The War in the Air

By Capt. Norman Macmillan, M.C., A.F.C.
The War Illustrated, Volume 7, No. 172, Page 540, January 21, 1944.

It might at first sight appear that the entirely naval action in which the Scharnhorst was sunk off the North Cape (see pp. 518-520) was an incident in the war so completely maritime as to refute by its mere occurrence the arguments on air power which I have recently put forth in these columns. But a moment's reflection will show that this is indeed not so, although I do not doubt for an instant that naval protagonists will long point to the Scharnhorst action as the perfect case for the absolute indispensability of the capital ship.

But the battle in which the Scharnhorst was sunk did not commence with the departure of an escorted convoy bound from Britain (presumably) for North Russia. That action had its roots in the German invasion of Norway that was sprung upon a surprised Britain and France in April 1940. The purpose of the German invasion of Norway was not then clear. It was generally suggested that it was intended to deny to us the iron ore which we had been receiving from the Swedish mines through the port of Narvik, and to secure all the ore and the use of that ice-free port for the German war machine. We know now that that was merely a subsidiary reason for the invasion; the real purpose was to guard the northern flank of Western Europe against the time when Germany was to invade Russia.

Two Aircraft Squadrons Against Thousand German Planes

Britain and France were unprepared for the invasion of Norway. The mines that were laid in Norwegian territorial waters by British naval ships were laid too late to stop the German naval units from moving into the western seaports of Norway, from Kristiansand North to Narvik. The very gallant naval battle of Narvik followed. The expeditionary forces that were dispatched to Central and Northern Norway were hastily scratched together and escorted to Norway by warships. Anti-aircraft ships were supposed to be able to provide the necessary anti-aircraft defence for the small ports left to us. The whole of that story has never been told, but the fact is that the Norwegian expeditions were a failure. They were inadequately equipped for modern war, and could not have hoped to succeed. After a brief experience of German methods of warfare the Allied forces which pushed up the Gudbrands Valley demanded air support. (All that the R.A.F. had been able to do up till then was to bomb aerodromes from Denmark to Trondheim, and that by puny forces only.)

So No. 223 Squadron, R.A.F., was sent to Norway in an aircraft carrier from whose deck eighteen pilots flew their Gladiator biplanes and landed on a frozen lake inland from Aandalsnes, only to be bombed out in twenty-four hours. There was no aerodrome available in Central Norway, and because our fighters could not intervene from British bases, the surface forces, both land and sea, were compelled to withdraw. Two air squadrons then went to the Narvik area; their Gladiators and Hurricane fighters staved things off for a brief space. But what were two squadrons of aircraft against a thousand German planes? Narvik was evacuated in early June 1940, and the German forces soon afterwards captured the two most northerly provinces of Norway.

The campaign in Norway was Britain's first awakening to the part that air power was to play in modern war, but its lessons were known only to the few and were unappreciated by the public generally. It took Dunkirk to teach the British people as a whole their lesson. If Britain had possessed adequate air power in 1940 the German forces could not have trampled over the Scandinavian kingdom so swiftly and might have been denied the country altogether. But primarily because we lacked air power Norway was lost, and as a result it became possible for German warships to use the Norwegian fjords and ports, and continue to use them because only there could they get out of the reach of our present superior air power.

It has been amply demonstrated that German naval ships cannot now safely use bases anywhere between the Bay of Biscay and Central Norway, mainly because of the range, flexibility and striking power of Allied air strength. The former German naval ports of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven are almost useless to them. American aircraft by day and British aircraft by night hammer them unmercifully. There can be no doubt that if we had had adequate air power at the beginning of the war it would not have been possible for Germany to deploy her naval striking forces, and the submarine menace would have been curtailed from the very start.

Blockade Runner Sunk by Aircraft Without Ship Assistance

If we are persuaded by the sinking of the Scharnhorst that the naval tradition of things still holds in the world today we shall do a grave injustice to the coming generation. If this action, for the skill of which as a tactical evolution I have no words but praise to offer, were to be taken as a future model, we should place their security in jeopardy. We must see that the Scharnhorst action was the result not of foresight but of the very opposite, and that if we are to be secure in the future, we must organize our air power and the bases which it can use so that such threats can be crushed at source instead of being allowed to continue to cause an immense diversion of our true offensive against the enemy, as the extraordinarily few German heavy warships have been able to do. Indeed, the inadequacy of naval methods alone in dealing with such enemy weapons is apparent from the time it has taken to accomplish the liquidation of the Scharnhorst, and the tremendous national effort which Britain has had to make to deal with four German capital ships, two of which are still not sunk. Air power can alter that.

It is notable that the German merchant ship which tried to reach a Bay of Biscay port was sunk by aircraft without surface ship assistance on December 27, 1943, when weather over the Bay was notoriously bad; and that it was the initial intelligence from and subsequent shadowing by long-range land-based aircraft and the air cover of shore-based Mosquito fighters which enabled our two cruisers to close with the eleven German destroyers (who came out, too late, as escort to the blockade-runner) and, assisted by aircraft, to sink three.

General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the British general who has most skilfully employed the aid of air in land battles, said recently that "the air battle must be won before the land or sea battle is begun. This is the first great principle of modern wars." That is the principle which surface soldiers and sailors have had to accept after three years of war during which a bitter lesson was learned from a series of defeats that were saved from disaster only by the few hundred pilots who fought almost all single-handed in the Battle of Britain. If those boys had not won that fight the Duke of York would never have been in the Arctic to sink the Scharnhorst, for the safety of naval bases is entirely consequent upon air defence.

Articles in the The War in the Air category