What role did air power play during the Second World War?
By Paul Beaver, aviation historian
The Royal Air Force was not well placed to defend Britain’s skies as the country entered the Second World War.
The young flying service, just 20 years old, had suffered two decades of under-investment, weak leadership and the constant fight to prevent the other two services closing it down. Yet, by June 1944, it had grown to a world-class, multi-disciplined force which led the way in so many ways.
During the French beaches and the Flanders hinterland in 1940, the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons of Fighter Command struggled to maintain any form of air supremacy. Yet, over Normandy, the RAF and its American ally were in the dominant role.
In just four years, the capabilities had been transformed because the ‘junior service’ had shown itself agile in thought and receptive to new ideas.
Over Dunkirk and the Channel in May 1940, Fighter Command was outnumbered and unable to protect the beaches.
Its pilots were inexperienced and its commanders unused to the new form of rapid intervention air warfare at which the Luftwaffe excelled.
Bomber Command was finding it hard to find and hit targets and Coastal Command was not equipped with the right aircraft.
If one dimension of British air power shone through, it was the people. The raw material was there.
By the late summer, Fighter Command had proved that its tactics and the use of the Dowding System of integrated air defence – the world’s first – had turned the tide against the Luftwaffe. The efficiency of the production, repair and pilot training systems had outsmarted the Germans.
Certainly, they were able to hit back in 1941-42 with better-performing fighters but the industrial capabilities of Britain and its US ally would win through.
Bomber Command became more skilful in finding and destroying targets at night and the Dams’ Raid in May 1943 showed that precision attack at range was possible.
In the Western Desert, the coordination of air and ground forces which was developed would reach its zenith over Normandy and during the Italian campaign.
There were still hard battles to fight – the defence of Malta, for example, was a close-run thing with shades of the Battle of Britain in the baking sun of the Mediterranean. Again, Hurricanes and then Spitfires were thrown into battle against the far more numerous Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian air force.
As the opening of the Second Front was planned, so was the aeronautical contribution.
Air power was becoming seen as something which would not win the war but without which the war would not be won.
The Second Front was clearly to be the liberation of France, then the Low Countries and eventually the capitulation of Germany. There would still be hard battles to fight in Italy and the Japanese would be an even harder nut to crack.
Liberation was born out of the ‘Germany First’ policy which Winston Churchill persuaded President Roosevelt to adopt and the two allies planned the operation with great skill.
The Royal Air Force and the US 8th and 9th Army Air Forces would play the key aerial roles. This would be true air power projection, with air supremacy, bombing strikes at strategic, operational and tactical levels, and the transportation of men and equipment across the Channel.
Ironically, it was the British and Dominion defeat on the Greek island of Crete which paved the way for the development of a key element of the opening hours of D-Day, as the liberation would come to be known.
The first aircraft over the beaches and to touch down in France were the Horsa gliders of the Glider Pilot Regiment carrying specialist air-landing troops. This type of assault and the parachute drops which followed can be directly traced back to Churchill’s reading of the lessons of Crete.
The German commanders, knowing the real cost of their Cretan operation, read different lessons and disbanded their assault glider formations and changed their parachute troops, the Fallschirmjäger,to become an elite ground fighting unit, which would make its abilities felt in Normandy.
Technology would also play its part. Just before D-Day, the elite No 617 (Dambusters) Squadron would be used to drop radar-deceiving metal foil (called 'window') to convince the Germans that the invasion fleet would land a hundred miles away at Pas-de-Calais and not on the beaches of Normandy.
Rockets and armour-piercing bombs were developed to stop German panzer units from moving through the French countryside to counterattack the landing troops.
These weapons were carried by several aircraft, but none more effective than the Hawker Typhoon.
These ‘tank-busters’ became the scourge of the panzer formations – Typhoons claimed the destruction of 222 tanks during one operation alone.
Another key part of the deployed air power on D-Day and the days afterwards was the Douglas Dakota transport. This airliner, designed to carry passengers from coast-to-coast in America, was ideally suited to towing gliders and dropping paratroopers, as well as lifting 28 troops or several tonnes of equipment.
Both RAF Transport Command and the US 8th Army Air Force used over a thousand Dakotas to drop more than 10,000 paratroopers into France.
Lancaster and Halifax bombers guided by precision radio beams and onboard radar were able to disrupt and deplete the railway and roads systems in the French hinterland to provide their contribution to D-Day.
Medium bombers, such as Mitchells and especially Mosquitoes were also in evidence in this globally important demonstration of air power.
Seventy-five years later, we can look back at D-Day and its air operations and see the results of the careful planning, training and technological developments today.
Certainly, toady’s Typhoon and Lightning can deliver a squadron’s worth of bombs with far greater accuracy than ever dreamt of in 1944, but the fundamental building blocks of Royal Air Force precision strike go back to D-Day.
The Royal Air Force identified and then learned the lessons of the Normandy campaign and the hard slog through the Low Countries into Germany proper.
It developed the basic techniques, technologies and procedures that still serve it well today.
Air power is now more focussed, needs fewer people and platforms than in 1944, but is fundamentally the same – it claims the supremacy of the third dimension providing the freedom the Royal Navy and the British Army need to operate.
Paul Beaver is an aviation historian, a former army pilot, an Honorary Group Captain of No 601 Squadron, Vice-President of the Spitfire Society and a well-known writer and broadcaster on air power.