Spitfires in North Africa I

Squadron Leader L. C. Wade, Officer Commanding No. 145 Squadron RAF, sitting in the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire HF Mark VIII at Triolo landing ground, south of San Severo, Italy, shortly before the end of his second tour of operations in the Mediterranean area, where he had become the top-scoring fighter pilot with 22 and 2 shared enemy aircraft destroyed.

WING COMMANDER LANCE WADE

Born in Texas, USA, Lance Wade joined the RAF in Canada in December 1940. After completing his flying training he went to the Middle East in September 1941, flying a Hurricane off the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to Malta, and continuing on to Egypt the following day by flying boat. Once there, he joined No. 33 Squadron, flying Hurricanes, and gained his first victories on 18 November 1941, when he shot down two Italian Fiat CR. 42 fighters.

When his combat tour ended in September 1942 his score stood at 12 enemy aircraft destroyed. He then returned to the USA for a few months, but in January 1943 returned to North Africa and was appointed to No. 145 Squadron as a flight commander. Wade assumed command of the unit just months later upon his promotion to squadron leader. In March the squadron exchanged its Spitfire Mk Vs for Mk IXs, then in the following June re-equipped with Mk VIIIs. Wade remained in command until November 1943, when he was promoted to wing commander and moved to a staff appointment at Headquarters Desert Air Force.

In January 1944, during a routine flight in an Auster, the aircraft went into a spin at low altitude and crashed into the ground, killing the fighter ace. At the time of his death Wade’s victory score stood at 22 destroyed (five while flying Spitfire Mk VIIIs or IXs) and two shared destroyed, one probably destroyed and 13 damaged in the air, plus one destroyed and five damaged on the ground. He was the top-scoring American-born pilot to complete the whole of his combat career in the RAF.

NORTH AFRICA

`Spitfires made ten sorties acting as high cover to Hurricanes. Flt Lt Sabourin and Sgt James attacked two ME 109s southwest of Tobruk. One ME 109 destroyed.’ Thus, in the dry and prosaic language of the handwritten Operational Record Book (ORB) of No. 145 Squadron for 8 June 1942 did the diarist record the first victory of a Spitfire over the Western Desert. Joseph Sabourin, a 27-year-old Canadian who already had three victories to his name from flying Curtiss Tomahawks with No. 112 Squadron, and his wingman, Sergeant James, had shot down a Bf 109 over the desert some 15 miles southwest of Tobruk.

With the Luftwaffe achieving a degree of ascendancy over the RAF’s Hurricanes, Tomahawks and Curtiss Kittyhawks in North Africa by early 1942, the despatch of Spitfire-equipped squadrons to Egypt was seen as a matter of urgency, despite demands elsewhere. Number 145 Squadron was an experienced Fighter Command unit and in mid-February 1942 it had left for the Middle East along with another experienced Spitfire squadron, No. 92. The end of April also saw No. 601 Squadron arrive in Egypt, having come via Malta, and it too began readying itself for renewed operations. By then, No. 145 Squadron had begun to receive its Spitfire VBs at Helwan, on the Nile, south of Cairo, where it had worked up as part of the Desert Air Force (DAF).

By May 1942, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and his Italian allies had been steadily building up against the Allied front in Cyrenaica that ran from Gazala south through Bir Hacheim. On 24 May No. 145 Squadron had moved forward to Gambut, between Tobruk and Bardia, and commenced flying defensive patrols. Two days later Rommel attacked Gazala, thus beginning six weeks of violent fighting on the ground and in the air that eventually resulted in a British retreat deep into Egypt.

The situation on the ground continued to deteriorate, with the British suffering heavy losses at Knightsbridge, pre-empting a withdrawal from the Gazala line, resulting in DAF squadrons `leapfrogging’ in an easterly direction. No. 145 Squadron flew intensively throughout, completing some 22 sorties on 16 June. The unit’s diarist recorded the intensity of the air action the following day, as the battle reached its zenith:

Standing patrols over base were resumed and 18 sorties were made. Plt Off Weber encountered a Macchi 202 near Gambut and pursued it to Sidi Rezegh. Plt Off Hanley and Sgt Barker attacked two ME 109s and Flt Lt Monk and Plt Off Malins attacked two others. Plt Off Hanley and Sgt Barker provided a most inspiring spectacle as they chased the two MEs at a low altitude away from the aerodrome. The standing patrol was ended at 1705hrs. It is not possible to know how many enemy aircraft were destroyed by the squadron. The moral effect of the squadron’s operations was considerable, and it was felt respectively by the enemy and the units we operated with against him. It was a new experience for Messerschmitt pilots to have to look up instead of down!

Despite much gallant fighting, the enemy’s inexorable advance continued, and on the 21st Tobruk, so long a symbol of dogged resistance, surrendered. Its loss was a huge blow to Allied morale and prompted Rommel to continue his advance into Egypt; eventually leading to his assault on El Alamein, which saw heavy fighting.

Despite the ground fighting settling into an exhausted stalemate, the air fighting continued through June and July, and into August. On 1 August, No. 92 Squadron at last received its first Spitfire and became operational on the 13th, flying its first Spitfire patrol the following day when it ran into a big fight around a returning bomber formation. Appropriately, it was the CO, Squadron Leader Jeff Wedgewood, who opened the unit’s account in the desert by hitting the cooling system of the Bf 109 flown by Leutnant Mix, who had to crash land and became a prisoner of war (PoW).

As the battle for El Alamein continued, aerial operations intensified through August, and on 7 September Bruce Ingram of No. 601 Squadron became the first Spitfire ace of the desert campaign. The decisive Battle of El Alamein opened with a massive artillery barrage on a narrow front during the evening of 23 October, and the three Spitfire units were out early the following morning covering fighter-bombers and countering enemy air attacks as Axis forces fiercely resisted the `push’.

In succeeding days the RAF was committed to preventing any enemy attempt at concentrating forces and in interdicting supply lines, so there were innumerable combats fought. For example, during the afternoon of the 25th a quartet of Spitfires from No. 92 Squadron attacked two Bf 109s, one of which was shot down into the sea by Flight Lieutenant John Morgan for his sixth victory. A short while later five more Bf 109s were attacked by a patrol from No. 145 Squadron, allowing Flight Lieutenant Cecil Saunders to claim his seventh, and last, success.

Finally, on 4 November, after further heavy fighting, the 8th Army began a general breakout and the race across the desert in pursuit of the Afrika Korps began. The speed of the withdrawal was breath-taking as both sides raced for Benghazi. Spitfire squadrons regularly moved forward during this period, taking off from Egyptian airfields and returning to newly captured landing grounds in Libya.

By the turn of the year the four Spitfire units had moved to, or were soon to arrive at, the desert strip at Alem El Chel, some 30 miles southeast of Sirte and deep into Libyan territory.

On 7 January, for the first time since El Alamein, No. 92 Squadron met enemy fighters in large numbers that stayed and fought, and two Bf 109s from II./JG 77 were destroyed. Climbing to 12,000ft, John Morgan claimed his eighth, and last, success. The other victory went to former US `Eagle’ squadron pilot Flight Officer Leo Nomis, but two Spitfires were also lost. Strafing attacks by Bf 109s and C. 202s were repeated the next day, the first raid being intercepted at 8.15am by No. 145 Squadron and resulting in Flight Lieutenant Bert Houle shooting down a Messerschmitt. It was the Canadian’s first victory in a Spitfire, but it elevated him to ace status:

I got behind one which flew straight into the sun and fired a few bursts at him. The pilot panicked and turned down sun while diving for ground level. When he levelled out I was a few thousand feet above him, and I used my height to close the gap between us. When well within range, I pressed the firing button and two cannons and four machine guns started to register hits…

On 16 January Rommel issued the order to pull back, and as his forces headed for the Tunisian border they were constantly harassed by the DAF and advanced elements of the pursuing 8th Army. On the 22nd the last German troops evacuated Tripoli, leading to a curtailment of DAF operations.

Tunisia

As axis forces retreated from El Alamein westwards across Lybya, the sea off Algiers harbour on 9 November 1942 was covered with a forest of ships. Small boats and landing craft were shuttling back and forth with troops, tanks, vehicles, and other equipment and supplies of war. High above the ships a Ju88 reconnaissance bomber probed daringly into the Allies’ airspace. Two Spitfires quickly found the enemy intruder, and sent it into a smoking dive into the waves. The fighters’ interception would prove to be too late.

As twilight gathered later that day, three waves of Ju88s and Heinkel He111s began their bombing runs over the anchored invasion fleet and above Maison Blanche airfield. Spitfires from No. 81 Squadron RAF and Hurricanes from No. 43 Squadron RAF scrambled to intercept. More Spitfires from No. 242 Squadron RAF, who were escorting two B-17 bombers flying US General Mark Clark from Gibraltar across to Algiers, were also called on to attack the enemy raiders.

The Luftwaffe bombers were soon in disarray. Pilots of 242 Squadron claimed their first victories, Sergeant Mallinson an He111, Pilot Officer Goulding and Sergeant Watling a Ju88 each, while Flight Lieutenant Benham and Pilot Officer Mather shared a Ju88 kill. Five other pilots claimed half-kills and damages on the German aircraft.

Squadron Leader ‘Ras’ Berry, Commander of 81 Squadron, and his section shot down an He111 over Maison Blanche airfield, and fellow pilot, Canadian Flight Lieutenant James Walker, did the same for a Ju88. Having achieved two previous victories in the skies of UK and Russia, it was Walker’s third kill, and perhaps a unique record in those three theatres of air warfare.

#

The Spitfires’ engagement with the Ju88s came a day after Allied landings in North-West Africa.

At around midnight on 7/8 November 1942, Operation TORCH, the first major Allied operation of the Second World War invaded Morocco and Algeria. Only a few days after the start of the third battle at El Alamein on 26 October, the Anglo-American invasion fleets had sailed from the east coast of USA and the west coast of Scotland. The enormous task force was in excess of 100 ships, and over 107,000 troops.2

Although the battle of Stalingrad was an immense distance from the Middle East, the German Army’s struggle to overcome the Russians’ stubborn and desperate defence was not immune to the impact of Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein, nor to the Operation TORCH invasion. Despite their defeats on the Russian Front, the Germans felt forced to transfer their Luftflotte II (Air Fleet) to Italy and Tunisia. If Rommel, or any others in Hitler’s Reich, still harboured dreams of dominating the Mediterranean, and occupying the oilfields of the Gulf, Iraq and Persia, they were now collapsing.

Operation TORCH was made up of three invasion fleets – the Western, Central and Eastern Task Forces. The Western Task Force, commanded by Major General Patton, and under the protection of the US Navy, sailed from east coast USA to land at Casablanca. US Navy aircraft carriers, off Casablanca and Oran, provided the air cover with ship-borne fighters. The Central Task Force, with some British but predominantly American troops, set out from Britain under the command of Major General Fredendall, heading for the port of Oran on the north-west Algerian coast.

The US Army’s Twelfth Air Force, commanded by the already legendary Brigadier General Jimmy Doolittle, also provided air cover for the Oran-bound fleet. General Doolittle had commanded the first US air raid on Japan after Pearl Harbor, when B-25 Mitchell bombers took off from aircraft carriers, without sufficient fuel to return. After releasing their bombloads over Japan, the B-25s flew on westwards to land at friendly bases in China.

The closest landing to the Tunisian border, by a convoy despatched from the Clyde in Scotland, was to be made by the Eastern Task Force. Although it carried a small number of US troops with designated officers to assist negotiations with the Vichy French authorities, this invasion force comprised elements of the British First Army under command of Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson. While the Royal Navy escorted both the Oran and Algiers invasion fleets, air support for the Algiers landings was provided by the RAF Eastern Command. To strengthen air support at Algiers, on 6 November two DAF squadrons, the Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron RAF and the torpedo-carrying Wellington bombers of No. 221 Squadron RAF, flew from Egypt to Malta.

One of those pilots in 221 Squadron was Australian Flying Officer William ‘Bill’ Stocks from Sydney. After a period in the Empire Training Scheme in Canada, Bill had arrived in Britain in November 1941 and, after training on Wellington bombers, in April 1942 he joined No. 221 Squadron at Sidi Barrani. In one anti-shipping operation with 221 Squadron, at a height of around 500 feet, Stocks made two severe hits on an enemy vessel. In another interdiction flight his wireless transmitter, rear turret and petrol gauges became unserviceable. Despite great difficulties he continued and completed the operation successfully. In what seems so typical of so many bomber pilots, Stocks’ leadership, coolness and efficiency would in due course see him become a squadron leader in No. 28 Squadron RAF, and be awarded the DFC.

Despite the widest dispersal of troop landings over 130 miles north and south of Casablanca, General Patton’s US Western Task Force encountered the stiffest resistance. The Vichy French were alert to the invasion. At approximately 0700 on 8 November their naval air force, Aeronavale, had their Dewoitine fighters strafing the landing beaches. However, in three days the Vichy French lost 119 aircraft out of 200, as well as having their airfields put out of action. The US Army Air Forces lost only forty-four aircraft out of 164, and all the US Navy aircraft carriers remained intact. Early on 11 November the French Commander in Casablanca surrendered and signed an armistice.

At Oran in Algeria at 0100, also on 8 November, the US 1st Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions went ashore. Before dawn the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, HM Ships Furious, Biter and Dasher, launched ten Seafires, eight Albacore torpedo-bombers, and twelve Sea Hurricanes. During 8 and 9 November considerable air combat ensued with the Aeronavale over Oran’s la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.

This provided cover for American tanks to capture Tafaraoui on 9 November, which then enabled a Hurricane squadron and some Spitfires from the RAF’s 31 Fighter Group to fly in from Gibraltar. When one Spitfire was shot down on its landing approach by a Dewoitine fighter, a quick response claimed three of the French fighters. The surviving French aircraft at la Senia took off and escaped to Morocco.

Later, when the Tafaraoui airfield came under fire from an approaching column of the French Foreign Legion and its artillery battery, the Spitfires were again called up. Their strafing attack blew up a truck carrying troops, spattering one Spitfire with body parts, and causing the French to withdraw quickly. By the end of the day on 9 November the French authorities declared a cease-fire to end any threat to the la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.

#

Farther east along the coast near to Algiers, also in the early hours of 8 November, the troop landings of the British First Army went ahead. Operation TORCH gambled on a land spearhead that in the main comprised only 11 and 36 Brigades of the 78th Battleaxe Division, some light tank units of Blade Force, and an American field artillery battalion. The task force, under command of 78th Division, was being used in an urgent but risky drive to occupy Tunis.

While all three landings were equally important in order to occupy northwest Africa, in the short term those at Algiers were critical. A proposal to land farther east at Tunis had been rejected because of the threat of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica attacks from their bases in Sicily. Yet the immediate goal of the Allies’ ground forces was to squeeze the Axis armies in a pincer movement between Operation TORCH and Montgomery’s Eighth Army. A rapid advance was planned to gain control quickly of the major port of Tunis before German forces could be landed there, and before the start of winter and the rainy season in late December.

The decision not to land at Tunis itself, or even the Algerian port of Bone near the Tunisian border, was driven by a fear of enemy air attack. Axis bombers based in Sicily could easily reach both Bone and Tunis with fighter escorts, whereas the British and American air forces could offer little support to any landings there. Even after air bases were established at Algiers and Bone, Allied fighter aircraft would be at the extremity of their range to reach Tunis, which would allow little time over the battlefield to support ground forces. In the event the capability of the Germans to react quickly and transport well-equipped troops, tanks, guns and aircraft to Tunis, was grossly underestimated by the Allies.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.