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[Home] [103 Sqn 1937 to 1940] [Advanced Air Striking Force]

RAF Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF)

Fairey Battle HA B

Prelude

Prior to WW2 it had been agreed between the United Kingdom and France that in case of war the light bomber force of the Royal Air Force would move to airfields within France from which it could operate against targets in Germany. To achieve this, the RAF Advanced Air Striking Force was formed on 24 August 1939 from No 1 Group and its eight squadrons of Fairey Battles dispatched to airfields in the Rheims area on 2 September 1939 under the command of AVM Patrick Playfair. 103 Squadron were based at a landing field at Challerange for a few weeks. However the site was not suitable due to the condition of the ground and in October 1939 they moved to Plivot until mid March 1940 and then to Betheniville in a swap with 139 Squadron

I believe two more Battle Squadrons were based at Nantes on the west coast of France to provide replacement aircraft and aircrew

It was an independent command from the British Expeditionary Force and at first reported directly to the Air Ministry. However this arrangement proved to be inadequate and on 15 January 1940 it was placed under the command of the British Air Forces in France headquarters. That headquarters also took the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force under its command. Air Marshal Arthur Barratt AOC British Air Forces in France from 15 January 1940

Barratt and Playfair

Barratt and Playfair

Political considerations prevented the use of the AASF against Germany although some leaflet dropping sorties were undertaken by 103 Squadron and the AASF only saw offensive action once the Germans attacked in the west in May 1940.

The Force

The AASF then consisted of 8 squadrons of Battles, two squadrons with Bristol Blenheim medium bombers and two squadrons of Hawker Hurricane fighters to be reinforced by a further squadron of Hurricanes in response to any major military action.

Aircraft type - Squadron number

Fairey Battle - 12, 88, 103, 105, 142, 150, 218, 226

Bristol Blenheim IV - 114, 139

Hawker Hurricane - 1, 73, reinforced by 501

The number of fighter squadrons were totally inadequate but were all that could be spared for the role as most RAF fighter squadrons were held back for the defence of the UK.

At the start of 10 May, the AASF had 135 serviceable bombers, whereas the French Armee de l'Air had less than 100 bombers with three quarters of these obsolete. However the French did have a significant force of fighters of various types.

The operational instructions issued by British Air Forces in France had stated that

“Bomber aircraft have proved extremely useful in support of an advancing army, especially against weak anti-aircraft resistance, but it is not clear that a bomber force used against an advancing army well supported by all forms of anti-aircraft defence and a large force of fighter aircraft, will be economically effective.”

 Indeed the AASF when used against German troops and key bridges rapidly suffered heavy losses in the face of the large numbers of Luftwaffe fighters and highly effective light anti-aircraft units protecting the offensive. The Fairey Battles were known to be vulnerable to fighters attacking from below and therefore initially attacked at low level which brought fresh problems. The Battle however was totally unsuited for low level daylight operations a role for which it had not been designed or envisaged it would ever have to undertake

Airfields of the AASF immediately before The Battle of France

Fairey Battles

Fairey Battles 226 Sqn Reims-Champagne1

Amifotaine – 12 Squadron

Berry-Au-Bac – 142 Squadron

Betheniville – 103 Squadron

Rheims - 226 Squadron

Auberive – 218 Squadron

Mourmelon – 88 Squadron.

Conde – 105 Squadron

Ecury-Sur-Coole – 150 Squadron

Bristol Blenheims

Bristol Blenheim Plivot RAF Force 139 Sqn

Plivot – 139 Squadron

Vraux - 114 Squadron

Hawker Hurricanes

Hawker Hurricane at Betheniville

Vassincourt – 1 Squadron

Rouvres-en-Woevre - 73 Squadron

Headquarters

Chauny – BAFF

Rhiems - AASF

The Blitzkreig

Of 8 Battles sent to attack German troops moving through Luxembourg on 11 May only one returned, its pilot having seen 3 Battles lost to ground fire. But the Blenheims hardly fared better; 7 out of the 9 Blenheims sent against a German column on the Maastricht- Tongres on 12 May were shot down after encountering swarms of German fighters. By the end of 12 May the AASF had 72 serviceable bombers.

Not all missions were as disastrous. The first attack made by the AASF against the pontoon bridges thrown across the Meuse at Sedan by the Germans after their breakthrough there was by 10 Battles bombing from high level in the early morning of 14 May. They did not encounter enemy fighters and returned without loss. However an attack on the bridges later that day found German fighter cover was by then in place and cost the AASF 40 out of 71 attacking aircraft. The AASF's original airfields were relatively close to the German line of advance to the Channel coast after breaking through at Sedan nd the AASF was forced to retreat further south into France. However, whilst it had been anticipated that the Air Component would advance into Belgium and therefore was equipped with sufficient intrinsic transport to be readily mobile, the same was not true of the AASF. Three hundred lorries held by the French but apparently remaining unallocated were therefore commandeered and the AASF moved south on the 16 May to stations in the Troyes area. 103 Squadron were based at a small airfield at Rheges St Lucien a few miles north of Troyes which was well liked and proved very suitable for further operations. The German air reconnaissance never spotted the site and it was never bombed.

The two Blenheim squadrons were disbanded and the nine surviving aircraft being reallocated to the Air Component they flew in a reconnaissance role. Two Fairey Battle squadrons, 105 and 218 were disbanded, their surviving aircraft being reallocated to the 6 remaining Battle squadrons which had switched largely to night operations for which the aircraft was more suited.

Subsequently the AASF relocated to the Orleans/Le Mans area where it was reinforced by two more Hurricane squadrons, 17 Squadron and 242 Squadron and then to Nantes. During the period 103 Squadron were based at Ouzouer-Le-Doyen and then on to Souge with several other Battle units

On the 15 June most of the Battles returned to the UK with the fighters and several Battles remaining at Nantes or relocated to the Channel Islands to give cover to the evacuation of British units from western ports. Two 103 Squadron Battles remained at Nantes to fly reconnaissance and bombing sorties if requited. James Hayter and his crew were one

On the 18 June and completion of the evacuation all remaining aircraft that were flyable returned to the UK. The headquarters was disbanded on 26 June 1940. From the start of the German offensive in the west to its final return to the UK the AASF had lost 229 aircraft of which 103 Squadron lost 18 on operations with several more abandoned due to damaged sustained.

103 Squadron Charles Perry in cockpit of Battle

Compiled by David Fell with photos from IWM and my own archive

 

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Also of local RAF Bomber Command interest are the

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