The Lessons of North Africa

Sept. 1, 1990

In popular accounts of World War II, and even of Air Force history, Operation Torch usually gets low billing. This combined US-British invasion of German-held North Africa was a difficult but brief campaign, extending from November 8, 1942, to May 12, 1943. Torch was not a minor operation; it involved more than twenty Allied and Axis divisions supported by strategic and tactical air forces, and it was of great strategic significance to the European war.

Perhaps equally important in the longer term, the early misuse of airpower in Torch led to reforms that set a pattern for joint air-ground operations throughout the remainder of the war and in the years to follow. Today, tactical airpower faces a murky future. There are even mutterings about giving USAF’s close support mission to the Army. Though disputes about the proper use of airpower in joint operations have been largely resolved, it is well to remember the high cost of misusing it on the battlefield.

Torch began with the landing of British and US forces from the United Kingdom at Oran and Algiers on the Mediterranean coast of Africa and of an all-US force under Maj. Gen. George Patton, Jr. The latter was deployed directly from the US to the Atlantic Coast of French Morocco. The entire operation was commanded by Lt. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, whose senior airman was Maj. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz.

The prime objective of Torch was to defeat the German and Italian armies in North Africa by having the new Allied troops link up with Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army, which had broken through Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s lines at El Alamein, Egypt, in late October 1942 and was driving the German Afrika Korps westward across Libya.

In strategic terms, defeat of the Axis in North Africa promised great benefits. It would give the Allies a base for the invasion of southern Europe, enhance the safety of Allied shipping in the Mediterranean, secure the Suez Canal, close off one potential route for German seizure of Middle East oil, and put pressure on Italy to leave the war–which it did in September 1943.

Not incidentally, the North Africa operation would do much to placate Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who was pushing hard for the early opening of a second front against Nazi Germany.

Serious Tactical Problems

Those were the strategic arms. tactically, serious problems soon arose, centering on the use of airpower.

The Allied landings were opposed by troops loyal to French Marshal Philippe Petain’s German-dominated Vichy regime. The opposition was light, and within days all Vichy units had laid down their arms. Many openly supported the invasion forces, and ultimately the poorly equipped French divisions in North Africa joined the Allies as the XIX French Corps.

However, the Allied drive east to Tunisia ground to a halt because of inadequate transportation, logistics snarls, and the winter rains in northwest Africa, which turned roads and airfields into quagmires. Meanwhile, Germany frantically reinforced its ground and air strength in Tunisia.

Physical conditions aside, US air and ground forces did not perform well as a team during the early months of Torch. On that score, there was enough blame to go around. Both sides lacked combat experience. This was the first large-scale ground-air operation of the war for US forces.

There was another principal reason for the poor US showing: the lack of understanding or agreement between ground and air commanders about how to run the war. The ground commanders operated under a liberal interpretation of “Aviation in Support of Ground Forces,” War Department Field Manual 31-35, dated April 9, 1942. That manual subordinated the action of the air force to the needs of the ground force. The air commander operated under the Army commander, who could allocate aircraft to lower- level ground units. FM 31-35 stated unambiguously that “the most important target at a particular time will usually be the target which constitutes the most serious threat to the supported ground forces. The final decision as to priority of targets rests with the commander of the supported unit.”

This provision of FM 31-35 opened the door for senior US ground commanders to parcel out air assets as they saw fit. with the most likely use being as an air umbrella over ground troops or for close support of units in battle. This was in keeping with the traditional ground-force view of aviation as a primarily defensive weapon. Such operations robbed airpower of its greatest strengths–mobility and flexibility–and made it impossible for the air units to achieve air superiority.

Within the air force itself, most fighter pilots lacked training in the tactics of strafing or dive-bombing. Their planes lacked bomb racks, and “attack” aircraft such as the Douglas A-20 proved too vulnerable to ground fire to survive very long.

The roots of the problems and misunderstandings went back many years. When it entered World War II in December 1941, the US had seven months of real experience in use of military aviation, all of it gained more than twenty years earlier in World War I. That conflict had created a set of assumptions in the Army. Most Army officers had come to view the airplane as a defensive weapon. They were enthusiastic supporters of military aviation, but only as a tool for observation of opposing ground forces and for keeping the enemy’s airpower off their backs. In the view of these officers, US aircraft should be assigned to, and be controlled by, ground commanders down to division level or lower. Further, the aircraft should operate along and over a specific front.

The Offensive Above All

Of course, many US Army airmen, led by Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, drew conclusions that were quite different from those of their ground Army counterparts. On the basis of their short but intense experience in France in the Great War in 1918, General Mitchell and his followers came to regard the airplane as an offensive weapon that should be centrally controlled and commanded by an aviator. The primary mission of battlefield aviation, they believed, was to gain air superiority, which made possible effective and efficient support of ground forces. The “offensive” idea of employment was tested successfully in the St.-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne actions.

Deep differences between air and ground officers continued unmitigated until the service established General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force in 1935. Up to that time, combat planes had been assigned directly to the Army’s nine Corps Area commanders, each of whom trained his air units as he saw fit. With the creation of the GHQ Air Force, Brig. Gen. Frank Andrews took command of all US-based Air Corps combat units, except for observation craft controlled by ground commanders. He reported to the Chief of Staff in peacetime and to the theater commander in wartime.

The GHQ Air Force was greeted by airmen as a long stride toward an independent Air Force and seemed at least to reduce the problem of command and control of aircraft used in support of the Army. Actually, it didn’t, for several reasons.

First, senior, ground-oriented Army officers continued to dominate the War Department General Staff and, thus, the doctrines and policies regarding US military forces. This situation did not begin to change until 1939, when Maj. Gen. George C. Marshall became Army Chief of Staff. General Marshall, a strong supporter of US airpower, began bringing airmen into key posts on the General Staff, the first of these being General Andrews.

Second, the offense-minded US Air Corps had conceptually tied its future to operations by long- range, strategic bombers, a type of aircraft that was only then beginning to emerge. Until the technology for making such aircraft was in hand, bombers were justified as short-range weapons useful for coastal defense and defense of the Western Hemisphere. That was not, in the minds of Air Corps theorists, the ultimate purpose of bombers. Believing that war with Germany and Japan was likely in the not-too-distant future, they planned for using bombers in long-range strikes.

In the austere 1920s and the even more austere years of the Great Depression, there was little money in any event for further development of support aircraft. Also, in light of improvements in antiaircraft guns, it seemed to many airmen unlikely that aircraft of the day, or any that seemed feasible, could survive in battle. The close support mission was seen as a wasteful diversion.

Finally, Army combat arms schools included little–in some cases, no–airpower thinking in their curricula. Some ground officers attributed to aircraft capabilities that didn’t exist, and overlooked others that did. Misunderstandings were rife, aggravated by a lack of planes, pilots, bases, and funds for joint training.

In sum, the United States began Torch, its first large scale joint campaign of the war, with the “supporters” and “supported” holding almost diametrically opposed ideas on the question of how to command, control, and employ US tactical aviation. Since the Army Air Forces still were part of the US Army, senior ground commanders held most of the face cards.

High-Level Unhappiness

By December 1942, dissatisfaction with the organization and operations of Torch extended to everyone from General Eisenhower and the US and British Chiefs of Staff to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In North Africa, the US II Corps under Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall was supported by XII Air Support Command (ASC). The II Corps leaders clung tenaciously to the provisions of FM 31-35, which, as we have seen, allowed ground force commanders to use airpower as they pleased. The British First Army was supported by RAF 242 Group; the RAF units found themselves essentially in the same position as the American XII ASC.

As a result of the misuse of airpower, there was no sustained effort by tactical air units to gain air superiority over the battlefield and no coordinated campaign by fighters, tactical bombers, and strategic bombers for that purpose. The US XII ASC, instructed to support US II Corps and the French XIX Corps, saw use of its aircraft determined by the II Corps senior commanders alone. Small formations of fighters assigned to fly daylight patrols over US troops were easy prey to Axis air forces, which held largely undisputed superiority in Tunisian airspace. Aircraft attempting to provide close support in the face of enemy air superiority met similar fates. Losses of aircraft and crews grew prohibitively high. By February 1, 1943, the 33d Fighter Group, the most experienced USAAF unit, had to be withdrawn to Morocco for regrouping.

Under such a fragmented theater organization, no broad “theater view” existed. On one occasion, the II Corps commander refused a French XIX Corps request for air support, claiming that it was not his responsibility. There was little coordinated planning between II Corps/XII ASC and British First Army/RAF 242 Group. These US and British air forces not only failed to gain air superiority, but also failed to provide adequate close support.

On the other hand, General Montgomery’s British Eighth Army was teamed with the RAF’s Western Desert Air Force, which was commanded by a talented New Zealander, Air Vice Marshal Arthur Coningham. This pair of ground and air forces was teamed in an entirely different manner. The difference stemmed in part from the fact that the RAF was independent and co-equal to the British Army and the Royal Navy. US Army Air Forces, of course, still were part of the Army.

On January 14, 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and their military and political advisors met at Casablanca to discuss current problems and future strategy. The ten day conference is best remembered for agreement to continue US daylight strategic bombing of Germany. Another decision of lasting importance was to let General Eisenhower reorganize Allied forces in North Africa into component air, ground, and naval commands reporting to him. His air component, the Mediterranean Air Command, was headed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder and included as its principal element Northwest Africa Air Forces, commanded by General Spaatz. Under Spaatz were separate strategic, tactical, and coastal air forces, service and training commands, and a reconnaissance wing.

General Spaatz’s Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF) was headed by Air Vice Marshal Coningham, with USAAF’s Brig. Gen. Laurence Kuter serving as deputy. NATAF included fighters and tactical bombers of the US XII Air Support Command, RAF 212 Group, and the Western Desert Air Force. The air force was to be governed by doctrine developed by Air Vice Marshal Coningham and General Montgomery in the campaign against the Afrika Korps. That doctrine was laid out in a pamphlet which, though signed by Montgomery, is thought to have been written by Coningham. It stated, in part:

“The greatest asset of airpower is its flexibility…. So long as this is realized, then the whole weight of the available airpower can be used in selected areas in turn. This concentrated use of the air striking force is a battle winning factor of the first importance. It follows that control of the available airpower must be centralized and command must be exercised through Air Force channels.

“Nothing could be more fatal to successful results than to dissipate the air resources into small packets placed under command of army formation commanders, with each packet working on its own plan. The soldier must not expect, or wish, to exercise direct command over air striking forces.”

One Battle vs.Two

In a presentation to Eisenhower and other Allied senior officers on February 16, 1943, the day before he took command of the tactical air operation, Air Vice Marshal Coningham added:

“The Army has one battle to fight, the land battle. The Air [Force] has two. It has first of all to beat the enemy air, so that it may go into the land battle against the enemy land forces with the maximum possible hitting power.”

In one of his first acts as commander, Air Vice Marshal Coningham forbade creation of any defensive “air umbrella” over a ground unit unless specifically authorized by his headquarters. He further declared that officers should assign maximum offensive roles to aircraft on every mission and that aircraft should be reserved for strikes against only those targets that could not be attacked by organic, ground force weapons such as artillery.

All of this was music to the ears of USAAF airmen, who long had been fighting for acceptance of a doctrine almost identical to that laid out by Air Vice Marshal Coningham and General Montgomery. When confronted with the new doctrine, however, ground commanders were unenthusiastic. Some reacted as though they had been told they could no longer have staff cars but must depend on the motor pool for transportation.

Of these skeptics, General Patton was the most truculent. On April 11, 1943, his headquarters sent out a situation report (SITREP), complaining that a “total lack of air cover for our units” in North Africa “has allowed German Air Force to operate almost at will.”

Air Vice Marshal Coningham sent a tough reply, copied to all senior commanders in the theater. It said, in part:

“It is to be assumed that intention was not to stampede local American air command into purely defensive action. It is also assumed that there was no intention to adopt discredited practice of using air force as an alibi for lack of success on the ground. If SITREP is in earnest and balanced against . . . facts it can only be assumed that II Corps personnel concerned are not battle-worthy in terms of present operations.”

Squaring Off

The exchange provoked a tense, face-to-face confrontation, ordered by General Eisenhower, between the Air Vice Marshal and the American general, two of the war’s strongest-willed commanders. The incident is reported in Ladislas Farago’s book Patton, in the movie of the same name, and in Gen. Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story. In all three cases, however, a key paragraph of Air Vice Marshal Coningham’s message was omitted.

In it, the air commander noted that, on April 1, 1943, a typical day in the campaign, fewer than thirty enemy aircraft managed to overfly General Patton’s II Corps area. In contrast, Coningham’s aircraft flew 362 fighter missions that day against the Germans–with 260 of these missions coming over Patton’s area. The air commander further noted that only four II Corps troops had been killed as a result of enemy aircraft attacks.

The two willful leaders avoided a permanent rupture in relations. In the February 1973 issue of AIR FORCE Magazine, General Kuter reported that the two, after much desk-pounding, “shook hands and lunched together with much laughter and good fellowship.” It must be said, to General Patton’s credit, that he soon became a strong supporter of the new tactical air operating doctrine

In the new setup, achievement of air superiority was top priority. General Eisenhower observed that the new structure “solved one of the most basic problems of modern warfare_how to apply airpower most effectively to the support of land operations.” Air planning became an integral part of theater planning, with air and ground headquarters collocated.

As the emphasis shifted from daylight patrols and close support to air superiority, General Spaatz, who controlled all air elements in northwest Africa, could send Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s strategic bombers against airfields in Italy and direct Coningham’s tactical bombers to attack Axis airfields in Africa, while his tactical fighters pursued air superiority.

By mid-April, most of the Axis aircraft had been either destroyed or evacuated from Tunisia. Fighters and fighter-bombers now could provide the support that Army commanders had been demanding. On May 6, Coningham’s aircraft flew more than 2,000 sorties in direct support of Allied ground forces, which reached Tunis that day. A week later, 275,000 Axis troops surrendered, and the North African campaign ended.

Back in Washington, General Marshall acknowledged that the North African experience mandated a revision of the nation’s air-ground doctrine. General Kuter was called home for duty in the War Department General Staff. It is believed that he was principal author of the new Field Manual 100-20, ” Command and Employment of Air Power.” General Marshall approved FM 100-20, published on July 21, 1943, without consulting Army Ground Forces planners. It stated that “land power and air power are co-equal and interdependent forces: neither is an auxiliary of the other.” Thus a theater commander would exercise command of air forces through an air force commander and of ground forces through a ground force commander, and “control of available air power must be exercised through an air force commander.”

Under FM 100-20, the first priority was air superiority, second was air interdiction, and third was close air support of ground troops. The new manual dictated cooperation via planning conferences of air and ground commanders and staffs. It directed that both should be “well-versed in air and ground tactics . . . [and that] aviation units must not be parceled out, as the advantage of massed air action and flexibility will be lost.”

Contributing Editor John L. Frisbee was Editor of AIR FORCE Magazine from 1969 until 1980. A graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College and the Canadian National Defence College, he served the US Air Force as a fighter and bomber pilot, a planner on the Air Staff and at major commands, a teacher at West Point and the Air Force Academy, and a special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force; he retired as a colonel. His “Valor” articles are a regular monthly feature of this magazine.