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Sir Arthur Coningham
Air Marshal Coningham
Nickname Mary
Born (1895-01-19)19 January 1895
Died presumably 30 January 1948 (aged 53)
Place of birth Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Place of death Bermuda Triangle (presumed)
Allegiance  New Zealand
 United Kingdom
Service/branch New Zealand New Zealand Army
 Royal Air Force
Years of service 1914–1947
Rank Air Marshal
Commands held 2nd Tactical Air Force
1st Allied Tactical Air Force
Western Desert Air Force
No.4 Group
RAF Calshot
No. 92 Squadron
Battles/wars

World War I

World War II

Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath
Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order
Military Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross
Air Force Cross
Mentioned in Despatches (4)
Officier of the Légion d'honneur (France)

Air Marshal Sir Arthur "Mary" Coningham KCB, KBE, DSO, MC, DFC, AFC, Grand Cross of the Order of the Phoenix (Greece),[1] RAF (19 January 1895 – presumably 30 January 1948) was a senior officer in the Royal Air Force. During the First World War, he was at Gallipoli with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where he became a flying ace. Coningham was later a senior Royal Air Force commander during the Second World War, as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief 2nd Tactical Air Force and subsequently the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Flying Training Command.

Coningham is chiefly remembered as the person most responsible for the development of forward air control parties directing close air support, which he developed as commander of the Western Desert Air Force between 1941 and 1943, and as commander of the tactical air forces in the Normandy campaign in 1944. On 30 January 1948, he disappeared along with all the other passengers and crew of the airliner G-AHNP Star Tiger when it vanished without a trace somewhere off the Eastern coast of the United States in the Bermuda Triangle.

Early life[edit | edit source]

Coningham was born in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia on 19 January 1895.[2] His early life was one that made him learn to be adaptable. His father, also Arthur Coningham, who had played Test cricket for Australia, was a con man who was exposed in court for fabricating legal evidence in a trial designed to shake down a Catholic priest, Denis Francis O'Haran, secretary to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney.[3] The resulting scandal drove the older Arthur Coningham to remove the Coningham family to New Zealand while Coningham was still young.[3] The change of scene to New Zealand did not change the father's modus operandi; he spent six months imprisoned there for fraud.[4]

Coningham was resilient enough and sufficiently motivated to win a scholarship to Wellington College. Although Coningham had won a scholarship, he was not an academic star. However, he was athletic and an outdoorsman, with expertise in horsemanship and with firearms.[5]

His parents divorced when he was seventeen; grounds were his father's infidelity. Arthur Coningham was maturely assured enough to remark, "Look here, Coningham, you may be my father, but I am ashamed of you." The comment reflects Coningham's persona; he was abstemious by nature, being a non-smoker, near teetotaler, and impatient with obscene language.[5]

Military career[edit | edit source]

World War I service[edit | edit source]

Coningham volunteered for service in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1914. He served in Egypt and Somaliland, but developed Typhoid fever and was invalided out of service. In 1916, he betook himself to England and volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps.[6] By the end of the war he had attained the rank of Major and was in command of No. 92 Squadron.[6] He had destroyed four enemy aircraft and shared in the destruction of three others with Evander Shapard, Frank Billinge, and Arthur Randell. He was also credited with seven victories for having driven down an enemy machine out of control. He emerged from the war with two awards, a DSO, and a Military Cross.[6] During this time, he had also acquired the nickname "Maori" as a play on his earlier life in New Zealand; over the years, this would become corrupted into "Mary".[7]

Inter-war years[edit | edit source]

After the end of World War I, Coningham remained in the Royal Air Force, initially remaining as Officer Commanding No. 92 Squadron.[6] During the early 1920s he served as a technical and flying instructor before being posted to No. 55 Squadron flying DH9As out of Mosul in Iraq.[6] In the summer of 1923 Coningham was promoted to squadron leader and appointed as the Officer Commanding of No. 55 Squadron.[6] From early 1924 to early 1926 Coningham carried out staff officer duties, first at the headquarters of Egyptian Group and then at the headquarters of RAF Middle East.[6]

After further service at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell and the Central Flying School, Coningham was promoted to wing commander in 1931.[6] The next year he was sent to the Sudan as the senior RAF officer.[6]

On his return to Great Britain in 1935 he took up staff duties in Coastal Area before being promoted to group captain and serving as the Senior Air Staff Officer at the headquarters of No. 17 Group.[6] From 1937 to 1939, Coningham was the Officer Commanding RAF Calshot.[6]

World War II service[edit | edit source]

Coningham began the war commanding Bomber Command's No.4 Group, which he led for two years in the bombing offensive against Germany.[6] In 1941 he was sent to the Middle East, where he assumed command of the Western Desert Air Force.[6] He inherited a poorly functioning situation, where the Royal Air Force was almost totally failing to support ground troops. He promptly delegated out technical duties to those he trusted and did not micromanage them; however, he held his subordinates strictly responsible for achieving the results he wanted. Any mistakes by his underlings that resulted in fatalities to friendly troops were grounds for dismissal by Coningham.

Faced with equipment shortages, a hostile desert environment, and superior enemy planes, Coningham's management system, through judicious deployment of his squadrons, gradually achieved air superiority in the North African campaign. In particular, Coningham developed the use of fighter-bombers, able to fight as fighter planes in the air or in bombing and strafing attacks of enemy ground targets. Coningham developed an efficient ground support system to keep planes flying, and a command and control system to allow ground observers to radio in air attacks. Coningham's Western Desert Air Force, in continuous air attacks of enemy ground targets, was instrumental in stopping the enemy offensive at El Alamein in July 1942. Coningham formed a close relationship with the new commander of the British Eighth Army, General Bernard Montgomery.[2] Montgomery and Coningham recognised the importance of joint operations. The air power doctrine devised by Coningham is the basis of modern joint operations doctrine. The dominance of the Allied air force was a critical factor in the British victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942. Coningham's doctrine of tactical air power would reach its fruition in early 1943, when RAF and USAAF fighter-bombers and bombers attacked enemy land forces.

Coningham's doctrine was fundamental. He stated that the greatest attribute of air power was its ability to speedily concentrate its force. It followed that its command must also be concentrated. Tactical air power had to be closely coordinated with the ground forces, but the army could not command it. He stated as much in a pamphlet that was widely distributed, to every ranking officer in North Africa, so that they would know what to expect. The pamphlet was later copied nearly verbatim as part of the United States Field Manual on use of air power. FM 100-20 also included Coningham's priorities for success in use of tactical air power. First, gain air superiority. Second, use the air superiority gained to interdict enemy reinforcements of men and materiel. Third, combine air attacks with ground assaults on the front lines.

Coningham was knighted after El Alamein and continued to provide tactical air support for the Eighth Army until they occupied Tripoli in January 1943.[2]

Coningham (centre) with Montgomery (left) and Dempsey (right) prior to the British crossing of the Rhine

Later in 1943 Coningham was promoted to Air Marshal and directed tactical air force operations in the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy as commander of the 1st Allied Tactical Air Force.[6]

As the leading exponent of tactical air warfare, Coningham was the obvious choice to command 2nd Tactical Air Force,[6] the Allied tactical air forces in the North-West European campaign, and in January 1944 he was recalled to England where he helped plan air support for the Normandy Landings. By this time his relationship with Montgomery had deteriorated markedly. The two often clashed and Mongomery regularly tried to bypass Coningham to deal directly with Air Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory. In August 1944 Montgomery wrote to Alan Brooke that "Coningham is violently anti-army and despised by all soldiers; my army commanders mistrust him and never want to see him."[8]

He remained commander of the 2nd Tactical Air Force until July 1945, when he was replaced by Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas and appointed head of Flying Training Command.[6]

A keen yachtsman, in 1947 he was appointed Commodore of the Royal Air Force Yacht Club then based at Calshot, however he later oversaw the move to the current location at Hamble.[9]

Retirement and disappearance[edit | edit source]

Coningham's career ended on 1 August 1947 after 30 years of commissioned service.[6] He requested that his retirement be shown as taking place at his own request. He disappeared on 30 January 1948 when the airliner G-AHNP Star Tiger in which he was travelling to Bermuda was lost off the east coast of the United States.[6]

In popular culture[edit | edit source]

In the film Patton, Coningham is played by John Barrie. During his scene, in which General George S Patton is complaining about lack of air cover for American troops, Sir Arthur confirms to Patton that he will see no more German planes. As he has completed his sentence, German planes strafe the compound.

Although a similar scene happened in real life, in actuality, Coningham was not present; Patton was talking to General Carl Spaatz and Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder at the time of the fruitless strafing.

Awards and decorations[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1946/1946%20-%201972.html
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Sir Arthur Coningham at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  3. 3.0 3.1 Coningham, Arthur (1863 - 1939) at Australian Dictionary of Biography
  4. Orange pp. 6–7
  5. 5.0 5.1 Budiansky, pp. 288-295
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation - Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham
  7. Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915-1920. 
  8. Carlo D'Este, Decision in Normandy, Penguin, 2001 ed, pp.218-220.
  9. http://www.rafyc.co.uk/about-us-intro/club-history.html
  10. M. Brewer, 'New Zealand and the Legion d'honneur: Officiers, Commandeurs and Dignites', The Volunteers: The Journal of the New Zealand Military Historical Society, 35(3),March 2010, p.132.

References[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

Military offices
Preceded by
R E Saul
Officer Commanding RAF Calshot
11 June 1937 - c. 1939
Succeeded by
Unknown
Preceded by
C H B Blount
Air Officer Commanding No. 4 Group
1939 - 1941
Succeeded by
C R Carr
Preceded by
R Collishaw
Air Officer Commanding No. 204 Group
1941
Group disbanded
Raised to command and renamed AHQ Western Desert
New title
Formation upgraded from No. 204 Group
Air Officer Commanding Air HQ Western Desert
AOC Air HQ Libya from 20 January to 3 February 1942

1941–1942
Succeeded by
H Broadhurst
Preceded by
J H D'Albiac
Commander-in-Chief Second Tactical Air Force
1944–1945
Succeeded by
Sir Sholto Douglas
As C-in-C British Air Forces of Occupation
Preceded by
Sir Philip Babington
Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Flying Training Command
1945–1947
Succeeded by
Sir Ralph Cochrane

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