Innovation in Action – Airborne Artillery Spotting

Background

Operation CRUSADER saw a range of innovations on the Empire side, in particular related to the integration of air/land battle. In a previous post I have provided some information on the arrangements for close air support by strike aircraft (see this link). I have also written up a book review of Mike Bechtold’s excellent ‘ Flying to Victory’ at this link). Finally, I have provided some analysis of how effective close air support was at this link.

This entry concerns itself with another form of support, the utilization of aircraft to spot for artillery batteries. It is something taken for granted today, and indeed became a major feature of the war on the Allied side by 1944, with the famous Auster aircraft carrying spotter/pilots and enabling Allied artillery to strike at will on the battlefield.

In 1941, this kind of support was by no means as well developed, but it nevertheless was utilised by Army Cooperation (AC) squadrons at least. These squadrons flew a range of planes, including Westland Lysanders, and Hawker Hurricanes. Two designated squadrons were operational in Operation CRUSADER, one for each of the British Army Corps – No. 208 Squadron R.A.F. and No. 451 Squadron R.A.A.F. They carried out short-range reconnaissance, message delivery flights, and other duties. 

451 squadron

Hurricane Tac. R Mark I, Z4641, of No. 451 Squadron RAAF, in flight during a reconnaissance sortie over Libya, with another aircraft of the Squadron acting as a ‘sweeper’ in the background. The pilot is Flight Lieutenant G F Morley-Mower[1]. (IWM CM2206)

451 Squadron R.A.A.F. (AC) on 30 December 1941

Just prior to 30 December, No.451 Squadron had been relieved in Cyrenaica by No. 208 Squadron, and returned to the Libyan-Egyptian border, subordinated to 30 Corps for the operation against Bardia/Halfaya that was about to begin. 30 December was a busy day for the squadron, with nine sorties in total. The squadron was based at Sidi Azeiz, ironically until 18 November the base for 2.(H)/14, Panzergruppetactical reconnaissance unit. Sorties on the day were as follows:

General Reconnaissance

SGT.WATTS carried out a tactical reconnaissance of BARDIA. One small ship in 51963957. One large moving from shore at 51943965.

One small moron boat moving about in harbour towards East headland.

Medium A/A from harbour vicinity. A/A positions at 517398

SGT. HOWLANDS carried out a Photographic reconnaissance. After landing at L.G.75 had abandon photographs owing to bad weather. Dummy railhead[2] reported easily distinguishable. 

F/LT. MORLEY-MOWER carried out a photographic reconnaissance, did not quite cover area due to bad weather.

P/O. HUTLEY carried out a tactical reconnaissance of BARDIA area. Small craft reported in harbour sunk.

Bardia451

Bardia Area, Empire 1942 map utilizing the same coordinate system as report below. Red dots mark artillery strike locations. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Artillery Spotting

P/O. ACHILLES carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Engaged and registered target S.B.

F/LT. SPRINGBETT carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Targets T.D. 51673947 and T/F/ 51483908 engaged.

P/O.MACDONALD carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. 4 gun pits 52063874 and MET[3] – tents 52093885, successfully engaged.

P/O. ROBERTSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA HARBOUR. Ships spotted, not engaged, faulty R/T.[4]

LT. THOMPSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA HARBOUR. Engaged one ship successfully, 1 direct hit under water line. A/A 88 and Breda[5]

P/O.HUDSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Engaged dump 51503990 satisfactorily. Heavy explosion observed at 51354013 by ranging rounds.[6]

F/LT. FERGUSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Engaged 4 tanks 51483942, fire ineffective due to movement of tanks and bad R/T.

[1]Flight Lieutenant Morley-Mower served with 451 Squadron in December 1941. This and the type of plane makes me think this picture dates to CRUSADER.

[2]This refers to the Empire dummy railhead at Sidi Barrani.

[3] Motor Enemy Transport

[4]Radio Transmitter

[5]Meaning heavy (88mm) and light (20mm) anti-air guns engaged him.

[6]Marked by red X on the map.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Innovation in Action – Airborne Artillery Spotting

    • Hi John, thanks a lot for this, and those are the comments we are looking for.

      I noted it as innovation, rather than invention, since I had not come across it before in a WW2 context. While I know it was something done by the RFC, I’m not going to presume that this carried on following the various reorganisations between the wars.

      I know the Royal Navy continued to use their on-board planes for spotting, including during Operation CRUSADER. Just hadn’t seen it in the context of the two AC squadrons before.

      All the best, and best wishes for 2020

      Andreas

      Like

  1. A pleasure, Andreas.

    Army Co-Operation Command specialised in such work in the inter-war period, using aircraft such as the Hawker Audax and, latterly, the Westland Lysander. In modern parlance this was not, however, a “core” activity for the RAF who preferred to focus on their raison d’etre of Strategic Bombing; Army Co-Op was well down the pecking order. After the debacle of 1940 I’m not sure how many experienced aircrew remained; and they would doubtless have been retained in England for anti-invasion defence duties anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

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