Army Cooperation

by Air Marshall Sir Arthur S Barratt
Air Marshal Sir Arthur S Barratt. KCB, CMG, MC, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Army Cooperation Command. Born in 1891 in India and educated at Clifton and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he joined the Royal Artillery in 1910, transferred to RFC in 1914. Granted a permanent commission as squadron leader in the RAF in 1919. He commanded the No 1 Indian Group in 1931-32, was senior staff officer of the RAF in India, 1932-34. He was commandant of the RAF Staff College, Andover, 1936-39. then AOC-in-C British Air Forces in France, 1940.
An army is no longer an army without aviation. Soldiers on the ground must have air support, for which the British devised this new Command.

All military commanders require two essential types of information. They need news of the enemy's disposition in the immediate presence of their troops, of the enemy's movements and of the presence of formations in the areas to the rear.

These are technically called tactical and strategical reconnaissance. To obtain this kind of information in the most accurate way, in the quickest possible time and by whatever air means are available, is one of the primary functions of Army Cooperation Command. Without this information, which only air reconnaissance can give, no commander-in-chief of a field force can plan his own movements and dispositions, and the work of Army Cooperation is therefore of the greatest importance in the modern development of war.

Reconnaissance is, however, only one of the forms in which air power can lend its potent aid to an army.

Other tasks such as spotting for artillery, close support, the attack of battlefield targets and other duties agreed upon by the commanders in the field are also undertaken by the Army Cooperation Force whose specialized squadrons may be reinforced by light-bomber and fighter squadrons specially detailed for such purposes and trained in army air support.

Strategical support is afforded by other units of the Royal Air Force and when suitable opportunities occur all the available resources of the RAF may be used for the support of the Army.

In the Battle of France there were operating two separate entities under the control of an organization known as BAAF (British Air Forces France), the whole being commanded by the writer. The first was The Air Component, containing a number of strategical and tactical reconnaissance squadrons protected by a small number of fighter squadrons. Both these formations were located as near to the British Army as was operationally possible. The second, situated in another part of France, placed so as to be able to strike in any direction, was the Advanced Air Striking Force, containing a number of light bomber squadrons, with the support of certain fighter units. The work of the Air Component was simply reconnaissance; the work of the Advanced Air Striking Force was bombing, which developed as the battle developed into tactical and close support bombing.

In the later months of 1939, and the early months of 1940, aircraft on tactical reconnaissance needed certain conditions in order to operate successfully. Speed of the fighter type of aircraft was not considered absolutely necessary for Army co-operation aircraft before the war and they were designed primarily to ensure that the pilot had a good all-round view. In strategical reconnaissance speed to enable aircraft to penetrate more deeply into hostile country and to escape from hostile attack was of greater importance, as most of the reconnaissance was by camera and not visual. Accordingly, tactical reconnaissance squadrons were equipped with Westland Lysander aircraft, strategical squadrons with Bristol Blenheims.

In air reconnaissance the human eye, taking its pictures in seconds or split seconds cannot be trusted to record a factual picture. The camera is useful to supplement, check and confirm what a pilot or observer has seen or thinks he has seen. Behind the work of the camera is the trained eye of the photographic interpreter. In the months before the Battle of France began, when Belgium and Holland formed a neutral block between Northern France and Germany, tactical reconnaissance was not called for, but strategical reconnaissance, by means of photographic sorties over the whole length of the Siegfried Line, was carried out constantly and successfully. Blenheims flying from Metz made daily flights up the Rhine, north to Borkum and the North Sea and so back to England. The eyes of pilot and observer, the eyes of the cameras and the eyes of photographic interpreters collected in this way material of the very greatest military value.

On the early morning of May 10, 1940, these same Blenheims, flying hundreds of miles ahead of our advanced formations, discovered movements among the enemy's mechanized columns that were in reality the prelude to the most catastrophic crisis of the war. Behind them Lysanders, when contact was made with the enemy, made tenacious flights of reconnaissance over the enemy lines. Fighter aircraft, mainly Hawker Hurricanes, here and there a Gloster Gladiator, engaged great masses of enemy fighters. Light bombers, in an episode that has become historic, sacrificed themselves in the destruction of the Maestricht Bridge. And though the end of all this was the withdrawal of British troops from France, the campaign technically a military failure, a great and important principle had nevertheless been firmly established.

It had been made abundantly clear that the success or failure of an army in battle depended to a great extent on the degree of air superiority afforded to it. It was realized that with adequate fighter cover land forces have freedom of action, reconnaissance aircraft can work unmolested and even that most vulnerable of all aircraft, the dive bomber, can take an effective part in the land battle. Without air superiority a military commander is faced with the persistent bombing of his armies, his reconnaissance aircraft are unable to operate and his own air forces are unable to support his troops on the battlefield.

The Battle of France brought this out perhaps more clearly than any other campaign, though Norway had foreshadowed it and Greece and Crete were stern reminders. In France, the Germans had many times the number of aircraft that were at the disposal of the British and French forces, with the result that the German generals were able to plan every phase of their swift advance with the sure knowledge that while their own troops would be comparatively immune from hostile air action, the German air force would be lightening their task by concentrated attacks on Allied reserves, lines of communication and centers of resistance.

The first reaction in some quarters was to attribute the German success to some miraculous cooperation between their air and land forces. Tales were told how squadrons of dive bombers appeared from nowhere in a matter of minutes when the panzer divisions or German infantry met any opposition. We know now that this was not due to any magic quality in the German system of air communications (which are well understood to be of the simplest), but to the fact that these bombing attacks were planned many hours before, since it was known with certainty when plans were being made that troops or tanks would have reached such and such a defended area by such and such a time. In these circumstances their machinery of ground-air operation was excellent, the outcome of years of study by the air force of a continental nation possessing a great army.

We had not developed this cooperation to the same degree because we had not been faced with the same problems. An island nation, we had built up and developed our air force to protect our trade routes and cities and to carry the war to the enemy's country by means of our bombers. The role of our small army was to protect this country and the bases of our Empire routes. It is therefore true to say that in 1940, we had much to learn in the technique of intimate cooperation with an army in the field. One of the first steps was to discard the Lysander, which was the prewar conception of the tactical reconnaissance aircraft. It is interesting to note that our views on this had been shared by the Germans who produced the Henschel 126 at the same time as we produced the Lysander; the two aircraft are almost identical. It was decided to rearm the tactical reconnaissance squadrons with a fast, well-armed and armored aircraft, and for this we were fortunate enough to get the American Curtiss Tomahawk fighter. A technique for the close support of land forces on the battlefield was developed and our experience in Libya has since shown our method to be at least as good as that of the Germans.

With the successful invasion of Crete by airborne forces a new problem emerged. Crete had been taken by a parachute-glider-airborne attack, and suddenly skeptics of all services and all political parties remembered with a shock the ridicule with which they had regarded the Russian paratroop experiment of prewar days. All this was another job for Army Cooperation — a job of which for reasons of secrecy, nothing can now be said. The combined operations raid at Bruneval, where radiolocation equipment was destroyed by paratroops at night, is, however, an indication of how it is being done.

Another Army Cooperation job of which, on security grounds, little can yet be said, is that of creating an air observation post for artillery. In the last war pilots and observers set out on a fixed task. Equipped with elementary wireless, the observer in the aircraft directed the guns 6,000 feet below him by a simple Morse code formula. Fighter aircraft, either on offensive patrols across the lines or flying above him, gave him protection. His main danger was antiaircraft fire. T

Today the speed of fighters and the development of flak has made the 1914-1918 method of spotting hazardous and obsolete. It is still essential however for a gunner to know how and when his shells are falling, and his problem is very like that of the army commander, to whom accurate information of an enemy's movements and dispositions is essential. The supply of accurate information — the word accurate cannot be overstressed — has placed upon pilots and observers of Army Cooperation aircraft a great responsibility.

Since Army Cooperation pilots are required to supply military information, on which the course of an engagement may depend, it is essential that they should possess a sound basis of military knowledge. The pilot who can identify the mark of a German tank, who can recognize the difference between the types of guns moving along a road, who can comprehend the inference to be made from a column of motorcyclists with sidecars as against that suggested by a mere string of motorcyclists, is a person of far greater value than the man who sees merely a "mass of vehicles heading west along the road from — to —" and who has no means of identifying the types of equipment concerned. It is not enough, in fact, that an Army Cooperation pilot can fly. He must have a thorough knowledge of the German army, its armored formations, its equipment and how that equipment is transported. He must be a military encyclopedia as well as an airman.

It is partly for this reason that there are no RAF intelligence officers on the strength of Army Cooperation Command squadrons. The intelligence brought back is, in fact, not of an Air Force nature. It is, in general, military information. Each Army Cooperation squadron accordingly works with a small air liaison section normally of three Army officers.

All these officers have been specially trained. They are picked men whose first duty is to brief pilots, to advise them on their selected tasks, to extract every possible scrap of military information from them when they return. Each of these sections has its own traveling photographic tender where the results of each photographic sortie are processed. To the Army liaison officer falls the job of making what is termed a "first phase interpretation" of the photographs brought back. This interpretation, like the verbal report of the pilot himself, is telephoned, radioed or sent by dispatch to the military commander of the force with which the squadron is working.

Considerable training in all this work is very necessary to Army Cooperation pilots. With all other pilots of other RAF Commands they pass through the usual flying training schools. But to this is added a course in the art of military maneuver. This in time leads them to the special training organization of Army Cooperation Command which is centered in a group headquarters. Under it are special training units to instruct airborne troops, parachute organizations and training units working solely in antiaircraft cooperation. The very nature of these units, all of which are superimposed on the many diverse and smaller activities which are part of the advance training side of the RAF, makes it impossible to say more of them. Like so many of the activities of Army Cooperation since Dunkirk they must remain military secrets.

This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "Special Royal Air Force Issue" of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 76-77, 254, 256.
The original article includes a thumbnail photo of the author and 4 photos.
Photos are not specifically credited, but seem to be from the British Air Ministry.

Photo captions: