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Air Land Long Read Military History

Dissecting Cobra: Air-Land Integration in Normandy

This essay will dissect Op COBRA, based on analysis of the two components of Air Land Integration (ALI) according to modern British Joint Air and Space Doctrine.  These are coordination and synchronisation of complimentary air and land capability, used to create a desired joint warfighting effect, in a defined area, in accordance with the commander’s intent1  Doctrine distils these conditions for success further to include: timeliness and assurance; air planning for flexibility; airspace control for comprehensive battlespace management and the ‘perishable’ notion of mutual empathy2as shown in the diagram below, adapted from the JDP 0-30 text.  These are the lessons of Op COBRA.  This essay will demonstrate that the credibility of these facets of modern ALI doctrine are fortified by this specific historic operation and the later events in the Normandy campaign.       

Full ALI, predicated on JDP 0-30 p4-3 to 4-5, ALI principles.

The Campaign in North-Western Europe, from D-Day to the liberation of Paris, was ‘the process of liberating Western Europe from the clutches of the Third Reich’3  It was a success, ‘in the space of some 80 days they [the Allies] destroyed two German armies’.  That Op COBRA formed just the first three days of the overall offensive highlights its centrality to that success.  

Precipitated as much by political pressure4 as strategic imperative, Op COBRA was many things.  The earlier British/Montgomery-led Operation GOODWOOD, which had ‘failed to achieve a breakout at the British sector’, penetrating ‘barely six miles deep’5 was not a total loss.  It created a welcome, but unintended deception plan, fixating Von Kluge the German Commander, on the British Sector.  This created the conditions for the catharsis of American frustration with British ‘timidity’, thus allowing Bradley to plan a break-through6operation.  It was the primary and arguably pivotal tactical achievement of the North-Western Campaign – in essence the both the primary, and critical ‘decisive condition’, in a sequence of many others, to enable the strategic aim and unlock the enemy Centre of Gravity7  It is of political intrigue that although Op COBRA is often declared the ‘break-out’ operation, ‘General Bradley was far too canny to commit himself to such a declared aim’8  Given the previous internecine sniping between commanders, arguably precipitated by political pressure, particularly from the US Secretary of War, it was perhaps a failure of joint planning and leadership vision, to commit to fully envisaging success for Op COBRA and then mount a more effective exploitation in break-out.   

 Op COBRA is also labelled as much a tactical tragedy as a success: ‘the Cobra strikes killed slightly over 100 GIs’9, including a senior US Land Commander and fortifying the lasting hatred and mistrust of Bradley in regard to the Air Force. Op COBRA is also elevated to mythological status in many texts: ‘sixty days after the start of Operation COBRA, the greatest campaign in American military history was over’.10

 Op COBRA set the conditions for the hard learning of many ALI lessons. The target area would be ‘pounded by elemental fury’11, with over 1500 heavy bombers flying in support of a land offensive against the German held line. They would fly in on perpendicular approach, much to the surprise of the land forces commander, Bradley, who had believed his orders to protect his own front and fly in parallel would be honoured. They were not. Furthermore, the Air Component Commander’s arrival and subsequent cancellation of the whole Op, at 1140 on 24 Jul 44, only twenty minutes before the operation was due to begin, due to weather conditions, created a significant loss of trust and put men of both the land and air components in serious hazard.  The element of surprise lost, the Op COBRA strategy was laid bare to the Germans at the fault of the senior Airman.  Later, on the 25 Jul 44, flawed airborne SOPs saw bombs unleashed at the wrong dropping point, on troops insufficiently dug-in owing to incorrect briefings as to the destructive power and closeness of the target bombing zones.  The sheer volume of air traffic was also ignored, with epic failures of airspace control leading to miscalculated bombing runs. In short every principle that could have been broken in ALI terms, was.  

 Op COBRA was a dichotomy. It forced a conceptual revolution in the application of strategic and tactical air power that would resonate through history to meet its epoch in modern fighter bombers and RPAS. To achieve this, the application of strategic air power for Op COBRA, which was viewed as simplistic and primal, used these high-yield strategic assets in an unknown and untested tactical role. The inherent frustrations between the land commanders desire for this tactical ‘silver bullet’, and the airmen’s desire to strike strategic targets to cripple the bigger Nazi beast was articulated well by Brigadier Williams, Montgomery’s LO to the Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF): ‘there was no real cooperation….no one was commanding the Air Force so to speak, and Tedder [Eisenhower’s Second in Command] had to try and command because Leigh-Mallory [Commander and tactically focussed head of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force]… didn’t have any control over Bert Harris [Chief of British strategic bombing assets] at all, anyway.  The result was, and its significant I think, that this awful phrase grew up: ‘selling a target’. And that’s what you had to do, you see, if you wanted the Air Force to do something.’12

Brigadier Williams’ quote is interesting when one considers the lessons of their recent history, in that ‘the first experiments with heavy bombers had taken place on D-Day, when at best, the record was mixed. In two major operations following the landings, the British were the first to employ heavy bomber close support. On the first occasion – Charnwood in early July – the desire to ensure that friendly troops were not hit led the planners at British Second Army to select a target area that was too far to the rear. Ground observers found that the area contained very few enemy positions, personnel, or guns.  Attacking targets so far back, and in this case several hours before the main ground attack, also violated the principle of continuity so essential to the success of a fire plan supporting an attempt to break into a deep defensive system13.’ Many of these failures were not captured and exploited before Op COBRA.    

This failure and subsequent lesson was documented by those present at early, fractious air-land planning meetings at the AEAF HQ in Stanmore where: ‘airmen at the Stanmore meeting listened patiently as [General] Bradley dealt with matters more within their field than his. No one really knew much about carpet bombing’14  The initiative to use strategic bombers in the tactical role had been seized by the Army and the subsequent conversations made dictat rather than dialogue.   

When using the metrics and language of modern air land integration doctrine to judge the level of trust, assurances and communication in Op COBRA, the results are stark, but lessons lasting.  The failure of inter-personality considering the operational context being one of national survival is damning.  Further, from the perspective of lessons exploitation and internalization of previous examples of strong air-land C2 cooperation in the Desert campaigns of North Africa, Op COBRA could be judged to have failed.  The Allies forgot, ignored or disassembled their conceptual advantages previously learnt and enacted by Conningham and Tedder in North Africa alongside Montgomery at the strategic leadership level, despite the latter’s arguable treachery when absorbing subsequent limelight. This residual positivity should have been formalized throughout the structures of command from strategic to tactical.  This is best identified in the use of a TACP/JTAC capability which was embryonic and limited for the US in the form of ‘Air Support Parties (ASP)’ and hardly at all for the RAF, which ‘was puzzling, as they had pioneered the concept in the Mediterranean’15  

The fact that tactical doctrine did not fuse with strategic pace is also a factor when evaluating timeliness and assurance.  US ASPs were not doctrinally empowered to act in what modern operators would understand to be the TACP/JTAC role, a failure of mission command, airspace control and cross domain integration, in an already confused C2 picture.  Indeed, even in the event of observation of fratricide ASPs were not allowed to communicate with overhead air assets16  Connigham never allowed TAF ground LOs to direct air assets in this way, keeping direct control of pre-planned air offensives.  Given that investment had been made in the Army Cooperation School at Old Saurum, a forerunner of JFACTSU, there continued to be very few air-land MRX-type ventures or capitalisation on any mutual trust narratives that may have developed as a result of joint training.  

After Op COBRA the US uptake of lessons was innovative and quick, for example the use of combat veterans as forward attack coordinators within Quesada’s 9thAir Force and airborne FACs: ‘Fifth Army and XII Air Support Command developed a second innovation that was brought to France with Operation Dragoon: a forward air controller-or “Horsefly”- flying L-5 liaison aircraft. The first experiments with Horseflies were conducted north of Rome in June 1944.  They were attempts to solve the problem of locating forward elements of rapidly moving friendly columns and of exploiting the tactical information provided by low flying aircraft in forward areas. The Horsefly was extremely useful in uncovering targets otherwise difficult to see and sometimes in helping control attacks by providing the controller a view similar to that of the attacking aircraft17.  This drive to change in the US air component was not always mirrored in their land components from Op COBRA onward, with ‘artillery barrages both before and during the operation often ineffective.     Artillery was only used to good effect when the U.S. infantry and armour could advance and see the enemy and then direct cannon fire directly onto the German positions…’ 18.  Bradley’s quote, despite evidence presented to the contrary in support of the Land component, is telling of his well rooted prejudice ‘our tactics taught at home are as sound as a dollar’19 .  These are prejudices that appear to linger in modern narratives between air and land components and so could never have been fully learned.      

When further considering the ALI lessons surrounding the US ASPs, it highlights the importance of mutual trust, robust comms and cross domain integration, when identifying that their correct radio systems,20were not loaded owing to bulk and size prior to D-Day. As a result early comms before Op COBRA and only just in time for the start were forced to be re-broadcasted to AEAF HQ in Stanmore and Uxbridge command nodes via littoral assets, hamstringing A6 and therefore C2 capability at the tactical level as a result of a single failure to understand vital air requirements. 

The resonant lesson of Op COBRA throughout the North-Western European Campaign and after, is one of trust. Air Land Integration is arguably a fusion, and acceptance of, potentially divergent professional identities, cultures, operational histories, asset alignment, exploitation and coordinated, complimentary effects.  

Then, as now, the differences between the two components are also deeply conceptual.  Where land is justifiably focussed on tactical action to precipitate strategic effect, enacted through the emotive sweat and blood of the soldier; air can achieve tactical support that becomes highly seductive to the ground commander but also near unquantifiable strategic effect, at distance, with such speed, height, reach, ubiquity and responsiveness that the understanding of that capability and subsequent effect is rendered near invisible or incomprehensible. 

 For Op COBRA, and thereafter, the leadership of this understanding should have started at the Supreme Commander, his deputy and the sub-unit commanders.  During Op COBRA, it did not. ‘Tedder did not act as Air Commander in Chief.  He arbitrated in case of conflict between the three senior air commanders [Harris, Spaatz and Leigh-Mallory], and he conveyed Eisenhower’s wishes with respect to the employment of the heavy bomber forces on ‘strategic’ targets.  Ground and naval forces were to make their needs known to Leigh-Mallory21’.  In this regard Leigh-Mallory should have been imbued with the influence and voice of Eisenhower: ‘according to one document, Leigh-Mallory was to “act for the Supreme Commander” in the operation of Strategic Air Forces in tactical support for Overlord 22’. Tedder’s appointment as the true arbiter and arranger of strategic support disproves this, wrecking any hope of acceding to the ALI principles, along with the multitude of evidence that purveys Leigh-Mallory as un-trusted and almost totally tactically focussed.  It is arguable that the single service predilections of Eisenhower as a Land commander and politician, saw him push Leigh-Mallory, a noted land centric airman, on the strategically focussed airmen in order to ensure his will by proxy.  Leigh-Mallory is quoted as saying: ‘either I am to be allowed to direct the whole of the air forces available to the full and immediate support of the Army or I shall resign.  If Tedder does not like it either he or I will go’.  That ACM Tedder did not appreciate this fundamental disconnect with the de-facto commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces, which included strategic bombing assets, is a prime failing.  It was not rectified until Leigh-Mallory was removed later in the Normandy campaign. As a result Tedder was unable to assure air power to the land component, nor could he commit to its timeliness owing to a lack of centralised planning and control amongst the competing imperatives of his air commanders and their active divergence from the overall air commander, Leigh-Mallory.  

 This was highlighted by the actions of the Eighth Air Force later. Here it is visible that lessons of convoluted command and preciousness over assets had not been learned:  ‘the partial independence of strategic air forces, particularly the eighth air force, was a frequent source of problems. Whenever the eighth air force attacked targets in Germany, it took its huge fighter force with it.  At full strength, this meant more than 1,000 fighters were unavailable for regular air superiority and interdiction missions 23’.  This created an already pressurised and confusing command picture:  ‘These kinds of operational gymnastics required coordination between no fewer than five separate headquarters: AEAF, USSTAF, Ninth Air Force, Eighth Air Force and Second Tactical Air Force 24’.  In considering the highly formalised and sophisticated JTAR tasking process and other C2 structures of the modern NATO CAOC at the operational level, which supports interfaces that reach out to even a small tactical level Joint Defence Operations Centre (JDOC), such as that which operated as COMKAF HQ between 2005-2012, the advances from the COBRA and 1944-45 paradigm in the modern era, are significant and powerful with effects swift and fused.   

 Fragmentation of higher level mutual trust and empathy may have resonated to the lowest level.  Considering Leigh-Mallory’s position as the de-facto overall air component commander, his conceptual dislocation from his subordinate commanders could not have been more pronounced.  He was also wilfully divergent from ACM Tedder, postulating major conceptual positions in support of the land component, without his visibility or guidance: ‘when I first propounded the scheme of full air support to the Army, Air Chief Marshall Tedder was not present, but General Marshall was.  He thoroughly agreed with it…I believe Ike will back me’25.  The second and third order effects of this attitude could have fractured the entire operation.  ‘I have always taken the view that the Army should be given all the air support it desires’26.  Though empirical research suggests not: ‘the lack of effective centralisation did not prove to be the handicap it might have been in other circumstances. Relationships were good enough at lower levels to ensure proper coordination in most instances where the tactical air commands, composite groups, and their associated medium bomber commands operated together.  On several occasions during the summer, the RAF second TAF operated with IX TAC to support American ground units and vice versa’27.

 This provoked severe disharmony with strategic bombing commanders, like Spaatz, the nominal national head of the USAAF who said:  ‘Our forces now are far superior to the Germans opposing us, both in men and materiel.  The only thing necessary to move forward is sufficient guts on the part of the ground commanders.’28It was too late.  Eisenhower had been granted contested control of strategic bombing assets.  Post COBRA, it quickly became obvious that ‘at no time during the summer campaign did heavy bomber close support prove to be a miracle weapon29.  Soon after Op COBRA, the strategic airmen were vindicated, ‘in September the combined chiefs of staff removed the heavy bombers from Eisenhower’s “strategic direction30”’.  Eisenhower remains stoic about COBRA, as the supreme commander, remaining impartial to land or air, but transcending and distilling the lessons, ‘the closeness of air support given in this operation was such as we should never have dared to attempt a year before.  We had learnt the need for a quicker ground follow up and on the conclusion of the bombing for the avoidance of cratering and for attacks upon a wider range of targets to the rear and on the flanks of the main bombardment area.  Our technique however was still not perfected and some of our bombs fell short causing casualties to our own men.  Unfortunately perfection in the employment of comparatively new tactics such as this close-support carpet bombing is attainable only through the process of trail and error and these regrettable losses were part of the inevitable price of experience’31.  Interestingly, at the tactical level, ‘most, but not all commanders, believed that they generally received satisfactory support over the entire campaign in France and Germany. On occasion, however, the distance of airfields from the front and the failure to concentrate air effort in support of attacking divisions lessened the weight of attack and undermined effectiveness. Ineffective attacks were also caused by poor description of targets by the requesting ground units and by failure to mark targets accurately with smoke32’.

 Scarcity of assets and combined plans did not create unity for the Allies. ‘For a variety of reasons, including personality conflicts, quarrels over strategy, and organisational politics, the Allies never created a single overall air command in north western Europe34’.  Tactical advances outpaced the fractured strategic picture and broken C2 lines of communication.    Operation Dragoon demonstrated this later in the campaign as the American and French landings in the south of France in August 1944 ‘introduced the Mediterranean system of close air support into the European theatre. This system was closely modelled on the RAF [desert air force] arrangements and differed in some key respects from that employed in the Ninth Air Force [under Quesada]. In its original form, as worked out by XII Air Support Command and Fifth Army, the ground forces were responsible for transmission and evaluation of requests, which were handled by G-3 (Air) staff sections at division, corps, and army. The Air Support Command provided no liaison officers to either of the two lower echelons. The first an air officer heard of the request was when it was presented by the G-3 at army to the TAC A-3. If the A-3 accepted the request, he relayed the orders to the 64 Wing Fighter Control Center, which handled TAC navigation control. Pilots would already have been briefed by the ground liaison officer before the orders reached the airfields35.

The building of trust in ALI requires some acceptance of positive effects from both sides, however, ‘it is difficult to measure precisely the contribution of close air support to the success of a battle or campaign, largely because in most cases it is almost impossible to separate the impact of specific weapons from the total effect of various combinations of fire and maneuver. All commanders who had worked under armored column cover or air alert regarded those systems superior to any other employed in the theater.  The support was predictable. The strength and the schedule of support relays were known, and the air effort could be easily integrated into the ground plan. There was no significant time lag in processing urgent requests, and lower echelon commanders at corps and below had authority to allocate targets (assuming their ASP officer would agree)36. JDP 0-30 states, effective cross-domain integration depends on mutual empathy, built on trust and understanding. In the past, this has proved to be a perishable commodity once the impetus of direct combat is removed 37  Post COBRA, these specific lessons were internalized and played out in later campaigns such as Op DRAGOON.  Despite higher level pragmatism, some ground Commanders remained vociferously anti-air force for the remainder of their careers, as highlighted by the scathing quote of General Bradley in regad to Op COBRA air support: ‘Air Force brass simply lied,’ speaking in relation to 8th AAF using a perpendicular run-in to the Op COBRA carpet bombing effort 38. However, ‘almost all officers interviewed agreed that visible close air support raised the morale of their troops. It also contributed greatly to the reduction of enemy artillery fire, and generally undercut the organisation and cohesion of enemy forces39.’ 

Op COBRA is a crucial case study in the development of ALI understanding today. Lessons observed within this conflict directly link to all of the modern ALI principles within JDP 0-30.  It is observable that trust and understanding faltered at the higher command level, but his was not always so at the tactical level in cross domain integration.  Empathy appeared to exist closer to the combat.  Developments within air planning and airspace coordination did occur, but at wildly differing rates, some in the case of the RAF’s TAF retrograde.  Timeliness and assurance did suffer owing to the failures of higher command, issues that today are expunged by coordinated fires and joint planning architectures surrounding the current and future operating environment and enshrined within the joint nature of EAW and JFACC operating models.  The fundamental breakdown was one of trust and understanding at the strategic command level between high air and land commanders. That we could not overcome this in a war of national survival has stark implications for our ability to do this in modern operations in the climate of competition for resources.    

Header photo shows a B-26 Marauder strike a road and rail junction (USAF archive).

About the author

Squadron Leader Rob Pitt RAF

Rob is a RAF Training Officer, former Reserve Infantry Company Commander and led Tactical Information Warfare Team development at 77 Brigade.  Whilst on sabbatical from regular service, he's written novels represented by Sheil Land Literary Agents and is currently writing his first non-fiction book, The Mad Brigade: A tactical guide to military rogues, renegades and eccentrics. He has worked in conservation media, was a UK Defence Academy Consultant in IA&O/OA and FCO Stabilisation Unit Stratcom Deployable Expert.  He previously served with 3 RAF FP Wing, 2 PARA, led an award winning RAF Valley media ops team, as SO2 Leadership at the RAF College Cranwell, commanded The London Scottish and recently supported C-VEO STTT for 7 Infantry Brigade in Africa.  He is XO of Joint Warfare at JFC and is Wavell Room’s Information Warfare Associate Editor.

Footnotes

  1. JDP 0-30, (2014), 4-3.
  2. Ibid, 4-5
  3. Buckley, J.  The NormandyCampaign: Sixty Years On(New York: Routledge, 2006), 1.
  4. US Secretary of War Henry Stimson returned from a visit to Normandy deeply disturbed about the slow pace of operations’.  Sullivan, John J.  “The Botched Air Support of Operation COBRA”.  (Parameters, Mar 1988), 98.
  5. Zaloga, SJ.  Operation Cobra 1944:  Breakout from Normandy(Great Britain; Osprey, 2001), 32.
  6. Not a break-out, for which Bradley would not commit to.
  7. JDP 01, (2008), 3-10.
  8. Neillands, R.  The Battle of Normandy, 1944:  New Ed edition (Great Britain.Phoenix; 2003), 272.
  9. Hallion, Richard P. Strike from the Sky – The History of Battlefield Air Attack(Shrewsbury; Airlife Publishing, 1989), 208.
  10.  Yenne, B.  Operation Cobra and the Great Offensive(Great Britain; Pocket Books. 2009), 342.
  11. Sullivan, John J.  “The Botched Air Support of Operation COBRA”.  (Parameters, Mar 1988), 102.
  12. Hamilton, Nigel. Monty: master of the battlefield, 1942-1944. (London; Hamish Hamilton, 1983), 608.
  13. Jacobs, WA in Cooling, Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support (Hawaii; University Press of the Pacific, 1990), 269.
  14. Sullivan, John J.  “The Botched Air Support of Operation COBRA”.  (Parameters, Mar 1988), 100.
  15. Jacobs, WA in Cooling, Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support (Hawaii; University Press of the Pacific, 1990), 260.
  16. Ibid., 254.
  17. Ibid., 274.
  18. Lee in Buckley, J.  The NormandyCampaign: Sixty Years On(New York: Routledge, 2006),65.
  19. Ibid,. 66
  20. SCR 399 radios had been left behind, leaving only the SCR 284 which had limited range and power.
  21. Jacobs, WA in Cooling, Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support (Hawaii; University Press of the Pacific, 1990), 240.
  22. Memo, “command and control of air forces” and Spaatz papers, manuscript div, LC. The original had been initialled by Tedder.  
  23. Jacobs, WA in Cooling, Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support (Hawaii; University Press of the Pacific, 1990): 242.
  24. Ibid
  25. Sullivan, John J.  “The Botched Air Support of Operation COBRA”.  (Parameters, Mar 1988), 99.
  26. Jacobs, WA in Cooling, Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support (Hawaii; University Press of the Pacific, 1990), 268.
  27. Ibid., 242.
  28. Gen Spaatz Daily Journal, Jun 15, 1944, Spaatz Papers, Box 15, MD, LC.
  29. Jacobs, WA in Cooling, Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support (Hawaii; University Press of the Pacific, 1990), 282.
  30. Ibid., 242.
  31. Eisenhower in Hallion, 1989: 211
  32. Jacobs, WA in Cooling, Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support (Hawaii; University Press of the Pacific, 1990), 132.
  33. .  This was in stark contrast to the arguably more pragmatic approach of the Luftwaffe, who had achieved a more structured C2 construct earlier in the war.  Op COBRA proved a costly lesson, despite that from 23 May, ‘the senior air commanders met each morning at Leigh-Mallory’s HQ at Stanmore to allocate air effort33Ibid,. 241.
  34. Ibid., 272.
  35. Ibid,. 281.
  36. JDP 0-30,  4-5.
  37. Hallion, Richard P. Strike from the Sky – The History of Battlefield Air Attack(Shrewsbury; Airlife Publishing, 1989) 211.
  38. Jacobs, WA in Cooling, Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support (Hawaii; University Press of the Pacific, 1990), 282.

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