Air Vice Marshal Arthur 'Mary' Coningham (1895-1948) commanded the Desert Air Force, 1st Allied Tactical Air Force and 2nd Tactical Air Force, and helped develop the system of army-air force cooperation that made the Allied air forces so deadly in the later years of the Second World War.
Coningham was born in Brisbane, Australia, on 19 January 1895, but soon afterwards his parents moved to New Zealand where Coningham was educated at Wellington College. His New Zealand background earned him the nickname ‘Maori’ early in his military career, which soon became ‘Mary’.
Coningham signed up in 1914, joining the Canterbury Mounted Rifles. He took part in the occupation of German held Samoa in 1914, and then the Gallipoli Campaign. After Gallipoli he served in Egypt.
In August 1916 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. In December 1916 he moved to the Western Front where he served as a fighter pilot with No.32 Squadron for seven months before he was wounded. During this period he was promoted to captain, and won the DSO and MC. He spent the next year in England, before returning to France as commander of No.92 Squadron, with the rank of major. During this period he won the DFC.
After the war he stayed in the new RAF, with the rank of flight lieutenant. He served with No.55 Squadron, which was based in Iraq and used to impose British rule in the vast desert areas. He was awarded the AFC for leading a flight across Central Africa in 1925, from Cairo to Kano in Nigeria, an area that would later become an important supply route for the Allied air forces in the Middle East. He spent some time in staff posts. He was promoted to Wing Commander, and commanded a detachment in the Sudan.
Coningham then moved to the UK, where he was promoted to Group Captain and given command of the flying boat base at Calshot. In 1939 he was promoted to Air Commodore and given command of No.4 (Bomber) Group in Yorkshire.
From 1939-41 he commanded his group as it took part in the early stages of the strategic bombing campaign over Germany.
In 1941 he was given command of the Desert Air Force in the Western Desert (part of Tedder’s Middle East Air Force) and promoted to Air Vice Marshal. It was here where he began to develop his theories of army-air force cooperation. He was determined to work closely with the Eighth Army, while still retaining the independence to decide his own priorities. He laid out three priorities. The first was to gain air superiority. The second was to attack enemy lines of communication and isolate the battlefield. The third was to directly support the army on the ground. At first this caused some friction with the Army, which wanted more direct air support, and didn’t share his belief in the need for air superiority, but his efforts proved to be effective. One of his tactics was to send out small numbers of bombers escorted by large numbers of fighters, forcing the Germans to send up their own fighters (something they wouldn’t have done in response to a simple fighter sweep). As a result the Germans lost large numbers of fighters, slowly allowing the Allies to gain more freedom to operate.
In North Africa he developed a close working relationship with Montgomery. His approach also put him at odds with the orthodox view within the Air Force, which was that air operations should be almost entirely independent, and saw strategic bombing as the most effective way to support the army, by cutting off the enemies source of equipment at its source.
Coningham’s theories were soon proved to be correct. The Desert Air Force played a critical part in stopping Rommel’s last offensives, and in the Allied victory at the second battle of El Alamein. He was knighted on 4 November 1942 for his role in that victory. He continued to support the Eighth Army as commander of the Desert Air Force until Montgomery occupied Tripoli on 23 January 1943.
In February 1943 he was given command of the 1st Allied (North African) Tactical Air Force, which included British and American forces. His new HQ was close to Sir Harold Alexander’s 18th Army Group HQ, continuing the theme of close cooperation with the ground forces. He commanded this new air force during the last stages of the Tunisian campaign and the invasion of Sicily. His tactical air force also made history by forcing the surrender of the fortified Italian island of Pantelleria, the first time a major fortress had surrendered to air power alone.
In January 1944 Coningham was recalled to Britain to take command of 2nd Tactical Air Force, the British contribution to the air forces allocated to directly support the armies in Operation Overlord. 2nd TAF played a major role in the Allied victory, but Coningham and Montgomery fell out badly during the campaign. At one point Montgomery even tried to get him removed from his post, but without success. Coningham remained in command of 2nd Tactical Air Force until July 1945. At its peak his air force operated 1,800 front line aircraft, and contained 100,000 men from seven nations! 2nd TAF was most famous for the 'taxi rank' system, which saw aircraft waiting over the battlefield to be summoned by air controllers embedded with the ground troops, and for it's rocket firing Typhoons.
In 1946 he was promoted to Air Marshal and appointed KBE.
After the war Coningham was given command of Flying Training Command, before retiring at his own request in 1947. In the following year he died when the aircraft he was travelling on disappeared on 30 January 1948 while flying from the Azores to Bermuda.