The air support available to an encircled force will usually determine the feasibility of a breakout and the manner in which it must be executed. As a rule, it will depend on the availability of air cover whether marches and combat actions should take place in the daytime or during the hours of darkness when so many additional risks and difficulties are involved. Since a breakout on a large scale will necessarily include actions that can only be carried out in the daytime, such as frontal attacks over difficult terrain or assaults against well-defended enemy positions, a strong concentration of air power, at least during these phases, is indispensable for the success of the entire operation. In an extensive theater of war, where the air force has to accomplish many diversified missions against widely separated targets, there is always the danger of a dissipation of air strength. It will therefore be the responsibility of the top-level air force command to create in time the tactical and technical prerequisites for temporary mass employment of air power at points of main effort. This is accomplished by establishing and maintaining adequate ground installations in all crucial areas so that the rapid diversion of adjacent air force units (at least for one day's operations) will not present serious difficulties.
How many air force units are required to support an encircled force must be determined on the basis of known enemy strength, the size and vulnerability of the pocket, and its distance from the nearest friendly lines. How much air support can be provided will depend essentially upon the capacity of the airfields, the supply situation, and the intensity of combat on other sectors. The air strength actually needed in such situations can hardly be overestimated. It has to make up for the critical deficiencies that always aggravate the situation in a pocket (lack of artillery ammunition, heavy losses of weapons and tanks, etc.), and to bolster the morale of the encircled troops during their difficult struggle. In addition, since the immediate vicinity of a pocket is usually the scene of large enemy concentrations, the supporting air units will find numerous opportunities to weaken the
forces of the enemy. Here, even more than in most other situations, an adequate reserve of air strength should be available, specifically for the following reasons:
a. The defense of a pocket often takes an unexpected turn and may require the rapid commitment of additional air support that can only be provided if ample reserves are available for instant use.
b. The possibility of heavy aircraft losses must be taken into account, particularly as a result of enemy bombing attacks on friendly airfields.
c. The most serious crisis in a breakout may suddenly arise at a late stage of the operation. This will automatically increase the need for immediate air protection, and without adequate reserves such additional air support will not be available at the decisive moment.
d. Entire air force units may suddenly he grounded because of unfavorable weather and terrain conditions such as dense fog or deeply mired airstrips.
Long-range weather forecasts covering a wide area should be made available to the command of the ground forces. Such data can be of the greatest importance in selecting the most favorable time for a breakout, especially if they include an accurate forecast of bad weather periods during which the enemy air force will be unable to operate. Even local and temporary weather conditions can have a direct bearing on tactical decisions. It is conceivable that an encircled force might take advantage of temporary weather disturbances over enemy air bases, which may have the effect of grounding the bulk of the enemy's local air support, while more favorable weather conditions exist behind friendly lines, permitting one's own air units to carry out their missions.
The command over all air force units in an area where ground troops are encircled by the enemy must be in the hands of one air force commander, who should also have tactical control over air formations from adjacent sectors whenever they are committed in support of the encircled force. In addition, all antiaircraft units in the area must be under his command. [Ed.: It should be remembered that in the German organization most antiaircraft units were part of the Luftwaffe.] In the case of an encirclement on a large scale with adequate airstrips and supply facilities existing inside the pocket, it is advisable to appoint a special air force commander for the pocket area, who should be located in the immediate vicinity of the pocket command post. This air force officer should receive his orders from the air force commander responsible for the entire area.
All preparations for air support must be carried out as inconspicuously as possible. Great care must be taken to conceal the intentions of the pocket force and, specifically, to avoid offering any clues as to the time and place of the impending attack. Air supply operations should be initiated at the earliest possible moment, to assure that the ammunition and fuel requirements of the troops for the days of the breakout can be adequately covered. With few exceptions supply by air is indispensable for the success of a pocket force attempting to break through the enemy ring of encirclement. Yet, under the most favorable circumstances supply by air remains an extremely uneconomical measure. Therefore, when encirclement appears inevitable, every possible effort should be made in advance to build up an adequate supply reserve, at least of heavy and bulky items; even after the encirclement has become a fact, this might still be done by a strongly armed supply convoy forcing its way into the pocket.
If a force is compelled by specific orders to submit to encirclement by the enemy, it should seek to make its stand in an area that contains at least one usable airfield. Type and condition of the terrain may render it extremely difficult to accomplish the construction of new airstrips with the limited manpower available. At least one and if possible two or more airfields for the use of supply planes—preferably with cargo gliders in tow—should be in operation as soon as possible. In this instance the ground troops must provide the necessary manpower for grading operations. In some situations it may be imperative to accomplish a widening of the pocket by local attacks, in order to capture a suitable airfield or to place an existing field beyond the range of enemy artillery.
For night operations, which as a rule cannot be avoided, each airfield must have a radio beacon, a light beacon, and an adequate supply of signal flares. All airfields inside a pocket must be under the command of forceful officers supported by experienced personnel, a sizeable number of technicians, and an adequate labor force for the unloading, stacking, and rapid distribution of supplies.
In pockets where suitable airfields do not exist from the outset and cannot be constructed, supply by air is limited to the use of cargo gliders. Although the volume of supplies, in this case, will be considerably smaller, the facilities on the ground, except for the length of airstrips, will have to be virtually the same as described above.
Dropping supplies in aerial delivery containers is an extremely wasteful procedure. Losses from drifting or from breakage upon
impact range up to 60 percent; they may be as high as 90 percent if the containers are dropped into the rubble of a destroyed town. Yet, in the case of very small pockets, this may be the only possibility for supplying the surrounded force by air. In that event, the dropping point must be fixed by specific arrangements with the encircled troops since the enemy will make every effort to mislead the approaching planes and cause them to drop their loads over enemy-held territory.
Air reconnaissance units must provide the pocket commander promptly with the essential information on which he is to base his decisions as to time and place of the breakout and his specific plans for the conduct of the entire operation. The missions to be accomplished by air reconnaissance include the following:
a. Gathering information about enemy dispositions, so as to determine in what area around the pocket the enemy is weakest and where a break-through would have the best chance of success.
b. Furnishing specific information about enemy units located in the prospective breakout area, and indicating targets for counterbattery and air attacks.
c. Detecting enemy reserves and preparations on the flanks of the prospective zone of attack and opposite the rear of the pocket.
d. Providing aerial photographs and photo maps of the prospective break-through area, showing traffic arteries, bridges, and major terrain obstacles, and determining whether or not the terrain is suitable for armored combat.
e. Spotting airstrips (by using aerial photography), which might exist in the path of the planned attack, that could be used for supply by air during the breakout.
If the encircled ground troops are in the possession of adequate facilities and supplies, a considerable advantage can be gained by having part of the fighter force operate from airfields inside the pocket or at least use these fields as advance airstrips for daylight operations. The greater the distance of the pocket area from the main air bases, the greater will be the importance of such measures for the maintenance of the pocket.
As the enemy can be expected to commit strong air units in his major attempt to annihilate the encircled troops—especially if he recognizes their preparations for a breakout—friendly fighter forces eventually have the opportunity of attacking enemy air formations that are confined to a small area, and of shooting down a relatively large number of enemy aircraft.
The employment of fighter-bombers (Schlachtflieger) has particular significance in the defense of a pocket where, as a rule, there is a shortage of artillery ammunition and an increased need for concealment and for saving the strength of the encircled troops. Close tactical air support is especially needed during the regrouping of the pocket force just before the breakout. At such time, close-support aviation may have to assume the role and perform the missions of the artillery. To avoid a dissipation of strength, the effort of fighterbombers must be concentrated on a few target areas of major importance. At the same time, great care must be taken against revealing the intentions of the encircled ground troops. The strength and conduct of fighter-bomber units committed immediately before the breakout, for instance, should be largely the same as on preceding days. The targets selected should not permit any conclusions as to the actual direction of the impending attack. If it is necessary to neutralize certain areas in the path of the breakout, this must be done either sufficiently in advance or as soon as the attack on the ground has begun. In addition to providing direct support for the attacking breakout force, fighter-bombers are also employed to prevent the enemy from bringing up reserves and from regrouping his forces for the purpose of blocking the break-through attempt.
As a rule—chiefly for reasons of supply—close-support aircraft must operate from bases outside the pocket. Bombs and other appropriate ammunition that may be available at airstrips within the encirclement should be saved for a maximum air effort on the day of the breakout. Since positions along the perimeter are usually within close range of the enemy and difficult to identify from the air, the greatest caution must be used in the briefing of air crews operating over the area. This applies particularly when long-range aircraft from adjacent combat sectors are employed, a procedure which could otherwise lead to serious losses among friendly ground troops. Such aircraft should first be transferred to airfields close to the area of commitment where the crews can be properly briefed and quickly apprised of local changes in the situation.
Conspicuous changes in the disposition of antiaircraft units before the breakout may provide the enemy with definite clues as to the intentions of the encircled force. Antiaircraft guns and other tell-tale antiaircraft equipment should therefore be left in their positions (or replaced by dummy installations) until the very day of the breakout. Antiaircraft supply and service elements must be regrouped at
an earlier stage, but without attracting undue attention. Similarly, the antiaircraft protection for the ground troops during their assembly before the breakout must be so arranged as to produce the least possible change in the existing pattern of antiaircraft positions. At the same time, an ostentatious concentration of antiaircraft units or dummy positions in an area unrelated to the main effort might conceivably be used as a means to deceive the enemy.
If ammunition reserves are available, which must be left behind, or if the breakout force is without adequate artillery support, it may be advisable to employ some antiaircraft units in direct support of the attack on the ground. These units should be moved during the night before the breakout to double-purpose positions from which they can participate in the initial phase of the operation by delivering direct fire on important ground targets in addition to providing antiaircraft protection.
The general regrouping of antiaircraft units before the breakout should take place as late as possible and with a view to protecting leading ground elements, flank units, artillery positions, and critical points such as bridges and defiles. At this stage it is usually impossible to avoid stripping the remaining ground units and installations of their antiaircraft defenses. Success in carrying out these measures depends in most cases on the degree of mobility retained by the antiaircraft units.
In all these preparations it is essential to keep in mind that the main objectives in the employment of antiaircraft units are protection against low-level enemy air raids and against all air attacks that cannot be warded off by friendly fighter forces. Particularly when the protection offered by fighter aviation is inadequate, the greatest care must be used in co-ordinating the efforts of antiaircraft and fighter units.
For the breakout phase specific plans should be made to regulate the forward displacement of antiaircraft units and their priority of movement during the advance, provided it is at all possible to anticipate the various moves that might become necessary.
Detailed arrangements must be made by the air force to use supply aircraft returning from the pocket for the evacuation of wounded, of surplus personnel and equipment, and to assist the ground command in carrying out other evacuation measures (to include, in some cases, the removal of industrial equipment). The Army, on the other hand, is responsible for providing adequate medical facilities at the air bases to which the wounded are evacuated. Since casualties must be expected to occur at a high rate during certain phases of the oper-
ation, it will be necessary to take care of large numbers of wounded in the shortest possible time.
In view of the great difficulties normally encountered during a breakout, the ground troops need protection against persistent attack from the air, as well as continuous tactical air support. Both are indispensable for the success of the entire operation. This is particularly true for the most critical phases of the breakout which occur, first, during the initial attack; second, when the enemy commits his reserves against the flanks and rear of the pocket force; and, finally, when he attempts to overtake and block the troops withdrawing from the pocket. During these phases the air force commander must concentrate all available air units and exert steadily mounting pressure at the critical points. In the intervals between these main efforts he has the missions of preventing interruptions in the advance on the ground, and of keeping his flying units in the highest possible state of readiness. It is, of course, impossible to devise a standing operating procedure for air support during a breakout, since no two situations are alike. Nevertheless, the following basic principles should be kept in mind.
During the initial phase all available air units should be committed in direct support of the leading ground elements. Air attacks on ground targets, beginning with a strong opening blow and continued in successive waves, must be closely co-ordinated with the fire plan of the artillery. The targets of fighter-bombers comprise objectives that cannot be observed from the ground (enemy artillery positions, assembly areas, tactical reserves); also enemy positions offering particularly strong resistance, enemy movements approaching the combat area, and hostile elements threatening the flanks of the advancing spearheads. Standby reserves of fighter-bombers, circling some distance away or, better still, at considerable altitude above the combat area, must be employed to eliminate any reviving enemy resistance and to reduce newly identified enemy strong points. Their presence in the air will greatly strengthen the morale of the attacking ground troops. Experience shows, moreover, that as these planes appear over the battlefield, enemy batteries will cease firing, to avoid being identified from the air. At the same time, low-flying aircraft will often draw fire from hitherto unidentified enemy positions which are thereby exposed to artillery action. Another practicable measure may be the placing of small smoke screens to blind enemy artillery observation.
To avoid hitting friendly ground troops, bombers should operate in the depth of the zone of advance against enemy artillery positions, assembly areas, and similar objectives. They might also be employed
to lay large smoke screens, specifically to eliminate enemy observation from high ground off the flanks or from dominating terrain ahead of the advancing troops. Important objectives in the area of penetration should be reduced before the breakout by thorough bombing attacks, so as to lighten the task of the ground troops during the initial phase of the operation. This cannot be done, however, if such attacks are likely to reveal the plans of the breakout force. Nor does this rule apply to enemy command posts; these must be attacked at the most opportune moment, immediately after the breakout, when the resulting confusion among the enemy of fees the greatest advantage to the attacking force.
The regrouping of enemy units, which, according to German experiences in Russia, might take place between six and ten hours after a breakout has begun, must be recognized and reported by friendly reconnaissance aviation as quickly as possible. From that time on, the enemy should be kept under constant air observation.
In breakout operations of long duration the available fighter forces are usually unable to provide effective air cover at all times. In that event, their efforts must be concentrated on supporting those phases of the breakout which, in terms of terrain and enemy resistance, are expected to involve the greatest difficulties and the highest degree of exposure to enemy air attack. Between these periods of maximum air effort—which must be used to full advantage by the ground troops—it will often be necessary to restrict the employment of fighter aircraft, chiefly because of logistical limitations such as insufficient ammunition and fuel supply. Nevertheless, an adequate fighter reserve must always be ready for immediate take-off in order to defend the advancing ground troops against unexpectedly strong enemy air attacks. The more obscure the enemy air situation, the greater must be the strength of the fighter force held in reserve.
The air support for a relief force that is advancing in the direction of a pocket must, as a rule, be kept to a minimum, in order to assign the strongest possible air cover to the troops that are emerging from enemy encirclement. The forces approaching from the main front line are usually in a much better position to compensate for this deficiency by increased use of artillery and antiaircraft weapons. In such situations, the supporting fire from friendly aircraft must be carefully regulated to avoid inflicting casualties among the advancing ground troops, especially just before the link-up of the two converging forces. Even after the junction has been effected, the former pocket force might require special air protection, at least while its reorganization and rehabilitation are being accomplished.