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