Category Archives: Strategic Developments

14 May 1918 – Division Aérienne

The Royal Air Force was created back on 1 April 1918. Today the French went some way to concentrating their air power with Marshall Pétain issuing orders for the formation of the Division Aérienne under the command of Colonel Duval.

It consists of four groupings:the first contained two wings (Escadres 1 and 12), the second, three fighter and two bomber groups; the third, one wing (Escadre II); the last, two bomber groups, one of which was Italian.

Duval however argued against using the new Division as a strategic bombing force, which the British had just created in the Independent Force. Instead he was aware that individual aircraft could not inflict damage on ground targets alone. He wanted to be support the army by massing forces for concentrated attacks on military targets such as railway stations, supply dumps, assembly points and so on in the enemy rear with the aim of inflicting damage but also hoping to force German fighters to come out to be destroyed in turn.

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13 May 1918 – Independent

Today the Air Council informed the War Cabinet that, in their opinion, the time had arrived to develop an Independent Force for large-scale bombing attacks on Germany.

They proposed, therefore, to organize the existing 41 Brigade into a separate command under Major-General Hugh Trenchard who would work directly under the Air Ministry.

Trenchard had finally agreed to command the Force. The Minister was glad to be relived of the pressure to find something for Trenchard to do. Trenchard would report directly to the Minister, partially to avoid Army Headquarters from interfering and partially to avoid any conflict with Frederick Sykes, now the Commander in Chief of the RAF following Trenchard’s resignation. Sykes and Trenchard did not get on, sharing wildly different views of the role of the RAF.

In someways it is a surprise that Trenchard took the job at all as he was firmly firmly opposed to Strategic Bombing unless the Armies in the field had been defeated. Sykes however was a supporter of a wider role for the RAF, and the new Force was, at least partly his creation.

As well as Trenchard’s known objections to Strategic Bombing, the new Force is likely to cause ructions with the other allies and fly in the face of the purpose of having a Supreme War Council. An inter-allied Aviation Council has been formed to look at Strategic Bombing, but has not come to any conclusions. The Air Ministry has put the issue forward for discussion at the end of May.

19 April 1918 – Strategic Council

Frederick Sykes had formally taken on the role of Chief of the Air Staff on 13 April, following the resignation of Hugh Trenchard. Trenchard had remained in post for a few weeks to oversee the formal formation of the RAF.

Today Sykes established a Strategic Council to oversee details of the government’s bombing plan. The new CAS wished to develop a system to “consider questions of policy in their strategic aspect and the best utilization of aerial resources,”

The Strategic Council represented the firstdefinite organizational attempt to translate policy into achievable goals . In this regard, they maintained a close liaison with the Air Council. The Air Council set out general policy such as the bombing a German Key Industry. The Strategic Council would settle what number of bombs were necessary to obliterate any particular factory, the force necessary to obtain this number of direct hits and hence the order in which such factories should be destroyed, having regard to the force available at the time, and with what number of machines, and what system, this should be carried out.

9 April 1918 – Gorrell

American forces have had little effect on the war to date, but their strategists have been thinking about strategic bombing.

Hugh Trenchard, until Head of the RFC in the field had generally opposed strategic bombing as he felt it drew limited aircraft away from the primary role of air forces to support the army.

However, the Americans, rather later to the war, and seeing the capabilities of the new range of bombers, had developed a definite and thorough doctrine to support strategic bombardment. The main author of this was Lieutenant Colonel Edgar S. Gorrell, who in December 1917 became head of the Strategical Aviation Branch of the Air Service in the Advance Zone. He drew up plans strategic bombing force should it become available. Wing Commander Spencer Grey of the Royal Naval Air Service, regarded by Gorrell as the “world’s greatest authority on air bombing,” and other British experts, who had participated in bombardment missions, gave Gorrell the benefit of their combat experience.

The resulting proposal for strategic operations was submitted to the Chief of the Air Service late in 1917 and was approved by him as a guide for aerial preparation.

A slightly modified version of this plan was issued as an Air Service bulletin today. It defined the four principal areas within bombing range:

  • Mannheim-Ludwigshaven
  • Cologne
  • Saar-Lorraine-Luxembourg
  • The Main (Frankfurt)

Furthermore the plan suggested that, to be effective, all available bombing resources should be concentrated on one target at a time, which should be attacked relentlessly so that “manufacturing works would be wrecked and the morale of the workmen would be shattered.”

In the end the plan was never fully implemented as Gorrell moved on to another post, and the plan came up against the slow delivery of suitable aircraft and the opposition of the Army.

2 April 1918 – Foch’s orders

In light of the crisis created by the German Spring Offensive, on 26 March the Allies were finally forced into doing what they should have done a long time ago, appoint a supreme commander for the Western Front, in this case, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France.

Foch lost no time in making his views on air warfare known and yesterday issued a strategic memorandum which was translated and today issued to British forces. He stressed that the primary effort should be to assist ground troops by constant attack. Air to air combat should only be sought in order to facilitate that mission. Interestingly there is no mention of the protection of Corps machines carrying out reconnaissance.

On bombing he noted that it was essential to concentrate on key targets such as railway junctions and focus on keeping these out of action.

The memorandum failed to address a key problem a lack of coordination between the two air services, focussing more on the practical aspects of demarcation. The Official History notes that better coordination could have allowed for a strategic reserve of aircraft to be retained for critical areas of the front, but this did not happen.

The full memorandum is reproduced below:

With a view to ensuring the co-operation of the British and French Air Services during the battle, I have had the accompanying instructions [directives] drawn up, and have already sent a copy to General Fayolle. If you approve of these instructions, I should be obliged if you would issue appropriate orders to the British Air Service so that effect may be given to them and the necessary understanding be reached with the Air Command of the G.A.R. [Group of Reserve Armies].

1. Information.

Reconnaissances to ascertain the direction of the enemy’s main movements, and therefore his intentions, should extend at least as far as the line St. Quentin-Cambrai-Douai, where he may detrain.

Consequently

(a) The French Air Service has been instructed to watch particularly the general direction of movement on the following lines

  • Ribemont (La Fere-Chauny-St. Quentin)

  • St. Quentin (Jussy-St. Simon-Ham-Péronne)

  • Le Catelet-Péronne

Reconnaissance of the above is the concern of the Air Service of the G.A.R.—that to the West of the line Crozat Canal-Ham- Chaulnes-Bray-sur-Somme being the duty of the Air Commands of Armies.

(b) To ensure that air observation covers every part of the area of ap- proach to the battle zone, it will be necessary for the British Air Service to watch particularly the approach routes leading, from

  • Le Catelet to Peronne

  • Cambrai to Bapaume

  • Aubigny to Arras

  • Douai to Lens

The air units with Armies will undertake to follow up any movements, discovered in the back areas, as far as the battle front.

2. Bombing.

The essential condition of success is the concentration of every resource of the British and French bombing formations on such few of the most important of the enemy’s railway junctions as it may be possible to put out of action with certainty, and to keep out of action. Effort should not be dispersed against a large number of targets, some of which might be remote from the battle area, and, therefore, difficult objectives for sus- tained and effective attack.

Consequently

(a) The French Air Service (reinforced by the British and Italian ‘Eastern’ [de L’Est\ air detachments), that is to say 5 Night and 5DayGroups, has been ordered, in addition to its normal battle duties, to endeavour to destroy the railway stations at

  • Laon

  • St. Quentin

  • Jussy

  • Ham

(b) To interrupt traffic in the whole battle area, the British Air Service should endeavour to destroy the stations at

  • Peronne

  • Cambrai

  • Aubigny-au-Bac

  • Douai

3. Fighting

At the present time, the first duty of fighting aeroplanes is to assist the troops on the ground, by incessant attacks, with bombs and machine-gun, on columns, concentrations, or bivouacs. Air fighting is not to be sought except so far as necessary for the fulfilment of this duty. Each Allied Air Command should pursue this policy on the front of its army.

It may be desirable, in the course of particularly important operations, involving only one of the Allied Armies, to reinforce the air units of that army by those of the other. In this case such reinforcements may be asked for by General Head-quarters or by General Foch.

4. Dissemination of Intelligence.

To enable the High Command, for the purpose of making important dispositions, to utilize intelligence obtained by aircraft—intelligence that is of the greatest value in the present circumstances—it is necessary to ensure that no delay occurs in the transmission of this information. Consequently:

(a) The French Air Service has been instructed to centralize all intelligence in the several air commands, whence it will be transmitted to the G.A.R. by one or other of the following means:

(i) The existing ground wireless telegraphy organization,

(ii) Courier service aircraft.

(iii) In the event of failure of (i) and (ii)—and, in any case, each evening —by motor-car or motor-cycle.

The G.A.R. will forward to General Foch’s head-quarters any intelligence received that is likely to interest him.

(b) Similar arrangements to the above having already been made by the British Air Command, for the centralization of intelligence to meet the requirements of its own General Head-quarters, it only remains to ensure the exchange of important intelligence obtained by both services, British and French, between General Foch and British General Head-quarters.

This exchange may be effected by means of one or other of the following methods:

(i) By means of a ground wireless telegraphy system connecting British General Head-quarters with Beauvais (General Foch’s Head- quarters), working in conjunction with the wireless telegraphy organization of the G.A.R. The preparation of this system to be undertaken by British General Head-quarters in agreement with the Wireless Telegraphy Service of the G.A.R.

(ii) By means of courier aircraft plying between the aerodrome at British General Head-quarters and Beauvais.

(iii) Failing the above,and,inanycase,at the end of each day, an officer or motor-cyclist will deliver the orders and intelligence reports of the British Air Service to Beauvais and receive those of the French.

(Sgd.) Weygand, Chief of Staff.

31 March 1918 – Untiring Exertions

On the eve of the foundation of the Royal Air Force, the exhausted pilots of the RFC and RNAS could take something of a breather. The intense fighting of the last 10 days had finally died down and worsening weather over the last few days had seen aerial activity decrease.

The British had lost 478 aircraft since 21 March and for the first time a significant number of these were attributed to ground fire on aircraft carrying out ground assault missions (84 during the whole of March- the largest of the war). This reflected the new defensive tactics that the air forces were eventually able to put into place, and the desperate nature of the situation.

It is probably a step to far to say that the air forces saved the British Army but but Australian Official History has the following to say:

”…the untiring exertions of the airmen in delaying the enemy’s reserves, and throwing his whole transport system out of gear, which enabled the Allied infantry to succeed.”

In the end, the Germans failed to take their strategic objectives of Amiens and Arras and the area taken though large (1200 square miles), was mainly undefendable due to the ravages of three previous years of war.

The cost of the battle meant that Germans were not able to mount another major offensive again, and the chance to win the war before the arrival of fresh American troops and equipment was gone. In their last days, the RFC and RNAS had made a decisive contribution to the eventual victory.

10 March 1918 – Photo assist

The British are painfully aware that the Germans are preparing for a big offensive, and have been throwing resources into photo reconnaissance in an effort to determine where the attack will come.

Yesterday, 2,097 photographs were taken including by:

  • 1st Brigade: 350 photographs
  • 2nd Brigade: 498 photographs
  • 3rd Brigade: 474 photographs
  • 5th Brigade: 648 photographs
  • 9th Wing: 127 photographs

Today, a further 1,533 photographs were taken including by:

1st Brigade: 448 photographs

2nd Brigade: 183 photographs

3rd Brigade: 584 photographs

5th Brigade: 126 photographs

9th Wing: 192 photographs

These and earlier photos were used along with the testimony of deserters by British intelligence to predict a German offensive in the Arras–St. Quentin area in the Weekly Intelligence Summary published today. The prediction was reiterated in the next summary on 17 March.

The images above are two of many in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. The first was taken on 9 March and the second on 10 March. The full collection is available on their website.