15th Airforce in the Balkans I

The establishment of a new strategic air force in the Mediterranean theater was a much more complicated and involved matter.  The main purpose of operations in this area had been to (1) destroy the Axis forces in North Africa, (2) eliminate Italy from the air, and (3) secure bases in Italy for operations against Germany. The air organizations involved in these campaigns were the Ninth (later losing its heavy bombers to the Twelfth and giving its name, commanding general, and  headquarters to the tactical air force in the United Kingdom), and the Northwest African Strategic Air Force, a mixed heavy and medium bomber outfit under the command of General Spaatz since 26 February 1943. Spaatz had witnessed the desirable effects of aerial blows against German industry and air installations. In an exchange of letters in the summer of 1945 between Spaatz and General Hap Arnold, it seems the two air strategists were thinking in terms of major air operations from Italian air bases. On the 27th of June, Spaatz wrote Arnold as follows:

“I have been very much concerned as to what will happen to the Air Forces here after the next operation or two. It seems very desirable that the heavy bomber effort against Germany be applied from more than one base area. 

If we can establish ourselves in Italy, much of Germany can be reached from the air with better weather conditions at our airdromes then prevail normally in England. This would immediately, when applied, force a dispersion of German fighter and anti-aircraft defenses.”

In his reply on the 28th, General Arnold stated that his idea of a number one priority was a heavy attack on the German fighter establishments. On 14 August, he again emphasized to Spaatz the effect of a sustained strategic bombardment on German key industrial targets from Mediterranean bases would justify giving this type of operation a top priority.

Support for a strategic bombing offensive from Italian bases also came from General Eisenhower.  After the crisis at the Salerno beachhead had abated  (where Salerno refers to the invasion of mainland Italy and the landing of Allied forces), and it looked as if a fairly rapid advance might take place, he wrote General Marshal that he and General Spaatz believed a greater effectiveness might be achieved with less loss if a portion of the bomber offensive could be applied from Italy during the winter months.  This would make it possible to attack targets beyond reach of Britain-based bombers, there would be less GAF and anti-aircraft opposition generally, and the Luftwaffe would have to thin itself out to meet attacks from two directions. Said Eisenhower: “Since one of the major reasons for the move into Italy was to secure air bases for this type of operation, I feel that it is a matter which should receive early consideration.”

On 20 August, General Arnold prepared a memo entitled “Command and Control of Strategic Air Forces Operating Against Germany.” Although primarily concerned with the question of command, this document went into the desirability of establishing a new strategic air force in Italy. Arnold felt that with suitable airfields in this peninsula, the carrying out of air actions against German industry would be facilitated by the alternative use of British and Italian bases depending on the weather. Since he believed the  weather in the Po Valley would probably be better for bombers than that in England, it would be useful to have some airdromes in this area. Shuttle operations between England and Italy could also be carried out.

At this point, opposition to the plan developed. The British air authorities were strongly opposed to diverting heavy groups to Italy, and certain American generals in the ETO were dubious about the idea. On 29 September Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris wrote General Eaker that he was seriously disturbed by the belief that bombers operating from Italy could do more damage to Germany than planes coming from English bases. He thought many important production centers were closer to Britain and weather conditions in the plains of Italy were no better than England’s. Furthermore, since the Italy-based planes would have to make a detour to preserve the neutrality of Switzerland, this would add to their journey besides simplifying the German fighter defense. In conclusion he stated:

“It would take at least a year before a ponderable force of heavy bombers could be operated economically from Northern Italy—after we have taken Northern Italy. For these reasons, I am convinced the advantages to be gained from using bases in Italy are negligible. The loss of striking power against the vital parts of Germany, and of time, which would be incurred by transferring bombers to them from this country would, on the other hand, be quite disastrous.”

General Eaker was opposed to the plan as well because he feared it would cut into his bomber and fighter forces and make difficult the accomplishment of POINTBLANK.  Maj. Gen. Idwal H. Edwards, Chief of Staff for US Operations in Europe,  wondered if sufficient consideration had been given to the idea.  Like the British, he questioned the value and availability of Italian bases and felt that already existing facilities in the United Kingdom were adequate. He was afraid shuttle operations would require more service personnel in both areas; if the Bradley Plan, the troop build-up for the Eighth Air Force, was not met in the United Kingdom, how would this larger demand be satisfied?  Air Marshal Norman H. Bottomley warned that “we must avoid precipitate action which may result in sending aircraft and resources to the Mediterranean only to find them unable to contribute effectively from that theater.”

At this point, the opposing arguments can be summarized briefly. General Arnold advocated the creation of a new strategic air force operating from Italian bases for the following reasons: (1) it would enable our bombers to reach objectives out of range of Britain-based planes; (2) it would divide German fighter strength; (3) it would make possible shuttle bombing between England and Italy; and (4) weather conditions in northern Italy would make possible winter operations against the Reich when British bases would be frequently nonoperational.

These arguments were apparently opposed by Harris, Portal, Bottomley, Eaker, and Edwards on the following grounds: (1) the most important German targets could already be reached from the United Kingdom; (2) Italian weather was quite as foul as the British variety; (3) to avoid Switzerland would greatly add to the length and danger of each mission; and (4) to set up a new strategic air force would seriously weaken the operations of the Eighth. (Perhaps the British and Americans in England were thinking of what happened to the Eighth’s operations and supply system when the Twelfth was set up in the Mediterranean area.)

In view of the later operations of the Fifteenth Air Force, which in fact would be created after the debates were concluded, it is possible to make some sort of an estimate of these arguments. British claims that most of the important German targets were within reach of RAF, and Eighth Air Force bombers seem to have failed to take into account the eastward dispersion of the aircraft industry. An Office of Strategic Services report of 17 August 1943 estimated that only 12 percent of the German single-engine fighter assembly was carried out within 500 miles of London, while slightly over 80 percent was located within about 400 miles of possible north Italian bases. Actually, in addition to the bombing of the great complex of Wiener Neustadt, attacks on important Italian, Hungarian, and Yugoslav aircraft factories would have been impossible without the Fifteenth. Furthermore, the easterly dispersal of the GAF plants completely knocked out the argument based on preserving the neutrality of Switzerland. The bomber routes lay far to the east of that nation.

On the other hand there is no question but that the English were right about the weather. Climatic conditions, according to Maj.Gen. Nathan F. Twining, commander of the Fifteenth after 3 January 1944, greatly hindered the Fifteenth’s pursuit of POINTBLANK during January and February, and weather effectually prevented shuttle bombing and many combined operations.

It is difficult to say how much the German fighters were split by the attack from Italy.  Had it been possible to run more combined operations, there might be more evidence upon which to make a judgment; but as pointed out above, the weather usually interfered.

It is also next to impossible to estimate how much greater the Eighth’s operations would have been without the establishment of the Fifteenth. Since the principal obstacle to carrying out the air offensive against the Luftwaffe was weather rather than a lack of planes, perhaps the question is academic.

In spite of opposing arguments, General Arnold prepared a “Plan to Assure the Most Effective Exploitation of the Combined Bomber Offensive” and submitted it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff about 9 October. This provided for the establishment of a strategic air force in Italy to be formed by combing the six heavy groups of the XII Bomber Command with thirteen groups to be diverted from allocations to the Eighth. The scheduled build-up was to bring the Fifteenth up to twenty-one heavy bombardment groups, one reconnaissance, and seven 1ong-range fighter groups by the end of April 1944. After being approved by JCS, it reached the CCS and received their approval on 22 October, with activation of the Fifteenth scheduled for the beginning of November.  Even after this decision, there was still some discussion. At the CCS meeting on 29 October, Sir John Dill voiced his doubts as to the wisdom of creating a new diversion from the bomber effort. As far as additional groups went, he was sure the facilities in England were fully prepared to take them. General Arnold replied that General Spaatz would be able to accommodate them in Italy; General Marshall said he was concerned over the losses of the Eighth Air Force and felt it was essential to create a new air or bomber force to help disperse the German fighters. Apparently this ended the discussion; on 1 November, the Fifteenth was formally activated under Maj. Gen. James Doolittle with 283 bombers and 262 fighters on hand with units.


Immediately after the establishment of the new strategic force, the question of its control was settled.  In a directive of 23 October, it was ordered that the theater commander, General Eisenhower, they see to it that the operations of the Fifteenth were to be closely coordinated with the Eighth to improve the effectiveness of their operations against targets of the combined bomber offensive. At the same time, in case of a strategic or tactical exigencies, he was authorized to use the Fifteenth for purposes “other than its primary mission,” informing the CSS of the action taken.  Once the Fifteenth was established, General Arnold made it very clear that barring the expectations noted, he did not intend it to be diverted from it objectives.

There were four objectives of the new air force: (1) to destroy the German Air Force; (2) to participate in the land battle in Italy; (3) to continue POINTBLANK operations; and (4) to weaken the German position in the Balkans. Operations against the aircraft and air installations were to be carried out whenever a profitable return offered itself.  Special attention was would be paid to German-held airdromes in southern France and to a list of seven German aircraft manufacturing plants.


On 8 November, an important meeting was held in Gibraltar to coordinate final arrangements in which Generals Eaker and Doolittle and Air Marshall Tedder took part.  An understanding was reached as to the proper allocation of targets between the two strategic air forces, and procedures were set up to facilitate the many combined operations expected to take place involving the Eighth and Fifteenth.  To ensure the rapid exchange of operational experiences and intelligence gathered, liaison officers were to be exchanged between the two headquarters. As a result of this meeting, a complete agreement was reached on problems common to both strategic organizations.

Meanwhile, the Fifteenth had already become operational on 2 November by one of the great raids of the war against the Messerschmitt factory at Wiener Neustadt. It will be recalled that this complex had been attacked in August by the old Ninth Air Force, with considerable damage done. It was believed that the Germans planned to double the factory’s output by 1944, but the August attack had delayed these plans. By the end of October some of the damage had been repaired, and work was just starting on a large building in Werke II, which was supposed to be making Me-109 fuselages and was a known important unit in the expansion plans.  Consequently, the raid of 2 November was well timed.

A great deal of careful preparation was involved in this mission. The distance that the bombers had to fly from their Sicilian bases was more than 1,000 miles round-trip; 600 of those miles were over enemy-held territory. Since this made it possible for the GAF to make many interceptions, the fighter escort was to be extended to the maximum range, which would give the bombers protection within 100 miles of the target.  Another group of fighters would then meet the formations at maximum range and escort them back to their bases.

Shortly after noon on the 2d, most of the operational aircraft of the Fifteenth took off, heading northward.  Apparently intimidated by the attendant fighter groups, enemy interceptors based on the nearby fields did not take the air, and no serious fighter opposition appeared until about ten minutes before the target was reached. A total of 112 Liberators and Fortresses dropped 327 tons of high explosive in spite of attacks by 150 to 175 enemy planes. The results were most gratifying:  one aircraft assembly plant was destroyed and another damaged; two flight hangars were wiped out; and many buildings showed blast damage. Bomb craters spotted the Wiener Neustadt/Lord airfield and thirteen aircraft were damaged on the ground. Buildings in the southwest corner of the plant and the adjoining labor camp were hit, with some machine shops in the factory struck. Eleven bombers were lost and claims of 56-27-8 were filed. It was believed that this raid deprived the Luftwaffe of a monthly output of approximately 250 of their best fighters, or 40 percent of the total output of the Me-109.

While the Fifteenth was making this impressive debut, the Eighth was progressing rapidly in its development of blind-bombing techniques. In the largest daylight operation yet carried out by American planes, on 11 November a total of 1,233 bombers and fighters attacked German targets using H2X leader planes, although F25 equipment was present in case the H2X failed. The results were satisfactory, and General Arnold instructed the Fifteenth to send certain officers to the United States to help organize a Pathfinding unit for the new strategic air force. He contemplated sending eight B-24’s equipped with H2X and crews in January and 16 more in February for the training.

On 8 November, the Fifteenth began a series of attacks against ball- bearing installations lasting three days. The Turin works were bombed on the first day; on the 9th and 10th, the Villar-Perosa aircraft machine gun plant slightly west of Turin was the target. The mission of the 8th was successful, and the mission intelligence summary estimated that the factory would be completely inoperative for some time to come. The missions against Villar-Perosa were not so effective; the first attack missed the target entirely, and the second caused only slight damage.

After five days of inactivity, the Fifteenth turned from ball bearings to airfields. The first target was, by request, the Athens/Eleusis airdrome. This was the most active long-range bomber field in Greece. Between sixty to seventy aircraft were usually based there, including a large number of Ju-88’s which had been operating against islands in the Dodecanese group held by the allies. The island of Leros, where the Germans had seized a beachhead, was under especially heavy attack by enemy formations based at Eleusis. Consequently, it was hoped that a successful blow against it might ease the pressure at Leros. The field was bombed by 46 B-24’s with fragmentation bombs during the morning of the 15th with some success. However, a much more successful raid occurred on the 17th when 40 B-17’s dropped 120 tons of 500-pound GP bombs with a heavy concentration on hangars, buildings, and the landing area west of the central runway. There were probable direct hits on five of the nine hangars and a direct hit on the central administration building. Of the fifty-five aircraft seen on the field, ten were damaged and five were destroyed. On the 18th Athens/Eleusis was struck again by 50 B-17’s dropping 6,900 fragmentation bombs to complete the destruction caused by the heavier explosives used the previous day. By this time the field was so thoroughly postholed as to be temporarily inoperative.

Meanwhile on the 16th, bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force carried out a raid on two airdromes in southern France, thus fulfilling one of the requirements of their bombing directive. Istres le Tube and Salon de Provence, both in France, were bombed by 85th and 43rd, the two medium bomb groups in the Fifteenth Air Force. The B-26 bombers ran off this mission with good results.

Operations of both air forces for the remainder of November were not especially outstanding. Weather constantly interfered; many missions had to be canceled and the results of those carried out often went unobserved. Some Wellingtons of the Fifteenth bombed the Turin ball-bearing works and Rome’s Ciampino airdrome in night raids with undisclosed results. Somewhat better luck was had when medium bombers attacked the Grosseto airdrome in Italy with 93.5 tons of 500-pound GP bombs.

November was not an important month for POINTBLANK operations. The most important operation was the Fifteenth’s attack on Wiener Neustadt on the 2d; for the most part, however, both strategic Air Forces confined their efforts against the Luftwaffe to attacks on airdromes and repair installations. Claims were considerably less than in previous months. The Eighth listed a total of 222 enemy aircraft destroyed, and the Fifteenth credited its aircraft with 135 kills. The Eighth lost ninety-five planes, the Fifteenth twenty-eight. The newly organized Ninth Air Force confined itself almost entirely to bomber attacks on airdromes in northwest France, Belgium, and the important Amsterdam/Schiphol airport in Holland, while its fighters often escorted the heavy bombers of the Eighth over the Continent.


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