RAF Advanced Air Striking Force

RAF Advanced Air Striking Force
A Fairey Battle
Active 24 August 1939 – 26 June 1940
Country United Kingdom
Type Bomber
Engagements Battle of France
Commanders
Current
commander
Air Vice-Marshal Patrick Playfair
Aircraft flown
Bomber Fairey Battle
Bristol Blenheim
Fighter Hawker Hurricane

The RAF Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF, Air Vice-Marshal Patrick Playfair) was formed on 24 August 1939 from 1 Group Royal Air Force (RAF) and its ten squadrons of Fairey Battles were dispatched to airfields in the Rheims area on 2 September 1939. Before the Second World War it had been agreed between the United Kingdom and France that in case of war, the light bomber force of RAF Bomber Command would move to French airfields to operate against targets in Nazi Germany.

The AASF was independent of the British Expeditionary Force and at first reported directly to the Air Ministry. To reduce disunity of command, the AASF and the Air Component of the BEF (Air Vice-Marshal Charles Blount) came under the command of the British Air Forces in France (Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Barratt) on 15 January 1940. Strategic considerations prevented the use of the AASF against Germany until the beginning of the Battle of France on 10 May 1940.

Advanced Air striking Force

24 August 1939 – 9 May 1940

AASF squadrons[1]
AircraftSquadron
In France(first echelon)
Battle12, 15, 40 88, 103, 105
142, 150, 218, 226
Blenheim IV114, 139
(from December 1939)
Hurricane[lower-alpha 1]1, 73
(501 from 11 May 1940)
In England[lower-alpha 2](second echelon)
Blenheim IV21, 82, 107, 110
Whitley77, 102

On 24 August 1939, the British government gave orders partially to mobilise and No. 1 Group RAF (Air Vice-Marshal Patrick Playfair) sent its ten Fairey Battle day-bomber squadrons to France, according to plans established by the British and French earlier in the year. The group was the first echelon of the AASF and flew from bases at Abingdon, Harwell, Benson, Boscombe Down and Bicester. The group HQ became the AASF when the order to move to France was received and the home station HQs, 71, 72 74–76 Wings. No. 2 Group RAF was to become the second echelon as 70, 79, 81–83 Wings with their Bristol Blenheim bombers flying from Upper Heyford, Watton, West Raynham, Wyton and Wattisham; 70 Wing with 18 and 57 squadrons, changing to Blenheims, being intended for the Air Component.[4] On 3 September when the British government declared war on Germany, the AASF Battle squadrons were getting used to their somewhat rudimentary French airfields, compared to their well-developed Bomber Command stations, several squadrons having to wait for the French to fulfil their commitment to provide fuel.[5]

Long-range reconnaissance of Germany north of a line Düsseldorf, Paderborn and Lübeck was an RAF responsibility. A Blenheim of 139 Squadron flying from Wyton flew the first RAF reconnaissance sortie over Germany of the war, photographing airfields and German ships in Wilhelmshaven. Tactical reconnaissance sorties by AASF Battles began on the morning of 9 September, when three Battles of 226 Squadron flew to Thionville. On 10 September, three more Battles of 150 Squadron scouted the Franco-German border, followed by three from 103 Squadron and three from 218 Squadron on 17 September, followed by a two-day lull caused by bad weather. The Battles encountered nothing worse than intermittent anti-aircraft fire (Flak) but on 20 September, three Battles of 88 Squadron were attacked over Aachen by Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and lost two aircraft for one Bf 109 claimed shot down. At 3:00 p.m. on 30 September, five Battles of 150 Squadron, en route to Sarrbrücken, were bounced by eight Bf 109s and lost four aircraft in a few minutes, which led to the Battles being stopped from flying daylight sorties.[6] The Battle squadrons spent the autumn and winter on training and army co-operation sorties, making spoof attacks on BEF transport around Arras, flying night cross-country sorties over northern France and practice bombing sorties.[7]

Air fighting continued as both sides realised that fighters were necessary to protect reconnaissance machines and also to deprive opposing aircraft from free access to their airspace. On 11 October, Luftwaffe Dornier Do 17 bombers begin to cross the lies at high altitude and one flew at 20,000 ft (6,100 m) over the 1 Squadron AASF fighter base at Vassincourt, only to be shot down near Vausigny. The two Hawker Hurricane fighter squadrons (67 Wing) were part of the AASF ro provide fighter protection, with another squadron of Hurricanes available as a reinforcement; 15 and 40 squadrons were sent back to Britain in December to convert to Blenheims and were replaced by 114 and 139 squadrons.[8] The second echelon squadrons of 2 Group, with seven Blenheim squadrons and two Whitley squadrons stood ready to move to France if the Germans attacked. At 10:00 a.m., on 8 November, 73 Squadron shot down a Do 17, its first victory of the war. To counter the high-flying Dorniers, seven fighter sectors were established on 21 November in Zone d'Opérations Aériennes Nord (Z.O.A.N.) and Zone d'Opérations Aériennes Est (Z.O.A.E.) and on 22 November, 1 Squadron shot down two Do 17s in the morning, a Hurricane force-landing after being hit in the engine and early in the afternoon, three Hurricanes over Metz, shared a Heinkel He 111 with the Armée de l'Air, one Hurricane being damaged by collision with a French fighter; 73 Squadron claimed two Dorniers shot down and one damaged, shared with French fighters.[9]

For most of December, flying was washed out by bad weather but on 21 December, two Hurricanes shot down a Potez 637 over Villers-sur-Meuse, with only one survivor. The next day, three 73 Squadron Hurricanes were bounced by five Bf 109s, which shot down two of the British aircraft. There was more flying in January 1940 but the air forcces spent most of February on the ground, with many of the aircrews on leave but the March wather was much better and on 2 March a Dornier was shot down by two 1 Squadron Hurricanes, one of the British pilots being killed attempting a forced landing, after being hit in the engine by return fire; next day, British fighters shot down a He 111, On 3 March, two 73 Squadron pilots escorting a Potez 63 at 20,000 ft (6,100 m) spotted seven He 111s 5,000 ft (1,500 m) higher and gave chase, only to be attacked by six Bf 109s, the second of which overshot one of the Hurricanes, was hit and fell, leaving a trail of black smoke, the eleventh victory for the squadron. The Hurricane was hit by the third Bf 109 and the pilot only just managed to reach a French airfield and make an emergency landing. On the morning of 4 March, a 1 Squadron Hurricane shot down a Bf 109 over Germany and later, three other Hurricanes of the squadron attacked nine Messerschmitt Bf 110s north of Metz and shot one down. On 29 March, three Hurricanes of 1 Squadron over Bouzonville were attacked by BF 109 and Bf 110 fighters, a BF 109 being shot down at Apach and a Bf 110 north-west of Bitche, one of the Hurricane pilots being killed trying to land at Brienne-le-Chateau.[10]

Most Luftwaffe incursions in April were the usual reconnaissance flights but larger formations of fighters patrolled the font line and formations of up to three Luftwaffe fighter squadrons flew as far as Nancy and Metz at high altitude. Reconnaissance aircraft began to cross the front line in squadrons, to benefit from greater firepower on the most dangerous part of the journey, before dispersing towards their objectives. Hurricanes shot down a Bf 109 on 7 April at Ham-sous-Varsberg and on 9 April, when the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway in Operation Weserubung, the Battle squadrons took over on night leaflet raids over Germany as Bomber Command aircraft were diverted to operations in Scandinavia; no Battles were lost on these sorties. The situation was unchanged until the night of 9/10 May when the heavy artillery of the German and French armies began to bombard the Maginot and Siegfried lines.[11]

10 May 1940

On 10 May, the AASF had 135 serviceable bombers, whereas the Armée de l'Air had fewer than a hundred, 75 percent of which were obsolescent.[12] The AASF suffered heavy losses when used against German troops and bridges, in the face of the large numbers of Luftwaffe fighters and highly effective light anti-aircraft units protecting the offensive. Fairey Battles were known to be vulnerable to fighters attacking from below and initially attacked at low level, which brought fresh problems. Of eight Battles sent to attack German troops moving through Luxembourg on 11 May, only one returned, its pilot having seen three Battles lost to ground fire.[13] The Blenheims were little less vulnerable; seven out of the nine sent against a German column on the MaastrichtTongeren road on 12 May were shot down, after encountering swarms of German fighters.[14] By the end of 12 May the AASF had 72 serviceable bombers.[15]

Not all missions were as disastrous; the first attack made by the AASF against pontoon bridges thrown across the Meuse at Sedan by the Germans after their breakthrough was by ten Battles bombing from high level in the early morning of 14 May; they did not encounter enemy fighters and returned without loss. An attack on the bridges later that day encountered German fighter cover and cost the AASF 40 out of 71 aircraft.[16]

AASF airfields were relatively close to the German line of advance to the Channel coast and the AASF was forced to retreat further south into France. It had been anticipated that the Air Component would advance into Belgium and was equipped with sufficient transport to be mobile but not the AASF. Three hundred lorries held by the French, apparently unallocated, were 'borrowed' and the AASF moved on 16 May to stations in the Troyes area. The two Blenheim squadrons were disbanded and their nine surviving aircraft were handed over to the Air Component. To reduce losses of Blenheims, they were flown on reconnaissance sorties; 105 and 218 squadrons (Battles) were disbanded, their four surviving aircraft being reallocated to the six remaining squadrons, which switched largely to night operations to reduce losses.[17]

The AASF later relocated to the OrléansLe Mans area, where it was reinforced by 17 and 242 Squadrons (Hurricanes) and then to Nantes.[18] The remaining Battles returned to Britain on 15 June, with the fighters remaining at Nantes or relocated to the Channel Islands to cover Operation Aerial, the evacuation of British units from western ports. On completion of this the fighters returned to England on 18 June.{{efn|The AASF would therefore appear to have been first in and last out of the British military effort in France 1939–1940.Richards (1974), p. 149 AASF headquarters was disbanded on 26 June 1940. AASF losses from the start of the German offensive in the West on 10 May to 24 June were 229 aircraft.[19]

Notes

  1. Detached from the Air Component.[2]
  2. The England-based squadrons were to have been the 2nd echelon of the AASF.[3]

Footnotes

  1. Jackson 1974, pp. 31, 136.
  2. Cull 1999, p. 2.
  3. Jackson 1974, p. 136.
  4. Jackson 1974, p. 17.
  5. Jackson 1974, pp. 17, 24.
  6. Jackson 1974, pp. 24–25, 27, 29.
  7. Jackson 1974, p. 34.
  8. Cull 1999, p. 1.
  9. Jackson 1974, pp. 31–33.
  10. Jackson 1974, pp. 34–36.
  11. Jackson 1974, pp. 36–39.
  12. Richards 1974, pp. 119, 109.
  13. Richards 1974, p. 115.
  14. Richards 1974, p. 116.
  15. & Richards 1974, p. 119.
  16. Richards 1974, p. 120.
  17. Richards 1974, pp. 120, 127.
  18. Richards 1974, p. 145.
  19. Jackson 1974, p. 137.

References

  • Cull, B.; et al. (1999) [1995]. Twelve Days: The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countries, 10–21 May 1940, As Seen Through the Eyes of the Fighter Pilots Involved (pbk. repr. ed.). London: Grub Street. ISBN 978-1-902304-12-0. 
  • Jackson, R. (1974). Air War over France 1939–40 (1st ed.). London: Ian Allen. ISBN 978-0-7110-0510-5. 
  • Richards, Denis (1974) [1953]. Royal Air Force 1939–1945: The Fight At Odds. I. London: HMSO. ISBN 0-11-771592-1. Retrieved 27 June 2018. 

Further reading

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