Thunderbolt in Chinese/Taiwanese Service

P-47D-23-RA Unit: 11th FG Serial: P-47014 Kangwan Field, Shanghai, circa 1947.

P-47D-30-RA Unit: 43rd FS, 11th FG Serial: 432917 (44-32917) Circa 1947.

P-47D-28-RE “Lady Maurene” Unit: 43rd FS, 11th FG Serial: P-47036 Nationalist’s P-47s were used during the Chinese Civil War.

P-47 Communist China CPR

ca. 1954, Taiwan — Pilots Looking at Instructions — Image by © Horace Bristol/CORBIS

After World War II, the Chinese Nationalist Air Force received 102 P-47Ds used during the Chinese Civil War. The Chinese Communists captured five P-47Ds from the Chinese Nationalist forces. In 1948-57, the Chinese Nationalists employed 70 P-47Ds and 42 P-47Ns brought by Taiwan in 1952. P-47s were used extensively in aerial clashes over the Taiwan Strait between Nationalist and Communist aircraft.

Although P-47 production ceased just weeks after Japan’s surrender, Thunderbolts (re-designated as the F-47) continued to serve for years (and in some cases decades) after World War Two. America pulled the plane from front line service in 1949, but NATO allies like Turkey, Portugal and Italy maintained squadrons of Thunderbolts into the 1950s, as did Iran. Taiwanese F-47s routinely engaged communist fighters off the coast of China. Surplus models were also liberally distributed throughout Latin America during the same period. Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic all maintained fleets for years. Peru didn’t retire its Jugs until 1966. When designing its formidable A-10 tank buster in the early 1970s, engineers at Fairchild Republic tore a page from history and dubbed their new twin-engine attack jet the Thunderbolt II in honour of the P-47. Today, at least 15 original wartime Jugs are still airworthy and can be seen on the North American air show circuit each summer.

Republic of China Air Force [ROCAF] General HQ was established in June 1946. Starting in August 1948, the Air Force started moving its equipment and institutions to Taiwan. This operation alone was a massive one. It took what is today the Air Force Institute of Technology 80 flights and three ships over four months to relocate. This did not include the other academies, training facilities, manufacturing plants, radio stations and military hospitals, which moved separately.

Chin-chang Chen writes that during this period, an average of 50 or 60 planes flew daily between Taiwan and China transporting fuel and ammunition.

By May 1949, the Air Force Command Headquarters was operating out of Taipei, having transported 1,138 officers, 814 pilots, 2,600 family members and about 6,000 tonnes of equipment and classified documents. The last group of pilots barely made it out of Shanghai as the Communists stormed the airport. Other military branches made their exits as key locations in China fell.

In October 1949 five battalions of the PLA’s 61st Division began an assault on the Nationalist-held Dengbu Island. But even with their crushing superiority, the PLA units could not prevent the introduction of enemy reinforcements by sea, and after suffering 1,490 casualties, the Communist troops retreated  in defeat. Later that same month, the PLA Tenth Army attacked the island of Quemoy, and again lost the battle at sea. It could not reinforce the initial invasion force. Taking more than 9,000 casualties, the stranded force perished, and ever after its defeat for lack of sea and air support constituted an oft-repeated “bloody lesson”.

From 1946 to 1948, during the Chinese Civil War, the ROCAF participated in combat against the People’s Liberation Army engaging in air-to-air combat on at least eleven occasions in the areas surrounding the Taiwan Strait. The ROCAF reportedly enjoyed a 31:1 kill ratio against the PLA. GHQ was evacuated to Taiwan along with the rest of the ROC Government in April 1949 following the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. The ROCAF assisted in halting the PLA advance at the Battle of Kuningtou on Kinmen the same year.

The ROCAF regularly patrolled the Taiwan Straits and fought many engagements with its Communist counterpart (the PLAAF).

Bestfong decals: Airplane 1930~1950 ROCAF

ROCAF Combat Losses 1950-7 [F-47 = P-47]

1957
11/05 34 Sq 3 POW B-26 Downed in
Fujian. The
crew were
released 8
months later.
07/01 3 Sq KIA F-47N “699” Downed by
PLA AAA
04/15 12 Sq KIA RF-84F Crashed
when
diverted
to South
Korea
following
pursuit by
PLA MiG
1956
11/10 6 Sq 9 KIA C-46 Downed by
PLA MiG in
an airdrop
mission over
Jejiang
06/22 Spec. Op.
Unit
11 KIA B-17 Downed by
PLA MiG-17
in Jiangxi
1955
07/16 1 Sq KIA F-84G “118” Downed by
PLA AAA
near Kinmen
06/27 12 Sq KIA RT-33A “7” Downed by
PLA MiG-15 off coast of
Fujian
02/20 3 Sq KIA F-47N “142” Downed by
PLA Navy
AAA
01/21 43 Sq KIA F-47N “209” Downed by
PLA Navy
AAA
01/19 1 Sq                            KIA F-84G “315” Downed by
PLA AAA.
First jet
aircraft lost.
1954
11/17 12 Sq KIA RT-33A “2” Crashed into mountains in
Fujian
when evading PLA MiG-15
11/01 5 TFG KIA F-47N “380” Crashed in a
bombing
mission in
Fujian
10/15 27 Sq MIA F-47N “227” Failed to
return
09/12 35 Sq 9 KIA PB4Y “12” Downed by
PLA AAA
near Xiamen
09/04 8 Sq KIA F-47N “369” Damaged by
PLA AAA in a
bombing
mission.
Crashed near
Kinmen.
07/06 43 Sq KIA F-47N “313” Downed by
PLA MiG-15
06/03 26 Sq KIA F-47N “222” Downed PLA
La-11
05/26 Spec. Op.
Unit
4 KIA B-17 Downed by
PLA AAA
over Fujian
03/18 26 Sq KIA F-47N “219” Downed PLA
MiG-15
02/09 27 Sq KIA F-47N “267” Downed by
PLA AAA
1953
12/17 26 Sq KIA F-47N “193” Downed by
PLA AAA
over Jejiang
07/16 41 Sq KIA F-47N “335” Downed by
PLA AAA
over
Dongshan
Island
1951
11/08 41 Sq MIA F-47N “129” Failed to
return from a
recce mission
over
Guandong
1950
07/29 41 Sq KIA F-47N “126” Downed by
PLA AAA
over Xiamen
04/02 22 Sq KIA P-51 Downed by
Soviet
aircraft
stationed in
Shanghai
03/16 23 Sq KIA P-51 Downed by
PLA AAA
03/14 12 Sq 6 KIA F-10 “07” Downed by
PLA aircraft

ROCAF Combat Losses Since 1950

Advertisements

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part I

Allied air power lights the flame of Operation TORCH

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.

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 Desert Air Force [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.

At the moment of the landings, there were no garrison troops in Tunis, and the German and Italian High Commands were taken completely by surprise. But Axis reaction was swift, and effectively assisted by the conduct of Admiral Esteva, the French Resident-General. The first German troops arrived by air at El Aouina airfield, near Tunis, on November 9, only a day after the Allied landings.

They seized the key points of the two cities; they executed or imprisoned the known and suspected Allied sympathizers; they took over the ports of Sousse, Sfax and Gabes and the inland town of Kairouan. Within a week there were 5,000 front-line troops in and around Tunis and Bizerte; they had tanks; and they were still flying in Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters.

The landings at Algiers were not only the most crucial to the Operation TORCH strategy. They were the most risky, and no-one knew what the Vichy French authorities would do. The French possessed dangerous squadrons of both fighters and bombers at their Algiers airfields of Blida and Maison Blanche. In addition, while the Allied ships and troops were going ashore, they would be within range of Luftwaffe bombers.

When a French Douglas DB-7 bomber from the Blida air force base threatened the invasion fleet, two Seafire fighters from the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable shot it down. Successive flights of Martlet fighters from HMS Victorious then attacked Blida airfield in waves, shooting up aircraft on the ground and those attempting to take off. Around 0830, when the Blida air base signalled its surrender, naval fliers landed and took control.

Luckily bad weather had kept many French aircraft grounded, such as fifty Dewoitine fighters, and six Potez bombers, preventing them from causing mayhem amongst the invading forces. The French Air Force base of Maison Blanche, where there had been no order to hold fire, was captured by 0900. Apart from a failed attempt to capture Algiers harbour, troop landings along the coastal beaches went well. Many Vichy French army units had been ordered not to resist.

During the morning of 8 November Hurricanes of No. 43 Squadron RAF, and Spitfires of 81 and 242 Squadrons RAF, flew from Gibraltar and landed at Maison Blanche. But, as the day neared its end, a Luftwaffe raid of fifteen Junkers Ju88 bombers attacked the ships off Algiers, damaging three Seafires on a carrier.

On the ground at the Maison Blanche air base, relations between Allied forces and the Vichy French were tense. British troops stood guard over parked French fighter planes. The newly landed Hurricanes and Spitfires remained on the tarmac for lack of fuel. Cold and hungry, their pilots huddled by their planes facing a Tunisian winter’s night.

Next day, 9 November, fighters of both 43 and 81 Squadrons had enough fuel left in their tanks to scramble against another Luftwaffe raid and were joined by Spitfires of 242 Squadron, already aloft, to disrupt and fight off the German bombers. When the fighter pilots returned to Maison Blanche their combat stress was no doubt quickly forgotten when the first food since their earlier arrival from Gibraltar was awaiting them.

The decisive impact of Allied air power in support of the Operation TORCH landings has not been well recognized. Even with a large number of inexperienced pilots, within two days Allied air forces had overwhelmed their French counterparts across Morocco and Algeria. Most important of all, the airfields at Maison Blanche and Blida near Algiers, and soon after at Bone, the closest to the Tunisian border, were captured with little damage. French ground forces, with their air support eliminated, and their leaders in disarray with conflicting loyalties, were left with no options. Allied forces were pouring in by air and sea. On 13 November General Eisenhower reached a final agreement with French authorities in Algeria under Admiral Darlan and hostilities came to an end.

The Royal Navy aircraft-carriers lost a total of forty-five aircraft over Oran and Algiers – fifteen Sea Hurricanes, eight Martlets, eight Albacores, two Fulmars and at least twelve Seafires. Despite a large number of inexperienced pilots, they had destroyed or driven the Vichy Air Force from the skies. Allied air power was clearly a huge factor not only in protecting the invasion fleets and troop landings, but also in gaining air superiority to force the early ceasefire by Vichy French Authorities.

Although it was not known at the time, the early successes in Morocco and Algeria had a consequence. By the end of November there would be some 20,000 Axis troops in Tunis, specifically the 334th Infantry Division, the Italian 1st Division, and 10th Panzer Division. The Germans continued building up and, on 8 December, General von Arnim arrived in Tunis to take command of their forces which, on that date, were designated the Fifth Panzer Army. Perhaps the German reaction to Operation TORCH had been foreseen by the Allies as a possibility, but with a hope that it would not happen so fast.

In contrast, the Allies’ initial attacking force from 78th Division with the two brigade groups and Blade Force to make the first thrust at Tunis totalled only 12,300 men. It was recognized as a gamble. With air bases close to Tunis, as anticipated the Luftwaffe quickly established air superiority in Tunisian airspace. It meant that Allied ground forces came under regular attack from enemy fighters and dive-bombers.

#

Unlike the Desert Air Force (DAF), which had been based in Egypt, and had experience in extending its supply lines and moving to temporary airfields with Eighth Army, the air force squadrons sent from the USA and Britain to support Operation TORCH had to be self-sufficient on arrival. In comparison, the Germans were flying in ground forces and aircraft from Sicily, only about 100 miles distant from Tunis, to all-weather airfields close to the port of Bizerte and the Tunisian capital, such as Blida and Maison Blanche.

In early-December winter rain and mud made many dirt airfields inoperable. To support the army’s advances with air support and get within range of Tunis, Allied squadrons had to make use of temporary landing grounds and often had to roll out a dirt strip themselves. As the British First Army moved to within striking distance of Tunis, their closest operable air base was 114 miles to the rear at Bone. This meant that Spitfires were at the limit of their range, resulting in restricted patrol time over Tunis and German positions before having to turn for home.

RAF photo reconnaissance flights on 12 November revealed at least 120 Luftwaffe aircraft at Tunisian airfields, including forty Stukas and some Fw190s at Bizerte and Tunis. The Focke-Wulf Fw190 was fast, with a maximum speed above 380mph, well-armed and, apart from the Spitfire, superior at that time to other Allied fighters in North Africa. In addition there were some 270 German bombers based in Sicily and Sardinia that were raiding Algiers every night.

Basing themselves at first at the Maison Blanche airfield outside Algiers, the Spitfire pilots of No. 154 Squadron RAF, led by New Zealander Squadron Leader Don Carlson, quickly made their name known. On 15 November Carlson shot down a Ju88 bomber. Adding this to his four victories with 74 Squadron in 1941 it made Carlson one of the first Spitfire ‘aces’ over North Africa. In their first two weeks, 154 Squadron claimed nineteen Luftwaffe bombers shot down, and nine more at least hit and damaged.

In mid-November 81 and 111 RAF Squadrons, with Spitfires, were able to move farther east to Bone, 275 miles from Algiers but only fifty miles from the Tunisian border. The Bone airfield, not much more than a landing ground, had been captured on 12 November by 300 British paratroopers, flown in by C-47 transports of the USAAF 64th Group. Next day more C-47s brought in anti-aircraft guns and fuel, which enabled the escorting P-38 Lightning fighters to land and base themselves at Bone. The airfield was very basic and under continual bombing and strafing attacks from the Luftwaffe bases at Bizerte.

For the Spitfire pilots the arrival of winter rain, together with the Spitfire Mk VC’s inferior performance to the Bf109, made the life or death struggle in the air even worse. The fight for supremacy of the skies was a tenacious struggle which would have profound consequences for the armies on the ground.

On 14 November Canadian Flying Officer Harry Fenwick of 81 Squadron RAF began a momentous five days of dogfights when he was shot up by a Bf109. Luckily, he managed a forced landing with a leg wound. On 16 November he was back in the air, first inflicting damage on a 109, only to be shot up himself again by another 109. Once more he found a way to return safely to base. The next day he made his first kill with a Macchi 202 and on 18 November his revenge was complete when he shot down a Bf109.

Although two Spitfires at any one time were required to be in constant patrol over the Bone airfield, and two more fuelled with pilots in the cockpit ready to go, not all Axis air raids could be countered. Soon after arriving at Bone on 19 November, No. 72 Squadron RAF lost eight Spitfires to a bombing and strafing attack by twelve Bf109s.10 On 20 November thirty Ju88s bombed Maison Blanche airfield heavily, destroying the RAF reconnaissance aircraft.

On patrol on 28 November over an Allied convoy near Algiers, Flying Officer ‘Paddy’ Chambers of 154 Squadron sighted five Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero aircraft, which were beginning a bombing run at the ships. Chambers closed with the SM.79s from behind and above. One by one he picked them off, to send four spiralling into the sea. Out of ammunition and his plane damaged, Chambers broke away. Flying Officer Alan Aikman shot down the remaining bomber, so that in this engagement both pilots reached their fifth victory and became Spitfire aces.

On 3 December, close to Tebourba and Djedeida and about twenty miles from Tunis, 78th Division was being driven back by German Panzers. Over the battle area Pilot Officer ‘Robbie’ Robertson of 72 Squadron spotted some approaching Fw190 fighter-bombers. Diving to attack them he was shot at mistakenly by an American P-38 Lightning fighter. Despite the friendly fire Robertson shot down an Fw190 for his fifth victory. His success in becoming an ace seemed to continue on 18 December when he accounted for another Bf109. Soon after on the same sortie he took a hit from a cannon shell in the cockpit.

A splinter penetrated one of Robertson’s eyes, leaving him bleeding and half-blinded. Somehow, Robertson kept control of the Spitfire to make a forced landing, but he lost the eye to finish him as a fighter pilot. Yet Robertson and the other pilots of 72 Squadron had taken a toll of the Axis air forces. In four weeks the squadron had racked up a score of twenty-one enemy aircraft destroyed, and another eight damaged or worse.

On 6 December Flying Officer Fenwick, with fellow Canadian James Waller, shared a kill of an Italian Reggiane Re.2001 Falco II fighter. Fenwick then shot down a Bf109 of his own. These two victories took both Canadians to ace status.14 Every sortie could end in a life or death struggle, with the incidence of death or maiming of aircrew increasing on both sides. A pilot could become an ace one day, and then be dead or invalided out on the next.

#

It is a common but false perception that the Tunisian campaign was fought in the desert. In fact, the major part of the fighting took place in the mountains and valleys of northern Tunisia. Much of it was in the cold and rain of winter, and the icy winds of the Atlas Mountains. The bad weather also disrupted the Allies’ longer range bombers, which were using airfields even farther away in Algiers.

Unaware of the enemy’s gathering strength, by 27 November leading elements of 78th Division and Blade Force had advanced down the Medjerda River valley, through the strategically placed market town of Medjez el Bab to Tebourba. They were literally within sight of Tunis, no more hills could be seen, only a flat plain less than twenty miles wide lay between them and the Tunisian capital. Major General Evelegh, the 78th Division commander, hoped to be reinforced very quickly and even had thoughts of entering Tunis on the next day.

Before noon on 28 November such thoughts were gone when 10th Panzer Division counter-attacked with some fifty tanks. Also the Luftwaffe’s near freedom of the skies at this time enabled their Stuka dive-bombers to hit troops of the spearhead 11 Brigade of 78th Division at will. As well as defending their build-up in and around Tunis, the Germans were also intent on driving the Allies back beyond Medjez. Although by 4 December the superior German armour with unchecked air support sent the Allies reeling back from Tebourba, a week of stubborn resistance by 78th Division, and the American forces, gave First Army time to withdraw, and consolidate stronger forces at Medjez el Bab.

In response to the Army’s desperate plea for urgent air support, on 4 December Wing Commander H.G. Malcolm led off ten Bisley light bombers of No. 18 Squadron RAF, in daylight without any fighter escort, to bomb a Luftwaffe airfield. They were intercepted and also outnumbered by Bf109s. The ten Bisleys, obsolete, slow and poorly armed, were all lost. It was an illustration of the many selfless efforts by Allied airmen to stem the German ground onslaught. Wing Commander Malcolm received the posthumous award of the VC.

A lack of forward airfields, and almost non-existent co-operation processes between the Army and RAF spelled disaster. That same day, 4 December, twelve other Allied aircraft were lost, five P-38 Lightnings, a Boston bomber and six Spitfires destroyed on the ground. To add to the Allies’ setbacks, on 6 December the rains came. ‘It rained for three days and three nights,’ said Cyril Ray the official historian of 78th Division. ‘There was no cover for the men and the slit trenches filled with liquid mud.’

Despite the Tebourba setback the Allies regathered in Medjez and planned another assault on Tunis. Political pressure intensified and the festive season was ignored. The offensive was to resume on the night of 23 December 1942 with a plan to capture Djebel el Ahmera, a mountainous ridge some six miles north of Medjez, known as Longstop Hill. Until it was seized nothing could move down the valley to attack Tunis.

The torrential rain swamped airfields, grounding planes. At times the mud was too heavy for even mules to move supplies. The Tunis offensive was cancelled. Even so it was decided that an attack on Longstop Hill must go ahead. During the night of 23 December and all of the next day, Christmas Eve, the Coldstream Guards and the US 18th Infantry Division fought in waves to gain Longstop’s peak. And like the ebb and flow of the tides, they first gained the summit, lost it, recaptured it, and lost it again. On Christmas morning, after the second German counter-attack, the Allies withdrew to Medjez with over 500 casualties, and another bitter, and costly defeat.

This failure to take Longstop Hill, combined with the rain and mud, brought the Allied advance to a shuddering halt. To add to that was the lack of close air support. It all meant that any further move on Tunis was impracticable. The forced back down from the plan to capture Tunis and the nearby port of Bizerte before the end of December meant that Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika, which was retreating across Libya to Tunisia from the pursuing Eighth Army, was likely to join up with von Arnim’s growing Fifth Panzer Army. The only option was for the Allies to build up their strength during the winter.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part II


Acting Wing Commander Colin Gray, the top scoring New Zealand pilot with 27 kills, pictured with his Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IX EN 520 (FL-A) at Souk-el-Khemis, Tunisia while commanding No 81 Squadron, Royal Air Force in North Africa. c. May 1943

Air Vice Marshal Tedder knew that the Allies must first win the air war before a spring offensive on the ground could succeed. In their gamble to capture Tunis by the end of December 1942, the Allies’ lack of air superiority in Tunisia had been a major contributory factor in the failure. Or in the converse perspective, if the Allies had enjoyed air superiority, the outcome may well have been different.

The battle for air superiority also now had to be fought and won on two fronts, over Tunisia and the Libyan desert. The DAF was continually on the move in step with Eighth Army, from one isolated desert airstrip to another. While the Allies had lengthening supply lines and temporary airfields, the Axis had permanent airfields in Tunisia, Sicily and Sardinia. To undermine this advantage, air power and interdiction were seen as the key by choking off the enemy’s supply routes, whether by sea freight or air transport across the Mediterranean.

DAF to the rescue of French forces at Ksar Rhilane

Dust swirled in the wake of the German armoured columns. They comprised two groups of Panzers, half-tracks and support trucks as they powered across the desert. It was 10 March 1943 near Ksar Rhilane in southern Tunisia and General von Arnim had sent the Panzer force racing to intercept the Free French forces of General Leclerc. The French had recently driven across the desert from Lake Chad to join General Montgomery’s Eighth Army in a ‘left hook’ to outflank and help break the Axis defences on the Mareth Line. At about this time the combined Axis forces in Tunisia, now designated Heeresgruppe Afrika/Gruppo d’Armate Africa (Army Group Africa), were put under the command of von Arnim. He was desperate to prevent a link up of the British First Army of Operation TORCH with Eighth Army, which was pressing hard against the German-Italian Panzer Army (previously Panzer-armee Afrika) in the south of Tunisia.

Above the lines of German armour and motor transport, Pilot Officer Arthur Dawkins, of No. 450 Squadron RAAF, eased his Kittyhawk fighter-bomber around to survey the burning vehicles, which his bombs had just struck. He peered through the murk of smoke and dust for more targets which he could strafe. Then one of the trucks coming up in his flight path suddenly blew up in an immense explosion, enveloping him in a fog of black smoke, dirt and debris. It must have been an ammunition truck, he thought. Dawkins fought to keep control, feeling the plane being dragged down. Emerging again into bright sunlight, he was astonished to see, wrapped around one of his wings, a length of a truck’s canvas tarpaulin. The base airfield at Nefatia some fifteen miles away, at once seemed much further distant.

Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, twelve each from Nos 3 and 450 Squadrons RAAF, were bombing and shooting up the German armoured columns, while escorting Spitfires chased off some Stuka dive-bombers, which were heading for the French. Five attacks were made on the German forces, three by Kittybombers and two by Hurricane fighters of No. 6 Squadron RAF, known as the ‘Flying Can-openers’ due to their use of 40mm-cannon-armed tank-busting Hurricane IIDs (each Hurricane carried two 40mm cannon under its wings). The 250lb wing bombs, and the 500lb bombs under the fuselages of the Kittyhawks, together with the heavy cannon strafing of the Hurricanes, destroyed fifteen vehicles, and damaged others which were driven away by enemy recovery teams during the night. Despite losing six aircraft the fighter-bomber operation was a great success.

#

In northern Tunisia during January and February 1943 the Allies’ front lines, which in late December 1942 had been pushed back to the south from the edge of Tunis, remained entrenched close to Medjez-el-Bab in the Medjerda valley. In the face of the German offensive pressure, a lack of air support, and the onset of winter rain and mud, any renewed attack on Tunis had been postponed until spring. The rain turned many roads into quagmires, making them impassable for wheeled transport. The result was that the Medjez el Bab sector of the front became a salient protruding into Axis-held territory. A stalemate set in as both sides tested each other’s lines while rebuilding.

Into January 1943 the Allied infantry companies had spread out into widely dispersed positions and taken on reinforcements in tough patrolling engagements. By being able to use local airfields near Bizerte and Tunis, the Luftwaffe exploited their air superiority in air-to-ground attacks, which meant that the infantry were often restricted to patrolling at night. German fighters had free range to fly through the valleys, attacking any vehicles or movement. General von Arnim repeatedly initiated attacks, sending in his troops and tanks to break through First Army’s lines. In winter temperatures, which could drop to freezing, and even snow in the high hills, Allied troops spent many days and nights in cold, wet and hastily-dug trenches. Mountains and strongpoints were continually fought over, gained, lost, and regained, with no significant advance.

#

On 3 February 1943 Wing Commander Hugh Dundas DFC arrived at Souk el Khemis in northern Tunisia to take up a temporary position as commander of the Spitfire squadrons of 324 Wing RAF. Dundas was still only twenty-two years old, a decorated veteran fighter pilot of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and more than sixty missions over northern France with the legendary Douglas Bader. He was startled, as all pilots were at first, to see the airfields of bulldozed mud, and the primitive living conditions faced by squadrons and their pilots:

The Spitfires were operating off strips of wire matting, laid on top of rushes which in turn had been laid on the mud. The strips were between 800 and 1,000 yards long and only 25 yards wide. They were connected with the squadron dispersal areas by more strips of matting, laid in narrow lanes. A pilot who put a wheel off the runway while landing – and it was all too easy to do so when coming down in a gusty cross wind – was certain to capsize his plane. Alongside these makeshift airfields the squadrons’ officers and ground crews lived and ate in tents.

Hugh Dundas was from Barnborough in South Yorkshire and, on leaving school, first learned to fly in the Auxiliary Air Force. In May 1940, at only twenty years of age, he was in combat in the skies over Dunkirk and a few months later he was flying his Spitfire in the Battle of Britain. In those intense days of continual fighter dogfights he was shot down, cheating death by baling out just before the aircraft hit the ground. Once out of hospital he flew again in that aerial struggle for Britain’s skies, and in more than sixty sorties in Bader’s squadron over France in 1941, before his posting to Tunisia in early-1943.

By mid-February 1943, Axis aircraft strength in the Mediterranean region had risen to around 1,570, of which approximately 300 were based in Tunisia. Poor maintenance and supply difficulties, however, meant that only 50 per cent were generally serviceable for operations at any time. By contrast RAF Middle East, with under 1,000 aircraft, enjoyed a typical 75 per cent rate of availability. In addition Allied air forces were expanding rapidly.

On Eisenhower’s instigation in early February all Allied air forces, including the USAAF across North Africa, were placed under the command of Acting Air Marshal Tedder, as AOC-in-C Mediterranean. In a series of discussions and meetings in Algiers, Eisenhower and Tedder had found a meeting of minds, for a working relationship and in their views of the role of air power. Tedder was appointed as Deputy to Eisenhower, and AVM Coningham took over as AOC Tactical Air Forces in North Africa. Tedder put great emphasis on maintenance and supply, which he saw as the essential backbone of air power.

Once Tripoli had been captured by Eighth Army on 23 January, RAF Middle East moved its whole maintenance and supply organization from Egypt to the Libyan capital. Maintenance and supply services, together with mobility and improvisation, were seen as integral and fundamental to maintaining the strike power of aircraft and their aircrew. The Axis air forces, on the other hand, suffered from supply shortages of every kind, particularly fuel, causing a lack of flexibility and an overall reduced number of sorties.

A major cause of Axis supply difficulties, as they had been for Rommel in the lead up to El Alamein, was the interdiction of Axis air routes and shipping by Allied aircraft. A typical example was provided by the two RAAF Squadrons, No. 454 flying Baltimores and No. 459 flying Hudsons, in the eastern Mediterranean. During March 459 Squadron undertook ninety convoy support sorties mainly at night, typically taking off soon after midnight, and 454 Squadron commenced operations against U-boats and E-boats.

#

In the first weeks of 1943, although the Allies continued to pour troops, guns and supplies into Algeria and feed them through to Tunisia, there was some disarray and indecision at the highest levels in London and Washington. In January Churchill and Roosevelt met in Casablanca, appointed General Alexander to command all Allied land forces in North Africa (18 Army Group) and as deputy to Eisenhower, and reaffirmed their resolve to win the Tunisian campaign.

There was a mixture of optimism and belief that it was only a matter of time before they would defeat the Axis forces by pinning them between Montgomery’s Eighth Army and the Anglo-American forces of Operation TORCH. However, no-one could foretell how long it would take, or at what cost. The invasions contemplated by the Allies for Italy and north-west Europe rested upon first defeating the Axis powers in North Africa. There was fear of the Tunisian campaign dragging on and on. Under some criticism and pressure by the political leaders and high commands in London and Washington, Eisenhower made a brave statement to Churchill and Roosevelt by promising victory in Tunisia by mid-May 1943.

Whilst the Allied commands planned and reorganized during January, their fear of being bogged down in Tunisia threatened to become a nightmare. For Rommel and his German-Italian Panzer Army, with their long, controlled retreat across Libya and then into southern Tunisia behind them, had already begun to combine with General von Arnim’s forces in the north. Rommel established strong defences on the Mareth Line, which had been built in the south by the French to guard against Italian attacks, to fend off Eighth Army. He was also intent on preventing the Americans from advancing from the Atlas Mountains in the south-west, and driving a wedge between his Panzer force, and von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army in the north.

On 8 February Rommel met with von Arnim and Field Marshal Kesselring, who was in command of all German forces in the Mediterranean, and convinced them that the best strategy was a drive to the west to destroy the main Allied supply bases, at Tebessa in Algeria, and le Kef farther north-west inside Tunisia. Kesselring wanted to push the Allies back into Algeria, but Rommel and von Arnim agreed between them that it could only be a limited action. Rommel wanted time to focus on defence of the Mareth Line against Eighth Army.

At Sidi Bou Zid on the evening of 13/14 February 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions launched Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND (Spring Wind). This was a surprise night attack through the rocky terrain of the Faid Pass, previously thought to be unsuitable for tanks.4 In two days, 14 and 15 February, they surrounded and then inflicted a crushing defeat on the US 2nd Armored Division, which lost 100 tanks, 88 half-tracks and artillery, and some 1,600 casualties.

On 20 February 1943, after driving US forces into flight from Sbeitla, 10th Panzer Division then drove the Americans back some twenty-four miles west of Kasserine town itself, and gained control of the Kasserine Pass. Over the next three days, on mountainous roads threading through the western dorsal towards Tebessa and le Kef, the German Panzers with superior guns and tactics blasted their way forward through poorly-prepared American and British positions. By the close of 22 February at a height of 3,300 feet they were close to taking Thala, and only forty miles from le Kef.

The obvious and only option for an immediate counter was to turn to the DAF. As it always seemed to be, it was ready to respond. In day and night attacks DAF bombed Luftwaffe forward airfields, supply dumps, and troop concentrations on the Mareth Line and near Gabes. First Army began to move some forces down from the north to assist the Americans, and RAF wings in northern Tunisia sent fighter patrols to the area to counter Luftwaffe raids.

Wing Commander Dundas’ 324 Wing was one of those ordered into these operations in support of US forces. Like all new pilots on arrival from UK, he faced an intense learning period in regard to both the climate and an unknown geographical terrain. Despite this, Dundas felt the need to quickly lead a two-squadron operation on one of these patrols. Once in the air he soon had some regrets that he had not prepared more thoroughly.

As Dundas led the formation of twenty-four Spitfires to the south, they flew into rain squalls and broken storm clouds, which hid the tops of mountains. Seeing the terrain for the first time, he found it hard to pick out the landmarks recommended at the pre-flight briefing. Their orders were to keep the ground under observation, so he had to resist the urge to climb to a safer altitude.

Aware that he must not make a mistake, which could be disastrous in the conditions, he dismissed a fleeting temptation to turn back. Dundas knew that such a decision would undermine his credibility so soon in his command. He kept going and they reached the designated patrol line without encountering any enemy aircraft. He turned the group around to the north on the homeward return leg, and into even worse weather.

Because of the mountains and the weather, radio contact with their base was disrupted. Even if a reliable communication could be made, Dundas also recognized that his fellow pilots would be expecting him to lead them home without having to resort to a request for a homeward bearing. He found himself praying to a higher authority that he was leading the group on the correct course. At last they emerged from the clouds to see the landing strips of Souk el Khemis ahead. By the time he had taxied to a stop, and switched off the engine, Dundas felt drained, as if he had survived a ferocious dogfight with an enemy fighter.

Through those mountains below the patrolling Spitfires, Rommel’s Panzers pressed on relentlessly, brushing aside inexperienced American troops. Once through the Kasserine Pass their Panzers were within one day’s easy downhill drive to le Kef, the Allies’ major supply base. Despite American and British troops fiercely contesting the approach to Thala, the Allied command expected Rommel to launch the final attack on the morning of 23 February, and there was little confidence that it could be resisted. Then there would be nothing to stop the Panzers devouring the flat terrain all the way to le Kef. However, despite Kesselring flying to the front to urge them on, Rommel’s advice to pull back was accepted.

The Panzer columns had thinned themselves out in three separate thrusts. They lacked the strength to stretch out further without hope of reinforcements of men and supplies, and their extended columns were now running short of fuel. In the hours before dawn on 23 February Rommel turned the Panzers around, and returned to his defensive positions on the Mareth Line. Clearly the bombing by DAF of German bases and supply lines, and a counter-attack by the British 6th Armoured Division, added fuel to Rommel’s fear of an attack by Eighth Army on his rear.

The flexibility, mobility and high serviceability of the DAF maintained by their ground crews, brought ever increasing capability for close co-operation with the army. In addition by March 1943 the numerical strength of the Desert Air Force over the Axis air forces, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica, had grown even greater.

DAF had become a unique mix of the Allies’ national air forces. Both air crew and ground support airmen from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, were to be found across the DAF squadrons. Postings and transfers increasingly ignored individual and national preferences, and responded to the demands of the front-line squadrons to replace casualties and meet operational demands.

In the Mareth area in March 1943 the main DAF groups, wings and other formations comprised:

Ptable

Although the Germans withdrew from Kasserine back to Gafsa, their Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND had inflicted a series of major battle defeats on the Americans, who lost more than 6,000 men dead or wounded, and another 3,000 taken prisoner out of 30,000.

Despite many brave Allied attempts to halt the Panzers, the Germans suffered fewer than 1,000 casualties, and only 201 dead. The Allies were lucky to narrowly avoid a strategic defeat, and their main supply depots at Tebessa and le Kef remained intact. Nevertheless, there was to be no respite elsewhere.

On 3 March a recce flight over the Mareth Line by 239 Wing’s 450 Squadron reported a build-up of German armour. Ignoring his supply shortages, Rommel did not intend to rely solely on static defence. Although the Luftwaffe had been unable to mount a preceding bombardment, on 6 March, supported by Focke-Wulf Fw190 and Me210 fighter bombers transferred from Sicily, German armour attacked Eighth Army at Medenine.

Acting upon the DAF reconnaissance information, Eighth Army’s artillery was prepared, and positioned ready for the Axis thrust. First sandstorms, then cloud cover restricted overall air activity, but eight times on 6 March alone, DAF Kittybombers in three-squadron formations with Spitfire escorts, struck at the attacking Panzers. The combination of artillery pounding, and DAF’s aerial bombing inflicted heavy losses on the German armoured columns, and forced the enemy’s withdrawal. On 9 March an ill and exhausted Rommel, worn down from the constant attacks by Eighth Army in the long retreat from Alamein, flew home to Germany to recover. Von Arnim was forced to place all Axis forces onto a defensive footing. With hindsight it seems to have been a tipping point.

As a cover for Eighth Army’s preparation to undertake a left flanking offensive around the Mareth Line, the Allies’ Free French Force under General Leclerc began moving to the north from Ksar Rhilane. Early on 10 March they were threatened by approaching columns of German armour, supported by both Luftwaffe fighters and dive-bombers. Cloud cover had restricted DAF patrols and reconnaissance, but an enemy move against the French had been anticipated, and some squadrons were already briefed and on standby.

Once a signal was received from the French of the approaching German attack, squadrons scrambled into a combined DAF response. The preparations for Montgomery’s ‘left hook’, a contingency plan to outflank the Mareth Line if it was needed, could only be protected by air power. Waves of DAF fighters and fighter-bombers rushed to the rescue. Kittyhawks and Spitfires, including the Kittyhawk of Pilot Officer Dawkins in 450 Squadron RAAF, forced the German armour to turn back and withdraw from their attack on the French at Ksar Rhilane. It was a remarkably successful intervention by fighter-bombers, which would have far-reaching implications for air power tactics and strategy into the future.

Yet the Mareth Line still held up a frontal offensive by Eighth Army. The fortified Mareth Line followed the northern edge of the Oued Zigzaou wadi for about thirty miles across the narrow coastal plain between the Matmata Hills and the sea. However, there was the possibility of a way around this Tunisian equivalent of the Maginot Line. Based upon information provided by the French, some patrols by Eighth Army’s Long Range Desert Group had confirmed that the Tebaga Gap, a valley between the Chott el Fejaj salt lake and the Matmata Hills, was a viable route around the Mareth Line for troops and armoured columns experienced to desert conditions. To outflank the German defences, Montgomery decided to plan another version of his renowned ‘left hook’ tactic, and attempt to send a strong, armoured force onto these narrow mountain tracks to the west.

Fighter-bombers lay on an ‘air blitz’ at El Hamma

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.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Beaufighter MkX RAF 144Sqn Sqt PG Fletcher Tunisia 1943

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part III

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.

#

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.

Interdiction, an air blitz and a ‘No Fly Zone’ to take Tunis

High above the island of Malta, Australian Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae of 104 Squadron RAF wrestled with the controls of a twin-engined Wellington bomber. He was taking off to raid Sicily’s capital and major port of Palermo. In gusty winds and low cloud, groaning and creaking in its slow climb, the bomber dropped then surged upwards. Bill recalled that:

Shortly after take-off we ran into turbulent cloud. Our course was over the sea on the east of Sicily, then a turn west through the straits of Messina and along the northern Sicilian coast to Palermo.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Bill McRae was working for the Bank of New South Wales in the UK. As there were no Australian forces in Britain, he first joined the Royal Artillery before transferring to the RAF to train as a pilot. On completion of his training he had flown the new Wellington Mk VIII torpedo-bomber to Cairo, and later he was posted to Malta. On that night bombing raid to Palermo, despite the increasingly poor weather, Bill was aware of the pressure to get the job done.

As we approached the north coast of Sicily, the cloud cleared and we were able to identify some islands, and work out the bombing run. We circled off the coast at 10,000 feet until ‘blitz’ time, then hugged the shoreline towards the target, Palermo Harbour.

I began to lose height down to 8,000 feet, and increased speed to 160 knots. With the nose down I had a good view, and saw a ship moored at the wharves. At first there was not a lot of flak. We had no trouble in identifying the target and let the bombs go in one stick.

Then I opened the throttles, and with the engines screaming at maximum revs, did a steep climbing turn, trying to get through the flak bursts, which were now targeting the aircraft. When we were back to 8,000 feet, I eased back on the throttles, and pushed the nose down to level off.

Both engines suddenly cut out. In that instant, it seemed that time stood still. It flashed through my mind that we had been hit. Then, after a couple of seconds, the engines picked up.

As usual, when getting clear of a target, Bill found his mouth had gone completely dry. In another operation for McRae and his crew, to cut off German supplies, the target was the port of Sfax in Tunisia.

We took off in daylight, at 1700 hours, and I was delighted to be at the controls of a Wellington, which I was very familiar with from our Egypt based operations. We flew south low over the sea and then turned 90 degrees right towards our target. It was dark as we neared Sfax, and we were able to pin point our position on some islands to the east of the town. We had climbed to 6,500 feet and Ian had obtained the wind for the bombing run. The weather was clear and the buildings in the port were easy to identify.

As we began our run in exactly on the ‘blitz’ time, another aircraft dropped a string of flares. Ian did a couple of bombing runs, and with no guns firing at us, he thought he was back home on a training exercise. Turning over the sea for another run, with the light from the flares we spotted a ship a few miles off shore. We circled round to line up on it but the flares went out. We had our own flares, but Ernie found there were problems with their ripcords not working, which should pull off a cap, and arm the flare. I even took the laces out of my desert boots, and sent them back to Ernie to see if that would help. He launched three more, but none of them lit up.

That ship had a lucky escape. We returned to Sfax and got rid of the remaining bombs. On the way home the aircraft ran like a bird. It seems she must have known it was her last trip, as she went missing the next night along with its pilot, my good friend Flight Sergeant Iremonger, and crew.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part IV

The raid by Bill McRae and 104 Squadron RAF on Palermo was just one of many in early 1943 in the elusive search to gain final victory over Axis forces in North Africa. In late-March and April 1943 the bombing raids on infrastructure, supply, Luftwaffe bases, Tunisian ports such as Sfax, Sousse, Bizerte and the capital Tunis, and those in Sicily and southern Italy, were being intensified.

Over the Tunisian battlefields DAF fighter-bombers were no less active. On 7 April No. 3 Squadron RAAF of 239 Wing RAF received orders to undertake bombing and strafing operations against extensive German troop convoys withdrawing towards Tunis along the road from Gafsa to Mezzouna. The convoys were believed to include 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions. Flying Officer Tom Russell and Flight Sergeant Rod McKenzie flew two of the squadron’s Kittyhawk fighter-bombers on the second of their four missions that day.

We carried six 40lb anti-personnel bombs. Each had a stick about 18 inches long sticking out from the nose, so that they would explode above the ground. In the bombing run we encountered Breda 20mm anti-aircraft gun fire. We claimed four direct hits on vehicles and three near misses, but it was impossible to be sure whose bombs did the damage.

We then turned and came back on strafing runs against the convoys. On my fourth strafing run, just as I crossed the road, I received some strikes on my starboard wing, and some on the fuselage just behind the cockpit. I looked down and saw that the anti-aircraft fire was coming from a gun emplacement. After gaining some height I dived to attack and after a couple of bursts, the fire from the gun post stopped. My report shows that I claimed a gun post, and my log book that I also claimed a troop-carrier.

Squadron Leader Brian Eaton led this mission of twelve Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, which also included Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes. The squadron’s operations record book shows:

Duty: Bombing M/T [motor transport] on road in Maharis area

Time Up: 1045

Time Down: 1150

Details of Sortie or Flight: A/C [aircraft] headed north, and flew over sea towards Maharis then turned in over land, where 40 M/T were seen on the main coast road, and bombed accurately at P/P. U6513 – 4 direct hits and 3 near misses were scored on the road. Slight Breda fire encountered. No E/A (enemy aircraft) were seen or reported.

One of the other missions that day was led by Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes, and the squadron’s Operations Record Book shows:

Duty: To bomb and strafe M/T [motor transport] on Maharis–Gafsa road

Time Up: 1515

Time Down: 1629

Details of Sortie or Flight: A fair concentration of 40+ M/T was bombed, getting one M/T flamer, then strafed with the resulting total strafing claim, 6 M/T destroyed, 16 damaged and 20+ bodies. Medium heavy accurate anti-aircraft and Breda fire was encountered.

A total of twenty-seven pilots flew on the four missions that day, in forty-five individual sorties. No pilots were lost.

It is thought that Colonel Count von Stauffenberg, who drove up to be with the leading tanks and troops of 10th Panzer Division near Mezzouna, may have been wounded in these strafing attacks. He lost his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand and, after evacuation, spent three months in hospital in Munich. Later, he was one of the leading members of the failed plot of 20 July 1944 to assassinate Hitler, for which he was executed.

From 25 April the squadrons of 239 Wing of the DAF were thrown into a concentrated anti-shipping campaign, to prevent supplies reaching the beleaguered Axis forces in Tunisia. The Kittyhawks of 3 and 450 Squadrons RAAF would dive from up to 10,000 feet to release a 500lb bomb, sometimes as low as 1,000 feet depending upon the intensity of anti-aircraft fire. Between mid-April and 9 May 3 and 450 Squadrons made 840 sorties against Axis shipping.

Because of the consequent massive destruction of seaborne supplies, by the end of March air-transport flights by the Luftwaffe had increased to around 150 per day between Sicily and Tunis. With a Junkers Ju52 transport able to carry two and a half tons and the giant, six-engined Messerschmitt Me323 more than ten tons, it was estimated they could provide up to a third of the Axis’ daily supply needs. To choke off the enemy’s last remaining lifeline, Operation FLAX was launched at the beginning of April.

Bombers from the North West Africa Strategic, Tactical and Desert Air Forces intensified their raids on the Axis air bases while fighters were thrown in to intercept transport aircraft on the air routes. On 10 and 11 April Operation FLAX began to pay huge dividends, when P-38 Lightnings of the US Twelfth Air Force claimed no fewer than fifty of the Ju52/3m tri-motor transports. Yet even worse losses for the Luftwaffe were to come.

Over Cape Bon on 16 April Neville Duke was flying with two other Spitfires of 92 Squadron RAF when he sighted a formation of eighteen enemy transports flying near to sea level. They were the three-engined Savoia-Marchetti SM.82s. Duke called his leader and then turned into an attacking dive. Because of his speed Duke only managed a short burst on his first target aircraft. He closed on a second Savoia, slowing his speed so that his cannon shells raked the length of its fuselage.

After pulling his Spitfire narrowly over the top of the Savoia he saw it quickly plunge into the sea. Duke also claimed a second SM.82, to reach eight victories in North Africa. Once again Duke’s flying skills were lethal, and he seemed to be indestructible. While five Savoia SM.82s were shot down in the encounter, luck ran out for Wing Commander ‘Widge’ Gleed of 244 Squadron who was lost.

Two days later, on Palm Sunday, 18 April, the afternoon did seem to be drifting, like its name indicated into a day of relative peace and quiet. Following intelligence reports of German plans to airlift out some of their key staff of the Heeresgruppe Afrika and non-combat troops, on transports returning to Sicily, the USAAF 57th Fighter Group sent out successive patrols through the day to try and intercept any such flights. Pilots continually returned with nothing to report.

Late in the day, when the last patrol was organized, no contacts had been made with enemy aircraft. This final operation was a combination of 57th Group and 244 Wing RAF, whose Spitfires of 92 Squadron would provide top cover. At 1705 forty-eight Warhawks from all four of 57th Group’s Fighter Squadrons, 64th, 65th, 66th, and 319th, began lifting off, led by Captain James ‘Big Jim’ Curl, the experienced flight leader of 66th.

Once they had met up with the Spitfires, Curl led the formation north-west over Cape Bon. Almost six miles out to sea dusk was gathering when Curl turned them back southwards to return home. He knew the light would not last much longer. Then he saw something, maybe 4,000 feet below them, close to the sea. At first he thought it might be a very large flight of migrating geese. The shapes became clearer under his gaze. He was looking at what he estimated to be about 100 of the Ju52/3m transports. They were all in a camouflage green colour, making them hard to pick out against the sea in the twilight, and were flying north in a giant ‘V-of-Vs’ formation. What came next was at first nicknamed by the American pilots as a ‘goose shoot’.

While the Spitfires took on some escorting Bf109s, the forty-eight Warhawks descended onto the cumbersome Ju52s like falcons swooping on a flock of fat pigeons. In the mayhem Curl claimed two Ju52s and a 109. He described the engagement as chaotic, the sky filled with turning, wheeling aircraft. The Warhawks twisted around in the melee, firing at a mass of enemy aircraft that had no escape. Captain Roy Whittaker, flight leader in 65th Fighter Squadron, shot down two Ju52s and two 109s. His four victories took him up to a total of seven, which made him the highest scoring pilot in the 57th.

Lieutenant Richard O. Hunziker, of the 65th Fighter Squadron, on only his second combat operation, found himself in a baptism of fire. He was astounded at the number of enemy aircraft.

The enemy formation looked like a thousand black beetles crawling over the water. On our first pass I was so excited I started firing early. I could see the shots kicking up the water.

Hunziker went after a Ju52 near the front of the ‘V’ and saw his shots hammer along its tail and fuselage, and simultaneously realized he was being shot at by two Ju52s on either side of him.

It looked as though they were blinking red flashlights at me from the windows – Tommy-guns, probably. The ship I was firing at hit the water with a great sheet of spray and then exploded. As I pulled up I could see figures struggling away from what was left of the aeroplane.

Next Hunziker responded to a radio call for help against some Bf109s 5,000 feet above him. At first he struggled to latch on to the enemy fighters in the whirling dogfights. Taking evasive action he found himself crossing over land. Then, with his first burst of fire at one of the 109s, he blew its nose off, sending it into a steep dive to crash into the ground in flames.

The total losses and damage inflicted by 57th Fighter Group on the Luftwaffe transports and escort fighters were:

Pptable

Not surprisingly the media reported the one-sided air battle as the ‘Palm Sunday Massacre’.

However, the clashes between the fighters, the Warhawks and the Bf109s, were far from one-sided. The Bf109s were able to operate thousands of feet above the Warhawks, which were ineffective above 15,000 feet. This enabled the 109s to wait for an opportunity to mount a diving attack, ideally out of the sun on the American fighters. To counter the German fighters’ advantage, 57th Group pilots, such as Lieutenant Mike McCarthy of 64th Fighter Squadron, knew that a 109 could not out-turn a properly flown P-40 Warhawk, ‘We had to know where they were every moment, to time the ‘break’ call, and turn hard into them so we could bring our guns to bear and shoot.’

On 22 April DAF Spitfires and Kittyhawks pounced upon some twenty Me323s which were flying a wide V formation. The main cargo of these six-engined giant transports was fuel. They were escorted by ten Bf109s and Macchi C.202s. Lieutenant ‘Robbie’ Robinson of 1 Squadron SAAF downed two 109s, which made him an ace. His fellow pilots sent six more of the 323s, engulfed in petrol-fed flames, plunging into the sea.

Out of a fleet of around 250 of these huge workhorse planes, German records show that between 5 April and 12 May 1943, 166 aircraft and their cargoes of critical supplies were lost. Between 18 and 22 April Allied fighters claimed to have shot-down some 120 of the Luftwaffe’s Ju52 and Me323 transport aircraft. After 22 April the Luftwaffe was forced to fly air transports only at night, and with continuing losses to Allied night-fighters, in ever reducing numbers.

#

In contrast the Allies had no such supply shortages. On the ground they had more men, more guns, more tanks, and in the sky the decisive advantage – air superiority. Yet the Germans still held the vital passes through the hills surrounding Tunis, inflicting terrible losses as they withstood every Allied attack. In the southern and northern coastal corridors, it seemed impossible to concentrate sufficient forces to break through. The Medjerda Valley was blocked by German defences on Longstop Hill. After the Germans had defeated desperate Allied attacks on 25 December 1942 to retain Longstop, they had dug in extensive and formidable defences on what was for them, their Weinachtshügel (Christmas Hill).

At last, in the closing week of April the long-sought breakthrough came. Eighth Army captured Longstop Hill and other enemy strongpoints in the Medjerda Valley. Here was the opportunity to concentrate forces for a hopefully decisive thrust at Tunis. The German generals knew a major offensive was coming, but not whether it would be Eighth Army from the south-east, First Army in the centre, or the Americans in the north-west.

The final plan was for a spearhead attack in the centre in early May by First Army combined with elements transferred from Eighth Army. Battle-hardened British infantry battalions from the 1st Armoured, 4th and 78th Divisions would first break the German lines. Then 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions, after funnelling their way through the Allied-held strategic market town of Medjez el Bab, would smash their way down the Medjerda Valley through Massicault and St Cyprien to Tunis.

However, in the redeployment and concentration lead up, there was great risk. The inherent weakness of the plan was that the tanks and their support vehicles transferred from Eighth Army in the south would have to move in open view through the hills north to Medjez el Bab. Then endless columns of tanks, infantry, and supplies would have to crawl across the one and only bridge over the Medjerda River at Medjez.

Only then could the attack concentrate across a narrow 3,000-yard front on the valley floor to drive towards Tunis. In the days of repositioning and concentration, Allied forces would be glaringly susceptible to German reconnaissance, and consequent ground and air attack. Once again the question was: how could this be done without the Germans knowing, and countering with their own troop redeployments? Despite the huge losses imposed on the Luftwaffe, even late into April, with whatever aircraft they had left, the Germans had the capability to mount a desperate ‘last throw’ raid.

#

The Axis positions in the hills around Enfidaville were very strong, and from the air it was difficult to identify targets amongst the orchards, fields and plantations within the ridges and hilly terrain. It was very different from the desert and enemy vehicles were avoiding the use of roads during the day. In one operation the anti-tank Hurricanes of No. 6 Squadron, despite seeing the coloured smoke of Eighth Army positions, were unable to identify Axis forces hiding amongst olive groves. Rather than visible targets, pilots had to be briefed with designated areas on air photographs, which required a new approach and training.

From the sea north of Enfidaville Axis forces had established a defensive line through the hills north-west to Medjez el Bab in the Medjerda Valley, then north again through the mountains to the coast about twenty miles west of the port of Bizerte. The plain in front of Medjez in the Medjerda Valley was clearly the most favourable for an armoured attack to break through to Tunis. Alexander and Montgomery agreed that Eighth Army should restrict its efforts to maintaining pressure on the Enfidaville defences in a holding operation. On 18 April 1st Armoured Division and the King’s Dragoon Guards, and later on 30 April the 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions, 201 Guards Brigade and some artillery, moved across to join First Army near Medjez.

A joint planning conference determined that DAF would return to army/air close support to cover the armoured drive down the Medjerda valley to Tunis. The first moves of forces from Eighth Army began on 30 April. Because of DAF pilots not being experienced with the terrain of the battle area, and communications being channelled through both First Army and Eighth Army HQs, targets for DAF squadrons were drawn up and agreed in advance. A massive letter ‘T’ 150 yards long was marked out in white on the ground, as well as red and blue smoke, to assist the pilots’ navigation.

The air support plan and timelines for an ‘air blitz’ on 6 May were:

0540: Eighty-four medium bombers of the Tactical Bomber Force (TBF) would bomb Axis ground positions directly in front of the Allied troops advance path.

0730–0800: 126 light bombers of DAF would attack their pre-selected targets further back.

0830–0930: Eighty-four medium bombers of TBF would bomb targets a further distance away.

0930–1200: Fighter-bombers of 242 Wing RAF would attack targets of opportunity in the battle area.

1200 onwards: 108 light bombers of DAF would be in readiness to hit enemy reserves, while DAF fighter-bombers would look for Axis force movements in roads and valleys.

Contrary to some expectations, the initial move of the armoured divisions from the south to Medjez, protected by DAF’s dominating air cover, was achieved without the knowledge of, or hindrance from, the enemy. It was a clear demonstration of how air superiority could enable ground forces to reposition without interference.

The armoured thrust for Tunis began with six divisions, and all their supplies, in a slow crawl across that single bridge at Medjez. Air power was tasked with imposing a protective screen, an umbrella over the valley route to make it impenetrable to any enemy reconnaissance or air attack. It seemed to scream out for one Stuka dive-bombing raid to hit that one and only bridge at Medjez, and cut the offensive in two.

On 6 May, day one of the advance through Medjez, Allied aircraft flew some 2,500 sorties, attacking Axis forces in their rear bases, and bombing and strafing their defences in the path of the Allied attack. By 0800 on 6 May the British infantry had cleared a path through German positions and their minefields, taken objectives such as Frendj, and dug in. In an example of the air-ground support, and in co-ordination with an artillery bombardment preceding the lead infantry and tanks, DAF light bombers and Kittyhawks hit Axis positions at Bordj Frendj and St Cyprien, halting a convoy of 100 enemy trucks.

Then the armoured divisions burst through to take Massicault before nightfall. On 7 May the armour rolled into Tunis, taking many Axis forces by surprise. Some enemy troops even emerged from bars and restaurants, with stunned stares, and surrendered without a fight. Allied air power had made the skies above Medjez and the Medjerda valley another no-fly zone.

It was the combination of an ‘air blitz’, air support, artillery and massed armour that, on 7 May, enabled the 7th Armoured Division to burst through to Tunis. In the north American forces took the port of Bizerte. Axis air forces were powerless to help their troops on the ground. On 8 May the front lines were advancing so rapidly that First Army only allowed specific requests for air support.

On 8 May the Luftwaffe could fly just sixty sorties, some from only two operational air bases they retained in the Cape Bon peninsula. On 9 May there were even fewer Luftwaffe sorties, and on 10 May there were none. The Germans had fled the Tunisian skies, evacuating what planes, equipment and personnel they could.

Small boats attempting to evacuate Axis troops by sea were attacked by fighters. A large evacuation exercise on 9 May, when attacked by Tactical Bomber Force light bombers and DAF fighters, quickly surrendered. Large formations of Axis troops were surrendering, but some still moved towards the coast, despite no ships being able to leave. In the mountains north of Enfidaville on 10 May, the Italian First Army, including the German 10th Panzer, 90th Light and 164th Infantry Divisions, was still holding out. The 90th Light Division held the coast road, and was blocking First and Eighth Armies from joining up.

On 12 May a light bomber raid on 90th Light Division was planned. Allied troops were only 1,500 yards from the enemy, so an artillery bombardment of yellow smoke was laid on both north and south of 90th Light’s positions. The bombings were spot on, and very quickly white flags were everywhere. It proved to be the last air attack on ground forces of the North African campaign.

The capture of Tunis brought the Axis surrender and 250,000 prisoners. It was on the same scale as the German defeat at Stalingrad, and hailed as the turning of the tide. And once again air power had been the decisive ‘game-changer’.

The success in North Africa of DAF’s support for the army was based upon gaining air superiority, which in turn rested upon winning the air war first. The integral foundation of winning the air war flowed from the RAF’s strategic decision to purchase fighters rather than dive-bombers. And, of course, the superior performance of the Spitfire in aerial battles of fighter against fighter was a significant factor.

Perhaps most important were the army/air support control systems through the AASC groups, pioneered and improved between army and air force from 1941 to 1943. In the Tunisian campaign, in terrain so different from the desert, ‘flash’ messages from AASC at Army HQ to ALOs at DAF airfields were introduced. This much improved the ALOs’ ability to communicate and explain new developments in the battle area to the pilots. DAF developed a platform in this area on which air superiority could be won and hopefully sustained in the planned Allied invasion of Italy.

#

While the Allied armies had over six months struggled for every inch of ground in Tunisia, not surprisingly the planning for the next offensive, the invasion of Sicily, or Operation HUSKY, had gone ahead in parallel. It was seen by some as poorly co-ordinated and riddled with disagreements. Although the strategic decision was taken in January 1943 by Churchill and Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference, the Allies’ military commanders such as General Montgomery were openly critical of the planning. Worse still, the Germans fully expected that the Allies would next attempt an invasion of Sicily, only 100 miles (160 kilometres) from Tunisia, and were preparing accordingly. Unbeknown to the battlefield commanders this problem had been foreseen for some time.

In the summer of 1942, in the midst of the planning and preparations for Operation TORCH, a small inter-Services security committee had begun to look ahead to what might follow. The Allies were under increasing pressure from the USSR to open a second front against the Third Reich in Europe. Once victory was achieved in North Africa the obvious next step would be Sicily, only some 100 miles from Tunis. The problem was that this would be obvious to the Germans too.

The Germans must be deceived into believing that Allied forces from North Africa would next invade Europe at somewhere other than Sicily. An idea was conceived whereby German intelligence would be provided with a dead body carrying false, secret documents. A dead body, with the uniform and rank of a senior staff officer, carrying supposedly secret documents, would be dumped at sea close to Huelva on the Spanish coast.

It seemed feasible that the officer would be thought to have died in an air crash at sea while en route to Algiers. The Spanish authorities, although neutral, favoured the Third Reich and could be expected to make the papers available to German agents. The documents would be created to convince German intelligence that an invasion would take place other than Sicily, such as Sardinia and Greece.

Although medical advice supported the feasibility of the plan, finding a suitable dead body of an acceptable age proved to be the first of many practical difficulties. After time-consuming enquiries a body of a deceased man in his early thirties, who had died of pneumonia arising from exposure, was obtained and medical opinion sought on its suitability. It was thought that, as the body would be kept in cold storage, and encased in dry ice leading up to the time of release into the sea, its subsequent decomposition would seem to be from drowning, and from immersion in the sea.

In the face of some initial opposition, and debate at the highest levels, the plan codenamed Operation MINCEMEAT was eventually approved by Churchill with Eisenhower’s endorsement on 15 April. A letter was written by the Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Archibald Nye, to General Alexander in Tunis, to be carried on the body to give it the touch of authenticity. The dead body, in the guise of a senior officer, would also carry two similar fake letters from Lord Louis Mountbatten, one of which would be addressed to General Eisenhower. It seemed that much now depended upon a dead man.

Or did it? For the DAF and the other Allied air forces, the invasion of Axis-occupied Sicily presented a challenge on a far greater scale than anything attempted before. It would clearly not be possible without Allied domination of the skies above Sicily, and the surrounding Mediterranean airspace. From the decisive triumphs of air power at El Alamein, Ksar Rhilane, El Hamma, and the capture of Tunis, the lessons learned must be applied to the largest amphibious landings ever attempted.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Last Polish Battles 1939

General Franciszek Kleeberg

Modlin surrendered on 30th September. The Germans claimed to have taken there 219 officers and 5,000 men, as well as 58 guns and 183 machine-guns.

The German campaign in Poland was not yet over and there was still fighting on the Baltic coast. Danzig had been captured and the port of Gdynia fell on 14 September. Polish defences were now concentrated on the Hela peninsula, a narrow spit of land, 20 miles long and a few hundred yards wide, stretching into the bay of Danzig. It was defended by about 2,000 men under the command of the head of the Polish admiralty, Vice-Admiral Jozef Unrug. The Hela peninsula was remorselessly bombarded from the sea by the Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesein and bombed by the Luftwaffe, but German infantry had to attack to force its surrender on 1 October.

The garrison of He! surrendered on 1nd October. It consisted of 52 officers, including Rear-Admiral Unrug, about 4,000 soldiers and ratings, and nearly as many German prisoners.

Until 18th September Lwow was surrounded on three sides by the Germans, who made a number of rather half-hearted attack and endeavoured to obtain a capitulation. On 18h September the Soviet forces approached from the east, from Winniki, and also proposed capitulation. There was a peculiar form of rivalry, for the headquarters of the defence refused at first to reply to either of the proposals. Then the Germans sent an ultimatum, demanding surrender by 10 A.M. of 20th September and threatening air reprisals in case of refusal. The resistance continued, and it was on 22nd September that a capitulation in favour of the Russians was signed on honourable terms (which were not kept by the Soviet army). The enemy took about 10,000 prisoners.

The command of the defence of Polesie decided on 19th September to concentrate its forces in the region Kamien Koszyrski-Datyn-Krymno-Wyz, from which they were to proceed to Warsaw, crossing the Bug at Wlodawa. The strength of the units was as follow: (a) Coil. Brzezinski (80th and 79th infantry reserve regiments)-4 battalions, (b) Colonel Epler-4 battalions, (c) Colonel Gorzkowski-2 battalions, (d) Commodore Zajaczkowski-2 battalions of marines, (e) the Suwalki and Podlasie cavalry brigades (the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 10th uhlan regiments, the 9th mounted rifles, the 3rd chevau-legers, and the cavalry squadron of the Frontier Defence Corps of Niewirkow).

The artillery consisted of 6 batteries (20 guns). The total summed up to 11,000 men. At the same time the command of the Frontier Defence Corps was concentrating its units for 23rd September in the region Mroczno-Serniki-Kuchocka Wola-Rafalowka. The command was in the hands of General Ruekemann, the vice-commander of the K. O. P. (Frontier Defence Corps). The units were 3 battalions from the Polesie brigade of the K. O. P. and the 135th Infantry Reserve Regiment, which was going by train from Ossowiec to eastern Malopolska (south-eastern Poland), but was unloaded in the Sarny region and took part in fighting against the Bolsheviks. There were about 4,000 men and 6 guns.

General Franciszek Kleeberg collected about 16,000 troops under his command and intended to move westward to reinforce the Warsaw defences. Out of radio communication, they had no idea that Warsaw had fallen and they continued to push west. General Franciszek Kleeberg commanded Special Operational Group Polesie, and by incorporating into it the remnants of Special Operational Group Narew and various other units, he had at least 16,000 men under his command. They fought a series of actions against the Red Army near Milanow, inflicting over 100 casualties on the Red Army. Kleeberg then turned his attention towards the Germans. Realising that his ad-hoc force had little chance of reaching the capital, he planned to raid the main Polish Army arsenal near Deblin and seize enough weapons and ammunition to wage guerrilla warfare.

General Fr. Kleeberg ordered action for 23rd September, reckoning with the fact that the Soviets had reached already on the 20th Brzesc in the north and Kowel in the south. The K. O. P., which had behind it 170-250 kilometres of march, could not reach the region of Kamien Koszyrski before 25th September, and that is why the two groups never joined their forces. They had to fight separately.

At Kock, however, his force ran into General Gustav Anton von Wietersheim’s XIV Motorised Corps, and fierce fighting and high casualties ensued. Encountering the German 13th Motorised Infantry Division, they fought a four-day battle around Kock before finally surrendering on 6 October 1939.

Weak German forces retreated before the Polesie group and General Fr. Kleeberg, rolling up Soviet units in the north and the south, crossed the Bug without encountering very serious resistance and reached on 2nd October the region of Radzyn. In consequence of that movement the K. O. P. forces had to fight already during their march for Ratno and Szack on 24th September and for Mielniki on the 27th. They forced the Bug on 29th September at Wlodawa and Grabow, reaching on 30th September the region Hansk-Wytyczne. There they were surrounded, and according to orders endeavoured to break out in individual groups. Some of them escaped and the rest were captured. The Soviets claimed the capture of 8,000 prisoners.

The German divisions from Lukow-Garwolin-Deblin barred the way of the Polesie forces. A battle was fought, and in spite of the great superiority of the enemy’s artillery of about 100 guns it lasted until 5th October. When Soviet armoured divisions approached from Miendzyrzecz and Parczew, the remaining Polish force had to surrender.

The German communique claimed the capture of 1,234 officers, 15,600 men, 2 divisional staffs, 20 guns, 180 heavy machine-guns, and 5,000 horses. It was the last battle of a Polish army, against 75 German divisions, 30 Soviet infantry divisions, 12 motorised brigades, and 10 cavalry divisions which were operating on 27th September on the territory of Poland.

Guerrilla warfare continued well into the winter months.

The Polish campaign is not yet over. It is waged on one side by the population of Poland and the army reconstituted on French and then British soil, and on the other by the German and Soviet invaders, who try to break down the spirit of national resistance by means of cruel reprisals against the defenceless people of Poland.

Polish Air Units

The last major formation to fight in regular combat operations was Samodzielna Grupa Operacyjna ‘Polesie’ under gen. Kleeberg. In an attempt to break through to besieged Warsaw they fought the last battle of the campaign on 2-5 October, at Kock. A separate chapter of SGO ‘Polesie’ operations was written by 13 Eskadra Szkolna also known as the Pluton Rozpoznawczy Lotniczy. The unit was formed by por. pit. Edmund Piorunkiewicz. On 18 September he assumed command of a part of the ground party of 13 Eskadra Obserwacyjna, subordinating it to SGO ‘Polesie’. The unit was formed around a PWS 26 trainer aircraft found at Adampol near Wlodawa. 13 Eskadra Szkolna was joined by cadet officers Bandor, Matz and Wieczorek, who brought with them two RWD 8 aircraft. On 25 September the name of ’13 Eskadra Szkolna’ was officially accepted, and the unit reported directly to gen. Kleeberg. During their short period of combat (25 September-5 October) pilots flew many reconnaissance missions over enemy troops in their unarmed aircraft. Since the aircraft had no bomb racks, the crews attacked the Germans with hand grenades. These were the last aircraft with Polish markings in the sky over Poland in 1939.

Reforging the Weapon

B-36 “Peacemaker”

One General Curtiss LeMay legend concerns “the attack on Dayton.” After talking to his commanders and staff, he realized that they “weren’t worth a damn.” Unfortunately, they did not realize how bad they were, so he decided to show them. He announced an alert-a maximum effort of all SAC bombers to carry out a simulated attack on Dayton, Ohio. The strike would be made from high altitude, at night in lousy weather, using radar bombing techniques. According to LeMay, not one aircraft completed the mission as briefed. The SAC history is not quite that damning, but it notes that the results of the mock attack were poor. For example, of 15 aircraft scheduled in one B-36 bomb group, six aborted and three others failed to “drop” over the target due to radar malfunctions. The story was the same in several other groups, and in still others aircraft that made it to the target were unable to return to their home airfields and had to divert elsewhere. Targeting accuracy on bomb drops was appalling, with an average miss distance of two miles. LeMay had made his point. The general then began to strip down the command and remake it. The three numbered air forces were reshuffled. This had been needed for some time: it made no sense to have a bomb wing at MacDill AFB in Florida assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force, headquartered in California. The air forces also had been organized along functional lines: the Eighth had mostly B-50s, while the Fifteenth flew largely B-29s; the Second Air Force contained all reconnaissance assets. LeMay made all three composite units with a mix of very heavy bombers (the new B-36s coming on line), mediums (B-29s and B-50s), a reconnaissance wing, and fighter escorts. This commonsense reorganization saved money, cut communication and travel time, and allowed for better combat training.

At the base level, the so-called Hobson plan was by this time fully implemented across the Air Force. Instead of the standard group designation, a wing now became the parent organization on base with two groups under it: an operational group of bombers, reconnaissance, fighters, or some mix thereof and an air base group consisting of maintenance, supply, administrative, and financial staff. The wing commander, a full colonel, was now in command of all units needed to carry out the assigned mission. At the same time, the Air Force was introducing a new management system entailing comptrollers assigned to each command to help systematize financial planning and budgeting matters. Right behind these individuals would be computers; the Air Force pushed for their inclusion long before the other services. These initiatives were not LeMay’s doing, but he embraced them because they appealed to his sense of command responsibility and sound management.

Personnel issues remained: when Air Force headquarters imposed new cuts, LeMay wrote in exasperation that the efficiencies his reorganization was providing “will be accomplished only in time to be cancelled out by the cuts your office proposes.” In truth, the cuts and personnel shortages were a specialization concern. The aggregate numbers of personnel at SAC were close to the authorized strength. Although not at full manning, the debilitating era of units with less than half their complements was becoming a bad memory. Yet a lack of specialized people for radar, electronics, and engine maintenance remained problematic. In late 1949, for example, persistent B-29 engine problems caused most to be grounded until spare parts could be obtained and repairs made. Similarly, the B-36 was experiencing the typical troubles of any new aircraft: engines, exhaust systems, radars, defrosting systems, and fuel leaks. A “maintenance control” system was installed at base level that centralized flight maintenance functions for better efficiency and permitted a crew chief and a limited number of mechanics to work on a single aircraft-they became the “owners” of the plane and were expected to know and understand all of its individual quirks and problems, thereby forestalling difficulties.

Vandenberg continued to prod LeMay, writing in September 1948 that he hoped the deficiencies noted in the Lindbergh report would be quickly addressed. After the first of the year, Vandenberg sent Lindbergh back on another inspection trip. His report was better than the previous one but not by much. He began by stating, “The actual striking power of our Air Force is much lower than its numerical strength and material quality indicate.” Lindbergh cited inadequate training and “diversion from the primary mission.” He noted examples of poor flying: “I was present on two occasions when a B-29 squadron from England turned back to its home base rather than land under instrument conditions, which were above normal minimums in the first instance and bordering on VFR [visual flight rules] below 3,000 feet in the second instance. The GCA [ground controlled approach] radar was operating.” Many B-29 crew members were “seriously concerned” because of the high accident rates in their group and inexperience of some pilots. Inadequate housing conditions remained a trouble spot, but he noted that LeMay was working on this problem. Overall, SAC still had a long way to go.

LeMay could understand these types of problems and knew that hard work, more training, and better managerial skills could handle them soon enough. Other matters were more serious and dumbfounded him. In November 1948 he wrote to Vandenberg that two dispersal bases he visited were in shocking condition and “without even primitive operational facilities such as suitable control towers, radio aids, night lighting, crash and fire equipment, etc. As we are responsible for dropping the atomic bomb, I maintain that to be unable to dispatch aircraft into and out of these fields at night during marginal weather is ridiculous.” He argued, “We must get top priority in filling the gaps in our atomic program.” It was a great help when Vandenberg put SAC and its combat efficiency at the top of his agenda, but it did not happen immediately. Not until October 1949 did the chief of staff direct that “first priority to those units comprising the Strategic Striking Force would be provided.” This move was long overdue.

For some time, airmen on the Military Liaison Committee and the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project had been complaining that the Air Force was not taking its atomic responsibilities seriously. In January 1948, Maj Gen William Kepner said the atomic energy program in the Air Force was “infirm.” He urged a service wide education program so airmen would understand the importance of the atomic mission. He also called for immediate action to “enunciate a policy giving atomic warfare an overriding priority.” Two months later, a board chaired by Gen Joseph McNarney issued a report on the subject almost brutal in its starkness. It stated that the Air Force “has not established complete strategic and operational plans for carrying out its mission of strategic atomic air warfare.” The service needed to define its primary atomic mission and make clear what forces, training, equipment, logistics support, and basing were required to carry out that mission. Taking a swipe at leadership, McNarney stated, “This can be done adequately only by the top USAF planning and intelligence staffs, with assistance as required from Air University, SAC, AMC [Air Materiel Command], the Special Weapons Group, and others as may be necessary. It is not a committee job, not a job to be deposited in any other extracurricular staff agency.” He reiterated that point: “atomic warfare must become the business of the Air Staff and the Command, not relegated to one agency such as the Special Weapons Group.” Regrettably, this report hit just as the Berlin crisis began to unfold, which was soon followed by the relief of Kenney. As a consequence, matters were still allowed to drift.

The following year another study, this one chaired by the vice-chief, General Fairchild, arrived at a similar conclusion: the central nature of atomic matters, and by extension SAC, to the Air Force mission. It was soon after this report that Vandenberg issued his statement announcing SAC was the service’s top priority. This was welcome news to LeMay and his command, but a pronouncement was only the first step.

What concerned LeMay most, and in fairness was a problem recognized by his predecessors, was that of accuracy. Crew bomb scores were inadequate and had to be improved. In a letter from General Fairchild to Kenney in mid-1948, the vice-chief had hit this point hard, noting that Airmen had become complacent about accuracy. Strategic bombing was all about putting bombs on target, but too many Airmen were reliant on atomic weapons to solve the problem for them. Fairchild argued that the paucity of atomic weapons meant a “shot-gun fashion” approach to bombing, as had been the case with ordinary bombs, would no longer work. Instead, commanders needed to think in terms of having a rifle with one cartridge and very few men; accuracy with that cartridge-the atomic bomb-was paramount. Fairchild concluded forcefully that “single bomb precision will be the measure of merit of bombing accuracy.”

LeMay agreed and was given a boost when deployments to Europe eased as the Berlin crisis ended. Instead of three bomb wings rotating to Germany and Britain, only two were required. He requested that this lightened schedule be maintained while SAC transitioned to B-36s. In addition, Arctic exercises and deployments were scaled back while the Berlin airlift was in progress and were not reinstated at its conclusion-the realization that such operations were far more difficult than anticipated was dawning on air leaders. Mapping projects also were curtailed, as were antisubmarine drills and sea searches. All of this meant that SAC could begin focusing on its primary mission, which to LeMay was bombing accurately in simulated wartime conditions. This meant that exercise targets were changed frequently, as were aim points, altitudes, and run-in headings, to prevent crews becoming too familiar with training routines and thereby gaining inflated bomb scores. At the same time, crews used detailed radar surveys of US cities as training guides. LeMay recalled these surveys as being extremely important:

The first thing we did was pick out Baltimore (the city most like European cities) and God, I don’t know how many thousands of pictures (scope pictures) we had from all directions and all altitudes and angles of Baltimore. Then you start making these plates for the trainer. You take a photograph and try to make out what the reflection is going to be like from the photographs and make a plate and compare it with the actual scope photo . . . and they kept getting better and better, so the plates were pretty good. We made a plate for all of our targets based on the photography we had or whatever information we had. Then they could make runs on their targets. Every crew had thousands and thousands of runs on his target with the information that we had, and we had a lot of photography. The Germans had photographed Russia pretty well up to Moscow, and we had all of that.

In addition, radar bomb-scoring (RBS) detachments were deployed throughout the United States using sophisticated wind-measuring instruments and radar to determine the accuracy of simulated bomb drops. The use of RBS units increased dramatically under LeMay: in 1946 SAC logged 888 radar bomb runs; in 1950 that number leapt to 43,722. These radar specialists also realized they could do more than measure results; they could assist a crew’s bombing effort. During the Korean War these teams deployed to Korea to aid B-29s on their bombing missions.

A “gross error board” was established to review the problems of bombing inaccuracy and recommend corrective action. Operational readiness tests had been instituted in early 1948, but LeMay refocused them to emphasize flying, radar bombing, the in-commission rate of aircraft, and the ability to sustain a maximum effort over a period of several days. This was the birth of the dreaded ORI-the operational readiness inspections in which teams would fly into a SAC base unannounced and tell the wing or air division commander to assume war had broken out and to execute the unit’s part of the war plan. LeMay expected every wing to score at least 90 percent on these ORIs-in 1949 only three did so, while six others rated fair, and two were deficient. Work needed to be done. In addition, the bombing competition held in June 1948 was institutionalized and held annually. Crews from each bomb group would drop a series of simulated bombs from 25,000 feet using radar. The winning crews returned home as heroes. Rivalry between the wings grew, and so did morale.

Undoubtedly, equipment problems were partly to blame for the poor bomb scores endemic throughout SAC, and LeMay directed his operations analysis division to look into the problem. As during the war, these mathematically minded problem solvers studied the situation thoroughly before concluding that radar equipment currently used was deficient; although newer versions were getting better, truly effective radars were still in the future. As a result, “we must continue to think in terms of personnel and techniques . . . and improvement henceforth will result mainly from exploitation of and concentration on many details at crew, command, and headquarters level.” The main culprit, according to analysts, was consistency. There were too many techniques and procedures being utilized by crews and instructors- SAC needed to standardize its methods. This would become a theme for the command in the years ahead.

The most significant initiative to improve SAC bombing accuracy was the Lead Crew School. LeMay had instituted such programs while a commander during World War II and decided to replicate the practice in SAC. While a division commander in England, he had noted how the crews never knew what target they were going to strike until the morning briefing. Afterwards they would scramble to prepare for the mission. The navigators and bombardiers needed more time. He began pulling certain crews aside and had them devote their entire preflight time to studying the target, its topography, landmarks, and distinguishing characteristics. That way, if weather was marginal over the target, these select crews would be better able to pick out their aiming points and targets. His technique worked; his division achieved greater accuracy, and soon the other air divisions adopted the same procedure.

In June 1949 LeMay established SAC’s Lead Crew School at Walker AFB, formerly Roswell Army Air Field, in New Mexico. There crews trained together in a standardized and uniform pattern. Each wing sent three crews to each class, where most training was in the air, although classroom academics were included. The school got off to a rocky start: half of the first class did not even graduate. Problems noted were poor aircraft maintenance on the planes-especially the radars-and crew inexperience. Although wings had been told to send their best crews, some commanders were not yet convinced of the school’s utility; they sent people who were available and not necessarily crack troops. That attitude soon changed. By the time the Lead School had moved to MacDill AFB in January 1950, it was already establishing a reputation. Each class performed progressively better, and after eight cycles, bomb scores had improved by over 50 percent. The intent was for these crews to return to their units and instruct the other crews on what they had learned, slowly but noticeably improving the performance of SAC.

In December 1949, LeMay pushed through another radical idea- spot promotions. He met with Generals Idwal H. Edwards (deputy chief of staff for personnel) and Vandenberg, convincing them to allow him to promote lead crew members temporarily “on the spot” to the next grade. Winning bomb competition crews would receive promotions as well. The intent was to improve morale, give all a heightened sense of purpose and competition, and confirm that SAC was the premier organization in the Air Force. LeMay recognized this would cause irritation within the service, so he made it clear that spot promotions would be based on merit and continued outstanding performance: “I intend to make an example of the first officer I find who has relaxed now that he has made temporary captain as a crew member.” If a crew failed a check flight, the entire crew would lose their spot promotions. The first year LeMay promoted 237 officers. In 1950 he asked for and received permission to spot-promote higher grade officers as well.

Yet, other factors outside of SAC remained sources of angst. In one of the many stories told of LeMay, during a briefing a young captain referred to the Soviets as “enemies.” The general allegedly interrupted him and said, “Young man, the Soviets are our adversaries; the Navy is our enemy.” He had some history for believing so.