#Reviewing Flying to Victory

Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941. Mike Bechthold. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 2017.

Airpower has been defined as the “ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.”[1] However, before the First World War, military leaders saw airpower as chiefly offering observation and reconnaissance. In 1908, First Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois saw a future where a struggle would take place over the battlefield from the air, granting an advantage to the victor in aerial observation that would bring “campaigns to a short and decisive end.”[2] It was over this future battlefield, the Western Front of the Great War, that the evolution of the aircraft was fully realized beyond just observation and reconnaissance, with British Brigadier-General Robert Brooke-Popham remarking, that “the fighting man” had been “replaced by the machine.”[3] These machines, by 1918, soared beyond observation and reconnaissance to aerial and air-to-ground combat along with deceptive measures. During the final phase of the Battle of the Somme, low-flying aircraft masked the noise of tanks coming up into line.[4] However, it was during the interwar period when air doctrine fully developed with the ideas of air-ground cooperation centering on establishing air superiority and close air support to secure the battlefield from enemy air operations. However, British aviators learned the real lessons on supporting ground forces through air superiority over the desert of North Africa as described in the work by Michael Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941.

Bechthold sets out with Flying to Victory to look at the evolution of Royal Air Force-British Army relations and the development of tactical-air-support doctrine in the Western Desert during the start of World War II. Bechthold saw a deficiency in scholarship when discussing the development of Allied tactical air doctrine during World War II, especially with the absence during the early period and most scholars pointing to the origins of the development to Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham in late 1941. However, it was, as Bechthold points out in Flying to Victory, Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw who drew upon personal experiences during World War I and the interwar period on how air forces could best support ground forces.

Initially, the Middle East and North Africa received little attention from the British at the start of World War II. Nevertheless, Britain viewed Egypt strategically important because of its reliance on the Suez Canal as the strategic and commercial lifeline to Europe, particularly for the transportation of oil.[5] Due to the British weaknesses—numerically and qualitatively inferiority compared to the Italians—in Egypt and the Italian aggression in the area, British military forces developed plans to cover the vast area with limited resources against a vastly larger Italian force.

Collishaw drew on his experiences from ground-support missions during World War I as well as his interwar postings to various colonial conflicts to provide firsthand knowledge of how an air force could proficiently support ground forces as well as provided him the understanding of army culture. Five years prior to World War II, Collishaw noted ground forces’ vital need of logistical support and the effects of attacks upon it had on their ability to fight. At the outset of World War II, British ground commanders felt that the aircraft was an “ancillary tactical weapon…to attack enemy positions on the front lines to aid the infantry” while Collishaw and others conversely viewed airpower’s support to ground forces as achievement of air superiority and interdiction of enemy forces.[6]

Collishaw based his air operations in the Western Desert upon a simple motto: “Hit ‘em hard, then hit ‘em again. But don’t let ‘em know where you’re going to hit.”[7] These attacks were small in measure but wide in latitude as small groups struck as many targets as possible; including establishing air superiority, destruction of enemy resources, support of British Army operations, and strategic reconnaissance. Collishaw also faced various logistical challenges in meeting these objectives and attempted to stay at least one-step ahead of them. During the early periods, the Royal Air Force only possessed four Hawker Hurricanes that, at the time, outperformed everything in the North African sky. Collishaw attempted to get the maximum effects from the Hurricanes by shifting them to various bases to bluff the Italians into believing the Royal Air Force possessed more while tasking Hurricane pilots to be more aggressive, stating “[s]uccess will adversely affect Italian morale as he will be fearful that Hurricane fighters may attack at any moment.”[8] Lacking in numbers compared to the Italians and lessons learned during the interwar period, Collishaw varied target sets hitting twice as more ports and bases than airfields, camps, and lines of communications. This forced the Italians to disembark their vehicles some 435 miles from the front, opening many of them up to mechanical reliability or further British air attacks.[9]

Easter Victory at Tobruk

Flying to Victory emphasizes the importance of air-ground coordination through Britain’s first offensive in the Western Desert, Operation Compass. For this operation, Collishaw designed attacks upon the Italian ports, coastal shipping, and their infrastructure to interfere with their ability to sustain and continue any offensive operations. Utilizing small numbers of fighters, the Royal Air Force prevented Italian air reconnaissance to discover the approaching British ground forces. Consequently, the British ended their first engagement in seventy-two hours with overwhelming success with Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated that their next objective was “to maul the Italian Army and rip them off the African shore.”[10]

Flying to Victory highlights the first cooperation between air and ground forces as it came together during Operation Compass with both working well jointly with aircraft bombing targets in front of advancing troops as well as providing additional fire support when artillery was unavailable. One ground source considered the Royal Air Force as the key to the success of obtaining and maintaining “complete air superiority” and “enabled photographs to be taken…of all enemy battery positions, strong points and headquarters” to assist in ground operations.[11] However, it was not until later within the work that Bechthold touches briefly on the linkages between Collishaw and John Slessor, a fellow Royal Air Force Staff College classmate, on air-ground cooperation. After staff college, Slessor developed an interest in air-ground cooperation and published what was described as the “best treatise on airpower theory written in English” prior to World War II.[12] In May 1941, Slessor addressed close air support countering the Army’s contention of German successes but, as Bechthold points out, Slessor could have easily used Collishaw’s success in the Western Desert against the Italians during Operation Compass to prove his point.

Erwin Rommel during the battle for Tobruk, 1941. (Tumblr)

In response to General Erwin Rommel’s arrival to the Western Desert in January 1941, the British set off on a three-part operation, Operation Battleaxe, in June 1941. The battlespace changed for the Royal Air Force as Collishaw found himself faced with the ongoing need to support operations throughout the Mediterranean with a smaller force, while having to address the entrance of the formidable Luftwaffe into the theater. Seen as the turning point in British tactical-air-power doctrine, it would have key outcomes for future air-ground relationships. However, success did not come at first. Due to the deteriorated relationships following the heavy losses in Greece and Crete, General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East and his staff with Western Desert Force insisted upon a continuous fighter umbrella over the ground forces, thus negating any air offensive contribution during the battle. Two days into operations, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal realized from London the misallocation of resources and urged Tedder to bomb enemy lines of communication and troop concentrations.[13] Collishaw and others assessed later the most profitable targets were enemy lines of communication, and Rommel was known for his lack of attention to logistics. Following Battleaxe, ground forces stated they had not received the air support they requested; however, Bechthold points out, they received exactly the support they requested despite protests from both Collishaw and Tedder.[14]

Air Marshall Arthur Tedder (left) with Air Marshal Arthur Conningham. (RAF Museum)

Despite this minor setback, Battleaxe did have a lasting impression upon the relationship between ground and air forces over the future form of tactical air support. Prior to the operation, Churchill endorsed the Army’s view of air support, but in the weeks after he shifted towards adopting an offensive means and forcing the enemy air forces into a defensive role.[15] While aboard the HMS Prince of Wales en route to Newfoundland for the Atlantic Conference, Churchill composed a statement that would significantly change the Royal Air Force’s future. He stated that “nevermore must the ground troops expect…to be protected against the air by aircraft.” He went on to state that the Royal Air Force was required to provide army commanders with “all possible aid irrespective of other targets” during battle planning and that the two components would work together to decide on targets the air force would attack both prior and during the battle but “standing patrols of aircraft over moving columns should be abandoned.”[16]

Much of the credit for this new air-ground coordination fell upon Tedder and Coningham with one historian stating that Tedder was the “thinker who conceived the air-support system” while Coningham was the “practitioner who made it work” with Richard Hallion further stating it was Coningham’s “forceful touch” that worked the understanding of air ground support.[17] However, as Bechthold states, it is “more accurate to credit Tedder and Coningham with the refinement rather than the creation” as it was Collishaw who began the experiments in the Western Desert to facilitate a closer liaison between ground and air forces.[18]

Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw in Libya, January 1941, during the advance on Tobruk. (Imperial War Museum)

Flying to Victory highlights the great contributions that Collishaw, despite his lack of resources, provided the Allies for an ultimate victory not only in the Western Desert but later in Europe. Mike Bechthold ably conveys to the reader that it was in fact Collishaw who developed early air-ground cooperation in the Western Desert, though refined by others, that proved effective and a forerunner to air-land operations conducted in the European Theater. Flying to Victory is necessary for those wishing to understand the early developments of air-ground coordination and the use of air superiority to support ground forces on the battlefield during the early stages of World War II.

R. Ray Ortensie is the Deputy Director of History and Museum Programs with Headquarters Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Spitfires of No. 601 Squadron over De Djerba Island. (Learning History)


[1] Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, Volume I, Basic Doctrine, (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2015), 25.

[2] Lee Kennett, “Developments to 1939,” in Benjamin Franklin Cooling, Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support, (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1990), 13.

[3] Peter Dye, The Bridge to Airpower: Logistics Support for Royal Flying Corps Operations on the Western Front, 1914-1918, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 9.

[4] Dye, Bridge to Airpower, 86-7; Kennett, Developments, 16.

[5] Mike Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), 21.

[6] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 5-7.

[7] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 40.

[8] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 41.

[9] Bechthold, Flying to Victory. 51.

[10] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 64.

[11] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 104.

[12] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 188; John Slessor, AIr Power and Armies, (1936).

[13] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 176.

[14] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 179.

[15] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 184-5.

[16] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 196-7.

[17] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 199; Richard P. Hallion, Strike from the Sky: The History of Battlefield Air Attack, 1910-1945, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 152.

[18] Bechthold, Flying to Victory, 200.