World War II, air war, Mediterranean and European tactical operations

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For more information, see: World War II, air war.

In this article, Mediterranean and European tactical operations are those with a principal function of support to ground and naval operations. This includes close air support, battlefield air interdiction, transport, airdrop, medical evacuation, and reconnaissance. It includes defensive counter-air (DCA) for ground and naval forces, as well as that part of offensive counter-air (OCA) intended to take out threats against ground forces and ground air support. Offensive counter-air supporting strategic bomber operations is a different matter.

Air concept

Establishing air dominance

Integrated air defense systems for mobile tactical forces did not really exist; there were a few movable radars and searchlights, but the front line of defense tended to be fighter patrols. Anti-aircraft artillery provided point defense. Allied tactical radar became available in Sicily and Italy, and was useful, especially in fire control.

Nevertheless, one effect of the strategic bombing campaign was making the Western Front short of German aircraft. Most Allied aircraft losses were from anti-aircraft artillery.

Battlefield air interdiction

The workhorse of allied tactical air power were the P-47 Thunderbolt and the British Hawker Typhoon.


Once total air supremacy in a theater was gained the second mission was battlefield air interdiction: stopping flow of enemy supplies and reinforcements in a zone five to fifty miles behind the front. Whatever moved had to be exposed to air strikes, or else confined to moonless nights; World War II radar could not guide ground attack. A large fraction of tactical air power focused on this mission.

Close air support

For several reasons, close air support was not a high priority in Europe. There was, and still is true to a significant extent, that airmen believe battlefield air support is more effective, with less risk to friendly forces. Given poor air-ground communications and a total lack of precision weapons, this concern had merit. It was more effective in the Pacific, as Marine air and ground troops had much more experience as a team.

Two-way mobile radio equipment was not good enough for close air support until the last year of the war, when armored divisions assigned airmen to radio-equipped tanks to guide the attacks. In the first days of the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944, bad weather grounded all planes. When the skies cleared, 52,000 AAF and 12,000 RAF sorties against German positions and supply lines immediately doomed Hitler's last offensive. Patton said the cooperation of XIX TAC Air Force was "the best example of the combined use of air and ground troops that I ever witnessed."[1]On the whole, however, ground forces grumbled endlessly that the AAF was not providing the "help" needed. Complaints escalated when it was noted that Marine Aviation had begun to provide close air support to Marines on the ground.


Air transport was most effective, given the distances and lack of roads, in the Pacific. Its role in the West was minimal at the tactical level.


Until fairly late in the war, the drops tended to be inaccurate, and there were often casualties from friendly fire if the dropping aircraft overflew Allied shipping. Assault gliders rarely proved effective. Nevertheless, the scattered paratroops at Normandy greatly confused the Germans; there were times, after the night drop, when both sides shared a comparable level of confusion.

The drop at Arnhem was much more accurate; the problems there were more in poor drop zone selection and an intelligence failure about the German strength. Had the British units dropped very near the bridge, they would have had more immediate casualties, but, with the benefit of being at the target, might have held their position. Still, Operation MARKET-GARDEN had a great many things go wrong. Without the slightest reflection on the British and Polish airborne forces, the U.S. units had greater success and apparently better air-ground communication.

Medical evacuation


Tactical Operations

Southern Europe

See also: World War II, air war, Mediterranean and European tactical operations
See also: World War II, air war, Pacific Theater strategic operations
See also: World War II, air war, nuclear warfare
See also: Strategic bombing, ethics and deterrence

While there are arguments about the starting date of the Second World War, there is little question that on several of the dates most often suggested, air warfare was a major part.

Ju-87, the Junkers 87 (Stuka) Dive Bomber; 5800 were built

The first key blows in Western Europe included an air assault on the seemingly impregnable fortress of Eben Emael After closely coupled air and armored warfare smashed across France, German air forces were unable to stop the desperate evacuation from Dunkirk, and Germany realized that they would need to invade the United Kingdom to prevail. When the German Army Heer and Navy Kriegsmarine insisted on air supremacy over the English Channel, the Battle of Britain was Germany's first strategic defeat.

Supermarine Spitfire with its nose high and rolling opposite to the turn of the opposing Luftwaffe Messerschmitt 109E, during the Battle of Britain, 1940

During the Battle of Britain, and indeed likely in response to a small British raid on Berlin, both sides began city bombing. This was not a new form of warfare, as Pablo Picasso's memorable painting of Guernica,Spain illustrated. Systematic strategic bombing, primarily by the Allies, was a significant early in the European theater of operations, and much of the "island-hopping" strategy of the U.S. in the Pacific theater was to gain bomber bases in Japan. The U.S. would never fight the Mahanian decisive battleship engagement in the Western Pacific, the assumption of early Japanese strategists on how Japan would prevail. Strategic bombing, while important, was not as decisive as early air theorists suggested, although it may have been war-ending with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Postwar analysis showed how strategic bombing could have been more effective, but it is highly questionable that even the wisest use of WWII technology could have had a far more decisive role.

Transport aircraft, flying through the "Hump" of the Himalayas, above the planned ceiling of the aircraft, let cut-off troops in the China-Burma-India theater remain a threat to the Japanese.

Many technologies first seen in this war were still experimental. Some were effective. Others were marginally effective but took resources better used elsewhere. Some were, for various reasons, kept out of production and combat until too late. Some efforts were not mere failures, but the stuff of engineering legend.

"During the human struggle between the British and the German Air Forces, between pilot and pilot, between AAA batteries and aircraft, between ruthless bombing and fortitude of the British people, another conflict was going on, step by step, month by month. This was a secret war, whose battles were lost or won unknown to the public, and only with difficulty comprehended, even now, to those outside the small scientific circles concerned. Unless British science had proven superior to German, and unless its strange, sinister resources had been brought to bear in the struggle for survival, we might well have been defeated, and defeated, destroyed." Winston Churchill[2]

Radar was an early and critical development, but the rather primitive British radar would have been useless had it not been part of an efficient integrated air defense system. German bombers used electronic navigation aids; Britain countered with the beginnings of electronic warfare. Germany introduced the first cruise missile, the [V-1] and the first ballistic missile, the V-2. Japan introduced the first guided, sea-skimming anti-shipping missile, the kamikaze, and the Allied proximity fuze may have been the decisive edge in defense.

Mathematicians and statisticians had a vital role; what we now call operations research was originally military operations research; the beginnings of modern control system theory included Norbert Wiener's work in controlling antiaircraft. Group theory and other mathematical esoterica were at the heart of the most critical communications intelligence of the war. Targeting was in its infancy, but, had cryptanalysis and operations research convinced top bomber commanders of their findings, concentration on the German petroleum industry might have ended the European war much earlier.


The true multirole fighter had not yet emerged. For air superiority and offensive counter-air, the Supermarine Spitfire and the P-51 Mustang's were excellent air superiority and escort fighters. In the Pacific theater, the bulk of air combat was by naval aviation, but the long-range P-38 Lightning was prized. Over the long distances of the Pacific, the second engine was a reassuring additional survivability feature. The P-38 was also much more nimble than what was suggested as its German twin-engined fighter counterpart, the Me-110.

Of U.S. fighters, the P-47 was superior to the P-51 as a ground support aircraft. The P-51, however, had longer range and performance that optimized it for the bomber escort mission. British Typhoon were also strong in ground support, and Allied light and medium bombers were competent in appropriate missions. While the Germans used the Ju-87 Stuka effectively on the continent, it was a deathtrap against competent air defense. Their best all-around attack aircraft was the Ju-88.

Bomber survival over Germany became more and more difficult until the P-51, a culmination of propeller-driven aircraft powered by reciprocating motors, began escorting. Nevertheless, had Hitler given more resources to the first practical jet fighter, the Me-262, it could have made a massive difference.

Air Power and Germany: The Luftwaffe

See also: Luftwaffe

The Luftwaffe,' the German Air Force, was the pride of Nazi Germany under its leader Hermann Goering, it learned new combat techniques in the Spanish Civil War and appealed to Hitler as the decisive strategic weapon he needed. Its high technology and rapid growth led to exaggerated fears in the 1930s that cowed the British and French into appeasement.

The uses made of air power depend primarily on doctrine. This is clear from the failure of the Germans, Japanese and Soviets to build long-range strategic bombers. Germany had short- range bombers, but lacking a clear doctrine of how to use them it lost the "Battle of Britain" in late summer 1940. The Luftwaffe started by successfully attacking radar stations, command posts, airfields and fighter planes--a strategy that was on the verge of gaining complete and permanent air supremacy. Hitler, enraged when the RAF bombed Berlin, ordered the Luftwaffe to switch to bombing civilians (the "Blitz"). Thousands died but British morale never faltered. The RAF rebuilt its fighter strength and soon cleared British airspace of the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe could bomb and strafe, but was unprepared to defend itself against Spitfires and Hurricanes. Hitler's invasion of Britain required air superiority, so it had to be canceled. On the eastern front, Hitler expected the blitzkrieg to work so quickly that strategic bombing of Russian munitions factories would be unnecessary. By the time the Luftwaffe realized the necessity of hitting those factories, reverses on the ground put them out of range.

Early European offensives

See also: World War II, air war, German European offensive

In the Polish and French campaigns, the Luftwaffe performed well in 1939-41, but were essentially flying artillery for the ground forces.

Operation Sea Lion and operations against Britain

While the Royal Air Force was reviled by escaping troops at Dunkirk, under heavy air attack, the RAF had actually intercepted many German aircraft farther from the battlefield. It is still unclear why Hitler did not allow the ground forces to move into the Dunkirk area, although it has been suggested that Goering wanted the glory for his Luftwaffe -- which, against air defense of the level it had previously encountered, might have done the job.

Once the Battle of Britain ended, while harassment continued against Britain and t

Operations in Poland and the Balkans

Greece had largely fallen, and Hitler was looking for new targets. On April 28, 1941, the last of the New England Division escaped from Greece and landed at Suda Harbor in Crete. [3]

Remember that the German airborne troops, as well as their airlift and close air support, were all under the Luftwaffe. Planning of Operation Mercury, the planned seizure of Crete, will well underway, with the attacks to start on May 19. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Germany's star Stuka pilot, reports beginning, in the spring of 1941, to be struggling for employment in the campaign in Greece. [4] but he had no part in the operation against Crete.

North Africa 1942-43

See also: Operation Torch

Eisenhower's first command was the invasion of North Africa in November, 1942, at a time when the Luftwaffe was still strong. One of Ike's corps commanders, General Lloyd Fredendall, used his planes as a "combat air patrol" that circled endlessly over his front lines ready to defend against Luftwaffe attackers. Like most infantrymen, Fredendall assumed that all assets should be used to assist the ground forces. More concerned with defense than attack, Fredendall was soon replaced by Patton.

Likewise the Luftwaffe made the mistake of dividing up its air assets, and failed to gain control of the air or to cut Allied supplies. The RAF in North Africa, under General Arthur Tedder, concentrated its air power and defeated the Luftwaffe. The RAF had an excellent training program (using bases in Canada), maintained very high aircrew morale, and inculcated a fighting spirit. Senior officers monitored battles by radar, and directed planes by radio to where they were most needed.

The RAF's success convinced Eisenhower that its system maximized the effectiveness of tactical air power; Ike became a true believer. The point was that air power had to be consolidated at the highest level, and had to operate almost autonomously. Brigade, division and corps commanders lost control of air assets (except for a few unarmed little "grasshoppers;" observation aircraft that reported the fall of artillery shells so the gunners could correct their aim. With one airman in overall charge, air assets could be concentrated for maximum offensive capability, not frittered away in ineffective "penny packets." Eisenhower--a tanker in 1918 who had theorized on the best way to concentrate armor--recognized the analogy. Split up among infantry in supporting roles tanks were wasted; concentrated in a powerful force they could dictate the terms of battle.

The fundamental assumption of air power doctrine was that the air war was just as important as the ground war. Indeed, the main function of the sea and ground forces, insisted the air enthusiasts, was to seize forward air bases. Field Manual 100-20, issued in July 1943, became the airman's bible for the rest of the war, and taught the doctrine of equality of air and land warfare. The idea of combined arms operations (air, land, sea) strongly appealed to Eisenhower and MacArthur. Eisenhower invaded only after he was certain of air supremacy, and he made the establishment of forward air bases his first priority. MacArthur's leaps reflected the same doctrine. In each theater the senior ground command post had an attached air command post. Requests from the front lines went all the way to the top, where the air commander decided whether to act, when and how. This slowed down response time--it might take 48 hours to arrange a strike--and involved rejecting numerous requests from the infantry for a little help here, or a little intervention there.


  1. Craven, p. 272
  2. Churchill, Winston (2005). The Second World War, Volume 2: Their Finest Hour. Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 0141441739. 
  3. Galvin, John R. (1960), Crete: A Division-sisze Airborne operation, Air Assault, the Beginning of Airmobile Warfare, Hawthorn Books pp. 42ff
  4. Rudel, Hans-Ulrich (1961), Stuka Pilot, Ballantine p. 18