‘No Fly Zone’ to take Tunis II

Two days later, on Palm Sunday, 18 April, the afternoon did seem to be drifting, like its name indicated into a day of relative peace and quiet. Following intelligence reports of German plans to airlift out some of their key staff of the Heeresgruppe Afrika and non-combat troops, on transports returning to Sicily, the USAAF 57th Fighter Group sent out successive patrols through the day to try and intercept any such flights. Pilots continually returned with nothing to report.

Late in the day, when the last patrol was organized, no contacts had been made with enemy aircraft. This final operation was a combination of 57th Group and 244 Wing RAF, whose Spitfires of 92 Squadron would provide top cover. At 1705 forty-eight Warhawks from all four of 57th Group’s Fighter Squadrons, 64th, 65th, 66th, and 319th, began lifting off, led by Captain James ‘Big Jim’ Curl, the experienced flight leader of 66th.

Once they had met up with the Spitfires, Curl led the formation north-west over Cape Bon. Almost six miles out to sea dusk was gathering when Curl turned them back southwards to return home. He knew the light would not last much longer. Then he saw something, maybe 4,000 feet below them, close to the sea. At first he thought it might be a very large flight of migrating geese. The shapes became clearer under his gaze. He was looking at what he estimated to be about 100 of the Ju52/3m transports. They were all in a camouflage green colour, making them hard to pick out against the sea in the twilight, and were flying north in a giant ‘V-of-Vs’ formation. What came next was at first nicknamed by the American pilots as a ‘goose shoot’.

While the Spitfires took on some escorting Bf109s, the forty-eight Warhawks descended onto the cumbersome Ju52s like falcons swooping on a flock of fat pigeons. In the mayhem Curl claimed two Ju52s and a 109. He described the engagement as chaotic, the sky filled with turning, wheeling aircraft. The Warhawks twisted around in the melee, firing at a mass of enemy aircraft that had no escape. Captain Roy Whittaker, flight leader in 65th Fighter Squadron, shot down two Ju52s and two 109s. His four victories took him up to a total of seven, which made him the highest scoring pilot in the 57th.

Lieutenant Richard O. Hunziker, of the 65th Fighter Squadron, on only his second combat operation, found himself in a baptism of fire. He was astounded at the number of enemy aircraft.

The enemy formation looked like a thousand black beetles crawling over the water. On our first pass I was so excited I started firing early. I could see the shots kicking up the water.

Hunziker went after a Ju52 near the front of the ‘V’ and saw his shots hammer along its tail and fuselage, and simultaneously realized he was being shot at by two Ju52s on either side of him.

It looked as though they were blinking red flashlights at me from the windows – Tommy-guns, probably. The ship I was firing at hit the water with a great sheet of spray and then exploded. As I pulled up I could see figures struggling away from what was left of the aeroplane.

Next Hunziker responded to a radio call for help against some Bf109s 5,000 feet above him. At first he struggled to latch on to the enemy fighters in the whirling dogfights. Taking evasive action he found himself crossing over land. Then, with his first burst of fire at one of the 109s, he blew its nose off, sending it into a steep dive to crash into the ground in flames.

The total losses and damage inflicted by 57th Fighter Group on the Luftwaffe transports and escort fighters were:

Not surprisingly the media reported the one-sided air battle as the ‘Palm Sunday Massacre’.

However, the clashes between the fighters, the Warhawks and the Bf109s, were far from one-sided. The Bf109s were able to operate thousands of feet above the Warhawks, which were ineffective above 15,000 feet. This enabled the 109s to wait for an opportunity to mount a diving attack, ideally out of the sun on the American fighters. To counter the German fighters’ advantage, 57th Group pilots, such as Lieutenant Mike McCarthy of 64th Fighter Squadron, knew that a 109 could not out-turn a properly flown P-40 Warhawk, ‘We had to know where they were every moment, to time the ‘break’ call, and turn hard into them so we could bring our guns to bear and shoot.’

On 22 April DAF Spitfires and Kittyhawks pounced upon some twenty Me323s which were flying a wide V formation. The main cargo of these six-engined giant transports was fuel. They were escorted by ten Bf109s and Macchi C.202s. Lieutenant ‘Robbie’ Robinson of 1 Squadron SAAF downed two 109s, which made him an ace. His fellow pilots sent six more of the 323s, engulfed in petrol-fed flames, plunging into the sea.

Out of a fleet of around 250 of these huge workhorse planes, German records show that between 5 April and 12 May 1943, 166 aircraft and their cargoes of critical supplies were lost. Between 18 and 22 April Allied fighters claimed to have shot-down some 120 of the Luftwaffe’s Ju52 and Me323 transport aircraft. After 22 April the Luftwaffe was forced to fly air transports only at night, and with continuing losses to Allied night-fighters, in ever reducing numbers.

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In contrast the Allies had no such supply shortages. On the ground they had more men, more guns, more tanks, and in the sky the decisive advantage – air superiority. Yet the Germans still held the vital passes through the hills surrounding Tunis, inflicting terrible losses as they withstood every Allied attack. In the southern and northern coastal corridors, it seemed impossible to concentrate sufficient forces to break through. The Medjerda Valley was blocked by German defences on Longstop Hill. After the Germans had defeated desperate Allied attacks on 25 December 1942 to retain Longstop, they had dug in extensive and formidable defences on what was for them, their Weinachtshügel (Christmas Hill).

At last, in the closing week of April the long-sought breakthrough came. Eighth Army captured Longstop Hill and other enemy strongpoints in the Medjerda Valley. Here was the opportunity to concentrate forces for a hopefully decisive thrust at Tunis. The German generals knew a major offensive was coming, but not whether it would be Eighth Army from the south-east, First Army in the centre, or the Americans in the north-west.

The final plan was for a spearhead attack in the centre in early May by First Army combined with elements transferred from Eighth Army. Battle-hardened British infantry battalions from the 1st Armoured, 4th and 78th Divisions would first break the German lines. Then 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions, after funnelling their way through the Allied-held strategic market town of Medjez el Bab, would smash their way down the Medjerda Valley through Massicault and St Cyprien to Tunis.

However, in the redeployment and concentration lead up, there was great risk. The inherent weakness of the plan was that the tanks and their support vehicles transferred from Eighth Army in the south would have to move in open view through the hills north to Medjez el Bab. Then endless columns of tanks, infantry, and supplies would have to crawl across the one and only bridge over the Medjerda River at Medjez.

Only then could the attack concentrate across a narrow 3,000-yard front on the valley floor to drive towards Tunis. In the days of repositioning and concentration, Allied forces would be glaringly susceptible to German reconnaissance, and consequent ground and air attack. Once again the question was: how could this be done without the Germans knowing, and countering with their own troop redeployments? Despite the huge losses imposed on the Luftwaffe, even late into April, with whatever aircraft they had left, the Germans had the capability to mount a desperate ‘last throw’ raid.

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The Axis positions in the hills around Enfidaville were very strong, and from the air it was difficult to identify targets amongst the orchards, fields and plantations within the ridges and hilly terrain. It was very different from the desert and enemy vehicles were avoiding the use of roads during the day. In one operation the anti-tank Hurricanes of No. 6 Squadron, despite seeing the coloured smoke of Eighth Army positions, were unable to identify Axis forces hiding amongst olive groves. Rather than visible targets, pilots had to be briefed with designated areas on air photographs, which required a new approach and training.

From the sea north of Enfidaville Axis forces had established a defensive line through the hills north-west to Medjez el Bab in the Medjerda Valley, then north again through the mountains to the coast about twenty miles west of the port of Bizerte. The plain in front of Medjez in the Medjerda Valley was clearly the most favourable for an armoured attack to break through to Tunis. Alexander and Montgomery agreed that Eighth Army should restrict its efforts to maintaining pressure on the Enfidaville defences in a holding operation. On 18 April 1st Armoured Division and the King’s Dragoon Guards, and later on 30 April the 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions, 201 Guards Brigade and some artillery, moved across to join First Army near Medjez.

A joint planning conference determined that DAF would return to army/air close support to cover the armoured drive down the Medjerda valley to Tunis. The first moves of forces from Eighth Army began on 30 April. Because of DAF pilots not being experienced with the terrain of the battle area, and communications being channelled through both First Army and Eighth Army HQs, targets for DAF squadrons were drawn up and agreed in advance. A massive letter ‘T’ 150 yards long was marked out in white on the ground, as well as red and blue smoke, to assist the pilots’ navigation.

The air support plan and timelines for an ‘air blitz’ on 6 May were:

0540: Eighty-four medium bombers of the Tactical Bomber Force (TBF) would bomb Axis ground positions directly in front of the Allied troops advance path.

0730–0800: 126 light bombers of DAF would attack their pre-selected targets further back.

0830–0930: Eighty-four medium bombers of TBF would bomb targets a further distance away.

0930–1200: Fighter-bombers of 242 Wing RAF would attack targets of opportunity in the battle area.

1200 onwards: 108 light bombers of DAF would be in readiness to hit enemy reserves, while DAF fighter-bombers would look for Axis force movements in roads and valleys.

Contrary to some expectations, the initial move of the armoured divisions from the south to Medjez, protected by DAF’s dominating air cover, was achieved without the knowledge of, or hindrance from, the enemy. It was a clear demonstration of how air superiority could enable ground forces to reposition without interference.

The armoured thrust for Tunis began with six divisions, and all their supplies, in a slow crawl across that single bridge at Medjez. Air power was tasked with imposing a protective screen, an umbrella over the valley route to make it impenetrable to any enemy reconnaissance or air attack. It seemed to scream out for one Stuka dive-bombing raid to hit that one and only bridge at Medjez, and cut the offensive in two.

On 6 May, day one of the advance through Medjez, Allied aircraft flew some 2,500 sorties, attacking Axis forces in their rear bases, and bombing and strafing their defences in the path of the Allied attack. By 0800 on 6 May the British infantry had cleared a path through German positions and their minefields, taken objectives such as Frendj, and dug in. In an example of the air-ground support, and in co-ordination with an artillery bombardment preceding the lead infantry and tanks, DAF light bombers and Kittyhawks hit Axis positions at Bordj Frendj and St Cyprien, halting a convoy of 100 enemy trucks.

Then the armoured divisions burst through to take Massicault before nightfall. On 7 May the armour rolled into Tunis, taking many Axis forces by surprise. Some enemy troops even emerged from bars and restaurants, with stunned stares, and surrendered without a fight.17 Allied air power had made the skies above Medjez and the Medjerda valley another no-fly zone.

It was the combination of an ‘air blitz’, air support, artillery and massed armour that, on 7 May, enabled the 7th Armoured Division to burst through to Tunis. In the north American forces took the port of Bizerte. Axis air forces were powerless to help their troops on the ground. On 8 May the front lines were advancing so rapidly that First Army only allowed specific requests for air support.

On 8 May the Luftwaffe could fly just sixty sorties, some from only two operational air bases they retained in the Cape Bon peninsula. On 9 May there were even fewer Luftwaffe sorties, and on 10 May there were none. The Germans had fled the Tunisian skies, evacuating what planes, equipment and personnel they could.18

Small boats attempting to evacuate Axis troops by sea were attacked by fighters. A large evacuation exercise on 9 May, when attacked by Tactical Bomber Force light bombers and DAF fighters, quickly surrendered. Large formations of Axis troops were surrendering, but some still moved towards the coast, despite no ships being able to leave. In the mountains north of Enfidaville on 10 May, the Italian First Army, including the German 10th Panzer, 90th Light and 164th Infantry Divisions, was still holding out. The 90th Light Division held the coast road, and was blocking First and Eighth Armies from joining up.

On 12 May a light bomber raid on 90th Light Division was planned. Allied troops were only 1,500 yards from the enemy, so an artillery bombardment of yellow smoke was laid on both north and south of 90th Light’s positions. The bombings were spot on, and very quickly white flags were everywhere. It proved to be the last air attack on ground forces of the North African campaign.

The capture of Tunis brought the Axis surrender and 250,000 prisoners. It was on the same scale as the German defeat at Stalingrad, and hailed as the turning of the tide. And once again air power had been the decisive ‘game-changer’.

The success in North Africa of DAF’s support for the army was based upon gaining air superiority, which in turn rested upon winning the air war first. The integral foundation of winning the air war flowed from the RAF’s strategic decision to purchase fighters rather than dive-bombers. And, of course, the superior performance of the Spitfire in aerial battles of fighter against fighter was a significant factor.

Perhaps most important were the army/air support control systems through the AASC groups, pioneered and improved between army and air force from 1941 to 1943. In the Tunisian campaign, in terrain so different from the desert, ‘flash’ messages from AASC at Army HQ to ALOs at DAF airfields were introduced. This much improved the ALOs’ ability to communicate and explain new developments in the battle area to the pilots. DAF developed a platform in this area on which air superiority could be won and hopefully sustained in the planned Allied invasion of Italy.

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