1916 Somme Air War II



The land battles on the Somme between July and November 1916 had a direct effect on the concurrent air operations. Air supremacy suddenly shifted once more into German hands. In September the Germans destroyed 123 French and British aeroplanes and lost 27. Boelcke’s Jasta 2 was the most effective instrument in changing the balance. Between 17th September, when it first went into action — by which time its commander had amassed 25 victories — and 31st October, it lost a mere 7 machines while bringing down 76 British. Two other Albatros Jastas, Nos I and 3, had been formed and were soon operational. In October the total Allied — mostly British — losses were 88; the enemy’s, 12. By the next month the number of Jastas had increased to seven.

Jasta 2’s operational record got off to a flashing start on its very first patrol. The day was 17th September. The objects of the Jasta’s attention were eight BE2Cs of 12 Squadron and six escorting Fees of No. II, on their way to bomb the railway station at Marcoing, deep behind the enemy line. As the antiquated BE2Cs waddled in for the attack, the Germans pounced and shot down two of them and two scarcely less vulnerable fighters. Richthofen bagged an FE2B. He had as much cause to take pride in this as a man with a pistol would have for vanquishing a boy with a peashooter. Delighted at what he had accomplished, he landed by the wreck and helped to extricate the mortally injured pilot, Lieutenant L. B. F. Morris, and observer, Lieutenant T. Rees: both of whom died within minutes. In celebration, he wrote to a Berlin jeweller to order a silver cup engraved with the details of his “victory”: date, time, place, type of enemy aircraft, name of pilot. He perpetrated the same diseased act of bad taste, in concession to his psychopathic delight in killing, after each of his successes. It was also his morbid habit to scavenge the wreckage of aircraft he had destroyed for souvenirs with which to adorn his mess and a room in his parental home entirely dedicated to this unwholesome display. Some trophies were even, in execrable style, exhibited over his parents’ front door. From the site of his first kill in the air, he took the FE2B’s machinegun. The whole nasty business reeked of the custom among other savages of decapitating their enemies and shrinking their heads.

The Germans’ rejoicing was not unblemished. On 28th October two of Lanoe Hawker’s 24 Squadron pilots, Lieutenants Knight and McKay, were far behind enemy lines when Boelcke and his Jasta, Albatros D2s, intercepted them. The Combat Report specifies that twelve Halberstadts and two small Aviatik Scouts attacked the pair of DH2s. The two Britons at once began to circle tightly, which confused the enemy. In the latter’s general disorder, the Jasta’s oldest member, thirty-seven-year-old Erwin Böhme, whom Boelcke had specially selected, got in Boelcke’s way as Boelcke attacked Knight. “After five minutes’ strenuous fighting” these two Albatroses collided. Bohme’s left wing crashed into Boelcke’s right wing and sent Boelcke’s aircraft down out of control in a steepening glide which ended in a crash that killed him.

The RFC suffered a comparable blow less than a month later. On 23rd November, Hawker, patrolling at 6000 feet behind the German trenches, with Captain Andrews and Lieutenant Saundby, saw two enemy two-seaters; at which Andrews dived. Let the Combat Report take up the story: “… and then, seeing two strong hostile patrols approaching high up, was about to retire when Major Hawker dived past him and continued the pursuit.

“The D.H.s were at once attacked by the H.A., one of which dived on to Major Hawker’s tail. Captain Andrews drove this machine off, firing 25 rounds at close quarters, but was himself attacked from the rear, and his engine shot through almost immediately, so that he was obliged to try and regain the lines. He last saw Major Hawker engaging one H.A. at about 3000 feet. Lieutenant Saundby having driven one machine off Captain Andrews’s tail, engaged a second firing three-quarters of a double drum at 20 yards range.

“The H.A. fell out of control for 1000 feet and then continued to go down vertically. Lieutenant Saundby could then see no other D.H.s, and the H.A. appeared to have moved away east, where they remained for the rest of the patrol.”

Richthofen’s Combat Report reads: “… with a Vickers single-seater …” Comment has already been made about the Germans’ incorrect aircraft identification. “… The crashed aeroplane lies south of Ligny Sector J. The pilot is dead. Name of pilot: Major Hawker.

“I attacked in company with two aeroplanes of the squadron a single-seater Vickers biplane at about 3000 metres. After a very long circling fight (35 minutes) I had forced down my opponent to 500 metres near Bapaume. He then tried to reach the front, I followed him to 100 metres over Ligny, he fell from this height after 900 shots.” The disparity in the heights given by the opponents is noteworthy.

In fact what happened was that Hawker, the far better pilot but in a greatly inferior machine, outflew Richthofen despite the fact that his engine was running roughly from impeded petrol flow which robbed it of full power. Richthofen had to use a huge quantity of ammunition before he finally hit Hawker in the head; his eleventh victim.

Leutnant Stephan Kirmaier succeeded Boelcke in command of the Jasta. Under his leadership it destroyed twenty-five Allied aircraft in twenty-five days. Kirmaier was a sound commander who might have achieved fame if Captain Andrews of 24 Squadron had not shot him down before he was into his stride.

Another member of Jasta 2 laid the foundation of his fame over the Somme. Werner Voss was Jewish, a tailor’s son, who had falsified his age to enlist in the hussars. He transferred to the Air Service as an observer and operated as such at the Somme until he became a pilot and joined Boelcke in September. When he made the change he was the only surviving aircrew of those with whom he had begun his operational career. This gave him so sincere a sympathy for the crews of two-seaters that he aimed always for the engine, to give their occupants a chance of survival. Everything that has been said about Voss evokes admiration.

Guynemer was the outstanding French success during this period. Wounds inflicted at Verdun had kept him out of action from March, when he had a total of eight victories, until June. On 16th July he scored his ninth. By the end of November, when the offensive had petered out, they numbered twenty-three.

The squadrons flying what are now known as interception or air superiority fighters were not the only ones embroiled in or drastically affected by the Somme Offensive.

Contact patrolling, low flying in close co-operation with infantry in attack, was a new facet of air operations. Hitherto this had been regarded as wasteful of aircrew and aircraft, and unproductive of accurate information. It had been found that there was no exceptional hazard in flying low; and prearranged signals enabled properly trained air observers to make precise reports on the infantry’s progress. Trials with yellow smoke flares on the ground showed that these could be seen at 6000 feet. The French, during their infantry attacks in late 1915, had used flares, signalling lamps and strips of white cloth laid on the ground. In April 1916 Joffre had issued instructions for the use of such means of air-to-ground signalling, and the British had adopted them.

At the Somme, troops laid strips of white cloth on the ground when they reached certain specified points. They also carried metal mirrors on their back packs, which reflected light and could be seen from the air, so that observers could follow the advance. In addition to lamp signalling, ground HQs used panels consisting of six or eight louvred shutters, painted white on one side, which operated rather like a venetian blind. By exposing the white sides, Morse code could be seen, and read by air observers.

Line patrols were flown by pairs of aircraft, to familiarise the ground forces with friendly shapes and markings, and to strafe the enemy. For the first time, fighters — DH2s — were used to clear the air ahead of advancing troops and to tempt enemy aircraft up to fight, giving rise to the term “offensive sweep”.

An important ancillary of the main battle in Flanders was strategic bombing. This was aimed at railway lines and junctions, to disrupt the delivery of ammunition and other supplies, at supply and ammunition depots in such places as Lille, Namur, Mons, and at factories in Germany.

Strategic bombing leads us back to Raymond Collishaw, the Canadian who had had to overcome so many obstacles in order to qualify as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service, and who became Britain’s third-highest-scoring fighter pilot. We left him at the close of 1915, awaiting shipment to England. He sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 12th January 1916; made his first solo on 16th June, after eight hours and twenty-three minutes dual; flew seven types of aeroplane during training; joined No. 3 Naval Wing on 1st August, to fly the single-seater version of the Sopwith 1 ½ – strutter; and arrived in France, at Luxeuil, on 21st, September 1916. The RNAS had been active in France since the war began, but the details of its operations are outside the scope of this work. Certain of them, however, do impinge on it: as will be seen, the RFC had to turn to its sister Service for help when in dire straits.

The wing comprised two squadrons, Red and Blue. A Flight of Red Squadron had five two-seater II-strutter bombers and one single-seater fighter. B Flight had the full establishment of five bombers and two fighters Collishaw flew one of the latter. A Flight of Blue Squadron had four Sopwith bombers, two fighters. B Flight, six Breguet bombers. The wing’s operations were directed by Wing Commander Bell Davies, who had won the VC at the Dardanelles. The Admiralty seemed to know even less about aviation than the War Office: Bell Davies had a strenuous time in France convincing his masters in London that when an aeroplane’s engine failed during an operation, it could not be attributed to pilot error nor could punishment be inflicted.

Surprisingly, there were monthly meetings between the Admiralty Air Department and l’Aviation Militaire. At one of these the French had suggested that an Allied bombing squadron should be formed to raid German munition factories. More unexpectedly, the sailors agreed. What was more, they contributed an entire wing. Since the best situation for the wing was in the French sector, it was put under French operational control.

The Naval airmen shared Luxeuil airfield with the Lafayettes and the Quatrième Groupe de Bombardement, commanded by Commandant Felix Happe. This colourful character, over six feet tall with a bushy black beard, parted in the centre, and beetling eyebrows, had a lively sense of humour and was a staunch friend of No. 3 Wing. Among the fighter escadrilles selected to escort the Franco-British bombers was the Escadrille Lafayette. Naturally they and the nautics got on very well. They played baseball against each other and indulged in “some tremendous parties”, Collishaw recalled. He also commented that Whiskey, the escadrille’s pet lion mascot, “gave newcomers a bit of a start”. He says that the publicity given to the Lafayettes was unfair, when there were many more Americans flying with the RFC and RNAS, scoring more kills, winning more decorations, but receiving no public acknowledgment.

The first operation, on 12th October, was on a large scale for the times and modern in conception. The target was the Mauser factory at Oberndorf, 175 miles away. Three Wing was able to put up five bombers and one fighter of A Flight Red Squadron and five bombers and two fighters of B Flight; four bombers and two fighters of A Flight Blue, and six bombers of B Flight. Happe provided twenty bombers. The Escadrille Lafayette and twelve French-built Sopwith 11-strutters from other escadrilles would escort the raiders as far as their range allowed. Bombers and fighters of the French 7th Army would make a diversionary raid on Lörrach, well to the south of the target and near the Swiss frontier. This was a thoroughly modern stratagem intended to distract enemy fighters.

The Allied formations would take a direct route to target. After bombing, 3 Wing would make for a point north-west of Oberndorf before turning for home at 10,000-12,000 feet. The French would fly home direct. At 1 p.m. a weather reconnaissance — another modern feature — reported favourably. Fifteen minutes later six Farmans of 4th GB took off, followed by A Flight of Red Squadron at half past one and B Flight five minutes afterwards with B Flight of Blue Squadron. At a quarter past two, Blue’s A Flight and the remaining French aircraft would depart.

Cloud base descended. The last four bombers were unable to get into formation and turned back. One crashed, but there was no serious injury to the crew.

It was Collishaw’s first operation and he said that anyone who claims not to have been nervous on such an occasion has to be an insensitive idiot or to have a bad memory. One of Red B Flight’s bombers could not formate, so turned back. The five remaining pilots, Collishaw among them, were all Canadians. Crossing the lines, they met flak, but no one was hit. At 3000 feet three enemy fighters attacked. Collishaw engaged one, his engine cut out after he had fired, he lost 2000 feet and had to return to base. The four bombers of Blue Squadron’s A Flight turned back after failing to make formation. Its B Flight found difficulty in climbing to 10,000 feet and did not cross the lines until half past three. By then most of the rest were arriving at Oberndorf. Heavy flak brought one down and its crew was captured. Fighters attacked the remainder, which beat them off. At 4.10 p.m. they thought they were over the target, and bombed; but the town was Donau-Eschingen. One Bréguet was shot down by a fighter and another crash-landed. Both crews were taken prisoner. The Sopwith fighters of Blue Squadron claimed one German fighter destroyed and one probable.

The French lost six bombers. Several fighters crashed on landing. Most of the bomber losses were among those which the Nieuports escorted: the latters’ range was too short. Happe thereafter ceased regular daylight raids and resorted to night operations. Three Wing, with its long-range fighters, carried on with daylights.

The raid had scored several hits but caused no serious damage. Three Wing dropped 3900 pounds of bombs, of which not all were on target. Bombing from 10,000 feet with primitive bomb sights could not expect to be accurate. Total Allied losses were sixteen aircrew killed or made prisoners of war.

The Allies gave their ground forces intensive support by contact patrols and low-level strafing. For the pilots it became, in the final months of the war, the most hated and feared form of aerial aggression. Low-level attack instilled a feeling of defencelessness into infantry in their trenches. The words of a German officer convey very well what it was like to have to endure this type of assault. “The infantry had no training in defence against very low-flying aircraft. Moreover, they had no confidence in their ability to shoot these machines down if they were determined to press home their attacks. As a result, they were seized with a fear amounting almost to panic; a fear that was fostered by the incessant activity and hostility of enemy aeroplanes.”

The diary of a German prisoner of war confirms this. “During the day one hardly dares to be seen in the trench owing to the English aeroplanes. They fly so low that it is a wonder they do not pull one out of the trench. Nothing is to be seen of our heroic German airmen. One can hardly calculate how much additional loss of life and strain on the nerves this costs us.”

And an unfinished letter found on the body of its writer: “We are in reserve but cannot remain long on account of hostile aircraft. About our own aeroplanes one must be almost too ashamed to write. It is simply scandalous. They fly as far as this village but no further, whereas the English are always flying over our lines, directing artillery shoots, thereby getting all their shells right into our trenches. This moral defeat has a bad effect on us all.”

The superior performance of the Allied fighters at that time enabled their pilots to use their qualities of courage and skill to the full and win the dominance in the air that is essential for such activities.

The exploits of a pilot on No. 60 Squadron, Second Lieutenant C. A. Ridley, offer a measure of light relief amid the grimness of the Somme. His mission on 3rd August was to drop a French spy behind the German lines. Engine trouble forced them down; prematurely, but on enemy territory. For more than three weeks they managed to hide and to make their way towards Belgium, where they parted. Ridley spoke neither French nor German. Having obtained civilian clothes, he was in danger of being shot as a spy if caught. With brilliant imaginativeness, he bandaged his head, painted his face with iodine and pretended to be a deaf mute. After various misadventures a suspicious military policeman arrested him on a train. Waiting until it had slowed to some 15 m.p.h., he knocked out his captor and jumped out. After further distressing experiences he found a friendly Belgian who helped him to put a ladder against the electrified fence at the Dutch frontier and climb over. It was then 8th October. One week later he reported back to his squadron bearing a vast amount of invaluable intelligence about German aerodromes, ammunition dumps, troop concentrations and movements.

All any man can do is to try to adjust himself within the limits of constantly changing circumstances. Ridley did better than most.

Air War Over Verdun I




A momentous new factor, which would have perhaps the most far-reaching effects of any tactical decision taken by the Germans during the war, loomed over the Western Front. Field Marshal von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, making an appreciation of the state of the war at the end of 1915, stated that England (meaning, as usual, “Britain”) was the more important member of the Franco-British alliance. “The history of the English wars against the Netherlands, Spain, France and Napoleon is being repeated. Germany can expect no mercy from this enemy, so long as he still retains the slightest hope of achieving his object.” The imputation to Great Britain of intent to annihilate Germany was as insolent as it was false. Germany was the aggressor and Britain had stepped in merely as a defender.

The British sector of the Front was not easily penetrable by a sustained and ferocious offensive. “In view of our feelings for our arch-enemy in the war that is certainly distressing.” After some more fulmination Falkenhayn continued: “France has almost arrived at the end of her military effort. If her people can be made to understand clearly that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, breaking point would be reached …”

He concluded that a massive penetration of the French front was not essential. Germany should subject France to such relentless attrition that it would, to quote Liddell Hart, “bleed to death”. To achieve this was simply a matter of choosing the place on which to focus the onslaught: somewhere “for the retention of which the French command,” explained Falkenhayn, “would be compelled to throw in every man they have”. The choice lay between Belfort and Verdun. Verdun was chosen because it threatened German communications, because it could be isolated in a narrow salient, which would cramp its defence; and because it was the gateway through which Attila had led his Huns to attempt the conquest of Gaul in the fifth century.

Germany started preparing for the many battles and long siege of Verdun, which would transform air operations in several ways.

At Verdun experience in the use of fighters accelerated. It was here that the French and German air forces learned lessons which caused them to revise the organisation and tactical use of fighters, thus setting a pattern that the Germans adopted from the French and the British adapted.

The Germans opened the Battle of Verdun on 21st February 1916 with an artillery bombardment on a fifteen-mile front. They used almost their entire air force on the barrage patrols that they had initiated in October. The initial purpose of maintaining these standing patrols over the front line was to drive the French aircraft away. Its basic flaw was in being purely defensive. Only offensive action can dominate any air space. This is true today and was just as true then. For the time being this tactic had considerable effect, because so many escadrilles were still flying slow, poorly armed Moranes, Voisins and Caudrons. It could not bar the way to them all, though.

Barrage patrols constituted another mistake as well. By concentrating so many aircraft on them, the Germans had none to spare for what should have continued to be routine jobs: artillery spotting and reconnaissance. The only other task for which they did use a few was in close support of the ground forces.

The long-drawn-out Battle of Verdun was really a siege punctuated by furious bombardments and infantry assaults. In a siege, it is long-range cannon that are the most valuable weapons to both attacker and defender. With nobody flying artillery observation for the Germans, their big guns were being given target indications only by their captive balloons five miles behind their trench lines, whose view was much more restricted than from an aeroplane. It was counter-battery fire that was most needed and the most difficult to direct without aeroplanes. The French were getting some artillery co-operation machines across the enemy lines, but expensively. They needed to shoot down the balloons. These were defended by Fokkers, supplementing specially positioned flak and heavy machineguns. Their own batteries were handicapped by paucity of artillery observation sorties that managed to penetrate the German barrage patrols. They, too, used balloons, but these were vulnerable to attack by the enemy, despite anti-aircraft protection.

General Pétain, in command of the French forces at Verdun, saw that it was essential to take air superiority away from the enemy. Lieutenant Colonel Bares went to Verdun to organise the necessary arrangements. He increased the establishment in that sector from four escadrilles to sixteen of which six, instead of one, were to be fighters. He put Commandant Tricornot de Rose, at present Chef d’Aviation of the Second Army, in command of the latter. De Rose had the robust personality and appearance of a traditional heavy cavalryman, not least of which was his walrus moustache. He had transferred from the dragoons as far back as 1910 and obtained the first military pilot’s certificate in the French Army. He now formulated the basic doctrine for offensive formation flying when he ordained that fighters must always go out in threes or sixes. Enough Nieuport IIs were available to increase the escadrilles’ establishment, which was raised to twelve aircraft; an equally important measure.

Before the Nieuport Bébé entered service, some of the Morane escadrilles had made names for themselves and their commanders because the best single-seater pilots had been posted to them. The first of these was MS3, under Capitaine Félix Brocard, a fierce-looking man of medium height with a big moustache and a body shaped like a barrel, whose habitual straddle-legged stance and straight look were the quintessence of fighter pilot aggression. The others were MS 12, commanded by Capitaine Tricornot de Rose, and MS 23, Capitaine de Vergette.

Brocard’s escadrille had by now acquired Nieuports and had accordingly become N3. Having already achieved distinction in their Morane days, the pilots had a flying stork silhouetted on each side of their aircraft, to let everyone, friend and enemy, know who they were, and were therefore called “Les Cigognes”. They had been serving with the French Sixth Army and were now transferred to Verdun. The Storks, under Brocard, expanded into a group comprising also N26, N23, N73, N103 and N167.

The Fokker EIII was not without its troubles. All three marks suffered from occasional defects in the synchronising mechanism, which led to many pilots, among them both Boelcke and Immelmann, and Fokker himself, shattering their own propellers more than once. But it was still a deadly machine to fight. Even more formidable was the EIV, which was powered by a 160 h.p. Oberursel motor that gave it 110 m.p.h. It had twin Spandau machineguns. Only a few EIVs had been manufactured as yet, but Boelcke and Immelmann each had one. It was now that the frequency of their kills began to mount rapidly. Immelmann even experimented with three guns, but found the extra weight made the EIV too sluggish.

The Fokker was not the only formidable opponent that the French had to face. Germany, after having trailed behind France in aeroplane design and development for so long, suddenly confronted her with two new single-seaters. The Halberstadt DI had a 100 h.p. Mercedes engine and a speed of 85 m.p.h., the Pfalz had the same performance as the Fokker EIII. There were two new two-seaters, the Roland CIII, with its top speed of 103 m.p.h. and the Rumpler CI, which could attain 105.

De Rose had not yet worked out any tactics for fighting in formation, or issued instructions that this should be attempted; so the French pilots broke formation on meeting the enemy and fought individually. Given the nature of fighter pilots at any time and in those early days in particular, and taking into account the French temperament and the strong individualists that Navarre, Nungesser, Guynemer and others were, nothing else could be expected.

Boelcke and Immelmann continued to patrol singly, while the rest in the German flying units set off and fought in twos and threes. Boelcke, indeed, who found escorting reconnaissance sorties stultifying, was allowed to remove himself from Douai to a forward airstrip seven miles behind the Front, with another pilot and sixteen ground crew. It was a time, he said, of “Alles ganz auf eigene Faust … Everyone on his own fist.” Trenchard would have approved of the sentiment, which expressed the epitome of the offensive spirit.

The first Frenchman to gain distinction at Verdun was Jean Navarre. He was just nineteen when war broke out and he joined the Air Service. His twin brother, Pierre, went into the infantry. The first time Jean Navarre met an enemy aeroplane, he showed the stuff of which his character was made. The German flew alongside and waved. It was a foolish thing to do to a youngster like Navarre: who waved back, then put a rifle to his shoulder and shot at him. Navarre had to take both hands off the controls to do so and his Farman almost stalled, while the German dived away. Deciding that the Farman was a useless platform from which to fire any weapon, he transferred to MS 12 and by April 1915 had made two kills; and was often to be seen stunting over the trenches.

At the beginning of the Verdun siege he joined N 67. On 26th February he took off at dawn, found three unescorted two-seater enemy aircraft and promptly attacked. Two of the Germans fled at once. In the rearmost one, the observer stood and raised his hands in surrender. Navarre escorted it to a French aerodrome. Later the same morning he ran into nine German aeroplanes, picked out one, had a fight with it and shot it down.

As flamboyant as Nungesser, he had a skull and crossbones and red stripes painted on his Nieuport. Nungesser went further. His was decorated with a skull and crossbones, a coffin, two lighted candles and a black heart. After a British pilot fired at him, he lost confidence in the official markings and had an additional V in red, white and blue painted on his upper wing.

Navarre’s favourite tactic was to approach his victim from astern and slightly below, then stand up to aim his Lewis gun. This was extremely foolhardy. The unstable Nieuport could easily have tipped him out. Navarre continued his aerobatics over the French lines and the infantry knew him as “la sentinelle de Verdun”.

Another characteristic that Navarre shared with Nungesser — and many other French, British and German fighter pilots throughout the war — was that they both held their fire until they were very close to the target. This is habitually described as “point-blank range”. It is nothing of the sort. The simplest definition of point blank is the point at which a bullet or shell begins to drop below a straight line between it and the target. Taking into account the speeds and relative positions of pursuer and target, lateral displacement and difference of altitude, plus the effect on a bullet of the wind generated by the aircraft from which it was fired, distance to point blank from the pursuer’s gun could be as much as 600 yards. Nobody fired from such long range. What those who carelessly use the term “point blank” mean is a range of 25 to 50 yards. Point blank could fall somewhere within those limits for a revolver or pistol, but by no means for a machinegun or rifle.

Navarre’s score soon reached seven, when Nungesser had six. On 4th April he shot down three German machines in the course of four patrols, but two of these fell behind enemy lines and could not be confirmed, so he was credited with only one. On 17th June he was leading a patrol of three Nieuports which intercepted three two-seater reconnaissance Rolands and shot them all down. After that, when at 12,000 feet, the Frenchmen spotted another enemy two-seater at 9000 feet and went for it. To draw the enemy’s fire, so that his companions could shoot it down, Navarre swung to one side. The German observer put a bullet through his arm, breaking the bone, and then wounded him in the side. He fainted and before being able to make a crash landing he bled so profusely that he was delirious in hospital for several days and was found to have suffered brain damage from loss of blood. One glass of wine was now enough to intoxicate him. He was withdrawn from operational flying, with a total of twelve confirmed victories.

When his beloved twin, who had transferred from the infantry to the Air Service, was killed, he broke down completely. He did not return to active service until September 1918, and never flew again on operations. After the war he became chief pilot at Morane-Saulnier and had recovered his nerve enough to declare that he would fly through the Arc de Triomphe on the day of the victory parade on Bastille Day, 1919. He did not live to do it. He was practising aerobatics four days before his attempt when his engine cut at low level and his machine dived into the ground.

Nungesser, at the same time as Navarre, was also proving highly destructive to the enemy and incurring severe injuries himself. Lady Caroline Lamb’s diary entry on meeting Byron was equally appropriate to him: “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Nungesser habitually endangered his own life as carelessly as he did his enemies’. He was totally regardless of pain. His reckless style was exemplified in a cheerful understatement: “Before firing my gun, I shut my eyes. When I reopen them, sometimes the Boche is going down, sometimes I am in hospital.” After having had a bad crash in 1915, he spent four months of intensive fighting at Verdun in 1916. In January 1916 he crashed on an air test. He broke both legs; and the control column smashed into his mouth, penetrated his palate and dislocated his jaw. That cost him two months in hospital. When he returned to the Front he had to use crutches, but despite this he got himself into the cockpit and went out looking for a fight. At intervals he had to return to hospital for treatment, and at the same time was acquiring more wounds and injuries. A bullet split his lip open. Crash-landing in no-man’s-land, he dislocated a knee. In another crash landing with his aircraft shot up, it overturned and broke his jaw. By the end of the war he had been injured seventeen times.

At Verdun, the four fighter pilots who excelled all others were Boelcke, Immelmann, Navarre and Nungesser. They were all caught in the same current of passion for their work and swept along by it. In the two Frenchmen, delight in killing the invader predominated. In the two Germans it was absorption in the exquisiteness of their craftsmanship. All possessed an incandescent spirit compounded of dauntless mettle, superabundant aggressiveness and determination to excel.

France assembled her best pilots in virtually segregated units. The British did not approve of this system. In the RFC a squadron’s successes would earn it the admiring adjective “crack”. Such distinction was sought by teamwork and was won by the outstanding quality that its pilots evinced in the course of acquiring this admiration. In l’Aviation Militaire, crack escadrilles were created by posting already outstanding performers to them. The Stork escadrilles had been formed in this way, with a nucleus of leading pre-war pilots. Another that bore the same lustre was N77, “Les Sportifs”, comprising brilliant sportsmen and rich playboys; some of whom were both. One of its members captained France at rugby football, others were international racing drivers, fencers, horsemen.

Among Les Cigognes were the rich, the poor and the middling. Some counted on the money that various commercial firms put up as bonuses. Michelin, who manufactured tyres for aeroplanes as well as Service motor vehicles, paid a bonus for every victory. Guynemer totted up 15,000 francs, which, although his means were modest, he gave to a fund for wounded airmen.

Les Sportifs lived high, wide and handsome. Oozing wealth, they moved their cars, valets, mess waiters and cooks, their expensive cutlery, crockery and linen from one aerodrome to another like a maharaja’s caravan. Their wives and mistresses accompanied them and were installed in the best local hotels.

Both Cigognes and Sportifs were the pets of high society. Invitations to every kind of lavish entertainment was showered on them. Cars would be sent to fetch them as far as Paris for dinners, theatres and dances when the day’s flying was done.

A third colourful agglomeration was formed by the Americans who had joined l’Aviation Militaire. We have already heard of Bert Hall flying for Bulgaria against Turkey; and of Raoul Lufbery who had entered the Service as Pourpe’s mechanic. They were both among this unorthodox galaxy of pilots of varied talent, united by lust for adventure and love of freedom.

Air War Over Verdun II


Airfields of the opposing forces around Verdun 1916.



Norman Prince, an American private pilot, had gone to France soon after the war began, to form a volunteer American squadron. He met another American, Edmund Gros, a doctor who had formed the American Field Ambulance Service. They set up a committee and appointed a Monsieur de Sillac as President. Dr Gros and five other Americans, one of whom was the millionaire William K. Vanderbilt, who provided the finance, served on it. Prince was not a member: his purpose was to join the unit and fly. They sought recruits among all the Americans who had already joined the French Army.

Initially, the French opposed the plan. As the static warfare sank into a morass of dreary winter inaction the notion of volunteer fighters from abroad, especially from a country so vast and rich as the USA, began to look appealing. It would be wonderful propaganda. The prospect looked all the glossier because the air forces had already acquired a romantic, individualistic image. From dissuasion, the French turned to encouragement.

The conditions the committee offered the American volunteers were generous, to compensate for their basic pay, which would be that of l’Aviation Militaire and low in comparison with American standards. William Thaw was made a lieutenant and the others would be sergeants when qualified but were joining as mere corporals. They would be given a new uniform every three months; 125 francs per head per month would be paid into the mess fund; for each confirmed victory there would be a bonus of 1000 francs. A month after the squadron came into being other perquisites were added: 1500 francs for a Légion d’Honneur, 1000 francs for a Médaille Militaire, 500 francs for a Croix de Guerre and 200 francs for each citation (a palm) added to it.

The unit was formed on 16th April 1916, under a French Commanding Officer, Capitaine Georges Thénault, and second-in-command, Lieutenant de Laage de Meux. The seven American pilots were widely assorted: one or two were comfortably off, another was a medical student, there was a Harvard graduate; there were footloose adventurers. The squadron was based at Luxeuil. Its symbol, painted large on each side of the fuselage, was the head of a Red Indian in a chief’s eagle-feathered war bonnet, his mouth open as he yelled a war cry. Gros, as a doctor and head of an ambulance unit, remained a non-combatant. Prince was joined by James McConnell, Bert Hall, Elliot Cowdin, Victor Chapman, William Thaw and Kiffin Rockwell. Hall was already in l’Aviation Militaire and had forced down a two-seater Halberstadt. They all had to go through a flying course. Their aircraft were Nieuport IIs and the unit’s number was N124. It was publicised as l’Escadrille Americaine, to which the Germans soon objected through diplomatic channels, because America was neutral. Displaying subtlety and style, the French then suggested the name Escadrille Lafayette: in memory of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had taken a group of Frenchmen to America in 1777 to fight with the colonials for independence from British rule.

The Lafayette pilots lived much like the Sportifs. Officer and NCO pilots messed together in the Grand Hotel. Their sleeping quarters were in a large private house. They did not make an auspicious start, wrecking several machines in bad landings and collisions with ground obstacles. The reporters who flocked to Luxeuil drew no veils over their bad flying or off-duty antics. Some public resentment began to grow against these pampered and apparently useless foreigners. Dr Gros had been busy finding more members for the escadrille, Lufbery among them. Necessity now demanded their presence at Verdun.

Their aerodrome on the Verdun Front was at Bar-le-Duc, where l’Escadrille Lafayette suffered the casualties that are the lot of any raw squadron. On 24th May, Thaw was the first to be wounded: in a fight with three Fokkers, when a bullet severed his pectoral artery and he almost bled to death. Bullets hit Rockwell’s windscreen and its fragments lacerated his face, nearly blinding him. The next day, his head in bandages, he was on patrol again. Four Fokkers jumped on Chapman out of cloud and a bullet creased his scalp and grazed his skull. Bleeding copiously, he barely managed to return to base. On 18th June, Thénault, Rockwell, Prince and Clyde Balsley, a newcomer on his first operational flight, were attacked by fourteen Fokkers. The enemy circled them, turning inwards to fire in turns. Thenault took his men homewards in a steep dive, but Balsley could not extricate himself. An explosive bullet hit him in the stomach and wounded him severely. Surgeons removed more than twenty fragments and he lived. Chapman and Prince, flying to visit him, were bounced by six Fokkers. Chapman was shot down in flames and became the first American airman to be killed in action.

When, soon after, the Lafayettes were taken out of the line and returned to Luxeuil, Thaw had been given the Legion d’Honneur, Chapman, Rockwell and Hall the Médaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre with one palm. They found two Royal Naval Air Service squadrons, among whom were several Canadian pilots, on the airfield. Immediate mutual liking and good fellowship were struck between the nationalities: British, Commonwealth and American. This was a feature of all relationships between the British and both American and French Air Services. When the American Air Corps arrived in France in 1918, however, its association with l’Aviation Militaire was not always cordial.

The concentration of enemy fighters on Verdun did not noticeably afford any relief to the RFC. During the first six months of 1916 it lost an average of two aircrew a day. The loss of fifty in November and December 1915 had been severe enough. Most squadrons were still a mixed bag of two, three, or even four types of aircraft. Bewildered though pilots may have been by the daily variation of their duties between visual and photographic reconnaissance, escorting others who were thus engaged, or offensive patrols, morale remained high on most squadrons.

Trenchard wasted many lives because he equated aggression with the distance his aircraft penetrated behind enemy lines. As justice has not only to be done but to be seen to be done, so the RFC’s aggressive spirit had to be made obvious. In Trenchard’s scale of values, a patrol that went ten miles into Hunland was ten times as aggressive as one that went one mile, regardless of the quality of the work that was done when the patrol reached its limit. The man who went one mile deep might have a better chance of shooting down enemy aeroplanes than the man who went ten, but that did not seem to matter. This attitude was not only unintelligent but also cruel. British aircraft were inferior to the enemy’s and even an exceptional pilot in a BE2C, Martinsyde, Bristol Scout, FE2, Sopwith, RE7 or Morane, all of which figured on British squadrons, was at a disadvantage against the Fokker, Pfalz, Halberstadt or some of the two-seaters, in the hands of a pilot who might be no better than average.

Trenchard used to visit all his squadrons frequently in his Rolls-Royce staff car. He told the aircrews that he did not ask them to do anything that he would not do himself. But he did not actually do it. This assertion was commonplace in all the Services, but its credibility varied greatly. A platoon, company or battalion commander, a flight or squadron commander, the captain of a naval vessel and an admiral at sea with his fleet, spoke nothing but the truth when he said it.

The RFC was on the threshold of better days, with new fighters soon to appear at the Western Front. Louis Strange had recently been sent back to England for a rest, and his friend Lanoe Hawker’s turn had come when, on 28th September 1915, he was put in command of the newly formed No. 24 Squadron, at Hounslow. He had not had to face the Fokkers at the height of their supremacy, but he had fought for almost a year and his VC and DSO were evidence of the severe stress he must have suffered. He showed physical signs of extreme fatigue.

In January 1916 the squadron was delighted to be told that it was about to receive the new de Havilland DH2 single-seater, which had been specifically designed as a fighter. It is often said that No. 24 was the RFC’s first fighter squadron and the first to be equipped with only one aircraft type. That distinction belongs to No. II Twenty-four, however, was the first homogeneous single-seater fighter squadron. And there is no accuracy in any claim that only a single-seater can properly be described as a fighter. The two-seater Bristol Fighter, when it came along in 1917, was a true fighter of outstanding accomplishments.

The DH2 was a pusher with a Lewis gun mounted in the nose. It did not look as modern as a Fokker or a Nieuport: the pilot sat in an enclosed nacelle, but behind him was an open framework of long spars, braced by struts, attaching it and the wings to the tail unit; and it had the unreliable Gnome single-valve 100-h.p. rotary engine. At sea level its top speed was 93 m.p.h., but at the heights at which it would do its work this fell to around 77. Its ceiling was 14,000 feet and to reach 10,000 feet required 25 minutes. Speeds, rates of climb and ceilings for aeroplanes were still imprecise. Much depended on how they were rigged and the condition of individual engines. Two of the same kind could have a disparity of five to ten per cent in speed and rate of climb.

Another new fighter squadron, however, beat Hawker’s in the race to get to the Front. No. 20, commanded by Major G. J. Malcolm and equipped with the FE2B (familiarly the “Fee”) two-seater, arrived there on 23rd January. Like the DH2, the FE2 had been designed by Geoffrey de Havilland and was a pusher with an enclosed nacelle and a latticework fuselage of beams, spars and bracing wires ending in the empennage. Following the standard British practice, the observer sat in the front cockpit, provided with a forward-firing Lewis gun. Most Fees also had a second Lewis on a telescopic mounting behind his seat, which fired upwards over the wing. The FE2 was heavier than the Fokker, so its 120-h.p. Beardmore engine did not give it quite the latter’s speed, but it was equally manoeuvrable. Every pusher posed the same danger to its pilot in the event of a crash: the heavy engine was hurled forward and crushed him. On the other hand, it was an effective shield against bullets fired from astern. Of course, if the bullets stopped the engine, a resulting crash landing would flatten the pilot anyway.

Of the twelve pilots — all officers — who joined Hawker on 24 Squadron, only the three flight commanders and two others had flown on operations. Because of engine unreliability, familiarisation flying was restricted to two hours so that there would be reasonable certainty of the whole squadron arriving at its destination in France without any forced landings. Hawker was ordered to cross the Channel by steamer on 2nd February 1916 and the rest flew over on the 7th to St Omer. They were immediately put on daily patrols at 14,000 feet from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. Two aircraft were kept back at three minutes’ notice to scramble in protection of GHQ if the enemy put in a bombing raid.

One of the marvels of all that aircrews accomplished in that war was that they did so much in such adverse physical conditions. It was intensely cold and now that patrols at heights of 14,000 feet and higher were becoming standard the low temperature was painful and incapacitating. Pilots and observers came dangerously close to suffering hypothermia. Frostbite was a common affliction. More dangerous and a greater physical handicap was lack of oxygen. In the 1939-45 war, when all aircraft were fitted with oxygen “bottles”, it was compulsory in the RAF to switch on at 10,000 feet. Tolerance of oxygen deprivation varies and some men switched on sooner. Oxygen starvation causes hallucinations — clouds, for instance, are mistaken for other aeroplanes, mountain ranges, and stranger things — headache, nausea, lack of strength and energy. On top of these handicaps was the nauseating effect of castor oil as an engine lubricant. The fumes caused vomiting and diarrhoea. A tractor rotary engine sent oil spraying back over pilot and observer, reducing vision through windscreen — not all machines had them — and goggles, and blackening faces. Men had to fly with mouth and chin wrapped in a thick scarf. It was Hawker who designed, and had made, the first pair of fleece-lined thigh boots that became known as “fug-boots”. These were a great comfort, but soft-soled and cumbersome and impractical for walking more than a few yards to and from one’s aircraft. Aircrew who made forced landings and either had to evade capture or walk miles to a friendly unit cursed them.

Another grievous handicap in air fighting was the continued unreliability of machineguns. All were prone to jam from many causes. Fusee springs, pawls, buffers, triggers, defects in drums, imperfect rounds, all caused the frustrations of interrupted combat and lost victories.

Within a week, two of 24’s pilots were killed when their aircraft spun in. The DH2 already had a reputation for involuntary and irrecoverable spinning. It was being called “the spinning incinerator”, but there was nothing new about this. The Shorthorn was “the flying incinerator” and various other types were described as incinerators or coffins, because they stalled or spun easily and usually caught fire when they crashed. They were facile epithets, often intended to excuse pilots’ errors. These were not always their fault, but the result of poor and hasty training that sent them into the air before they were fully competent.

The two fatal crashes were potential morale destroyers. Like everyone else, Hawker had carefully avoided a spin. He now took a DH2 up to 8000 feet and spun it several times: to left and right, with and without engine. Nobody was watching. He landed, went into the mess and announced what he had done. Everyone wanted to know how he had done it. When he had explained how a DH2 could be made to recover from a spin, all his pilots hurried into the air to practise it.

In preparation for their first fight Hawker made his pilots practise gunnery day after day, diving at a full-scale outline of a Fokker on the ground. He designed the ring sight that was adopted throughout the Service.

Some of his pilots mounted twin Lewis guns and he encouraged that, not only because it would double their fire power but also because if one jammed they would have a spare. He showed the twin mounting to his Brigade Commander, who promptly forbade it. Had he had to fight in the air himself, the brigadier general would perhaps have approved of it. Hawker experimented with a double ammunition drum, one welded on top of another in the Armament Section, which led to the production of the ninety-four-round drum that was introduced soon after.

The ineptitude of those who designed gun mountings and the senior officers who would condone no modification made by the men who actually had to fight with these weapons was staggering. The DH2’s Lewis was mounted on a universal joint on the left-hand side of the aeroplane’s nose. The majority of pilots, being right-handed, found this awkward. Many had their guns moved to the right. It was some time before anyone did the obvious and had it mounted centrally. Another irritant was that the gun had to be held steady when being fired. This meant that, wherever it was mounted, a hand had to be taken off the joystick or throttle. In addition, the freely moving mount allowed the gun to dance and wander all over the place, even when the handgrip on the butt was firmly held. Hawker had his squadron’s guns fixed rigidly; but not for long: the brigadier wouldn’t allow that either. Hawker then compromised by having the muzzle anchored by a strong spring, which could not be described as a fixed mounting but did reduce most of the straying off aim.

On 24th April 1916 came the chance at last to evaluate the DH2 against the Fokker, when four of 24 Squadron escorted five BE2Cs of No. 15 on reconnaissance. Twelve Fokkers attacked, some circling to prevent the BE2cs from retreating, the others waiting to make their familiar dive and zoom. When it was obvious that the reconnaissance machines had no intention of turning back, and the whole British formation was deep in enemy territory, the circling Fokkers joined their companions. Then the whole lot swarmed down in attack. The DH2s turned with an agility that surprised the Germans and made straight for them. The Germans, disconcerted by this bold tactic, pulled out of their dives and broke to right and left. In a few seconds the DH2s were into them, turning with them or inside them, firing every time they had an enemy in their sights. Two Fokkers pulled out, damaged, and a moment later a third followed. The remainder drew off and circled, trying to draw the DH2s away so that they could attack the BE2Cs. The escort would not be drawn. Their job was to stick close to their flock.

The Fokkers did not attack again. The nine British aeroplanes returned home unharmed. The DH2 had broken the Fokkers’ grip on the British Sector of the Western Front.

Soviet Air-Power 1918-1945


The totally inadequate efforts of Imperial Russia to establish an effective air service disappeared in the flames of the October Revolution. Experience of a sort was gained in the civil war that followed, and in the simultaneous war with Poland from 1918 to 1920.

During the 1920s, the Soviet Union attempted to establish an aviation industry and an air force. It was fortunate to have some excellent leaders, but development was always limited by the paranoid cruelty of dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin called forth the very best efforts from people under his command, and, initially, rewarded those who did well with promotions and privilege. Doing well, however, carried with it the hazard of being seen as a popular figure. Stalin did not tolerate any popular figures other than himself, and unhesitatingly removed them by assassination or by trials in which coerced confessions of treason would earn a death penalty.

This was the fate of many men who might have made a difference in the history of World War II had they been allowed to live and carry out their ideas. The Soviet Union possessed some first-rate thinkers who were also doers, men who would have been outstanding in any air force in the world. They included, among others, Generals Yakov Alksnis, Yakov Smushkevich, Mikhail Frunze, and Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevski, all of whom merit mention here, for had their ideas been followed, a German invasion of the Soviet Union might well have been avoided, or if begun, immediately defeated.

General Frunze was Chief of Staff of the Red Army and became a commissar for national defense. He argued that a massive industrial base was the first step in acquiring an air force, and that the armed forces should be mobile, fast, and powerful. After Frunze was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1925, he was succeeded by Marshal Tukachevski, who was the author of the concept of “deep battle” in which mobile forces were to break through enemy lines in the manner adopted by the Germans. Tukachevski developed the world’s first airborne forces, whose often filmed operations inspired imitators in Germany and the United States. A versatile man, he also created the Red Army’s first mechanized units. Stalin deeply distrusted him because of his previous association with the Czarist army, and readily accepted intelligence planted by the Germans that Tukachevski was a spy. He was arrested, tried for espionage, and executed in 1937, setting off the great purge that would slash through the Red military like a plague. About 75 percent of the Red Air Force’s senior officers were imprisoned or executed, and about 40 percent of the entire officer corps were eliminated. The survivors, as might be imagined, were terrified, and morale collapsed.

The Red Army Air Force under the command of Yakov Alksnis during 1931–1937 developed into a semi-independent military service with a combat potential, good training, and a logistics infrastructure spreading from European Russia into Central Asia and the Far East. Still, the Red Army Air Force exhibited marked deficiencies in several local conflicts (e. g., against the Chinese in 1929 and in the Spanish civil war, 1936–1939). In contrast, during the 1937–1939 air conflicts with Japan (China, Lake Khasan, Khalkin Gol) the Soviets effectively challenged the Japanese air domination and provided decisive close air support in the campaigns on Soviet and Mongolian borders. During the Winter War with Finland (1939–1940), however, the Red Air Force suffered heavy losses due to inflexibility of organization, its command-and-control structure, poor training of personnel, and deficiency of equipment.

He sponsored the introduction of the truly remarkable Tupolev TB-3, the world’s first four-engine monoplane bomber in squadron service. Although a force of several hundred aircraft was built up, it was not intended as a classical strategic bombing force in the manner advocated by Douhet, who actually had little influence on Soviet thinking. Alksnis simply saw the need for heavy bombers to complement the other Soviet forces. He was, unfortunately, a friend of Tukachevski, and was arrested on a false charge of treason in December 1937 but not executed until 1940.

Yet another leading light, Smushkevich, had perhaps the most remarkable career of all, including commanding the Soviet air units in Spain under the pseudonym “General Douglas.” This was a considerable force, amounting to more than 1,500 aircraft and 750 pilots. Smushkevich was responsible for defeating the Italians in March 1937 at Guadalajara during the Spanish Civil War with his ground attack operations. He then went on to take command of Soviet air units engaged in conflict with Japan in China and Manchuria. There with some 450 aircraft, in May 1939 he inflicted a sharp defeat upon the Japanese. (Here that air power had a tremendous influence on history, for the Japanese Army switched its support for imperial expansion from the north to the southwest.) In November of that year, he became Chief of the Air Forces of the Red Army. All of his past achievements did not protect him from responsibility for the debacle attending the German invasion of June 22, 1941, and he was shot on October 28, 1941. Stalin’s memory was long, but his gratitude was short.

The German/Italian intervention on behalf of the Nationalist forces was offset in part by the supply of aircraft and materials from France and the Soviet Union. The French government of Premier Leon Blum was sympathetic to the Loyalist cause, and sent a miscellaneous bag of about forty aircraft to Spain, under the nominal and idiosyncratic leadership of writer-philosopher André Malraux. Malraux was neither a pilot nor a soldier, but he had an international literary reputation and espoused the Loyalist cause. The value of the French equipment was much diminished because it arrived without armament, and supplies of spares were soon cut off when Britain and France were pressured into an arms embargo of the conflict.


It was far different with the Soviet Union, which very much wanted to see the Loyalist government remain in power, and, in exchange for the Spanish gold reserves, sent about eight hundred aircraft to Spain during the course of the war. The aircraft included 155 I-15s, 62 I-15bis, 287 I-16s, and 96 SB-2 bombers, all first-line aircraft in the Soviet Union. Also sent were some 3,000 people, including 772 pilots, some of whom arrived before their equipment and warmed to the task by flying missions in obsolete French-built Breguet and Potez aircraft of the Spanish Air Force. The Soviet Union also licensed the production of another 229 fighters (I-15s and I-16s) in Spain.

The Western media was convinced that the Soviet aircraft would be inferior, to the ludicrous extent that they called the SB-2’s “Martins” and indicated that the I-15 had been copied from a Curtiss fighter, while the I-16 had been copied from the Boeing P-26. To everyone’s surprise, the Russian aircraft proved to be superb, far superior to any on the Nationalist side for many months after the German and Italian forces arrived, and much better than the aircraft from which they were supposed to have been copied.

These first-rate Russian aircraft enabled the Loyalists to gain an air superiority that was maintained through mid-1937, when German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters came into service. (Three prototype Bf 109s had been tested in Spain earlier.) The Russian planes allowed the Loyalist air force to gain one of the biggest victories of the war in March 1937. A Nationalist force composed of four Italian motorized units, including the elite Littorio division and eighty-one light tanks, had broken through the lines near Guadalajara, northeast of Madrid. The assault became bogged down in the mud caused by a week of torrential rainstorms. The Loyalist air force reacted promptly, shooting up the enemy vehicles and killing many soldiers. This was a seminal experience for the Red Air Force, which adopted the “conveyor” tactic in which a steady stream of attack aircraft, flying in successive relays, maintained a continuous pressure from the air. On March 18 the Loyalists counterattacked, and the Italian infantry broke and ran, to the disdain (and ultimately the amusement) of their Spanish Nationalist comrades-in-arms.

For the Soviet Union, the experience in Spain provided invaluable combat training for later battles against the Japanese and Germans. For senior officers in those units, combat was, ironically, a relatively safe haven, for they were less likely to be consumed in the insane purges Stalin was visiting upon his officer corps. In Spain, the Red pilots adopted the German-inspired “finger-four” formation, but were forced to give it up and revert to standard “V” formations when they returned to Russia. In the curious sort of “political correctness” reigning in the Soviet Union during the days of the purge, adopting a foreign combat formation was tantamount to treachery. In terms of strategy and tactics, the Spanish Civil War confirmed the importance of air superiority, and spurred the development of a new series of fighters that would flow—just in time—from the Mikoyan-Gurevich, Lavochkin, and Yakovlev design bureaus.

The brutal dictator’s ire was not confined to military personnel, for Stalin jailed such prominent designers as Andrei Tupolev and Nikolai Polikarpov, whom he allowed to continue to work while incarcerated.

The Red Air Force had always received a reasonable share of the Soviet military budget. The Soviet Union, after some wistful attempts at an agreement with Germany before Hitler, understood that Germany was a primary threat, with Japan also a likely candidate. Under Stalin, the national policy was one of gradual acquisition of territory by threat or war, and he succeeded in taking parts of Finland, Poland, and Rumania plus all of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania before the German invasion. And perhaps saddest of all, Stalin destroyed his command structure by his ruthless elimination of the talented, patriotic men who tried to serve him well.

Somewhat surprisingly, and a tribute to Soviet engineers and designers, Soviet technology was not too far behind either the Germans or the Allies at the start of World War II. The deployed forces had not been modernized, but a series of fine aircraft were in the works. No coherent policy of long-range strategic bombardment had evolved, but the concept of using aircraft as an essential part of army ground forces was firmly implanted, which would be enough to defeat Germany in the long run.

German Air-Power 1919-1945



Germany did not produce a philosopher of air power comparable to Douhet, Trenchard, or Mitchell. Instead it looked carefully at the past, analyzed the statements of Douhet and others, then committed itself to a course of action that in time led to the mighty German Luftwaffe of World War II. The land of von Richthofen would have remarkable good fortune in the selection of its air force leaders from 1919 through 1936, and remarkably bad fortune in the years that followed. The Five Factors came into play, but because of circumstances, they operated in a different, sometimes completely opposite, manner from the way they operated in other countries.

Germany ended World War I with only its air service still capable of putting up an effective defense, a fact the Allies recognized in the Versailles Treaty by absolutely denying Germany any air force at all and severely restricting its capability to build civilian aircraft. Thus, while Great Britain and the United States demolished their air services voluntarily through a helter-skelter demobilization, Germany’s air service was forcibly demobilized.

The treaty also limited Germany to an army of 100,000 men, designed for internal security and a moderate frontier defense capability. Its navy was similarly limited to 15,000 men, with submarines forbidden, and no modern capital ships allowed.

What the Versailles Treaty could not prohibit, however, was the clever planning of Generaloberst Hans von Seeckt, who was the last Chief of the General Staff of the former Imperial German Army, and, after October 11, 1919, the first Chief of Staff of the new and severely limited Reichswehr. The fifty-three-year-old von Seeckt, known as “the Sphinx” within the Army because of his arrogant secretiveness, seemed to have a hopeless task, with his country surrounded by enemies and still suffering from the rigors of the Allied blockade and the ravages of influenza, disrupted industries, rampant Communism, a broken economy, and immense reparation payments. Yet in his memoirs, Thoughts of a Soldier, Seeckt wrote, “Fear was always a bad counselor, and fear is no position from which to view the world. Against a technical means of attack, the same technical concept has always found a defense.” This concept would be his philosophy in laying the foundation for what the world in just sixteen short years would come to fear as the Luftwaffe.

An ardent royalist who despised the new government of the German Weimar Republic, Seeckt was determined that Germany would have a new and independent air force. A majority of former officers, faced with the dismal German economy, sought to become part of the new 100,000-man army. Seeckt was thus in a position to be both selective and reflective. He picked the best people, including 180 specially selected to analyze the lessons to be learned from the 1914-18 war. Of these, no fewer than 130 were assigned under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth Wilberg to study air power, and how it might be employed in the future German Air Force. Wilberg would be of great influence, for he was essentially Chief of the Secret Air Staff from 1919 to 1927.

In another move that revealed Seeckt’s consciousness of the value of air power and his hope for Germany’s future, he saw to it that 180 of the 3,800 officers allowed to his 100,000-man force had experience useful to the future Air Force. It is interesting to note that Seeckt did not bring any of the top aces into the new Reichswehr. The reason was simple: There were no aircraft for them to fly, and he needed planners and builders, not aces.

What emerged from the intensive study was an understanding that while the strategic air campaign against Great Britain had not been successful, it was still necessary to have a strategic bombardment arm. The studies also showed how successful the cooperation of air force and army units had been, and that this combined effort could be even more important in the future.

Finally, it was recognized that “letting the customer come to the door,” fighting a defensive air war, was ultimately a losing proposition. This was a difficult decision to reach, for the 1914-18 defensive policy had been successful, with the Germans shooting down 7,425 Allied aircraft during the war. Even in 1918, when Germany was so hard pressed, its airmen shot down 3,732 Allied aircraft while losing only 1,099 during the period January to September 1918.24 The strategy allowed the German Air Force to be a viable service to the end, when it was still operating more than 2,700 aircraft on the Western Front.

The acknowledgement that aircraft were essentially an offensive weapon, and the decision that their primary function should be in support of the Army, were two important factors for the future Luftwaffe, which had already begun to take shape in shadow form in several arenas under the Weimar Republic.

It should be noted that under the Weimar Republic and under Hitler, Germany had unique perceptions of the threats to its security. Before Hitler, Germany had a well-founded fear that either or both France and Poland would initiate a war. France did use its military might to occupy the Ruhr in 1923, and there were so many disputes at the Baltic and Polish frontiers that the so-called Freikorps, essentially private armies serving the helpless German state, were formed to resist them. Under Hitler, the perception of the threat was the same, with the added specter of the might of the Soviet Union added to the equation. The character of his government, however, was to use bullying diplomacy to obtain whatever was possible to obtain, and then to use preemptive aggression to obtain lebensraum (living room) in the territories all the way to the Ural mountains to the east. Hitler, and his able colleague, Joseph Goebbels, used an essentially phantom threat of air power to leverage Germany’s capacity for bullying.

One of the arenas in which the future Luftwaffe would be shaped was the air-mindedness that Germany had fostered in its population. Germany was particularly attentive to its youth, creating in 1920 the Deutsche Luftfahrt-Verband as a sort of national flying club for building models and flying gliders. A second arena was the early development of German airlines that culminated in their combination into Deutsche Luft Hansa (DHL) in January 1926. DHL would dominate European traffic until World War II, at least in part because it was led by the future Field Marshal Erhard Milch. It became the training ground not only for pilots, but also for mechanics and other ground crewmen, as well as a laboratory for instrument flying, navigation, and radio equipment. Specially selected pilot candidates obtained licenses at the German Commercial Flying School, and the best of them went on to receive fighter training at a secret base in the Soviet Union.

A third factor in shaping the Luftwaffe was Seeckt’s prescience in 1922 in establishing secret relations with the Soviet Union by which Germany obtained airfields and labor at which to create training bases, while the Russians gained access to the technical advances the Germans would demonstrate. The retired Colonel Herman von der Leith-Thomsen, a monarchist who had not rejoined the service, headed the mission. By 1924 a training field was established at Lipetsk, about 180 miles to the southeast of Moscow. At the same time, Germany contributed 100,000,000 Reichsmarks to build a Junkers aircraft factory at Fili, near Moscow. Unlike Lipetsk, where everything expected and more was achieved, the Junkers factory was a relative failure. With a capacity of 600 aircraft a year, it built only 142 in the four years it existed before being taken over by Tupolev.

The Luftwaffe prepared its industrial foundation with the establishment of German companies manufacturing aircraft in foreign countries, including Albatros in Lithuania, Dornier in Switzerland and Italy, and Junkers and Heinkel in Sweden. This dispersion allowed German firms to maintain an engineering force, keep up with foreign developments, and even make a profit on sales to other countries The man who had led the bomber offensive against England during World War I, Captain Ernst Brandenburg, became key to revitalizing Germany’s aviation industry. As a Ministerial Director in the German Transport Ministry, Brandenburg diligently sought the relaxation of Versailles Treaty restrictions on building aircraft, and ultimately succeeded in his task by the fall of 1926.

Thus the creation of a new German Air Force was well under way by the time Adolf Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, with his commitment to spend billions of marks to build an air arm for future conquests.

Hitler had a natural liking for aviation, for his political successes were partly because he used aircraft in his election campaigns. With his future personal pilot, Hans Bauer, usually at the controls, Hitler flew in three separate campaigns in the critical 1932 elections, visiting at least sixty-five cities on each one, sometimes as many as six in a day. The flights were sheer theater for the enthusiastic crowds waiting at the airport for their leader to arrive, sometimes descending majestically through an overcast, for Bauer was an accomplished instrument pilot. So novel was this approach that “Hitler Over Germany” came to be an accurate (and portentous) campaign slogan. Hitler flew in Rohrbach, Messerschmitt, and Junkers transports, with a Junkers F-13 carrying the soon to be infamous Sepp Dietrich ahead of him as an “advance man” in today’s parlance.

On January 30, 1933, the day that he assumed power as Germany’s chancellor, Hitler appointed his comrade and World War I ace, Herman Goering, who had just turned forty, to be the Reich’s Commissioner of Aviation, in charge both of German civil aviation and its still secret air force. At the time, Goering was a good choice, for World War I technology had not been totally superseded, and he was well connected both with the officer corps and the aviation industry. The former fighter pilot was then quite energetic and could be as ruthless as required with businessmen who did not wish to take the risks he saw were necessary to build up the industry to the scale and at the speed that Hitler demanded.

Goering was actually too occupied with his many other tasks (including heading the Four Year Plan to reconstitute German industry) and allowed others to supervise the Luftwaffe’s rapid growth. Hitler fostered this growth by seeing to it that the Luftwaffe’s share of the defense budget rose from 10 percent in 1933 to 38 percent in 1936.

This seemingly disproportionate share of the budget stemmed from a canny, crucial decision that Hitler had made on the basis of advice from Erhard Milch and Goering. They in turn had obtained their concept from Dr. Robert Knauss, a former combat pilot and Lufthansa colleague of Milch. Knauss’s theory was that the most effective way to defend Germany in the early days of the Hitler government was to build up a fleet of heavy bombers as a Risiko Flotte, the term used by Admiral Tirpitz to describe the “risk fleet” he had built up as a deterrent to Great Britain’s Royal Navy. The scheme was attractive for several reasons, the most important of which was the psychological effect that the threat of bombing had upon Great Britain and France. Almost equally important, it could be done relatively inexpensively, costing about 80 million Reichsmarks, or the equivalent of outfitting five army divisions.

As it happened, Knauss’s plan could not be adopted at the time of its proposal in 1933 because the German aircraft industry was not up to building such a strategic fleet. Yet Hitler, a consummate bluffer, was quick to see the potential for the threat to use such force, even if the force did not exist.

Before the public announcement of its existence on March 9, 1935, the Luftwaffe had been a “secret” air force, although every major intelligence service knew that pilots were being trained and new aircraft being produced for Germany’s use. With Goering busy, running the air force was left to a succession of competent deputies, including Wilberg, whose Jewish background soon disqualified him. He was succeeded by the head of Deutsch Lufthansa, Erhard Milch. Ironically, Milch’s father also was Jewish, but Milch managed to redefine himself as an Aryan by having his mother and father swear that he and all his siblings were the natural children of his mother’s Christian lover, Baron Hermann von Bier. Milch became Secretary of State for Aviation, which infuriated some regular Army members, for his highest previous military rank was that of captain.

Yet Milch’s experience with Lufthansa proved to be immensely valuable, for he knew that the German Air Force would need far more than just planes and pilots. He established an extensive building program for air bases, and used his airline experience to acquire sophisticated navigation and communication gear that would have been the envy of every air force in the world.

It was a time of intoxicating expansion for the German armed services, and it speaks to the fairness of the Minister of War, General Werner von Blomberg, that the new service was provided with a number of excellent officers. They included Colonel Hans-Jurgen Stumpf; Lieutenant Colonel Walter Wever; Colonel Wilhelm Wimmer; Captain Baron Wolfram von Richthofen, a cousin of Manfred, a nine-victory ace in World War I, and the very best Luftwaffe field commander in World War II. Another great asset was Colonel Albert Kesselring, who would become the German field marshal best able to conduct a tough ground defense in the absence of any German air power.

When he was appointed to a position of Chief of the Air Command Office (effectively Chief of the General Staff of the Luftwaffe) in September 1933, Walter Wever had much to learn, and he rapidly set about doing it. First of all he learned to fly (at the age of forty-six), and he learned to recant all that he had said about not having an independent air force. Wever had a pleasant personality despite being a workaholic who drove himself harder than anyone. Although he is best known for his advocacy of strategic bombing, Wever had a well-rounded view toward air power and understood the value of close air support to the German Army.

As a staff officer during the 1914-18 war, Wever had argued for the use of an elastic defense to minimize casualties. The same desire, to minimize casualties, led him to believe, like Trenchard and Douhet, that the way to win wars was to destroy the enemy’s industrial heartland. For this reason he backed the development of the four-engine bomber, and two advanced prototypes, the Junkers Ju 89 and the Dornier Do-19, were built for the task. Unfortunately for Wever, no available German engine had adequate power to give the two aircraft the performance they needed, a situation reflecting the general state of the engine industry.

Wever was killed in an aircraft accident on June 3, 1936, when, in his usual tearing hurry, he skipped the aircraft preflight and took off in a relatively hot Heinkel He 70 Blitz with the aileron controls locked. With his death, the impetus behind the four-engine bomber program was lost.

Kesselring succeeded Wever, and on the whole did his usual excellent job. His biggest mistake was recommending that development of the four-engine bomber be canceled on the grounds that it required too many resources and would use too much fuel on operations. Goering issued the cancellation on April 29, 1937. As has been noted many times, Goering was glad to acquiesce, for many more twin-engine bombers could be built than four-engine bombers, and, as he noted, the Führer “asked him how many bombers he had, not what kind.”

The still young Luftwaffe was going through a period of organizational confusion. Goering’s personality would not tolerate Milch’s increased prestige and responsibility as he orchestrated the swift expansion. As a result Goering insisted on a number of personnel changes to place in positions of power people he believed would be loyal to him, personally. The most disastrous of these was the appointment of the highest-scoring surviving German World War I ace, Ernst Udet, as head of the Technical Office, and soon thereafter, head of the Office of Supply and Procurement.

Udet had a checkered postwar career as stunt pilot, filmmaker, aircraft manufacturer, and hard-drinking bon vivant. He was constitutionally unsuitable for his new responsibilities, and he knew it. While he had the expert pilot’s intuitive understanding of aircraft, he had no scientific or technical bent. Further, he had absolutely no understanding of how to manage a bureaucratic organization, and no wish to learn. In short order, he had more than twenty department heads reporting directly to him, personally, with no intermediate layer of management to make decisions in his absence. This lack of organizational skill was particularly unfortunate, as it was his habit to absent himself from his place of work for days at a time, and upon returning to make important decisions on a spur-of-the moment basis. Despite his obvious unsuitability, Goering regarded him as “his man” and continued to promote him so that the onetime captain was a Generaloberst by July 19, 1940.

Udet’s influence was disastrous for the Luftwaffe, but the effect was not perceived until after 1942. In effect, the adverse effect of the Fifth Factor, the influential people in the command structure, was temporarily offset by the Fourth Factor, national politics. Germany, as an aggressor, had the great advantage of choosing when it would go to war. Hitler was conscious in 1939 that his armed forces were more modern than those of England and France, and that in two or three years, his enemies would have closed both the qualitative and quantitative gap that existed in 1939. The harm of Udet’s mismanagement came with his disruption of the second wave of German aircraft, which should have begun coming on line in 1942. A few new types were introduced, but only one, the Focke Wulf Fw 190, served in meaningful numbers. Others such as the Messerschmitt Me 209, 309, 210, 410, and 163 were either bad designs or did not reach production. Udet’s backing of dive-bombers, and Goering’s acquiescence in his demands, resulted in requirements for two- and even four-engine bombers to have a dive-bombing capability. This was sheer lunacy, and the manufacturers did not hesitate to say so, but the demand caused additional delays for the already change-plagued Junkers Ju 88 and the ill-fated Heinkel He 177.

Timing and technology are everything for air forces, and the Luftwaffe’s initial technology was excellent, resulting in Germany’s going to war in 1939 with the most modern and efficient air force in the world. (German technology was lacking only in engine development, and it compensated for this lack in part by building larger displacement engines, which, although heavier, generated adequate horsepower.) The mismanagement by Goering, Udet, and a later Chief of Staff, Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, forced the Luftwaffe to fight till the end equipped for the most part with its first generation of war planes—and far too few of them.

Blackjack vs ‘Bone’


In some circumstances the Blackjack’s overall white colour scheme can be an effective camouflage in its own right, as illustrated by the as-yet unnamed ’06 Red’ cruising with the wings at 35°. This view also illustrates the Tu-160’s sleek profile accounted for by the high fineness ratio of the fuselage.


The B-1 (illustrated here by B-1A 74-0160 following modifications under the B-1 B development programme and repainted in a desert camouflage scheme) has a distinctive humpbacked appearance. The spine housing ECM equipment was omitted on the B-1 B as the system was stowed inside the fuselage.

Equals or Not?

Some might be tempted to put the question differently: copy or not? Sure enough, the Tu-160 and the Rockwell International B-1 look quite similar at first glance. Much has been said about the apparent Soviet custom of copying Western designs; this postulate is rooted in a firm conviction that Russia, the old Cold War enemy, cannot produce anything worthwhile. However, it is no surprise that the engineers developing both aircraft chose the same general arrangement, aerodynamic features and internal layout more than 20 years ago. Ideas are borne on the wind, as a Russian saying goes; and indeed, faced with similar general requirements and given basi- cally the same levels of aviation science and technology, the two nations were bound to come up with similar results. Yet, a closer look at the two bombers reveals that the Tu-160 and the B-1 are not so similar after all.

Born under President Richard Nixon, the B-1 had a head start on the Blackjack; the first prototype of the original B-1 A (USAF serial 74-0158) first flew on 23rd December 1974, followed by three other prototypes, one of which was originally a structural test airframe. However, mounting programme costs worried the new President, Jimmy Carter (known for his ‘belt-tightening’ policies) so much that he finally cancelled the B-1 on 30th June 1977, the last day of Fiscal Year 1977. Yet the subsequent revelation that the Soviet Union was working on a new strategic bomber pro- gramme prompted the US Department of Defense to revive the programme, adapting it to changed priorities; the result was the B-1 B Lancer – or, as it is popularly known, the Bone (a corruption of ‘B-One’).

During the transformation from A to B Rockwell spent a lot of effort on reducing the bomber’s radar cross-section; a new, more fuel-efficient version of the General Electric F101 afterburning turbofan was fitted, and the avionics and armament were revised. As a result, the maximum take-off weight rose from the B-1 A’s 180 tons (395,000 Ib) to 217 tons (477,000 lb). However, the B-1 lobby and the US Air Force did not succeed in proving to the US Congress the need to incorporate a whole range of costly features into the B-1 B’s design and the Congress slashed the funds for the new bomber. Consequently the engineers had to use rather less titanium than they wanted to and use simple fixed-area air intakes instead of variable supersonic intakes; the latter restricted the bomber’s top speed to Mach 1.25. The armament was to consist of Boeing AGM-86B (ALCM) cruise missiles, Lockheed AGM-69A (SRAM) short-range attack missiles and nuclear bombs.

The B-1 B prototype (82-0001 Leader of the Fleet, cln 1) entered flight test on 23rd March 1983; it remained a test aircraft and was never delivered to the USAF. The first production aircraft (83-0065 Star of Abilene, cln 2) took off on 18th October 1984. The 100th and final B-1 B (86-0140 Valda J, cln 100) left the production line in Palmdale, California, in 1988.

Conversely, the Tu-160 was developed by the world’s second superpower at a time when funding issues were of minor impor- tance, if any – in those days the Soviet military got all the money they wanted, as long as the required weapons systems were developed and fielded on time. Hence the Tu-160 escaped the ‘vivisection’ the B-1 had been subjected to, and the aircraft which entered production and service with the Soviet Air Force was exactly what its creators had wanted it to be – a multi-mode aircraft capable of delivering intercontinental strikes within a wide altitude and speed envelope.

On the other hand, the production line at Palmdale was turning out a steady stream of Lancers on (or ahead of) schedule and the B-1 B was already fully operational at a time when Tu-160 production in Kazan’ was only just commencing. Today the ‘Bone’, together with the long-serving Boeing B-52H Super-fortress and a small number of the highly sophisticated Northrop B-2A Spirit stealth bombers, makes up the backbone of the USAF’s strategic component.

After the demise of the Soviet Union the balance of power shifted; Russia had to work hard in order to at least partly rebuild it strategic bomber force. Despite these efforts, today Russia has only a single regiment of Tu-160s – sixteen aircraft, which is equivalent to just over 15% of the USAF’s B-1 fleet.

As for the capabilities of the two aircraft, they can be compared only in theory.

Sure, outwardly the Tu-160 is very similar to the B-1 B, having the same general arrangement, utilising the same blended winglbody layout and variable-geometry wing design. However, the Russian bomber is much larger and heavier, which is why the aggregate thrust of its engines is 79% higher. The operating speeds are quite different as well. As already noted, at the insistence of the USAF Rockwell had to do without variable supersonic air intakes. Hence at high altitude the B-1 B cannot exceed Mach 1.2, which is not ideal from a tactical standpoint. Conversely, the Tu-160 can reach 2,200 kmlh (1,366 mph; 1,189 kts), thanks to its variable intakes, ample engine thrust and slender fuselage having a relatively small cross-section area. Low drag was attained thanks not only to streamlined contours but also to a carefully designed internal layout thanks to which the Tu-160’s fuselage height is no bigger than that of the much smaller Tu-22M3.

Also, the Tu-160 is designed in such a way as to achieve maximum possible range both in high-altitude supersonic cruise and in ultra-low-level flight. These modes can be used separately or in a combination to fufil the mission with maximum efficiency. This is the Russian bomber’s multi-mode design philosophy.

The Blackjack has an advantage in offensive capability as well – its main weapon, the Kh-55SM cruise missile, is well mastered by both the industry and the bomber crews. Conversely, the Americans were unable to adapt the B-1 B to the costly AGM-86B due to budgetary constraints – this would require not only the bomb bays to be modified but also the avionics suite to be substantially altered. The AGM-69A had to be excluded from the inventory in 1994 because the stockpile of missiles had reached the end of their shelf life and the solid propellant had started decomposing. This left the B-1 B with only the B61 and B83 free-fall nuclear bombs (though a small number of B28 nukes remained avail- able in 1996). (Note: As of 1996 the USAF had plans to integrate the General Dynamics AGM-129A (ACM) advanced cruise missile on the B-1 B. The Boeing AGM-131A (SRAM II) was also proposed but was cancelled in September 1991.)

As for conventional munitions, the Lancer did not receive a conventional capability until after the Gulf War (true, live weapons tests began in 1991 but the fleet-wide upgrade came too late for the action); it was first used operationally during the war in ex-Yugoslavia (Operation Allied Force). Conversely, the Tu-160 had a conventional capability from the start, hence the inclusion of the OPB-15T electro-optical bombsight into the targeting suite.

The approach to weapons carriage is different, too. The B-1 B has three weapons bays (two ahead of the wing pivot box carry-through and one aft), while the Tu-160 has two bays of larger dimensions. Also, the Lancer has provisions for carrying missiles on six external hardpoints under the forward, centre and rear fuselage, whereas on the Blackjack all armament is stowed internally. This helps reduce the bomber’s RCS and reduce drag, thereby increasing range – albeit this also accounts for the larger size of the Tu-160.

In avionics and equipment, the B-1 B apparently comes out on top. According to press reports, Russian and Ukrainian pilots described the Lancer’s flight instrumentation as ‘excellent’. As regards crew comfort and cockpit ergonomics, the two aircraft are about equal, although the B-1 B’s flight deck offers somewhat less headroom, being encroached on from below by the nosewheel well. As for the mission avionics, some Russian systems are theoretically more capable than their US counterparts but are not used in full or not used at all for various reasons (reliability problems etc.); also, some of the Blackjack’s avionics are still hampered by operational limits imposed in some flight modes.

The Russian military and many of the world’s top aviation experts believe that the combination of the Tu-160’s performance characteristics and design features theoretically gives it an edge over the B-1 B and other American bombers, including the stealthy B-2A – but theory is one thing and real life is another. Due to persistent funding shortfalls the Russian Air Force is currently unable to maintain its operational bomber fleet in perfect condition – and apparently will not be able to do so in the foreseeable future (to say nothing of providing enough flying hours for the crews). Maintaining proficiency is a sore problem for the Russian airmen. For instance, both the ‘Bone’ and the Blackjack have IFR capability; however, B-1 B pilots practice aerial refuelling almost weekly – something their Russian colleagues can only dream of.

An opportunity to make an objective comparison of the two types came on 23rd-25th September 1994 when the Tu-160 and the B-1 B ‘rubbed noses’ (fortunately not literally) for the first time at Poltava AB during the Shuttle Raid 50th anniversary celebrations, to which the USAF sent a large delegation. The flight and ground crews of both bombers had a chance to examine each other’s aircraft and form an opinion for themselves.

Here is the opinion of 37th VA Commander Lt. Gen. Mikhail Oparin:

‘I have a deep respect for the people who charted the development perspectives for the Long-Range Aviation in the 1980s/early 1990s time frame. The structural strength reserves and upgrade potential of the Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers allows them to be called aircraft of the 21st century, and with good reason – the missile- carrying aircraft still have unused potential. These bombers are not only a match for the best Western hardware but excel it in certain respects. I know what I’m saying because I have had a chance to study the strategic aircraft of our ‘friends and rivals’ firsthand. I had the opportunity to fly a real B-52, and I made several flights in the B-1 simulator; after this I was enchanted by the Tu-95MS and especially the Tu-160.’

It would be best to conclude with the following words said by former Russian Air Force C-in-C Army General Pyotr S. Deynekin:

‘What makes the best comparison for the “II’ya Muromets” (ie, the Tu-160)? The Tu-95? Or perhaps the [Antonov] An-124 (the world’s heaviest operational transport aircraft)? I guess the correct answer is the B-1 B Lancer, the Tu-160’s American counterpart. In May 1992 I made three flights in a B-1 B over the Nevada Desert, flying the bomber from the left-hand seat, with multiple top-ups from a KC-135 tanker. I have a commemorative picture signed by the Commanders of USAF bomber wings. I daresay they are both good aircraft and worthy rivals – as, incidentally, are the men who fly them. This is why we’d better be friends than foes, and the Americans are well aware of this.’

Allied Air Forces Burma 1942



Bristol Blenheim V: A Bristol Blenheim V (known as the “Bisley” for a short time) a not-too-successful medium bomber used by 3 squadrons in the Far East from 1942-43. Fortunately they were able to re-equip with Hurricanes from mid-1943. BA952 was from 113 Sqn. RAF whose stations included Asansol, Feni and Chandina. Standard Temperate day bomber finish but the red was not removed from the insignia.

Although a Japanese storm was breaking over Rangoon the RAF at Mingaladon found a way to go onto the offensive. On 7 January 1942 the Blenheim bombers of No. 113 Squadron RAF raided the docks at Bangkok, the capital of Siam (Thailand), and some 350 miles to the south-east. Japan had entered into an alliance with Siam and, only a week after the Pearl Harbor attack and invasion of Malaya on 8 December, the Japanese Army under General Sakurai Shojiro surged across Siam’s south-eastern border into Burma. They first took Victoria Point, which lies at Burma’s southern extremity of the Tenasserim coastal strip on the western shore of the Malay Peninsula. General Sakurai’s aims were to first take Rangoon, then move north to capture Mandalay, and the oil fields at Yenangyaung.

As Japan’s troops pushed north into Burma they increasingly outflanked British forces. To make a long-distance air raid on Bangkok in response seemed a daring ploy, but was it risking very scarce aircraft and air crew? And would a possible increase in raids by the JAAF as revenge make it counterproductive? In December 1941 General Wavell, C-in-C India, had informed London that the Far East region as a whole, including Burma had only 200 aircraft, and was totally lacking in long-range aircraft and night-fighters. This compared with a requirement, estimated in 1940 by the Chiefs of Staff, that a minimum of fourteen squadrons of some 336 aircraft of various types were required.

The air defence of Rangoon, its port, and the strategic supplies being transported over the Burma Road to China rested for the moment on just two fighter squadrons, No. 67 Squadron RAF and the AVG ‘Panda Bears’ Squadron. On 1 January Air Vice Marshal Stevenson CBE DSO MC had arrived to take up his position as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Air Forces Burma, which included AVG forces based at Mingaladon. Stevenson, who was previously AOC of No. 2 Group in Britain, had a reputation as being very aggressively inclined, always looking to be on the offensive. Some airmen in No. 2 Group were said to have described him as a ‘bloody-minded butcher’. At Mingaladon he took command of a threadbare and obsolete force that included the Burma Volunteer Air Force, which operated Gypsy Moth biplane aircraft using a beach as a runway at Litkoken.

In spite of inadequate resources Stevenson was intent on using pre-emptive ‘lean-forward’ tactics against the Japanese. His desire to be on the attack received a boost on 7 January when the Blenheim IV bombers of No. 113 Squadron RAF, under the command of Wing Commander R. Stidolph, and Squadron Leaders Peter Ford DFC and Peter Duggan Smith DFC, began to arrive from the Middle East. Duggan Smith, who had flown under Stevenson in No. 2 Group, found in the first briefing that the AOC had not changed in his approach.

When on our arrival, Stevenson asked how long it would take us to bomb up our aircraft – and let’s be honest we were tired after a long flight – there were some pretty surprised looks amongst our crews. Nevertheless, rank prevailed and we finally loaded up four 250lb bombs onto each of the six serviceable aircraft. For reasons still unknown to me, the target selected was any Japanese shipping in the Bangkok harbour area. The maps were poor, and to undertake a night operation over an unknown area by tired personnel seemed rather futile. I participated in this operation and to this day I do not know whether I hit anything!

Sergeant Pilot J.E. ‘Chappy’ Chapman, a Canadian pilot in No. 113 Squadron, who flew in the raid, afterwards came face to face with Stevenson’s tough demands.

We were told to bomb from about 3,000 feet. Now I personally did not like bombing from a low height when I had a plane that could fly higher. Anyway, I think I got to the target first and, as there was no AA, I circled around for a few minutes and then I got bored and bombed from about 6,000 feet. I saw some guys even higher than me dropping their stuff.

They wanted a Pilot’s Report of the raid despite the fact that we told them that we did not see anything, so I put in my report that I had bombed from 6,000 feet. The next thing I knew the AOC called me up, in front of the whole squadron, and asked me what the hell I was doing bombing from 6,000 feet, when he told us to bomb from 3,000 feet. He really did not call me a coward but he certainly inferred it. I need not add that the other pilots were not as stupid as me and escaped his wrath.

Although on the surface it appeared a foolhardy mission, by making the raid on Bangkok, Stevenson’s broader strategy was to send a message to the JAAF, that his air force had a bomber capability. It supported the real aim, which was to make the JAAF retain some fighters at their airfields in Thailand, rather than deploying them to Malaya or the Pacific. However, the pilots of No. 113 Squadron, on reading uninformed and highly favourable reports of the raid in the Rangoon press, gained the impression that the operation to Bangkok might have been arranged as a civilian morale boost.

Desperate measures were the order of the day and the bomber raid on Bangkok was not the only innovative operation. Around the beginning of January, No. 28 Squadron RAF and No. 1 Squadron Indian Air Force (IAF) arrived at Mingaladon. Each squadron was equipped with the single-engined Westland Lysander, an Army Co-operation aircraft. The two squadrons were given outlandish orders to use the Lysanders to bomb Japanese airfields. The AVG, who had been expecting reinforcements by more modern aircraft, were dismayed at the sight of these strange looking, puny aeroplanes. Very soon the AVG pilots had great respect for the RAF and IAF flyers of these seemingly inadequate machines.

Overcoming their initial dismay, the two squadrons discarded their Army Co-operation training manuals and converted to flying their aircraft in a bizarre role as low-level bombers, each carrying two 250 lb bombs. Australian Sergeant Harold Glass of No. 28 Squadron was one of these daring pilots.

We used small bombs, two on each wing stub. Whilst taking off on one occasion from Zayatkwin, which was a particularly rutted airstrip, one of the bombs dropped off just as one aircraft was airborne. The explosion caused the aircraft to flip over on its back, and burst into flames, both of the crew being killed. Three of us managed to get away with our bombs. As sergeants we had not been at the briefing, only the pilot of that aircraft who was now dead, knew what the target was. So we had to dump the bombs.

Another day Flight Lieutenant Hammerback returned with a 250lb bomb hung up. Rather than try a landing on the satellite strip of John Haig airfield, he tried to land at Mingaladon. As he touched down, the bomb released and shot ahead, so he took off again. The Watch Police were not happy, left to have to deal with a live unexploded bomb sitting on their runway!

Despite the hazardous nature of flying these aircraft in such a role, the two squadrons persisted and took the offensive deep into Japanese-occupied territory, against enemy airfields at such as Menogaen, Mae Haiungeau and even the strongly defended Chieng Mai. By flying close to the ground their camouflage made them difficult to see from above, and sometimes their slow speed combined with a very tight turning radius became an advantage. Over some six weeks not one Lysander was lost to enemy fire. Squadron Leader ‘Jumbo’ Mazumdar of No. 1 Squadron IAF was awarded the DFC.

Perhaps in response to the raid on Bangkok, in late January the JAAF raids on Mingaladon became daily attacks, often many times a day, and the losses of AVG and RAF mounted. In one such raid Sergeant Pilot ‘Chappy’ Chapman of No. 113 Squadron, while off roster on the ground at the Mingaladon base, experienced a lucky escape.

We spent a good deal of time dodging Japanese bombs. They came over as often as three times a day to bomb our airfield and so frequently that if you wanted any of the sergeants, you looked in the air raid shelters. One day the air raid alarm went off and we took off for the shelters, slit trenches near the Sergeants’ Mess. We sat there for half an hour, and then Ruddell, one of the ground crew sergeants, decided he was going to get in a truck, and drive out on the road somewhere, as he just had a bad feeling about it sitting there.

Some of the aircrew decided to go along with him, so we all opted to do so too. The net result was some twenty or thirty guys climbed into the truck and went and sat under some trees outside, while the airfield was being bombed and strafed. After the raid we returned to find the area of the Sergeants’ Mess slit trenches completely demolished, and the officers looking for our bodies!

On 20 January six Tomahawks of the AVG escorted six Blenheims on a bombing mission to Mershot in Thailand in another attempt to divert the Japanese fighter squadrons. Flying above the bombers at 10,000 feet, heading north-east, six JAAF fighters were picked up at about 8,000 feet, about 3 miles south-west of Mershot, and two more appeared soon after. The enemy aircraft flew in scattered pairs and their attack was initiated from above and rear, one enemy aircraft coming down to attack, and the other remaining overhead. The AVG Tomahawks claimed four probables from the dogfights, but lost one aircraft, and its pilot, Moss. Or so they thought.

The next day Moss proved their fears wrong and reported back at Mingaladon on what had ensued:

aim, which was to make the JAAF retain some fighters at their airfields in Thailand, rather than deploying them to Malaya or the Pacific. However, the pilots of No. 113 Squadron, on reading uninformed and highly favourable reports of the raid in the Rangoon press, gained the impression that the operation to Bangkok might have been arranged as a civilian morale boost.

After I had shot down an enemy plane, my engine burst into flames when two enemy ships jumped me. I baled out at about 1,500 feet about 7 miles on our side. On the ground I then travelled for about 14 hours by bullock, 4 miles by boat and 14 miles by car, which brought me to Moulmein, where I caught a bomber home.

It was a typical day for the AVG pilots, and a lucky one for Moss. The last week of January however would prove to be not as lucky for other AVG pilots. Bert Christman baled out from his damaged Tomahawk, only to be shot up by a Japanese fighter as he hung from his parachute. Louis Hoffman was shot down while trying to break up an enemy raid on Rangoon, and Tom Cole was downed and lost on a strafing run on Japanese supply trucks near Moulmein.

Death seemed to come at random, at any time. Sergeant Pilot ‘Chappy’ Chapman was witness to another bizarre twist of fate. On one operation he had been on a photo-reconnaissance flight over Thailand and, on the way back, had to land at Moulmein to refuel. Dust in the Buffalo’s carburettor was a recurring problem and, after three aborted attempts to take-off, it seemed to have struck again and he had to give up and seek maintenance support.

This was late afternoon, so we pulled the aircraft under the cover of some trees, and camouflaged it as best we could. Just as well as later we were strafed by half a dozen Jap fighters. After the attack I sent a signal to Mingaladon explaining the situation, and they sent a Tomahawk to pick up the recce film.

By the time the Tomahawk then got back to Mingaladon it was almost dark, and as there was no runway lighting system, they parked a car at the end of the runway with its lights on to guide the pilot. Unfortunately the car was hit by the Tomahawk, and a pilot who may have been sleeping in the car was killed.

On 19 January Squadron Leader C.A.C. ‘Bunny’ Stone of No. 17 Squadron RAF, Squadron Leader Frank ‘Chota’ Carey and Flying Officer Jack Storey of No. 135 Squadron RAF, both squadrons comprised of Hurricane fighters, had arrived at Mingaladon by flying boat in advance of other squadron personnel. Their Hurricane aircraft were still in transit somewhere. Early on the 23 January, to set against the losses of aircraft and pilots, there was more good news.

Squadron Leader T.A.F. ‘Jimmy’ Elsdon with three other pilots of No. 136 Squadron RAF landed in their Hurricanes. Although six of their Hurricane Mk IIB aircraft had departed Egypt on 14 January, one had crashed at Bahrain for refuelling, and another became unserviceable at Karachi. Still, at last No. 67 Squadron at Mingaladon had some reinforcements, and for the first time some Hurricane fighters, which offered more hope against the formidable JAAF fighters.

Burma – War in The Shadows I


In parallel with the conventional war between the opposing armies, navies and air forces, there was another war, a war in the shadows. It was waged by diverse elements, covering a wide spectrum of participants, regular servicemen and women, civilians, intelligence agencies, other countries’ nationals, mercenaries etc. But like the conventional conflict, for the operations of this other war, air support was also indispensable.

In 1943, while the first ground offensive into Arakan ran its course, an incursion deep into Japanese territory was launched. Known by the soubriquet of Chindits, 77 Brigade, led by the charismatic Brigadier Orde Wingate, set out in seven columns over the Naga Hills and across the Chindwin river to infiltrate Japanese-held territory in northern Burma. The Chindits, trained in jungle fighting, aimed to sabotage the enemy’s rear bases and communications and generally cause chaos and confusion.

From February to June 1943 aircraft of Nos 31 and 194 Squadrons RAF flew 178 sorties night and day, dropping 303 tons of supplies to sustain the Chindit columns. Aircraft would take off from Comilla, often at midnight, when only moonlight made the outlines of hills visible. The Chindit troops lit fires in the shape of an ‘L’ as a marker. When this and another flashing light was seen, the supplies packages were pushed out, some to float down by parachute, and some in free drops. Around seven packages could be dropped on one approach run, so the plane would circle around perhaps eight or nine times taking about twenty minutes to drop all packages.

The strategy for the first Chindit foray behind Japanese lines in northern Burma was entirely premised upon the seven Chindit columns being resupplied by air transport. To undertake a special forces operation of such scale overland deep into enemy territory, and hope to support it with supplies transported through the Burmese jungle and fight off Japanese patrols, would be impossible. Wingate and the Allied commanders decided to fully supply the Chindits by air transport. It relied completely on exploiting air force capability. Allied air forces were now challenged to make this new concept work, to take the air war into a new dimension, to hit the Japanese in their rear areas, where they least expected it.

Accompanying all Chindit columns, also known as Long Range Penetration Groups (LRPGs), there were RAF officers, to help prepare drop zones or landing strips and provide liaison and communication with the transport aircraft. In the second Chindit operation of 1944 RAF liaison officers went in again. Reports from photographic aerial reconnaissance were a near indispensable intelligence source for the Chindits and other operations in enemyheld territory. During a four-month long operation the Chindits destroyed railway tracks in more than seventy locations, four river bridges and blew up rocks and landslides onto rail and road routes. Another significant achievement of the Chindits was the demonstration that the Japanese troops in Burma could be beaten.

As well as Wingate’s Chindits, although not comparable with them, there were other units and forces of various kinds, which conducted operations behind Japanese lines. These included the patrols of V and Z Forces, Force 136, the cover name for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Far East, the MI-6-controlled Inter Services Liaison Department (ISLD), the Lushai Brigade and the Burma Intelligence Corps. In addition, there was the Wireless Experimentation Centre (WEC) of Ultra code-breakers in Delhi, and other ad hoc temporary units under various commands.

There follow some first-hand accounts by participants in the war in the shadows, which provide some insight of how, in a multitude of ways, the Allies’ growing reach in air support was enabling a growing diversity in the ways of waging war.


In one of the ad hoc operations behind enemy lines, under the command of XXXIII Corps, Sergeant R.J. ‘Bob’ Macormac tells of being a sergeant in a troop of around seventy men. They were using Bangalore as their rear base and Dimapur in Nagaland, north-east India, had been allocated as their advance base. For their first operation in Burma this troop, or special demolition force (SDF) as they referred to themselves, travelled from Bangalore by train to Nagpur Park. There Macormac, and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Jan Compton, supervised the loading of their guns, stores and motor vehicles onto barges to cross the Brahmaputra river. On the Assam side of the river, at Gauhati, another train took them up to Dimapur. Once established at Dimapur, they commenced daily training exercises in the surrounding jungle, and were given aerial reconnaissance photographs by the RAF, sectionalized for the whole of northern Burma.

Bob Macormac was born on 12 October 1914 in Havant, Hampshire, in the UK. His first job was as a van driver for London Transport before doing a spell at sea, joining the Hudson Bay Company shipping line as a seaman, and circumnavigating the world twice. After enlisting in March 1939 in the Royal Engineers, in 1943 Macormac was posted to India with 118th Light-Anti-Aircraft Regiment, sometime after which he was transferred in 1944 to the SDF troop under XXXIII Corps command.

The first Burma operation for Macormac’s SDF troop was to seek and destroy a large Japanese munitions’ base near Maingkwan in the north-east of Kachin state. From Dimapur the SDF convoy took the road up to Kohima where they picked up two Kachin guides, then through the Naga Hills. The Kachin guides took the troop into Sumprabum, a town in their home country, Kachin State. News was gleaned there on the dumps to be hit and on the strength of the Japanese guards. Because the town of Sumprabum had suffered at the hands of Japanese forces, the Kachin guides said there were more local Kachin volunteers if needed. At an Orders Group, Lieutenant Compton set out a plan for a reconnaissance patrol of the supply dumps and by using the RAF photographs and local knowledge a route was mapped out.

At dusk, with one section of men and the Kachin guides, Macormac and Compton moved out on foot from Sumprabum. Macormac was in the lead plus another local Kachin guide, who had previously sighted the dumps.

The following is a summary extract from a transcript by Sergeant Macormac:

Moving south east but keeping to the north of the Jap area, our intention was to then move south on to them and make our assessments. Everyone was on edge, only to be expected I suppose, it was our first action against the Japs.

It was eerie in the valley, everything being completely strange to us. We had scouts out ahead and on our flanks, close in. The jungle was sparse, many clearings, and chaungs, I didn’t like it at all.

A little after midnight the local guide indicated to Macormac that they were nearing the dumps.

But we still did not know the extent of Jap defence and patrols of the area, and had not caught sight of any of them. Yes, you might say I was scared. We crept on until our guide stopped us. We were there. There were three dumps in a triangle with a 100 yards spacing, and in the centre of the dumps was the Jap camp.

We lay there watching and waiting, no noise, no talking, and no sudden movements. Then we heard voices. Walking as perimeter guards of the dumps, came two Japanese. The first Japs we had seen. It was obvious from their casual attitude that this was not a guard against hostile troops, just a guard against pilfering natives.

On our way back we decided the job had to be done the next night in case the news got to the Japs of our presence.

The troop’s plan was to reach the enemy dump area after midnight. A section would advance ahead, take out the perimeter guards, and return to the troop. Nine bombers and equipment carriers would then advance and seed the east and west dumps with explosives. On completion of these two dumps a chain of explosives would be run from east to south dump, continue to west dump, and wire up to a detonating point.

The mortar section was take up position in the unmined area between east and west dumps. Some 100 yards to the north of that line, Troop HQ section would support the mortars with Bren guns and small-arms fire. Sections 1 and 2 would position on the east/south flank, Sections 3 and 4 on the west/south flank, while Sections 5 and 6 would dig in fifty yards south of the south dump.

We reached the perimeter area, positions were taken, and everyone was standing by. We were in time for the three hourly appearance of the perimeter guard, who were taken out as planned.

The explosives were put in place at each dump, also anti-personnel mines, and wired back as planned. With a rank of detonators in front of us we were ready. At the first explosion everyone would open up with everything they had into the Jap camp. Down went the detonators and up went the three dumps.

All hell broke loose. Jonah’s mortars were causing havoc, so were the Brens of THQ, 5 and 6 Sections. When the Japanese made their break to the flanks, Jan and I blew the detonators for the chain of anti-personnel mines, and the chain reaction kept going. In the Japs initial response those who got past the mines were picked off by our flanking sections. Return fire by machine guns was now coming in from the triangle, and I flashed a signal to Jonah to pour it in on them.

We knew that it was impossible for a force of our strength to hold what we guessed might even be a Jap company. We still had to thin them down to stand any chance of getting out from under. I said to Jan, ‘How about a twenty-minute mortar concentration, and then see how the sections hold out.’ This we did and the sections, firing from foxholes, were picking them off and holding.

I asked Jonah how much he had left for his mortars. ‘Can’t remember,’ was his reply. I said to Jan that we don’t want to carry any home, so let’s blast them all off. When the mortars stopped firing, it was so quiet, then came the caterwauling of the Japanese as they started to move out, but not far. The sections’ Brens hammered at them, and even rained grenades at them.

The Japanese were being held, but it was time for us to move out. First I had to check all sections for their casualties. Our total casualties were ten wounded, which included one seriously, a stretcher case. We had to get them all back now. Sections 5 and 6 were to retire to the original start point, collecting the wounded on their way. As we assembled the remainder of the Troop, we waited for a counter-attack from the Japs. Not a movement from them. Were we going to get lucky?

The return to Sumprabum proved uneventful. With no enemy pursuit detected, Lieutenant Compton decided to radio XXXIII Corps to report results and task finished: ETA at advance base Dimapur ninety-six hours from time of transmission; three dumps completely destroyed (later confirmed by aircraft reconnaissance), casualties being returned were nine wounded and one dead. The stretcher case, Samson, died over the Naga Hills, where it was very cold after the Hukawng Valley heat.

In another operation close to the border with China, air support would prove crucial to their survival. From the start-point at Imphal the troop travelled overland to the Bhamo area and crossed over the border into China. From there they undertook reconnaissance and made an attack plan to approach another Japanese supply dump from the east. Macormac had early misgivings about the operation.

Our recce patrol showed that this was not going to be easy. It was just one dump surrounded by weapon pits and foxhole defences, with the Jap force camped between the perimeter defence and the dump. We spent over forty-eight hours observing the target area, then withdrew linking up with the rest of the Troop.

Since we needed extra demolition gear that we had not been able to carry with us, we were due for a supply drop by air. I suggested it have a couple of bombers with it to plaster the target, to give us extra cover. The strength of the Jap force in this area was so large it seemed that we were out of our depth.

The RAF duly bombed the area but the dump did not blow from the raid. Macormac and his troop were taking a beating, and after about half an hour, on receiving a radio signal from HQ, Lieutenant Compton ordered a withdrawal. He remained with a section, giving covering fire, and was wounded before being in the last group to withdraw. Macormac found himself counting the casualties.

Altogether we had fifteen dead, eighteen walking wounded, no stretcher cases. In the circumstances I think we got off light, but it was such a waste, a needless bloody waste of manpower. The looks on the chaps’ faces told a story. It was going to be hard to knock it out of them. They looked so disheartened, they had lost mates. The firepower from Jap lines had left the men in shock.

We got back to the area allocated to us by the Chinese, who took us in a motor convoy north to a point east of Launggyaun in hill country. Our withdrawal from there was rapid, excess weapons, ammo, medical, food and other supplies, we handed over to the Chinese.

The troop’s return route from there was through hill country following the Salween river, which made a fairly good passage for the convoy. Averaging about 50 miles a day it took them over three days to reach the contact point on the China/Burma border.

At the border crossing we were met by Kachin guides, and said goodbye to our Chinese escort. It was only then that it struck me how all nationalities, with whom we had come into contact, Kachin, Burmese and Chinese, had gone out of their way to assist us. We moved out, and struck out for Sumprabum, and then on to the Naga Hills and into Kohima.

We laid up overnight at Kohima, and picked up our transport next morning for our run down to Dimapur. We had been out over six weeks on this one, it would be good to get back to advance base. At Dimapur we found a relief section there already to take over as the new base guard, which meant we were being pulled back to Bangalore. We had mail from home, the first since leaving Bangalore about three months ago.

We were told that it had been a valiant attempt made by the troop against such odds. As soon as Corps got a radio message from the RAF bombers over the target near Bhamo, it was realised that an impossible task had been given to us, and the order to withdraw sent immediately to Lieutenant Compton.

The strength estimated by the RAF was far in excess of 1,000 enemy troops, and the perimeter defence was greater than expected. The bombardment by the RAF, and their assessment of Japanese force strength, leading to the withdrawal, had clearly saved Macormac and his troop from being wiped out.