Anniversaries, The Commanders

The Best Air Force in the World

The room was thick with pipe smoke as the men sat around the dinner table at a villa in Algiers. Lieutenant General Carl A. Spaatz was hosting the commanders of the Allied air forces in the Mediterranean as they put the final touches on a new command structure for the theatre. As staff removed empty dishes and refilled glasses, the senior officer present and the overall commander of Mediterranean Air Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, addressed his officers:

You know, we British are intensely proud of our Air Force. We think it is the very best in the world, and that it saved England and the world–all of us. We have our own ways of doing things and I suppose we feel we are justified in keeping these ways. But we also know that you Americans are equally proud of your splendid Air Force, of your magnificent aeroplanes and as well you are. However, it will be the fusion of us, the British, with you, the Americans, that is going to make the very best Air Force in the world. (Arthur Tedder, With Prejudice, 398)

The Mediterranean Air Command was the combined result of Operation TORCH and the westward advance of the Desert Air Force after the Second Battle of El Alamein in autumn 1942. The United States Army Twelfth Air Force supported the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa and established bases in Morocco and Algeria. Commanders needed to coordinate the operations of these two air forces. Spaatz’s Northwest African Air Force combined three major combat commands: the Coastal Air Force, the Strategic Air Force, and the Tactical Air Force. The Northwest African Air Force (NAAF) also included an Air Service Command (NAASC), a Training Command (NATC), a Troop Carrier Command (NATCC), and a Photographic Reconnaissance Wing (NAPRW).

Air Vice Marshal Sir Hugh Lloyd (National Portrait Gallery)

The Northwest African Coastal Air Force (NACAF) included a mix of day fighters, night fighters, antisubmarine warfare bombers, and maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft. Air Vice Marshal Sir Hugh Lloyd, former Air Officer Commanding in Malta between 1941 and 1942, led NACAF.

The Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF) included the fighters and fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force and US XII Air Support Command. It also included a Tactical Bomber Force combining American and British light and medium bombers. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, the former commander of the Desert Air Force, led NATAF. He later went on to command the RAF Second Tactical Air Force for the victory campaign in Northwest Europe. His deputy (at least until the end of the Tunisian Campaign) was Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter, whose career made him one of the key architects of American air power in its formative years.

Major General James H. Doolittle (

The Northwest African Strategic Air Force (NASAF) included American medium and heavy day bombers in addition to British medium night bombers. The force also contained P-38s, the only long-range Allied escort fighter in the theatre. Major General James H. Doolittle, of Tokyo raid fame, led NASAF. He later went on to command the US Army Eighth Air Force out of the United Kingdom in 1944 and 1945.

Each of these formations reported to Spaatz, who later commanded the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe in 1944 and 1945. In turn, Spaatz reported to Tedder at Mediterranean Air Command, streamlining communications. Tedder commanded all Allied air forces resources in the Mediterranean. This included the remaining commands in the region (Air Headquarters Malta, Middle East Command, and RAF Gibraltar). The idea was to have one command to coordinate all Allied air power in the Mediterranean. Tedder reported to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander. The pair later went on to become Deputy Supreme Allied Commander and Supreme Allied Commander respectively for the victory campaign in Northwest Europe.


The Mediterranean Air Command stood up on 18 February 1943. These command relationships served the Allies for the remainder of the Tunisian Campaign, Operation HUSKY in Sicily, Operation BAYTOWN in Calabria, Operation AVALANCHE at Salerno, and Operation SLAPSTICK at Taranto. Although Mediterranean Air Command was renamed the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces in December 1943, the functional tri-force model of tactical, strategic, and coastal commands remained.

Tedder, Spaatz, and their senior airmen fleshed out all these details. It would not be a perfect marriage. There would be stumbles along the way. Sometime later, in an effort to formalize the organization, Tedder ruffled Spaatz’s feathers. Drawing up a detailed structure led to questions about ranks, seniority, and a return to national prejudices. Tedder told Spaatz bluntly:

If you want a divorce, you can have one here and now, repeat now! (Tedder, 399)

The pair agreed to cancel all attempts to formalize the organization and the marriage remained healthy.

Back in Spaatz’s villa, Tedder completed his speech:

And now, gentlemen, this is the last time I shall ever speak of “us”, the British, and “you”, the Americans. From now on it is “we” together who will function as Allies, even better than either of us alone. (Tedder, 398)

© IWM (CNA 408)
Senior Allied Air Commanders at Ain Beida, Algeria. Left to right: Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Mary’ Coningham, Air Officer Commanding, NATAF, Major General Carl A. Spaatz, Commanding General, North-west African Air Forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Mediterranean Air Command, and Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter, Deputy Commander, NATAF. (© IWM (CNA 408))

SYMBOL to Victory: The Casablanca Conference

Seventy-five years ago this week Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and their staffs met in Casablanca, French Morocco. This conference, codenamed SYMBOL, would decide the course the Second World War would take in 1943.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill seated in the garden of the villa where the conference was held. Grouped behind them are British and American Chiefs of Staff.

The British had been fighting Nazi Germany for over three years, having declared war in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Their goal at Casablanca was to focus Allied military efforts against Germany and Italy. The well-crafted British argument was for Allied troops to finish operations in North Africa. Then these resources should continue operations to remove Italy from the war.

The Americans were relatively new to the war, at least officially. While the US Navy had been fighting the Battle of the Atlantic alongside the Royal Navy since mid-1941, America was not formally at war until the Japanese offensive of December 1941. Their vision was foggier. The US Navy desired an increased focus on the Pacific War against Japan while the US Army envisioned an invasion of France in 1943.

Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin declined an invitation to attend. His country had suffered heavily since the German invasion in June 1941. The Battle of Stalingrad had his full attention as the titanic struggle between dictators continued in the east.

© IWM (A 14085)
The Anfa Hotel. Headquarters of the Conference. © IWM (A 14085)

The Allies chose Casablanca as the site for the conference mainly out of convenience. American troops under Major General George S. Patton had taken the city from Vichy French forces in November 1942. Since there were American troops nearby, Roosevelt could visit them. Incidentally, the Anfa Hotel, located in a well-to-do Casablanca suburb, would be relatively easy to secure with a tight perimeter. It became Patton’s task to organize the conference.

Over 11 days, the Allied warlords met to discuss the war’s hot topics. The British argument for exploiting gains in the Mediterranean won out easily against the relatively unprepared American delegation. Sicily was to be the next Allied objective; the target of an invasion codenamed Operation HUSKY.

Even more critically, the Western Allies agreed on their overarching priorities when it came to the Combined Bomber Offensive. Anglo-American bomber formations – RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force – would focus on supporting the Battle of the Atlantic. This would occur through the heavy bombardment of submarine construction facilities. A second priority was the destruction of the German aircraft industry. This order of priorities became known as the Casablanca Directive.

French propaganda poster published in Algeria, World War II, 1943

Another goal of Churchill and Roosevelt’s was to bring together the leaders of France’s liberation. Generals Henri Giraud and Charles de Gaulle failed to come to an agreement to unify Free French forces. Instead, they managed to share an awkward handshake for photographers. It was an important propaganda image to have Free France unified against the Axis.

Giraud and de Gaulle left, leaving Roosevelt and Churchill with a gathering of war correspondents and reporters. Then Roosevelt dropped a bombshell. He announced that the Allies would accept nothing less than “unconditional surrender” from the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Known as the Casablanca Declaration, historians have argued over the effects of this announcement ever since the war ended.

Did the declaration prolong the war with Germany? Ian Kershaw’s study of the final months of the Third Reich indicates that it did not. The same cannot be said for Italy, however:

“As the Allied generals at Casablanca constructed a strategy aimed at removing Italy from the war in 1943, the American president set a policy that made that removal more difficult.”

– Excerpt from Eagles over Husky

Yet the Allied military strategy was sound. Remove Italy from the war and the Germans would have to compensate for the loss of some 54 divisions, 2,000 aircraft, and the Italian fleet. Operation HUSKY would make this possible. Defending Festung Europa’s southern shore would become a lonely task.