R.A.F. Middle East - The Official Story of Air Operations

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F.AR. .MIDDLE EAST and and air took a great part in this battle the scantiest story of all their deeds would scarcely cram into many volumes. Nothing so ambitious is attempted here this is an account of only part of the war—that fought in the air. The only references made to what was happening at the same time on the sea and land are those which are essential if we are to understand what was also happening in the air. Sea and land have equally great chronicles, but this is the story only of the air. Yet, touched in by reference to the sea and the land as though to a map or timetable, the air itself makes a complete story. The air has its own campaigns, its own battles. The air war which overdeveloped the barren desert, the blue sea of the Middle East, was anew kind of war, a pattern and a prophecy perhaps of war in the future. By the spring of 1942, there was some­thing new in the Middle East there was air power. Instead of a few squadrons, reinforced by every kind of improvisation and thrown into battle where the need was most, Cairo then con­trolled a unified air force welded together into a single striking power. There was much re­ organisation still to be done, many sad gaps still to be filled, but the pattern and the idea were both there. A true air power had been created to work in collaboration with land power and sea power. The enemy had nothing like it. They had fleets of bombers to supplement the German artillery or extend the gun-range of the Japanese fleet, but air power they did not understand. R.A.F., Middle East, became far more than anything they had conceived. It became in the air what an army is on the ground or a navy at sea—a force infighting its own element, striking with its comrade Services at the common enemy. To dissect the whole body of R.A.F., Middle East, as it was in the spring of 1942 would reveal even now too much, since the war is not yet over. But something maybe said of its organisation. Headquarters were housed in an island of tall buildings in Cairo barbed around with wire, outside which chattered and bustled the varie­gated street life of Egypt—an occasional camel or a cow lumbering ponderously through the stream of limousines and dispatch riders on motor-bicycles, street vendors squatting against the wall to hawk wicker baskets of oranges, a man in a ragged galabieh proferring long purple strips of sugar-cane, black-robed women crowded on a flat cart drawn by a donkey. Behind the wire stood the many offices and the silent control rooms of the headquarters, with as varied a task and responsibility as the Air Ministry in London which it much resembled. There Air Marshal, afterwards Air Chief Marshal, Sir Arthur W. Tedder, G.C.B., who had succeeded to the command in May 1941, planned his moves, nurtured the strength of an air power which he was busily accumulating in spite of the daily drain of a battle which never stopped there his deputy, afterwards knighted as Air Marshal Sir Peter Drummond, K.C.B., D.S.O., O.B.E., M.C., and his chiefs of staff, men of long inexperience this highly technical business of an air force, worked at its mul­titudinous detail. Air Chief Marshal Tedder and Air Marshal Drummond remained at the head of R.A.F., Middle East, throughout almost the whole period covered by this account. In the last days, the command passed to Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, K.C.B., M.C., D.F.C. From Cairo, that two-cities-in-one of luxury and poverty, the arteries of air power branched into many strong limbs. The force in the Western Desert warded off the enemy and kept his head down. The bomber force based on the Suez Canal area struck at the strategic targets of supply ports, naval bases, submarine depots. A force of .coastal aircraft based on Alexandria on the one hand and Malta on the other watched over our own shipping and attacked that of the enemy. Day and night fighters guarded the skies of Egypt itself. These were the main strong limbs. There were many smaller but equally necessary—fighter squadrons that waited in protection of more remote domains, bomber crews who daily searched for submarines in the overheat such waters as the Persian Gulf, ferry pilots who brought convoys of reinforcement aircraft across the jungle from West Africa, an air-sea rescue service,men of the big training schools in East Africa and many more. Nor should it be forgotten that in all those places where aircraft flew, and many where they did not, avast company of men of the R.A.F. worked on the ground. They operated the signals, repaired the aircraft, housed the stores, tended the sick and wounded, checked the accounts—clerks, cooks, truck drivers, refuellers, armourers, chemists, photographers and just plain aircrafthands with no particular trade who tackle any job that is going and shyly admit to being the backbone of the Air Force. All these and their comrades worked with the same thought as the aircrews, to keep the Air Force flying. 21
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