Chapter 15: The Growth of the Middle East Air Force (June–October 1941)
See Maps 2, 22 and 25
It was related in Chapter 13 how General Auchinleck and Air Marshal Tedder were called to London at the end of July to discuss the Middle East situation generally, and an offensive in the Western Desert in particular. The Defence Committee had been anxious for action of some sort to be taken quickly, so that it could not be said that nothing was being done to take the pressure off the Russians. They finally agreed, however, that the offensive should not begin until there were sufficient forces to give a reasonable prospect of gaining a decisive success. One of the outcomes of the discussions was the decision to send out an armoured brigade as soon as possible; it was hoped that it would arrive in Egypt about the middle of September, after which the eagerly awaited offensive would soon begin.
On further studying the problem in Cairo General Auchinleck came to the conclusion that the alternative prospects were a doubtful limited success in early October and a probable complete success in November. The governing factors were the periods required to restore the armoured forces and to build up enough resources for maintenance. The other Commanders-in-Chief agreed with him that the offensive should be in two stages; the first to recapture Cyrenaica, and the second to advance into Tripolitania. General Auchinleck decided that the best way of achieving the first aim would be to destroy the enemy’s armoured forces. This then became the immediate object, and eventually determined the pattern of the opening battle. It was expected that by November the Royal Air Force would have a much larger number of modern aircraft than they now had. To realize the importance of this prospect it is necessary to recall something of the background of the past year.
Ever since the beginning of the war with Italy the British forces in the Mediterranean and Middle East had been struggling to make up for their many shortages, and had been living, as General Wavell put it, ‘upon their leanness’. Indeed, the story of the first year is a story of doing without. The remarkable successes against the Italians were a
stirring tribute to the courage and resource of officers and men, but there was every reason for doubting whether, against the much better equipped, more determined, and highly trained Germans, the handicaps would not be too great. As one new commitment arose after another, it became only too evident that the Middle East Air Force, already involved in the Mediterranean, in the Western Desert, and in East Africa, was at a very heavy disadvantage. Air Chief Marshal Longmore had been acutely aware that his strength was not keeping pace with the growth of his many commitments, but his repeated requests for replacements and reinforcements of men, modern aircraft, equipment, and transport had only been partially met.
His anxiety was fully shared by the naval and army Commanders-in-Chief, who never ceased to emphasize the importance of the air aspect of their operations. Admiral Cunningham had had great value from his carrier-borne aircraft, and was always eager for more extensive reconnaissance, for more bombers to attack the enemy’s harbours and shipping, and for shore-based fighters to cover the movements of his own ships and merchant vessels. He was naturally anxious, also, that his main fleet base should be strongly defended against air attack. General Wavell had always held that the successful defence of Egypt would depend on sufficient air power at least as much as on ground forces, and with his clear understanding of the dependence of armies upon their lines of communication he would have liked to see the enemy’s rearward organizations constantly harassed from the air. Thus the strong desire of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief for a more powerful air force was heartily supported by his colleagues of the other two Services.
As a result of the series of campaigns on different fronts caused by the intervention of the Germans, both the Navy and the Army became critical of the air situation. It was obvious to them that the Middle East Air Force was unable to give them the support which they thought it reasonable to expect in modern conditions. Admiral Cunningham, as has been related in the previous chapter, wished to have certain air forces placed under his own control, in order that their efforts should be integrated as thoroughly as possible with those of the Fleet. The outcome of this proposal was the designation of No. 201 Group as a Naval Cooperation Group, normally to be employed under the naval Commander-in-Chief and not to be diverted to other tasks without prior consultation with him. But the principle that the ultimate responsibility for the employment of squadrons of the Royal Air Force belonged to the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (now Air Marshal Tedder) was upheld.
The Army was eager to see aviation applied to the more effective waging of land warfare, and, more urgently, was greedy for all the protection and support that the air forces could give. But it seemed to
many of the commanders in the Middle East that these benefits would not be obtained under the existing system. General Auchinleck was sufficiently impressed to include in his cable to the Prime Minister, in which he gave his first reactions on taking over the Middle East command on 5th July, the view that there should be air forces at the disposal of the navy and the army, apart from those allotted to long-range air operations. An essential to a successful offensive, he thought, was an adequate and suitably trained air component at the disposal of the army for all its needs, and he went on to specify fighters, medium bombers, tactical reconnaissance aircraft and aircraft to give close support on the battlefield.
The Prime Minister lost no time in replying: ‘I feel that for all major operational purposes your plans (i.e. General Auchinleck’s) must govern the employment of the whole air force throughout the Middle East, bearing in mind, of course, that the Air Force has its own dominant strategic role to play and must not be frittered away in providing small umbrellas for the army, as it seems to have been in the Sollum battle (BATTLEAXE). You speak of aircraft supporting the navy and aircraft supporting the army and aircraft employed on independent strategic tasks. The question is what are the proportions? These will have to be arranged from time to time by the Commanders-in-Chief in consultation. But nothing in these arrangements should mar the integrity of the air force contribution to any major scheme you have in hand. One cannot help feeling that in the Sollum fight our air superiority was wasted ...’
To this General Auchinleck replied that after discussion with Air Marshal Tedder they both agreed that the principles thus laid down for the use of the Royal Air Force were correct. The two Services then went ahead with their joint study of the problems of army/air cooperation in battle, which will be referred to again presently. The main question had been settled: the principle of economy of force must govern the use of the air forces, and to this end they must be centrally controlled. Their flexibility and mobility would have to be developed and improved so that squadrons could be used where and when they could best contribute to the combined plans of the three Commanders-in-Chief. A more detailed statement for the guidance of the Army and Air Force Commanders-in-Chief was issued by Mr. Churchill as Minister of Defence on 5th September, before the plans for the projected offensive in the Western Desert had taken shape. It is of sufficient importance to be quoted in full:
‘250 Bofors are now being sent to General Auchinleck for him to use in the best possible way with all his columns and at all the assembly points of his troops or refuelling stations required in the course of offensive operations. Nevermore must the ground troops
expect, as a matter of course, to be protected against the air by aircraft. If this can be done it must only be as a happy makeweight and a piece of good luck. Above all, the idea of keeping standing patrols of aircraft over moving columns should be abandoned. It is unsound to distribute aircraft in this way, and no air superiority will stand any large application of such a mischievous practice. Upon the military Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East announcing that a battle is in prospect, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief will give him all possible aid irrespective of other targets, however attractive. Victory in the battle makes amends for all, and creates new favourable situations of a decisive character. The Army Commander-in-Chief will specify to the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief the targets and tasks which he requires to be performed, both in the preparatory attack on the rearward installations of the enemy and for air action during the progress of the battle.
‘It will be for the AOC-in-C to use his maximum force on these objects in the manner most effective. This applies not only to any squadrons assigned to army cooperation permanently, but also to the whole air force available in the theatre. Bombers may, if required, be used as transport or supply machines to far-ranging or outlying columns of troops, the sole object being the success of the military operation. As the interests of the two Cs-in-C are identical it is not thought any difficulty should arise. The AOC-in-C would naturally lay aside all routine programmes and concentrate on bombing the rearward services of the enemy in the preparatory period. This he would do not only by night, but by day attacks with fighter protection. In this process he will bring about a trial of strength with the enemy fighters, and has the best chance of obtaining local command of the air. What is true of the preparatory period applies with even greater force during the battle. All assembly or refuelling points for marching columns of the enemy should be attacked by bombing during daylight with strong fighter protection, thus bringing about air conflicts not only of the highest importance in themselves but directly contributing to the general result.’
In the middle of May 1941 the Air Ministry’s aim had been to raise the effective strength of the Middle East Air Force by the middle of July to 40½ squadrons equipped with modern aircraft, and, in due course, to 50 squadrons. This plan was based on equipping those squadrons already formed or forming, using the men and equipment either present or on the way. Events had quickly combined to give a new urgency to this matter. The Luftwaffe had become established in Crete, which was likely to add to the Commanders-in-Chief’s many problems. Soon after, Germany had attacked Russia, which meant that although the Battle of the Atlantic continued to be a vital issue, the invasion of the British Isles was not imminent. The enemy in the Mediterranean area ought to be engaged as quickly and as heavily as possible. but unfortunately the loss of the Cyrenaican airfields meant
that the existing fighters had not the desired range for covering naval operations; aircraft of longer range, suitable for sea reconnaissance, were required in addition. The requests of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief to be strengthened and re-equipped had obviously gained in force, and to all this was added the clamour of the other two Services for more air support, which, as has been seen, was carried to the extent of asking for what would amount to separate air forces—a suggestion which the Air Ministry rightly considered to be most wasteful, and nothing short of heresy.
On 3rd July the Air Ministry raised the target figure from 50 to 62½ squadrons, which would give the Middle East Air Force (apart from the Fleet Air Arm) a total initial equipment of 1,046 aircraft. The programme allowed for the introduction of long-range fighters (Beaufighter) and torpedo-bombers (Beaufort), and made provision for raising the transport aircraft force to four squadrons.
A few examples will be enough to show what complications attended the efforts to fulfil this programme. The main obstacle was that obsolescent types of aircraft were fading out of production before the steady flow of new types had begun. The Hurricane I was disappearing, and the number of Hurricane Its which could be spared for the Middle East would depend upon requirements at home. The Tomahawk fighter was due for replacement by the Kittyhawk, and the rate of production of the new type and the time required to overcome the inevitable teething troubles were uncertain. The despatch of the Fighter Command type of Beaufighters would depend upon the supply of ‘Ground Control Interception’ radar equipment; the Coastal Command type would require additional aircrews to be sent out from the United Kingdom. The flow of Marylands from America was about to cease, and their replacement—the Baltimore—was seriously delayed. To bridge the gap in the medium bombers it was necessary to send out every available Blenheim, the supply of which was now very small; in addition, the new Boston IIIs would be allotted when available. The Wellingtons had not been altogether satisfactory in summer conditions, and it had become necessary to introduce the Wellington II, of which only a few would be available for some time. Beauforts could be established in the Middle East only by withdrawing men and equipment from squadrons at home, which again would take time. For the transport aircraft the British were relying upon the USA to provide the bulk of their future requirements. Nor did the difficulties end with the supply of aircraft, for many types had to be uncrated and erected near the ports and flown to the units—in the case of Takoradi a distance of some 4,000 miles. There was also a general shortage of spares for all the new types, the lack of engine spares and operational equipment of all kinds being a particularly troublesome cause of delay in delivering new aircraft to squadrons. The net result
was that the expansion in terms of squadrons did not keep pace with the flow of reinforcing aircraft.1 Nevertheless steady progress was made both in the number of squadrons and in their rearming with modern types. In the middle of June the Middle East Air Force (excluding Malta) comprised 34½ formed squadrons, which together with various detachments had a total number of 549 aircraft, of which 419 were of up-to-date types. By mid-August there were 49 squadrons formed and forming, with a strength of 722, of which 550 were of up-to-date types. By mid-October the corresponding figures were 52 squadrons, and 846 aircraft of which no less than 780 were of up-to-date types.
Air Marshal Tedder was determined not to allow his first line strength to expand beyond his capacity to use it efficiently. This implied the existence of the necessary airfields, of facilities for operating and maintenance, of trained air and ground crews, of sufficient equipment, and the essential administrative backing of all kinds. Of all these factors influencing expansion, none was more important than training.
Flying training on advanced types of aircraft was carried out in Flying Training Schools in the United Kingdom, Iraq, Australia, Rhodesia and South Africa. This did not, however, include specialized training in operations, which was to be done at Operational Training Units in the Middle East. In June 1941 there were only three of these units, and these in a nucleus state, which was the main cause of the shortage of trained aircrews in the Middle East. It was decided to increase them to four, all on a proper footing, in addition to one in Kenya to be run jointly with the South African Air Force to handle the flow of aircrews from South Africa. Two would be for medium bomber aircrews and two for fighters, while one of the latter would continue to specialize in army cooperation work. In spite of the importance of this matter the position in the late autumn was that only one Operational Training Unit was fully staffed, one was at half strength, the instructors of one were themselves in need of training, and the fourth had not been formed at all. Moreover, there might be a gap of three months or more during a pilot’s training—a delay which was not only detrimental to his skill but most discouraging. Much depended, therefore, on the arrival of operationally trained aircrews from England, and these proved invaluable. Reinforcements, however, included very few battle-proven fighter pilots, and captured German documents showed that the enemy had noticed a lack of flying training and operational experience among British fighter pilots. Even so, the numbers could not be kept up, and in the middle of September, for example, the fighter pilot strength in the Middle East was eighty below establishment, with no reserves.
A further training difficulty arose from the change over to more modern types of aircraft, and it was realized also that tactics had become out of date, largely on account of the prevalence of operations of a defensive nature, such as the provision of local patrols and escorts for shipping. Under Air Vice-Marshal Coningham, who was appointed to command No. 204 Group in July, steps were taken to put this right, and, although protective duties were still required, it was possible to carry out fighter sweeps to keep alive and strengthen the offensive spirit.
Another source of great anxiety to the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief was the shortage of ground staffs of all kinds—not only squadron ground crews, but also men for operational control duties, repair, salvage, and other administrative tasks of all kinds. The convoys sailing from the United Kingdom since the beginning of the war had never been big enough to take all the men and equipment awaiting despatch. These numbers became greater than ever in the summer and autumn of 1941, in consequence of the decision to build up the forces in the Middle East for the projected offensive. The Chiefs of Staff recommended that 35,000 airmen should take precedence over all the army’s large number of wafting drafts and reinforcements. These 35,000 were to cover the various requirements of Royal Air Force ground duties involved in the expansion to the 62½ squadrons, to which it was now proposed to add a further seventeen fighter squadrons. With this estimate Mr. Churchill did not agree, and insisted on reducing it to 20,000. This led to a Teeth v. Tail argument in which Mr. Churchill questioned the need for a total of 85,000 ‘air ground-men’, or ‘well over a thousand men for every squadron of sixteen aircraft first line strength.’ The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief pointed out that this was not a fair way of judging the requirements of the air force in the Middle East. For instance, there was no large civilian organization for repair work such as existed in the United Kingdom. Most of the aircraft arriving had to be unloaded, erected, and flown across Africa, tasks which absorbed nearly 7,000 men. Squadrons had necessarily to operate at much greater distances from their repair depots than they did at home, and the need for mobility and flexibility in the Middle East meant that many alternative organizations had to be provided. Communications had to be almost entirely by wireless, and this absorbed a signals staff of 6,500. The observer and warning systems were almost exclusively manned by the Royal Air Force, which involved a further 3,700. Even without the seventeen additional fighter squadrons there was a need for some 160 units—such as radar, wireless observer, repair and salvage units—over and above the squadrons, which would bring the establishment up to 4,536 officers and 64,700 airmen. Certain other units which were needed for adding to the flexibility of the force would bring the total to nearly 74,000.
In the end Mr. Churchill agreed that 25,000 airmen should be sent out before the end of the year. But no shipping programme ever remained firm for long, and in the event only 15,000 airmen sailed. This was partly due to a complication of an unusual sort. On 1st September the Prime Minister had asked President Roosevelt for the loan of enough United States shipping to carry two regular British divisions from the United Kingdom to the Middle East. General Auchinleck would greatly have preferred (as had General Wavell before him) to receive instead the large quantity of outstanding reinforcements and drafts needed to bring his existing units up to strength. The Chiefs of Staff supported this view on military grounds, but Mr. Churchill was adamant. He was determined to give the Dominions no cause to feel that the bulk of the fighting was done by their troops, and, in any case, having mentioned two complete divisions to the President he was not prepared to face him ‘with a demand to use his ships for details and drafts.’ As it turned out, the Americans were able to lend shipping for only one division, and this not from England but from Halifax. The division had therefore to be moved westward across the Atlantic in British ships and the capacity of the Middle East convoys was thus reduced. Both Services suffered from this reduction, and the British division—the 18th—and many air force reinforcements ended by being diverted to the Far East.
The circumstances of the arrival in the Middle East of Air Vice-Marshal G. G. Dawson, from the Ministry of Aircraft Production, were related in Chapter 12. His proposal to set up a Chief Maintenance Officer, directly under the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief instead of under the Air Officer in charge of Administration, had been strongly supported by Air Marshal Tedder. After much argument the post was approved by the Air Ministry with the title of Chief Maintenance and Supply Officer. Thus the division of the Staff into three main branches—Air Staff, Administrative, and Maintenance and Supply Branches—was officially recognized. In general the new CMSO was to be responsible for the reception (and where necessary the modification), storage, and distribution of aircraft, equipment and spares of all kinds, and for the development of widespread repair and salvage organizations capable of dealing with the estimated wastage.
The shortage of almost every item from aircraft to flying equipment caused Air Vice-Marshal Dawson to tackle with great energy the problems of salvage and repair. When he arrived in June there were four maintenance units in the Middle East: three of these dealt with repair—No. 103 at Aboukir, No. 102 at Abu Sueir, and No. 107 at Kasfareet—and one, No. 101, in the Massara caves, dealt with explosives. Aboukir had been bombed several times and in July Abu Sueir was systematically attacked by the Luftwaffe. Fortunately, the
engine and repair section and much valuable plant had been removed to Heliopolis before the final raid on 9th July, when twenty-six aircraft were destroyed; forty-nine others were damaged, in addition to five test benches and forty Bristol engines. To all intents and purposes No. 102 Maintenance Unit no longer existed, and to replace it a small number of garages, store houses and other buildings in the Boulac district of Cairo were taken over, men and equipment from Abu Sueir were moved in, and great use was made of local artisans supervised by airmen. Meanwhile the Massara caves were further opened up and adapted to deal with storage and repair on a big scale, and workshops were installed for the overhaul of engines. The whole became No. III Maintenance Unit.
Another large repair unit was formed at Heliopolis, staffed by the British Overseas Airways Corporation. In addition, the Royal Air Force facilities at Helwan were expanded and two repair units, one for Hurricanes and the other for Tomahawks, were set up. To give some reserve capacity behind the Delta area a repair depot was established at Khartoum, and to service aircraft arriving by sea at Port Sudan a maintenance unit was formed a short distance inland at Summit.
The many shortages of all kinds of equipment drew particular attention to the arrangements for salvage. This was largely a problem of mobility, for damaged aircraft had often to be transported across many miles of desert. The repair and salvage units were made more mobile and self-supporting, and the Base Salvage Depot was formed with the necessary appliances for transporting damaged aircraft from the battle areas to the base workshops. Recovery schemes were devised, and many spares, especially for engines, were saved from the scrap heap and reconditioned. The output of repaired airframes, engines, and equipment generally was stepped up.
The days of the worst shortages were nearly over, for men and equipment for repair, salvage, and storage units were already on their way from the United Kingdom. Thanks to Air Vice-Marshal Dawson the organization had been greatly strengthened, and his energy and enthusiasm soon produced remarkable results in the whole field of aircraft maintenance and supply.
Over and above all these developments was the question whether the structure of the Command was suited to the control of the operations which probably lay ahead. Air Marshal Tedder’s headquarters had never been designed for a large command and had had to undertake responsibilities far beyond the normal scope of an operational headquarters, which would, in the United Kingdom, fall to the lot of the Air Ministry or the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Subordinate
air commands already existed in Iraq, Aden, and Malta, and Air Marshal Tedder now proposed to create three more—in Egypt, in the Levant, and in the Western Desert. He did not pursue the creation of an air command in East Africa, for, as will be seen in the next chapter, the operations there were now coming to an end. Instead, No. 203 Group in the Sudan would eventually be remodelled to undertake maintenance duties, and No. 207 Group was later formed in East Africa to concentrate mainly upon training.
The new subordinate commands were as follows. Air Headquarters, Western Desert, was formed from No. 204 Group, under Air Vice-Marshal A. Coningham. Air Headquarters, Egypt, under Air Commodore T. W. Elmhirst, replaced No. 202 Group and relieved Headquarters, Royal Air Force, Middle East, of the responsibility for local command in Egypt which it had borne since the war began. In the Levant the new Command was formed by raising the status of Headquarters Royal Air Force, Palestine and Transjordan. It was established in Jerusalem under the command of Air Commodore L. O. Brown.
Not all the Groups were absorbed by these new Headquarters. Directly under the orders of Headquarters, Royal Air Force, Middle East, was a new Group—No. 205 (Air Commodore L. L. Maclean)—to control the five Wellington squadrons, and another new Group—No. 206 (Air Commodore C. B. Cooke)—to control all the maintenance units. Also directly under Air Marshal Tedder’s headquarters was the Naval Cooperation Group—No. 201 (Air Commodore L. H. Slatter).
To meet the need to give the Wings more mobility it was decided to make them self-contained, each Wing (other than the heavy bombers) to include servicing and administrative echelons for attachment to the squadrons under its control. Each Wing would normally contain three squadrons. In order to make the squadrons themselves more mobile it was decided that they should contain only the flying crews and those men required for daily and between-flight maintenance inspections and for refuelling and rearming.
It is obvious that all these changes could not have been completed in time for the offensive in the autumn, but it is easy to see how necessary they were for increasing the flexibility and mobility required for the effective and economical control of the air force as a whole.
One of the most important consequences of operation BATTLEAXE was that both Services saw clearly the need to tackle seriously the problem of integrating the efforts of the ground and air forces in battle. No. 253 Army Cooperation Wing, which now formed part of the Western Desert Air Force, devoted itself to this object from July onwards, and carried out joint exercises with the army. At the same time
an inter-Service committee was formed to study the whole question of air support for the army. By the beginning of September enough experience had been gained for the policy to be defined, and it was announced in a ‘Middle East Training Pamphlet (Army and Royal Air Force) No. 3—Direct Air Support’. In this were laid down the terms to be used. Air support would be called ‘direct’ if it would have an immediate effect on the action of our own ground forces in battle; it would be either prearranged or impromptu. Action beyond the tactical limits of direct air support was ‘indirect air support’. It was emphasized that the amount of direct air support that could be given at any time would be governed by the degree of air superiority attained. The technique of the recognition of troops, of the selection and indication of targets, and of the transmission of information by code were laid down, together with explanations of the ‘state of readiness’ of aircraft and the procedure for briefing aircrews.
In order to produce direct air support when and where required, an ‘Air Support Control Headquarters’ (ASC) was created. One ASC was to be provided for the headquarters of each corps and armoured division. The ASC was to be jointly staffed by the two Services. It would be linked by two-way wireless-telegraphy (W/T) to each brigade; this link was known as a ‘tentacle’. There was to be a Royal Air Force team at each brigade which would have two-way radiotelephony (R/T) for controlling the supporting aircraft and for communicating with aircraft on tactical reconnaissance: this was called a Forward Air Support Link (FASL).
Between the ASC and the appropriate airfields and landing grounds there would be two-way R/T communication, forming the Rear Air Support Link (RASL). In addition, the Royal Air Force staff of the ASC would have two-way R/T communication with supporting aircraft, and one-way R/T communication with tactical reconnaissance aircraft so that they could listen in to the aircraft speaking on the Forward Air Support Link.
A brigade would thus be able to pass back its request for air support quickly through the tentacle to the ASC. Here it would be evaluated, and if approved, translated into action through the appropriate RASL. The brigade would be told, via the tentacle, what was being done, how much support could be given, and when. When the supporting aircraft were airborne they would be picked up by the FASL at brigade headquarters and directed verbally on to the target. The whole process might equally well be initiated by an aircraft on tactical reconnaissance noticing a suitable target for air support and informing the brigade by R/T through the FASL.
The first two ASCs were formed on 8th October, the army element of one being provided by Australians and of the other by British and New Zealanders. The air element for each was provided by the Royal
Air Force. Some changes in the procedure outlined above proved necessary, but in general it was in force for the coming offensive.
From mid-June to mid-October there were air operations on many fronts. Those which formed part of the Syrian campaign, the Persian incident, the final stages of the campaign in East Africa, and the offensive against enemy shipping, are described in the relevant chapters of this volume. During the same period, that is for four months after the failure of BATTLEAXE, there was a lull in the ground fighting in the Western Desert, during which time the air forces operated continuously with the objects of reducing and hampering the building up of the enemy’s forces in Libya and of protecting our bases in Egypt and Malta and convoys to and from Tobruk.
During this period the usual bombing target for the Wellingtons at Malta was the port of Tripoli, which was attacked 72 times, involving a total of 357 effective sorties.2 This may be pictured as roughly equivalent to six aircraft arriving over Tripoli every other night. Marylands and Blenheims joined in by making attacks during the day time. The principal targets, apart from shipping, were the harbour installations, marshalling yards and military depots. It is difficult to assess the extent of interruption caused by these attacks, but it would probably have been much greater had it been possible to use heavier bombs—of 1,000 lb. and over—which Air Vice-Marshal H. P. Lloyd (who had succeeded Air Vice-Marshal Maynard as Air Officer Commanding Malta on 1st June 1941) was anxious to use, but which had not yet arrived in the Middle East.
In addition to this concentration on Tripoli and the attacks described in the previous chapter on ships at sea, aircraft from Malta continued to bomb embarkation ports and harass airfields in Sicily and Southern Italy. Altogether, 170 sorties were flown on these operations.
Meanwhile, Wellingtons of Nos. 37, 38, 70 and 148 Squadrons from Egypt were making Benghazi their principal target in the offensive against the enemy’s supply system. The ‘mail run’, as the aircrews called it, was made nearly every night by one or other of these Wellington squadrons, which altogether made 102 attacks, involving 578 effective sorties. This represented on the average five or six aircraft every night for six nights in the week. The necessary reconnaissance was provided from time to time by Marylands of Nos. 12 and 24 Squadrons SAAF, and No. 39 Squadron RAF. During August the scale was increased by a few night attacks made by South African Blenheims and Marylands. By the middle of October it was felt that a
still greater effort was necessary, and South African Marylands began to make attacks by day.
Mention should here be made of two heavy attacks in August and one in September by Wellingtons from Egypt on the Corinth Canal, with the object of forcing the Axis ships to abandon the short-cut through the canal and come out into waters where they could be attacked by British submarines. There was some reason to believe that this aim had been achieved, although it now seems that the canal was not in fact blocked.
Regular attention was also paid to the small ports of Derna and Bardia. The former was being used for coastal schooner traffic, and the latter was a terminal port for small craft from Greece; both areas contained supply dumps and other attractive targets. Night attacks on these ports were made by Wellingtons and Fleet Air Arm Albacores, and day attacks by Marylands and Blenheims.
Dumps in the forward areas were included in the bombing programme, principal attention being paid to those in the Gambut area by escorted Marylands of the South African Air Force operating by day. Thus the enemy’s supply system was being attacked regularly, in such strength as was possible, all the way from the Italian ports of embarkation to the depot areas in the Desert. An indication of the value of these attacks is afforded by the fact that General Rommel frequently expressed his anxiety that the interference with his supply line would greatly delay his preparations for marching against Egypt. Worse still, the capture of Tobruk, which was an essential preliminary, looked like being delayed also. It will be seen that, in spite of the immense distances along which the British had to bring their reinforcements and supplies, the race to be ready first was won by them, and Rommel’s renewed assault on Tobruk was never made.
Another main task of the air force was, of course, to keep down the enemy’s air strength. About one quarter of the total sorties made by bombers based in Egypt during the daylight periods of the four months in question were directed against the enemy’s air bases, and about one tenth of the sorties from Malta, already referred to, were made against these targets. The rearward airfields in the bulge of Cyrenaica and the main fighter base at Gazala were periodically attacked by night, and from September onwards the landing grounds at Gambut were subjected to occasional raids by day.
It has already been mentioned that the fighter force was, at this time, largely employed on defensive tasks. These included escorting bombers and tactical reconnaissance aircraft by day and providing air cover for the Tobruk convoys and the defence of important centres, such as Fuka, Sidi Barrani, Maaten Baggush and Matruh, and of bases in Egypt and Malta.
A large proportion of the enemy’s air efforts was devoted to the
attack of Tobruk and of the ships supplying it. Dive-bombers escorted by fighters attacked shipping on passage to and from Tobruk by day; bombers and dive-bombers raided the harbour; and by night bombers from Greece periodically attacked the area indiscriminately. Mines were frequently laid in the harbour, and aircraft returning from flights over the desert were in the habit of dropping their unexpended bombs on Tobruk. Under almost incessant attack by day and night the antiaircraft artillery put up a resolute and highly successful defence. The British fighters, now based a long way from the port, were fully occupied in protecting the ships during daylight, especially just before the final dart into the harbour, which was made in the dark, and again at first light on the return journey of the ships next day. At times nearly every available fighter in the Western Desert was employed on this duty; even so they were often outnumbered. When the enemy fighters escorting the Stukas were Me. 109Fs, they were formidable opponents.
The rest of the German and Italian air effort was spread over a variety of targets. Harassing night raids were made on a small scale against landing grounds and military targets in the desert, but had little more than nuisance value. Shipping at Suez, bases in the Canal zone, and the Canal itself were the object of thirty-four night attacks from July to October mainly by Ju.88s based in Greece, involving a total effort of 390 sorties, that is to say a fairly heavy attack two or three times a week. The danger and delays to shipping and the measures taken to avoid congestion at Suez have been referred to in Chapter 11. The local defences in the Canal zone were comparatively weak, radar cover was poor, and lack of specialists and the necessary technical equipment for the control of night fighters made it necessary to rely on a system of fighter patrols. Interceptions were consequently rare: one Ju.88 was shot down in August and four in September.
Air attacks against the naval base at Alexandria by German bombers amounted in all to 274 sorties between mid-June and mid-October. The bombing was widespread and very few important targets were hit.
In all these operations, throughout the entire Middle East Command, it was estimated at the time that 142 German and 253 Italian aircraft were destroyed during the four months from mid-June to mid-October. German records disclose the loss of eighty-one aircraft from all causes, i.e. in combat, from anti-aircraft fire, from accidents, by destruction on the ground and from unknown causes. Italian records, which are available only from mid-June to the end of September, show that during this time eighty-nine aircraft were lost from these causes, apart from an unknown number destroyed on the ground from July onwards. British losses from mid-June to mid-October were 198 destroyed in battle and 48 on the ground.
It is appropriate to examine the enemy’s air situation at this time.
The first of the Luftwaffe to arrive in the Mediterranean was Fliegerkorps X, which established itself under the command of General Geisler in January 1941 in Sicily with the object of attacking Malta and shipping in the Central Mediterranean. Several units were then detached under the Fliegerführer Afrika, General Fröhlich, in Libya, to work in conjunction with, but not under the orders of, General Rommel. Fliegerkorps X played only a small part in operation MERKUR (the capture of Crete), the brunt being borne by Fliegerkorps VIII and XI, which had come down through the Balkans, with Luftflotte 4 in control of the operation. As soon as Crete was captured the headquarters of Luftflotte 4 and these two Fliegerkorps were withdrawn, leaving Fliegerkorps X as the sole Luftwaffe formation in the Mediterranean for some months to come. Its headquarters moved to Greece, and it became spread over two main base areas, one in North Africa and one in the Aegean, the latter term being used to include Crete, the mainland of Greece, and the Dodecanese Islands. From time to time between late June and October the proportions of Fliegerkorps X between these areas varied slightly, but in general the single-engined fighters (Me. 109) and dive-bombers (Ju.87) mostly remained based in North Africa; about 75% of the long-range bombers (Ju.88 and He. 111) were in the Aegean area; the twin-engined fighters (Me. 110) were divided between the two. In addition about 80 transport aircraft (Ju.52) were available for general use, and towards the end of the period about 50 coastal aircraft (He. 60) moved into the Aegean area, where about half-a-dozen long-range Focke-Wulf 200s were also based, for armed reconnaissance and the attack of targets in the Suez area. The total strength of Fliegerkorps X varied between 400 and 450, of which only about 250 in all were serviceable at any time. This figure of 250 included about 30 single-engined fighters, the same number of twin-engined fighters, some 80 dive-bombers and 50 or 60 long-range bombers.
The low proportion of German aircraft serviceable at any time is remarkable, and was due, no doubt, to a variety of reasons. Fliegerkorps X was by this time scattered over a vast area and was using a large number of bases, many of them of a poor standard. It was largely thanks to their transport aircraft that they were able to keep going. The whole Fliegerkorps had been operating at a high intensity for a long time, and as early as April General Geisler had complained to OKL that the strain was telling severely on his crews and aircraft.3 Thus the favourable situation caused by the possession of airfields almost all the way round the ring could not be fully exploited. The fact is that Fliegerkorps X, like General Rommel’s Afrika Korps, was a detachment from the main front, and the Germans did not intend that it should absorb too many resources. If Hitler had listened to Admiral Raeder
he might have taken a different view of the Mediterranean, but fortunately for the British he did not.
Of the aircraft with which Italy entered the war, 313 were based in Libya and the Aegean and 325 in East Africa. The British had naturally expected that the Italians would move aircraft from one Mediterranean area to another as the fighting demanded—from Italy to Libya, for example—but in the event this was done only on a very small scale. By the late summer of 1941 some 73 bombers and 137 fighters were in Libya, and 37 bombers and 46 fighters were in the Aegean; practically all the aircraft in East Africa had been lost. The Aegean air force was commanded by General Longo and controlled direct from Rome. The 5th Squadra in Libya was commanded by General Aimone-Cat and although ostensibly under the operational control of General Bastico, the Italian Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in North Africa, it too was controlled to some extent from Rome. The state of aircraft serviceability in these two formations is not known, but judging from the scale of Italian air operations it cannot have been high.
The relationship between the German and Italian Air Forces was obviously a matter of great importance. When Fliegerkorps X first arrived in Sicily it was under the direct orders of OKL in Berlin, and remained so for a long time. The necessary link between Rome and Berlin was provided by a Liaison Staff (‘Italuft’) set up in Rome to coordinate the action of Fliegerkorps X, and through it that of Fliegerführer Afrika, and the 5th Squadra. At this time, it will be recalled, the German High Command regarded the African campaign as primarily an Italian affair.
General Fröhlich, the Fliegerführer Afrika, and General Aimone-Cat, in command of the 5th Squadra, were, for practical purposes, two entirely separate air force commanders. Their forces sometimes took part in joint operations, particularly when the Italians supplemented the fighter escorts to German bomber formations, but there is no evidence of any close cooperation; in fact, except at Malta, the greater part of the bombing was left to the Germans while 5th Squadra undertook mainly reconnaissance and supply of inland desert areas. In particular the attack of Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal was recognized as the task of Fliegerkorps X. An agreement had been signed on 18th July defining procedures and the machinery for coordination, but the Italians did not make any marked contribution to the few joint operations which were subsequently carried out.
The Germans and Italians were unquestionably disturbed by the interference with their supplies between Italy and North Africa and with the interruptions at the ports of Tripoli and Benghazi, and it may be wondered why they did not make a more determined effort to pay back the British in their own coin. The congestion of shipping in the approaches to Suez, and the difficulty in clearing cargoes from the
port area, meant that here was a real Achilles’ heel. Had the Axis possessed an effective joint organization for command in the Mediterranean theatre they might well have decided upon an air plan in which greater importance was attached to this matter.
On the higher level, that of OKW and Comando Supremo, the Axis Powers had indeed concerted a plan for North Africa, which aimed at capturing Tobruk in the autumn as an essential preliminary to an advance into Egypt. In these circumstances, and in view of the prestige and forcefulness of General Rommel, it was natural that considerable air effort should be devoted to interfering with Tobruk’s lifeline and trying to soften up the defence by continual air attack. The result was to impose a severe strain upon the British Inshore Squadron, and upon the fighters covering the ships. But Tobruk was not starved out, nor yet softened up; it was even possible to create large stocks of stores there in preparation for the coming offensive.
In addition to the continual attacks on Tobruk already referred to, and the provision of support to the Afrika Korps, there was the diversion of a considerable number of German bombers to. the unsuitable and unprofitable task of escorting convoys—a task on which Italian bombers were also used. The fact is that Fliegerkorps X was trying to do too much, with the result that neither of the tasks which might have had really good results was properly carried out. One choice was to turn again to Malta, for under attacks by the Italians alone Malta was hitting back with good effect. The other was to attack Suez and the British rearward installations and lines of communication in Egypt. But they did not do the first at all, and they did not do the second with anything like their full strength. Even so, they did enough to cause the British High Command much anxiety. The German records of the number of sorties directed against the various targets are incomplete, but they indicate that, of the sorties made during these four months by the long-range bombers of Fliegerkorps X (Ju.88 and He. 111), more than half were devoted to tasks other than the attack of targets in the Canal zone or Alexandria. If the long-range bombers, some of which were used to add to the weight of attack on Tobruk, had been concentrated instead against the Canal zone, and especially Suez, the British troubles would have been so much the greater. It is perhaps too much to suppose that General Rommel would have agreed to any such diversion from his own immediate aim, and the only practical solution would have been for the Italian Air Force to play a more effective part than it did.