Air Chief Marshall Sir Harry Broadhurst
One the perks of being a military historian is the opportunity to meet some of the wonderful personalities I write about. Sadly, most of the World War II figures have passed on. However, when I first began to write in the late 1970s, many were still around. The person I’ve chosen to profile this month is probably not known to many of you. He was a pioneer airman and a fighter ace during the Battle of Britain.
Briefly mentioned in Part 3 of my earlier series of articles on Dwight Eisenhower (see “Ike: World War II’s Indispensable Commander, Part 3”), he was one of the Royal Air Force’s most colorful and gallant airmen of World War II. Described as “aggressive and inventive” by RAF historian John Terraine, he was one of the principal architects of air-ground cooperation and close air support during World War II. (1) And so, it is with great admiration that I introduce you to Air Chief Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst, one of the great characters of the Royal Air Force.
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Harry Broadhurst was born in 1905 in Surrey, England and grew up with the single-minded ambition of becoming a fighter pilot. Known as “Broady”, he was nineteen when he joined the RAF in 1926. Although he learned to fly, it was not fighters but the Hawker Hart, a light two-seater bomber/biplane manufactured in the 1920s by Hawker Aviation that was used by the RAF in the North-West Frontier of India against rebel tribesmen. By the 1930s, Broadhurst was an accomplished pilot flying fighters and doing acrobatics at the Hendon air shows in 1932-33. He also gained a reputation as something of an aerial daredevil during the 1930s as he continued participating in air shows doing aerial acrobatics.
He was posted to the Middle East in 1936 and 1937 as the chief instructor at an RAF training airbase in Egypt. The outbreak of World War II saw Broadhurst in command of a fighter squadron where he served with distinction during the Battle of Britain as a Wing Commander and later, as a Group Captain. On November 29, 1939, he was one of the first RAF pilots to shoot down a Heinkel-111 bomber.
His official RAF biography notes that: “He was heavily involved in the Battle of Britain often flying with the squadrons under his command, both day and night fighter units. Moving to command the Hornchurch Sector, he continued to fly on operations but on 4 July 1941, his WW2 career could have almost come an end. Leading 54 Squadron, he was involved in a number of skirmishes with Bf109′s, downing two when he himself was hit and his aircraft badly damaged. Recovering from a spin at 1,000ft he decided to attempt the flight home, but over Cap Griz Nez he was hit again, this time by flak. However, he managed to coax his Spitfire back to base executing a prefect belly landing. His final claims were made on 19 August 1941, bringing his total aerial victories to 13 destroyed, seven probables and 10 damaged.” (2) Broadhurst also provided air support during the Battle of France, an experience that imbued him with the importance of close air support during one of the most crucial operations of the war. His heroics from 1939 to 1941 earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross and two Distinguished Service Orders (DSOs).
In 1941 and 1942, his Spitfires provided escort for British bombers and in August 1942 for the raid on Dieppe.
In late 1942 he was posted to the Middle East and became Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO, i.e., chief of staff) to Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham, the commander of the Desert Air Force (DAF). Broadhurst believed that Coningham was misusing the Desert Air Force. He took command of the DAF in January 1943 after Coningham was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Northwest African Tactical Air Forces. Broadhurst was then the youngest air vice marshal in the Royal Air force. He quickly reversed the way fighter aircraft were employed. Coningham, a prima donna, who was perpetually jealous of Montgomery, and later skirmished with Patton in Tunisia over close air support, did not embrace close cooperation with the Army on the ground, believing instead it was the role of tactical aircraft to support and protect bombers. Broadhurst thought otherwise.
Today we take for granted the principle of close air support, but during the early years of the war the practice had yet to be perfected. The air forces were emerging into their own and were very independent-minded. In their account of Alamein and its aftermath, John Bierman and Colin Smith have written of Broadhurst that he: “had long realized that what the army sometimes needs was kind of a Blitzkrieg aerial artillery the Luftwaffe Stuka crews had so often supplied . . . The RAF did not have any dive-bombers as such, but Broadhurst was convinced that the DAF could make a considerable contribution at little cost. As soon as he took over, he had his fighter squadrons training to strafe and bomb on a collection of captured Axis vehicles he had set up outside Tripoli . . . Within the Desert Air Force Broadhurst’s enthusiasm was infectious . . . Spitfire purists who objected to the disfigurement of bomb racks were less inclined to argue with one of their own.” (3) The result was aerial cover unlike any seen before and the enduring gratitude of the men on the ground whose hearts were won by the support of the airmen. Nevertheless, Broadhurst’s enthusiastic backing of the Army did not always go down well with senior airmen who did not subscribe to his commitment to close air support. Nevertheless, he was not dissuaded and earned the gratitude of Montgomery and the ground commanders his airmen so ably supported.
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