Letter: Wartime lessons on air supremacy

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The Independent Online
Sir: As one directly involved, I must take exception to the inference in H. R. Poole's letter (10 February) that Hitler's 100,000 troops failed to conquer Tito's partisans even though 'they had not merely air superiority but a monopoly of air power'.

The very reason why the German occupation of Yugoslavia failed to subdue the partisans was just because they did not have air superiority - let alone supremacy. Certainly, from January 1944, when the Allied air forces established a forward air control centre on the island of Vis (some 50 miles south- west of Split), and set up direct liaison arrangements with the partisans, Allied aircraft roamed at will over Yugoslavia without opposition from the Luftwaffe.

Indeed, the major German offensive, by a German airborne and two panzer divisions, against Tito's HQ in the mountains near Drvar in May 1944 was brought to a standstill solely by air strikes.

RAF ground-attack aircraft, operating from a forward airfield built on Vis, destroyed so much of the German armour and artillery that the attack failed completely. Tito escaped, set up his HQ on Vis and lived to direct the final defeat of the German occupying forces.

Germans involved at the time have since recorded that the constant Allied air attacks, or the fear of them, were as destructive of morale as the fear of attacks by the partisans. It is this psychological factor which seems to have been entirely overlooked by the 'armchair' strategists (and politicians) who have consistently argued that air strikes will not help to lift the siege of Sarajevo or of the other so-called UN safe areas in the country.

The basic mistake that has bedevilled the whole UN Bosnian operation is that politicians, and some military leaders, have forgotten the fundamental lesson of the Second World War, that ground forces must never be committed without associated air support. Or, to reverse Mr Poole's last phrase - 'to contemplate ground action without (supportive) air strikes is a cruel irrelevance'.

Yours sincerely,

TONY LE HARDY

Brussels

11 February

The writer was the Commander of the Forward Fighter Sector on Vis, and liaison officer in Tito's HQ there from January to August 1944.

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