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80th Anniversary of Army Aviation, Operation: TORCH: Grasshoppers Earn Their Wings

Looking Back / Army Aviation, December 2022; By Mark Albertson

 

80th Anniversary of Army Aviation:
Operation: TORCH

Grasshoppers Earn Their Wings

The lack of success of Army Aviation in its first time at bat against the Germans at Fedala, fueled Hap Arnold’s aversion to seeing Cubs in a combat zone, and, certainly inflamed the AAF’s desire to abort the Air Observation Post program.

Piper L 4 Cub

Work horse of the Air OPs, the Piper L-4 Cub.  This plane established itself in a combat theater with the aerial direction of artillery fire, observation and reconnaissance, photo reconnaissance, route column control, light transport, air taxi for brass,… The Cub proved itself at a time during the war when the Allies had yet to establish absolute air superiority, refuting detractors' claims of not being able to survive in a combat zone.  Indeed, the Cub was to the Air OPs what the UH-1 Huey would later prove to be for Army Aviation in Vietnam.

But General Lesley McNair had no intention of crying uncle. In fact, more than ever he seemed ready to bull in his neck and stay in there and pitch. After all, the Army Air Forces indicated during the 1942 Joint Training Exercises that they were hardly in a position to assume the tactical needs required by the Ground Forces.

Thus far it was the Germans who had demonstrated modern Combined Arms Warfare on the battlefield, with the German Army and Luftwaffe providing smashing examples of success. On the receiving end in 1941 and 1942 were the Soviets, who were undergoing a brutal education in the harshest school of warfare in world, the Eastern Front. From June 22, 1941 till they had stopped Hitler’s hordes at Moscow and had stabilized the front by March 1942, the Soviets has incurred some 2,000,000 battlefield dead and upwards of 4,000,000 taken prisoner; and, of these some 2,500,000 were already dead as a result of Nazi captivity.

For America to avoid such heavy losses, the lessons of Combined Arms Warfare needed to be heeded, studied, learned and fashioned to an American doctrine able to take on the experienced Wehrmacht with any chance for success. And this demanded that the Ground Forces and Air Forces work together as an unstoppable team . . . regardless of service agenda rifts. However the outlook was not exactly promising as shown with the results of the 1942 Joint Training Program.

Seven corps maneuvers had been planned, but only five were actually conducted. The Air Support Command of the Army Air Forces was supposed to contribute 753 aircraft. Four hundred were made available of which some 263 “were in condition to operate.”[1]

Lack of training by both Air and Ground contingents was a problem. But General McNair understood the issues. The Army Air Forces were stretched and lacked training and experience. In fact, just how unprepared the AAF was, was evident when the only full squadron of dive bombers provided for the Joint Training Exercises was on loan from the Navy.

Brigadier General Paul McD Robinett, CO, Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, wrote directly to General Marshall in December 1942. “The campaign in Africa,” wrote General Robinett, “was showing that the Germans knew how to use air support with decisive effect, and that the Americans did not.” He concluded, “My regiment has fought well, has had rather severe losses, but can go on. I have talked with all ranks possible and am sure that men cannot stand the mental and physical strain of constant aerial bombings without feeling that all possible is being done to beat back the enemy effort. News of bombed cities or ships is not the answer they expect. They know what they see and at present there is little of our air to be seen.”[2]

Obviously this did not make McNair or Arnold very happy. But in reality it was irrelevant. For FM 31-35, Aviation in Support of Ground Forces, insured AAF basic control of tactical air assets. “Field Manual 31-35 perpetuated the roundabout method of requesting direct support of the front lines, which had worked without great success in the GHQ maneuvers [1941] and which virtually guaranteed that there would be no communication between supporting aircraft and the ground unit being supported. A ground unit desiring air support was to pass the request upon its own chain of command to the division or corps, where an air liaison officer would pass judgment on it. If the request met with approval, he would relay it to air support command headquarters, where the request would be scrutinized. Only after headquarters approved the request would an order go out to an airfield for a unit to take off and execute the mission. Once in the air, the only communication between aircraft and ground units would be through the liaison officer at division or corps headquarters. The air-ground doctrine which the Army Air Forces took to the war had the advantage of keeping airpower concentrated in the hands of air officers, would deploy it economically where it was needed most. The ground soldiers’ demands for direct support were not satisfied.”[3]

The situation hardly improved during the Joint Training Program of 1942. The AAF seemed to be clinging to the idea prevalent in the Air Corps Tactical School of the centralized control of aircraft. And, “that airpower was not to be employed against targets within range of artillery.”[4]

This left nary an alternative other than that of developing the Air Observation Post concept to sharpen the accuracy of the Field Artillery. Such a capability would be controlled by the ground commanders to be utilized as they saw fit. To be sure, the road ahead was hardly smooth; the work ahead, hardly a labor of leisure. And the rent between the Ground Forces and the Airmen was only going to swell. Regardless, Army Aviation was on its way . . . A glorious epoch in the history of the United States Army was set to commence.

* * * * *

Post TORCH

Following TORCH, more Army aviators arrived in North Africa during November-December 1942 and into 1943. Aircraft forwarded in crates were assembled and parceled out. Army aviators were assigned to the 1st, 3rd, 9th and 34th Infantry Divisions and the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions.[5]

A number of Army aviators who would make early marks in the Army Aviation movement appeared. “Lt. John W. Oswalt, Lt. Bob Ely (who became the first Army helicopter pilot), Lt. Eugene P. Gillespie (who became the first man to fly Gen. Mark Clark under combat conditions), and Lt. Robert Johnson (who was killed in Tunisia).”[6]

To increase the pool of credible aviators, “II Corps opened an Air OP School at Sidi-bel-Abbes in early 1943. The school was also used as a staging area for aviators and mechanics on their way to Tunisia.”[7][8]

Conditions were quite Spartan, as noted by a young aviator named Paynee O. Lysne, who arrived early in 1943. “After reporting I was told along with two others by a tough-looking sergeant, ‘Do you see that large box? Well, in the box is an airplane, which you’ll take out carefully. Assemble it by the book, and tomorrow, you’ll fly it. And that box will be your home for as long as you’re here in the school. Make yourselves comfortable, and get to work.[9] And so the aviators made themselves at home, each in his own beaver-board Taj Mahal and made the best of it.

Paynee Lysne

Paynee O. Lysne, who trained at Sidi bel-Abbes to become an Air OP pilot.

In January 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Theater Commander, reorganized the command structure. II Corps was given command of American units on the Tunisian front. Then, Fifth Army was activated, Lieutenant General Mark Clark in command. Task was to organize, plan and prepare for upcoming operations, and that included taking over responsibility for the Air OP School at Sidi-bel-Abbes and provide the American ground forces with the necessary pilots and mechanics.[10] In command of the school was Colonel John D. Salmon.

A training schedule of upwards of three months was established. “Most of us received an average of 70 hours of contour flying, road landings, chasing goats, sheep and Arabs, etc.—very similar to the training program at Fort Sill, with one exception: shooting touch and goes on the tops of Trailways busses as they were going down the highway west of Lawton, Oklahoma. When the bus company decided to wash the busses, they found many tire tracks on the tops.”[11]

The North African school, though, lacked accreditation. General Mark Clark attempted to achieve same with the War Department, something both the Ground Forces and Army Air Forces opposed. Only pilots produced by the Department of Air Training were considered eligible for flight status; which meant, flight pay. At the same time, the North African school was helping to fill the void of needed aviators for the Ground Forces in Tunisia. So a compromise was reached when the War Department allowed graduates of the impromptu schools to receive monthly, $60 hazardous flight pay. Such was the case until late 1943, when many of these fliers returned stateside to complete the Department of Air Training Curriculum.[12] Regardless, Clark’s school was turning out some 50 pilots every six to ten weeks. In addition to 50 mechanics every month.[13] Many of the aviators trained in North Africa and who returned to the States to complete the Department of the Air Training curriculum brought needed combat experience to be shared with candidates who had none.

The Air OP, though, still had an image problem and one which equated with acceptability. Reactionary battery commanders were still adverse or apathetic towards the concept. Some outright had no use for it. Instances occurred where Cub squadrons, following a night’s rest, found themselves abandoned by their units which had upped and left in the night. Others went “begging for handouts from sympathetic passing units.”[14]

* * * * *

In December 1943, writing in The Field Artillery Journal, Captain James Edmonds touched on the shortage of trained observers and pilots. “Use of ‘grasshopper’ planes for artillery OPs is so relatively new that the tremendous opportunities which they afford have been insufficiently recognized. The advantages of this type of observation all too frequently have been more outweighed by inadequate control, improper technique and inexperience.

“Proper training, however, will increase the number of experienced observers available. Proper technique and proper control will permit the most efficient use of such qualified personnel as can be so used.[15]

Captain Edmonds goes on to explain, “The artillery of any division should have a constant available pool of from six to twelve observers so trained, in addition to such pilots as may also be artillery officers. (Experience has shown conclusively, incidentally, that it is almost impossible for the pilot to fly a plane in combat and observe for artillery purposes at the same time, hence no reference is made to efforts which have been made to combine the two functions.[16] Whenever possible training should be carried out to increase this nucleus or to provide for replacements to maintain such a quota.

“The term ‘pool’ as here used does not imply a separate group, detached from the individual battalions. What is actually meant is that there should be at least two, preferably three, qualified aerial observers available at all times within each battalion.”[17]

Then there is the issue of supply. Colonel Charles E. Hart, II Corps artillery officer, thought it prudent to organize the Air OP assets with an air artillery officer. Lieutenant Delbert L. Bristol joined Colonel Hart’s staff. Bristol virtually created a position. The energetic aviator organized flight records; assigned missions to planes and pilots; established a system of parts and supply to alleviate shortages, picking up the slack from the Army Air Forces which was responsible for same. General Patton was so impressed that he employed the services of the young pilot to fly him round the front.

Delbert Bristol

Delbert Bristol was was one of the decisive Air OP officers of the entire North African campaign, and contributed in no small way to the success of the Air Observation Post in its combat debut.  And did so by turning the appointment of Air OP flight officer into an office; as well as being General George Patton's Cub pilot.

What Bristol did was to bring organization to the business. His attention to detail, energy and organizational skills helped in no small measure to sell the Air OP concept in North Africa. Such was Bristol’s success that he was named artillery air officer of First Army, and, was detailed with the planning and organizing much of the Air OP effort for Operation OVERLORD.[18][19]

However unblooded Americans were hardly ready for their big league debut against the Germans; as witnessed by Rommel’s Afrika Korps giving II Corps a bloody nose at Kasserine. This rammed home the reality that American troops were not yet ready for a cross-Channel invasion of the European continent.

Americans, though, were learning. Take the Field Artillery. The judicious use of forward ground observers, radio communications and fire direction centers within the infantry and armored formations enabled the effective use of rolling barrages and interdiction shellings. On March 23, 1943, during the battle of El Guettar, II Corps artillery knocked out 30 German tanks. In fact, after the battle, “an enthusiastic report recorded that American artillery had crucified the Germans with high-explosive shells. Based upon El Guettar and other battles in North Africa where division and corps commanders often massed twelve battalions (144 guns) to attack enemy positions, field artillerymen found artillery to be one of the dominating factors on the battlefield when employed en-masse.[20] Among the outfits of the 9th Infantry Division alone, artillery units loosed over 31,000 rounds of ordnance while in action at El Guettar.[21]

It was in this environment that Army aviators earned acceptability. At El Guettar, Air OP pilots from the 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions spotted elements of Rommel’s 10th Panzer Division rumbling forward towards American lines. Aviators called in coordinates enabling sweating gunners to pour out a volume of American steel to check the German advance.[22]

North Africa showed that Cubs were not as vulnerable as first thought, Seven minutes was believed, at the outset, to be the maximum flight time per mission; this included takeoff, time over the target area to coordinate fire adjustments and then back to the field before Axis fighters could catch them. But as the pilots gained experience, they found they could remain aloft for longer periods. The Cub’s low operational levels and maneuverability increased the flivver plane’s chances for survival; thickets of Allied anti-aircraft batteries; and, as the Allies wrested control of the air, the threat posed by Axis fighters faded. As noted in a 34th Infantry Division report, “Air OPs flew patrol missions constantly and proved their value by silencing enemy artillery by the very fact of their presence. Continual coverage of the division front by the Air OP is now SOP.”[23]

But what is actually noteworthy is as the campaign proceeded, Army aviators offered services beyond that of directing artillery fire. “Division and corps commanders used their artillery planes extensively for front line reconnaissance, even to the extent of going up as observers themselves.[24]

One divisional artillery commander relied on his planes for preliminary position and route reconnaissance. This offset to some extent a lack of aerial photographs which was felt throughout the North African campaign. Convoy checks and camouflage were also useful, and at critical junctures courier service proved invaluable.[25]

The growing acceptance of the Air OP was reflected in its utility, substantiated in combat, and in the variety of missions above and beyond that of the original intent, that of artillery fire direction. For instance, between April 23 and May 8, 1943, aviators manning 31 aircraft flew 715 missions, broken down thus: Artillery fire direction, 97 missions; supply and courier flights, 231; reconnaissance, 167; route column control and camouflage checks, 88 and unit training, 132. And, not one man was lost. But the intriguing aspect is that of 715 missions, only 13.5 percent was devoted to the founding principle of the Air OP, artillery fire direction. The battlefield test of man and machine established the bona fides of the concept.[26]


Endnotes


[1] See page 13, Chapter II, “Air-Ground Training in 1942,” Army Ground Forces and the Air-Ground Battle Team, Including Organic Light Aviation, Study No. 35, by Colonel Kent Roberts Greenfield, Infantry Res.

[2] See page 19, Colonel Kent Roberts Greenfield, Inf. Res.

[3] See pages 180 and 181, Chapter 10, “After the Maneuvers Defects and Remedies,” The U.S. Army GHQ Maneuvers of 1941, by Christopher Gabel.

[4] See page 73, Chapter 4, “Development of Doctrine at the Air Corps Tactical School,” History of the Air Corps Tactical School, 1920-1940, Studies No. 100, by Richard T. Finney.

This actually plays into the hands of the Field Artillery. Emerging from the struggle with the Army Air Corps/Army Air Forces for control of Cub aircraft enabled the breech-loaders to give the Army Ground Forces the control of tactical aerial assets to provide the “Close Support” needed; that of the field artillery.

[5] See page 31, “Operation Torch and Preparations for Overlord,” The Fighting Grasshoppers, by Ken Wakefield.

[6] See page 125, Chapter III, “The War Years: North Africa, Sicily and Italy,” The Army Aviation Story, by Richard K. Tierney with Fred Montgomery.

[7] See page 65, “November 1942, Operation: TORCH: Baptism of Fire,” Army Aviation, November 30, 2012, by Mark Albertson.

[8] “. . . October 1942, the War Department directed the Department of Air Training at Fort Sill to send ten pilots and ten mechanics to join the 13th FA Brigade, then training in England with II Corps prior to the North African invasion. This was the first overseas deployment of FA aviation personnel and the pilots making up this historic group were Captain Joseph M. Watson (in command), Captain J. Elmore Swenson, 1st Lieutenants Stanley A. Williamson, Thomas L. Hendrix, Jr. and Delbert L. Bristol, 2nd Lieutenants William D. Stephens and Gus M. Albert and Staff Sergeants Claude B. Allen, Jr., James S. Rengers and Walton C. Schoonover.

“. . . they were to become instructors at a new II Corps Air OP School being formed to train pilots and mechanics in England and, later on, in North Africa . . . accommodation was arranged at Tidworth, and a large polo field at nearby Perham Down . . .

“. . . in November 1942, . . . Captain Watson had been ordered to take an advanced detachment of the II Corps School to North Africa where it took up residence on a grass strip at Sidi-bel-Abbes.” See page 23, Chapter Five, “Early Days in the ETO, 26th January 1942-9th August 1943,” The Fighting Grasshoppers, by Ken Wakefield.

[9] See page 66, “In That Box is an Airplane,” Army Aviation, January 31, 1994, by Lieutenant Colonel Paynee O. Lysne (Ret.).

[10] See page 152, Chapter 5, “Initial Deployment and Combat in the North African and Mediterranean Theaters,” Eyes of Artillery: The Origins of Modern U.S. Army Aviation in World War II, by Edgar F. Raines, Jr.

[11] See page 67, Lieutenant Colonel Paynee O. Lysne (Ret.).

[12] See page 12, “History of Army Aviation,” Vol. 3, No. 6, U.S. Army Aviation Digest, June 1957, by William E. Vance.

[13] See page 25, Chapter Five, “Early Days in the ETO: 26th January 1942-9th August 1943, The Fighting Grasshoppers, by Ken Wakefield.

[14] See page 63, William F. Vance.

[15] See page 893, “Notes on Artillery Air Observation,” The Field Artillery Journal, Vol. 33, No. 12, December 1943, by Captain James Edmonds, FA.

[16] The pilot/observer team maintains the basic arrangement relied upon in World War I. The equipment and technology improved; training of personnel improved; but, the idea of a single aviator, flying a plane and effecting coordinates, had yet to win many converts. But times change as does equipment and techniques. See pages 690 and 691, “The Use of the Observation Helicopter for Artillery Adjustment,” December 1962 edition of Army Aviation. Here Colonel Jack K. Norris, Commandant USAPHS, outlines the training of aviators who fly their helicopter and radio coordinates to the Field Artillery.

[17] See page 894, Captain James Edmonds, FA.

[18] See page 159, Chapter 5, “Initial Deployment and Combat in the North African and Mediterranean Theaters,” Eyes of Artillery: The Origins of Modern Army Aviation in World War II, by Edgar F. Raines, Jr.; see page 31, Chapter Six, “Operation Torch and Preparations for Overlord, 8th November 1941-31st January 1944,” The Fighting Grasshoppers, by Ken Wakefield; see pages 38 and 39, “The Army Aviation Story, Part VI, The War Years: North Africa, Sicily and Italy,” U.S. Army Aviation Digest, November 1962, by Richard K. Tierney.

[19] Operation: OVERLORD was the Allied codename for the June 6, 1944 Normandy operation.

[20] See pages 210 and 211, Chapter VIII, “Field Artillerymen in World War II: 1939-1945,” King of Battle: A Branch History of the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery, by Boyd L. Dastrup.

[21] See page 647, “El Guettar: March 25-April 8, 1943,” The Field Artillery Journal, Vol. 33, No. 9, September 1943, by Colonel Douglas J. Page, FA.

[22] See page 130, Chapter III, “The War Years: North Africa, Sicily and Italy,” The Army Aviation Story, by Richard K. Tierney with Fred Montgomery.

[23] See page 48, Chapter II, “Artillery,” 4, Lessons Learned in Combat, November 7-8, 1942-September 1944: Algiers, Fandouk, Cassino-Anzio-Rome, Hill 609—Benevento, Civitavecchia, Volturno River, Cecina-Rosignano, Mt. Pantano, Livorno, Headquarters, 34th Infantry Division, APO 34, U.S. Army, September 1944, Italy.

[24] This was akin to the American Civil War, where Union Army commanders such as Generals Fitz-John Porter and George Stoneman would go aloft with Balloon Corps aeronauts for a bird’s eye view of enemy dispositions.

[25] See page 274, “Air Ops . . . , “ The Field Artillery Journal, Vol. 34, No. 5, May 1944, by Major Edward A. Raymond, FA.

[26] See page 652, “Air OPs in Tunisia Campaign,” The Field Artillery Journal, Vol. 33, No. 9, September 1943, by John E. Coleman.

Bibliography

Albertson, Mark, “Operation: TORCH: Baptism of Fire,” Army Aviation, Vol. 61, No. 11, Army Aviation Publications, Inc., Monroe, Ct., November 30, 2012.

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Dastrup, Boyd L., King of Battle: A Branch History of the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery, Office of the Command Historian, United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, CMH Pub 70-27, Fort Monroe, Virginia, 1993.

Edmonds, Captain James, FA, “Notes on Artillery Air Observation,” The Field Artillery Journal, Vol. 33, No. 12, U.S. Field Artillery Association, Washington, D.C., December 1943.

Finney, Robert T., History of the Air Corps Tactical School, Research Studies Institute, USAF Historical Division, Air University, 1955. Reprinted 1998, Air Force History and Museums Program, Bolling AFB, Washington, D.C.

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“Lessons Learned in Combat, November 7-8, 1942-September 1944: Algiers-Fondouk, Cassino-Anzio-Rome, Hill 609-Benevento, Civitavecchia, Volturno River, Cecina-Rosignano, MT. Pantano, Livorno,” Headquarters, 34th Infantry Division, APO 34, U.S. Army, September 1944, Italy. CONFIDENTIAL. Regraded Unclassified, by authority of OSD memo of May 3, 1972 by D.A. Keough on April 22, 1983. Source: Charles L. Bolte papers, box 6, at the U.S. Army Military History Institute Library, Carlisle Barracks, Pensylvania.

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Raines, Edgar F., Jr., Eyes of Artillery: The Origins of Modern U.S. Army Aviation in World War II, Center of Military History, United States Army, CMH Pub 70-31-1, Washington, D.C., 2000.

Raymond, Major Edward A., FA, “Air OPs . . . ,” The Field Artillery Journal, Vol. 34, No. 5, U.S. Field Artillery Association, Washington, D.C., May 1944.

Tierney, Richard K., Part VI, “The Army Aviation Story: The War Years: North Africa, Sicily and Italy,” U.S. Army Aviation Digest, Fort Rucker, Alabama, December 1962.

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Wakefield, Ken, The Fighting Grasshoppers: U.S. Liaison Aircraft Operations in Europe, 1942-1945, Midland Counties Publications, Specialty Press, Stillwater, Minnesota, 1990.