Desert Air Force fighter-bombers lay on an ‘air blitz’ at El Hamma 1943

Desert Hawks – Curtiss Kittyhawk
Artist: Roger H. Middlebrook GAvA

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.

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In the mountains of northern Tunisia First Army continued its fight to gain control of the eastern dorsals of the Atlas range. They were still suffering from enemy bombing and strafing, since the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica were flying readily from local airfields around Tunis. During the day Bf109 fighters and Ju87 Stuka dive-bombers often careered through the valleys, seemingly at little more than tree-top height, shooting up transport and anything that moved.

In contrast, in the south, because of DAF forcing the German armour to turn back and withdraw from Ksar Rhilane, the next day, 11 March, the French were able to move up to their positions. From the Mareth Line 2nd New Zealand Division with other forces went westwards also without suffering any enemy strikes, despite the many miles of redeploying traffic, which would have been easily observed by Axis positions in the hills. The increasing dominance of DAF, due to its ability to operate from hastily prepared airfields close behind Eighth Army’s front lines, was allowing the repositioning of ground troops with impunity. It was a significant advantage over Axis forces, and meant that Eighth Army’s plans for an attack outflanking the Mareth Line, through the Matmata Hills, were falling into place.

After the success of DAF at Ksar Rhilane, it was agreed that the US Twelfth Air Force and No. 242 Group RAF from Algeria and Tunisia, would concentrate on bombing German air fields round the clock. DAF would confine itself to close support of Eighth Army, and its offensive against the Mareth Line, through a western out-flanking ‘left-hook’ tactic, to the west as well as a direct assault in the east.

During the night of 19/20 March, 50th (Northumbrian Division) and 23 Armoured Brigade of XXX Corps began to move up for the frontal attack on the Mareth Line’s formidable defences in the Wadi Zigzaou near the coast. Simultaneously 200 tanks and 27,000 troops of the New Zealand Division and 8 Armoured Brigade began the left hook around the south-west end of the line. When the French built the Mareth Line defences they thought the terrain of this area to be too difficult for any sizeable force to negotiate. The Free French on 19 March had taken positions across the Wadi el Outio, north of Ksar Rhilane, so that overnight on 19/20 March the New Zealanders skirted south and west around the Mareth Line, and then began to head north towards the Tebaga Gap.

As Axis forces in response reacted to hurry west to meet the outflanking threat, on the evening of 20/21 March Eighth Army mounted a frontal attack on the eastern end of the Mareth Line. In support DAF commenced the ‘shuttle service’ bombing by light bombers on 21 March around Mareth. During the day fighter-bombers went out on armed reconnaissance searching for targets of opportunity, and the tank-buster Hurricanes of DAF’s No. 6 Squadron did their work again claiming thirty-two hits on enemy vehicles.

When Eighth Army’s 50th Division had to pull back to the south side of the Wadi Zigzaou on 23 March they had suffered very heavy casualties with some brigades down by a third. Montgomery ordered 1st Armoured Division to reinforce the New Zealand Division, transferring the main impetus to his left hook.

Having seen that Axis forces were being fully drawn into battle in the east, Montgomery ordered the left flank attack to press forward towards El Hamma. If successful this left hook would reach behind the Mareth Line, and force the Axis General Messe to pull back all his troops to the north. As the first attack on the eastern sector of the Mareth Line struggled to make a breakthrough, the 4th Indian and 1st Armoured Divisions moved to the west to bolster Montgomery’s ‘left-hook’ tactic. The Luftwaffe, hammered by the bombing campaign against its airfields, was unable to attack the miles and miles of dusty columns. It confirmed that the Allies had gained air superiority, which allowed Eighth Army to redeploy its forces without fear of Luftwaffe attacks.

The problem with the ‘left-hook’ strategy was that Axis forces were entrenched in strong positions at El Hamma, in the Tebaga Gap’s confined approach. Eighth Army’s tanks would be vulnerable to the German 88mm guns, which were well dug-in, and lethal against armour. A direct frontal attack by Eighth Army could be a disaster.

The New Zealanders were held up by very strong Axis positions which comprised extensive minefields and dug-in artillery, in a 6,000-yard-wide defile code-named the ‘Plum’. The ‘Plum’ defile ran between Djebel Melaba on the north edge of the Matmata Hills and Djebel Tebaga, and Axis forces had also made use of a Roman wall which crossed the valley.

First Armoured Division began to follow the track now marked by the New Zealanders. It wound its way through the edges of the Matmata Hills for some 200 miles, and it would take two days. Meanwhile the New Zealanders called for DAF air support. At the same time there were concerns that the firepower of 1st Armoured when it arrived would be insufficient, and General Messe could reinforce Axis positions further in the meantime. Montgomery and Broadhurst agreed in principle to DAF mounting a ground attack operation to blast a way through the ‘Plum’, later to be referred to as the El Hamma Line (or ‘Mareth switch-line’). An Army-Air conference on 24 March agreed that, instead of light bombers in formation attacks, fighter-bombers and strafing attacks would be used in front of the ground attack.

The DAF success in attacking Axis armour at Ksar Rhilane must have impressed Eighth Army’s planners. For the first time it was decided that the full DAF attack role would change. Instead of their typical tactics of strikes against supply columns and dumps, airfields and troop concentrations, DAF fighter-bombers would fly sorties in close collaboration with Eighth Army’s ground attack. The plan was for the Kittyhawk fighter-bombers to go in low, bombing and strafing enemy lines, in the direct path of, and ahead of the 2nd New Zealand, 4th Indian and 1st Armoured Divisions. In terrain so favourable for the defenders, it was really the only hope for Montgomery’s plan to succeed.

The reasoning for using the fighter-bombers was based upon a number of factors, including the light bomber crews not knowing the new battle area, and that the effectiveness of pattern bombing against dug-in targets was doubted. It was thought that the fighter-bombers would be better at pinpointing enemy positions, and their use would allow the light bombers to continue with their night-bombing raids in the east. Perhaps the most influential factor was that Broadhurst wanted the fighter-bombers, with their bombs and cannon, to lay on a ‘low flying blitz’.

The modification of fighters so that they could carry bombs, either under their fuselage or wings, in a fighter-bomber role, was a recent development. It was controversial, with conflicting arguments for and against. Flying with 450 Squadron RAAF of 239 Wing RAF at this time was Flight Lieutenant Reginald ‘Rusty’ Kierath from a rural area in New South Wales, Australia. Kierath was one of a number of pilots who had flown a Kittyhawk in a fighter-bomber role, known as a Kittybomber, in the action at Ksar Rhilane. The first trial of a Kittyhawk in such a role had been undertaken in early 1942 by a fellow Australian, Clive Caldwell, a fighter ace with No. 112 Squadron RAF. On 24 March 1943, the lives of the spearhead troops, and the turning of the Mareth Line, depended upon the likes of Rusty Kierath and other flyers in DAF to deliver the cutting edge of the new air – ground support tactic.

Besides tactical considerations on the ground, there were unavoidable strategic reasons for mounting an air blitz. Having been unable to break the Mareth Line near the coast in a frontal attack, to try again there invited further defeat and heavy losses. The only other possible way was through the defile at El Hamma. Yet the Axis had been able to reinforce its defences to make the El Hamma gap just as unattractive. To sustain its supply needs Eighth Army must break through, keep moving forward, and reach the main port of Sfax farther up the coast to open up easier access to shipping cargoes.

The El Hamma strongpoint sat in a funnel of a valley, with German gun positions on the hills either side, and protected by mines and countless dry river beds. DAF was being called upon to destroy the trap.

The proposed plan for an ‘air blitz’ by DAF in support of Eighth Army caused a reaction from AVM Coningham, who was now AOC-in-C of Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF). NATAF comprised the Desert Air Force, XXII Air Support Command and the Tactical Bomber Force (TBF). Coningham was resistant to committing fighters to major ground attack operations. It was against established RAF doctrine, because of the risk of losing large numbers of fighters, and consequently air superiority. Coningham sent his senior air staff to remonstrate with Broadhurst, who was not deterred. Backed by Montgomery, Broadhurst got his way.

Immediately after the Army-Air conference on 24 March, fighter-bombers and the tank-destroyer Hurricanes attacked the enemy’s tanks and transport, which were confronting the New Zealanders. Also more detailed planning for the ‘air blitz’ to break the El Hamma Line of the Axis forces got under way at once. With the stalemate at Mareth, the Axis 21st Panzer and 164th Infantry Divisions, already at El Hamma, could be reinforced by 10th and 15th Panzer. The principal elements of the air support plan drawn up for the El Hamma blitz were:

25/26 March: Night raid bombing on Axis HQs and telephone centres to keep the enemy awake and confused.

26 March 1530: Attacks on tank concentrations first by Hurricanes of the tank-buster No. 6 Squadron, followed by two squadrons of fighter-bombers.

26 March 1600: A creeping artillery barrage behind which 8 Armoured Brigade and New Zealand infantry would begin to advance.

The creeping barrage would create an advancing bomb-line. From sixteen fighter-bomber squadrons available for the operation, two squadrons at a time would bomb and strafe the enemy positions in front of the bomb-line for more than two hours continuously.

On the ground a large letter E marked the infantry’s start line, with red and blue smoke next to it. As the troops moved forward they would indicate their positions with yellow smoke. Although this would be of use to enemy artillery in the valley’s hillsides, there was a real concern to avoid the blitz hitting Allied troops. The New Zealanders provided locations of Axis gun positions, which Allied artillery would target regularly with smoke shells to further help strafing and dive-bombing by DAF fighters.

The ‘air blitz’ plan called for continuous strikes by Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, commencing thirty minutes before the Army ground attack, to be maintained in two-squadron formations at a time for two hours. Could this revolutionary new tactic work? To break the Mareth Line the ‘left hook’ attack of Eighth Army must succeed. If the new DAF tactics did not achieve the planned effect, the ground attack would almost certainly be repelled. If it failed, it would take a more drawn-out offensive to drive the Axis forces back from the Mareth Line. General Eisenhower’s commitment to London and Washington to defeat Axis forces in Tunisia by May 1943 and subsequent plans for the invasion of Sicily would be in tatters.

To assist the DAF bombing runs, smoke and army vehicles were deployed on the ground approaches: red and blue smoke for the start point, trucks drawn up in the form of code letters for DAF pilots, yellow smoke for Eighth Army positions, and white smoke shells bursting onto enemy positions. The first ever experiment of Army/Air wireless communication was instigated, using selected flight lieutenants with radios sitting in armoured cars in the front lines.

On the morning of 26 March dust storms allowed the New Zealand troops and 1st Armoured Division, to concentrate for the attack with good cover against enemy observers. At 1530, in a late change, an unscheduled wave of light bombers of 3 Wing SAAF pattern-bombed enemy positions. When the dust and smoke from this raid cleared the anti-tank Hurricanes of 6 Squadron went in against 21st Panzer. Despite intense flak no aircraft were lost.

At 1600, as planned, the creeping barrage began, with smoke shells targeted as indicators on Axis gun positions. Then the waves of Kittybombers began their attacks, about 400 aircraft continuously over more than two hours. Squadrons would first drop their bombs on enemy positions, then dive down again to strafe with cannon and machine guns. By the end of the onslaught 21st Panzer and 164th Infantry Divisions had suffered significant losses of artillery guns and ‘soft skinned’ vehicles, as against thirteen Kittybombers lost.

Over 24 to 26 March, day and night, DAF light bomber strikes had pounded Axis positions again and again south of El Hamma. On the afternoon of 26 March, despite serviceability constraints brought on by those two days of low-flying, DAF threw in 412 sorties in pattern-bombing against enemy telephone communications. Before the German troops could begin to re-organize, DAF fighter-bombers struck again, bombing and strafing at low level. The DAF bombing campaign, culminating in the fighter-bomber attack, fully achieved its aim of keeping the enemy’s heads down before the ground attack.

At the end of the air blitz 8 Armoured Brigade and the New Zealand infantry drove through the enemy minefields and defensive positions. First Armoured Division carried out a considerable advance in the hours of darkness, to ensure that the valley’s natural features could not be used to mount an ambush on the tanks. Over the next two days Axis forces fought rearguard actions, until they could retreat north with 15th Panzer from Mareth. As well as destroying large numbers of guns, tanks and other transport and imposing a toll of dead and wounded, by 28 March the Allies had taken 700 prisoners. The combined DAF and artillery blitz had turned the Mareth Line, and the Axis troops could hold no longer.

DAF lost seventeen Kittybombers in the operation, out of some 400. To achieve the major success of breaking the Mareth Line at El Hamma it was an acceptable loss. Those who were involved had no doubts about the worth of this innovative use of air support. Yet Broadhurst’s decision to use fighter-bombers was still criticized in higher circles. Perhaps most important was the demonstration it gave of how fighter-bombers in close army-air support, where circumstances were favourable for their use, could change the tide of battle on the ground.

By late-March and early-April 1943 the rains began to lessen. Planning and preparations were underway again for the spring offensive to take Tunis. With temperatures on some days around a maximum of 25–28°C, it allowed the bringing forward of more troops and supplies.

At the same time as the First Army infantry fought in the Oued Zarga mountains in the north, in the south on 7 April the first forward detachments of General Montgomery’s Eighth Army made contact with leading patrols of II US Corps. The Allied pincer movement was beginning to close in on the Axis forces. Speed was now critical on all fronts to exploit the encirclement, and prevent the enemy from controlling his retreat and withdrawing his forces to Italy.

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The struggle for air supremacy in early-April continued unabated. DAF squadrons began to come within range of RAF airfields in Tunisia, and all Allied air forces were put under the unified command of AVM Coningham. Every avenue was being explored to strengthen air superiority and Wing Commander Dundas of 324 Wing was presented with orders to undertake a bizarre mission. At the Bou Saada oasis in the desert, some 250 miles south of Algiers, a Vichy French air force unit remained isolated. They had been resisting all entreaties to collaborate with the Allies. Besides the opportunity to add another wing-size group to Allied air power, there was a demand to eliminate any threat they might pose. As the Allies ratcheted up the pressure on the Axis, and closed on Tunis, the last thing they needed was a rogue strike on their rear areas by some disgruntled Vichy French flyers.

Dundas’ orders were to fly down to Bou Saada and talk the French CO into joining the Allies. He was to offer them the temptation of being re-equipped with Spitfire fighters. For a long flight over desert and the Atlas Mountains, and to guard against one of them having to make a forced landing for engine trouble or some other unforeseeable event, he took with him a Canadian, Jimmie Grey, commander of No. 243 Squadron RAF. In their two Spitfires they finally located the landing strip, close to an oasis settlement. The green palms and white of the houses and Foreign Legion fort sparkled in the sunset against the surrounding desert. As they descended Dundas saw a figure emerge from a tent and peer skywards:

I told Jimmie to go on circling while I landed and taxied in. I would call him if I wanted him to follow. With great caution – and a little trepidation – I landed and taxied over to the tent. The man I had seen ran towards me, waving and smiling. I called Jimmie and told him to come down. Our one man reception committee was a young lieutenant in the French Air Force. He was evidently astonished to see us, but he was courteous and friendly.

So as to portray his authority to negotiate Dundas introduced himself to the young French lieutenant as a lieutenant colonel, accompanied by Commander Grey. The young French officer was astounded that they had attained such senior ranks at their youthful age and was very envious. He then drove Dundas and Grey to his HQ where they met the French commander, a major well into middle age. Without enquiring the reason for their visit, he invited Dundas and Grey to dine with him and other senior French officers. During the dinner the focal point of the conversation was the Spitfire fighter, and their desire to get into the action.

Maybe it was the wine working on me, but I decided that they were the sort of people we wanted with us, and I told their CO that I was authorized to offer them the opportunity to come and fight alongside us in the final liberation of Tunisia from the ‘sale Boche’. This information aroused great enthusiasm – maybe the wine was working on them too …

Next day Dundas and Grey made an uneventful return flight to their home base but without gaining any clear indication from the French commander of his intentions. Further communications took place at a senior level between the Free French authorities and the Allies and, in due course, the French airmen from Bou Saada joined the Allied cause. They duly got their Spitfires and were flying operations in the final battle for Tunis.

Despite the growing evidence that Allied air power was winning the air war, for the troops on the ground, to most of whom the air force was an unseen hand, it was not at all clear where and when a final victory in Tunisia would come. The problem remained: how and where could the Allies break through to close the trap? In the far north, on the coastal approaches to Bizerte, the Americans were held up at mountain strongpoints such as Green Hill and Bald Hill. In the south the armoured strength of Eighth Army after the breakthrough at El Hamma had become neutralized by Axis defences in the hills around Enfidaville to the south of Tunis.

In the central north, in the Medjerda river valley, there seemed to have been little change since December. North of Medjez el Bab the Germans were immoveable. On ridges such as Djebel Bou Aoukaz and Longstop Hill, they stubbornly endured every attack by the Allies’ First Army. With the terrain favouring the enemy’s defences, the fear was that for some months yet the Axis could grind out a lengthy war of attrition before they succumbed.

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