In the late 30’s Captain HC Bazeley RA, an enthusiastic amateur pilot and Secretary of the Royal Artillery Flying Club, advanced the idea that artillery could be best directed from the air by artillery officers trained as pilots, rather than by RAF pilots flying aircraft which had other combat roles besides observing for the guns. They would fly simple, unarmed light aircraft, depending for survival on being agile and inconspicuous and by flying, as far as possible, over areas held by friendly forces, but using height and freedom of movement to look into areas not visible to ground observers.
Bazeley’s ideas gained the support of Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) JH Parham and Brigadier HRS Massey, two other like minded members of the Flying Club. In 1939 Massey was Brigadier Royal Artillery Southern Command and was able to add weight to the Army’s case for the ‘Flying OP’ as it was called, in the face of some scepticism and opposition from the Air Ministry.
After tentative trials in 1938-1939 a flight was established for the purpose in 1940 (D Flight RAF). Bazeley, who had already been seconded to the RAF as an Army Co-operation pilot, was given command.
The D Flight Trial convinced most of the doubters and authority was given in 1941 for the formation of Air Observation Post Squadrons. To overcome inter-service wrangling over ownership of the squadrons a compromise was agreed. Squadrons were to be RAF units, each commanded by a Gunner Major (pilot) with an RAF adjutant. The RAF would provide the Auster aircraft and the airmen to maintain them; the Army would supply vehicles, ground radios and soldiers to man them; all pilots would be artillery officers, trained to fly by the RAF. The RAF would be responsible for technical flying matters but - a crucial point - the Army would command in the field. Later experience proved the need for observers in the rear seats of the aircraft to watch out for enemy fighters. As no official provision had been made for this, volunteers from the Squadrons’ Army and RAF groundcrews carried out this duty when needed.
The first Squadron into action was No 651 commanded initially by Bazeley and then Major RWV Neathercoat. The Squadron fought throughout the North African campaign in 1942-43 where it amply proved the Air OP concept, often flying in the face of enemy air superiority. 651 was followed by the formation of 15 more squadrons during 1942-45, numbering 652-666. Of these 663 was mainly Polish manned and 664-666 were Canadian. The squadrons flew in every theatre of war and made a significant contribution to the use of artillery. Their outstanding attribute was their ability to put a skilled artillery observer into the air at short notice, fully aware of the tactical situation and the needs of the troops on the ground and able to direct the fire of every gun within range, using artillery wireless nets. By the end of hostilities Air OP pilots had been awarded more than 90 DFCs.
The Air OP organisation remained essentially unchanged until the mid fifties. The number of squadrons had been reduced after the war but those that remained contributed to every operational commitment, including Korea, the Malayan emergency and many lesser campaigns.
The War Office was now becoming increasingly aware of the value of light aircraft and the potential of helicopters in performing a variety of roles besides air OP, so that the pressure was mounting for the Army to have its own air arm. Eventually it was agreed that the Army should take over full responsibility for the Air OP Squadrons together with the light liaison flights which had been formed from the former Glider Pilot Regiment and in 1957 these were all incorporated in a new Army Air Corps.
Direction of artillery fire remained an important role of the new corps and its squadrons retained the former Air OP squadron numbers and crests, which are still in use today.
Museum of Army Flying