Last major battle of World War II in the Pacific and the largest and most complicated amphibious operation in the theater. Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands and only 350 miles from the Japanese home island of Kyushu, had long been regarded as the last stepping-stone before a direct Allied attack on Japan. The island is 60 miles long and at most 18 miles wide. Japan had gained possession of the island in 1875. Japanese leaders considered the defense of Okinawa as their last chance to hold off an invasion of the homeland, and they were prepared for their forces to battle to the death. Allied strategists decided that a major amphibious operation, codenamed ICEBERG,would be mounted to take the island to secure harbor and air-base facilities for the projected attack on the Japanese home islands. Taking the island would also sever Japanese communications with south China.
Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander of Fifth Fleet, had overall charge of the invasion operation. The covering force included 18 battleships and 40 carriers in Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Force (TF-58) and the British component commanded by Vice Admiral H. B. Rawlings (TF- 57, a battleship and four carriers, plus supporting ships, 22 in all). The lifting force of Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner’s Joint Expeditionary Force, TF-51, comprised some 1,300 ships. Operation ICEBERG included the largest number of ships involved in a single operation during the entire Pacific war.
The land assault force consisted of U.S. Army Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s Tenth Army of some 180,000 men. Tenth Army included Major General Roy S. Geiger’s III Marine Amphibious Corps (1st, 2nd, and 6th Divisions) and Army Major General John R. Hodge’s XXIV Army Corps (7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th Divisions). The Japanese defenders were formed into the Thirty-Second Army (Ryukus). It comprised four divisions (9th, 24th, 62nd, and the 28th on Sakishima) plus additional units. Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima commanded about 130,000 men, including the 20,000-man Okinawan Home Guard. The Japanese constructed a formidable defensive system, particularly on the southern part of the island.
The invasion was originally scheduled for 1 March 1945, but delays in the Philippines Campaign and at Iwo Jima caused ICEBERG to be delayed for several weeks. The operation began with the occupation of the Kerama Islets, 15 miles west of Okinawa, on 16 March 1945. Five days later, a landing was made on Keise- Jima, from which point artillery fire could be brought to bear on Okinawa itself. Then on 1 April, Easter Sunday, the landing began with a feint toward the southeastern shore of the island. The real assault was made by 60,000 U.S. troops landing on the central stretch of Okinawa’s west coast. They quickly seized two nearby airfields and advanced east to cut the island’s narrow waist. The Marines and Army troops attained most of their initial objectives within four days.
Ushijima had concentrated the bulk of his defenders out of range of Allied naval guns off the beaches and behind the strong Shuri line at the southern end of the island. There, the Japanese planned to inflict as much damage as possible on the invaders, supported by the last units of the Imperial Fleet and kamikaze raids. U.S. forces encountered the Shuri line for the first time on 4 April. They fought for eight days to take a ridge and clear the Japanese from numerous caves. Fighting was intense as the Japanese defended every inch of ground. The 1st Marine Division finally took Shuri Castle on 29 May. The Japanese then withdrew to the south to establish another defensive line at Yaeju Dake and Yazu Dake. Fierce fighting continued until most Japanese resistance had been eliminated by 21 June. During the battle for Okinawa, both commanders died within five days of each other; General Buckner died of shrapnel wounds inflicted by Japanese artillery at a forward observation post on 18 June, and General Ushijima committed suicide on 23 June.
While the battle had raged ashore, fighting in the waters around the island was just as intense. Japanese kamikaze attacks reached their highest level of the war as the suicide pilots flung themselves against the Allied fleet. Several thousand pilots immolated themselves against U.S. and British ships, sinking 36 and damaging another 368. The largest kamikaze was the giant battleship Yamato, dispatched to Okinawa with sufficient fuel for only a one-way trip. She was to inflict as much damage as possible before being destroyed; the Japanese hoped the Yamato might finish off the Allied fleet after the latter had been weakened by kamikaze attacks, then beach herself as a stationary battery. This mission came to naught on 7 April when the Yamato was attacked by U.S. carrier aircraft. Hit repeatedly by bombs and torpedoes, she sank long before reaching the invasion site.
Okinawa was officially declared secure on 2 July. Both sides had suffered horrendous casualties. More than 107,000 Japanese and Okinawan military and civilian personnel died. On the U.S. side, the army lost 12,520 dead and 36,631 wounded. The Marines suffered 2,938 dead and 13,708 wounded. The navy lost 4,907 men killed and 4,874 wounded, primarily from kamikaze attacks. The navy was the only service in the battle in which the dead exceeded the wounded. This figure was greater than the navy’s casualties in all U.S. wars to that date. The Battle of Okinawa was the costliest battle for the Americans of the Pacific war; this was used to support the case for bringing the war to an end by means other than the invasion of Japan itself and certainly influenced the decision by the United States to use atomic bombs.
References Appleman, Roy E., James M. Burns, Russell A. Gugeler, and John Stevens. United States Army in World War II. The War in the Pacific. Okinawa: The Last Battle. Washington, DC: U.S. Army, Center of Military History, 1948. Belote, James H., and William M. Belote. Typhoon of Steel: The Battle for Okinawa. New York: Harper and Row, 1970. Gow, Ian. Okinawa, 1945: Gateway to Japan. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985. Sledge, E. B. With the Old Breed, at Peleliu and Okinawa. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1981.
“You cannot by-pass a Jap because a Jap does not know when he is by-passed” A Colonel of the 96th US Infantry Division
Two weeks after the campaign on Iwo Jima was officially over Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa, began. The decision to take Okinawa was made at the same time as that for Iwo Jima, and for much the same reasons. The Americans thought they knew what to expect after the Iwo Jima campaign. A fanatical defence of position after position, each having to be winkled out by flamethrowers, demolition charges, and sometimes even direct fire from 14″ naval guns. There were known to be around 100,000 defenders on the island, good quality troops in the main, well supplied with artillery and automatic weapons.
The Japanese planned to defend the southern third of the island as they had the northern part of Iwo Jima – tunnels, caves, concrete emplacements and a strict ban on vain suicide attacks. This part of the island contained the best defensive terrain, as well as four air-bases, the port of Naha, and the best beaches and anchorages. The rest of the island would be covered by delaying forces, and left to the acknowledged US superiority in air and sea power. The defenders included the crack and experienced 62nd Division, the green 24th Division and the 44th Mixed Brigade, as well as numerous independent small units, including 10,000 naval troops, the elite 5th Artillery Command, the 27th Tank regiment and 20,000 native Okinawans(Boetai ).
The Americans hit the island with everything they had. Carrier planes and B29s bombed airfields in Formosa, Japan and other nearby islands to suppress Japanese raids and kamikaze missions; a full week was spent pounding the island from sea and air. The invasion force consisted of the 7th, 27th, 77th and 96th Infantry Divisions, and the 1st, 2nd and 6th Marine Divisions, accompanied by 1,500 ships of all types. The landings began on April 1st and initially went well. The Japanese had chosen not to contest the beaches. The 1st Marines landed and were held in place to act as the local reserve. The 6th Marines were given the task of clearing the north of the island, as they were not as experienced as the other Marine divisions. The 2nd Marine Division performed a landing feint near the south eastern corner of the island to pin Japanese reserves.
On the 6th of April the gigantic battleship Yamato, the pride of the IJN, sailed on a one-way mission to interdict the US Navy off Okinawa. The Allied air forces had kept an eye on her, and detected the movement straightaway. Within 24 hours, she joined her cousins on the sea bottom. But she had done some good: the distraction allowed a huge aerial kamikaze attack to achieve unprecedented success.
An air armada of 700 planes, over half kamikazes, struck the US fleet. Six ships were sunk and seventeen damaged. If this rate of success was continued, the kamikazes had a real chance of delaying or even stopping the Allies at Okinawa. It took until April 8th for the two Army divisions to work their way through the scattered defenders and outposts up to the main Japanese defensive line along Kakazu ridge, one of a series of rugged terrain features that ran directly across the US line of advance. These defences were part of the first Shuri defence ring, a fortified line extending across the island through the town of Shuri, which was an ancient castle and the centre of the defences.
By April 12th, the defenders had brought the Americans to a standstill. The men would work their way up a hill through artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, take the crest, and then be pinned down or driven back by the main Japanese position on the reverse face of the slope, almost immune from indirect fire. The ‘blowtorch and corkscrew’ tactics developed by the Americans, referring to the use of flamethrowers followed by demolition charges, were needed at almost every step. Often the defenders of a position were entombed alive and by-passed, only to appear elsewhere having escaped through a tunnel.
The Japanese command was divided between the cautious realists, led by the highly competent General Ushijima, and the ‘fire-eaters’, the junior and less experienced officers. Encouraged by the course of the battle thus far, Ushijima gave the fire-eaters their way on April 12th, and put in a six battalion attack that night. The Americans had decoded the signal flares using a captured signal book, and were prepared. By the light of star shells from the ships off-shore, US firepower blew the attack apart before it could get going. Still the Japanese persisted until the 14th, when Ushijima finally put an end to the slaughter. It was a return to the worst of Japanese tactics, relieved only by the lack of the suicidal and unproductive banzai charges.
Lt. General Buckner, Tenth Army commander, decided on a large frontal attack to crack the tenacious defensive line. On April 19th all three front line divisions ( XXIV Corps) went over to the offensive. The preliminary bombardment was ferocious. Over 600 planes, 18 warships and 300 guns opened up. The net result was estimated later to be about 200 Japanese dead. The defenders reappeared from their tunnels when the barrage stopped, and halted the advance in its tracks. The longest gain was around one kilometre in the west; many units ended the day on their start lines. The 2nd Marine Division was again used for a landing feint to distract the defenders, who were in fact expecting another landing.
In one of the most unfortunate decisions of the campaign, the experienced 2nd Marines were then sent back to Saipan, not having seen action on Okinawa at all. But the strain told on the defenders. Every gun, man or position lost could never be replaced. Slowly the Japanese were forced back by the unrelenting pressure. On the night of April 23rd/24th, the Japanese fell back to their second line.
After a month of combat, the US Tenth Army was in trouble. Three infantry divisions, the 7th, 27th and 96th, had attacked for all they were worth against the first Japanese defensive line for three weeks and had taken more casualties than metres of ground. There were two alternatives available to Buckner at this point: he could use his reserves (1st and 6th Marine and 77th Infantry Divisions) to replace his exhausted front line units, or he could make another landing behind the Japanese defensive lines.
Buckner chose the first course for two main reasons: he was in a hurry, and organising another invasion would mean two weeks of delay; and he feared “another Anzio, but worse”. The 27th and 96th Divisions were pulled out on the April 30th and replaced by the 1st Marine and 77th Divisions respectively. The 7th had to wait another 10 days until the 96th was ready to return. At first the fresh troops made little difference. For a week, the US troops advanced perhaps two kilometres in the centre, and less on the flanks. The Americans had run into the second Shuri line of the defence ring. The men had to go through it all again; the names changed but the tactics remained the same.
Ushijima once more allowed himself to be talked into an offensive. Encouraged by the stalemate at the front, he planned an attack for May 4th, to be accompanied by massive kamikaze strikes on the US Navy. The 24th Division, the 27th Tank regiment and the 44th Mixed Brigade were to lead the assault, and miscellaneous small units would make landings behind the American front to disrupt supplies and communications. After a half-hour barrage of over 13,000 rounds, the attack went in early in the morning. The coastal landings were an abysmal failure; most were penned in or destroyed within minutes of debarking.
The main assault met the fate of the earlier attack: US firepower rapidly decided the issue. Incredibly, another assault was put in the next night, and actually achieved a small breakthrough. By the next day, the Americans had restored the front and killed all of the successful attackers. The two attacks had cost the Japanese hundreds of planes, 5,000 casualties, almost all their tanks, and 60 precious guns. The US losses amounted to six ships sunk, six damaged, and 720 land casualties. The Japanese attack was another expensive failure.
By May 11th the refreshed 96th Division was brought back into the line to replace the 7th, and the 6th Marine Division was added to the western flank. Buckner scheduled an all-out attack along the whole line for that day. The Japanese, certain by now that no second landing was coming, committed most of their reserves. The fighting went on, hardly moving, for ten days.
At the end of this period, the Japanese line was in danger. Both flanks were bending back, and the Americans were on the outskirts of Shuri in the centre. On the east coast, there was a real possibility of a breakthrough as the US troops opened a gap between the Japanese and the shoreline. At this point the rains, unseasonably late, started. Much of the front became a sea of mud, even stopping am-tracks. The only significant advance was made in the west, where the Marines finally took the town of Naha, largest in Okinawa but virtually deserted now. The Marines also began to outflank Shuri to the south west.
The situation looked desperate to General Ushijima, as he had no hope of reinforcement. The only viable option open to him was to abandon the hard-fought-for Shuri line and retreat into the very southern portion of the island, where a last defensive line had been prepared. The Japanese took advantage of the cover afforded by the constant rain to stage their withdrawal, skilfully covered by a rear guard. The withdrawal was complete by May 28th, but the Americans only realised that it had happened at all on the 30th, when a Marine unit slipped through a gap in the rear guard and took Shuri castle. Even then, the town proper held out for another day. When the men finally entered the ruined town, it was deserted.
The scenario begins with reformation of the III Amphibious Corps as the 6th Marines enters the line to the right of the 1st. The resulting bloody struggle for the Shuri line was only stopped by the cyclonic storms that commenced on May 22nd and rendered offensive action impossible. The Japanese defended their positions to the death and withdrew only under the cover of the storms. To simulate this many Japanese units have zero movement allowance. Each side will take heavy losses and if both have held at the end then the issue may be decided by casualties inflicted as well as objectives held.
THE MARINES. You must conduct a steady and calculated assault on the Shuri line to be successful. Careful co-ordination of assets and OBS is essential. Marine losses will be high but your excellent supply and elite troops should allow you to maintain steady pressure. Watch for any weakening in the Japanese lines and hold try to hold any gains without overreaching. Pushing exhausted troops, even marines, can result in disaster. The 1st Marines’ ultimate objective is Shuri Castle, but Dakeshi must be reduced first. The 6th Marines must cross the Asa River and assault the Sugarloaf and Horseshoe hills which dominate the Shuri Line in the 6th Division’s sector. These must fall before the Japanese rear areas at Kokuba can be taken.
JAPANESE FORCES. Many of your units are dug in and these must form the backbone of your defence. The mobile units you control are essential for shoring up the weak points caused by US assaults. Holding the line is your only aim as in so doing you will have caused heavy losses to the US. Your units will also suffer but you may be certain that the US player is probably suffering in at least equal measure. The Shuri Line must be held. The 44th Independent Brigade is responsible for Sugarloaf, Horseshoe, Hill 55 and Makuba. The Navy is responsible for the Naha area including Makishi, while the 62nd Division defends Wana and Shuri Castle.
(1a) Assume that Japanese kamikaze attacks are having a greater than historical effect on US shipping. Reduce divisional and regimental supply values by 2 points.
(1b) You can also assume that the US carriers were being somewhat diverted and reduce the reliability of US OBS by 2.
(2) Assume that heavy rains which stopped the US offensive arrived earlier. Reduce the scenario length by 4 days.
“It’s all over now but cleaning up pockets of resistance. This doesn’t mean there won’t be stiff fighting but the Japs won’t be able to organise another line” General Buckner, May 31st 1945
By early June, when the rains had subsided, the Americans were advancing faster than ever before. They had come three kilometres in a week – fast by Okinawan standards. They started to by-pass the Oroku peninsula on the west coast, held by the troops of Admiral Ota’s naval base force. On June 3rd, two regiments of the 6th Marine made a landing on the northern point of the peninsula. The landing by sea was considered easier than moving the men in the mud. The remainder of the Japanese forces on the island, about 30,000, had retreated to a new line in the south. Only one third of these, however, were trained infantry. The Japanese were running out of men. The support troops fought as bravely as the rest, but not so well.
The now-familiar process of prising the defenders out of every nook and cranny in the convoluted hills continued. Tanks were of little use, as the ground was still soft from the rains. Again the Marines and the GIs faced the daunting prospect of resolutely held ridge lines raining mortar and machine-gun fire on them as they struggled up the slopes. The Japanese had very few heavy guns left, which eased the Americans’ task somewhat.
General Ushijima sensed the end was at hand, as the first ridge line fell in only 12 days. On June 17th, the Japanese front collapsed, so Ushijima, after one final, futile counter-attack, ordered his men to infiltrate through the US lines and carry on guerilla warfare in northern Okinawa. He and his staff took refuge in a cave near the island’s southern shore. He committed hara-kiri on June 22nd, when US troops approached.
General Buckner was killed on June 18th by an artillery shell, in the final days of the drama that was Okinawa. He was the highest ranking American officer to be killed in combat in WWII, and he died only two months before the end.
The total Allied losses were 49,000 casualties, of which 9,700 were naval personnel – the worst losses in the navy’s history. The naval dead (4,900) outnumbered those of any other service in the campaign. They also lost 221 tanks (over half the original force), 36 ships sunk and 368 damaged, and 763 planes. The Japanese losses were 110,000 troops and thousands of civilians. They also lost 16 ships sunk and 4 damaged, and, incredibly, 7,800 planes. But they had served their emperor well, and delayed the Allies by 83 days – nearly three times as long as originally estimated by the Allied planners.
The island fighting had shown that the only way to deal with determined defenders who would not surrender was with fighting men of equal skill and determination who would not relent. The desperate, resolute and intelligent defence of Okinawa by the Japanese must have been a factor in the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. After all, if they fought in that fashion for an island populated by people they considered their inferiors, how would they fight for their homeland?
The Japanese vacated the Shuri line under cover of the heavy storms. After the rains abated somewhat, the US forces took up the pursuit. This scenario depicts the contribution of the Marines to the closing stages of the Okinawa campaign. Movement costs are greater than in the Shuri scenario due to the sodden ground.
THE MARINES. You must drive south and assault yet another fortified line. To win you must clear Oroku and breach the Japanese defences near Kunishi Ridge. The Japanese troops are weaker now but still occupy formidable positions, so all previous comments about assaulting fortified lines still apply. Be prepared for the arrival of the 8th R.C.T. late in the game. A fresh unit can make all the difference. The 1st must attack towards Itoman, clearing important terrain around Dakiton, en route. Once accomplished, the main defensive line on the Kunishi Ridge must be penetrated to reach Makabe. The 6th Marines has been split into two groups to clear the Oroku Peninsular. Once cleared the 6th should proceed south and support the 1st by striking Kyamu.
JAPANESE FORCES. You still have excellent positions, but the quality of your troops has suffered. You must be extremely careful in choosing attacks. Base units and Boetai are not suitable for any real offensive action. If you can delay the fall of Oroku and hold the line at Kunishi, you should win. The Ad Hoc formation must delay the advance of the 1st Marines on Itoman. The Navy defends Oroku to the death. The 24th division holds Kunishi Ridge and then makes its last stand at Makabe.
(1a) Assume that Japanese kamikaze attacks are having a greater than historical effect on US shipping. Reduce divisional and regimental supply values by 2 points.
(1b) You can also assume that the US carriers were being somewhat diverted and reduce the reliability of US OBS by 2.
(2) Assume that the 8th R.C.T. clean up their small island objectives earlier. Change their arrival to turn 25.
(3) Assume that the rain clears earlier and therefore allows easier movement. Adjust all the movement values for all terrain to that used in the Shuri scenario. Also adjust the movement allowance of US divisional HQs, which were reduced to reflect the logistical difficulties of the poor ground conditions.
(4) Assume that more of the Japanese 24th Division’s battalions remain intact for the defence at Kunishi. Substitute standard rifle battalions for the Boetai battalions used and add 1 to the experience rating of all 24th Division rifle battalions.
According to ancient Chinese sources, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions. The 1405 expedition consisted of 27,800 men and a fleet of 62 treasure ships supported by approximately 190 smaller ships. The fleet included:
· Treasure ships, used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies (nine-masted, about 126.73 metres (416 ft) long and 51.84 metres (170 ft) wide), according to later writers. Such dimension is more or less the shape of a football field. The treasure ships purportedly can carry as much as 1,500 tons. By way of comparison, a modern ship of about 1,200 tons is 60 meters (200 ft) long, and the ships Christopher Columbussailed to the New World in 1492 were about 70-100 tons and 17 meter (55 ft) long.
· Horse ships, carrying tribute goods and repair material for the fleet (eight-masted, about 103 m (339 ft) long and 42 m (138 ft) wide).
· Supply ships, containing staple for the crew (seven-masted, about 78 m (257 ft) long and 35 m (115 ft) wide).
· Troop transports, six-masted, about 67 m (220 ft) long and 25 m (83 ft) wide.
· Fuchuan warships, five-masted, about 50 m (165 ft) long.
· Patrol boats, eight-oared, about 37 m (120 ft) long.
· Water tankers, with 1 month supply of fresh water.
Six more expeditions took place, from 1407 to 1433, with fleets of comparable size.
Trade in the Indian Ocean was decentralized and cooperative. Commercial interest prevailed over political authorities.
Strait of Malacca was the meeting point between Indian Ocean and South China Sea, between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra. The Kingdom of Siam gained control of the upper Malay Peninsula, while the Java-based Kingdom of Majapathi ruled over the lower portion of the peninsula and most of Sumatra. Majapahit was not strong enough to stop the Chinese pirates that were affecting trade in this region. In the 1407, the Chinese government sent a fleet and smashed the pirates.
The city of Alden (Arabia) had a double advantage: enough rainfall to supply drinking water to a large population and to grow grain for export and to be a convenient stopover for trade between India and the Persian Gulf, East Africa, and Egypt.
From… “Admiral Satan, The Life and Campaigns of Suffren” describing the Knights of Malta as a training corps for the French navy
In the Mediterranean, one of the primary occupations of the galleys was suppression of the North African pirates. “the oar powered Galliot was the best instrument since it could navigate calm, shallow and sheltered waters, and was not dependent upon the wind”
Economy was another motivator.. “A small squadron of sailing ships had been built…. but it was a crippling burden to the treasury” (of Malta)
I don’t think the major powers used the galleys against each other except as prestige ‘toys” and for harbor defence. The rowing and sailing corps were independent until the late 1740s. The death of the Grand Prior of France, Jean-Phillipe d’Orleans, allowed the unification of the French Navy.. and essentially the demise of the galleys as a serious force. “Most of the galley officers retired and only 28 transferred to service under sail” (including Suffren)
The galley fleet at Malta did provide the aristocracy a means of establishing rank seniority in the French Navy…. service in the Maltese fleet was valued and recognized by the French navy… and young aristocrats could be entered into Maltese service as children, acquiring seniority from the time of entry! (ages 7 and 8 for the Suffren brothers)
They were too narrow to mount broadside guns and therefore lacked the power of massed artillery. Against a grounded or becalmed sailing ship they could gain favorable position but were limited in their bow mounted firepower. Ramming a sailing vessel from astern or ahead would produce a glancing blow…. from abeam against a battery would be suicidal. Pursue and board would be the most likely tactic… against smaller Islamic vessels.
There is an excellent book: “FIGHTING SHIPS AND PRISONS The Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV” by Paul W. Bamford Copyright 1973 University of Minnesota, LC # 72-92334, ISBN 0-8166-0655-2.
It is well worth tracking down through your library. You are right on as to the worth of the Galley Fleet. It and its shore establishment constituted a primary component of the French Prison System well into the Napoleonic Era. It is useful to remember that patronage of Malta and the Galley Fleet represented an important part of Louis’ activities in support of the Catholic Church. The Chaplains were very important officers on the ships. The number of war-like sorties was next to nothing in spite of the theoretical uses they could be put to. The most important voyages were those to deliver ambassadors. While the number of prisoners from both France and the other continental countries (small German states) who paid to have France keep their prisoners was swelling far beyond the needs of the fleet, French representatives were busy buying Muslim slaves to send to the oars.
While only a few officers were incorporated into the sailing fleet at the end of the separate galley fleet, the galleys lingered on. I suspect the extraordinary level of venality of the galley fleet afloat and ashore had more of a cross-over to the sailing fleet than is generally recognized. If nothing else, the association of a major component of the national naval establishment in the public mind with unjust imprisonment for life under cruel conditions, was a handicap to the navy.
Denied access to Continental Europe by France’s collapse in 1940, Britain and eventually the United States had to concentrate their efforts in the Mediterranean. In the long run this strategic reality allowed the Anglo-American powers to build up their capabilities, numbers and battlefield knowledge to the point where they could confront the Wehrmacht more equally. The British recognized the advantages of a Mediterranean strategy; the Americans had to be dragged into committing themselves to that theater. Air power played a number of important roles in the Mediterranean. It proved particularly useful in the defense of Malta and in reaching out from that island to attack Rommel’s supply lines to Libya. When RAF capabilities provided a modicum of protection to Malta, Allied air and sea power devastated Axis convoys. When, however, the Luftwaffe turned the tables on the British, as with the arrival of Kesselring’s Luftflotte 2 in November 1941, Rommel’s supplies arrived with few losses. Thus, the air situation on Malta had a direct and palpable influence on the course of ground operations in Libya and Egypt.
In the desert the RAF was under the command of one of the most innovative and imaginative commanders of the Second World War, Air Marshal Arthur Tedder. He proved an apt student of the actual conditions of war. The RAF in the Middle East gave priority to tasks which the air staff had regarded with disdain throughout the interwar period: first, it would gain air superiority; second, it would attack Axis supply lines; and third, it would support the army in its ground battles with the Afrikakorps. Deployment of British air power to the Mediterranean involved a great logistic system that flew aircraft across the great expanses of central Africa and then up the Nile valley.
Under Tedder’s leadership the RAF proved an innovative and effective instrument of military power in the Mediterranean theater. But no matter how effective it was, air power could not make up for the severe deficiencies in British Army doctrine, training and intellectual preparation. The results showed all too clearly in the Gazala battles of May and June 1942; air power alone could not override the British Army’s incompetence and the German army’s battle effectiveness. Moreover, in spring 1942 the Luftwaffe had sufficient resources in theater to contest with the RAF directly over the battlefield. Nevertheless, claims on both sides were at times dubious.
The appearance of Bernard Law Montgomery, one of the nastiest but most effective generals of the war, ushered in a new era in RAF-army co-operation. Montgomery understood the value of co-operation with the RAF, and Tedder fully supported his subordinates in developing it. By collocating his headquarters with Montgomery’s, Air Vice Marshal Arthur Alan Conningham, commander of RAF ground support forces in the theater, provided the desert army with unheard-of responsiveness. But Tedder also understood the need for a wider air campaign to drive the Luftwaffe from the skies and to prevent the arrival of the supplies on which the Afrikakorps depended.
It was air power in its widest applications that helped the Eighth Army overcome the Afrikakorps’s battle effectiveness at EI Alamein in late October 1942. Even before the battle, the RAF had severely damaged Rommel’s supply lines across the Mediterranean and disrupted movement between ports in Libya and the front line. Equally important, RAF fighters established air superiority, so that the air commanders could concentrate the RAF on impeding the movement of Rommel’s forces and on support of the ground battle. Montgomery’s victory was quite different from early British victories in the desert. In a sustained battle of attrition in which air power provided direct support as well as interdiction strikes for Commonwealth troops, Montgomery’s Eighth Army broke the Afrikakorps, first by denying it mobility and then by fighting the battle on British terms. EI Alamein heralded the bold stroke of Anglo-American sea power, Operation Torch, against French North Africa – a strike which occurred on the far side of the African continent from Egypt.
Hitler replied to Torch by flying paratroopers over to seize Tunisia and then following up with major reinforcements – far larger forces than those he had denied Rommel in summer 1942. Rommel’s retreat across Libya was sufficiently skilled to get his forces to Tunisia and to launch a surprise attack in January 1943 on the exposed and ill-trained American forces at the Kasserine Pass before the British caught up from the east. Moreover, the Luftwaffe gave Allied air forces in Algeria serious trouble, while the arrangements between air and ground in Algeria were considerably behind the procedures that the desert air force and army had already worked out.
In fact, the reinforcing Axis forces in Tunisia were in an impossible strategic position. Once Allied air forces had sorted themselves out, they imposed a stranglehold on Axis supply lines. Ultra decrypts provided detailed intelligence of the movement of those supplies by sea and air; by the end of March, Allied air attacks had closed down the movement of shipborne supplies. The Luftwaffe then made a desperate attempt in April and early May to supply hard-pressed Axis troops by an aerial bridge, but this was no more successful than the Stalingrad effort. The results were even more devastating, as Allied fighter forces, alerted by decrypts, consistently intercepted and decimated transport formations. But Axis leadership in the theater, did not do much to help; Johannes Steinhoff, the great German ace, traveling through Italy in early 1943 on his way to take up command in Tunisia, was astonished by the luxury and comfort of Kesselring’s staff. The great man himself, according to Steinhoff’s memoirs, was completely out of touch with combat conditions and was sickenly optimistic. Ultra decrypts indicated that Kesselring was pressing his fighter pilots throughout the battle to act with the fanaticism of the Japanese. Not surprisingly, the Luftwaffe suffered casualties that it could not afford.
Although Benito Mussolini’s Regia Aeronautica attacked the British bastion of Malta in early June 1940, the aerial war in North Africa took a long time to develop, despite skirmishing with Royal Air Force planes flying from bases in Egypt. Initially the small Italian air force in North Africa included only 84 modern bombers, including the Savoia-Marchetti SM 79 Sparviero. It also possessed 144 obsolescent fighter aircraft, such as the durable Fiat CR 42 Falcon biplane. A miscellany of approximately 100 other aircraft rounded out the force.
What subsequently became the RAF’s Western Desert Air Force was, if anything, weaker still. It constituted a scratch force of castoffs from imperial service augmented by a few machines just being sent out from the home islands. The latter included, in late 1940 and early 1941, the first arrivals of Hawker Hurricanes (Mk.Is and, later, Mk.IIs). They complemented the few Westland Lysander liaison/reconnaissance aircraft, Bristol Blenheim twin-engine bombers, and venerable Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters with which the RAF defended the Nile Delta.
The arrival of the German Afrika Korps in North Africa in early 1941 altered matters. Accompanying the German ground forces were Luftwaffe units equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109 single-engine and Bf 110 twin-engine fighters and fighter-bombers. The ground attack role was ably filled by the veteran Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber. Italy also reinforced its squadrons with small numbers of agile (and elegant) Macchi-Castoldi MC.202 Folgore single-engine fighters. These aircraft helped carry Italo-German forces to a string of successes in 1941. In mid-1942, they played a positively decisive role in the Axis victories at Bir Hakim and Tobruk.
In the fall of that year, however, factors beyond North Africa’s shores began to impede reinforcement of Italo- German forces in the theater. Axis armies and air forces in Egypt were at the end of their logistical network, and precious little fuel, replacement aircraft, and spare parts reached them. By contrast, British armies and Allied air forces in Egypt went from strength to strength, particularly with the activation of the U.S. Army Middle East Air Force’s Desert Air Task Force (DATF), consisting of RAF and USAAF fighter and light and medium bombardment groups. Operating, among others, Curtiss P-40 Warhawks (“Tomahawks” and “Kittyhawks” in British and imperial service), and North American B-25 Mitchell and Douglas DB-7 Boston twin-engine bombers, these formations supplied critical air support in defeating the last-ditch Axis effort at Alam el Halfa (31 August–6 September).
At El Alamein as well (24 October–4 November), the DATF helped break the back of Axis resistance to the British Eighth Army’s offensive. The early simultaneous landings of Operation TORCH (7 November) brought into northwest Africa what would become the U.S. Twelfth Air Force. Axis forces were now caught in a strategic vise.
From December 1942 to May 1943, Allied airpower grew in strength. Nevertheless, Axis air forces fought on grimly in the struggles of the Tunisian bridgehead. Using all-weather airfields around Tunis and Bizerte, they contested Allied advances as much as their increasingly limited logistics would permit and were especially effective at the turn of the year when Allied planes were either too far from the front or operated from inadequate bases.
The weight of numbers told, however. By early spring 1943, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica existed as mere remnants in Tunisia. Furthermore, they suffered appalling losses of transports and aircrews to marauding Allied fighters and light bombers in a desperate attempt at aerial reinforcement. The remaining Axis air and ground forces surrendered on 13 May 1943.
References Craven, Wesley F., and James L. Cate, eds. The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 2: Europe: TORCH to POINTBLANK, August 1942 to December 1943.Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1983. Gilbert, Adrian, ed. The Imperial War Museum Book of the Desert War. London: Motorbooks International, 1995. Heckmann, Wolf. Rommel’s War in Africa. Trans. Stephen Seago. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.