Five Stars out of Five – Buy
Air Commodore R Collishaw, the Air Officer Commanding No. 202 Group, surveys the ruined buildings on the airfield at El Adem, Libya, following its capture on 5 January 1941 during the advance on Tobruk. (IWM CM 399)
In a nutshell, if you are the least bit interested in the development of air support doctrine on the Allied side in WW2, and/or the desert war, you should get this book. This is a rare book in that it comprehensively challenges the established wisdom, and does so without resorting to hyperbole or manufactured conspiracy theories. The author has done his homework, and clearly sets out his case based on his research. Having looked at some of the same material, I cannot but agree with the conclusion, which means that the way in which we consider the development of army/air cooperation progressed in the Empire forces, and by implication the Western Allies as whole, needs to be reconsidered, and a man who should be recognized for having delivered in 1940 army air support of a quality that wasn’t considered possible until then.
The book covers the career of Collishaw, with a clear focus on his background as a fighter pilot in the First World War, and how this influenced his approach to operations. It is relatively silent on his personal life, and treats his life after his (likely) forced retirement very briefly. There is an autobiography however which is available to those interested in more of this detail.
The clear focus of the book is on the leadership of Collishaw during the campaigns in the Western Desert, which it treats with substantial detail, and does very well of putting his actions and performance into aa clear context. The picture that emerges from this is of a man who has almost been written out of history, by the writing of his superior, Air Marshal Tedder, who seems to have had no good word for him. The consequence of this is that the picture of the early air war in the desert is skewed, and the two men normally credited with developing the army/air cooperation system in the desert (Tedder and Coningham) did not do so, but rather built on the system that Collishaw put in place and then demonstrated successfully. I have myself made this mistake in a previous post (at this link), and I am very glad to be corrected in this.
The author has gone through a lot of detail to better lay out and analyze the performance of the RAF in the early campaigns up to and including BATTLEAXE, and shows clearly how the latter differed from the prior operations in that the RAF acceded to the wishes of the Army, with almost disastrous consequences. While I remain to be convinced that a different approach to air support in BATTLEAXE could have delivered a different outcome, a worthwhile case for reconsidering the operation in the light of the failure to apply a tried and tested air support model is being made.
The book is strongest where it takes the after-action communications written by leading participants and subjects them to a comparison with actual performance or earlier statements by the same actors. Almost invariably it shows the politicization of the messaging.
Collishaw, the main subject of the book, emerges as a man who was unduly overlooked for his contribution to the Allied victory, and who used his experiences in the Great War to a very good effect. One wonders how his career would have gone had O’Connor not been captured during Rommel’s first offensive.
Room for Improvement
There are some minor errors which could easily be corrected in a new edition, which would also benefit from reducing repetitions. None of this affects the fundamental thesis of the book though. On the whole, I think a revised edition would substantially benefit from using Axis sources to ascertain the actual impact that RAF operations had, something which is being done in this version through the post-war studies undertaken by the British authorities, which in turn relied on Axis documentation, but which are not as powerful as going straight back to the source.
Another wish of mine would be to compare in detail the arrangements for air support of the army in COMPASS and CRUSADER. While the broad brush comparison is clear, it is in the detail that CRUSADER provided innovation, in particular the system of ‘Tentacles’, which was well ahead of what the Wehrmacht was practicing at the time. It would also be interesting to compare the COMPASS system to the 1940 arrangement for close air support in the Wehrmacht, in particular in regards to reconnaissance assets.
If I had one major criticism, it would be the absence of a more in-depth exploration of why Tedder so disliked Collishaw. There is some speculation, but nothing definitive, and it appears odd that personal dislike could be leading to such harsh consequences.
The Kindle version is well produced, footnoted throughout, and very readable. Maps were produced by the author, they are clear and informative, allowing the reader to follow events. They are also being used well to highlight specific issues, such as the distance of Crete from the North African coast.
The book is well illustrated with a wide range of pictures that are relevant to the material presented.
As can be expected in an academic work, the bibliography is extensive and a full index is provided. The research that has gone into this book is clearly extensive, and the bibliography provides ample avenues for further research.
The review is based on the Kindle version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.
Andreas, this book is a finely written dud. Kudos to the author for the “rediscovery” of Collishaw and his leadership, but aside from the fact that the narrative of the early war desert air campaign is heavily skewed, slanted towards the British and against the Italians (the bibliography mentions Slongo’s fundamental works but it doesn’t seem the author really ever read them), maintaining that the RAF defeated the Italian air force prior to and during Compass is wrong. That’s simply not true. It was the British Army to defeat the Regia Aeronautica… by overrunning the airfields and airstrips and smashing the air force’s ground support structure too fast for it to be able to recover. Despite a number of bad blows suffered at the hands of the RAF (but the RAF also sometimes got a bloody nose and heavy losses), the situation in the air at the outset of Compass and through the early stage of the offensive was one of substantial balance between the two opposing air forces. The author pooh-poohs the massive Italian strafing and bombing raids on December 13-14th but they turned out to be quite more effective than the British state.
Thanks for providing the perspective Alessandro. It’s not a campaign I am intimately familiar with, and I only have Vol II of Ludovico’s work.
Thanks for your comments. I don’t believe that I ever said the RAF defeated the Italian air force. That would be impossible given the disparity in numbers. You are quite correct that it was ultimately the British Army that defeated the Italian air force by overrunning their airfields (the defeat was magnified immeasurably by the poor state of Italian maintenance which meant that hundreds of aircraft were abandoned because they could not be flown to safety.) The RAF did, however, outperform the Italian air force, especially during Op Compass. Collishaw’s use of offensive tactics drove the Italians to fall back on “umbrella” tactics to protect the army. This was demanded by Italian army officers who thought this was the best use of air power. (Whether this was done willingly by Italian air force officers, I do not know). However, these tactics were ineffective and a significant waste of air resources. The only benefit was to improve the morale of the troops who would see the aircraft overhead, but this was a poor consolation for the potential impact of the air force.
There is no doubt that at times the Italian air force was able to conduct effective offensive operations against the British (on 13-14 December, for example) but there is no evidence in the British records (either army war diaries and after-action reports, or similar RAF files) that these air attacks had anything other than a momentary and fleeting effect on the British conduct of operations. The documentary evidence is quite clear that the Italians were significantly over-matched and out-fought by a much small British army and air force during the course of Operation Compass. I would be very interested to see any evidence you have to the contrary. I have carefully read the books by Gustavsson and Slongo and found them to be very useful in understanding the Italian side of the story, but nothing they have written changes my interpretation of events.