Salamander prototype at Brooklands
Having blunted Germany’s last drives for victory, Foch was anxious to get the Allied armies moving forwards. Haig was anxious to give his forces defending Amiens a little more room for manoeuvre and his plan to push German forces back became the first instalment of Foch’s grand counteroffensive. The attack was set for 8 August. Tanks were to play a key role in helping the infantry smash the German forward defences, but to get maximum benefit from them, a way had to be found of dealing with the improvised anti-tank artillery the Germans had used with increasing success during the Cambrai operation.
Anti-tank guns were difficult to spot, and to see if the air force could help in any way, No. 8 Army Corps Squadron, commanded by Major Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who commanded Allied air units in the 1944 Normandy landings, was attached to the Tank Corps. Aircrews demonstrated they could spot anti-tank guns, but passing the information on to the tanks by wireless proved impractical, while calling in artillery proved impossible as the guns only engaged the tanks at short range. Trials in March, however, demonstrated that there was no reason why Leigh-Mallory’s machines should not eliminate as well as locate the guns. During a small-scale action at Hamel, his squadron accompanied the tanks and successfully identified and eliminated at least one enemy battery and helped beat off several infantry counterattacks. Leigh-Mallory’s squadron became a permanent attachment to the Tank Corps.
The Amiens attack was spearheaded by over 500 tanks, supporting seven British, Australian and Canadian divisions of the 4th Army, with French forces covering their right flank and 800 RAF and 1,100 French planes providing air support. In the air, the German air force had less than 400 planes, but they included the new Fokker D.VII. Initially, the light bombers were to strike at enemy airfields and fighter-bombers would support the infantry and tanks. In line with Foch’s preference for fighters to be employed for ground attack wherever possible, all eight fighter squadrons attached to the 4th Army were to be used in this role while the five day fighter squadrons of the HQ 9th Brigade provided cover. Four fighter squadrons of the 3rd Brigade to the north were ready to assist if required. The assault would begin with the now standard short, sharp artillery barrage. It was anticipated that the movement of German reserves would be in full swing towards the end of the first day; to disrupt these efforts, bomber and fighter-bomber squadrons would switch their attention from the battlefield to the key railway stations at Péronne and Chaulnes.
The attack began at 4.20 a.m. on 8 August. The artillery barrage did not begin until the infantry and tanks had started moving forwards, and complete surprise was achieved. Early morning mists prevented any of the planned close air support taking place and severely disrupted attacks on German airfields, but for the infantry it was once again priceless protection. The defenders immediately started reeling back and when the mists lifted at 9.00 a.m., Allied troops had already advanced up to three miles and the German defences were in considerable disarray. Setting off in pairs at regular intervals, fighter-bomber pilots found a host of targets among the retreating German forces. Losses were heavy: No. 201 Squadron alone lost no less than seven Camels in the morning’s fighting, but the tactics appeared to have worked. As at Cambrai, the sudden appearance of so many tanks and the continuous low-level strafing and bombing proved too much for the front line German units. By early afternoon, marauding armoured cars were shooting up a German headquarters at Framerville, seven miles behind the front line. The German forces were in retreat, but this was no orderly withdrawal. German commanders were hearing stories of troops laying down their weapons and fleeing, openly expressing the pointlessness of continuing the war. By the end of the day, the advance stretched up to eight miles and an unprecedented 16,000 prisoners of war had been taken. The German Army appeared to be on the point of disintegrating—for Ludendorff, it was a ‘black day’ in the history of the German Army. The Allies seemed to be on the verge of achieving a breakthrough as dramatic as the Germans had achieved in their spring offensive. Instead, the attack stalled and the opportunity disappeared, which some would later argue was the result of a crucial change of plan on the opening day.
At midday on 8 August, with the Germans in full retreat, instead of targeting Péronne and Chaulnes stations to prevent the arrival of reinforcements, it was decided to destroy the bridges over the Somme, some fifteen to twenty miles behind the front. This would cut off the line of retreat, trapping German forces on the west bank of the river where they would be destroyed. It was a bold plan. From early afternoon, all fighter-bombers supporting the advance and the bomber squadrons that were going to attack the railway stations were thrown against the bridges.
For the next two days, the RFC flew repeated missions against the dozen or so bridges from Péronne to Ham. Attacking fixed and well-defined targets in the enemy rear would prove to be a very different proposition to harrying retreating and disorganised forces on the battlefield. Once the bridges became the target, German fighter squadrons knew exactly where to find the enemy. To have any chance of hitting such small targets, the bombers had to fly low; Fokker D.VIIs tore into the hapless D.H.4 and D.H.9 formations. Those that managed to get their bombs on target found that the bridges made particularly unrewarding targets. To cause any damage, direct hits were required, which even from low-altitude were rare, and the largest bomb available (the 112-lb bomb) was not powerful enough to have much of an impact. As bomber losses rose, fighter-bombers were switched from attacking the bridges to escort duties. Eventually, nearly 500 fighters, about 70 per cent of RAF fighter strength, were operating in the area, but the British fighters were completely outclassed by the Fokker D.VII and bomber losses continued to mount. No bridges were destroyed; instead, they were used by reinforcements arriving to stabilise the front rather than by a fleeing German Army. Meanwhile at the front, the advance was slowing. Less progress was made on 9 August and by 10 August the advance had ground to a halt. While the RAF was focusing on the bridges, the German air force was controlling the skies over the battlefield and Allied troops were now the victims of low-flying aircraft. On the ground, German reinforcements were arriving in strength, Allied casualties were rising, and Haig felt he had to suspend the advance until more artillery could be brought up.
In the years to come, critics would claim that if the railway stations had remained the target, these reinforcements would not have arrived and a glorious breakthrough would have been achieved. Cleary, the destruction of either the stations or the bridges would have been very useful, even decisive. Railway stations are easier targets to hit than bridges, but previous experience provided little evidence that attacks on these would be any more successful. The truth was that the RAF did not have the means to destroy bridges or stations. Arguably, it was not the switching of the bombers to the bridges that was most significant; it was the parallel decision to remove close support from the advancing tanks and infantry. The support the RAF was providing on the battlefield was one of the reasons for the initial collapse of German morale; it was withdrawn just as the tanks and infantry were beginning to move beyond effective artillery range and needed it even more. The advance was slowing even before the first German reinforcements arrived.
There were many reasons apart from the lack of air support for the slowing of the advance. Tank losses were very heavy. On the morning of 9 August, only 145 tanks remained serviceable. The German anti-tank guns were taking their toll and Leigh-Mallory’s No. 8 Squadron was clearly not sufficient to deal with the threat. Charlton, the commander of the RAF 5th Brigade, believed it was the inability to eliminate the German guns that prevented an ‘irresistible’ advance, which was perhaps rather overstating the case. In reality, the mechanical unreliability of the tanks was at least as significant a factor as their vulnerability to enemy fire. However, if the advancing troops and tanks had continued to get more substantial close support on the battlefield, the advance might have maintained enough momentum to ensure the arriving reinforcements did not have time to establish a defensive foothold.
In truth, the offensive was probably doomed to achieve little more than an initial success. The Army had no clear strategic objective beyond the limited tactical aim of pushing the enemy back. By attacking the bridges, the RAF was trying to do what the Army should have done—to sweep round the enemy rear and block the line of retreat. In its search for a grander and more significant role, the air force was making the mistake of drifting beyond the immediate battlefield and attempting tasks that were beyond its capabilities. In the end, all it proved was that air power tends to be less effective when trying to achieve results on its own. It was on the battlefield, in concert with other arms, that the Allied air forces had their best chance of making a difference. Airpower could have supported an Army drive to cut off the enemy retreat, but it could not substitute for one. It was the Army that needed to be more imaginative.
Following the Amiens assault, Haig seemed prepared to be more imaginative. He urged his commanders to be bolder in future offensives and strike deeper into the enemy rear—no longer was it necessary to advance on a continuous front. Commanders should reinforce success rather than units that were being held up, and advances should not be slowed for fear of counterattacks on exposed flanks. It was a bold vision, one in which air power was capable of providing the mobile firepower such adventure would require, but after four years of heavy losses, it was a brave general who would risk throwing caution to the wind. It had backfired far too often in the past and it is perhaps not surprising that Foch settled for a more cautious approach. Instead of bold strikes in the enemy rear, offensives with limited objectives would follow each other at different points on the front. Once one had stated to lose momentum, another would be launched. The aim was to continue pushing the enemy back rather than destroy him.
If close air support was to continue to play an important role in these offensives, a way had to be found of reducing losses to ground fire. Armour was one solution and in the wake of the Amiens offensive, the more heavily armoured Salamander, rather than the lightly armed Camel TF1, found itself back in favour. The prototype Salamander had flown in April and in May was sent to France for trials. Pilots were generally favourable, and considering its weight, they felt the plane handled fairly well. It was as manoeuvrable as the Bristol Fighter and below 10,000 feet ‘could almost be used for fighting an Albatros Scout’, which was perhaps a little optimistic. The first Salamander squadron was due to arrive in France by mid-September.
Armour, however, was not the only way of reducing losses. The commander of the 22nd Wing saw a tactical rather than a technical solution. He noted that in the early stages of an attack, when the enemy might be expected to be confused, losses tended to be light; in these circumstances, widespread and indiscriminate air support seemed justified. Losses only rose as the defences became more organised, and in these circumstances it was better to use air support in a more focused way, meeting specific requests to eliminate particular strongpoints holding up an advance, or help beat off counterattacks, rather than roaming the battlefield looking for targets. During the Amiens attack, there had been many examples of planes spotting targets for fighter-bombers, but no procedure equivalent to the artillery call system existed to direct aircraft to these targets. Information could only be passed on after the corps plane had finished its mission and landed, by which time it was usually too late. There was a clear case for bringing air support in line with artillery support, and to do this a Central Information Bureau (CIB) was set up to collate requests for support and pass on suitable targets to the artillery or fighter-bomber squadrons, whichever was more appropriate. New instructions stated that in future ‘…wireless calls will largely control the action of low-flying scouts subsequent to zero hour. This system marks a large stride in the direction of close co-operation in battle.’ Indeed it did. To produce an even faster response, it was suggested the reporting corps plane could fire a flare of predetermined colour in the direction of the target on the off chance there were fighter-bombers in the vicinity. It was in essence the cab-rank system developed in the Second World War, lacking only the lightweight wireless equipment that forward troops and fighters might be able to carry into action to provide a more efficient way of passing on target information.
It was the air/tank combination that was generating most excitement. The tank was the only means of carrying wireless equipment on to the battlefield, but communicating with aircraft overhead was proving difficult. However, once these problems were overcome, Leigh-Mallory envisaged huge possibilities for air supported armoured warfare. To increase the strike capability available to the tanks, the Camel fighter-bombers of No. 71 Squadron joined No. 8 Squadron on attachment to the Tank Corps.
There would be plenty of opportunities to develop these ideas in the coming months. With increasing numbers of American troops arriving, the Allies had the resources to maintain the offensive and stretch the German Army. The advance would be remorseless and steady rather than dramatic and decisive. It was still very much a war of attrition, but at least one where Allied soldiers were constantly moving forwards, and it was a war that the Franco-British-American alliance knew they would inevitably win.
The different approaches to providing close air support for the various British contributions to Foch’s offensive would demonstrate how thinking was still very much in a state of flux. Significantly, the level of support tended to be on a lower scale than had been possible during the Amiens attack, mainly because an increasingly higher proportion of the available fighter strength had to be used to counter the growing threat of the Fokker D.VII. For the 3rd Army’s assault on 21 August, each of the three attacking corps would be supported by just one fighter-bomber squadron with a fourth attached to the Tanks Corps; the rest of the fighter force would provide air cover. The support for the infantry was indirect with each squadron sending off pairs of fighters at half-hourly intervals throughout the day to patrol the roads that local reinforcements were likely to take. The Camels supporting the Tank Corps provided much closer battlefield support, engaging enemy anti-tank guns holding up the advance.