Airfield Defence - Troops

The defence of aerodromes was a joint responsibility of the Air Force and Army as specified in GHQ Operating Instruction No 10:

  • Divisional and Area Commanders were responsible for approving airfield defence scheme and co-ordinating the airfield defence scheme with the main scheme of defensive zones and also the provision of mobile relief columns.
  • Station Commanders were responsible for initiating Defence Schemes, seeking advice and approval from the relevant Military Commander and the co-ordination of the defence of the station.
    • This, in effect, joint responsibility was to lead to some tension and mistrust between the RAF and Army.

      During 1940 the forces available for airfield defence were made up of:

      • Field Forces
      • Detachments of Home Defence Battalions – most of these had no light machine guns
      • A.A. Detachments which also had a secondary role in ground defence
      • Youth Companies – expected to eventually provide about 100 fully or partially trained riflemen per aerodrome.
      • R.E. Construction Companies – at some aerodromes about 60 Engineers were stationed to repair bomb damage to the runway and would be available as riflemen.
      • R.A.F Staff- forming inlying pickets and only armed with rifles.
      • Mobile Striking Force – made up form the personnel with the addition of three armoured lorries (improvisation was necessary until enough armoured lorries became available). Examples included the civilian 3-ton lorry fitted to take a lewis gun, the “Bison”, the “Armadillo” and later the “Beaverette”.
        • The Field Force was to provide the defence garrison for Class I and IIa (later Class A and B) aerodromes at the strength of a Company until sufficient Young Soldier and Home Defence Battalions became available; the War Office raised a number of Young Soldier Battalions specifically for aerodrome defence to release detachments of the Field Force employed on static guard duty. The Field Force was also to provide Immediate Assistance Platoons / Relief Columns. The RAF was responsible for the defence of Class III (later Class C) with the exception of Immediate Assistance Platoons / Relief Columns. The air defence of airfields was the responsibility of the RAF and AA Command, but as many as possible of the LAA guns was to have a secondary role of ground defence.

          Some senior RAF Commanders had concerns over the Army’s commitment to airfield defence; Air Marshal Peirse noted: “...the British Army never has been and never can be large enough for the jobs it is called upon to undertake”. These concerns were no doubt raised by such actions of Northern Command which cut the number of troops available to airfield defence soon after the Taylor Report was issued! This lead to the situation where there would not be enough troops to man defences constructed and the suggestion that pillboxes that could not be manned should be demolished (the Air Ministry quickly confirmed that on no account were such defences to be demolished but to be used as dummies).

          Resources for airfield defence remained an issue throughout the invasion period of 1940-1942 – as expressed again by Air Marshal Peirse in the Spring of 1941:

          “What earthly use, for instance, will 60 quarter- trained airmen, armed with rifles, officered by retired Lieutenant-Generals of 60, disguised as pilot officers, and supported by one broken-down Leyland lorry disguised as a sardine-tin with a Lewis gun inside it, be against 500 to 1,000 parachute troops – the picked gunmen and thugs of the German Army”. He cannot have been encouraged by comments from the Air Ministry which included the following remark: “Every available man must have some weapon, be it only a mace or pike, made in R.A.F. workshops”.

          Such concerns were no doubt a result of the system of “shared responsibility” and the failure to actually provide what was required – as in all aspect of British Anti-Invasion Defences, adequate resources simply did not exist.

          The Army Garrison for airfields in Suffolk during the summer of 1940 was comprised of the 6th (Home Defence) Battalion Suffolk Regt, which provided the guard at Stradishall, Honington, Wattisham and Ipswich and the Field Army which provided the guard for Martlesham. The 70 (Young Soldiers) Battalion Suffolk Regt had replaced the 6th Suffolk (Home defence) Battalion by the end of 1940 and carried out this role until the end of 1942.

          The Field Force was to provide relief columns for counter attack. At first these were just “Immediate Assistance Platoons” but by 1941 schemes had become more substantial. Set piece routes and artillery positions were to be established and tested with frequent exercises. Emergency wireless communication (code named ‘PANDA’) was provided to ensure direct contact between the RAF and Army (including the relief column) was maintained.

          The War Diary of 10th Highland Light Infantry gives a good illustration of airfield relief. It had a role (scheme dated March 1941) of providing relief columns for the following aerodromes: Ipswich, Martlesham and Wattisham:

          The battalion was at one hours notice. On ‘Stand To’ it was to parade in Battle Order and on ‘Action Stations’ was to move to the allotted assembly areas by set piece routes. Martlesham aerodrome was defended by one company 70 Battalion the Suffolk Regiment, approx 100 RAF personnel and four Bison lorries. On ‘Action Stations’ B Squadron Royal Tank Regt would move to assembly area at Beacon Hill Wood while 10 HLI would move by motor coach to its assembly area. If after concentration no contact with the enemy was made, drives around the east or west of the aerodrome may be required to drive the enemy into the fire of the perimeter defences or the River Deben.

          However the delay in any relief force in reaching an aerodrome was an issue with some RAF Commanders: Air Marshal Peirse again:

          “What is the use of a counter attack-company.... if it cannot possibly arrive till the embers of the aircraft have practically ceased to smoulder, and the enemy either are in possession of the aerodrome, or – having accomplished their object in destroying the aircraft – have gracefully surrendered to the Local Defence Commander?”.

          By 1943, with the invasion scare all but over, the defence of aerodromes was the responsibility of the newly formed RAF Regt (or US Air Base Security Troops for USAAF airfields).

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