15th Airforce in the Balkans II

In December 1943, the weather continued to restrict the operations of the Fifteenth Air Force, and the POINTBLANK program suffered especially. Airdromes were the principal target, with several attacks being made against GAF bases near Athens. The Fiat Ball Bearing Works at Turin, which had been twice raided in November, was visited again by 118 B-17’s for the first mission of the month on 1 December. Coverage of the target by some 354 tons of bombs was regarded as complete by the returning bombers, and later reconnaissance reported considerable damage to the factory. Prior to these attacks, the Fiat plant was supposed to produce forty percent of all the ball bearings available to Germany; it was now believed that two months output had been eliminated.

The Rome/Casale airdrome was attacked without opposition on 3 December by a small force of Liberators dropping 32.24 tons of fragmentation and 16 tons of GP bombs. On the 6th, a series of raids on the Athenian airdromes began with attacks on the field installations at Athens/Eleusis and Athens/Kalamaki. The attack on Eleusis was made by 45 B-17’s escorted by 33 P-38’s. Fragmentation bombs were dropped with fair success, but the photo coverage was not good; an exact estimate seems to be lacking. The Kalamaki airdrome vas first bombed by 500-pound GP bombs, then hit by 4,250 fragmentation bombs. Dust and debris made it difficult to assess the damage. In both cases, these attacks provoked a certain GAF reaction, but the air battles were usually small affairs and not very costly to either side.

Another attack was made on the Greek fields on the 8th. Eleusis was raided again and well covered with 8,172 fragmentation bombs. The Athens/Tatoi field revealed a concentration of 42 aircraft, and so it was hit by 38 Liberators dropping 4,000 of the 20-pound antiaircraft and antipersonnel bombs. It was estimated that fourteen aircraft were destroyed on the ground, including seven bomber-transport types. Later reconnaissance confirmed this and credited the attacking forces with wiping out twenty-one aircraft at the Eleusis airdrome. Again on the 14th, Liberators and Fortresses of the Fifteenth attacked the three Athenian fields with P-38 and P-47 escorts. Tatoi was well covered and seven hangars received direct hits or near misses; the runway and west dispersal area were a mass of smoke and debris as the bombers retired from the area. Kalamaki was hit by the largest task force (76 bombers) of the three, dropping 224.5 tons of 500-pound GP explosives. Between 15 and 20 FW-190’s and Me-109’s were encountered over the target, with 8 claimed as destroyed. During the attack, twenty-nine enemy planes were counted on the airfield of which eight were destroyed and seven believed damaged. There were heavy concentrations of hits on the hangar area, storage facilities, landing strips and runways, and dispersal areas.

A final blow was struck on the 20th when Eleusis was heavily bombed by a task force of 109 B-17’s escorted by 66 P-38’s. The defense was the stiffest yet encountered over the Greek airdromes. Both flak and planes were well controlled, and the tactics had obviously been planned in advance by experienced personnel. The bombing was considered successful; many buildings were struck and the field was well holed. Three bombers were lost.

A final blow was struck at airfields when Medium bombers of the Fifteenth (the 17th and 319th groups) attacked Guidonia and Centecello on 28 December. Strike photos showed eighteen aircraft on the ground at Guidonia with seven destroyed and one damaged. The bomb pattern covered the field. At Centecello, bomb strikes were distributed over the southeast side of the field only.

Although the weather interfered with operations to a considerable extent in December, the growing strength of both the Eighth and the Fifteenth Air Forces as well as the use of H2X equipment made possible a much heavier bomb load delivered than in November.  Several missions of well over 400 planes were mounted by the VIII Bomber Command; approximately 12,000 tons of explosives were dropped.  The Fifteenth dispatched 1,598 effective sorties, dropping some 4,300 tons. Nevertheless, POINTBLANK operations were practically nil except for the raids on Greek and Italian airdromes by XV Bomber Command. Of the some 18,000 tons dropped by both strategic air forces, only around 1,800 tons fell on POINTBLANK targets. A British source estimated that this phase of the CBO was about three months behind schedule, and the Fifteenth Air Force warned that if the offensive against the German fighter industry were not followed up by more attacks, production would reattain the July levels by February 1944.

There is no doubt that General Arnold was seriously concerned. When RAF Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory visited him in November, he had been very emphatic in his demands for greater action against Luftwaffe, indeed what with our great material superiority. Although more and more bombers were being sent out and more bombs were being dropped, Arnold was not satisfied with the results.  He believed there had been too many diversionary raids, especially in the case of the Eighth Air Force, against targets such as submarine pens that not contribute to the destruction of the German Air Force.  In a message to the commanding generals of the Eighth and Fifteenth, he stated:

“It is a conceded fact that an invasion will not be possible unless the German Air Force is destroyed. Therefore, my personal message to you —this is a MUST —  is to DESTROY THE ENEMY AIR FORCES WHEREVER YOU FIND HIM on the ground, in the air and HIS FACTORIES.”

It seems likely that the slow progression of POINTBLANK also affected the decision on command problem that had been concerning the American and British staffs for some time. When the activation of a strategic air force in Italy was being considered, several plans were put forward by the American authorities to establish some sort of overall control for the various air organizations operating in Europe. Failing to convince the British of the desirability of setting up a supreme air commander for all American air forces and the RAF Bomber Command, General Arnold argued that strategic operations would be greatly facilitated if the Eighth and Fifteenth were under a unified control.  This question was discussed throughout October and November with considerable opposition to the proposal coming from the British, and from Genera Eaker. Early in December, the U.S. Chiefs of Staff rejected the British objections, indicating their intentions of setting up a unified strategic control for Army air forces in the European Theater. In their memo to Combined Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that “these forces should be employed primarily against POINTBLANK objectives as the Combined Chiefs of Staff may from time to time direct.” It seems reasonable to assume that General Arnold’s vocal dissatisfaction with the progress of the offensive against the Germans was one of the factors that led him to favor this new arrangement.

What would ensue was a rash of new commands and a rapid shuffling of commanders.  It had now been decided to reorganize the air command in the Mediterranean; on 10 December 1943, the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces (MAAF) was officially authorized.  This command, under Air Marshall Sir Arthur Tedder, with Lt. Gen. Spaatz as deputy, consisted of the Fifteenth and Twelfth Air Forces, the Coastal Air Force (U.S., British, and French units), and the RAF Middle East Air Force, totaling approximately some 12,500 aircraft and 321,000 men (January 1944).

Almost immediately after the formation of MAAF, however, its command was changed.  In a major reorganization of his commands, Gen. Spaatz and Air Marshall Tedder were brought to England, and General Eaker was moved from the Eighth to command MAAF with RAF Air Marshall Sir John Slessor as his deputy. These final changes were not completed until the middle of January. 

The Cairo Conference of November 1943, attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Chaing Kai-shek of the Republic of China, among other issues related to the war in the Pacific, sanctioned the creation of MAAF and also gave formal approval to the centralized control of strategic operations in Europe. General Arnold had long desired such control. The official directive activating the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSAF later USSTAF) was issued 5 January1944.  USSTAF was to come under the Supreme Allied Commander (SAC) at a future date; in the meantime, all POINTBLANK operations would be coordinated by Air Marshal Portal acting as agent of the CCS for both British and American forces. Under his direction, General Spaatz, commander of USSTAF, would direct strategic activities of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces, coordinating the latter’s activities as far as possible with the operations of the Allied Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, Sir Harry Maitland Wilson. In case of a strategic or tactical emergency, General Wilson was empowered to use the Fifteenth Air Force as he saw fit; but for the rest, he was required to provide it full support in POINTBLANK missions, its first priority. It was soon arranged that General Spaatz would deal with the Fifteenth only through MAAF, and General Eaker would have operational control of this force subject to CBO directives. 

Issuing these directives was the responsibility of Air Marshal Portal.  Joint Anglo-American committees prepared studies of the various targets and presented evaluations of missions. Their recommendations finally went to the Joint Target Committee which prepared the directives for Portal’s signature. The directives were received by USSTAF and then reprocessed to the Eighth and Fifteenth.  General Spaatz and his deputy commander for operations, Maj. Gen. F. L. Anderson, controlled the order of selection of targets. 

In some ways, the problems and duties facing the new commanding general of MAAF were much more involved than the situation in the United Kingdom had been, and it did not take General Eaker long to discover this. He wrote in March:

“This is a new kettle of fish from U.K. The job there was clean-cut. We had really but one major program: to deliver the maximum bomb load against German industry. Here we have three primary tasks and many, many subsidiary ones. The primary tasks are: the accomplishment of POINTBLANK with the Strategic Air Force; the support of land armies in battle with the Tactical Air Force; and keeping the sea lanes open and protecting the logistic establishments with the Coastal Command. In addition, we have such odorous morsels, or secondary commitments, as re-equipping the French, maximum lift to the Balkan partisans, moving out of Africa and leaving the African war behind and moving into Italy and getting on with the continental war.”

Furthermore, the demands of the land battle in Italy frequently cut into the strategic bombing operations. Thus, when General Eaker arrived at MAAF Headquarters, he found the Fifteenth involved in an extensive attack on airdromes in preparation for the Anzio landings on 22 January, and this continued into February. Indeed, a great deal could be written during this period about the constant tug-of-war that went on between the often-conflicting demands on MAAF’s vast reservoir of air power. There were conflicts between different projects; between tacticians as to whether the ground campaigns or POINTBLANK should have first call on the heavy bombers; and between the airmen as to which types of target were the best for the bombardment effort.

In spite of policy disagreements, the air war continued as intensively as the weather permitted.  On 3 January, the Fifteenth raided the Fiat ball-bearing establishment at Villar-Perosa. With the successful raids on other centers of ball-bearing production such as Schweinfurt (14 October 1943) and Turin (8 November), the Fiat plant had assumed a special importance. It was reported that forty tons of ball bearings had been shipped from Italy to Germany in November; before this date, there were no comparable shipments. Furthermore, the plant at Villar-Perosa was supposed to be making a special type of bearing essential to aircraft production.  Consequently, a small force of 50 B-17’s attacked this target on the 3d, dropping 156 tons of 1,000-pound bombs from an altitude of 23,000 feet. The strike photos showed twelve direct hits on the main units of the plant and damaging near misses. Later reconnaissance photos showed that the factory had sustained extensive damage with twenty-five percent of the roofing destroyed.

The next missions for both the Eighth and Ninth were minor. Eighth Air Force bombers struck at the airfields at Bordeaux and Tours on the 4th, while the Fifteenth dispatched 43 heavy bombers to bomb the Steyr aero-engine factory at Maribor, Yugoslavia, on 7 January. No strike photos were obtained, and the results were not evaluated until the end of the month.

On the 8th, the Fifteenth bombed the Reggiane Aircraft Factory at Reggio Emelia, Italy. A careful reconnaissance, which indicated a considerable turnover of single-engine aircraft, preceded by mission. Between 3 and 7 January, the number of aircraft on the adjoining airfield varied from day to day as follows: 17, 23, 40, 18, and 35. It seemed likely that the Germans had converted this factory and airfield into an important depot for fighter repair, maintenance, and supply.  The target was first attacked during the night of 7-8 January by 26 Wellingtons dropping 39.5 tons from 2,000 to 8,500 feet. The town, factory, and airdrome were covered with bursts; at least two 4,000-pound bombs hit the factory, with many fires started. The following day, 109 B-17’s escorted by 32 P-38’s dropped 324 tons on the still smoldering buildings. All opposition seemed crushed as there were no aircraft over the town and no flak. With at least twenty direct hits on the factory buildings, this target was eliminated for the time being.

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The middle of the month brought a new operational directive for the Fifteenth from General Spaatz.  The ranking objective was the destruction of the German fighter force, to be accomplished in the following order of priority:

GAF single-engine fighters

GAF twin-engine fighters

The ball-bearing industry

Chief targets in the first priority were the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg; the Messerschmitt complex in Wiener Neustadt; plants in Stuttgart, Schweinfurt, and Nuremberg, Germany; and airplane factories in Austria and Hungry.  However, this list remained more of a sign of things to come rather than something immediately effective.  The weather, of course, frequently interfered with the long flights into Central Europe, which were necessary to reach many of these high-priority objectives. In addition to weather, the Fifteenth was unable to devote its full attention to aircraft factories because it was involved in support of the amphibious operations of the ground forces in the Rome area, which began with the landing at Anzio. Both before and during this operation, however, more than 5,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the strategic forces on aerodromes and communications. Of special importance were the attacks on eleven major airfields, which rendered the enemy reconnaissance completely ineffective and allowed the allies to achieve a rare thing in modern warfare – a complete surprise.

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The 13th of January was a big day in counter-air force operations. As part of the preliminaries to the Anzio landing, three airfields at Perugia, Centecello and Guidonia, Italy were attacked. The Perugia airfield, a big reconnaissance center, was attacked on the night of 12-13 January by 49 Wellingtons with undetermined results. The following morning it was again struck by 40 B-17’s dropping 48.9 tons of fragmentation bombs.  A cloud over the target prevented an estimate of the bombing. Centecello, located on the fringes of Rome, was an important fighter base for GAF operations in support of the forces defending central Italy. It was hit by sixty-one escorted Fortresses that did some damage to service and administrative buildings. Guidonia, a little to the north, was attacked by 65 B-17’s of which only 38 were able to bomb, the remainder bringing their explosives back to base. There were direct hits on a workshop, an assembly building and a transformer station. The next day, perhaps to divert the Luftwaffe’s attention from central Italy, an airfield near the Yugoslav coast was raided by 140 B-17’s dropping 9,638 fragmentation and 213 tons GP-bombs. Two-thirds of the field was well postholed and many installations hit. 

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This task finished, the Fifteenth was next called upon to deal with a situation at the Aviano, Italy, airfield.  A reconnaissance of 26 January had revealed an increase in the number of German airplanes at this base from 54 to 72 of which 45 were now Ju-88s.  It seemed that the Germans had withdrawn bombers from the Greece-Crete area for operations against the Anzio landings. Sixty-four B-17’s visited this target, covering it with some 9,000 fragmentation bombs. Although German fighters took the air against the bomber formations, there were no losses. Many of the buildings on the field were hit, and the main landing area was well covered with bursts. Of the fifty-six enemy planes sighted on the field, four were damaged and one reported destroyed.

The climax of this series of tactical operations in support of the Anzio beachhead was the great counter-air force action of 30 January.  The Aviano bombing was, in a sense, the prelude to this operation, for it was an attempt to break up a concentration of German low-range bombers. Following this raid, there was a wide-spread reconnaissance of German bases in northern Italy on the 28th. This showed a total of 170 enemy fighters in the area, with 127 distributed on the four fields of Maniago,  Lavariano, Villaorba, and Udine, Italy. It seemed likely that the Germans were trying to counteract the threat of American bombers based in southern Italy by developing considerable air strength in the North, especially long-range bombers.  For example, Villaorbawas showing a considerable increase in Ju-88’s. Such bases could be used for raids against shipping and airfields in the southern area; therefore, a large operation was planned to render them useless.  It was decided to bomb the four fields; however, to take care of the concentration of planes at Villaorba, this field was to be the object of a special mission planned with great skill. Since the Germans usually put all their aircraft into the air as soon as the radar informed them of the approach of heavy-bomber formations, it was decided to send a group of P-47’s in below the radar screen if possible and a few minutes in advance of the heavy formations to catch the German planes still on the ground.

The surprise worked perfectly. About 1130 on the morning of the 30th, an approaching force of heavy bombers showed strong on the radar screen of the Villaorba field and the pilots began warming their motors for a quick take-off. A few had just left the ground when suddenly at 1140 a force of 60 Thunderbolt fighters swept in at terrific speed just above the treetops. The Germans were caught completely off balance, and for the next few minutes the Thunderbolts had a field day. Altogether 28 enemy planes were shot down for a loss of two. Hardly had the dust settled before 76 B-17’s came sailing over at 23,000 feet to drop 10,988 frags and complete the job.

While this brilliant tour de force was being carried out at Villaorba, the three other fields were also being dealt with in summary fashion. Maniago was bombed at 1,157 by 35 B-17’s, and a heavy concentration was achieved on the northern landing area.  There were several fires started, with bombs seen exploding among the parked aircraft. Lavariano was attacked at the same time by forty-one heavy bombers f1ying in two waves. The second formation was attacked by twenty-five to thirty German fighters during the bomb run, but only one bomber was lost—the field was well covered with hits. Shortly after these three missions, sixty-three Liberators reached the Udine airfield and dropped a heavy load of fragmentation bombs. The north landing ground and hangar area were hit repeatedly, and some bursts were noted among the forty aircraft parked on the field. About 35 Me-109’s and FW-190’s pressed home attacks just after the bomb run was made. The bombers claimed the destruction of fourteen fighters, at a loss of two Liberators.

The raids of 30 January undoubtedly dealt the enemy a severe blow. In addition to losing valuable planes, the large number of damaged aircraft probably strained his repair and maintenance facilities to the uttermost. The destruction of those facilities at Udine and Aviano made the situation even more critical. The nearest repair center now available was at Klagenfurt in Austria very near the Italian border and considered a key point in the defense of south Germany. To complete the work of the 30th, the airfields at Aviano, Udine, and Klagenfurt were attacked on the 31st by 41th, 70th, and 74th heavy bombers respectively, with successful results.  At the last field, sixty-seven aircraft were seen on the ground, and eleven were destroyed and seven damaged. An estimate of the enemy air situation given in the IntelOps summary for 31 January stated the following:

“Experience in previous campaigns indicates that estimates of ground damage based on photographic evidence are conservative. In the present case, air claims appear reasonable on analysis of the apparently serviceable aircraft remaining after the attacks. Concrete evidence shows at least 145enemy aircraft destroyed or damaged and it is highly probable that substantially more were rendered unserviceable by the operation.”

This achievement was the result of the heaviest bomber attacks yet mounted in the air war, plus the determination of General Spaatz to press home the offensive against the Luftwaffe. In a letter of 23 January 1944 to Robert A. Lovett, Assistant Secretary of  War for Air, he stated his bombing plans:

“I believe …that the ability to apply the pressure from two sides against the middle can be utilized to the discomfiture of the enemy. My tendency will be to place a little bit more emphasis upon swatting the enemy on his airdromes whenever possible, and force him to fight under conditions most advantageous to us. There are certain essential targets, however, such as fighter factories and ball-bearing works, beyond fighter cover, which must be hit when weather conditions permit accurate bombing results. These attacks will no doubt result in heavy losses, but will materially reduce our later losses.”

Shortly after, the Air Ministry issued a comprehensive bombardment program for the Eighth, Fifteenth, and British bomber commands. First and equal priority was to go to single-engine and twin-engine fighter airframe and component production. The Eighth Air Force’s targets were listed in the following order:

Erla Me-109 plant at Leipzig

Me-109 plant at Regensburg/Prufening(also the Fifteenth)

FW-190 plant at Rosen

Me-110 plant at Gotha

Ju-88 plants at Bernburg, Halberstadt, and Oschersleben, Germany

Me-110 plant at Brunswick

FW-190 assembly at Tutow, Germany

FW-190 assembly at Kassel

Ju-88 plant at Schkeuditz, Germany

For the Fifteenth Air Force  the first priority air production centers were:

 Me-109 plant at Regensburg/Prufening

Me-410 assembly plant at Augsburg, Germany

The components plant at Styr

The Me-109 plant at Fischamend, Austria

The Me-410 plant in Szigetszentmiklos, Hungry

Me-110 plant at Brunswick

Two days later, the Fifteenth attacked the airdromes at Viterbo, Tarquina, and Orvieto in Italy with small task forces. Of the forty-four aircraft present at Viterbo, six were probably destroyed and four damaged. All three fields were in central Italy a short distance north of Rome, and all were in fighter range of the beleaguered Anzio beachhead. 

The 218th operation on the 11th, although not directed at a POINTBLANK target, is of considerable interest because of what looked like a possible change in GAF tactics. Heretofore, it had been sometimes difficult for our fighters to get the German fighters to engage them. The GAF usually preferred to keep away from the Mustangs, Thunderbolts and Lightnings in order to concentrate on the bombers; however, the opposite technique was followed in this mission. The Germans abandoned their usual tactics and turned viciously on the fighters. Several sharp engagements took place; as a result, the American escorts claimed 32-3-22 but lost 14 of their own number – a high figure for fighters. In addition, 4 P-47’s, 2 P-38’s and 1 P-51 were seriously damaged.  When General Arnold received this information, he was quick to see the possibility of a change in GAF tactics. He cabled General Spaatz to inquire if our fighters were going to abandon their escort functions to take aggressive action against German fighters whenever encountered. Replying for General Spaatz, General Anderson stated they welcomed this aggressive action against the fighters as it permitted them to restore considerable freedom of action to our escorts who would now be able to force the Germans into combat. As it turned out, this did not mark the beginning of a new policy, and other missions found the Luftwaffe none too anxious to engage the Thunderbolts and Mustangs, preferring instead to save ammunition and gasoline for the big formations of heavy bombers.

Certainly these operations were not the “big numbers” of bombers out to lay something “flat” that General Arnold had been hoping for.  Nevertheless, such an operation involving both the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces had been scheduled for some time. One of the principal motives in the activation of the Fifteenth had been the hope that the two strategic bombing forces could coordinate their joint operations.  It was confidently expected that the Po Valley would soon be available for Anglo-American air bases and that the Fifteenth “and the Eighth would integrate their attacks on German targets with frequent joint raids, shuttles, one-two punches, etc.” The Po Valley remained in enemy hands. But in early December a plan for a combined attack on the German aircraft industry was being drawn up under the code name of ARGUMENT. It is not clear if this operation was actually planned for 1943, although one writer suggests that it was first scheduled for 12 December but supply deficiencies and weather had forced a cancellation.

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