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From "observation" to "tactical reconnaissance:" the development of American battlefield ISR in World War II.


Despite being the first mission assigned to aviation assets in warfare, by the mid-1930s, the observation, or reconnaissance mission had fallen far behind the more glamorous fields of bombardment, pursuit and even attack in the U.S. Army Air Corps (soon to become the U.S. Army Air Forces). In his prescription for the composition of a modern Air Force, Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell advocated a mix of sixty percent pursuit, twenty percent bombardment and twenty percent attack, all supported by an auxiliary observation branch. (1) Despite Mitchell's laying out of a comprehensive plan for the employment of observation aviation in Our Air Force, including photo processing and artillery correction, the branch of aviation dedicated to providing battlefield reconnaissance languished near the bottom of the AAF's priority list. By 1940, most "observation" units, as they were then known, were flying the obsolescent O-47, primarily in National Guard squadrons geographically dispersed in areas where they could support the annual training exercises. Unsurprisingly, in their first test with the European axis, the observation branch was found wanting. By early 1943, Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, the senior American airman in the North African campaign wrote General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, the Army Air Forces commanding general, "It is now evident that observation groups, as we know them, will never serve a useful purpose when the enemy is equipped and operates as the German air and ground forces (have) in this theater." (2)

By late 1944, a remarkable renaissance had occurred in the observation branch. That autumn, no less than three full tactical reconnaissance groups were providing near-real time intelligence to both ground and tactical aviation units, greatly facilitating the Allied drive across France and into Germany. While the effort still suffered from glaring omissions, such as the development of a night-time reconnaissance capability and processing bottlenecks that continue to plague the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) community, tac recce, as it became known, had evolved into an effective and vital component of the ground-air team. The future USAF was so impressed that it retained specialized tac recce units throughout the Cold War, only dropping the adjective "tactical" after the long-overdue merging of the Tactical and Strategic Air Commands, which had each retained its own tactical and strategic reconnaissance assets and organizations. This remarkable recovery required the AAF leadership to first identify and acknowledge the problem, and then to devise and implement corrective measures, all under the pressures of wartime conditions. They were fortunate to have the active assistance of the successful RAF model, honed in the Western Desert, as good an argument as any for the continued importance and relevance of coalitions comprised of diverse service and national cultures in modern aerial warfare. Airmen achieved this construction of "tac recce," in the classrooms and on the training ranges of bases such as the AAF School of Applied Tactics (AAF-SAT) in Orlando, Florida, and the Reconnaissance schoolhouse at Key Field in Meridian, Mississippi. Their efforts have gone largely unexplored, but highlight a key development in the capability of modern ISR and provide a graphic example of the process of continual adaptation essential for success in air operations. They also emphasize the continuing relevance of proper training and correct organization in effective battlefield reconnaissance.

In 1956, Robert Futrell traced the collapse of the U.S. Army Air Force's "observation" aviation branch in the North African campaign and the subsequent policy decisions that led to its replacement with Tactical Reconnaissance Groups in Northwest Europe. (3) Futrell's work explained the bureaucratic process that led to this development in mid-1943, but did not describe the process by which these groups were formed, trained or employed. He noted that the direct assignment of a single observation squadron to each ground division commander, and an observation group to each Army Corps, with three of the squadrons assigned directly to the divisions leaving one for corps use, as the ground officers had desired, was an ineffective construct that was finally eliminated with the publication of FM 100-20 in the summer of 1943. That document directed the centralization of all air assets under the air commander, who would then work closely with the ground commander in allocating assets and assigning missions that were of the highest priority to the theater commander. In 2007, Doug Gordon carried the story forward with a description of the "tac recce" groups that served the USAF admirably through the end of the Cold War, but provided only a brief (one page) summary of WWII-era developments. (4) As a result, we are left with an incomplete history of the development of tac recce in the USAF during the mid- to latter stages of World War II.

In addition to monitoring the strength, disposition and progress of enemy (and eventually, friendly) forces, aircrews of the observation squadrons were also trained to adjust artillery fire, a role tactical reconnaissance aircraft continued to train in and excel at in the latter stages of the European war, despite the Army's development of indigenous "horsefly" very light liaison aircraft assigned directly to each artillery battalion, itself an experiment made successful only by the general air superiority the Allies had achieved over the front by the time they were employed. (5) But the key piece of technology turned out to be the airborne camera, with its ability to capture detail far in excess of even the trained observer's eye and to be more widely reproduced and disseminated than a verbal or written report. It also minimized the threat to observation aircraft and led to designs that incorporated light, fast types that could enter and exit the battle area quickly, rather than slower types of long endurance who could loiter in the battle area. The reliance on aerial photography led the AAF to eventually install cameras in the most modern fighter types by 1944-45. Indeed, the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Group, discussed later, had two squadrons of the photo variant of the P-51 (F-6) and one squadron with photo-equipped P-38s (F-4s and F-5s). Both aircraft were still the AAF's frontline fighters at the end of the war, emphasizing the importance the AF placed on the mission by equipping units with the latest types.


Within the AAF establishment, the pre-war observation units had to compete with what the AAF then called "reconnaissance," but which was actually what would become known as either "photographic" or "strategic reconnaissance." These were aircraft intended to conduct pre-strike weather missions and post-strike bomb damage assessment missions. Again, for deep reconnaissance, the mission required a fast, long-range aircraft able to ingress and egress the target area at high altitude with limited potential for being successfully intercepted. Lacking such an aircraft, the AAF initially assigned variants either of medium or heavy bombers to conduct these missions. When they proved unworkable, the service obtained British Mosquitos as an intermediate stopgap, until eventually settling on the F-4/5 and F-6s for this mission as well. These units became known Photographic Reconnaissance squadrons and groups but, as the requirements of both tactical and strategic reconnaissance began to merge, so too did the aircraft types and units assigned to conduct it.

In contrast to the later F-series of aircraft, the ungainly O-47 provided a three-person crew, with a pilot, visual observer and photographic observer. Windows below the extended cockpit permitted observation directly below the aircraft, but it was hardly survivable on a World War II battlefield as demonstrated by the plight of the TBD Devastator torpedo bombers, based on a similar three-person design, in the Battle of Midway. As the war began, most observation units were being reequipped with both A-20 Havocs (Bostons) and P-39 Airacobras, with most groups eventually operating two squadrons of each type of aircraft, but with some squadrons operating both types, as well as lighter liaison types, complicating logistics and repair requirements. (6) When the 68th Observation Group deployed to North Africa for Operation TORCH, its four squadrons contained P-39s and A-20s, neither of which could survive over the battlefield without an escort. As a result, most were reassigned to antisubmarine scouting missions (the same fate suffered by most O-47s still back in the states) until the first F-4s could reach the frontline units. Only one squadron of the 68th Group, the 154th Observation Squadron, originally of the Arkansas National Guard, ever saw combat employment in its intended role. Despite the best efforts of its pilots it was unable to overcome the primitive airfields and poor February weather of Tunisia's Western Dorsales and provided poor support during the Kasserine battles. (7)


The 154th offers a detailed case study in the failure of the pre-war observation model. Despite being mobilized for federal service in September 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, the unit still entered combat woefully unprepared to offer even the most basic support to the ground forces in Tunisia. The problem was two-fold: first, the unit spent much of the pre-war time on either basic preparation, such as honing flying and navigating skills, or, after the opening of the war, in coastal defense and reconnaissance. Second, the time spent training with ground units, which included participation in the Louisiana and Carolina maneuvers, was wasted on outmoded concepts of support and with a flawed communications network that prevented effective coordination. (8) When activated in 1940, it was equipped with ten O-47s and two BC1As, a light reconnaissance type, but had to complete a transition to the P-39 and A-20 over the next two years. Despite sending the ground echelon ashore shortly after the initial invasion, the air echelon did not arrive until over a month later, having survived a harrowing passage over the southern ferry route. Of thirty-six A-20s departing from the states, two crashed before reaching Puerto Rico, nine more were damaged en route and ten were strung out all along the African coast. The P-39s, coming from stocks assembled in the UK destined for Russia as LendLease, also had difficulty reaching the theater, with several interned in still-neutral Portugal after encountering stronger-than-forecast headwinds over the Bay of Biscay. On the ground, the 154th had more hard luck, when the squadron commander was "seriously injured in a motorcycle accident en route from Blida to Oudja," and his replacement had to be "relieved of command and transferred out of the organization" for some unspecified offense. (9)

When committed to combat, it still operated both types of aircraft, and did not become an all-P-39 squadron until January 9, 1943. On January 21, seventeen officers, thirty-three enlisted men and thirteen P-39s arrived at Youks les Bains to cover the II Corps front. They flew the squadron's first reconnaissance mission over the II Corps front on January 26, less than three weeks before the opening of the Kasserine battle. On February 2, it lost its first pilot when four FW-190s jumped two P-39s over Kairouan, the main Luftwaffe airfield in that sector and undoubtedly of more interest to the air than ground forces. The unit made good use of the aircraft's 37mm cannon on ground strafing missions but was unable to defend itself in the air, often requiring an escort of P-40s from Lt. Col. William W. "Spike" Momyer's 33rd Fighter Group. During this time it operated in primitive conditions at Youks-les-Bains, with aircrew living it tent-covered foxholes and where the mud was so bad that "you walk ten steps and your feet are as big as bushel baskets and weigh twenty-five pounds apiece." After several days of rain and hail, the camp became a "'brown, gooey pudding of mud,' preventing flight and flooding out many tents." After moving forward to Thelepte in early March, the squadron finally received its first P-51s and began to conduct and process photographic reconnaissance missions.

During its first month in Tunisia, the unit failed to detect the Axis thrust against the American lines or play any significant part in helping the ground forces manage the battle or repel the assault. (10) Army observation failed to detect the buildup opposite II Corps exposed positions at Faid Pass, then proved unable to track the progress of Rommel's panzers as they broke through the American cordon. Most American ground units obtained their information on German dispositions the old-fashioned way, by watching them crest a distant rise, often in superior numbers. Based on their poor showing in the campaign, Spaatz recommended that "no further effort be wasted in training and equipping observation groups as such for this or similar theaters. Our whole concept of support aviation has been altered radically by the past month's fighting in Tunisia." (11) The Army Air Forces certainly deserve some share of the blame for the American's poor showing in the battle.


Fortunately, help was on the way. A week before the Kasserine battle, the Allies initiated a reorganization of the two air forces then operating on the continent. The RAF's Western Desert Air Force, which had pursued Rommel from Egypt, had finally taken up positions in eastern Libya, within cooperating range of the Anglo-American forces in Algeria and Tunisia that had come ashore after TORCH. The effect was primarily to consolidate reconnaissance collection and processing in the North African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing (NAPRW), comprised of both British and American assets. Americans continued to focus on the strategic reconnaissance then identifying lucrative targets for the air superiority and interdiction campaigns while British GR-type aircraft collected, analyzed and distributed most of the battlefield intelligence. (12) Indeed, it was British aircraft of 225 Squadron who first detected Rommel's retreat, cross-cueing with other RAF assets of Sir Arthur Coningham's Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF) to strike them as they returned to the Mareth Line. (13) The 3rd Photo Group had been employed almost exclusively in providing photographic reconnaissance for the XII Bomber Command, with the false expectation that the poorly-equipped observation squadrons would be sufficient for the ground commander's needs. Perhaps it was a fortunate division of labor to have the RAF assume control of tactical reconnaissance, which it had a great deal of experience in, and permit the AAF to conduct strategic reconnaissance, as the RAF was not yet operating a large heavy bomber force in the theater. Ideally, though, photographic assets should have been employed to meet the needs of both the ground and air force commanders. The ground side already felt shorted and some commanders became "suspicious that the Air Force used more than its share of the reconnaissance effort upon such projects as bomb damage assessment." (14)

Coningham's American deputy, Brigadier General Laurence Kuter, later one of the principal authors of FM 100-20, sounded the death knell for observation aviation when he wrote just after the end of the campaign:

Ineffectiveness of observation groups should be accepted as proved in this theater and maximum effort should be made to elevate the position of our present observation aviation to a much higher level by the immediate formation of truly proficient tactical and strategic reconnaissance squadrons (15)

Fortunately, the AAF heeded Kuter's suggestion and began the immediate rehabilitation of the failed observation squadrons.


Unfortunately, they also heeded his call for segregation into the tactical and strategic arenas, which introduced unnecessary stovepipes into the intelligence architecture. FM 100-20 attempted to make the distinction clear. Under "Types of Tactical Aviation" it listed, after Bombardment and fighter, but ahead of troop carrier:

c. Reconnaissance aviation is the term applied to air units which perform the service of information for military (16) commands. The function of reconnaissance aviation is to secure information by visual and photographic means and to return this information for exploitation.

d. Photographic aviation is the term applied to air units which perform photographic reconnaissance missions beyond the responsibilities or capabilities of reconnaissance aviation and special photogrammetric mapping missions for engineer topographic troops. (17)

The distinction was likely insufficiently clear, prompting the AAF to add the word "tactical" to the "reconnaissance" function and redesignating all of its reconnaissance groups and squadrons as "tactical reconnaissance." Photographic squadrons and groups continued to be assigned to both tactical and strategic organizations. The segregation reflected AAF thinking outlined in Field Manual 1-20, "Tactics and Technique of Air Reconnaissance and Observation," published in 1942, which the new FM 100-20 referenced. The earlier field manual was broken up into three sections: a short primer on air reconnaissance, a longer section titled "Air reconnaissance for air force aviation," and a shorter section labeled "Air reconnaissance and observation for ground forces." (18)

A joint ground-air review board on observation aviation recognized that a name change was urgently needed, as the term "observation" was both associated with the limited roles for aircraft as used in the Great War, and brought to mind the obsolescent types assigned and penurious budgets of the interwar years. The board found "it is evident that observation suffers from a psychological disadvantage in that this term, over a long period of time, has been associated with a dearth of equipment and such low priorities as to prevent any progress." In addition to providing a more accurate description of the roles and missions assigned, the name also offered the potential to signal a renewed emphasis and interest in the importance placed upon this vital arm. The War Department ordered a name change from "observation" to reconnaissance" on April 2, 1943, with the additional adjective "tactical" added later in the year. (19)

In addition to realizing that it had a serious problem on its hands, the AAF also became aware that it lacked an institutional mechanism for addressing it. The Air Corps Tactical School, whose faculty and students might have been capable of devising a workable solution, had been suspended in 1940, as the service embarked on a crash buildup prior to the war. The new AAF School of Applied Tactics, established the same month as the TORCH landings, received the initial assignment from the air staff to address the problem and devise a workable solution. The staff at AAFSAT recognized that, in addition to improved types, the new units would require specialized training in tactical reconnaissance techniques, as well as a schoolhouse to provide training. Robert Futrell expertly picks up the story here, tracing the process by which the 154th Observation Squadron's commander, Lt. Col. John Dyas and a South African Air Force expert, Lt. Col. E.A. Biden, made the case to AAFSAT for adoption of the British model. Once codified, the new doctrine only had to be taught to the next generation of tac recce pilots who would eventually complete that training in a two-month course operated at Key Field, near Meridian, Mississippi, under a confusing variety of names.


As a result of the work conducted at AAFSAT, the AAF leadership designated 3rd Air Force, geographically distributed across the southeastern quarter of the United States, to serve as the focal point for reconnaissance training. On August 18, 1943, 3rd Air Force established the III Reconnaissance Command, previously the III Air Support Command, headquartered at Birmingham, Alabama, and charged the unit with "training all tactical and photographic reconnaissance units and operation of replacement training units for crews of such units." (20) Key Field would host the tactical reconnaissance wing, numbered the 88th, while the 89th Wing at Will Rogers field near Oklahoma City would conduct photographic reconnaissance training. The comparatively better weather on the dryer Great Plains supported visual photographic training, while Key Field was conveniently located to the Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana maneuver areas to maximize training with ground forces also preparing for deployment overseas.'

The Will Rogers wing trained photographic squadrons and aircrew for both the strategic effort as well as assignment to the new tactical reconnaissance groups (TRG), while the Key Field contingent focused on the tactical reconnaissance squadrons (TRS). The new group would ideally have two squadrons of the latter type, specializing in both low-level photography as well as the old observation mission, and one of the former, providing more detailed coverage further behind the front. One TRG would be assigned to each Tactical Air Command (TAC), insulating it from the demands of the strategic bombing force and ensuring that it remained responsive to the ground commander's needs and desires.

Within the 88th Reconnaissance Wing at Key Field, the 75th Reconnaissance Group conducted most of the training. Within its three squadrons, the 21st, 30th and 124th Reconnaissance Squadrons, classes of roughly thirty students rotated through. The 21st's class 43B divided into two groups, conducting aerial and classroom instruction, respectively, in the morning, then switching after lunch. In this manner use of the squadron's small number of assigned aircraft (five P-39s, fourteen P-40s and four P-51s) and ten instructors from various theaters could be maximized. The six-week course (later extended to eight during the winter months of shorter days and poorer flying weather) began with cockpit and local area familiarization, then moved into a period of navigation training before specializing in artillery adjustment and reconnaissance missions. The training also included formation flying (necessary when working in teams of two), fighter tactics and aerial and ground gunnery, for self-protection and to engage fleeting targets. Pilots frequently trained with ground units at nearby Camp Shelby, Mississippi, which trained ground units prior to overseas movement, including the 65th and 69th Infantry Divisions. Two British officers, Major Underdown and Major Powell, Air Liaison Officers who had served with Eighth Army in North Africa, provided lectures on the vital role of the Ground Liaison Officer in each squadron, who would keep the pilots abreast of changes in the ground situation and funnel intelligence back to the ground commanders. Later both men would serve as instructors at a special GLO school at Meridian. The U.S. Army conducted similar training for Air Liaison Officers at its ALO school at Fort Benning, Georgia. (21)


By October of 1943, the new organization was running well enough to prompt a letter from General Arnold to Brig. Gen. Arthur McDaniel, commanding the III Reconnaissance Command at Birmingham. McDaniel had been intimately involved in the entire effort, and had earned one of the first Distinguished Flying Crosses awarded for his service on the famous Pan-American flight from December 1926-May 1927. Arnold's letter read:

The outstanding work you have done in reorganizing the Reconnaissance program of the Army Air Forces is most pleasing to me, and I desire to commend you for the efficient and conscientious manner in which you have performed this assignment.

With the merging of Photo Reconnaissance and tactical Reconnaissance many problems arose which had to be solved as rapidly and expeditiously as possible. Your task consisted of establishing a Reconnaissance branch in this Headquarters for Staff purposes, reorganizing the Reconnaissance Command of the Third Air Force, and developing necessary facilities for training both types of Squadrons. In addition, it was necessary to devise policies and procedures for the use of Reconnaissance Units during combat and to set up new Tables of Organization according to the needs which have arisen under combat situations

Your thorough understanding of the part Reconnaissance plays in the warfare of today and your ability to interpret this knowledge into a definite program reflects great credit upon yourself. (22)

Unfortunately, the AAF lost the services of this acknowledged expert in tactical reconnaissance when he suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Mountain Brook, Alabama on December 26, 1943.

By late 1943, tactical reconnaissance doctrine had been clearly defined and was being disseminated throughout the services. The AAFSAT hosted a number of Army-Navy Staff College (ANSCOL) courses designed to educate ground and naval officers on AAF capabilities. The course materials for Class 1943 C, held September 8 to October 2 in Orlando, reveal a maturing tactical reconnaissance capability. The chapter on tactical reconnaissance opined that "Tactical Reconnaissance is essentially a new type of aviation. It has officially come into being since July 1, 1943 ... it was born of combat experience in the Western Desert and Tunisia." The text frankly admitted that "Observation Aviation as organized was not capable of performing that function under combat conditions of modern warfare--such conditions as existed in Tunisia and will probably exist to an even greater extent on the European continent. Aircraft cannot operate as elevated observation posts against an enemy plentifully equipped with effective anti-aircraft armament and fully determined to deny its opponents the freedom of observation." (23)

The new doctrine differentiated between tactical and strategic reconnaissance but emphasized that tac recce would be essential to the commander of the tactical air force in obtaining information on enemy air assets close to the front and on tactical supply routes, to assist in isolating the battlefield. It still envisioned a separate "Tactical Photo Reconnaissance Group," (TPRG) comprised of a single 16-plane squadron and a "Photo Technical Unit," as well as a five-squadron "Tactical Reconnaissance Group." But, as will be seen with the 363rd TRG, this proved to be an additional and unnecessary administrative level, and the photo squadron eventually replaced one of the TR squadrons in the TRG. The separate TPRG was intended to support primarily the air forces, while the TRGs had the primary function of "securing and reporting of information for the ground forces." The new doctrine also emphasized mobility, stipulating that the majority of each group be air-transportable and capable of being split into "A" and "B" sections, another innovation developed by the RAF in the Western Desert. The squadrons were also to operate in pairs, with one ship "charged with obtaining and reporting ground activity as well as securing the necessary photographs. The other airplane is responsible for navigating, guarding against hostile interception, and maintaining control with the Tactical Control Wing." During the Cold War, the USAF effectively combined the two aircraft by employing a two-person aircraft, such as the RF-4C. (24)


Finally, this mature doctrine emphasized the importance of both photographic collection and interpretation. The TRG, equipped primarily with F-6 (P-51) type aircraft would concentrate on oblique photographs at an altitude of up to 5,000 feet using the K-24 camera. The TPRG, with its F-5 (P-38) aircraft with cameras containing 6-inch, 12-inch, 24-inch, and 40-inch focal cones, would operate above 30,000 feet. Each squadron of both units would be equipped with a highly mobile "airborne squadron laboratory," capable of producing between 500 and 700 prints per day. (one per TRS, four per TPRS). Each TRG would have a Photo Laboratory Section, mounted in three A-2 trailers and capable of 3,000-4,000 prints per day. Each TPRG would have a Photo Technical Unit, with forty-four assigned interpreters, capable of producing and analyzing 12,000-14,000 prints per day. Units would be capable of producing prints in less than three hours from delivery of the film. (25)

Throughout the winter of 1943-44, ground and air units trained under this new construct, especially in joint exercises in the three primary Army maneuver areas (Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana) as well as the armored force maneuver area in California. For example, just the Tennessee maneuver area, which was closed in April of 1944, hosted three large-scale exercises which combined tactical air units with ground forces that would later reunite on the battlefields of Northwest Europe. From September 13, to November 3, the 48th Fighter-Bomber Group, 391st and 394th Medium Bomb Groups, the 436th Troop Carrier Group and the 73rd Tactical Reconnaissance Group (all types which would eventually comprise the 9th Air Force's various subordinate commands) supported a provisional corps of ground forces including the 30th, 94th, and 98th Infantry Divisions as well as the 12th Armored Division. After a three-week recess, the next exercise ran from November 22 to January 13, and again featured Fighter-Bomber, Medium Bomber and Tactical Reconnaissance Groups supporting a corps of the 35th, 87th and 100th Infantry Divisions and the 14th Armored Division, all units who would see combat that autumn in France. A final exercise ran from January 31 to March 23 and included a like number of units. (26)

Each exercise kicked off with an "Air Support School," such as the one held in a high school gymnasium in Lebanon, Tennessee on July 2, 1943. The conference indicated just how quickly the concepts developed in the Western Desert and codified in FM 100-20 had diffused down to the most critical levels of air-ground cooperation. At the conference, air officers provided a series of classes highlighting both the new techniques and their proven origins. Airmen first emphasized the success of the Eighth Army example ("General Montgomery, who commanded the British 8th Army in North Africa, said that air and ground commanders profit greatly from each other's success") before highlighting the changes from the old "observation" construct the more senior commanders had grown up with ("General Montgomery, who commands the British Eighth Army, has stated: 'Control of the available airpower must be centralized and the command must be exercised through air channels. Nothing could be more fatal to successful results that to dissipate your air resources into small packets placed under command of an Army commander with each packet working on its own plan'") before again reinforcing the successful British example ("General Montgomery is an army commander, a ground force commander, but he understands the use of air, and his victory in North Africa is the proof."). They acknowledged the failures of observation ("The observation group originally assigned to that theater had unmodified craft. This craft was not equipped to take pictures. Under the stress of early losses, this group was broken up ...") before pushing the advantages of the new model ("A well-trained, well-equipped reconnaissance group in this theater would have paid unbelievable dividends.") (27) Tactical Air Divisions associated with the other maneuver areas conducted similar classes and practical training, resulting in both the confirmation of the doctrine and in the majority of new units going overseas being familiar with the modified construct. (28)


In April 1944, the AAF further adjusted training units and assigned locations. As most ground units destined for overseas service had already left the country, the Army closed the Carolina and Tennessee maneuver areas and left open only the one in Louisiana. Accordingly, the III Reconnaissance command consolidated units at Morris Field, near Charlotte, NC; Barksdale Field, near Shreveport, Louisiana, and Thermal Field, California into Louisiana. III Reconnaissance Command became III Tactical Air Command, to mirror the combat organizations in Europe, and supported three Tactical Air Divisions, at Deridder and Esler Fields, Louisiana and Key Field, near Meridian. III TAC's commanding general, Hume Peabody, directed the new organization to:
   Control all air units in air-ground maneuvers
   Maintain effective liaison with ground forces
   Develop technique and policy for employment of Air
     Force units in combined air-ground maneuvers,
     in accordance with FM 100-20
   To prepare for immediate combat photographic and
     tactical reconnaissance squadrons and replacement

   Operate a Ground Liaison School.

As the responsibility for maneuvers wound down, the III TAC concentrated on training the final Fighter Groups to depart overseas and keep up a flow of replacement pilots for the reconnaissance units. Between April and September of 1944, the unit sent 364 F-5 crews and 269 F-6 crews overseas. (29)

One group of replacement pilots formed the cadre of the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Group, organized in September 1944, during the drive across France after the breakout from the Normandy beachhead. The group consisted of three Reconnaissance squadrons, the 160th, 161st and 162nd, but lost the 162nd later that month when it went to support the U.S. Seventh Army near Dijon. In order to obtain the support crews for a TRG, the AAF converted a very successful Ninth Air Force P-51 unit, the 363rd Fighter Group, into a Tactical Reconnaissance Group by reassigning most of the pilots to other P-51 units in 8th Air Force and retraining some ordnance troops in camera maintenance. The majority of the maintainers, skilled in combat repair of the P-51, shifted easily into their new roles working on the F-6. After only a few weeks, the unit flew its first mission as part of XXIX Tactical Air Command (TAC) supporting Ninth Army units in Brittany as they worked to reduce the garrisons of Brest and other Atlantic ports. (30)


As the campaign in Brittany wound down, Ninth Army and XXIX TAC redeployed to the east and General Omar Bradley, commanding the U.S. Twelfth Army Group, inserted them into the line against stiffening resistance coming from German forces now reconstituting behind the West Wall. The Ninth was originally destined for a quiet sector between the American First and Third armies, opposite the Ardennes but, in a fortuitous move for the Ninth, eventually moved north to occupy the space between First Army and General Montgomery's Twenty-first Army Group. According to the Army's official history, Bradley's motives were far from altruistic. Knowing that his Army Group would soon be joined by the U.S. Seventh Army, coming up from the south of France, Bradley feared that he would be asked to give up one of his U.S. armies to Montgomery and did not want it to be his best and most experienced unit, the First Army. By inserting the Ninth Army on its left flank, the less experienced and less capable unit would go to the British instead. In the end, Montgomery won out, as both Ninth and the majority of First Army came under his control on the northern shoulder after the Bulge battle that drove a wedge into Bradley's First Army positions in Belgium and Luxembourg.

For XXIX TAC and the 363rd Reconnaissance Group, the shift north meant an additional delay in getting settled and established, but the emphasis on mobility in the new TRGs paid dividends as the group executed two complete station changes during October before settling in at airfield Y-10 (Le Culot/East now Goetsenhoven) roughly half-way between Brussels and Maastricht, which would be the group's home until mid-March, 1945. From there the unit flew extensive reconnaissance in support of what would become Operation QUEEN, the principal Allied offensive effort in November, 1944, which was designed initially to reach the banks of the Rhine but succeeded only in clearing the western bank of the Roer River before being halted by the German counteroffensive further south. During the month, the group scheduled 307 missions but flew less than half due to weather. The arrival of the 33rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron on November 5, a belated replacement for the 162nd TRS, which had left in late September, bolstered the group's numbers and capabilities, but the weather remained so bad that the new squadron did not fly a successful photo mission until November 18. In addition to supporting the First and Ninth Army offensives, the group also reconnoitered the road and rail network behind the front for Ninth Air Force's medium bombers. Increased interceptions, to the point that that group's F-6s had to escort F-5s on their missions, could have been an indicator of increased German sensitivity to reconnaissance in that sector. As early as November 3, the group had reported "considerable traffic ... in the Julich Koln area. The traffic was largely to the North and South, with the majority of trains moving toward the South," including twenty-one total trains, some loaded with armor. (31) Later in the month, the group again reported "A comparatively large number of vehicles, some of which were armored vehicles and tanks," and the following day, "vehicular traffic appeared to be somewhat heavier than usual. Small convoys varying in size from six to twenty trucks were observed scattered throughout the target area. Movement appeared to be mostly to the east and west. Small groups of horsedrawn vehicles were reported. Movement of these appeared to be mostly toward the southeast and east." (32) If the group had detected the early stages of the German redeployment for the Bulge battle, it was insufficient to alert most of the intelligence apparatus, which could not believe that the Germans could recuperate so quickly after the huge materiel losses in the fall. In any event, the Germans moved most of their resources at night, which would have escaped the gaze of any of the TRGs, which were constituted exclusively for daylight operations. While the AAF was experimenting with P-61s in a night reconnaissance role, the inability to further develop and expand this capability marks one of the more prominent blind spots in the rehabilitation of the observation branch.


The 363rd went on the support Ninth Army until shifted south during the height of the Bulge battle. Upon its return, it undertook a massive photographing of the entire Ruhr industrial area on February 22, 1945, in which thirteen P-38s photographed 1,200 square miles in less than fifteen minutes, and had 22,000 prints available nine hours later, a mission that earned the group commander Lt Col James Smelley (later Shelley) the Silver Star. Ninth Army remained generally pleased with the group's responsiveness and work noting that it "supplied some of the best reconnaissance of any group in the ETO." (33) The Ninth Army commander, Lt Gen William H. Simpson observed, "I am pleased with the spirit of close cooperation which has always existed between the XXIX TAC and the Ninth US Army ... It is my opinion that the time consumed in processing and delivering information and photographs to ground echelons has been reduced to a minimum by the application of sound operational practices." (34) The achievement is all the more remarkable given how badly observation had performed in North Africa and how quickly, given the proven British model to work from, it had been corrected and disseminated throughout the US air-ground team in just a little over a year. To go from a completely broken capability to an effective reconnaissance organization that performed well in the crucible of combat is a testament not only to the soundness of the doctrine, but the skill in developing a training curriculum and the effort expended in stateside training exercises.

In 1956, Futrell concluded that "real progress did not come until 1943 when AAF planners, freed at last from the necessity of using their capability primarily to support the ground forces, swept away the old organization and erected a new and integrated system of reconnaissance which fully identified the mission and aimed at the maximum utilization of air capabilities for the best advantage of both air and ground in a complete war effort." Writing at the height of the Cold War, especially in the aftermath of Korea where there were frequent accusations of a breakdown in the air-ground team, Futrell can be forgiven for trying to paint the period in the most favorable possible light, especially in a study commissioned by an Air Force intent on parrying all threats to its independence and conscious of Army initiatives to reintroduce indigenous aviation assets back into the ground forces, an effort ultimately successful in the form of rotary-wing aircraft. It might have been more accurate to write that, from 1943-45, the air and ground forces had sufficient assets available to adequately meet the requirements of both the ground and air forces and demonstrate what could be accomplished with a spirit of cooperation and respect, but never developed a fully integrated reconnaissance infrastructure. Current struggles in the US ISR community suggest that this issue still hasn't been fully resolved. As an example, during the author's service as a navigator aboard the E-8C Joint STARS reconnaissance aircraft, there were frequent debates about the aircraft's proper role. Ground commanders saw it as a true ISR platform, collecting data on enemy ground forces and funneling this information to the ground headquarters, who would then track and target with appropriate ground-based systems. Air officers, on the other hand, tended to view the platform as more of a command and control asset, managing battlefield assets for immediate detection, identification and attack of time-sensitive ground targets. This difference of interpretation has a deep foundation in service struggles over reconnaissance assets, roles and missions dating back to the Second World War.

Dr. Christopher M. Rein is an Associate Professor at the Air Command and Staff College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, Ala. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Kansas and an M.A. in History from Louisiana State University. He is the author of The North African Air Campaign, published by the University Press of Kansas in 2012, and several articles and reviews. In a twenty-two year career on active duty, he served as a navigator aboard the E-8C Joint STARS, completing several deployments to Southwest Asia in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and served two tours instructing in the Department of History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is currently preparing a manuscript on wartime adaptation focusing on tactical aviation and air-ground cooperation during World War II.


(1.) William Mitchell, Our Air Force: The Keystone of National Defense, (New York: Dutton, 1921), pp. 35, 37.

(2.) Spaatz to Arnold, Feb. 25, 1943, Box 357, Entry 294, RG 18, Records of the Army Air Force, NARA 2, College Park, Md.

(3.) Robert F. Futrell, "Command of Observation Aviation: A Study in the Control of Tactical Airpower," (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Research Studies Institute, 1956).

(4.) Doug Gordon, Tactical Reconnaissance in the Cold War: 1945 to Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and the Iron Curtain, (Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword, 2006)

(5.) Futrell, p. 16.

(6.) Futrell, p. 17. As of July 1, 1942, each observation squadron was to have six "high performance single-engine types" (P-39), six "high performance twin-engine bomber types" (A-20) and nine "liaison" types (L-3 or L-4). The AAF Ground-Air Support Directorate rightly complained that the observation branch was receiving the "'crumbs from the table' or models excess to other branches," Futrell, p. 18.

(7.) GP-RCN-68-HI, AFHRA, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

(8.) 154th Weather Squadron History, AFHRA SQWEA-154-HI. The 154 became a weather reconnaissance squadron in 15th Air Force after its service in North Africa.

(9.) GP-RCN-68-HI, AFHRA, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

(10.) Francis Kalinowski, "The History of the 154th (Observation, Tactical, Reconnaissance) Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (Medium), 1940-1945,", accessed March 2, 2015.

(11.) Spaatz to Arnold, Feb. 25, 1943, Box 357, Entry 294, RG 18, Records of the Army Air Force, NARA 2, College Park, Md.

(12.) Brad Gladman, Intelligence and Anglo-American Air Support in World War Two: The Western Desert and Tunisia, 1940-43. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) p. 162. Gladman points out that the RAF's 225 Squadron conducted tactical reconnaissance for II Corps, due to both their greater experience and their possession of a liaison section capable of discerning and prioritizing the ground forces' desires.

(13.) Gladman, p. 169.

(14.) Futrell, p. 29.

(15.) Kuter to Spaatz, May 12, 1943, Box 12, Spaatz Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Quoted in Gladman, p. 187.

(16.) Here it can be assumed that "military" is roughly equivalent to "Army," just as the Army's officer training school at West Point is known as the "U.S. Military Academy."

(17.) Field Manual 100-20, Command and Employment of Air Power, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1943), p. 3.

(18.) Field Manual 1-20, Tactics and Technique of Air Reconnaissance and Observation, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1942), p. iii.

(19.) Futrell, p. 25.

(20.) Futrell, p. 27.

(21.) Folder January -December 1943, SQ-RCN-21-HI, AFHRA, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

(22.) Arnold to McDaniel, October 12, 1943, Reference #26, 448.01, AFHRA, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

(23.) "AAFSAT ANSCOL Course, Class 1943C," v. 5, p. 974, AFHRA 248.411, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

(24.) AAFSAT ANSCOL Course, Class 1943C," v. 5, pp. 981, 989.

(25.) AAFSAT ANSCOL Course, Class 1943C," v. 5, pp. 1005-1013.

(26.) History of the 1st Tactical Air Division, AFHRA 446.01.

(27.) "Conference on Air Support to Assembled Officers of the Second Army at Air Support School," Lebanon, Tennessee, July 2, 1943. AFHRA 444.01, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

(28.) The 1st TAD official history believed "The soundness of prescribed doctrines was proved after test in maneuver operations." 1st TAD History, p. 23 AFHRA 446.01.

(29.) Folder "April-September 1944", AFHRA 448.01, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

(30.) GP-RCN-363-SU-RE-D, September, 1944, AFHRA, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

(31.) Summary of Operations, November 3, 1944. GP-RCN-363-SU-RE-D, AFHRA

(32.) Summary of Operations, November 18 & 19, 1944. GP-RCN-363-SU-RE-D, AFHRA

(33.) GP-RCN-363-HI, AFHRA

(34.) Futrell, pp. 28-29.
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Date:Mar 22, 2016
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