Robert Charlwood Richardson III (5 January 1918 – 2 January 2011) was an American military officer, first of the United States Army Air Corps, then of the United States Air Force, eventually attaining the rank of Brigadier General. A leader in the early days of the U.S. Air Force, he was a renowned expert in tactical nuclear warfare, NATO, and military long range planning. In his early career he is known for his controversial involvement in the World War II "Laconia Incident."
Richardson was born in Rockford, Illinois. In 1932, he attended the Gunnery School in Washington, Connecticut, and in 1933, entered Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1935. He received a congressional appointment from Pennsylvania to the United States Military Academy and graduated in June 1939. He joined the expanding U.S. Army Air Forces attending pilot training schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Randolph and Kelly fields, Texas, graduating in June 1940. In July 1940, he was assigned as a flight instructor at Randolph Field flying AT-6 Texan and AT-7 Navigator training aircraft and subsequently in the advanced twin-engine school at Barksdale Field, Louisiana flying B-10 Martin bomber. In September 1941, he was transferred to the 52nd Fighter Group, Selfridge Field, Michigan, served as squadron commander and group operations officer flying P-40 Warhawk pursuit aircraft, and went with the Group to Norfolk, Virginia, and Florence, South Carolina.
On Ascension Island
In April 1942, he took command of the 1st Composite Squadron, a unit of 18 P-39D Airacobra pursuit aircraft and 5 B-25C Mitchell bombers being organized at Key Field, Meridian, Mississippi. He deployed, in August 1942, to the newly constructed and secret Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Their function was to patrol the sea around the island, to detect and destroy any enemy submarines and surface raiders, and to protect Allied ships in the vicinity of the island. Wideawake Airfield was a key refueling base on the only air resupply route in 1942-1943 connecting the United States to the Allied Western Desert Campaign raging in North Africa and the Soviet forces through the Persian Gulf and the Caucuses. The air route stretched from Florida and Texas across the Caribbean region, down the South American east coast to Natal and Recife Brazil], across the South Atlantic through Ascension Island to the British and Belgian colonies in West Africa, across the bottom of the Sahara Desert to Khartoum Sudan, and up the Nile to Egypt and Allied forces in the Middle East and beyond. This was the only way to get large-to-medium aircraft and urgent military supplies to Allied forces in Egypt (specifically 9th Air Force supporting United States Army Forces in the Middle East (USAFIME)) in the Allied 1943 Egypt-Libya Campaign leading up to the defeat of Rommel and securing North Africa following Operation Torch and the Tunisia Campaign in late 1943.
On early 15 September 1942, while senior operations officer at Ascension, then Captain Richardson was notified by the island's British liaison that the RMS Laconia had been torpedoed. Later that morning a transiting A-20 reported sighting and taking fire from two German U-boats. Two dispatched B-25 bombers found neither the submarines nor the Laconia. Later that night (~22:00 hrs) Capt Richardson was asked to assist in rescue efforts by providing air cover for the en route merchant ships, the nearby Empire Haven and the HMS Corinthian at Takoorida. The next day a transiting B-24D Liberator from the 343rd Bombardment Squadron was sent to investigate and found four U-boats displaying the Red Cross flag engaged in rescue operations from the sinking of Laconia. The U-Boat U-156 commander, Lt Cmdr Werner Hartenstein, had secured permission to conduct rescue operations after discovering that the ship he had just torpedoed, RMS Laconia, carried 1,800 Italian prisoners, a few hundred British and Polish soldiers, plus some number of civilians including women and children, British dependents from Egypt. U-156 was crammed above and below decks with nearly two hundred survivors, including five women, and had another 200 in tow aboard four lifeboats. The patrolling bomber loaded with depth charges and bombs reported that the submarine had a white flag with a red cross and they had unsuccessfully challenged the submarine via radio to display its national flag. The submarine blinked via signal light what the bomber crew understood to read "German Sir". The bomber crew asked Ascension Island what to do next.
The German navy had notified the British authorities of the rescue operations, but the British thought it was a trick and did not communicate it to the U.S. forces at the secret Wideawake Airfield on Ascension. Captain Richardson, not knowing that this was a Red Cross sanctioned German rescue operation, made a tactical assessment of the potential threat that the U-boats posed to the en route, unarmed British rescue ships and that the U-boats could discover and shell the airfield and its vulnerable fuel tanks, thus cutting off this critical allied air route; Captain Richardson ordered the B-24 crew to "bomb the sub". After the (unsuccessful) attack ordered by Richardson, the U-boats under German navy command orders stopped all rescue operations and departed the area. A majority of survivors were later rescued by British merchant ships and two unarmed Vichy French warships, the cruiser Gloire and the sloop Annamite, out of Dakar, Africa.
This action became known as the Laconia incident and led Admiral Karl Dönitz, chief of German Submarine Operations, to issue the "Laconia Order" to his U-boat commanders that stated in part "No attempt of any kind must be made at rescuing members of ships sunk...." At the end of the war, the Laconia Order was unsuccessfully used against Admiral Dönitz in his war crime trial, because Fleet Admiral Nimitz testified that in the war with Japan the U.S. Navy had followed the same general policy as was set forth in the German admiral's directive. The Laconia Incident showed how a small tactical decision can have strategic impact across history.
Back to the United States and on to Europe
While on Ascension Island, then Major Richardson boasted, over drinks, to a visiting Air Staff team that he could successfully ferry a group of P-38 Lightnings via the South Atlantic air route. In March 1943, Richardson was ordered back to the United States as the project officer and flight leader to make good his boast that he could to ferry P-38 Lightnings to North Africa via the South Atlantic. In April 1943, he successfully delivered 52 of the original 53 aircraft to Morocco to reinforce U.S. air forces supporting Operation TORCH. From there he was assigned back to the United States as chief of the Aircraft Division, and later as chief of the Fighter Division, Army Air Force Board, Orlando, Florida where he had the opportunity to test fly a number of the experimental aircraft to include the XP-59A, Airacomet, the first U.S. jet fighter, then undergoing testing at Muroc Army Air Field (today, Edwards Air Force Base) in California.
In July 1944, he was reassigned to the Operations Division, Headquarters U.S. Strategic Air Force in Europe. He spent the first month touring European fighter units briefing them on what he learned from flying the XP-59A, Airacomet, the first U.S. jet fighter, and on suggested tactics to use against the new German jet aircraft. He then served as an action officer in General Carl Spaatz's headquarters in London and Paris through December 1944 where he coordinated what new equipment and weapons coming from the CONUS based Army Force Board with what the European combat units said they needed and experienced. In January 1945, he transferred to the Operations Division of Headquarters, IX Tactical Air Command, Ninth Air Force. In April 1945, he assumed command of the 365th Fighter Group, "The Hell Hawks," at Fritzlar, Germany. He led the unit in their support of the General Patton's final push into Germany then transitioned the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter group from wartime to peacetime operations. Upon the redeployment of the 365th Fighter Group back to the United States in September 1945, he remained in the Occupation Forces as chief of the Aircraft Allocation Division, Headquarters, U.S. Air Forces in Europe. In February 1946, he became assistant chief of staff for operations, European Air Transport Service where it was his task to round up, account for, and dispose of all the U.S. aircraft in the European Theater as the U.S. Army Air Forces rapidly demobilized and sent units back to the United States.
Evolving into a strategic long-range planner
In June 1946, then Lt Col Richardson was assigned to the War Plans Division of the Air Staff in Washington, D.C.. In July 1947, he was transferred to the Joint War Plans Committee, which in December 1947, upon implementation of the 1947 Unification Act, became Joint Strategic Plans Group, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Upon creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949, newly promoted Colonel Richardson became the first Air Force planner on the NATO Standing Group.
As one of the original NATO war planners, he prepared the European Theater war plans on how to counter a potential Cold War invasion by the overwhelming Soviet land forces that outnumbered US and NATO conventional forces by a factor of 10 to 1. He worked the negotiation of an agreement for Germany's rearmament and for the establishment of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE) in Paris France. In February 1951, Col Richardson accompanied General Lauris Norstad to Europe as a member of his planning staff. In July 1951, he was designated as the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff representative and military observer to the European Defense Community Treaty Conference in Paris. In July 1953, he was assigned to the Plans Staff of the Air Deputy, SHAPE, when responsibility for U.S. military advice to the European Defense Community was transferred from the U.S. Ambassador to the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. From July 1953 to July 1955, Richardson was special assistant to Air Vice-Marshal Edmund Hudleston, Royal Air Force, Deputy Chief of Staff/Operations SHAPE, and later, the deputy director/policy, Headquarters SHAPE, serving primarily as the U.S. Air Force member of the Inter-Allied Planning Committee (New Approach Group) that developed the concept for an atomic defense of Europe. In that capacity he wrote the original NATO atomic or nuclear war plans and became one of the U.S. military's leading authorities on tactical nuclear warfare, strategy, and concepts.
In July 1955, Col Richardson returned to the United States to attend the National War College, graduating in June 1956. He assumed command of the 83rd Fighter Wing (redesignated 4th Fighter Wing) flying F-86H Sabre and re-opened Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.
Atomic weapons and the evolution of theater nuclear warfare
From his experience thinking of and drafting NATO’s nuclear war plans under President Eisenhower’s emphasis on atomic defense to counter Soviet conventional superiority led him in 1955 to publish a series of articles on nuclear and atomic warfare in the Air University Review. As a result, Col Richardson had become an acknowledged military expert in nuclear warfare and a regular lecturer on the subject at the National Defense College and Air War College. In January 1958, he was transferred to Headquarters U.S. Air Force, to become assistant for Long Range Objectives to the deputy chief of staff/plans and programs. He was promoted to brigadier general in May 1960.
With the installation of the new Kennedy Administration, Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara directed the dismantlement of the Air Force and Navy long range plans staffs and ordered the services’ long range planning experts out of Washington and into the field. This along with imposing a more restrictive editorial policy on the military services’ strategy journals removed the services’ key thinkers from the Washington debates arising from the administration’s new strategic direction with regard to military procurement and military strategy development. As a result, in June 1961, Gen Richardson was transferred to the Military Assistance Division, Headquarters U.S. European Command, Paris, France, and upon arrival was detailed by General Norstad as director of operations for Live Oak, the Tripartite Berlin Plans and Operations Group air force team that coordinated and executed the NATO air responses to the Soviet attempts close down the Berlin air corridors during the Berlin Crisis. Upon termination of the Berlin Crisis, Gen Richardson was assigned as deputy standing group representative, NATO, effective 1 January 1962 through 1 January 1964.
Air Force System Command and strategic acquisition development
Given Secretary of Defense McNamara’s known hostility toward any military service long-range planning and to Gen Richardson’s strategic thinking, the Air Force assigned Gen Richardson to Headquarters Air Force Systems Command (AFSC), Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. He served as assistant to the commander, then assistant deputy chief of staff for plans, and in August 1965, he was assigned as the deputy chief of staff for science and technology. On 31 July 1966, he reported to Field Command, Defense Atomic Support Agency.
His final military assignment was to Headquarters Field Command, Defense Atomic Support Agency, Sandia Base, New Mexico, as deputy commander for weapons and training where he was responsible for managing atomic weapon development and training activities and the nuclear weapons stockpile.
Defense policy consultant and learning to influence public policy
Gen Richardson retired from active duty on 1 August 1967 and began his second career as a writer, lecturer, and consultant on defense issues, nuclear strategy, and aerospace technology management. He joined his long-time friend and former AFSC commander, General Bernard Adolph Schriever, as a senior associate with Schriever & McKee Associate Consultants to bring his aerospace and systems management expertise to bear on the issues facing urban America.
In the 1970s, Gen Richardson greatly expanded his work as an author, lecturer, and policy advocate in the areas of national security, defense theory, defense policy formulation, nuclear strategy, defense technology acquisition, and long range planning. During this decade, he actively advocated conservative viewpoints regarding defense and national security public policy issues serving as
- Consultant to American Enterprise Institute
- Assistant editor for Journal of International Security
- Member of the American Security Council
- Executive Director, American Foreign Policy Institute
- Secretary-Treasurer for Security and Intelligence Fund
- Co-Chairman of the Coalition for Peace Through Defense
As recognized authority on tactical nuclear warfare and defense technology acquisition, he also served as consultant to Los Alamos National Laboratory (1971–1979), US and European aerospace industries, and Stanford Research Institution (1973-1974).
High frontier and the space-based missile defense
In 1981, Gen Richardson teamed up with Lt Gen Daniel O. Graham USA (ret) on a Heritage Foundation project called High Frontier to formulate a long-term national strategy and plan to build a U.S. space-based missile defense. This plan, “High Frontier: A New National Strategy,” was the foundation for President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Gen Richardson went on to serve as Deputy Directory for the High Frontier non-profit organization from 1981 to 2003 that not only advocated the maximum use of U.S. space technology for missile defense but also for the industrial and commercial use of space. Over the two decades he was with High Frontier, Gen Richardson successfully advocated for President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, established the Space Transportation Association, advocated the single-stage-to-orbit (or SSTO) vehicle as a follow-on to the Space Shuttle, and more recently, helped develop a long-term strategy to colonize the Moon.
Richardson has authored numerous articles on atomic or nuclear warfare, strategy, and concepts. These include:
"Atomic Weapons and War Damage," ORBIS, spring 1960;
"Do We Need Unlimited Forces for Limited War," Air Force Magazine, March 1959;
"Forces in Being - The Weapons," Air Force Magazine, August 1958;
"In The Looking Glass," Air University Review, winter 1957-1958;
"Nuclear Stalemate Fallacy," Air Force Magazine, August 1956;
"Atomic Weapons and Theater Warfare" (four articles) Air University Review, winter and spring 1955;
"The U.S. Air Force and NATO," Air University Review, winter 1952-1953;
and "Defense on the Technological Front," Air Force Magazine, June 1966.
Awards and decorations
Richardson's decorations include the
- Legion of Merit
- Air Medal
- Army Commendation Medal
- French Croix de Guerre with silver star.
Gen Richardson was a Command pilot with over 3500 flying hours in the following U.S. military aircraft
- World War II pursuit aircraft - P-38 Lightning, P-39 Airacobra, P-40 Warhawk, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51C/D Mustang, P-61 Black Widow
- World War II bomber/attack aircraft - A-20 Havoc, AT-23A Marauder, RA-24B Banshee, B-10 Martin, B-12 Martin, B-17F Flying Fortress, B-18 Bolo, B-24C Liberator, B-25 Mitchell, B-26B Marauder
- Transport aircraft - C-40 Electra Junior, C-47 Dakota, C-64 Norseman, C-76 Caravan, C-53 Skytrooper, C-54 Skytrain, C-117 Skytrain, C-123B Provider
- Training and administrative aircraft - AT-6 Texan, AT-7 Navigator, AT-8 Bobcat, A-17A NOMAD, BC-1, BT-13 Valiant, BT-14, BT-9, PT-17 Kaydet, L-3A/B, L-4, L-5 Sentinel, OA-4C Dolphin, T-33 Shooting Star
- Experimental aircraft – PB-2 Consolidated (P-30), XB-41 Liberator, XP-59A Airacomet
- Post-World War II jet fighters - F-80 Shooting Star, F-86H Sabre, F-102A Delta Dagger
- Compiled from Gen Richardson's Individual USAF Form 5 flight records