Friday, March 13, 2015

Air Battles: North African Campaign

Although Benito Mussolini’s Regia Aeronautica attacked the British bastion of Malta in early June 1940, the aerial war in North Africa took a long time to develop, despite skirmishing with Royal Air Force planes flying from bases in Egypt. Initially the small Italian air force in North Africa included only 84 modern bombers, including the Savoia-Marchetti SM 79 Sparviero. It also possessed 144 obsolescent fighter aircraft, such as the durable Fiat CR 42 Falcon biplane. A miscellany of approximately 100 other aircraft rounded out the force.

What subsequently became the RAF’s Western Desert Air Force was, if anything, weaker still. It constituted a scratch force of castoffs from imperial service augmented by a few machines just being sent out from the home islands. The latter included, in late 1940 and early 1941, the first arrivals of Hawker Hurricanes (Mk.Is and, later, Mk.IIs). They complemented the few Westland Lysander liaison/reconnaissance aircraft, Bristol Blenheim twin-engine bombers, and venerable Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters with which the RAF defended the Nile Delta.

The arrival of the German Afrika Korps in North Africa in early 1941 altered matters. Accompanying the German ground forces were Luftwaffe units equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109 single-engine and Bf 110 twin-engine fighters and fighter-bombers. The ground attack role was ably filled by the veteran Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber. Italy also reinforced its squadrons with small numbers of agile (and elegant) Macchi-Castoldi MC.202 Folgore single-engine fighters. These aircraft helped carry Italo-German forces to a string of successes in 1941. In mid-1942, they played a positively decisive role in the Axis victories at Bir Hakim and Tobruk.

In the fall of that year, however, factors beyond North Africa’s shores began to impede reinforcement of Italo- German forces in the theater. Axis armies and air forces in Egypt were at the end of their logistical network, and precious little fuel, replacement aircraft, and spare parts reached them. By contrast, British armies and Allied air forces in Egypt went from strength to strength, particularly with the activation of the U.S. Army Middle East Air Force’s Desert Air Task Force (DATF), consisting of RAF and USAAF fighter and light and medium bombardment groups. Operating, among others, Curtiss P-40 Warhawks (“Tomahawks” and “Kittyhawks” in British and imperial service), and North American B-25 Mitchell and Douglas DB-7 Boston twin-engine bombers, these formations supplied critical air support in defeating the last-ditch Axis effort at Alam el Halfa (31 August–6 September).

At El Alamein as well (24 October–4 November), the DATF helped break the back of Axis resistance to the British Eighth Army’s offensive. The early simultaneous landings of Operation TORCH (7 November) brought into northwest Africa what would become the U.S. Twelfth Air Force. Axis forces were now caught in a strategic vise.

From December 1942 to May 1943, Allied airpower grew in strength. Nevertheless, Axis air forces fought on grimly in the struggles of the Tunisian bridgehead. Using all-weather airfields around Tunis and Bizerte, they contested Allied advances as much as their increasingly limited logistics would permit and were especially effective at the turn of the year when Allied planes were either too far from the front or operated from inadequate bases.

The weight of numbers told, however. By early spring 1943, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica existed as mere remnants in Tunisia. Furthermore, they suffered appalling losses of transports and aircrews to marauding Allied fighters and light bombers in a desperate attempt at aerial reinforcement. The remaining Axis air and ground forces surrendered on 13 May 1943.

References Craven, Wesley F., and James L. Cate, eds. The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 2: Europe: TORCH to POINTBLANK, August 1942 to December 1943.Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1983. Gilbert, Adrian, ed. The Imperial War Museum Book of the Desert War. London: Motorbooks International, 1995. Heckmann, Wolf. Rommel’s War in Africa. Trans. Stephen Seago. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

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