Operation Wowser

No 250 Squadron Mustang III KH538/T heads this line. The fighter-bombers were active all day on 9 April, in the case of the Mustangs attacking pre-briefed targets just beyond the front line. Each of the rocket rails accommodated four 3in rockets.

An Auster V wearing the Q code of No 654 Squadron and the D of its `C’ Flight, confirmed by the section number 10. According to its operations record book, 654 provided the `entrée’ for `Wowser’ with 11 aircraft directing counterbattery gunfire simultaneously.

This was a US concentrated air attack by Major General Nathan F. Twining’s 15th AAF against German forces, positions and dumps in northern Italy, especially those around Bologna, in preparation for the ‘Craftsman’ breakthrough of Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 5th Army in this sector just to the north of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences (15 April 1945).

As the headquarters of the 305th Fighter Wing moved to Lesina, along with the 1st Fighter Group, the USAAF 15th Air Force’s war drew near its close. Targets became tactical as the number of strategic targets dwindled. The disbandment of the Jockey Committee that selected strategic bombing targets on April 3, 1945 underlined the change. The Brenner Pass line and rail communications in northern Italy and Austria now became primary targets as the Fifteenth attacked bridges and marshalling yards to interdict supply and escape routes for German troops. The effort was so successful that flak units transferred from Italy to Munich in early April used roads, since attacks on railways made the latter very unreliable.

Following the capture of Vienna on April 13, Linz became an important German supply center and the target of the last large mission flown by the fifteenth on April 25. The Soviet advance stopped at Sankt Pölten and Kreuz in the middle of April and any future attacks on rail targets in much of Austria could be made only with Russian approval. With the last Anglo-American offensive in Italy in the offing, Operation Wowser began several days of close support for ground troops on April 9, with the Fifteenth flying missions against troop concentrations, supply dumps, headquarters, and gun positions facing the British 8th Army southeast of Bologna.

Planning for the final offensive was easily completed by early April. In fact, planning for the air phase of the spring offensive was briefer than for any other operation undertaken in the Mediterranean, indicating not only that the Allies had complete mastery of the air but that long experience in the theater had welded the ground forces and air forces into a nearly perfect team. Indeed, Mediterranean Allied Air Forces (MAAF) issued only one major directive for the whole operation and it is significant for its brevity, consisting of but five paragraphs. Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force (MATAF), charged with the detailed planning, published the final plan on 7 April, naming the operation WOWSER and setting forth its purpose as “the employment of maximum air effort in coordination with 15th Army Group during the initial stages of the Ground Forces’ forthcoming Spring Offensive.” After the initial assault the primary task of MATAF would be to maintain the isolation of Italy in accordance with current directives.

The plan did not call for a sustained pre-assault softening-up program by the air forces. Consequently, the air forces during March and, indeed, right up to the beginning of the final drive, concentrated on severing the enemy’s lines of communication with the object of denying him supplies and at the same time of preventing his escape from 15th Army Group. By far the largest share of Tactical’s March effort was devoted to communications targets, and before the end of the month the primary routes north of the Po were so thoroughly interdicted that there were no longer suitable targets in Italy and medium bombers began to attack rail lines in northern Yugoslavia and southern Austria. As a result of these intensive efforts and increasing assistance from MASAF early in April, on D-day (9 April) of the spring offensive every major rail line north of the Po was cut at multiple points. The enemy could not depend on his rail net either to sustain or to evacuate his troops. It should be noted also that although emphasis in the interdiction campaign had long since passed to north of the Po Valley, from January onward a sufficient number of medium and fighter-bomber missions had been directed against the Po River bridges to keep that barrier to enemy mass movement completely interdicted. Furthermore, dumps had continued to be priority targets for XXII Tactical Air Command (TAC) and Desert Air Force (DAF), and beginning late in March and continuing with rising intensity early in April, the greatest effort MATAF had yet applied to these targets was carried out until April, MASAF was governed by directives that placed targets in Italy last in its priority list and limited such attacks to those specifically requested by MATAF.

More missions followed on April 10, and then April 15 through 18 to bomb similar positions barring the advance of the American 5th Army, also near Bologna. These missions used radio beacons and visual markers to ensure that bombs did not hit Allied troops and lead bombardiers and navigators of bomb groups flew almost two hundred familiarization flights in droop snoot P-38s over these targets. These efforts were largely successful, with only one incident that accidently killed forty soldiers from the 8th Army, on the first day of the offensive. Ground troops supported these missions by shelling flak positions within their range and the Fifteenth considered the missions very satisfactory.

Complementary Bombing Missions

To supplement this effort, bombers also attacked Italian arms and munitions factories and ammunition dumps, as German forces in Italy depended on them for resupply. Besides these tactical missions, the Fifteenth also tested new fragmentation bombs when the 304th Bomb Wing flew two missions against flak batteries, on April 1 and 19, with fair results. These missions must have been very satisfying for the crews involved, as flak was their main adversary since the previous summer.

Almost a week after the Allied offensive began, General Spaatz formally announced the strategic air war at an end, on April 16. Henceforth, the Fifteenth Air Force would work with the Twelfth Air Force in support of the ground troops in a tactical role, bombing bridges in northern Italy to prevent German troops, reeling from the Allied offensive, from withdrawing in good order. Communications targets gained top priority at the beginning of the month, with the heavy bombers of the Fifteenth preoccupied with Italian targets for much of April.

Bombing by fighters was also an important operational feature in April, with missions mounted against bridges in Austria and Italy. Results were good, with a number of bridges out of commission, at least temporarily. Strafing of ground targets continued, with a number of missions flown to southern Germany and Austria against railroads and airfields. Bombers only attacked one enemy airfield, at Udine in northeastern Italy early in the month, to deal with a surprising increase in single-engine fighters in northern Italy. The end of the month saw the expansion of fighter bombing, strafing, and sweep missions in Germany and Austria to northern Italy. Two fighter sweeps at the end of the month were strictly tactical operations in direct support of advancing Allied troops. Soviet Air Force fighters, however, occasionally presented a problem. On April 2, Russian fighters jumped American fighters near Bratislava, but fortunately, neither side lost any aircraft.

Last Strategic Bombing Missions

The penultimate bomber mission on 25 April, to the marshalling yards at Linz, tallied the highest losses of the month, fifteen bombers lost to flak. The mission employed Visar radar for the first time in combat and heavily damaged the yards. Visar was an improvement over PFF radar bombing since its radar relayed target information directly from the bombsight to the bombardier, unlike the PFF system in which the PFF operator sent this information to the bombardier.

All bomb wings of the Fifteenth took part in the last major American bombing raid in Europe, escorted by seventy-four-P-38s from the 1st and 14th Fighter Groups and ninety-five P-51s from the 52nd and 325th Fighter Groups. One hundred fifty-nine Fortresses and 310 Liberators bombed the main station and the marshalling yards at Linz. Some groups used PFF and others the new Visar radar to inflict major damage on the yards. Bombs cut all main rail lines and many sidings, badly damaged or destroyed more than 400 rail cars, and damaged the main station, the freight station, workshops, warehouses, a road overpass, buildings in the Hermann Goering Factory, and residential structures. Of the several enemy fighters, including Me 262s, seen during the mission, only a single FW 190 made one pass at the bombers, but quickly broke away. Intense, accurate flak shot down fifteen bombers. The 99th, 463rd, and 483rd each lost a Fortress and twelve Liberators also went down. Two each from the 451st, 460th, and 465th Bomb Groups went down while the 455th, 456th, 459th, 461st, 484th, and 485th each lost one, the latter crashing behind Russian lines.

The Fifteenth’s last bombing mission, and the last strategic bombing mission in Europe, also used Visar, at Salzburg on May 1. Only one bomb group, escorted by one fighter group, took part, without any losses, a fitting end to the previous eighteen months of the Fifteenth Air Force’s war.

The final bombing mission by the Fifteenth Air Force took place when twenty-seven Fortresses from the 2nd Bomb Group bombed the Main Station Marshalling Yards in Salzburg, with an escort of forty-three P- 38s from the 14th Fighter Group. There was no opposition as the aircraft bombed through complete cloud cover, using both PFF and Visar, to cut all main rail lines and sidings and damage or destroy about seventy freight cars in the yards.

Close Call RAF Close Air Support in the Mediterranean Volume 1 & 2

By Vic Flintham

Close support for the Army by the Royal Air Force evolved during WWII from being virtually non-existent to a fully developed part of the battle plan. Nowhere was co-operation more refined and developed than in the Mediterranean theatre.

The first part of this work traced the evolution of close air support through the inter-war years to disaster in France and the first attempts at immediate on-call cover in East Africa provided by the South African Air Force. This led to a much-improved system from el Alamein onwards.

Volume II takes the story on from the assault on Sicily through a succession of battles in Italy and southern France where the Allied armies could depend on an immediate air cover, made possible by Allied air forces having total air supremacy. The war in Italy saw much innovation in terms of weapons and also in the role of the air observation post squadrons, both of which are fully discussed.

These volumes include references to official sources and documents, including squadron operational record books, as well as to logbooks, diaries, and autobiographies of many who participated.

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