New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 4 — Western Desert—The Third Year
Western Desert—The Third Year
‘ROMMEL will be in Cairo within a few days,’ boasted the German radio on 30 June 1942. And the Italian dictator Mussolini was already at Derna preparing for the triumphal entry, having brought with him, so it is said, a white horse on which he proposed to lead the procession.
But the high hopes raised by the enemy's rapid advance into Egypt were doomed to disappointment. For Rommel's forces were well-nigh exhausted and, in the face of British air superiority and stiffening resistance on the ground, they now proved unequal to continuing their race across the desert. Against the advancing columns Coningham's squadrons flew over seven hundred sorties a day. ‘The continuous raids by day and night are hindering us seriously,’ reported the enemy, ‘and the supply situation has become even worse.’ Meantime, under cover of the constant RAF attack, the British army was able to recover from the disorganisation of its retreat; and at El Alamein it turned to fight. The troops fought stubbornly and by the end of the first week in July they had fought the enemy to a standstill. For the moment at least, Cairo and Alexandria were safe.
In his despatch, General Auchinleck pays high tribute to the part played by Desert Air Force during this first phase of the battle for Egypt. ‘Our air forces,’ he writes, ‘could not have done more than they did to help and sustain the Eighth Army in its struggle. Their effort was continuous by day and night and the effect on the enemy was tremendous. I am certain that had it not been for their devoted and exceptional efforts we should not have been able to stop the enemy on the El Alamein position.’
Attack and counter-attack now succeeded each other as Auchinleck sought to regain the initiative at El Alamein. But while his efforts resulted in some improvement in our general position, they failed in their main purpose of driving the enemy back; our reserves were too few to maintain the initial momentum of the attacks and our armour, some of it new and inexperienced, suffered heavy losses. By the end of July both sides were thoroughly exhausted by the long battle and it was clear that a stalemate had been reached. The ground fighting slackened and once again both sides became involved in a struggle to build up supplies and renew their strength.page 78
The RAF continued to operate intensively throughout these weeks. Baltimores and Bostons, based in the Canal Zone but operating from forward landing grounds, pattern-bombed the enemy troop positions from dawn to dusk; indeed their formations, well protected by fighters, operated with such regularity that they became known to those watching below as ‘The Eighteen Imperturbables’. Simultaneously Kittyhawks, Hurricanes and some newly-arrived Spitfires took off from their landing grounds along the Cairo-Alexandria road to range ceaselessly over the enemy's lines, attacking ground targets and shooting down Stukas and Messerschmitts; Beaufighters strafed enemy airfields and transport behind the front. At night the attack was continued by the heavy bombers now withdrawn to Palestine for lack of room in Egypt. Wellingtons, refuelling in the Canal Zone, attacked troop positions in the light of flares dropped by Albacores; they also bombed the port of Tobruk, for the old familiar target of Benghazi was now far beyond their reach. The few Liberators, however, could still reach the latter port direct from Palestine and their crews played their part well.
The effect of all this effort and endeavour is seen in the diary of the German Afrika Korps, where difficulties of supply and damage and loss caused by our air attacks receive repeated mention. On 21 July, Rommel himself reported that ‘the enemy air force by its continual day and night operations has caused considerable loss among our troops, delayed and, at times, cut off our supplies …. the supply situation is tense owing to continual attacks on German supplies at Tobruk and Matruh.’
The lull in the ground fighting during August brought a decline in air activity over the battlefield. Even so, Coningham's fighters and bombers flew over 5700 sorties that month, excluding shipping sweeps and protection; for with the enemy gradually concentrating fighter squadrons at Fuka and Daba, it was essential to retain our air supremacy over the forward area and to defend our bases from surprise attack. An interesting feature of this period was the defeat of the German attempt at high-level reconnaissance with pressurised Ju86 aircraft, capable of flying at 45,000 feet. Specially stripped Spitfires, operating in pairs, accounted for three of them within a month. The first victory —a solo effort—was obtained at 49,000 feet on 24 August by Flying Officer Reynolds,1 RAF, the 38-year-old chief test pilot at a large maintenance unit. He shot down another in mid-September. The technique was for one pilot to guide another within visual range of the enemy, whereupon he climbed to the level of the Ju86 to fire at the latter's engines; the other pilot waited below and, if necessary, finished off the winged bird.page 79
But the main RAF effort was directed against Rommel's supplies. For the enemy was now beset with the difficulties attendant on maintaining an army with land lines of communication stretching 600 miles to the west, and an army, moveover, that was in immediate need of reinforcement in men and equipment. Matruh and, more especially, Tobruk, which he had brought into use as reinforcing ports, became the objectives for ever-increasing bomber raids. Simultaneously our torpedo-bombers went out against shipping, and their attacks, together with those of our submarines, made it most difficult for the enemy to run supplies across from Greece. The repeated raids on Tobruk prevented the Germans from making anything like full use of this port. This, in turn, forced them to bring up supplies from Benghazi either in lorries, which soon wore out, or in small coastal craft which provided attractive targets for our long-range Beaufighters. And Benghazi itself was now under attack by the Liberators. According to Admiral Weichold, chief German liaison officer at Italian Naval Headquarters, about 35 per cent of the total enemy cargoes despatched to North Africa during August failed to reach their destination.
While the enemy's supplies were thus being curtailed our own were arriving in the Canal Zone in an ever broadening flow, with which the enemy entirely failed to interfere. Night after night German aircraft dropped mines in the Suez Canal but these were quickly swept up. Apart from this, not only our ports and bases but the long desert road from Cairo to Alexandria, crowded with military traffic and flanked on either side by camps and landing grounds, were seldom visited by the Luftwaffe. In the face of our continuing attack, Kesselring was compelled to employ most of his bombers as well as his fighters in protecting Rommel's communications by land and sea. Thus did the RAF continue to hold the initiative as our ground forces prepared for their next battle.
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In mid-August 1942 General Alexander took over command in the Middle East and General Montgomery was appointed to lead the Eighth Army, Churchill's directive to Alexander being ‘to take or destroy at the earliest opportunity the German Italian Army ….’ With these changes of command and the arrival of strong reinforcements, a new spirit infused our forces in Egypt and the way was paved for a major offensive.
Above all, it was now generally realised that while the army had one battle to fight—the land battle—Desert Air Force had two. It had first of all to beat the enemy air force so that it might then go into battle against his land forces with the maximum possible hitting power. And as Montgomery pointed out: ‘If you do not win the air battle first you will probably lose the land battle.’
Meantime things remained fairly quiet in the desert where the two armies faced each other on the line south from El Alamein. Desert Air Force continued to operate but at reduced pressure and, apart from the heat and a plague of flies, its squadrons now lived more comfortably than they had done for many months. Water was plentiful; the recreations of Alexandria were at hand; and such luxuries as fruit and fresh meat appeared on the trestle tables in mess tents. And while the desert airmen gratefully absorbed a few civilised comforts for a change, training and re-equipment proceeded. The fighter force became stronger. It soon had twenty-one squadrons and the standard of serviceability was further improved; moreover, there were now three squadrons of Spitfires sweeping high over the desert and causing Messerschmitt pilots to look apprehensively upwards instead of down.
The land fighting suddenly flared up again at the end of August when Rommel, realising our growing strength, decided to make a last page 82 bid to break through to Alexandria. Some fierce clashes took place, especially round Alam el Halfa, but with his moves anticipated and in the face of a vigorous defence, the enemy onslaught failed to make any real progress; and within a week the battle was over. During the fight ing the RAF made a strenuous and sustained effort in support of the Eighth Army. On the eve of the enemy attack, Coningham told his men: ‘The battle is on. Good luck in your usual brilliant work. This defensive land fight for Egypt will be followed later by an offensive and then away we go. Meanwhile go for him in the air whenever you can.’ And go for him they did. In five days Desert Air Force flew over 3000 sorties. Fighters held the ring over the battlefield and protected our troops from the Luftwaffe—now making a somewhat belated effort— while bombers, fighter-bombers and fighters alike hammered away at enemy troops and armour. Bunched up by the pressure of our artillery and tanks, these latter offered a superb target and it was most effectively dealt with. ‘The continuous and very heavy attacks of the R.A.F.,’ says Rommel, ‘absolutely pinned my troops to the ground and made impossible any safe deployment or advance according to schedule.’ And General Bayerlein, Chief of Staff of the Afrika Korps, afterwards declared: ‘Your air superiority was most important, perhaps decisive …. We had very heavy losses, more than from any other cause.’
With Rommel's second attempt to break through to Alexandria thus defeated, the Eighth Army intensified its preparations for a major offensive. The RAF for its part continued with reconnaissance, patrol and attack over and beyond the enemy front, and more especially with the assault on his supply lines. And here it was that the seeds of the enemy's final overthrow and defeat were sown. For Rommel's weakness lay behind him and with the mounting offensive—from Malta as well as Egypt—against his shipping, his ports, and transport on the desert roads, his forces in Egypt were now deprived of the material and, above all, the petrol that were so essential for victory in desert warfare. During October, our aircraft and submarines between them sank some 50,000 tons of enemy shipping on the North African routes. Of the cargo of which Rommel was thus cheated, 65 per cent was fuel. Small wonder that one of his generals afterwards remarked bitterly: ‘El Alamein was lost before it was fought. We had not the petrol.’
Meanwhile, in the desert, the enemy had been forced on the defensive and, as Rommel himself admits, our command of the air now actually dictated the enemy's military dispositions:
… the first and most serious danger which now threatened us was from the air. This being so, we could no longer rest our defence on the motorised forces used in a mobile role, since these forces were too vulnerable to air attack. We had instead to try to resist the enemy in field positions which had to be constructed for defence against the most modern weapons of war.page 83
We had to accept the fact that, by using his air-power, the enemy would be able to delay our operations at will, both in the daytime and—using parachute flares—at night. For no man can be expected to stay in his vehicle and drive on under enemy air attack. Our experience in the ‘Six-day Race’ had shown us that any sort of time-schedule was now so much waste paper. This meant that our positions had henceforth to be constructed strongly enough to enable them to be held by their local garrisons independently and over a long period, without even the support of operational reserves, until reinforcements—however much delayed by the R.A.F.—could arrive.
The fact of British air superiority threw to the winds all the tactical rules which we had hitherto applied with such success. There was no real answer to the enemy's air superiority, except a powerful air force of our own. In every battle to come the strength of the Anglo-American air force was to be the deciding factor.1
At the end of September 1942, Rommel, now a sick man, flew to Germany for treatment. When he returned a month later it was to find his army fighting a desperate battle and the situation gone beyond hope of recovery.
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Such was the background of events against which men of the Desert Air Force flew and fought during the summer and autumn of 1942. Led by their distinguished fellow countryman, Air Vice-Marshal Coningham, New Zealand airmen continued to share in all phases of the air activity.
The fighter pilots in their Hurricanes, Kittyhawks and Spitfires patrolled the battlefield at the height of the land fighting and intercepted formations of enemy fighters and dive-bombers; they also escorted light bombers on their missions and, turning often to the fighter-bomber role, attacked ground targets with good effect. Squadron Leader Hayter,2 Flight Lieutenants J. E. A. Williams and Ingram3 were specially prominent in such operations.
1 The Rommel Papers, p. 286.
2 Squadron Leader J. C. F. Hayter, DFC and bar, m.i.d.; born Timaru, 18 Oct 1917; farmer; joined RNZAF 5 Dec 1938; transferred RAF 18 Aug 1939 and RNZAF 16 Aug 1944; commanded No. 274 Sqdn, Middle East, 1942; No. 74 Sqdn, Middle East and Europe, 1943—44.
Less spectacular but equally effective work was done by the men who flew Beaufighters and Hurricanes in defence of our bases in Egypt against enemy night bombers; the results they achieved were highly creditable, since the isolated raiders flying in from the sea were anything but easy to intercept. Flight Lieutenant Mackenzie,3 with Pilot Officer Craig4 as his radio observer, were a most successful Beaufighter crew in No. 46 Squadron; one night early in July they intercepted and shot down a Heinkel III bomber near Alexandria and then a few weeks later they shot another night bomber down in the sea off Aboukir; a further encounter followed in September when they caught a Heinkel approaching Alexandria and sent it down with engines on fire to explode on the ground within sight of one of our airfields. Warrant Officer E. L. Joyce did similar execution flying a Hurricane of No. 73 Squadron, a unit, incidentally, with which New Zealanders had been associated since the early days of the war. One night he picked up a Ju88 flying 400 feet above him over Maaten Baggush. Following the bomber despite the fact that it was turning and circling, he closed to 50 yards and opened fire. Three of the Hurricane's cannons jammed and the enemy aircraft again took violent evasive action, including sharp dives and steep climbing turns, but, says the official report, ‘Joyce clung tenaciously to its tail despite return fire and finally closed in to engage the enemy aircraft successfully with his one cannon.’ By the end of August, Joyce, who had now been flying with No. 73 Squadron for over a year, had brought his score to eight enemy aircraft destroyed —five of them at night. The Beaufighters and Hurricanes also went out to strafe enemy airfields by night and some of the first sorties against German air bases in Crete were flown by Mackenzie and Craig.
3 Wing Commander R. M. Mackenzie, DSO, DFC, AFC; RAF; born Tai Tapu, 8 Sep 1916; joined RAF 23 Aug 1937; transferred RNZAF Jan 1944; commanded No. 227 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943; Training Staff, HQ RAF, Middle East, 1944; transferred RAF 1947.
More than fifty New Zealanders captained bomber aircraft during these months, with others flying as navigators, wireless operators and gunners. Squadron Leader L. J. Joel did particularly fine work both as pilot and formation leader of Baltimore light bombers operating mainly against targets on or near the battlefield; they frequently met intense anti-aircraft fire and on several occasions Joel's machine was hit and damaged, but each time he managed to land back safely and continue flying. Also flying Baltimores were Warrant Officers Baker1 and Askew,2 both pilots, and Warrant Officer Callender,3 a navigator. On one raid against an enemy petrol dump their squadron ran into heavy flak and most of the aircraft were hit; one crashed and blew up, two others also came down but their crews survived. In Callender's machine both engines failed and a propeller fell off; he and two other members of his crew baled out at once only to land in the midst of the enemy; their pilot found his cockpit hood jammed so he crash-landed in no-man's-land and then escaped under fire.
4 Wing Commander J. E. S. Morton, DFC, m.i.d.; RAF; born Invercargill, 11 Jun 1915; clerk; joined RNZAF 14 Jun 1939; transferred RAF 17 Jan 1940; commanded No. 40 Sqdn, 1942—43; Chief Training Instructor, No. 203 Group, Middle East, 1943—45.
A special word must be added about the men who flew with No. 162 Wellington Squadron for, in addition to bombing missions, they carried out special flights to discover the strength and coverage of enemy radar and radio systems as well as calibrating and checking our own. Flying Officers Watson,9 Hegman10 and King11 each captained aircraft of this unit. In September 1942 Watson and Hegman went to Malta and in a period of twelve nights flew eight special missions over Sicily and Italy. Three months later Hegman made another similar series of flights, after which Sir Keith Park signalled: ‘162 Squadron aircraft have done a first-class job for Malta by revealing the extent of enemy R.D.F. cover in the Central Mediterranean. We are now able to route our aircraft to achieve maximum of surprise and the minimum danger of interception.’
One night in September Metcalf and his crew, which included a Scot, an American and two other New Zealanders, flew in a squadron attack against a convoy off Tobruk. There were three merchant ships escorted by no fewer than twelve destroyers, and as the Wellingtons approached they were given a hot reception. And since it was a clear night with a full moon the bombers were a good target. After some manoeuvring, Metcalf flew in very low to launch two torpedoes at a large cargo vessel and a few moments later two violent explosions were seen as they struck almost amidships. But as the Wellington swept over the convoy it met a veritable hail of anti-aircraft fire; one shell burst under the starboard engine, ripped open the fuselage, put the wireless out of action and wounded the operator, Flight Sergeant Cumming,6 in both arms and a thigh. The bomber, however, remained airborne and when Metcalf had set course for base he went back and dressed Cumming's wounds. Thereupon, although in considerable pain, Cumming set about making repairs to the wireless; then having sent out the necessary signals he assisted the navigator, who had also been wounded, to guide the machine back to Egypt. Over base it was found that only one undercarriage wheel could be lowered but Metcalf succeeded in making a safe landing. Later the crew had the satisfaction of receiving confirmation that they had sunk the supply ship.
1 Wing Commander A. H. Harding, DFC; born Wellington, 1 Sep 1918; civil servant; joined RAF 7 Aug 1938; transferred RNZAF 1 Jan 1944; commanded Special Duties Flight, Malta, 1942; No. 353 Transport Sqdn, India, 1945.
A remarkable experience was shared by Sergeant Joyce1 and the crew of his Wellington bomber. They were struggling back after a raid on shipping at Tobruk with one engine out of action, having jettisoned everything moveable in the aircraft, when the strain proved too much for the remaining engine and the pilot had to crash-land in the desert. They were then some fifty miles south-east of Tobruk and well behind the enemy lines. The landing was successful, no one was hurt, and when daylight came the crew began to reconnoitre their position. Enemy aircraft flew overhead but apparently did not see them; some wandering Arabs they met proved suspicious and unhelpful.
On the second day Joyce led a party to the coast road with the idea of capturing some form of transport; two men hid in a burnt-out lorry on one side of the road and two more behind a pile of stones on the opposite side. Convoys passed by continually for two hours and then, suddenly, at a moment when the road was otherwise clear, a staff car appeared. As it drew near one of the men stepped out into the road and held up his hand. The car stopped. Two German officers were in the front seats with an orderly behind, but they were too surprised to offer resistance in the face of a levelled revolver. The Germans were relieved of their weapons and the British airmen took over the car and drove back to their aircraft. There they picked up their companions, loaded food and water, and set off eastwards across the desert. They passed abandoned camps, narrowly avoided an old minefield, and were making good progress the following day when the front axle broke. Walking on they reached the vicinity of the German lines at night and began making their way stealthily forward. At one point they found themselves among parked German transport, and when one driver leaned out of his vehicle to pass a remark they muttered a reply and passed on safely. But shortly before dawn they blundered over an escarpment into a forward post where they were promptly surrounded and captured.
* * * * *
With his supply lines under continual attack, Rommel was unable to keep pace with the British build-up in Egypt. By mid-October 1942, on the eve of the last and greatest battle of El Alamein, Montgomery had a superiority of some two to one in men, tanks and guns; and the disparity in fuel and ammunition stocks was even greater. In the air the RAF had some 1200 aircraft based in Egypt and Palestine; the Germans and Italians still disposed of nearly 3000 machines in the Mediterranean area but they had barely 700 in Africa, and of these little more than half were serviceable. General Alexander, British Commander-in-Chief, regarded the coming battle with confidence. ‘We had the advantage over the enemy in men, tanks and guns and we had a vigorous and enterprising field commander who knew well how to employ these advantages. The Eighth Army was certainly the finest and best equipped we had put in the field so far …. The Royal Air Force had established such complete air superiority that enemy aircraft were unable to interfere with our preparations, and Eighth Army was kept supplied with regular air photographs of the enemy disposition.’
In the great events which now unfolded, Desert Air Force was to lead the way. According to the overall plan, its crews were to start intensive attacks against the enemy air force four days before the opening of the land battle, which was timed for 23 October. An earlier opportunity, however, occurred which Coningham was quick to seize. On the 6th, very heavy rain began to fall, and three days later reconnaissance photographs showed the enemy landing grounds at Daba under water and those at Fuka usable only with the greatest difficulty. Coningham at once sent some 500 fighters and bombers against these two groups of airfields, where their attacks 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 opponents already seriously weakened that Desert Air Force opened its full offensive ten days later. Boston, Mitchell and Baltimore light bombers with Hurricane, Kittyhawk, Spitfire, Tomahawk fighters and fighter-bombers were then let loose in successive attacks, and by the eve of the land offensive it was estimated that more than half of the page 90 Luftwaffe's effective strength in the area had been disabled. Indeed, such was the degree of air superiority achieved by Coningham's squadrons that all the preliminary moves and dispositions for Montgomery's ground attack were made without the slightest interference from the enemy either in the air or on the ground. The assaulting infantry of 30 Corps, for instance, moved forward on the night of the 22nd and spent the whole of the next day in their slit-trenches in advance of our main positions without being in any way observed or molested.
Shortly after dark on 23 October British guns opened up with the heaviest barrage so far heard in Africa and under its cover our infantry, including that of 2 New Zealand Division, moved forward all along the line. Bostons laid smoke screens, Wellington bombers began continuous attacks on enemy guns and concentrations, while Hurricane night fighters strafed troops and vehicles. With the dawn, Hurricane, Kittyhawk and Spitfire fighters and Boston, Mitchell and Baltimore light bombers went into action to operate at record intensity throughout the day, the light bombers making no fewer than fourteen consecutive attacks. To our infantry and tanks pressing forward through gaps made in the enemy minefields the fighters gave complete immunity from enemy air attack, while the light bombers operated incessantly against the enemy ground forces, concentrating on their vehicles and gun positions. The anti-aircraft fire, however, was often intense and the light bombers suffered severely, six being shot down and ten more seriously damaged. Enemy air activity on the other hand was slight and Spitfires even patrolled high over his forward fighter landing grounds without being seriously challenged.
Throughout the following days and nights, as hard fighting developed on the ground, Desert Air Force continued to operate at high pitch. The airfields were clothed in a persistent cloud of dust kicked up by the continual take-offs; and beneath it air and ground crews alike toiled in a sweating, grimy fury of assault. Over the battlefield, squadrons helped our troops to smash enemy counter-thrusts and on several occasions even prevented Rommel's armour from assembling to launch an attack. ‘On 28 October,’ writes Montgomery, ‘the enemy made a prolonged reconnaissance of Kidney Ridge, probing it for soft spots while two German Panzer Divisions waited in the rear. In the evening they began to concentrate for attack, but Desert Air Force intervened to such effect that the enemy was defeated before he had completed his forming up.’
And when in turn our own troops drove forward, Coningham's squadrons went ahead to weaken the opposition. On 2 November fighters and bombers flew more than 600 sorties in support of a determined thrust by ground forces. The fighters also dealt effectively with page 91 the Luftwaffe's belated efforts to join in the battle. On 28 October, for example, an attempt by Ju87s to attack our forward positions was so completely frustrated that the once formidable Stukas jettisoned their bombs on their own troops. A few days later a formation of British and American Kittyhawks intercepted thirty Ju87s escorted by fifteen Me109s. The American fighters held the ring; the British fighters closed in and shot down seven of the enemy without loss to themselves; and again the Stukas jettisoned their bombs on their own troops.
Meanwhile our bombers had made things so difficult for the enemy behind the front that Rommel was reduced to flying in petrol from Crete—much to the disgust of the German bomber crews relegated to these duties. Their supply ships were being regularly sunk; and three consecutive attempts to bring convoys into Tobruk during the latter part of October all ended in failure. Here is what happened to the last convoy. Consisting of two merchant ships and a tanker, escorted by four destroyers, it was first sighted by a reconnaissance Baltimore north-east of Benghazi on the afternoon of 25 October. Wellingtons duly found and attacked the ships during the night but were unable to claim any definite success. The hunt therefore continued and the following day the convoy was again located off Derna, where it was carefully shadowed until it came within range of our day torpedo-bombers. Two attacks were then launched by Beauforts, which scored hits on the tanker and damaged at least one of the merchant vessels. The same evening Wellingtons followed up with an attack just outside Tobruk harbour, where they hit the larger merchant vessel and caused a huge explosion which covered the whole convoy with black smoke and flying debris. More Wellingtons went out during the night but all they could find was the tanker blazing furiously from stem to stern.
The fighting at El Alamein had lasted ten days when our reconnaissance aircraft began to return with reports of traffic streaming west along the coastal road. The enemy had had enough and, under cover of his artillery, had started to break away. Under pressure from our ground and air forces, this withdrawal soon became a headlong rush in which the Germans left many of the Italian troops without transport in which to retreat or even to supply their daily rations of food and water; and when they were finally cut off and abandoned, our aircraft flew over dropping food and water to keep them alive until they could be rounded up in prison camps.
Some 30,000 prisoners and immense quantities of equipment were captured at El Alamein by our victorious troops. The subsequent pursuit, however, was hampered in its early stages by heavy rain. Montgomery's armour and vehicles, attempting to strike across the desert and encircle the enemy, were bogged down for two days and Rommel, with the main body of his army, got away to a good start. Thereafter page 92 our ground forces seized every opportunity to round up the enemy, but in the meantime the task of striking at his retreat fell mainly to the RAF; General Alexander records that ‘during this phase when X Corps was unable to come to grips with the enemy, the work of the Royal Air Force was particularly valuable.’ Even so, opportunities for striking heavy, and perhaps decisive, blows were missed at Fuka, Matruh, and in the frontier passes where the congestion and confusion of the enemy was greatest. This was partly due to flooded airfields restricting operations and also to the fact that a large part of the fighter force was held back to cover our forward troops against enemy air attack.
However, although the RAF was not able to deliver a really concentrated attack at this stage it at least made things extremely uncomfortable for the enemy.1 All the way from Daba to the Egyptian frontier both fighters and bombers continued to attack his retreating columns, and they kept it up right across Cyrenaica with squadrons leap-frogging ahead to operate from landing grounds well forward-sometimes in advance of the main army and protected only by armoured cars. One particularly bold move was made by Coningham on 13 November when he sent two squadrons of Hurricane fighters, completely by air transport, to a landing ground about 180 miles east of Agedabia, ahead and to the south of even our forward troops. To the great surprise of the enemy, the Hurricanes suddenly appeared over his columns retreating round the bend of the Gulf of Sirte and inflicted considerable damage—they also destroyed enemy aircraft on the ground at Agedabia and Gialo.
During the pursuit it was, in fact, the fighter and fighter-bombers that moved forward most rapidly for they were now highly mobile and needed fewer supplies. Reconnaissance parties descended on the desert airfields as fast as the enemy abandoned them and with the help of forward troops prepared the way for ground staff to move in and receive the squadrons. Many of the captured airfields presented a different appearance from that left by the RAF during its retreat six months earlier, when almost every aircraft had been got away. At Daba, for example, there were about fifty enemy aircraft in various stages of unserviceability, some shattered, a few only slightly damaged; one Messerschmitt 109G was taken and soon its engine was running. Piled in one corner and intended for salvage were the remains of thirty-nine Messerschmitts and an unrecognisable heap of further wreckage.
1 ‘That night [7/8 November] enemy bombers flew non-stop attacks against the Sollum-Halfaya position …. Next morning there was still a 25-mile queue of vehicles waiting to get through the passes. Traffic had moved very slowly … as a result of the incessant attacks of the R.A.F.’
‘All that day [8 November] … formations of British bombers and close-support aircraft attacked the coast road and inflicted serious casualties on our columns ….’—The Rommel Papers.
On 11 November, while the New Zealand Division was occupying the frontier area, our fighters caught up with the enemy air force and had a most successful day, shooting down aircraft not only over the frontier but also on the enemy's own landing grounds far beyond at Gambut and El Adem. Two days later our Hurricanes and Kittyhawks were flying from the same two airfields bombing and machine-gunning enemy transport in the Gebel Akhdar. By 16 November the main British fighter force was operating from Gazala and during the next two days it destroyed thirty-seven Ju52 transport aircraft by means of which the enemy was trying desperately to relieve his fuel shortage. When Montgomery's advanced troops entered Benghazi on 19 November, two. fighter wings were established at Martuba, and a week later they moved forward to Msus to cover the next stage of the advance. One important result of this rapid occupation of the airfields in the hump of Cyrenaica was that our fighters could now cover ships bound for Malta almost all the way from Alexandria. And towards the end of November they saw a convoy safely through to the besieged island— the first to reach Grand Harbour for three long months.
Meanwhile the bombers had began to move westwards carrying some of their petrol and supplies forward from one landing ground to another. In the first few days of their advance the ‘heavies’ came forward 200 miles from Palestine to Egypt and carried all their own bombs; later on they moved another 300 miles forward into Libya. Both light and medium bombers continued to strike at the retreating enemy columns until these passed out of range. Tobruk and Benghazi were also bombed to prevent their last-minute use by the enemy for supply. Then as targets thinned out with our speedy re-occupation of Cyrenaica, a large part of the Wellington bomber force was transferred to Malta, where it would be well within range of enemy ports in Tripoli and Tunisia.
Rommel's retreat from Alamein to El Agheila—nearly a thousand miles in eighteen days—constituted a record for the course, but equally remarkable was the way in which our land and air forces kept on the enemy's tail despite most unfavourable weather, delays imposed by mining, ingenious booby traps, the destruction of roads, and some stubborn rearguard actions.
Each day units moved farther westwards, tumbling all their gear into lorries and getting out again on to the crowded coast road, which grew worse rather than better, for whole stretches of it had been practically blasted away by bombs or washed out by floods. Tents were abandoned and men stretched themselves to sleep on the ground behind whatever shelter a truck would provide. Bully beef became not so much the staple as the only diet and a mug of hot tea often a page 94 thing to be dreamt of. Fighter pilots returning from patrol settled in circles to talk wistfully of tenderly cooked steaks and other delicacies. But nobody cared very much for this was an advance. And day and night as the enemy fled to the west they pursued him, striking at his columns and destroying his vehicles and aircraft.
At Agheila, where naturally strong defensive positions existed, Rommel put up a show of a fight so the Eighth Army paused to renew its strength before launching an attack. Meanwhile Coningham's supporting fighter squadrons had cut out the coastal bulge at Benghazi and moved across the inland desert to Antelat, Agedabia and El Haseiat. From these airfields they now bombed and machine-gunned enemy strongpoints, bases and landing grounds; their attack on Marble Arch airfield was so continuous that the German fighters based there were forced back to Nofilia, fifty miles to the west. Simultaneously our bombers made heavy raids on the Tripolitanian ports.
Short of supplies and lacking adequate fighter cover, Rommel began to retreat from Agheila on 13 December before he had been seriously attacked by our land forces. Then Coningham once again turned his squadrons on to the retreating enemy and Montgomery records: ‘They did a great execution on the coast road.’ By the end of December the enemy had withdrawn to prepared defences at Buerat. But the Eighth Army followed up quickly and when, after a brief stand, Rommel's forces again took to the road, our troops cheerfully renewed the pursuit, their vehicles now chalked with the words: ‘On to Tripoli’.
Desert Air Force kept up with the new advance, helped greatly by an increasingly efficient air transport organisation. At Marble Arch airfield two thousand land mines had to be lifted, but as soon as enough safe space was available for landing and dispersal the squadrons were signalled to advance. First to arrive was a fighter-bomber wing which, with the aid of transport aircraft, made the move entirely by air. Fighters, ground crews, staff, equipment, bombs, petrol and oil all arrived at Marble Arch in one combined operation on 18 December. The pilots helped the ground crews prepare for action and within two hours the first fighter-bombers were off to attack the enemy, who were taken by surprise on the road to Sirte. They had thought that Marble Arch would be out of action for a week, but it was in use by the RAF within two days of its evacuation.
Such was the pattern and speed of forward movement by the squadrons during the rest of the great advance. It was achieved in the face of mounting difficulties; for the enemy tried every device to slow up the fighter-bomber squadrons that were attacking his columns on the roads westwards towards Tripoli. He resorted to still heavier mining of airfields and their surroundings; he also began ploughing up landing surfaces in the most fantastic manner, one craftsman in partic- page 95 ular creating enormous furrowed whorls of rich complexity and individual design until a burst of cannon fire from a fighter overhead turned him from the plough; his touch was never seen again and his successors worked more hastily on less elaborate lines.
The enemy's efforts availed him little since our forces simply made new airfields. Ground parties went ahead in small convoys escorted by RAF armoured cars, tracking over the desert to select the new sites. The sand was levelled, soft patches were filled in with hard core, scrub torn out and burnt, rocks and boulders shifted and a landing ground carved out of the rough surface, often within forty-eight hours; then a radio message brought the aircraft forward. Moreover, the technique quickly improved. One landing-ground site, 1200 yards square, selected in the Bir Dufan area was serviceable in three hours, enabling fighter formations to move forward in one hop of 140 miles; and at Tripoli itself, where the airfield was most thoroughly ruined by the enemy, three new grounds were carved out of the desert in twenty-four hours. All along the way the Army gave invaluable help; at one point the New Zealand Division detailed two thousand troops to pick up stones and make a landing ground; and there were cases where a whole brigade performed this service for the RAF1—striking evidence that inter-service collaboration was now complete.
* * * * *
For the fighter pilots these had been particularly eventful months. In the weeks before the Alamein battle, they had fought and won a notable victory over the Luftwaffe; thereafter they had maintained and pressed home their advantage by aggressive action in the air and by continual attacks on the enemy's landing grounds. And while thus gaining and holding the initiative, they had been able to give invaluable help to their comrades on the ground. With the advance, units had been continually on the move, operating from as many as a dozen different landing grounds within a month; and it is worth remembering that a squadron of aircraft with all the cumbersome necessities of petrol, bombs, servicing equipment, signals and operations control, does not move as easily as a squadron of tanks or armoured cars. Yet hot though the pace was, the Desert fighter squadrons never fell behind and never failed to carry out their assignments.
Some idea of the intense activity of these three remarkable months may be gained from these entries in the operational diary of one Kittyhawk fighter wing:
1 5 NZ Brigade Group lost 14 killed and 49 wounded under attacks by fighter-bombers while picking up stones on one of these fields.
L.G.91. October 31st. Two hundred sorties were made on armed recce, ground strafing and bomber escorts. A Stuka party was intercepted and five Ju 87s and two Me 109Fs destroyed, with six more probables. During other operations three more Messerschmitts were destroyed, two more and one Ju 87 probably destroyed, with eight others damaged. Fifty vehicles, eleven ammunition dumps were also attacked and four lorries carrying petrol blew up. Altogether this month, for the loss of fifteen pilots, forty-two enemy machines have been destroyed, eighteen probably destroyed and twenty-two damaged in the air. A further twenty-one aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground.
L.G.101. November 8th. Fighter, bomber and strafing attacks against enemy transport on the Sollum road were pressed home during the day, twenty MT being destroyed and twenty-five damaged. ‘B’ party arrived at L.G.106.
Gazala No. 2. November 17th. Successful fighter sweeps over Benghazi and Magrun. In the air nine enemy machines, including two Me 109Fs and one Ju52 Transport, were destroyed. On the ground eight more aircraft and ten MT vehicles were destroyed, with another thirty-six vehicles, some carrying troops, damaged. Three of our pilots are missing.
Martuba No. 4. November 30th. Wing and Squadron parties left for Antelat. Altogether during this month the wing has advanced a distance of nearly 550 miles, much of the travel being by desert tracks, sometimes almost impassable owing to bad weather yet squadrons continued to operate efficiently at all times due to keenness and unflagging energy of the ground staffs.
Belandah No. 1. December 10th. Long range strafing and bomber attacks on enemy transport resulted in over thirty vehicles being damaged. A successful bombing attack was also made at Nofilia airfield.
Marble Arch. December 19th. Advance party arrived. Airfield so thickly sown with mines that it was impossible to locate squadrons on the edge of the landing ground itself and as few personnel as possible were encamped near the aircraft. Extensive fighter bomber attacks were made on the Sirte road where twelve vehicles were destroyed and over one hundred damaged; there were attacks on camps and anti-aircraft posts were also machinegunned. Two of our pilots are missing.
Alem-El-Chel. December 30th. Air activity on a greatly increaseds scale. On two occasions patrols encountered hostile aircraft and dealt with them effectively, eight Me being destroyed, one probably destroyed and two damaged. We lost no aircraft.
Hamreiat East. January 14th. Fighter sweeps south of Tauorga and over the Sedada area. Forty-eight aircraft escorted South African Bostons to bomb Bir Dufan. Other aircraft carried out fighter-bomber raid on enemy concentrations, west of Gheddahaia.
Tripoli. January 24th. Advance party arrived at Castel Benito 0500 hours, occupied landing ground 0730 hours. Air party arrived am. Bombing raid made on Ben Gardane aerodrome. Wing assumed control of airport pending arrival of station personnel. Guard placed on Chianti Brewery pending arrival of military authorities!page 97
Squadron Leader J. E. A. Williams led one of the Kittyhawk squadrons of this wing during the Alamein battle. After a series of profitable sorties, he was unlucky enough to be forced down behind the enemy lines and taken prisoner; eighteen months later, in March 1944, he took part in the famous escape from Stalag Luft III in Germany and was one of the fifty officers shot on recapture.
Pilot Officer Fallows1 and Sergeant Fourneau,2 Flight Sergeants Holmes,3 R. H. Newton and Thomas4 flew Kittyhawks throughout the whole period. They saw plenty of action. For instance, on the eve of Alamein, Fallows and Thomas were flying with their squadron as escort to Baltimores and Bostons attacking Daba; fifteen enemy fighters dived on the Kittyhawks and in the dogfight which followed Fallows shot down one Messerschmitt and Thomas damaged another. At the height of the land battle, Newton's squadron flew forty-eight sorties a day; in a sweep over Fuka they claimed four Ju87 dive-bombers and two Messerschmitts for the loss of one pilot; Newton accounted for one of the dive-bombers. While patrolling Benina airfield during the advance to Benghazi, Holmes's squadron intercepted bombers carrying in fuel for the German panzer units and shot down seven of them. Holmes got a Heinkel.
Three Spitfire pilots who flew consistently in patrol and attack were Flight Lieutenants M. R. B. Ingram and D. F. Westenra and Flying Officer C. R. Hesketh. When his squadron intercepted a Stuka party over Matruh, Ingram shot down one of the escorting Messerschmitts and then went on to share in the destruction of a dive-bomber. A few days later he destroyed another Messerschmitt over El Agheila. During the advance to Tripoli, Hesketh's squadron intercepted enemy fighters over Tamet and shot down five of them. Hesketh got two Macchi 202s; bits and pieces fell from both machines and then they crashed into the sea. During this air battle his squadron leader was forced to land on the sea and Hesketh remained to mark and report the position, thus enabling a speedy rescue to be made.
1 Flight Lieutenant G. Fallows; born Eltham, 23 Jun 1921; clerk; joined RNZAF Mar 1941; prisoner of war, 26 Mar 1943.
New Zealanders also flew with the bomber squadrons which played a notable part both before and during the Alamein battle with their continual raids on enemy ports and shipping, their attacks on airfields, supply dumps and transport, and their bombing of enemy concentrations on the battlefield. Some of the men who did outstanding work as bomber captains have been mentioned earlier in this chapter, but there were now others like Squadron Leader McKay,1 flight commander with a squadron of long-range Liberators, Flying Officer A. B. Smith,2 who captained a Wellington bomber of No. 40 Squadron, and Pilot Officer O'Connor3 and Sergeant Franich4 of No. 37 Squadron, also flying Wellington bombers. There were also navigators like Flight Sergeant Blaikie,5 wireless operators like Flying Officer Crawford6 and Flight Sergeant Temm,7 and gunners like Flight Sergeants Campbell8 and Henderson.9
1 Group Captain J. J. McKay, DSO, DFC, DFC (US); born Nelson, 2 Jun 1916; salesman; joined RAF Oct 1937; permanent commission RAF Sep 1945; commanded No. 178 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943; SASO, HQ Levant, 1944; commanded No. 240 Wing, MAAF, 1944—45.
Flying Officer Earl1 and his crew had a similar experience while operating against Tripoli from Malta. Flying back one night through storms and head winds, their Wellington ran out of fuel and they had to land on the sea. Rough water and gusting winds did not prevent Earl from putting the bomber down successfully and he and his crew were picked up the same morning.
The faithful Wellington— ‘Good old Wimpey’ to its crews—was still the mainstay of the RAF bomber force in the Middle East, but some of our men flew American built aircraft with which certain units were now equipped. For instance, with one Marauder squadron Flight Sergeants Miles,2 Freeman,3 McMillan4 and Spedding5 as pilots, and Flying Officer Connell6 as navigator, did good work in reconnaissance and torpedo or bombing attacks against enemy ships. Connell had been with the squadron when it was equipped with Blenheims and had been prominent in operations both over the Western Desert and in night intruder missions against German air bases in Crete. He was lost when his aircraft went missing without trace during a sweep over the Aegean Sea. The Marauders, three carrying torpedoes and six carrying bombs, made one particularly successful attack on the harbour and port installations at Meles Bay in the Dodecanese. Torpedo aircraft scored hits on two large freighters, which blew up and sank, while the bombers hit dock buildings and straddled two smaller cargo ships with their bombs. McMillan's aircraft was badly damaged by flak during this attack and was one of the two aircraft which failed to return.
Sunderland flying-boats of No. 230 Squadron had continued their long patrols over the Mediterranean, but in mid-February 1943 all but three of them were sent south to cover the Indian Ocean approaches to the Red Sea. Of the original group of New Zealanders who had been with the squadron in the earlier years, only navigator Flight Lieutenant R. P. Reid now remained to complete an exceptionally long tour of over two years. Squadron Leader D. N. Milligan, who had earlier completed an eventful period with Sunderlands, now became flight commander in an Australian Baltimore squadron, operating against enemy shipping in the Aegean Sea.
The work of the transport crews deserves special mention. From the start at El Alamein, they flew forward petrol, water, bombs, ammunition and a variety of other stores, and on their return flights carried back casualties to base hospitals; they also made it possible for fighter squadrons to leap ahead in the desert with the minimum of delay. Indeed, without their untiring and devoted efforts, things would have been very different; for instance, there would often have been no water at all for the men at the forward landing grounds. Here are a few extracts from what one New Zealand transport pilot wrote of his experiences at this time:
Everyone up forward was needing supplies and we were determined to see they got them. So night and day the Hudsons plied back and forth with their loads. Early on we helped establish a Hurricane fighter wing far ahead in Cyrenaica to strafe the retreating enemy. Our C.O. went ahead to locate the landing ground (no easy task) and set up some kind of flying control. A few hours later I flew the first Hudson on to that stony, bumpy, strip, and from then on Hudsons and Bombays landed in a steady stream with their cargo of petrol, oil, tentage, ammunition and rations. The next day we picked up the ground crews of the fighter wing. They piled in with all necessary equipment. There was no weighing of anything; it was left to the pilot's good sense to judge when he had enough on board. I fear many a Hudson flew at figures which would startle its makers but there was never an accident attributable to overloading. The Hurricane fighters went with the transports that day and no time was lost in refuelling them on arrival. They did their first operation the same afternoon.
… One day while flying low as usual, I spied two men vigorously waving their shirts in a rather remote part of the desert. Thinking they might be a couple of Huns or Italians who wished to be taken prisoner, I landed on rocky ground about half a mile away. Armed with sten guns we went towards the two waifs who presented a very ragged spectacle. It transpired that one was the wireless operator and the other chap a gunner from a torpedo Wellington which had attacked a tanker in Tobruk the night before the opening of the Alamein offensive. Their aircraft had succumbed to flak and crashed outside Tobruk about dusk. The two lads had travelled one hundred and seventy miles in nineteen days without water, except dew, and only one old tin of bully beef. They were exhausted, so we lost no time in getting them back to base.
As the advance continued, our transports were fully employed moving other squadrons forward to their newly acquired bases or on to new ones rapidly constructed by the Royal Engineers, whose efforts were little short of brilliant. We moved ourselves forward to El Adem, near Tobruk, and continued to operate from there—days and days of petrol to forward army columns at Msus and bombs to Soluch near Benghazi in readiness for the light bombers. Everyone laboured unceasingly, loading and unloading aircraft, very often on two sorties per day.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, AOC-in-C Middle East
Boston bombers take off in formation
‘Bombing up’ a Halifax
Salvage crews collect destroyed German aircraft at Daba airfield
Axis transport destroyed on the Derna road
Ploughed-up enemy airfield near Nofilia
According to a photographic interpretation officer, three tractors were used: one man ‘was a bit jerky in his driving’, the second ‘ploughed very closely’, and the third ‘was somewhat of an artist’.
A Hurricane tank-buster attacks enemy armour in Tunisia
A Baltimore squadron intelligence officer briefs aircrews
Grand Harbour, Malta
Spitfires on a Malta airfield. A Beaufighter comes in to land
Baltimores fly in formation to attack gun positions near Cassino
A bombed railway bridge at Arezzo
No. 111 Squadron Spitfires in Italy
Marauder crews in eastern Italy prepare to move off
South African Air Force Beaufighters make a rocket attack on Lussin Island, an enemy base for midget submarines
Early in January came orders to move on from El Adem. We arrived at Marble Arch in driving dust, and pitching camp was difficult. The desert was too stony to take tent pegs so it was necessary to dig up sufficient rock, to piles of which we anchored our flimsy homes. These air moves were strenuous; not enough time, not enough trucks, not enough water, not enough energy to last the long day. On one occasion one of our lads took his Hudson down to land just in front of me. There was a healthy sort of explosion as he touched off a mine and the rear of the aircraft disappeared entirely. Tempers sometimes frayed but generally everyone managed at least a show of cheerfulness. At night in the flapping mess tent by the light of Hurricane lamps we ate our meagre fare, but there was a solid feeling of success in this advance across the sands. Tripoli, an image of which everyone conjured up in their minds, was soon going to fall.
New Zealand pilots like Squadron Leader R. J. Chisholm and Flight Lieutenant R. D. Daniell had been among the pioneers of air transport in the Middle East. Now, in this third year, some forty Dominion airmen flew with the squadrons of No. 216 Transport Group while others held ground posts connected with air transport. Chisholm, for example, was attached to Air Vice-Marshal Coningham's headquarters during 1942 as his Air Transport Officer and then took command of a flight; Squadron Leader Neill,1 Squadron Leader Gow2 and Flight Lieutenant Halse3 were specialist navigation officers, while Flight Lieutenant Stewart4 commanded one of the staging posts set up to cover North Africa—these staging posts were small units that were stationed at remote airfields to service transport aircraft engaged on long flights between base and forward areas.
Brilliant successes in air supply operations were to be reserved for other theatres of war, but it was in the Middle East that RAF Air Transport made a firm beginning; indeed it was on the experience gained in the desert campaigns and the difficulties there overcome that the subsequent achievements were largely based. Meanwhile the efforts of the transport crews did not pass unnoticed. Here is a tribute to one phase of their work from 2 New Zealand Division:
Would you please convey to the air units involved the gratitude of the New Zealand Division for their help and co-operation during the recent fighting. The total of 420 cases safely evacuated by air from a position in close proximity to the enemy and virtually behind his lines would appear to be the largest undertaking of its kind so far in this theatre of war. By cutting out a journey of one hundred and sixty miles over rough desert tracks it must have saved many lives and spared our wounded a great deal of suffering and so contributed to their earlier recovery. The work of the pilots in landing all types of planes on improvised airfields under extremely bad conditions was most praiseworthy. May I also express my gratitude for the immediate response to all requests for assistance and supplies of blood and other stores which contributed greatly to the solving of our difficulties.5
* * * * *
For the capture of Tripoli marked the end of a definite phase in the African campaign. Eighth Army and Desert Air Force now became one jaw of an enormous pincers that was closing on Rommel's forces; the other was provided by the Allied forces under General Eisenhower which had landed in the western Mediterranean and were now moving forward across Algeria.