Air Vice Marshal Tedder knew that the Allies must first win the air war before a spring offensive on the ground could succeed. In their gamble to capture Tunis by the end of December 1942, the Allies’ lack of air superiority in Tunisia had been a major contributory factor in the failure. Or in the converse perspective, if the Allies had enjoyed air superiority, the outcome may well have been different.
The battle for air superiority also now had to be fought and won on two fronts, over Tunisia and the Libyan desert. The DAF was continually on the move in step with Eighth Army, from one isolated desert airstrip to another. While the Allies had lengthening supply lines and temporary airfields, the Axis had permanent airfields in Tunisia, Sicily and Sardinia. To undermine this advantage, air power and interdiction were seen as the key by choking off the enemy’s supply routes, whether by sea freight or air transport across the Mediterranean.
DAF to the rescue of French forces at Ksar Rhilane
Dust swirled in the wake of the German armoured columns. They comprised two groups of Panzers, half-tracks and support trucks as they powered across the desert. It was 10 March 1943 near Ksar Rhilane in southern Tunisia and General von Arnim had sent the Panzer force racing to intercept the Free French forces of General Leclerc. The French had recently driven across the desert from Lake Chad to join General Montgomery’s Eighth Army in a ‘left hook’ to outflank and help break the Axis defences on the Mareth Line. At about this time the combined Axis forces in Tunisia, now designated Heeresgruppe Afrika/Gruppo d’Armate Africa (Army Group Africa), were put under the command of von Arnim. He was desperate to prevent a link up of the British First Army of Operation TORCH with Eighth Army, which was pressing hard against the German-Italian Panzer Army (previously Panzer-armee Afrika) in the south of Tunisia.
Above the lines of German armour and motor transport, Pilot Officer Arthur Dawkins, of No. 450 Squadron RAAF, eased his Kittyhawk fighter-bomber around to survey the burning vehicles, which his bombs had just struck. He peered through the murk of smoke and dust for more targets which he could strafe. Then one of the trucks coming up in his flight path suddenly blew up in an immense explosion, enveloping him in a fog of black smoke, dirt and debris. It must have been an ammunition truck, he thought. Dawkins fought to keep control, feeling the plane being dragged down. Emerging again into bright sunlight, he was astonished to see, wrapped around one of his wings, a length of a truck’s canvas tarpaulin. The base airfield at Nefatia some fifteen miles away, at once seemed much further distant.
Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, twelve each from Nos 3 and 450 Squadrons RAAF, were bombing and shooting up the German armoured columns, while escorting Spitfires chased off some Stuka dive-bombers, which were heading for the French. Five attacks were made on the German forces, three by Kittybombers and two by Hurricane fighters of No. 6 Squadron RAF, known as the ‘Flying Can-openers’ due to their use of 40mm-cannon-armed tank-busting Hurricane IIDs (each Hurricane carried two 40mm cannon under its wings). The 250lb wing bombs, and the 500lb bombs under the fuselages of the Kittyhawks, together with the heavy cannon strafing of the Hurricanes, destroyed fifteen vehicles, and damaged others which were driven away by enemy recovery teams during the night. Despite losing six aircraft the fighter-bomber operation was a great success.
In northern Tunisia during January and February 1943 the Allies’ front lines, which in late December 1942 had been pushed back to the south from the edge of Tunis, remained entrenched close to Medjez-el-Bab in the Medjerda valley. In the face of the German offensive pressure, a lack of air support, and the onset of winter rain and mud, any renewed attack on Tunis had been postponed until spring. The rain turned many roads into quagmires, making them impassable for wheeled transport. The result was that the Medjez el Bab sector of the front became a salient protruding into Axis-held territory. A stalemate set in as both sides tested each other’s lines while rebuilding.
Into January 1943 the Allied infantry companies had spread out into widely dispersed positions and taken on reinforcements in tough patrolling engagements. By being able to use local airfields near Bizerte and Tunis, the Luftwaffe exploited their air superiority in air-to-ground attacks, which meant that the infantry were often restricted to patrolling at night. German fighters had free range to fly through the valleys, attacking any vehicles or movement. General von Arnim repeatedly initiated attacks, sending in his troops and tanks to break through First Army’s lines. In winter temperatures, which could drop to freezing, and even snow in the high hills, Allied troops spent many days and nights in cold, wet and hastily-dug trenches. Mountains and strongpoints were continually fought over, gained, lost, and regained, with no significant advance.
On 3 February 1943 Wing Commander Hugh Dundas DFC arrived at Souk el Khemis in northern Tunisia to take up a temporary position as commander of the Spitfire squadrons of 324 Wing RAF. Dundas was still only twenty-two years old, a decorated veteran fighter pilot of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and more than sixty missions over northern France with the legendary Douglas Bader. He was startled, as all pilots were at first, to see the airfields of bulldozed mud, and the primitive living conditions faced by squadrons and their pilots:
The Spitfires were operating off strips of wire matting, laid on top of rushes which in turn had been laid on the mud. The strips were between 800 and 1,000 yards long and only 25 yards wide. They were connected with the squadron dispersal areas by more strips of matting, laid in narrow lanes. A pilot who put a wheel off the runway while landing – and it was all too easy to do so when coming down in a gusty cross wind – was certain to capsize his plane. Alongside these makeshift airfields the squadrons’ officers and ground crews lived and ate in tents.
Hugh Dundas was from Barnborough in South Yorkshire and, on leaving school, first learned to fly in the Auxiliary Air Force. In May 1940, at only twenty years of age, he was in combat in the skies over Dunkirk and a few months later he was flying his Spitfire in the Battle of Britain. In those intense days of continual fighter dogfights he was shot down, cheating death by baling out just before the aircraft hit the ground. Once out of hospital he flew again in that aerial struggle for Britain’s skies, and in more than sixty sorties in Bader’s squadron over France in 1941, before his posting to Tunisia in early-1943.
By mid-February 1943, Axis aircraft strength in the Mediterranean region had risen to around 1,570, of which approximately 300 were based in Tunisia. Poor maintenance and supply difficulties, however, meant that only 50 per cent were generally serviceable for operations at any time. By contrast RAF Middle East, with under 1,000 aircraft, enjoyed a typical 75 per cent rate of availability. In addition Allied air forces were expanding rapidly.
On Eisenhower’s instigation in early February all Allied air forces, including the USAAF across North Africa, were placed under the command of Acting Air Marshal Tedder, as AOC-in-C Mediterranean. In a series of discussions and meetings in Algiers, Eisenhower and Tedder had found a meeting of minds, for a working relationship and in their views of the role of air power. Tedder was appointed as Deputy to Eisenhower, and AVM Coningham took over as AOC Tactical Air Forces in North Africa. Tedder put great emphasis on maintenance and supply, which he saw as the essential backbone of air power.
Once Tripoli had been captured by Eighth Army on 23 January, RAF Middle East moved its whole maintenance and supply organization from Egypt to the Libyan capital. Maintenance and supply services, together with mobility and improvisation, were seen as integral and fundamental to maintaining the strike power of aircraft and their aircrew. The Axis air forces, on the other hand, suffered from supply shortages of every kind, particularly fuel, causing a lack of flexibility and an overall reduced number of sorties.
A major cause of Axis supply difficulties, as they had been for Rommel in the lead up to El Alamein, was the interdiction of Axis air routes and shipping by Allied aircraft. A typical example was provided by the two RAAF Squadrons, No. 454 flying Baltimores and No. 459 flying Hudsons, in the eastern Mediterranean. During March 459 Squadron undertook ninety convoy support sorties mainly at night, typically taking off soon after midnight, and 454 Squadron commenced operations against U-boats and E-boats.
In the first weeks of 1943, although the Allies continued to pour troops, guns and supplies into Algeria and feed them through to Tunisia, there was some disarray and indecision at the highest levels in London and Washington. In January Churchill and Roosevelt met in Casablanca, appointed General Alexander to command all Allied land forces in North Africa (18 Army Group) and as deputy to Eisenhower, and reaffirmed their resolve to win the Tunisian campaign.
There was a mixture of optimism and belief that it was only a matter of time before they would defeat the Axis forces by pinning them between Montgomery’s Eighth Army and the Anglo-American forces of Operation TORCH. However, no-one could foretell how long it would take, or at what cost. The invasions contemplated by the Allies for Italy and north-west Europe rested upon first defeating the Axis powers in North Africa. There was fear of the Tunisian campaign dragging on and on. Under some criticism and pressure by the political leaders and high commands in London and Washington, Eisenhower made a brave statement to Churchill and Roosevelt by promising victory in Tunisia by mid-May 1943.
Whilst the Allied commands planned and reorganized during January, their fear of being bogged down in Tunisia threatened to become a nightmare. For Rommel and his German-Italian Panzer Army, with their long, controlled retreat across Libya and then into southern Tunisia behind them, had already begun to combine with General von Arnim’s forces in the north. Rommel established strong defences on the Mareth Line, which had been built in the south by the French to guard against Italian attacks, to fend off Eighth Army. He was also intent on preventing the Americans from advancing from the Atlas Mountains in the south-west, and driving a wedge between his Panzer force, and von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army in the north.
On 8 February Rommel met with von Arnim and Field Marshal Kesselring, who was in command of all German forces in the Mediterranean, and convinced them that the best strategy was a drive to the west to destroy the main Allied supply bases, at Tebessa in Algeria, and le Kef farther north-west inside Tunisia. Kesselring wanted to push the Allies back into Algeria, but Rommel and von Arnim agreed between them that it could only be a limited action. Rommel wanted time to focus on defence of the Mareth Line against Eighth Army.
At Sidi Bou Zid on the evening of 13/14 February 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions launched Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND (Spring Wind). This was a surprise night attack through the rocky terrain of the Faid Pass, previously thought to be unsuitable for tanks.4 In two days, 14 and 15 February, they surrounded and then inflicted a crushing defeat on the US 2nd Armored Division, which lost 100 tanks, 88 half-tracks and artillery, and some 1,600 casualties.
On 20 February 1943, after driving US forces into flight from Sbeitla, 10th Panzer Division then drove the Americans back some twenty-four miles west of Kasserine town itself, and gained control of the Kasserine Pass. Over the next three days, on mountainous roads threading through the western dorsal towards Tebessa and le Kef, the German Panzers with superior guns and tactics blasted their way forward through poorly-prepared American and British positions. By the close of 22 February at a height of 3,300 feet they were close to taking Thala, and only forty miles from le Kef.
The obvious and only option for an immediate counter was to turn to the DAF. As it always seemed to be, it was ready to respond. In day and night attacks DAF bombed Luftwaffe forward airfields, supply dumps, and troop concentrations on the Mareth Line and near Gabes. First Army began to move some forces down from the north to assist the Americans, and RAF wings in northern Tunisia sent fighter patrols to the area to counter Luftwaffe raids.
Wing Commander Dundas’ 324 Wing was one of those ordered into these operations in support of US forces. Like all new pilots on arrival from UK, he faced an intense learning period in regard to both the climate and an unknown geographical terrain. Despite this, Dundas felt the need to quickly lead a two-squadron operation on one of these patrols. Once in the air he soon had some regrets that he had not prepared more thoroughly.
As Dundas led the formation of twenty-four Spitfires to the south, they flew into rain squalls and broken storm clouds, which hid the tops of mountains. Seeing the terrain for the first time, he found it hard to pick out the landmarks recommended at the pre-flight briefing. Their orders were to keep the ground under observation, so he had to resist the urge to climb to a safer altitude.
Aware that he must not make a mistake, which could be disastrous in the conditions, he dismissed a fleeting temptation to turn back. Dundas knew that such a decision would undermine his credibility so soon in his command. He kept going and they reached the designated patrol line without encountering any enemy aircraft. He turned the group around to the north on the homeward return leg, and into even worse weather.
Because of the mountains and the weather, radio contact with their base was disrupted. Even if a reliable communication could be made, Dundas also recognized that his fellow pilots would be expecting him to lead them home without having to resort to a request for a homeward bearing. He found himself praying to a higher authority that he was leading the group on the correct course. At last they emerged from the clouds to see the landing strips of Souk el Khemis ahead. By the time he had taxied to a stop, and switched off the engine, Dundas felt drained, as if he had survived a ferocious dogfight with an enemy fighter.
Through those mountains below the patrolling Spitfires, Rommel’s Panzers pressed on relentlessly, brushing aside inexperienced American troops. Once through the Kasserine Pass their Panzers were within one day’s easy downhill drive to le Kef, the Allies’ major supply base. Despite American and British troops fiercely contesting the approach to Thala, the Allied command expected Rommel to launch the final attack on the morning of 23 February, and there was little confidence that it could be resisted. Then there would be nothing to stop the Panzers devouring the flat terrain all the way to le Kef. However, despite Kesselring flying to the front to urge them on, Rommel’s advice to pull back was accepted.
The Panzer columns had thinned themselves out in three separate thrusts. They lacked the strength to stretch out further without hope of reinforcements of men and supplies, and their extended columns were now running short of fuel. In the hours before dawn on 23 February Rommel turned the Panzers around, and returned to his defensive positions on the Mareth Line. Clearly the bombing by DAF of German bases and supply lines, and a counter-attack by the British 6th Armoured Division, added fuel to Rommel’s fear of an attack by Eighth Army on his rear.
The flexibility, mobility and high serviceability of the DAF maintained by their ground crews, brought ever increasing capability for close co-operation with the army. In addition by March 1943 the numerical strength of the Desert Air Force over the Axis air forces, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica, had grown even greater.
DAF had become a unique mix of the Allies’ national air forces. Both air crew and ground support airmen from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, were to be found across the DAF squadrons. Postings and transfers increasingly ignored individual and national preferences, and responded to the demands of the front-line squadrons to replace casualties and meet operational demands.
In the Mareth area in March 1943 the main DAF groups, wings and other formations comprised:
Although the Germans withdrew from Kasserine back to Gafsa, their Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND had inflicted a series of major battle defeats on the Americans, who lost more than 6,000 men dead or wounded, and another 3,000 taken prisoner out of 30,000.
Despite many brave Allied attempts to halt the Panzers, the Germans suffered fewer than 1,000 casualties, and only 201 dead. The Allies were lucky to narrowly avoid a strategic defeat, and their main supply depots at Tebessa and le Kef remained intact. Nevertheless, there was to be no respite elsewhere.
On 3 March a recce flight over the Mareth Line by 239 Wing’s 450 Squadron reported a build-up of German armour. Ignoring his supply shortages, Rommel did not intend to rely solely on static defence. Although the Luftwaffe had been unable to mount a preceding bombardment, on 6 March, supported by Focke-Wulf Fw190 and Me210 fighter bombers transferred from Sicily, German armour attacked Eighth Army at Medenine.
Acting upon the DAF reconnaissance information, Eighth Army’s artillery was prepared, and positioned ready for the Axis thrust. First sandstorms, then cloud cover restricted overall air activity, but eight times on 6 March alone, DAF Kittybombers in three-squadron formations with Spitfire escorts, struck at the attacking Panzers. The combination of artillery pounding, and DAF’s aerial bombing inflicted heavy losses on the German armoured columns, and forced the enemy’s withdrawal. On 9 March an ill and exhausted Rommel, worn down from the constant attacks by Eighth Army in the long retreat from Alamein, flew home to Germany to recover. Von Arnim was forced to place all Axis forces onto a defensive footing. With hindsight it seems to have been a tipping point.
As a cover for Eighth Army’s preparation to undertake a left flanking offensive around the Mareth Line, the Allies’ Free French Force under General Leclerc began moving to the north from Ksar Rhilane. Early on 10 March they were threatened by approaching columns of German armour, supported by both Luftwaffe fighters and dive-bombers. Cloud cover had restricted DAF patrols and reconnaissance, but an enemy move against the French had been anticipated, and some squadrons were already briefed and on standby.
Once a signal was received from the French of the approaching German attack, squadrons scrambled into a combined DAF response. The preparations for Montgomery’s ‘left hook’, a contingency plan to outflank the Mareth Line if it was needed, could only be protected by air power. Waves of DAF fighters and fighter-bombers rushed to the rescue. Kittyhawks and Spitfires, including the Kittyhawk of Pilot Officer Dawkins in 450 Squadron RAAF, forced the German armour to turn back and withdraw from their attack on the French at Ksar Rhilane. It was a remarkably successful intervention by fighter-bombers, which would have far-reaching implications for air power tactics and strategy into the future.
Yet the Mareth Line still held up a frontal offensive by Eighth Army. The fortified Mareth Line followed the northern edge of the Oued Zigzaou wadi for about thirty miles across the narrow coastal plain between the Matmata Hills and the sea. However, there was the possibility of a way around this Tunisian equivalent of the Maginot Line. Based upon information provided by the French, some patrols by Eighth Army’s Long Range Desert Group had confirmed that the Tebaga Gap, a valley between the Chott el Fejaj salt lake and the Matmata Hills, was a viable route around the Mareth Line for troops and armoured columns experienced to desert conditions. To outflank the German defences, Montgomery decided to plan another version of his renowned ‘left hook’ tactic, and attempt to send a strong, armoured force onto these narrow mountain tracks to the west.
Fighter-bombers lay on an ‘air blitz’ at El Hamma
In early March 1943 Flight Lieutenant Neville Duke of No. 92 Squadron, 244 Wing RAF, who was already an ace from 1942 with eight victories, claimed six more, as the struggle by DAF to assert superiority over Axis air forces continued. On 1 March 1943 Duke shot down two Macchi C.202s, and claimed four more victories within a week. At times it seemed that every squadron’s operation culminated in a clash of the opposing fighters.
On every sortie each pilot faced a private battle, a battle against fear. And at the end of each day, if he had won that private battle, and also a battle against an enemy aircraft, he knew that there was no end to it. There was both physical and mental strain building continually for every pilot. A night’s good sleep free from nightmares reliving the aerial combat, or a day or two off, could alleviate the physical fatigue. The mental stress for many fighter pilots often built day after day, no matter what. Every man had a breaking point at some indeterminate point, where time away for recovery was the only option. Of course, to get that opportunity he had to survive long enough. Up to this time Duke had done just that, and much more.
Neville Duke, from Tonbridge in Kent, was twenty-one years old. Throughout his schooldays he had been an aviation enthusiast, and intended to apply for an RAF Short Service Commission once he was eighteen. This he did in June 1940 and in April 1941 joined 92 Squadron RAF, where he gained invaluable experience flying as No. 2 to Wing Commander A.G. ‘Sailor’ Malan DSO DFC. Duke was first posted to Egypt in November 1941, where he joined No. 112 Squadron RAF flying P-40 Tomahawks. After 161 sorties and 220 operational hours, he was ordered to take up instructor duties for a rest and recovery period, before, in November 1942, he gained a posting back to his original 92 Squadron, then based in Gambut, Egypt.
On 19 and 20 March 244 Wing flew escort cover in close support for the fighter-bombers supporting Eighth Army as it moved into its offensives at El Hamma and Medenine. A few days later Duke and his fellow pilots were delighted when 244 Wing received twelve Spitfire Mark IXs, including six for the Polish Fighter Team of No. 145 Squadron RAF, and four for Duke’s 92 Squadron. It was well timed, not only to support Eighth Army trying to break the Mareth Line, but also to counter the arrival of the Focke-Wulf Fw190. Air Vice Marshal Broadhurst, who had been appointed to succeed Coningham on 30 January, had persuaded the RAF in the UK to send out some of these latest Spitfires. The Spitfire Mk IX had a top speed of 408mph, a faster climb rate and a higher service ceiling than the Fw190. They outclassed the German fighters, whose pilots believed that DAF had been more widely re-equipped with Mk IX Spitfires.
Broadhurst by this time had also under his command two American fighter groups, 57th and 79th, both equipped with Warhawk fighters, the American name for the P-40, plus a bomber group with the B-25 Mitchell light bomber. Broadhurst persuaded the two fighter groups, approximately equivalent to RAF wings, to integrate their operations with the Desert Air Force under his command. For the Mareth air battles, because of the Americans’ relative inexperience of air fighting or ground attack, a typical operational formation was half a squadron of Australian pilots in their RAAF Kittyhawks leading half a squadron of American pilots in Warhawks.