The British forces on the Western Front are preparing for a major offensive by the Germans in 1918. The RFC is no different. Towards the end of December 1917 Major-General Hugh Trenchard had submitted to General Headquarters a memorandum outlining his views on the employment of the Royal Flying Corps if the enemy began an offensive on a big scale.
This document, after discussion and minor emendation, was issued by General Headquarters to all armies today. It makes clear that, although the army was on the defensive, the air offensive must be maintained and the first and most important duty of the Royal Flying Corps, is to assist Army Commanders in detecting attacks.
The memorandum, entitles “The employment of the Royal Flying Corps in Defence” read as follows
1. The first and most important of the duties of the Royal Flying Corps in connexion with defence is to watch for symptoms of attack and to use the utmost endeavours to obtain and transmit at once all information which may assist responsible Commanders to determine beforehand when and where an attack is coming and by what force.
It is the duty of the Intelligence Branch of the General Staff to keep the Royal Flying Corps constantly instructed as to the information which is required, and of the suspected areas of hostile concentration.
Every detail observed should be reported. Points of apparent unimportance to an observer are often of great value in elucidating reports from other sources.
It is necessary to the Higher Commands to receive such information of the situation along the whole line of defence as will enable the Commander to determine where a real attack may be expected, from what parts of the front troops may be withdrawn without risk, and where feints or minor attacks are likely to be made.
It is seldom safe to draw conclusions from observations made in any one locality. Observers, therefore, should, as a rule, merely record as fully and accurately as possible what they have seen. It is for the Higher Commanders to draw deductions from the mass of evidence available from the whole front, and from the various sources of information at their disposal.
2. In order that early information of preparations for an attack may be obtained, the Royal Flying Corps will keep the whole of the enemy’s possible concentration areas under frequent observation. The indications to be looked for are as follows, stated in order of importance.
The construction of:
(a) Railways and sidings.
(f) Gun positions.
Photographs of the enemy’s possible concentration areas should also be taken at such frequent intervals as will ensure that the progress of any preparations may be followed.
The Squadron belonging to the G.H.Q. Wing will be used for reconnaissance beyond the Army Areas.
3. As soon as it has been established that preparations for an attack are in progress behind the enemy’s line, the next duty of the Royal Flying Corps is to interfere with them. The means available are :
(a) Co-operation with our artillery, the activity of which will probably be increased at this stage.
(b) Extensive bombing attacks, to hinder these preparations, inflict casualties upon his troops and disturb their rest
(c) An energetic offensive against the enemy’s aviation in order to permit of (a) and (b)
Information will also continue to be of vital importance to all Commanders
4. The next step will be the commencement of the enemy’s artillery preparation, though in the case of a surprise attack the opening of violent artillery fire may be coincident with the infantry advance, especially if tanks are employed. Whether the period of the preliminary bombardment lasts for days or only for a few hours, the artillery of the defence must endeavour to keep down the Fire of the enemy’s batteries, to hinder his preparations and to destroy his infantry and their places of assembly.
At the moment of assault every gun must be devoted to the annihilation of the enemy’s attacking troops and any tanks that may appear.
At this stage the primary duty of the Royal Flying Corps will be to render our artillery fire effective. If this object can be attained, it will be the most material help which can be rendered to the infantry although it may be invisible to them.
So far as may be possible after providing fully for the above primary duty the Royal Flying Corps will endeavour to prevent the enemy from pressing home the full weight of his attack. The means to be employed stated in their relative order of importance are
(a) Attacking the enemy’s reinforcements a mile or two behind the assaulting line with low-Hying aeroplanes
(b) Attacking the enemy’s detraining and debussing points, transport on roads, artillery positions and reserves
(c) Sending low-Hying machines, on account of their moral effect, to co-operate with the infantry in attacking the enemy’s most advanced troops
Every effort to gain and report information of our own troops, as well as those of the enemy, must also be made by the Royal Flying Corps during this phase of the battle, in order that the Higher Commanders may be kept constantly informed of the situation
5. The next stage will be the counter-attack. In the case of an immediate counter-attack it will be impossible, owing to lack of time, to co ordinate the infantry attack with that of any low-flying aeroplanes. Provided however, it is possible to know exactly where the enemy is, and where the counter-attack is to take place, every effort will be made to dispatch a flight of low~flying aeroplanes to assist the infantry by attacking the enemy’s troops with machine-gun fire.
In the case of a deliberate counter-attack. which takes the form of a carefully prepared attack, the same principles of co-operation between the Royal Flying Corps and other Arms will be followed as have been employed throughout the offensive operations of the past year.
During this stage, as at all times throughout the battle, information continues to be of vital importance and must be provided for.
6. During all the stages dealt with above, it lies with Army Commanders to instruct the Royal Flying Corps as to their requirements from day to day.
7. It may become necessary at any time to reinforce the Royal Flying Corps on a threatened front in order that our superiority in the air may be maintained. Schemes for the necessary re-allotment of Royal Flying Corps units to meet the situation will be drawn up by G.O.C., R.F.C., in order that it may be possible to reinforce the R.F.C. Brigade of any Army which may be suddenly called upon to meet an attack. A reserve of four fighting squadrons will be formed from new squadrons as they come out from England, and will be placed temporarily under the G.H.Q. Wing.
8. The successful performance of the role of the Royal Flying Corps in defence, as outlined above, must primarily depend on its ability to gain and maintain the ascendancy in the air. This can only be done by attacking and defeating the enemy’s air forces. The action of the Royal Flying Corps must, therefore, always remain essentially offensive, even when the Army, during a period of preparation for offensive operations, is standing temporarily on the defensive.