How were the US Army Air Forces organised?
The US Army Air Forces were huge and complex. They changed as the war progressed, and as they expanded.
In the beginning was the US Air Service. In the 1920s, this became the Army Air Corps. This was the part of the United States Army responsible for flying. As it expanded, it was reorganized. By the end of the war, the whole organization was called the Army Air Forces, although the Army Air Corps continued to exist.
There were several Army Air Forces, under the command of the US Army. They were formed at different stages and in different areas – or ‘theatres’ – of war as well as at home in the USA. Helpfully, as The Official World War Two Guide to the Army Air Forces,1944 stated:
‘No two air forces are identical.’
But there are some common themes that we can pick out to help us understand how they were organized.
The smallest unit was, of course, one person. Add a few together – people with different skills and trained for different jobs - and you might have the crew of an aircraft – let’s say a bomber.
In The Official World War Two Guide to the Army Air Forces,1944, it says:
‘The bomber crew, basic unit of an AAF offensive, is a tight knit team. Each man is expert in his specific duty: all work in close co-ordination. General Arnold has said, “Nowhere in the world are the lives of men as interdependent as in a bomber on a mission.”’
Two or more bombers or fighters could be organized into a flight. They may have trained, flown and fought together.
The Official World War Two Guide to the Army Air Forces,1944, says this on the subject of 'flights':
‘The flight, as a sub-division of the next larger unit, the squadron, simplifies the problem of control by the squadron commander, who would otherwise have to deal directly with a large number of individual airplanes.’
Adding several flights together produced a squadron. A squadron included ground personnel who looked after the aircraft and dealt with all the administration required.
Adding two, three or four squadrons together with a Headquarters, produced a Group. The Headquarters part consisted of the Commanding Officer and all of the personnel needed to help him run the Group, covering things such as mission planning, personnel records etc. All the squadrons in a Group flew the same type of aircraft in combat, and often the Group occupied a single airfield. Then some ground duties were combined together.
Some Groups didn’t fly aircraft, being wholly responsible for ground duties. For example, at Duxford in April 1944, the 443rd Air Service Group provided the men who supported the flying and looked after the base.
Generally, above the Group level, the organization varied between Air Forces, and changed over time. Groups could be organized into Wings, which might be despatched together on particular missions. Wings could form a Command, or if they were too big, Divisions within a Command. Commands formed an Air Force.
Take an example. In 1944:
John Q. Smith was a pilot with the 82nd Fighter Squadron of the 78th Fighter Group.
This means, by extension, that in 1944 he was also:
John Q Smith
82nd Fighter Squadron of the…
78th Fighter Group of the…
66th Fighter Wing of …
VIII Fighter Command of the…
Eighth Air Force of the…
Army Air Forces of the…
United States Army.
It would be fair to call John Q. Smith a member of all of those organisations, but for practical purposes, it makes most sense to list him as belonging to his Squadron and Group.
Other types of unit
There are other terms used in the US Army Air Forces. Part of a unit might have been ‘detached’ to operate separately from the main body, so it would be a detachment. Sometimes, service or ground units were divided in much the same way as the regular army ground forces. Smallest to largest, they were:
The sorts of jobs undertaken by these type of units varied. At Duxford, for example, base communications was handled by the 1042nd Signal Company. At one stage, the fires were fought by the 2027th Fire Fighting Platoon (Avn.), sometimes known as the 2027th Engineer Firefighting Platoon.
In this website we have tried to include as many of these smaller units as possible, as without them, it's impossible to get a full picture of the size and complexity of the USAAF during the Second World War.
It's important to remember too that units within the USAAF changed and reformed as the war progressed. Sometimes they changed roles, and took on new names or numbers to reflect this. Sometimes they were moved from one part of the USAAF to another. There were large restructures in the way the USAAF was organised, which produced yet more new units.