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"Small Arms Antiaircraft Fire" from Intelligence Bulletin, December 1942

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]  
The following report on the use of small arms fire against ground-attack aircraft was originally published in the Intelligence Bulletin, December 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department Intelligence Bulletin publication. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]



Low-flying air attacks usually have three objectives: to destroy or damage materiel, to cause casualties to personnel, and to create confusion and otherwise affect morale. Whether such attacks are easily accomplished, or difficult and dangerous, depends on the volume and the effectiveness of antiaircraft fire directed against the attackers. Pilots on both sides in this war agree that one of the most difficult missions is to strafe or bomb troops who steady themselves and let go with every type of gun that will point upwards at the attackers. Extremely distasteful to attacking pilots is a stream of tracer bullets just ahead, in the path of their planes. Experience has shown that a good many pilots will turn rather than go through such a stream, while only a few can face it with sufficient coolness for accurate strafing or bombing.


British small-arms or light antiaircraft fire has five main objectives, as follows:

a. To inflict casualties on enemy aircraft;

b. To maintain the morale of their troops;

c. To protect vital points in the areas they occupy and their communications facilities;

d. To prevent or reduce the effects of low-flying and dive-bombing attacks; and

e. To protect columns of troops and matériel, or entrucking and detrucking areas.

Motor trucks in columns are usually the most vulnerable targets to low-flying air attacks. Realizing this, the British maintain a wide interval between trucks while in movement and a wide dispersion of them while at a halt. Off roads and in open country, their trucks move in several columns, more or less abreast.

Constant observation for enemy planes is maintained by all units. Since the planes attack at a high rate of speed, only a few seconds are available to get set for counter fire. Generally, the number of air observers used depends upon the tactical situation. In a moving column, each vehicle is required to have an observer. These observers should be well trained. It is extremely difficult to determine whether planes are our own or enemy aircraft. Hostile markings are a sure guide, but these are visible only when a plane is passing fairly well overhead. Careful studies should be made of silhouettes, because they probably are the most dependable means of quick identification.

As a precaution while at a halt, the British always mount two antiaircraft light machine guns in each sub unit and in each unit headquarters. Crews stand by in readiness for action.

Repeated short blasts of a whistle denote an air attack.

If attacked while in movement, all vehicles are halted--unless orders to the contrary have been issued. If the column is under orders to keep moving, all light machine guns open fire. Otherwise, all personnel get out of the halted vehicles, disperse, and open controlled fire at the hostile aircraft. If time permits, it is always a good idea to dig slit trenches for personnel while at a halt. All small-arms weapons are used when the planes come within range. The fire is controlled by platoon commanders--in some cases, owing to wide deployment, the control is under section leaders. In no case are troops allowed to take cover without resisting the attackers.

Experience has taught the British that small-arms fire is most effective against dive-bombers when they are diving towards the weapons or pulling out of a dive. At these times the pilot is unprotected by armor. During this period only 3 or 4 seconds elapse, so speed in opening fire is a major essential in successfully combatting the attackers.


German ground forces attack hostile low-flying planes with every weapon which they can point at them. This combined fire of many types of guns is very intense. Use of tracer bullets by some of the machine guns is calculated to increase greatly the effect of the firing upon the morale of the attacking pilots.

Besides taking the usual safety measures involving dispersal, cover, and camouflage, the Germans have an elaborate air observation system.


A captured German order describes the effectiveness of the Russian light antiaircraft defenses. Extracts from the order are quoted, as follows:

"During the past 2 months (January and February, 1942), it has been found that our loss of planes from small-arms ground fire has been exceptionally high. In one of our air units which supported a ground attack, the loss from enemy small-arms ground fire was 50 percent. The reason for this lies in the well-organized Soviet antiaircraft fire. Our aviation units have made the following observations:

"a. Every Soviet ground unit attacked by our aviation opens fire on our planes with rifles and other infantry weapons. The probability of hits on a small target by widely distributed ground fire is very great.

"b. As soon as Soviet cavalrymen are attacked, they dismount and fire from a standing position with their rifles placed on the saddles. The infantrymen lie on their backs and fire.

"c. Mortar fire is also used. I do not point this out as an example to be followed but to explain that the Soviets fire on aircraft with all weapons used by ground troops.

"d. The Soviets place light and medium antiaircraft artillery, transported on sleds, at the head of the column."


Carefully aimed small-arms fire at the proper time against low-flying planes almost always damages the aircraft, and frequently it causes casualties to the flying personnel. The results usually are not apparent to those conducting the fire on the ground because of the speed of the planes. Even if a plane remains in the air only 30 seconds after being hit, it will fly 2 or 3 miles before falling. Therefore, the ground forces should not be disappointed if planes fly away apparently unhit. Few planes vigorously attacked are able to escape at least minor damage. Every attacking plane not shot down has to be checked thoroughly after reaching its base. Not only must all serious damage be repaired but every bullet-hole must be patched and a search made for any hidden damage. Frequently parts must be replaced and sometimes new motors must be installed. All this takes time and requires labor. In the meantime, these planes are grounded and are not available for combat.


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