Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham
Talk to Assembled British and American General and Senior Officers
Feb. 16, 1943
FULL TEXT VERSION
By early 1943, British forces had been dueling German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel across North Africa for many months. British air and ground leaders had accumulated hard-won lessons about command arrangements and had lashed together a unified air command and air-ground liaison system. For the British¡XRAF and Army alike¡Xthere were three truths. First, the air commander had to have centralized authority over air units. Second, the supreme requirement was air superiority. Third, airpower could be used to control enemy maneuver forces.
RAF Air Vice Marshal Arthur Coningham, the overall allied tactical air commander, delivered a now-famous summation of these lessons at a meeting in Tripoli. In the audience were many senior Americans, most of whom were aware that, in the Battle of Kasserine Pass raging not far away in Tunisia, many US aircraft were grounded by inept management by ground commanders. The ideas in Coningham¡¦s speech soon became the touchstones of US tactical air employment doctrine, and remain so down to the current day.
The doctrine that we have evolved by trial in war over a period of many months could, I think, be stated in its simplest form as follows: The soldier commands the land forces, the airman commands the air forces; both commanders work together and operate their respective forces in accordance with a combined army-air plan, the whole operations [sic] being directed by the army commander.
There are fundamental differences between the army and the air forces which should be recognized: The army fights on a front that may be divided into sectors, such as a brigade, division, corps or an army front. The air front is indivisible.
An army has one battle to fight, the land battle. The air has two. It has first of all to beat the enemy air, so that it may go into the land battle against the enemy land forces with the maximum possible hitting power. We have not, as yet, secured sufficient superiority to finish the air-to-air battle off completely, but we have been pretty near it and we have been able to concentrate up to 80 or 90 percent of our hitting power on the enemy land forces.
The fighter governs the front, and this fact forces the centralization of air control into the hands of one air commander operating on that front. I think it is generally accepted that, with adequate fighter superiority and bomber forces, the air has a governing influence on what happens within reach on the ground or on the sea.
And finally, there is no doubt that, in this technical age, it needs a life of study and specializing for a sailor, a soldier, or an airman to learn his profession. He is never free from the problems of development, particularly in war, and I therefore cannot accept the possibility that any man, however competent, can do the work of the other services without proportionately neglecting his own. In plain language, no soldier is competent to operate the air, just as no airman is competent to operate the army.
It is generally agreed that the fighting efficiency of a service is based upon leadership, training, and equipment. The commander is personally responsible for the leadership and training, and no one who has not this power should operate the forces concerned. …
You will notice that the army commander does not use the word “co-operation.” I submit that we in Eighth Army are beyond the co-operation stage, and that work is so close that we are, in effect, one unit. I hope you won’t mind if I suggest that co-operation means the other fellow co-operating with you. We in the air force have cause to view the word with mixed feelings because, in the past, co-operation has meant the air co-operating with the navy or the army. The difference in the Eighth Army is that there has been as much air co-operation by the army as army co-operation by the air, and the natural result is that we have now passed beyond that stage into a unit or team which automatically helps the other. …
It often happens that an army formation at the front sees a good target which, though reported, is not attacked. To take an instance: A front formation reports a concentration of 200 M.T. [motor transports] and accompanying arms. Its request for air attack is turned down. Fifteen or 20 miles away, however, there is a concentration of 2,000 or more, indicating an armored division or even larger forces. This concentration, we know from experience, will probably affect the whole battle area perhaps 10, 18, 24 hours later. It is this concentration which is receiving all the weight of air attack, and that is why the comparatively little target on the front is ignored.
The smaller formations of the army must understand that penny packets of air are a luxury which can only be afforded at certain times, and that judgment on the question of targets is the result of agreement between the army and air commanders, and in accordance with the army commander’s broad directive on priority.
It is bad luck that the front line soldier cannot always see the main targets that are being attacked, but if he sees the sky full of his own aircraft he can rest assured they are not wasting their time. I think all forces in the Eighth Army, when they see the bombers going over, take it for granted that the Hun is being thrashed and that there is something more important than their own small front line target being dealt with. …
Is it too much to suggest that we obey the rules of simple logic and take success in army-air development as reached in this theater as a model on which further development can take place