Transport)

Transport Command was one of the unsung parts of the RAF. Transport Command itself was formed in 1943 from Ferry Command, and other Transport aircraft also served with Army Co-operation Command. Although Transport Aircraft did not routinely go into action in the same manner as Fighters or Bombers, long-laul flying in various theatres meant that accidents were bound to occur.

Coastal/Maritime 11 (4.12%)

7 – Lockheed Hudson (Maritime Recce/Bomber)
2 – Consolidated Catalina (Flying Boat)
2 – Short Sunderland (Flying Boat)

Coastal Command played a crucial but little-known role in the Second World War, particularly in the defeat of the U-Boat menace. Coastal Aircraft flew over 240,000 sorties, sinking 212 U-Boats. 1,777 aircraft were lost, and 5,866 men were killed. Its interesting that these losses were higher than those of Fighter Command, yet perhaps Coastal Command’s less glamorous role has led to it being overlooked.

Ground Attack 7 (2.62%)

4 – Bristol Beaufighter (Ground Attack)
2 – Hawker Typhoon (Attack)
1 – Vultee Venegance (Dive Bomber)

The RAF also played a role in supporting Army operations – this can be seen to a lesser extent at Dunkirk, but the practise was pioneered by the Desert Air Force in North Africa and then the Second Tactical Air Force in North West Europe after D-Day.

Other units and roles

Of the 143 men and women of whom we have no aircraft details, we do have information about some of them. 1 was serving in an Airfield Construction Squadron, 3 with Barrage Balloons, 1 with Bomb Disposal, 3 with maintenance units, 1 was an Officer Cadet in training and 1 other man was serving with the RAF Regiment.

4 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 1)

410 Airmen and women from Portsmouth died between 1939 and 1947. Analysing when and how they died tells us much not only about the war that the RAF fought, but also about the population of Portsmouth in the mid-twentieth century.

As with the Navy and Army we can analyse where in Portsmouth they came from, when they died, their ages, what ranks they held, and any decorations they were awarded. But RAF casualties also present us with some unique information – their roles, what aircraft they were flying, and even on what raids they were shot down.

Areas

96 – Southsea (23.41%)
47 – North End (11.46%)
40 – Cosham (9.76%)
25 – Copnor (6.1%)
15 – Fratton (3.66%)
11 – Stamshaw (2.68%)
10 – Drayton (2.44%)
9 – Milton (2.19%)
7 – Buckland (1.7%)
7 – Hilsea (1.7%)
6 – Paulsgrove (1.46%)
5 – East Cosham (1.22%)
5 – Farlington (1.22%)
4 – Eastney (0.98%)
3 – Mile End (0.73%)
2 – Portsea (0.49%)
1 – Wymering (0.24%)

49 men are listed as from ‘Portsmouth’ – 11.95%. The remainder of men are listed as coming from somewhere other than Portsmouth.

Firstly, most RAF men seem to have come from Southsea and outlying areas such as North End, Cosham and Copnor. Cosham in particular is an interesting case – with a relatively low population at the time, it contributed a much larger proportion of airmen than it did sailors and soldiers. Although it had a small population, Cosham woud have been home to more educated and middle class people. Given its more stringent entry requirements and need for specialist skills, its not surprising perhaps that many Cosham men joined the RAF – a case of round pegs in round holes. By comparison, much fewer airmen came from the inner-city areas such as Buckland and Fratton – and none at all from Landport.

When they died

When they died tell us an awful lot about the part that the RAF played in the war:

1 – 1939
36 – 1940
56 – 1941
48 – 1942
95 – 1943
110 – 1944
45 – 1945
14 – 1946
5 – 1947

The large numbers of men killed in 1943 and 1944 suggest that heavy casualties were suffered during Bomber Command’s Stategic Offensive over Germany. I will look more closely at these statistics in a future instalment.

Ranks

The RAF presents an interesting case where ranks are concerned, due to its unique structure.

100 of the Portsmouth Airmen who were killed during the war were commissioned officers – 24.39% of all airmen, a much higher proportion than either the Navy or Army:

2 – Group Captain
3 – Wing Commander
3 – Squadron Leader
20 – Flight Lieutenant
38 – Flying Officer
33 – Pilot Officer
1 – Officer Cadet

310 Portsmouth Airmen killed during the war were either NCO’s or other ranks:

12 – Warrant Officer
65 – Flight Sergeant
177 – Sergeant
16 – Corporal
22 – Leading Aircraftman
9 – Aircraftman 1st Class
7 – Aircraftman 2nd Class

Of these other ranks 270 – 87% – were NCO’s. This was due to the RAF’s unique rank structure. Virtually all air crew were promoted to NCO or officer rank, almost as a matter of course. Subsequently, few other ranks came into harms way during the war, and thus far fewer were killed. Whereas aircrew flying on Bombing missions night after night or were much more vulnerable. Obviously many thousands of ground crew – Aircraftsmen and Corporals, for example – would have been serving with the RAF during the war, but for the most part they would have been serving in relative safety compared to aircrew. The exceptions of course would have been theatres where ground crew were open to air attack or capture, such as at Singapore.

The RAF also had unique customs when it came to ranks. Whereas in the Navy and Army officers led and men followed, in the RAF ranks did not neccessarily correspond with roles. It was quite possible to have a crew made up completely of officers, and another crew made up completely of NCO’s. Therefore, in one aircraft a Flight Lieutenant might be an Air Gunner, whereas in the next plane the Pilot might be a Flight Sergeant.

Leave a comment

Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Kept in the Dark by John Stubbington

This forensic and incisive book by Wing Commander John Stubbington takes a comprehensive view of the intellingence – or lack of it – provided to Bomber Command during the Second World War.

It’s pretty much common knowledge nowadays that for the last few years of the war the allies were able to intercept the Germans Enigma Signals, and the decryptions of these signals were known as ULTRA. Of course, some sterling work went on at Bletchley Park by men such as Alan Turing and by British submariners in capturing Enigma codebooks. Perhaps the most well-known use of ULTRA intelligence was defeating the U-Boat menace during the Battle of the Atlantic, something that has been well described by John Terraine in The U-Boat Wars.

But having such a rich seem of intelligence is one thing, making good use of it is quite another. And we don’t ever hear much about the misuse of ULTRA intelligence – one of the most prominent in my mind if the debacle of Arnhem, where intercepts clearly placed the Panzer Divisions around Arnhem, but it seems that this fact was not passed down to the commanders who really needed to know the fact. And as Stubbington shows here, a similar situation existed in the RAF, where the Air Ministry, incredibly, did not pass on ULTRA intelligence to Bomber Command and its Chief, Sir Arthur Harris. Its even more incredible when we consider that his American counterparts at the US Eight Air Force had full access to ULTRA.

Why were Harris and Bomber Command kept out of the loop? It seems to have been down to a complex set of parochial and political issues pervading within the RAF. The existence of a Director of Bombing Operations at the Air Ministry, who was openly hostile to Harris, created tension that possibly led to a holding back of intelligence. A plethora of committees, departments and commanders in Whitehall and beyond were continually bickering about targets – Oil, transportation, U-Boat pens, dehousing etc – led to a lack of common purpose within the RAF. This lack of purpose made it all the more easy for Harris’s enemies to ensure that he did not receive ULTRA intelligence, that may well have informed and shaped his operational planning. To not pass ULTRA intelligence on to a commander of Harris’s level was most unusual, and must beg the question why.

Another argument that Stubbington advances is that perhaps Harris was seen as too unreliable to be trusted with ULTRA. There is no evidence to suggest that Harris was a security risk, and in any case if any officer cannot be trusted, should they really be in command anyway? There is no evidence to suggest that ULTRA was witheld for this reason, but my hunch is that it is a reason that could well have been quietly expounded by Harris’s enemies. Time and time again we read that the allies were paranoid about the ULTRA secret leaking out, to the extent of witholding its benefits from key officers.

Would ULTRA intelligence have made much of a difference to Bombing Operations, had Harris been in receipt of it? Stubbington suggests here that ULTRA decrypts would have shown just how pivotal the destruction of Germany’s transportation system was. ULTRA might have made Harris better armed when it came to arguing over target policy. And by denying the commander most responsible for directing the Bomber offensive the most valuable source of intelligence available, the whitehall warriors were commiting a shameful act.

This is a most insightful book by Wing Commander Stubbington. It draws on a wealth of original research and uses a wide range of sources, and it will infom the historiography of ULTRA and wartime intelligence, and also the controversial history of the Bomber Offensive.

Kept in the Dark is published by Pen and Sword

6 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, Intelligence, Royal Air Force, World War Two