WWII Development of Expeditionary Communications

BEF Advanced Strike Force Communications team
AN-MRN-2 Radio Truck
LWU Vehicle Deployment

Development of Expeditionary and Tactical Communications

BEF Advanced Strike Force Operations and Communications Vehicle

Before World War II, little effort had been given to Inter-service cooperation. Only in 1930, when the British Government chose to send a large field force to Europe did the RAF recognise the need to take support for the Army more seriously and develop its own ground support units.

The Battle for France 1939-1945

Bedford QLR communications-truck offload, France 1939
BEF Communications Vehicles, Dunkirk 1940

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the British Expeditionary Force and the Advanced Air Strike Force were deployed to France. 


This first dedicated Air Component Force consisted of Aircraft, Command and Control and ground force personnel.


The British Expeditionary Force, needed to use the Air Component for reconnaissance, bombing and Close Air Support missions, so High Frequency (HF) communications were deployed throughout France. This communications network was maintained by RAF signallers operating long haul HF transmitters from key locations, including the Eiffel Tower in Paris. 


By mid-June 1940, losses had been considerable, and the British Forces evacuated, abandoning a considerable amount of equipment on the French beaches.

Army Co-operations and the Battle of France, 1940

Air Formation Signals
WWII Air Support Formation Badge
Royal Air Force Cooperation Command
ROYAL AIR FORCE ARMY CO-OPERATION COMMAND, 1940-1943. Commer Q2 mobile wireless van
RAF Signallers and Operations control vehicle, France 1944

In 1940, the RAF found itself in an unexpected position when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the RAFs Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) moved to the continent. A force that had been designed primarily to operate in a strategic role against industrial targets in Germany was now faced with acting as a component of an expeditionary force operating away from home air bases and infrastructure.


Having been caught off balance by the speed of the German advance through France and Belgium in June 41, Allied forces and the BEF found themselves cut-off and isolated. The following retreat conducted by the BEF and the subsequent ‘miracle’ of Operation DYNAMO and the evacuation of the British forces from Dunkirk, heralded the change in RAF operations, expeditionary deployments, and associated ground to air communications.


With the formation of the Army Co-operation Command in Dec 1940, one of the major roles of the Command was to develop the RAF’s ability to conduct close support missions, like that used by the Luftwaffe throughout ‘blitzkrieg’, the close air support methodology used by German forces in France.


Although short-lived, the command was formed when No. 22 (Army Co-Operation) Group, previously a part of Fighter Command, was raised to command status. Initially two groups: No. 70 and No. 71 Group, In August 1941, 71 Group re-organized its squadrons into a Wing basis. Each wing was directly attached to a UK based Army regional Command and had its own dedicated force enablers and communications.

Its function was to act as the focus for activities connected with the interaction of the British Army and the RAF, such as close air support, tactical reconnaissance, artillery spotting and training of anti-aircraft defences. It was also responsible for developing tactics for the invasion of Europe, where direct air support proved to be decisive. 


The Command was disbanded on 31 March 1943, when most of its units were used to form the Second Tactical Air Force.


Tactical Air Force

Bedford QLR communications Vehicle
Operation HUSKY, SCU signals team
RAF Collaboration Team
RAF-Army Cab Rank, France 1944.

After Dunkirk, the only foothold the British Forces had was in the Middle East. Here the concept of Tactical Air Power was forged into an effective Force. To strike back against the Axis forces, the British Eighth Army and the Desert Air Force – its air component – achieved a level of superiority which it never relinquished. Much was due to good communications and preparation of usable air strips. During Operation TORCH in 1942, RAF Servicing Commando Units provided maintenance and communications so that arriving aircraft could refuel and rearm before carrying out Close Air Support operations.


Lord Louis Mountbatten and ACM Dowding decreed that these Units should be:

“…a highly trained organisation, having high morale and esprit de corps… highly trained in the business of going in over the beaches or perhaps airborne to an advanced aerodrome …

they should be RAF Commandos.”


The Servicing Commando Units used a ‘manoeuvrist’ approach. Once an airfield was captured, such as Morocco or Algeria, they would disembark equipment and transport on to landing craft and put ashore to set up forward operating bases. They would install the essential communications with sufficient equipment to provide support to the deployed aircraft squadrons and set up fuel and ammunition dumps. They supported Close Air Support operations until the squadron’s own support personnel and equipment arrived at the airfield. Once the squadron started full scale operations, the Servicing Commando Units would leapfrog onto the next forward airfield.


The mobility and Close Air Support for the Army was also shown by the system used in Tunisia for the ground control of fighters known as the ‘Cab Rank,’ where airborne aircraft would wait in turn to attack predefined targets. Planning for every battle became very much a joint ground-to-air effort, using the force’s organic resources and communications. This allowed the British Army under Montgomery and the American/British Force under Eisenhower to overcome German and Italian forces. In the words of Air Chief Marshall Tedders to the deployed ground crew and support staff,

“You have shown the World the unity and strength of air power.”


The lessons learnt in the desert became the blueprint for the future Tactical Air Forces. The tactics were refined and improved in Italy, Normandy, across France and eventually into Germany.


Italian offensive and lessons in Close Air Support

RAF Signallers and mobile communications equipment ,1943
LWU Italy, Operation HUSKY

The Italian offensive, Operation COMPASS, was the first effective use of ground-to-air co-operation of the war. This was the first use of the Servicing Commando Units in Europe and air support was employed with devastating effect, first to suppress the enemy, then to support the advance of group forces.

The small British Force of two divisions advanced 500 miles and, while doing so, routed an enemy five times its size. The RAF established total air superiority over the opposing Italian and German Air Forces, again using its manoeuvrist approach. This enabled the tiny force to outflank the enemy without the threat of air attack. Wavell said of the operation in 1943:

“…could not have been executed without the magnificent support given by the Royal Air Force… It had been a triumph of inter-service cooperation and the agile Air Force.”

World War II Medal Set

The duration of the Second World War in Europe was from 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945, while in the Pacific Theatre it continued until 2 September 1945.


The War Medal 1939–1945 was instituted by the United Kingdom on 16 August 1945 and was awarded to all full-time personnel of the armed forces and Merchant Navy for serving for 28 days during World War II.


The Defence Medal was awarded for non-operational service in the Armed Forces, the Home Guard, the Civil Defence Service and other approved civilian services during the period from 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945 (2 September 1945 for those serving in certain specified territories in the Far East and the Pacific), Military personnel In the United Kingdom, those eligible included military personnel working in headquarters, on training bases and airfields for the duration of the War in Europe from 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945. 

Those who qualified for one or more Campaign Star could also be awarded the Defence Medal

1939-45 War Medal & Defence Medal