Chapter 11: Middle East: The Alamein Line and Decisive Victory
On 29th June Mussolini arrived at Derna to lead the triumphal procession through Cairo. His mode of transport was a Red Cross plane heavily escorted by fighters. According to a persistent legend for which there appears to be no shred of evidence, he also brought with him a white horse. The cast being thus assembled for the final scene, on the evening of 1st July Rommel swept forward against the Alamein line.
That night the Wellingtons, flying over a hundred sorties, attacked the enemy’s concentrations and communications in full force. ‘The day was notably lively’, recorded the Africa Corps Diary, ‘with many successful bombing attacks by the British. ... In the night continuous [British] bombing raids met with success, and the supply columns were blown up’. All the next day this intense activity in the air continued, and by dusk Tedder’s pilots had flown nearly 800 sorties within twenty-four hours. ‘Throughout the whole of the day’, reported the enemy, ‘there were heavy air raids, and our own fighter defence was not nearly sufficient’.
Thanks to the Eighth Army’s stout resistance on the ground and to this great effort in the air, the enemy attack made little headway, and as darkness fell the Wellingtons and Albacores again went out with deadly effect. Among their many achievements that night was the destruction of a large ammunition dump which the penetrating eye of Pilot Officer S. J. Thorne, of No. 37 Squadron, had discerned, or rather suspected, beneath a series of eight innocent-looking sand dunes. Thome’s bombs scored direct hits on two of the dunes, whereupon there was a tremendous explosion, a red glare that lit the entire area, and a great cloud of black smoke that rose to 5,000 feet. Unfortunately, the aircraft was so badly damaged by the blast that the crew were soon forced to bale out, and in helping the front gunner Thorne fell through the lower hatch. ‘The captain’s parachute’, records the Squadron Diary, ‘was found unopened on the
ground, unattached to the body. The harness was also found near the body, broken’.
Throughout 3rd July our squadrons maintained their great effort, flying in all some 780 sorties. ‘The continuous raids by day and night are hindering the troops seriously’, noted the enemy, ‘. . . the supply situation has become even worse’. The next day brought no relief ‘The enemy air force is bothering us a lot’, an Italian artillery officer confided to his diary; ‘from 5 to 11 o’clock it was over more than six times. Night and day it seems to go on without interruption, and there is not a moment’s peace. We are becoming like potatoes—always underground’. But by then the work of our troops and airmen had had its effect. In the early morning of 4th July Rommel recognized his defeat and ordered his army over to the defensive. The Alamein line had survived its first and greatest test.
As soon as it was clear that the enemy had been stopped, Auchinleck set about regaining the initiative. During the rest of July he launched a number of fierce attacks, local and general, against the Axis troops in front of the Alamein line. On 10th July, the 9th Australian Division, fresh from Palestine, made useful gains; in the following week there were several sharp engagements; and on the 21st, and again on the 26th, Auchinleck struck in full force. These endeavours inflicted many casualties on the Italians and somewhat improved our general position; but they signally failed in their main purpose of putting the enemy to flight. Moreover our armour, much of which was inexperienced, again suffered heavy losses; our reserves were too few to maintain the initial momentum of the attacks; and many of our troops were so tired as to be near the limits of endurance. On 30th July the Commander-in-Chief accordingly acknowledged that success was not yet within his grasp, and for the time being gave up his attempts to make headway. Expecting, as he did, to receive four fresh divisions (including two armoured) within six weeks, it was only common prudence to break off for a spell of rest and reorganization. Meanwhile Rommel, who also expected reinforcements and whose troops were equally exhausted, had taken a similar decision. The Desert War settled down again into a battle of supplies.
During all these engagements Tedder’s forces, besides attacking ports and shipping when occasion demanded, continued to give highly effective support to the Eighth Army. The main lines of their work were by now familiar. The Baltimores and Bostons, based in the Canal Zone since the retirement but operating from forward landing grounds near Cairo, pattern-bombed the enemy’s troop positions from dawn to dusk. The ‘Eighteen Imperturbables’ as these light-bomber formations came to be called, were so well protected by the
Kittyhawks that for days on end they were able to operate without loss. Their efforts were supplemented by those of the fighter-bombers, which ranged ceaselessly over the enemy lines in search of profitable objectives. Like the fighters—which also attacked ground targets in the intervals between shooting down Stukas and Me.109s—these aircraft were based mainly on landing grounds along the Cairo-Alexandria road. At night the task was taken up by the heavier bombers, now withdrawn to Palestine for lack of room in Egypt. The Wellingtons, refuelling in the Canal Zone, attacked troop positions with the help of the Albacores whenever a major battle was in progress; when it was not, they visited Tobruk—for their old love, Benghazi, was now far beyond their reach. The Liberators, however, could still raid the latter port direct from Palestine. In sum, the Middle East aircraft demonstrated the flexibility of well-organized air power. The Western Desert Air Force, Air Headquarters Egypt, No. 201 (Naval Co-operation) Group, and No. 205 Group, to which the American heavy bombers were attached—all existed for distinct purposes. But when need arose all could be, and were, applied to the critical task of slowing down the enemy or helping our own troops forward.
The effect of their work again emerges in the enemy records. On 16th July the War Diary of the German Africa Corps tells how our fighters nearly disposed of Rommel—or rather, how they shot up the car in which he had been sitting until they appeared. On 19th July the same source, after reciting the fact that the Africa Corps disposed only twenty-eight serviceable tanks, details a new order—that all tanks are to be ‘surrounded by sand bags and stone walls to protect them from damage in air attacks’. Difficulties of supply, and particularly the shortage of ammunition, receive repeated mention. On the night Of 21st July—the eve of Auchinleck’s main effort—the Diary records that’ continuous heavy bombing attacks are being carried out. Enemy air activity tonight exceeds anything hitherto experienced. Telephone communications are frequently broken, and there is no contact with the divisions’. That same day Rommel informed Keitel that ‘the enemy air force ... has by continued day and night operations caused considerable losses amongst our troops, lowered the morale of Italian troops, delayed and at times cut off supply ... the supply situation is tense owing to continual and partially successful attacks by enemy air and naval forces on German supplies at Tobruk and Matruh’.
Unfortunately, our success in the air was not yet equalled on the ground; for as Auchinleck attacked so his tanks again wilted away. How far this was caused by lack of effective communication and
control, how far by defective tactics, and how far by the heavier tanks and the 88-mm. guns of the Germans, is a matter for the military historians to determine. But the broad fact was clear enough. On 22nd July the Africa Corps Diary noted: ‘Out of an attacking force of 100 enemy tanks, forty have been destroyed for the loss of three German tanks’. The following day the claim increased to 118 British tanks destroyed within forty-eight hours. And at the same time the Germans, by working on their damaged but recoverable machines, were soon able to rebuild a powerful force. On 2nd August the two Panzer Divisions, which a fortnight earlier could muster between them only twenty-eight serviceable tanks, could boast 163. By 15th August Rommel’s strength in troops, which three weeks before was down to thirty per cent of establishment, had risen to over seventy per cent; and his strength in tanks, which had been down to fifteen per cent, had risen to fifty per cent. All the efforts of the Eighth Army and the Royal Air Force had for the moment brought about no more than a stalemate.
This, however, if less than Auchinleck and Tedder had hoped, was a great deal more than many on the allied side had thought likely. Certainly to Rommel, and to the Italian dictator impatiently awaiting the cue to appear on his white horse, the consolidation of the Eighth Army at El Alamein was a bitter disappointment. After three weeks of steadily growing disillusionment the Duce departed for Italy on 20th July, leaving behind his baggage—more for the sake of appearances than from any anticipation of returning. Shortly afterwards he was visited by Ciano, to whom he soon unburdened himself. Rommel, Mussolini complained, had been discourteous—he had not even troubled to pay him a formal call. The German soldiers were grasping and insolent. The Arabs behaved badly. Even the British prisoners of war left much to be desired. ‘He told me’, wrote Ciano, ‘that he had found groups of fierce-looking New Zealand prisoners who were so far from reassuring that he always kept his gun close at hand’.
The Italian counterparts of these New Zealanders, it may be recalled, were already making admirable servants in British messes. The contrast was instructive. Sooner or later the deadlock between the two armies would be broken. Whoever struck the decisive blow, it was not likely to be the Italians. And Rommel’s Germans, after all, amounted to only four divisions. The proposition before the Eighth Army might be difficult. It was clearly not impossible.
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It will be recalled that when our enemies changed their plan and allowed Rommel to drive on into Egypt, Mussolini had made a
stipulation. If Malta was not to be invaded until the autumn, it must meanwhile be neutralized. On 1st July Kesselring, who since early May had kept up only a minor scale of attack against the island, accordingly flung his aircraft across from Sicily again in full force.
By then the arrival of the two merchantmen in June, coupled with the continuous reinforcement by Spitfires, had greatly eased the task of the defenders. On 1st July there were nearly 200 aircraft on Malta, of which over half were Spitfires. Among the rest, the Marylands and Baltimores had never ceased to carry out their vital function of reconnaissance; while the Wellingtons, so far as resources of fuel allowed, were already striking out again with great effect. Some, indeed, of the newly arrived fighter pilots had not yet fired a gun in anger—the home Commands had a habit of ‘milking’ squadrons proceeding overseas of their leading members—but what the newcomers lacked in experience they amply made up for in martial ardour.
When Kesselring once more turned on the pressure, using Italian planes in strength as well as German, his crews were accordingly treated to a warm reception. Able to call on a force of 567 aircraft, in the first fortnight of July the German Commander directed about 1,000 sorties, bomber and fighter, against the island. Many times the attacks struck home against the airfields which were their objective; but our fighters were not to be shaken off, and for the most part caused the bombs to fall wide. Soon it became obvious that the Spitfires, the Beaufighters and the guns were giving quite as good as they got. By 14th July the new ‘blitz’ had cost Kesselring forty-four aircraft, of which twenty-three were bombers. Malta’s fighter losses for the same period were thirty-nine, from which, thanks in large part to the island’s admirable air-sea rescue service, twenty-six pilots survived to fight again. At a time when Germany was desperately short of aircraft to meet all her many self-imposed commitments she could not afford even this degree of losses; and from mid-July the attack again weakened.
The defeat of this fresh attempt to subdue Malta marked the end of another phase in the island’s story. It was signalized by a change of command. Lloyd was given a well-earned rest—a rest, that is to say, by comparison. He was selected to take over No. 201 (Naval Co-operation) Group from Air Vice-Marshal Slatter. Slatter, whose work at Alexandria had been no less impressive than his early achievements in the Sudan, departed to put his maritime experience to equally good use in Coastal Command; while to Lloyd’s place in Malta there succeeded the Air Officer Commanding from AHQ, Egypt—Air Vice-Marshal K. R. Park. This vigorous, skilful, and very experienced
commander was appointed to Malta because the defence of the island seemed for the time being even more important than its offensive against enemy shipping; and what Park did not know about fighter defence was not worth knowing. Conversely, as the strikes against enemy convoys had come to be directed mainly from the Eastern Mediterranean, it was useful to have Lloyd, whose heart and soul was in this type of work, in charge of No. 201 Group at Alexandria.
Within a few days of taking over his new post Park put his talents as a fighter commander to good use. While Malta’s fighter force consisted of a few obsolescent Hurricanes with—for 1942—a slow rate of climb, the tactics of defence had necessarily been restricted; for the Hurricanes had been compelled, when warned of the enemy’s approach from the north, to gain height to the south of the island. Their operational height once reached, they could then return to engage the attackers as the latter swept in across the coast. The advent of the latest Spitfires in considerable numbers, however, had opened up other possibilities, and this Park at once saw. He promptly ordered his fighters to gain height while approaching the enemy and to intercept, not over the island, but as far north of it as possible. This increased the strain on the air-sea rescue service and the pilots, who now had to operate many miles out to sea; but both were fully equal to the call. The scheme was an instant success, and Park could soon point not only to the continued slaughter of the enemy but also to a most welcome decrease in the proportion of bombs falling on Malta. In fact by the end of July the enemy had been driven into the same tactics as in the closing stages of the Battle of Britain—the tactics of high-level fighter and fighter-bomber sweeps, which kept the defences at full stretch but accomplished little else.
By this time the island, despite deliveries by aircraft and submarine, was again in desperate need of supplies. The episode of the June convoys had shown that a supply operation from the east was impossible, but that ships might get through from the west if given really powerful air and surface escort. Operation PEDESTAL was accordingly devised. As a necessary preliminary over 100 machines—including four Liberators—were flown in to Malta, so increasing Park’s strength to some 250 aircraft. At the same time convoys to Russia were temporarily suspended, with the result that the fourteen merchant vessels sailed to Malta under the escort of two battleships, three aircraft carriers, six cruisers, an anti-aircraft cruiser and twenty-four destroyers. As part of the deception plan a dummy convoy ran in two parts from the Eastern Mediterranean as far as Alexandria.
The merchantmen and their main escort entered the Straits of Gibraltar on 10th August, 1942. By then Park’s aircraft were making ready to bomb the Sicilian airfields. But the striking force available for this type of work was very small, and from the 11th onwards the convoy was shadowed and repeatedly attacked from the air. Despite the heroic efforts of the naval fighters and the ships’ gunners casualties soon mounted, while mines, U-boats, and E-boats took a further toll. Even the arrival over the convoy of long-range Beau-fighters from Malta at first brought no relief, for they were at once mistaken for Ju.88s and heavily fired on by our ships. However, an Italian naval force was successfully discouraged from intervention by the joint efforts of a single Wellington and Malta’s Operations Room Staff. The latter sent a plain language signal directing some largely imaginary Liberators against the enemy warships.
All told, the convoy and its escort suffered attacks by estimated forces of about 150 bombers and eighty torpedo bombers. The ships’ guns, the Fleet fighters and Malta’s Spitfires and Beaufighters between them shot down forty-one of these assailants. Of the fourteen merchantmen five, including a crippled tanker in tow, eventually reached Grand Harbour, where our fighters and guns held the enemy at bay until the last stores were safely extracted. At the cost of the Eagle, two cruisers, a destroyer and eighteen aircraft, the operation had given Malta a new lease of life. Able once again despite all shortages to strike against every enemy vessel that came within her reach, she could now play her full part in the forthcoming, and decisive, phase of the Desert War.
It is impossible to leave Malta and turn back to the African scene without recording an incident which occurred a fortnight before the arrival of the August convoy. Unusual as it was, it typified the spirit of Malta’s aircrews and indeed of aircrews throughout the Royal Air Force.
On 28th July a Beaufort of No. 217 Squadron, piloted by a South African lieutenant and carrying as crew a British pilot officer and two New Zealand sergeants, was shot down off the west coast of Greece. As the stricken bomber plunged towards the sea the crew had the satisfaction of seeing their torpedo run true against its target, a 6,000 ton merchant vessel forming part of an enemy convoy. The task of escaping from the aircraft, which sank within ninety seconds, then claimed their full attention. Despite the fact that the pilot was in the submerged nose all four men managed to struggle into the dinghy. After a brief stocktaking they then paddled in the direction of the shore—towards which, when they had remembered to haul in the drogues, they made good progress.
They were still paddling when an Italian Cant float-plane appeared overhead, circled, and put down about a hundred yards away. The Beaufort pilot, Lieutenant E. T. Strever, promptly swam across and was hauled aboard, where he was given brandy and a cigarette. The rest of the crew were then picked up and treated likewise, after which the Cant taxied to a harbour in the island of Corfu.
On landing the prisoners were taken to a camp, where the Italians again showed them every consideration. There followed a mid-afternoon meal built around steak, tomatoes and wine; an excellent supper, with more wine and cigarettes; comfortable beds in rooms vacated by the Italian officers; and eggs for breakfast in the morning. Their captors then informed them that they would be taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy by aircraft. At this their hearts sank, for unlike a journey by train or car the mode of transport seemed to offer no chance of making an escape. The only possibility, they decided, was to capture the plane; but of how to do this they had no idea.
A few hours later they were taken back to the harbour, where their aircraft turned out to be the Cant of the previous day. The Italian crew of four was also the same, with the addition of an armed corporal to stand guard over the prisoners. The seaplane took off and set course westwards, and for a while the flight proceeded uneventfully. Suddenly, one of the New Zealanders, Sergeant J. A. Wilkinson, who in the manner of New Zealanders had been quietly working things out, leant forward and smashed his fist into the face of the Italian wireless operator. Leaping over the latter’s failing body he then flung himself on the corporal and wrenched away the revolver, which he at once passed to Lieutenant Strever. Not to be outdone the other two members of the Beaufort crew, Pilot Officer W. M. Dunsmore and Sergeant A. R. Brown, promptly tackled the engineer, while the Italian pilot tried to draw his revolver and the second pilot began fumbling with a tommy gun. This danger Wilkinson countered by advancing up the fuselage holding the corporal in front of him as a shield, while Strever followed brandishing the captured revolver. A few more swift moves and the Italians were disarmed and tied up with their own belts, and Strever had taken over the controls. All this proved too much for the corporal, who was on his first flight, and who now added to the confusion by being violently sick.
The next problem was how to fly a strange aircraft with no maps, no charts and no knowledge of the petrol consumption. Strever soon found it easier to free the Italian second pilot, to place him at the controls, and to give him rough and ready directions which he hoped might bring them to Malta. At length the toe of Italy hove in sight.
Taking a chance in the matter of petrol, Strever at once ordered the pilot to turn south. At this the Italians, who were fully aware how Malta’s fighters would greet a Cant, registered great alarm. Their fears were soon justified. As the float plane came in low, three Spitfires swept down upon it. All efforts to explain the position-including those of Pilot Officer Dunsmore, who took off his vest (the only white object handy) and trailed it behind the aircraft as a sign of surrender—proved unavailing: the Spitfires continued to attack. When a stream of bullets poured through the wing Strever decided the time had come for a more decisive gesture, and he ordered the Italian pilot to put down on the water. The floats met the surface safely; then the propellers spun idly in the air as the last drop of petrol spluttered in the jets. It remained only for the four airmen to climb out and signal frantically to the Spitfires; for a launch to appear from Malta and tow in the captured machine; and for the Beaufort crew, who were feeling a little conscience-stricken at the way they had repaid the Italians’ hospitality, to offer their apologies and do all they could for the comfort of their captives. The latter, cheerfully recognizing that war is war, took everything in good part; and the episode closed with one of them producing from his suitcase a bottle of wine which he insisted on sharing with Lieutenant Strever.
Strever then looked in on the Spitfire squadron, where he had the doubtful pleasure of hearing the pilots slated by their commanding officer for bad shooting.
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During August and September Tedder was mainly concerned to win the battle of supplies and repulse Rommel’s next attempt on the Alamein line. But there were also certain organizational matters which demanded his attention.
The retreat from Gazala and the struggle in July had left the Middle East Air Commander keenly aware that there were still serious weaknesses in the organization of tactical support. These no longer sprang from the inability of the Royal Air Force to keep up with a fast-moving battle but from the inability of the Army to maintain an up-to-date picture of its own movements. Moreover, although brigades at once demanded air cover when they were bombed, they very rarely appealed for air support when they were hard-pressed on the ground. During the retreat from Gazala, when many units of the Eighth Army were in desperate straits, Coningham received only twelve requests for air support: all other attacks made by his squadrons were planned on information which they themselves had gathered.
Some improvement was already achieved before Auchinleck departed. That great soldier and gentleman had throughout acted in the closest concert with Tedder, and his final Order of the Day before handing over to General Alexander on 15th August included a generous tribute to the Royal Air Force. ‘During these weeks you [the Eighth Army] have stopped the enemy ... forced him on the defensive, taken 10,000 prisoners from him, and destroyed or captured many of his guns, vehicles and their equipment. You will, 1 know, join me in acknowledging the great and glorious part our air forces have played in helping us to achieve these results. Without their aid the story would have been very different’.
As part of the reorganization in the Middle East, Lieut.-General B. L. Montgomery was appointed to command the Eighth Army, and this at once brought closer co-operation between the two Services. The last two months of the Auchinleck regime, with the Commander-in-Chief also acting as Commander of the Eighth Army, had naturally led to technical difficulties. It had meant, for instance, that the Eighth Army’s headquarters were no longer side by side with those of the Western Desert Air Force. In this respect Montgomery at once restored the previous practice. Beyond this, however, he also brought to his post a remarkably keen, clear and vigorous appreciation of the part that could and should be played by air forces in a land battle. Commanders like Auchinleck and Ritchie had never been anything but highly co-operative; but Montgomery insisted that good-will was translated at all stages into practical action. If air co-operation was the gospel in the G.O.C.’s caravan, it would also be the gospel all the way from base to front line. The result was that within a few weeks of Montgomery’s appointment, on the eve of the final battle of El Alamein, Tedder could write to Portal: ‘Cooperation with the Army has further improved, thanks undoubtedly in some part to the lead given by Montgomery on the subject. It was very refreshing to see in Eighth Army Advanced Headquarters the embryo of a real operations room copied directly from our own mobile operations rooms. As I told the soldiers, it was the first sign I had seen of their being able to collect and sift information of their battle, and consequently the first sign one had seen of their being able to control it. For the past two years they had been saying such a thing was impossible; now they have started it and realise its potentialities. I think it should develop well and make an enormous difference’.
Another problem at this time—but of a kind with which Tedder was very glad to be confronted—was the arrival of American squadrons in the Middle East. After Operation VIGOROUS and the attack on Ploesti the Halverson Detachment had remained in the
Command; by 25th June, only four days after the fall of Tobruk and two days after receiving his orders, Major-General L. H. Brereton, Commanding General of the American Tenth Air Force in India, was posting with all speed to Egypt in company with his nine available B.17s; and as the summer passed, other American squadrons began to arrive in the Middle East in obedience to the principle that, wherever possible, American aircraft should now be flown by American crews. At the end of July the 57th Fighter Group, armed with P.40s (Warhawks), crossed the Atlantic in a carrier and thence flew along the Takoradi route; in the first week of August the B.24s (Liberators) of the 98th (Heavy) Bombardment Group followed under their own power; and a week later the B.25s (Mitchells) of the 12th (Medium) Bombardment Group also winged their way across the Atlantic and Central Africa.
These welcome reinforcements raised problems not only of coordination and control but also of maintenance—for the aircraft and crews travelled in advance of their full ground echelons. Fortunately, inter-allied relationship was Tedder’s forte. Royal Air Force maintenance resources were placed without stint at the disposal of the new arrivals; the American groups, though officially only under Tedder’s ‘strategic direction’, were integrated where necessary into the Royal Air Force organization—the fighters and medium bombers, for instance, acted under Coningham’s operational control; and the technically very proficient but operationally inexperienced American crews were ‘blooded’ by flying with a British squadron before going into action on their own. All this, of course, could be done only because Brereton—whose units eventually became the Ninth Air Force—was another devotee of the gospel of co-operation. Naturally the Royal Air Force, with the larger resources in the theatre and over two years’ experience of the Desert fighting, was at this stage the senior partner; but the traffic of ideas was by no means one-way. By 21st October Tedder could report to Portal: ‘The Americans work in very well with our squadrons. They now have their own fighter wing with two squadrons who have already shown up well in combat. Their third fighter squadron, which has had more experience and which we can make reasonably mobile, is in one of our own fighter wings (No. 239) and will go forward. They are learning from us and we are learning from them—I was glad to hear this from both sides.’
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As the summer wore on, Tedder became very concerned with the problem of enemy air reconnaissance. In June the Germans began to use for purposes of reconnaissance a few unarmed, pressurized Ju.86s
capable of flying at over 45,000 feet. No ordinary fighter on the British side could approach this height; yet if these aircraft went unchallenged the enemy would soon have a complete picture of our positions and preparations. One answer was eventually found in the tactical combination of two specially stripped-down (and ‘hotted up’) Spitfires. One of these was left with armour, R/T and four machine-guns, the other with no armour, no R/T and only two machine-guns. The technique was for No. 1 to guide No. 2 within visual range of the enemy; for No. 2 then to climb to the level of the Ju.86 and direct its fire at the latter’s engines; and for No. 1 to wait below and if necessary finish off the winged bird. The first victory—a solo effort—was obtained at 49,000 feet on 24th August by Flying Officer G. W. H. Reynolds, the chief test pilot at No. 103 Maintenance Unit. Fortunately, only five more Ju.86 sorties were reported—of which two were shot down—and the menace was disposed of by mid-September. The last of the raiders was also engaged by Reynolds, who, despite his thirty-eight years, flew at over 40,000 feet some twenty-five times during the month. In pursuit of this final intruder he had to fly above 45,000 feet in an iced-up aircraft for more than an hour, and finally, faint and half paralysed, summon up his last ounce of strength to press the gun button.
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Meantime the battle of supplies continued. The safe arrival of five ships in Operation PEDESTAL, carrying the largest bulk of stores to reach Malta since September 1941, enabled the Navy once more to operate cruisers, destroyers and submarines from the island. The combined attentions of these and Malta’s aircraft soon drove the enemy’s North African convoys back into the old fantastic detour by way of Greece and Crete. Several vessels started from Italy for Greece only to put back not once, but three or four times, merely because they were spotted by air reconnaissance. Moreover, during the whole period of stabilization on the Alamein line Park was also able to keep up a steady average of fifteen bomber sorties a week—not a remarkable figure at first sight, but impressive enough when it is remembered that supplies were still extremely short, that the island remained under attack, and that every sortie was against a carefully selected and to the enemy altogether precious target.
The anti-shipping effort from Malta, however, was by now less important than that from the Eastern Mediterranean. This continued to be the work of No. 201 Group, which called for striking forces as necessary from No. 205 Group, the American Liberators, and the Western Desert Air Force. Between them, and with the help of the
submarines, these formations made the task of the convoys attempting the run across from Greece one of the utmost difficulty. Moreover, their repeated raids on Tobruk prevented the enemy making anything like full use of this port. This in turn forced Rommel to bring up his supplies from Benghazi either in lorries which soon wore out, or in small naval craft which proved attractive targets for the long-range Beaufighters. And even Benghazi, out of range as it was to the medium bombers, could still be attacked by the Liberators. The result of the whole combined effort can be seen in a single figure. According to Admiral Weichold thirty-five per cent of the total Axis supplies despatched to North Africa during August failed to reach their destination.
The importance of this fact was heightened by another. While the enemy’s supplies were thus curtailed our own were arriving in an ever-broadening flow—during August in particular, very large numbers of replacement and reinforcing aircraft poured into the Middle East Command. With all this traffic the enemy was entirely impotent to interfere. When a force of U-boats attempted to make trouble off the Levant coast its efforts soon came to grief before the combined vigilance of the Navy and No. 201 Group; and the mines which enemy aircraft repeatedly dropped in the Suez Canal were as repeatedly swept up the following morning.
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Anxious to strike before the Eighth Army was too heavily reinforced, at the end of August Rommel renewed his assault on the Alamein line. In the late evening of 30th August our aircraft reported three concentrations of enemy vehicles in the southern sector, and by midnight it was plain that the Axis forces were beginning a general advance. ‘Yesterday evening at eight o’clock’, noted Ciano, ‘Rommel attacked in Libya. He had chosen the day and the hour well, at a time when whisky had begun to appear on the British tables. ...’ It is not recorded whether the British officers, in the spirit of Drake, paused to complete the task in hand before proceeding to other business; presumably they did. What is certain is that from the start the enemy’s punch lacked power, and that Montgomery’s tactics of allowing the German armour to batter against our cunningly protected or entrenched guns and tanks paid handsomely. The Axis ground forces, however, were strongly supported by the Luftwaffe, which was now well forward. During the night Ju.88s from Crete did great execution among the dummy aircraft thoughtfully provided for their attention on our landing grounds; while other German bombers
strove with the help of flares to emulate the work of the Wellington and Albacores against troop positions. The next day escorted Ju.88’ and what Stukas the enemy could still muster were again extremely active over the battle area. Indeed, during the whole period of the attack the Luftwaffe managed to fly a daily average of ninety-five sorties by bombers and 220 sorties by fighter-bombers and fighters.
This, however, was very small beer compared with what Tedder’s forces could now put up. On 31st August and the ensuing night they flew 482 sorties; on 1st September 674; on 2nd September 806; and on 3rd September 902. Throughout the struggle our fighters held the ring over the battlefield and protected our troops from the Luftwaffe; and from first to last, bombers, fighter-bombers and fighters alike hammered away at the Axis ground forces. Bunched up by the pressure of our artillery and armour, these offered a superb target which the Western Desert Air Force and No. 205 Group were in no mood to ignore. ‘We were very heavily attacked every hour of the day and night’, later testified General Bayerlein, who took over the Africa Corps for a few hours after Nehring was wounded by our aircraft, ‘and had very heavy losses, more than from any other cause. Your air superiority was most important, perhaps decisive’. ‘The continuous and very heavy attacks of the RAF’, recorded Rommel, ‘... absolutely pinned my troops to the ground and made impossible any safe deployment or any advance according to schedule’.
Farther removed from the battle but equally effective was the work of Malta, No. 201 Group and the submarines. Between 27th August and 4th September no less than nine Italian vessels were sunk on the African convoy routes—one by a mine, two by our submarines and six by our aircraft. The result of all this was noted by Ciano, who on 2nd September recorded: ‘Rommel is halted in Egypt because of lack of fuel ... three of our tankers have been sunk in two days’. On 3rd September the news was little different: ‘Rommel’s pause continues, and what is worse the sinking of our ships continues. Tonight there have been two’. And by 4th September, still in the same vein, Ciano could only record that all was over: ‘Rommel is drawing back his left flank under the attack of the British Air Force even before the enemy tanks come into action. Tonight two other ships were sunk’. Rommel himself was no less specific: ‘The petrol, which was a necessary condition of the carrying out of our plans, did not arrive. The ships which Cavallero had promised us were some of them sunk, some of them delayed and some of them not even despatched’.1
So ended the battle of Alam-el-Halfa—Rommel’s second attempt to force the Alamein position, and the last occasion on which his forces were to hold the initiative. The struggle had been won by good generalship, stout resistance on the ground, and overwhelming superiority in the air, all acting in a situation created by relentless interruption of the enemy’s supplies.
* * *
The episode of Alam-el-Halfa over, Tedder could again focus his attention on the supply battle. During September his aircraft and Admiral Harwood’s submarines sank nearly a third of the enemy cargoes attempting to reach Africa, besides causing many other vessels to turn back with their mission unaccomplished. In all this the renewed striking power of Malta told to such effect that Hitler soon ordered another ‘ blitz’ against the obstinate island.’ Because of the revival of Malta as an air base and the numerous sinkings in the Mediterranean’, ran his directive of 14th September, ‘supplies for the First Panzer Army have fallen far below normal requirements. Unless Malta is weakened or paralysed once more, this situation cannot be remedied’. At the end of the month Ciano was still more explicit: ‘In all, we have little more than a million tons [of merchant shipping] left’, he noted on 29th September, ‘at this rate the African problem will automatically end in six months, since we shall have no more ships with which to supply Libya’.
The new, and, as it proved, final assault in Malta began on 10th October, 1942. That day the number of enemy raiders rose abruptly from the by then normal twenty or thirty to over 120. Six times the enemy appeared in strength—though each time, significantly enough, with few bombers and many fighters. Five times our aircraft intercepted these formations well north of the island; on the other occasion a formation composed entirely of fighters managed to cross the coast at great height but did no damage. From the day’s fighting the enemy lost two aircraft, ourselves none; and, still more gratifying, not a single bomb fell on Malta.
Such was the beginning. The next day the enemy sent over, according to our estimates, 216 aircraft; the day after, 279; and from then on, up to and including 19th October, between 200 and 270 each day. In addition some ten to twenty aircraft carried out ‘nuisance’ raids at night. But from 20th October onwards the attacks fell away, until in the last week of the month the daily average was no more than 120 raiders, most of which got nowhere near the island. During these final operations the Germans found out once again that fighter sweeps are
no substitute for heavy bombardment. The defeat of the enemy, in fact, may be dated from 18th October, when Kesselring withdrew his Ju.88s from the battle. In the period of the most intensive fighting, from 10th to 19th October, we shot down forty-six German aircraft and probably at least an equal number of Italian, as against a loss of only thirty Spitfires; while in terms of aircrew the estimate was that fifteen of the enemy had failed to return to base for every one of ours. More important than any exact calculation of losses was the fact that damage to the island was slight, and that though some bombs fell on the airfields nearly every day they did not impede our operations. On only one night during the month did Malta’s bombers fail to take off against enemy shipping. That was a night on which there was no enemy shipping to attack.
This, then, was all Kesselring could show for his final fling against Malta. For this the Axis had kept 600 aircraft in Sicily at a time when they desperately needed every one of these machines in Africa. In the end even the German pilots lost heart; and a final order from Goring at the end of October, that Malta must be destroyed within eight days, was as vain and wind-stuffed as the source from which it came. As Kesselring coldly pointed out in reply, experience had amply shown that only the occupation of the island could put it out of action. And by that time matters were so far gone in Africa that the enemy was quite unable to spare forces for an attempt on Malta. So passed to the grave that still-born conception which the Germans with Teutonic pomposity had termed Operation HERCULES, and the Italians, with a more prophetic insight into their own limitations, Operation ‘C.3’. It was a project which, like the capture of Gibraltar, would have been simple compared with many that the Germans cheerfully and unnecessarily undertook, but which, had it been attempted with success, might well have spelled defeat to the allied cause.
* * *
In October our aircraft and submarines struck with still greater effect against the enemy convoys. Between them the two methods of attack, sharing the honours almost equally, sank some 50,000 tons of shipping on the North African routes. According to Admiral Weichold, forty-five per cent of the entire Italian tonnage despatched, and fifty-nine per cent of the German, failed to reach the other side. Of the German cargo of which Rommel was thus cheated, sixty-five per cent was fuel.
Meanwhile, our aircraft were also busy on operations designed to usher in the last and greatest battle of El Alamein. The plan was for
the crews to start intensive attacks against the enemy air force four days before the opening of the land battle; but on 6th October, three weeks before the Eighth Army was due to strike, there occurred an opportunity too good to miss. Very heavy rain began to fall; and by 9th October our photographs showed the Daba landing grounds under water and Fuka usable only with the greatest difficulty. Seizing the chance of catching his opponents grounded, Coningham at once called a halt to training and launched some 500 fighters and bombers against the two sets of airfields. The attack destroyed or put out of action some thirty enemy aircraft and did great damage to airfield transport, dumps, and gun positions. It was thus against antagonists already seriously weakened that the Middle East Air Force opened its full offensive on 19th October.
The force which Tedder disposed on the eve of El Alamein was very different from the attenuated body he had taken over in May 1941. In Malta, under Park, there were eight squadrons; in the Western Desert Air Force, under Coningham, twenty-nine; in No. 201 Group, under Lloyd, seventeen; in No. 205 Group, under Air Commodore A. P. Ritchie, eight; in AHQ Egypt, under Air Vice-Marshal W. A. McClaughry, four. In addition there were a few units directly under the Command Headquarters—and there were the Americans. Of the grand total of ninety-six operational Allied squadrons in the Middle East, including the thirteen squadrons in the outlying theatres, sixty (with the Fleet Air Arm squadrons) were British, thirteen American, thirteen South African, five Australian, one Rhodesian, two Greek, one French and one Yugoslav; and a large proportion of the aircrews in the British squadrons came from the Dominions. All told, the entire force totalled over 1,500 first-line aircraft, of which some 1,200 were based in Egypt and Palestine. Against this the Axis had nearly 3,000 aircraft in the Mediterranean theatre, but only 689 in Africa—and of these little more than half were serviceable. On the ground the enemy numbered about 93,000 men, 470 tanks (excluding light tanks) and 1,450 guns. The corresponding figures for the Eighth Army were 165,000 men, 600 tanks, and 2,275 guns. All the material conditions were present for a decisive victory.
The military plan of campaign struck Tedder as having one important defect. Our incessant bombing had taught the enemy to disperse his troops, and these were unlikely to concentrate, and so provide our squadrons with really profitable targets, unless they were plainly threatened by our ground forces. Montgomery’s plan, however, made no provision for this, but staked everything on
complete surprise. It thus placed a high premium—justifiably, as it proved—on the efforts of Tedder’s aircraft to prevent German reconnaissance, and on the success of the deception plan. Tedder would have preferred the other course. ‘I feel we should have made such a threat’, he wrote to Portal on 22nd October, ‘and given us the opportunity from the air to hammer [the enemy] and weaken him for three or four days before delivering the final blow on land. I am afraid, however, it is too late to do anything about it now, and we shall have a contest on the best Queensberry Rules lines: the two opponents carefully fattened up in their respective corners, fanned and advised by their seconds up to the last minute before the seconds are ordered out and the gong goes. Of course from the air point of view the contest has been going on for some time in the attacks on shipping, lines of communication, and, with the last two or three days, against his air’.
The essence of Montgomery’s scheme was to persuade the enemy that the main blow would fall in the south, and then deliver it in the north. To this end XIII Corps, covering the southern sectors, was to display a suitable array of dummy tanks, dumps and the like, while conversely the advanced infantry of the XXX Corps, in the north, were to ‘dig-in’ during the final stages and lie concealed. After preliminary artillery fire both Corps would then engage the opposing infantry, but the main effort would be in the north, where XXX Corps would open up two gaps in the enemy minefields. Through these corridors X Corps, containing the main body of armour—which would be held at first in the rear—would then advance. Behind the enemy infantry and minefields they would find the enemy armour; and there, in open country, free from the mines, ridges and guns of the El Alamein position, they would engage and destroy the Panzer divisions. After that we could round up the rest of the Axis army at leisure.
Such was the degree of air superiority attained by Tedder’s squadrons that all the preliminary moves and dispositions for this plan were made without the slightest interference by the enemy either from the air or on the ground. The assaulting infantry of XXX Corps, for instance, moved forward on the night of 22nd/23rd October and spent the whole day of the 23rd in their fox-holes in advance of our main positions without being in any way observed or molested. As night approached, the hope that our attack would achieve tactical surprise hardened into a certainty. At 2140 hours over a thousand British guns opened up, and the loudest noise ever heard in Africa gave the enemy their first warning that anything
was afoot. Twenty minutes later our infantry moved forward all along the line.
That night sixty-six Wellingtons of Nos. 37, 40, 70, 104, 108, and 148 Squadrons kept up continuous attacks on the enemy’s guns and concentrations. In the rear of the Axis forces the Hurricane night lighters of No. 73 Squadron meanwhile strafed troops and vehicles. By 0530 the next morning—the 24th—the infantry had cleared two paths through the enemy minefields in the north, and the armour of X Corps (1st and 10th Armoured Divisions) was signalled forward according to plan. Several hours’ heavy fighting then took our tanks through both corridors. During this struggle they had the full help of our airmen, who not only gave them complete immunity from enemy air attacks but also operated incessantly against the enemy ground forces. The Bostons, Baltimores and Mitchells alone flew 222 sorties on this latter work; the fighter-bombers were ceaselessly active; and the Hurricane IID ‘tank busters’ of No. 6 Squadron and No. 7 Squadron (SAAF) scored repeated hits on their objectives. During the night the Wellingtons and Albacores kept up the good work to the extent of another eighty-five sorties.
Thus far the advance was going broadly according to plan. But the critical moment was now looming ahead, as the enemy strove to bring his armour to bear. Throughout the 25th our squadrons, while still holding their opponents in check—the Spitfires even patrolled over the enemy airfields—attempted to disrupt this growing concentration in the north. On the 26th their efforts to prevent a counter-attack reached a climax; for though X Corps was through the minefield it had shaken clear neither of the ridges nor of the enemy’s screen of anti-tank guns. It was thus still in a highly vulnerable position. Seven attacks by Coningham’s bombers and fighter-bombers, however, prevented any serious move by the enemy during the day. This respite enabled Montgomery to begin the regrouping which was to decide the battle.
On 27th October the 21st Panzer Division, which had been in the south, moved north. Together with the 15th Panzer Division it then struck at the 1st Armoured Division in the latter’s forward position at Kidney Ridge. But our troops, with the help of 200 sorties by the Bostons, Baltimores and Mitchells, inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and repulsed all attacks. In the air the fight continued in our favour. The Axis ground forces, however, were by no means done, and on 28th October the Panzer divisions again strove to form up for a big attack. Seven raids by 126 bombers and 159 escorting fighters once more prevented this. At the same time other fighters so completely frustrated an attempt to intervene by Ju.87s that the
once formidable Stukas jettisoned their bombs on their own troops. ‘On 28th October’, Montgomery recorded in his published account of the battle, ‘the enemy made a prolonged reconnaissance of Kidney Ridge, probing it for soft spots while the two German Panzer divisions waited in the rear. In the evening they began to concentrate for attack, but the Desert Air Force intervened to such effect that the enemy was defeated before he had completed his forming up’. So ended our opponents’ last attempt to deliver an effective counter-stroke.
Under the protection of our air superiority, Montgomery was now able to carry out the decisive regrouping. To counter the movement of the 21st Panzers, he ordered the 7th Armoured Division to move north from its position in the south; and at the same time, to prepare for the final punch, he withdrew into reserve the 1st Armoured Division and the 24th Armoured Brigade. He then began a very determined and profitable attack with Australian infantry near the coast. His plan at this stage was to direct his new attack, not through the corridors thus far opened, but along the line of the road and railway farther north. But on 29th October he learned that the enemy had divined his intention, for the 90th Light Division had moved athwart his route. The three crack German divisions were now all in the extreme north; and Montgomery—also mindful of the need to capture the East Cyrenaican airfields at once, If Malta were to survive (a consideration forcefully represented to him by Tedder and the Minister of State)—therefore decided to force a new gap in the minefield to the south of the German armoured concentration. The blow would fall near one of the existing corridors, in the northern sector, but south of the main German force and in a position held by the Italians. In sum, the Australians would mislead the enemy by continuing their pressure near the coast; the New Zealanders would open the new gap; and through the gap would pour X Corps, now with all three Armoured Divisions—1st, 7th and 10th.
While Montgomery was preparing this thrust the enemy troops were too dispersed to make good targets for our bombers, but the fighter-bombers flew many hundreds of sorties with great effect. Moreover, the battle against the opposing air force continued to go well: on 1st November, for instance, a formation of British and American Kittyhawks intercepted thirty Ju.87s escorted by fifteen Me.109s. The American fighters held the ring; the British fighters closed in and shot down seven of the enemy without loss to themselves; and the Stukas again jettisoned their bombs on their own troops.
On the night of 1st/2nd November, while 113 Wellingtons and Albacores were about their routine task of making life uncomfortable for the enemy, Montgomery began his new attack—Operation SUPERCHARGE. The next day the New Zealanders went right through. Thirteen attacks (211 sorties) by the Bostons, Baltimores and Mitchells and 374 sorties by the Hurricanes and Spitfires gave valuable assistance; and after one raid 200 enemy troops walked over to our lines and declared they could endure no more. But though the New Zealanders had gone brilliantly ahead, a powerful screen of anti-tank guns still held up the 1st Armoured Division. On the morning of 3rd November seven attacks by the light bombers accordingly helped to weaken this opposition. Then our reconnaissance began to return with reports of traffic streaming west along the coastal road: under cover of their guns the Germans and Italians were breaking away. At midday Coningham switched his squadrons on to this retreat, and soon our bombers, fighter-bombers and fighters were all harrying the fleeing enemy. By the time night fell, over 500 sorties had been flown against targets on the ground, the road from Ghazal to Fuka was a mass of blazing wrecks, and the Axis soldiery had drunk deep of the bitter draught that in earlier days the Luftwaffe had so often meted out to others.
Well into the night the Wellingtons, Albacores and Hurricanes continued this work. The following day, 4th November, the 51st and the 4th Indian divisions cleared the anti-tank gun screen and enabled the 1st Armoured Division to go ahead. The third and greatest battle on the Alamein line was over. It remained only for XIII Corps in the south to round up four Italian divisions left with no transport and little food or water; and for X Corps to set off in full cry after the retreating Germans. Meanwhile the Western Desert Air Force, in Montgomery’s words, ‘operated at maximum intensity and took every advantage of the exceptional targets which the fleeing enemy presented’.
The battle of El Alamein was not, as popular impression sometimes has it, the victory of the Eighth Army alone. Nor was it simply the victory of the Eighth Army and the Western Desert Air Force. It was the victory of the Eighth Army and almost the whole allied air force in the Middle East. The first and greatest task of the Middle East Air Force was to win air superiority; that achieved, all other operations could be carried out effectively. During the battle this air force safeguarded our soldiers from the Luftwaffe, repeatedly broke up potential attacks on the ground, and in general helped to wear down the enemy troops by its incessant activity. In this last respect the long interval between Montgomery’s initial thrust and
the final break-through gave Tedder the opportunity which he felt had been denied him in the original plan. Moreover, as Rommel has recorded, our air superiority actually dictated the Axis military dispositions.
We could no longer put the main burden of the defensive battle on to the motorised formations since these ... were too vulnerable to attack from the air. Instead, we had to try to resist the enemy in fixed positions ... We had to accept the fact that in future the enemy would be able to delay our operations at will by strong air attacks by day and similar attacks at night with the aid of parachute flares. Experience had taught us that no man could be expected to stay in his vehicle and drive on when attacked by enemy bombers and that it was useless to try to work to a time-table. Our positions had to be constructed so strongly that they could be held by their local garrisons ... without support of operational reserves, until, in spite of the delays caused by the RAF, reinforcements could arrive. British air superiority threw to the winds all our operational and tactical rules ... The strength of the Anglo-American Air Force was, in all the battles to come, the deciding factor.2
The actual fight at El Alamein, however, was only the crown and summit of all that had gone before—and particularly of the sustained operations by the Middle East Air Force and the Royal Navy against the enemy’s supply routes. For these operations had the broad result that the Eighth Army at El Alamein faced an enemy short of almost every vital commodity, including fuel; and fresh attacks of this kind continued to affect the enemy’s position even at the very height of the lighting. How they did so, and with what determination they were carried out, may be seen from the episode of Rommel’s last tanker.
On the afternoon of 25th October, two days after the Eighth Army had gone into action, a Baltimore from Malta spotted an Italian convoy north-east of Benghazi. It consisted of two merchant ships and a tanker, escorted by four destroyers. Rommel’s shortage of fuel was well known, and the report of a tanker immediately put the British aircrews concerned on their mettle. The target was by then beyond range of Malta, but Lloyd at No. 201 Group at once ‘laid on’ a strike from Egypt. Wellingtons duly found and attacked the convoy during the night, but were unable to claim any definite success. The hunt therefore continued, and the following morning, the 26th, the convoy was again located, this time nine miles northwest of Derna. The ships were then travelling under air escort and obviously making for Tobruk. They were carefully shadowed until they came within range of our day bombers in Egypt. Then, when the convoy was about twenty miles short of its destination, Lloyd
despatched a strike of four Bisleys (a later version of the Blenheim) and five Beauforts, all under Beaufighter escort.
The four Bisleys attacked first. The leading aircraft bombed from twenty feet, scoring hits on the stern of the tanker. The second bomber narrowly missed, fouled the tanker’s mast as it pulled away, and crashed into the sea. The third and fourth Bisleys collided and broke up in flames. Then the Beauforts went in. They scored another hit on the tanker and damaged at least one of the merchant vessels. An hour and a half later another Beaufort strike failed to locate the convoy but fought a successful action with enemy aircraft. By then it was dusk, and the task again fell to the Wellingtons. They came up with the convoy just outside Tobruk harbour. For the loss of one aircraft they hit the larger merchant vessel and caused a huge explosion which covered the whole convoy with black smoke and flying debris. The attack was witnessed, according to an enemy prisoner, by a group of high-ranking German officers who had gathered on the cliffs to watch these desperately needed supplies brought into harbour. If this was so, they saw the end, not merely of the convoy, but of Rommel’s last hope of victory. Six more Wellingtons went out during the night, but all they could find was the tanker, blazing furiously from stem to stern. ‘A black mark for the situation in Libya’, noted Ciano, recording the loss, ‘... Rommel is optimistic about the military quality of the troops but he is literally terrified by the supply situation. Just now not only is fuel lacking but also munitions and food’.
Thirty thousand prisoners and immense quantities of equipment fell to our victorious troops at El Alamein. The subsequent pursuit, however, did not quite satisfy our most ardent desires. It swept across the breadth of Africa; it wore down and greatly reduced the enemy; but it failed to put Rommel and his armoured and mechanized divisions ‘in the bag’. For this an unlucky beginning was partly responsible. On 6th November the skies opened in a deluge which lasted for over twenty-four hours. This hampered Coningham’s squadrons and proved still more of a hindrance to Montgomery’s armour, which was bogged down as it tried to strike across the desert. Meanwhile, the enemy, moving along the coastal road, gained a flying start. By 8th November Rommel was well on his way to escape; and the consequences of this might indeed have been serious. But that morning Anglo-American strategy came into its own as 2,000 miles away, sealing off the enemy’s line of retreat, TORCH was lit on the beaches of French North Africa.
For weeks which stretched into months the pursuit across Libya rolled on. By 13th November the Eighth Army was in Tobruk and the Western Desert Air Force at Gam but. By 17th November Coningham’s fighters were at Gazala and by 19th November at Martuba, just in time to give continuous cover to the convoy that now at last broke the siege of Malta. That same day, while Montgomery’s troops were arriving in Benghazi, Rommel reported to the Führer that the German motorized formations in the forward area were completely immobile for lack of petrol. A show of fight at El Agheila, however, saved the German commander: the British troops deployed, and it was not until mid-December that they swept into Tripolitania. A month later, on 23rd January, after further deployment and a fight at Buerat, the Eighth Army was entering Tripoli and the Desert Air Force taking over Castel Benito. Throughout all this time the fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons kept pace with the movement of our ground forces; though the bombers, with their bigger requirements and greater dependence on an Army supply system now stretched to its utmost limits, came along more slowly. It was not, perhaps, a classic pursuit: there were no Beda Fomms and the ‘left hooks’ failed to connect. But it was marked by many notable achievements. On the air side, there was the work of the new transport group (No. 216) under Air Commodore Whitney Straight, magnificently aided by the British Overseas Airways Corporation. There was Coningham’s brilliant move, during the pursuit to Benghazi, of two Hurricane squadrons (Nos. 213 and 238) to a position well in advance of our troops, so that convoys of enemy lorries far from the front were suddenly subjected to a rain of bullets which destroyed or damaged some 300 vehicles. There was the promising performance of the newly formed Royal Air Force Regiment; and, ever a source of admiration to the airmen, there was all the skilful and devoted work of the Royal Engineers in making fresh airfields or in restoring and ‘de-mining’ those lately occupied by the enemy.
It was not annihilation, then, but it was at least sustained pursuit. The fighters hammered away at the enemy all the time, the bombers as their moves permitted. Tedder and Coningham occasionally fretted at what seemed to them unnecessary delays; but their men, like those of General Montgomery, were happy. For they sensed now, that with Stalingrad held, Rommel on the run, and Eisenhower in Tunisia, nothing could cheat them of their final triumph. Their ordeals, they were well aware, were far from over. They had not yet finished with deserts, even if those of Egypt and Libya were at last behind them: there were still the sun and the wind, the dust and
the flies and the sores, the interminable bully beef and chlorinated tea. And there was still the certainty of further fighting, suffering, mutilation and death. But nothing of this could stifle the gladness that was now in their hearts. For unquestionably, whatever the difficulties, they were going forward; and this time they would not be coming back.