Halpro: The Halverson Detachment in the Middle East June-July 1942

By Reese, John R. | Air Power History, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Halpro: The Halverson Detachment in the Middle East June-July 1942


Reese, John R., Air Power History


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British historian Sir Michael Howard observed that, while armed forces almost always enter the war with the wrong doctrine, "it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives." (1) The list of works sparked by Michael Howard's observation is short: a collection of essays in America's First Battles: 1776-1965 edited by Charles Heller and William Stofft focuses on the struggle to "get it right" in ground operations; and Aldon Purdam takes the same approach for aerial warfare in America's First Air Battles. The latter focuses mainly on challenges to air power theory and doctrine, which seems to be a fetish among airmen. This essay expands the discussion in examining the Army Air Forces' (AAF) first encounter with the European Axis powers. A military crisis in the Middle East, Anglo-American alliance politics and an unpromising project to bomb Japanese cities from Chinese bases came together in the summer of 1942, to produce a classic case study in what the British call "ad hocery." The operations of the AAF's Halverson Detachment, a special task force of B-24 heavy bombers, in the Middle East in June and July 1942, offer unique insights into how politics, doctrine, training, improvisation, combat leadership, and home front morale shape the conduct and the outcomes--perceived and real--of first battles. Examining these initial encounters with the enemy can help us understand why getting it right can be both difficult and instructive for those who survive them.

An air power option emerged as the only feasible American response to British requests for combat forces during what Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall called the "Egyptian crisis" in summer 1942. For nearly two years, Axis (Italian and German) and Allied armies had traded blows in a series of offensives and counteroffensives back and forth across what the British called the Western Desert, a "comparatively narrow coastal strip running from Alexandria in the East to Tripoli in the West, a distance roughly equal to that between Moscow and Berlin." (2) In January 1942, Panzer Group Africa, a German-Italian formation under the command of General (later Field Marshal) Irwin Rommel began its last major offensive, aimed at the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal. By the end of May, Rommel had pushed the British Eighth Army well into eastern Libya before the front stabilized along the Gazala-Bir Hakeim line. By June 11, a series of piecemeal counterattacks so depleted the British armored force that Rommel was able to renew the offensive and send a stumbling Eighth Army back toward the Egyptian border. General Marshall told President Roosevelt that Panzer Group Africa could be in Cairo in as little as a week and on the banks of the canal shortly thereafter. There was nothing, he continued, that the United States could do "immediately that might favorably affect the situation in the Middle East." (3) While the military situation in the Middle East was grave, U.S. resources were limited. Expediting delivery of tanks to the Eighth Army and sending a few AAF combat units to support the RAF in the Middle East were the best that could be done to help.

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General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General AAF, was enthusiastic about committing air forces to this fight. Indeed, he envisioned the Middle East as an "air theater of operations." One version of this vision had been "on the books" in the Air War Plans Division since summer 1941. AWPD-1 conceptualized a huge strike force of very long range bombers in the Near East that would join others in "converging on Germany from all directions... [and] reverse the situation wherein Germany is a continent fighting an island and place Germany in the position of an island in air power under attack from all corners of the earth." Execution would have to wait until a suitable bomber was available, perhaps as early as late 1945. …

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