Apply with Judgement

It took a while but a couple of weeks ago I was finally able to take down all the dust clothes that we had put up around the library to protect the books from dust and mess during the renovations. It’d been a couple of months since I’d actually laid eyes on the books in the library, concealed as they were behind layers of old sheets, and it struck me that there were a large number (albeit a small proportion) of books that I hadn’t actually ready yet. For some time prior to that point, I had been doing a lot of nostalgic recreational reading…Ice Station Zebra, Cyborg (the original Steve Austin story),  various lite-works from Steven Coonts, Dale Brown, etc and I decided to commit to clearing some of the backlog of unread books – after all, there not much point having books if you aren’t going to read them at least once…so Wing Leader was the first that caught my eye as an ‘unread’…

Like many of the books in our library, I have no idea where I acquired this from…as much as possible I try to log all new acquisitions into our Book Collector database and record where each acquisition came from – the Collector software is actually quite good and we used it to track all our books, DVDs and my paper model collection: check it out @ Anyway, this is the second printing of Wing Leader from September 1956 and seems to have spent an earlier part of its existence, from 18 October 1962 until 21 June 1963, in the Wairoa College Library. Where it was in the 47 years before appearing in our library is anyone’s guess.

It is what I call a ‘ripping good yarn’ starting with Johnson being turned away in various attempts to join the RAF until war broke out and there was a desperate need to build up the RAF to face the oncoming Nazi juggernaut. On only his second flight in a Spitfire, Johnson fudged his landing and drove the main gear up through the top of the wings – hardly an auspicious start for the pilot who ended WW2  as a Group-Captain and the RAF’s highest scoring fighter pilot with 38 confirmed kills. Wing Leader follows Johnson through the war through squadron and wing command and the dark days of the Battle of Britain through D Day and the advance across Europe. It ends with a celebratory air show in Denmark soon after VE Day.

One of the principles that emerged from our work in doctrine management over the last couple of years is that doctrine is something that can never be a set of hard and fast rules that applied dogmatically; to be effective doctrine must be applied with judgement. While, perhaps and only perhaps, in more simpler forms of warfare there might be a place for the soldier or commander who blindly follows without thinking, in the contemporary environment, facing complexity, irregularity and uncertainty, there is no place for a non-thinker: we must ALL think and apply our judgement. Wing Leader had what I thought were a couple of great examples of this.

…throughout this day and on all subsequent operations in the Falaise gap the Luftwaffe failed to provide any degree of assistance to their sorely pressed ground forces. faced with the threat of losing their forward airfields to our advance, they were busily occupied in withdrawing to suitable bases in the Paris area, so our fighter-bombers enjoyed complete air supremacy over the battle area. Quick to exploit such a great tactical advantage, Broadhurst issued instructions that until such time as the Luftwaffe reappeared to contest our domination of the Normandy sky all his aircraft would operate in pairs. This was a wise decision, for it meant that pairs of Spitfires and Typhoons could return to the fray immediately they were turned around on the ground. Detailed briefings were not necessary since all pilots knew the area and the position of our own ground troops. Valuable time was saved and it was possible to put the maximum number of missions into the air.

This was a dramatic deviation from extant doctrine which held that, while pairs of aircraft might be able to penetrate enemy airspace and attack opportunity targets along their way, if a lone pair of fighters ran into a group of enemy fighters it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that both pilots and aircraft would be lost. The cold hard lesson learned from the early days of sweeps over France was that there was quite definitely safety is numbers i.e. sweeps of at least squadron and more commonly wing strength that could hold their own against Luftwaffe defenders.

Since WW1, the commonly-held wisdom was to watch for the Hun in the sun with the corollary that higher altitude was always a great, almost necessary advantage over an aerial adversary. Thus is was with some concern that Johnson…

…watched Jamie when he drafted an operation order for the wing to sweep the Rouen area at 12,000 feet.

“12,000 feet seems a little low, Jamie,” I commented. “The boys are certain to get bounced at that height.”

“That’s right,” briefly answered the New Zealander.

“Then why don’t you put them higher?” I suggested.

“Because, dear boy, Ray Harries prefers to be below the Huns. In fact, his tactics depend on the Huns starting the attack.”

I expressed profound disbelief, for I had always been a firm believer in the old axiom that the leader who has the height advantage controls the battle…Ray and I walked to our Spitfires. before we climbed into our cockpits, I said:

“I always though the chap with the height held all the cards, Ray.”

“Yes, he does,” replied the wing leader. “But 12,000 feet is our best fighting height. Somehow we’re got to pull down the Hun to our level. once he’s down, our Spits are so much better that we can break into him, out-turn him and soon get on top of him…”

Johnson explains that…

The Luftwaffe had modified some of their Focke-Wulf 190s so that they had a very good performance at low-level…Our answer to this was the Griffon-engined Spitfire 12…At low and medium altitudes the Spitfire 12 was faster than its contemporary, the 109, and could cope with the low-flying 190s…

Wing Leader cites other examples including that of two Lancaster heavy bombers peeling out of formation after the post-D Day daylight bombing of Caen to strafe Germany ground transports along the roads…

Majestically, it ploughs along over the straight road with rear and front guns blazing away. Enemy drivers and crews abandon their vehicles and dive for the shelter of the hedgerows…There is a considerable amount of light flak, but the pilot obviously scorns this small stuff, since he is accustomed to a nightly barrage of heavy flak over the industrial cities of Germany…

It’s all about avoiding dogma – continuing always to think and too learn…to quote Dr Michael Evans from the Contemporary Warfare course last week “Who Learns, Wins”

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