New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 5 — Algeria and Tunisia
THE landings in French North Africa took place on 8 November 1942, just sixteen days after the launching of the British offensive at El Alamein. Both American and British forces were employed in this great amphibious adventure, known as Operation torch, the aim of which was to occupy bases in North-west Africa and then advance on Tunisia to take Rommel's forces in the rear. For political reasons—the attitude of the local French leaders towards the British was anything but friendly—an American, Lieutenant-General Eisenhower, had been chosen to command the expedition and United States forces were sent ashore at Casablanca and Oran and initially at Algiers; but since British commanders and troops had had fighting experience, the British component was sent to the most easterly sector at Algiers in order to make the first advance into Tunisia. Strategically it would have been desir able to make the initial landings farther east but shortage of shipping and concern for the security of communications precluded this; the Royal Navy, which was providing surface escort, was also opposed to any landings being made east of Algiers because of the danger from German bombers in Sardinia and Sicily.
The huge convoys—in all some 500 merchant vessels and 350 war ships were involved—that sailed from the United Kingdom and the United States towards the end of October reached the Straits of Gibraltar unscathed, thanks to the unfailing efforts of the Royal Navy and Coastal Command and to the amazing success of our deception measures. The latter misled the enemy more completely than we had dared to hope. When the expedition was being assembled the Germans thought we were preparing to invade Norway, and when it entered the Mediterranean they assumed, as we intended, that it was bound for Malta. But we could not count on this happening so elaborate measures had been taken to safeguard the convoys during their passage. Indeed, all our resources were at full strain. Far to the north aircraft and warships watched the Denmark Strait and the exits from the North Sea to guard against intervention by enemy surface ships. Others covered the American approach from the Azores. Anglo-American bombers attacked the U-boat bases along the French Atlantic coast and Coastal Command aircraft patrolled to seaward.
Good fortune continued to favour the operation and convoys reached the assault areas with the loss of only one ship. Aircraft from page 105 Gibraltar did particularly valuable work by protecting them from air and U-boat attack. Indeed, our air base at Gibraltar was the key to the success of the whole enterprise. For without it our fighter squadrons could not have been quickly established in North Africa to provide the vital air cover. Moreover, in the early days of the invasion, ‘Gib’ airfield had necessarily to serve both as an operational base and as a staging point for aircraft making the passage from England to the African mainland. Several weeks before the actual assault it was crowded with fighter aircraft; and now every inch was taken up by either a Spitfire or a can of petrol. Fortunately the need had been foreseen, and during the previous months devoted efforts of the Royal Engineers had not only transformed the landing strip into a fully-tarmacked runway 100 yards wide and 1400 yards long—nearly a third of it protruding into the sea—but had also enlarged and resurfaced the dispersal areas alongside until they could take some six hundred aircraft. The airfield at Gibraltar, however, had one great disadvantage in that it lay on the Spanish border. Enemy agents could thus clearly see and report all this activity in the early days of November 1942; but fortunately, as already indicated, they failed to discern its true import.
The opposition to the landings proved less formidable than was expected. Algiers capitulated first; the port installations were found intact, the authorities readily co-operated and labour was soon available; and within a few hours RAF fighters were operating from the airfields at Maison Blanche and Blida. During the succeeding days further ports and bases in eastern Algeria were occupied by our troops without serious opposition and the building up of the British First Army was at once initiated in the Bone area. Stronger resistance was encountered by the assault forces at Oran and Casablanca but in a short time these ports, too, had been captured. Prompt action by General Eisenhower led to a pact with the French political leader, Admiral Darlan, and by 13 November all French resistance in Morocco and Algeria had ceased,1 Thus the expedition's first objective, a secure North African base, was quickly achieved.
Meanwhile, practically the entire German Mediterranean Air Force had been concentrated in Sardinia and Sicily and fighters and dive-bombers quickly established on Tunis airfields. Italian reinforcements of fighters and torpedo–bombers were also sent to Sardinia and some fighters joined the German contingent at Tunis. Thus, in spite of our air and sea attacks on his shipping and the bombing of his ports, the enemy rapidly succeeded in building a formidable force in northern Tunisia and in occupying the entire eastern coast. It was clear that Hitler had at last decided to give serious attention to Africa. All that he had denied to Rommel when the latter stood some chance of success, the German leader was now to pour into Tunisia. Far, far too late he had seen the red light. If he failed to hold a bridgehead in North Africa the Anglo–American armies might well walk into his ‘Fortress Europe’ by the back door.
Following the capture of Algiers, leading elements of the British First Army under Lieutenant–General Anderson had pushed eastwards in a desperate endeavour to overrun Tunisia before the enemy could transport sufficient troops to the scene to defend it. The distance from Algiers to Tunis is 560 miles; almost the whole of this region is very mountainous and it was then served by only two winding roads and an indifferent railway. Yet the First Army succeeded in advancing, by 28 November, to within sixteen miles of Tunis. But the race was already lost. At this point the Germans counter–attacked strongly with their tanks and dive–bombers; the latter were able to operate from good airfields only a short distance in the rear while our own fighter bases were as yet out of range. After a very gallant effort General Anderson's forces were therefore compelled to withdraw to Medjez el Bab, where they proceeded to build up their strength and improve their communications.
American troops and armour now gradually moved up from the west and French forces, which had thrown in their lot with the Allies, took up positions on the southern flank. But the military and political problems involved in the deployment of this Allied army with its diverse elements were acute; moreover, the appalling winter weather page 107 which now set in, and the continuing supply difficulties, combined to prevent the mounting of a new offensive. Indeed, for the next two months, the Allied troops were to be kept fully occupied in consolidating the northern sector and in beating off enemy attempts to get round their southern flank.
Both British and American squadrons—the former organised in an Eastern Air Command and the latter as Twelfth Air Force—were now operating in North–west Africa. Fighters protected the supply ports and patrolled over the forward areas; fighter–bombers helped the advancing ground forces and both medium and heavy bombers attacked enemy airfields and landing grounds in Tunisia. Transport, maritime reconnaissance and photographic aircraft also played their part. But, as with the Army, there were many difficulties during the initial stages which prevented full–scale operation of all the available units. The build–up of equipment, stores, services and maintenance facilities was slow, since almost everything had to be brought in by sea. More particularly, the absence of good airfields, the poor communications and the lack of any real integration of the different national forces, all tended to reduce the efficiency of the air effort. Most of the landing grounds did not have hard runways and they were soon turned to quagmires by the heavy winter rains. Efforts were made to lay steel matting but some 2000 tons of this—or two days' carrying capacity of the entire railway system in the forward area—were required for a single runway, and even when laid the steel matting tended simply to disappear into the mud.
The lack of airfields soon proved the greatest handicap to providing adequate support for the forward troops. Our advanced lines might be only a score of miles outside Tunis but our nearest airfield was still at Souk el Arba, sixty miles farther back. On it were soon crowded— apart from American aircraft which followed later—five squadrons of Spitfires; and maintenance facilities were such that, among them, the five squadrons could rarely muster more than forty–five serviceable aircraft. The small RAF bomber force, consisting of four squadrons of Bisleys, had to operate until the early days of December from as far back as Blida, outside Algiers. The enemy, on the other hand, had the advantage of concrete–surfaced airfields close to the battle area, and to which reinforcements could be flown from Sicily in thirty minutes in any weather. Consequently, in the first weeks of the campaign, our advanced troops were exposed to attacks from enemy dive–bombers which our fighters, with their bases so far back, were unable to prevent; indeed, up to mid–December, the Spitfires could only spend five or ten minutes of their patrol over our forward lines. Fortunately the enemy air attack, as General Alexander has recorded, was not on a serious page 108 scale when judged by the standards of later campaigns. But to inexperienced troops, it seemed terrific when there were no friendly fighters close at hand to be whistled up to drive off the offenders, and when there was also a shortage of light anti–aircraft ground weapons.
At the time there was criticism of the lack of air support. Some of it was perhaps justified, but many of the critics failed to appreciate the very great difficulties under which the air forces were labouring and the valiant efforts which were, in fact, being made to help the ground forces. For example, one day early in December, No. 18 Squadron, RAF, was ordered to bomb the enemy landing ground at Chouigui. Eleven Bisleys duly prepared to take off. One was held back by a burst tyre and another crash–landed after a few minutes' flight, but the remaining nine got under way successfully. Their task, the crews knew, would be far from enviable; the landing ground would be hotly defended, but since our Spitfires were fully occupied trying to protect our troops, the mission would have to be flown without escort; they would have no support other than a fighter sweep over the general area of the operation. As the Bisleys approached the target area their pilots saw a few of our Spitfires engaged high up with a swarm of Messerschmitts. Then the Germans dived down—some fifty or sixty of them—and within a few seconds our crews were fighting for their lives. One by one the Bisleys were hacked down until only four remained; these four, still maintaining formation, managed to reach our lines only to be shot down within sight of our troops.1
1 Almost the last to survive was the aircraft of Wing Commander H. G. Malcolm, who led the raid. For his determination in trying to fight his squadron through to its objective he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His name is commemorated in the Royal Air Force Malcolm Clubs, the first of which was opened some months later in Algiers.
The failure to capture Tunis in the first rush was a serious setback to Allied hopes and plans. All the same, the situation developing in North Africa at the end of 1942 gave the enemy little cause for satisfaction. For, in addition to the Allied invasion of Tunisia from the west, British land and air forces under Montgomery and Coningham, following their victorious advance from Egypt, were now closing in from the east. With their capture of Tripoli, Rommel had been forced back to the Mareth Line, a belt of fortifications built by the French to protect the Tunisian frontier; by mid–February 1943, advanced troops of Montgomery's Eighth Army had come up with the enemy rearguard at Ben Gardane. Bitterly contested battles might remain to be fought but the eventual link–up of the two Allied armies and their final conquest of Tunisia seemed reasonably certain.
For the better co–ordination of the Allied effort, General Eisenhower now assumed overall command in North Africa; General Alexander became his deputy and took charge of all the land forces. At the same time a new Mediterranean Air Command embracing all the Allied air forces in Tunisia, Malta and Tripolitania was established under Air Chief Marshal Tedder; and within this command there was created, under the leadership of Air Vice–Marshal Coningham, a single North-west African Tactical Air Force to lend close support to both the Army and Navy. Like other subordinate air commands, this was a genuine Anglo–American entity since it comprised not only the British Desert Air Force and RAF units from Eastern Air Command, but also the tactical squadrons from the United States Twelfth Air Force. Similarly, British and American maintenance units were now combined to form an Air Service Command. This mingling of British and American units and of their officers and men at all levels was a novel and remarkable feature at this period of the war; but it soon proved wholly beneficial. Indeed, it was here in North Africa that British and American servicemen first came to know each other, and by their mutual understanding and respect to lay the foundations for Anglo–American co–operation in the later campaigns.
The fight for Tunisia began in earnest during February 1943. And as might be expected, it was Rommel who struck first—against the American forces that had moved into central Tunisia and, by occupying Gafsa, threatened his link with von Arnim's army in the north. Employing his formidable 21 Panzer Division, he drove the Americans back and broke through the Kasserine Pass. Succeeding wonderfully at first, this thrust looked like taking our whole northern front in the rear, but it soon met with such fierce opposition that Rommel was compelled to withdraw. Our tactical air forces under Coningham played an important part in forcing this withdrawal, but the decisive factors were the resolute action taken by General Alexander and the stubborn defence offered by our ground forces. Rommel then turned his armour south and, on 6 March, flung it against Montgomery's Eighth Army at Medenine; but in the face of solid resistance on the ground and persistent attack from the air, this assault met with instant failure and the enemy force retired, discomfitted, leaving behind no fewer than fifty–two tanks. This battle of Medenine was Rommel's last throw and shortly afterwards, a sick and disillusioned man, he flew back to Germany.
Meanwhile, on the northern sector in Tunisia, attacks by von Arnim's army had been frustrated after some hard fighting in which the tactical air forces played a prominent part. During the first five days of March one RAF group flew over 1000 sorties against ground targets; frequent attacks both by fighters and bombers on landing grounds ruthlessly cut down the activity of the German fighter force; constant raids behind the enemy front also played havoc with his transport and supplies.
The initiative on land now passed to the Allies and in mid–March their armies began to close the ring. Progress on the northern front was at first slow, but in the south a spectacular victory was achieved by turning the Mareth Line. This move, in which the New Zealand Division played a prominent part, was made possible by the fact that our domination of the skies was now almost complete. Both before and during the assault at Mareth, attacks on enemy airfields kept the Luftwaffe virtually grounded and our troops were able to move forward unmolested from the air. The desert squadrons also played an important part in the land battle. When the outflanking force was held up south of El Hamma—the crucial obstacle was the narrow gap between the Djebel Tebaga and the Djebel Melab, only four miles wide and bristling with enemy guns—a truly formidable air blitz was laid on against the enemy positions. Three squadrons of escorted bombers opened the attack, coming in very low by an unusual route and achieving complete surprise. From then on two and a half squadrons of page 112 Kitty–bombers, briefed first to bomb individual positions and then to shoot up the enemy gun teams, were directed to the area every fifteen minutes. Half an hour after the first bomb fell the New Zealand infantry went forward, preceded by a creeping barrage which gave pilots an unmistakable bomb line; and all the time Spitfires patrolling high above kept the air clear of the enemy. More than once the enemy attempted to mass his tanks, but on each sign of this Hurricane ‘tank–busters’ swept in and broke up the concentration. ‘The battlefield and the rear areas were covered with smoking and burning vehicles,’ writes Montgomery's Chief of Staff. ‘Never before had our Desert Air Force given us such superb, such gallant and such intimate support.’ And so it was. Within just over two hours the supporting squadrons, at a cost of eleven pilots, had flown 412 sorties; and the enemy defenders, disorganised and demoralised, had yielded the key points to our troops. Our armour passed through the bottleneck virtually unscathed and the Mareth Line was turned.
The Eighth Army thereupon followed up rapidly to Wadi Akarit, another position of great natural strength, but here the enemy stay was brief. By the end of April his forces, fiercely attacked on the ground and mercilessly hammered from the air, were in full retreat. Not until they had covered the entire coastal plain and reached the high ground beyond Enfidaville, more than 150 miles to the north, did they stop. Important airfields now fell into our hands, notably the group near Kairouan, which brought the Allied tactical air forces in North Africa within striking distance of any target in that part of Tunisia which still remained to the enemy. At the same time the Eighth Army was able to join up on the left with the American troops, so linking the Allied ground forces in one continuous front.
All this while the medium and heavy bombers, including those now based at Malta, had continued to attack the ports and airfields of Tunisia, Sardinia, Sicily and southern Italy. In conjunction with the Coastal Air Force, they were also waging a determined campaign against enemy convoys. Until mid–February many enemy vessels were able to slip across the narrow seas between Sicily and Tunisia under cover of thick weather, but with clearer skies such attempts became increasingly hazardous. During March, in spite of fierce opposition in the air, British and American aircraft sank no fewer than twenty German and Italian ships making for Tunisia. At the same time our own vessels, protected by the vigilance of our air and naval forces, were able to carry supplies to Bone and Tripoli almost with impunity.
By the beginning of April, the bombing of Tunis, Bizerta and the south Italian ports, coupled with increasing success against convoys at sea, had brought the enemy supply system to the verge of collapse. In these desperate straits he began to make still greater use of air transport, flying a daily average of something like 150 sorties on the routes page 113 to Tunisia. It availed him little since our air forces played havoc with this traffic. On 5 April, for example, twenty–six German aircraft were destroyed in the air and thirty–nine on the ground, besides damage to another sixty–seven; the Italian losses are unknown. A few days later, British and American fighters sweeping over the Narrows shot down twenty–four German Ju52s and fourteen escorts; many of the transports were carrying fuel and they blew up in spectacular fashion. There was further slaughter on 18 April when RAF Spitfires and American Warhawks intercepted about one hundred Ju52s under escort near Cape Bon. Within a few seconds the shore below was strewn with blazing wreckage, fifty–two German machines being destroyed for the loss on the Allied side of seven. The next day our fighters massacred yet another formation and thereafter the enemy confined his transports to minor operations by night. On 22 April, however, he rashly committed a consignment of petrol to Messerschmitt 323s—huge six-engined glider–type aircraft. Intercepted over the Gulf of Tunis by large forces of Spitfires and Kittyhawks, the enemy formation was mown down almost to the last aircraft. In less than three weeks, according to German records, well over one hundred German transport aircraft had been destroyed for the loss of thirty–five aircraft on our side. Coming hard on top of an equally prodigal expenditure at Stalingrad, this was a grievous blow to the enemy transport fleets as well as to their hopes of staving off defeat in Tunisia.
The last phase of the land campaign opened on 20 April with an attack by the Eighth Army at Enfidaville. The enemy positions were captured after hard fighting, but the mountains beyond proved a more difficult proposition and the advance slowed down. This mattered little, however, since General Alexander had already planned to deliver his main blow against Tunis on the northern sector, where the First Army along with the Americans and French had been steadily pressing forward during the past month despite repeated counter–attacks. Here, on 5 May, the final advance began under close and heavy support from Coningham's tactical air force, which flew over one thousand sorties a day—bombers and fighter–bombers attacking troop positions and fighters maintaining complete mastery over the battlefield. British forces, including Eighth Army formations transferred to this sector, quickly broke through enemy defences in front of Tunis and then, after occupying the town, wheeled east and broke through strong positions at Hammamet to reach the Cape Bon peninsula. Meanwhile American forces had smashed their way into Bizerta. Within a week the enemy had no intact formations, except those facing the Eighth Army, and these were now taken in the rear. One by one units surrendered until, on 13 May, the whole force was ordered to lay down its arms.page 114
In addition to vast quantities of arms and equipment, almost all the enemy troops remaining in Tunisia—just over 250,000—were now captured; for when the remnants of the German and Italian armies reached the beaches on the Cape Bon peninsula, they found no boats— nor any aircraft either. In the face of our air and naval control of the narrow seas, Hitler and Mussolini had wisely decided not to attempt a ‘Dunkirk’. Had they done so they would have immediately brought into operation an elaborate series of counter–measures already devised by our air and naval commanders under the rather appropriate code-name ofretribution. In the circumstances our air forces were able to turn their attention to targets in Sicily, Italy and Pantellaria in preparation for the next stage in Allied strategy.
So ended the war in Africa—a war which, though the numbers engaged were small compared with the vast armies on the Russian front, was yet of profound strategic significance. For the whole of the southern coast of the Mediterranean had been cleared of the enemy and its northern shores were now open to assault; Allied shipping, although still not entirely immune from air and U–boat attack, could now move more freely between Gibraltar and Alexandria. Moreover, the long years of fighting in North Africa had broken the spirit and power of Italy, and although the effect on Germany was less severe, it was quite considerable; she had also lost some of her best fighting troops and her air force had been badly mauled. On the Allied side much had been learnt that was to be of the greatest value in the future, especially the technique and experience of co–operation between the two great nations and between their land, sea and air forces. There had also emerged not only skilled and seasoned Allied soldiers and airmen, but also highly competent Allied staffs and commanders, all of whom were soon destined to win a campaign of far greater import in Europe. Victory would certainly not have crowned that campaign so swiftly or at such little cost but for the lessons learned amid the rocks and sand of North Africa.
During the long campaign the Royal Air Force, including men and squadrons from the Dominion air forces, had played a vital, perhaps a decisive part. It had won the freedom of the skies against fierce opposition; it had kept the enemy short of supplies while safeguarding our own; it had preserved the Eighth Army in retreat and speeded it in advance. At every stage from the first attack on Italian landing grounds that morning in June 1940 to the last raid at Bou Ficha on 12 May 1943, the aircrews and ground staff of the RAF had shown indomitable spirit. And as Tedder told them in his final Order of the Day, they had now ‘by magnificent team work …. together with their comrades on land and sea thrown the enemy out of Africa.’ They had ‘shown the world the unity and strength of air power’ and after ‘a grand job well finished page 115 they faced their next task with the knowledge that they had thrashed the enemy and were determined to thrash him again.’
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Through these months when the enemy was being finally driven out of Africa, New Zealanders shared in all phases of the air activity; they flew as fighter pilots, as bomber captains and aircrew, with the maritime reconnaissance squadrons and as pilots of photographic, transport and air–sea rescue machines; they also flew some of the ‘special duty’ aircraft which, among other things, continued to supply the resistance movements in southern Europe, especially the gallant band of patriots fighting under Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia. There was, moreover, a small group of men, about ninety in all, who did valuable work in various ground duties, notably as radar mechanics and fitter-armourers. By mid–1943 a total of 750 New Zealand airmen had seen service with the RAF in the Middle East, of whom 115 had lost their lives.
A relatively large number of men held positions of leadership during the North African campaign and it is particularly interesting to record that two of the main Allied operational commands were, in fact, held by Dominion airmen: Air Vice–Marshal Coningham directed the North–west African Tactical Air Forces and Air Vice–Marshal Park was in control of all RAF operations from Malta. During the battle for Tunisia, Coningham worked in close collaboration with General Alexander, commander of the Allied ground forces, and in his despatch Alexander pays high tribute to Coningham's handling of the tactical air operations and to the invaluable support that his formations gave to the Army. Sir Keith Park's conduct of air operations from Malta, both in support of the invasion of French North Africa and the advance of the Eighth Army into Tunisia, earned equal praise.
1 Group Captain L. H. Anderson; born Lower Hutt, 5 Aug 1910; joined RAF 1930; permanent commission 1936; commanded No. 217 Sqdn 1940; commanded No. 1 EFTS, South Africa, 1941; CFI No. 4 SFTS, South Africa, 1941–42; commanded Wings in Middle East, 1942–43; SASO No. 201 Group, Middle East, 1943; commanded No. 247 Wing, Middle East, 1943–44; RAF Station, Berka, 1944; No. 4 Combined Air Observation, Navigation and Bombing School, South Africa, 1941–44; SASO No. 25 Group, 1944–45.
2 Group Captain M. W. B. Knight, DFC, Legion of Merit (US); RAF; born Dannevirke, 8 Jul 1916; joined RAF 1935; commanded No. 485 (NZ) Sqdn 1941; Operations Staff, HQ NWAAF, 1943; Planning Staff, HQ MAAF, 1944; commanded RAF Stations, Ismailia and Ramat David, 1945.
Dominion airmen were in action during the initial stages of the invasion of French North Africa. Flying Hudsons on anti–submarine patrols from Gibraltar and subsequently from Blida in North Africa, Squadron Leader Patterson,4 Flight Lieutenant Holmes5 and Flying Officers Ensor,6 Mitchell7 and Poole8 had particularly good hunting. Just before the actual landings, Poole attacked two U–boats in the course of a single patrol; Patterson shared in the destruction of another and Ensor blew one to pieces off Algiers in what has been described as the most spectacular U–boat attack of the whole war. Holmes made five damaging attacks in thirteen days. Indeed, the effort and achievement of these men during the first month were truly remarkable and they resulted in Ensor and Patterson being made members of the Distinguished Service Order, and Holmes, Poole and Mitchell receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross.9
Long–range Hurricane fighters also helped to escort convoys. One day Sergeant Ashworth10 of No. 253 Squadron sighted a Ju88 attempting to attack some of our ships. He dived on to its tail and opened fire, then had to break away as bits and pieces flew around him. Both engines of the bomber caught fire and it crashed into the sea. Ashworth's squadron was among the first to operate from North Africa; the Hurricanes actually flew into the airfield at Maison Blanche within an hour of its capture and at once continued their long–range fighter patrols over shipping in the approaches to Algiers and along the coast.
2 Wing Commander H. L. Willcox; born Invercargill, 7 Nov 1907; joined RAF 1935; permanent commission 1938; staff duties, DGMS, Air Ministry, 1940–42; SMO No. 153 Wing, 1942; SMO No. 17 Group, 1942; DPMO, AHQ North Africa, 1943–44; DPMO, HQ Med. and ME, 1944; DPMO, HQ Coastal Command, 1945.
4 Squadron Leader I. C. Patterson, DSO, m.i.d.; born Auckland, 19 Aug 1917; farming and electrical engineering; joined RAF 15 Mar 1939; transferred RNZAF 1 Dec 1943; Atlantic Ferry 1940–41; Operations Staff, Azores, 1943–44.
9 Details of their exploits have already been recorded in Volume I, Chapter 14.
Squadron Leader Carlson1 led one of the first Spitfire squadrons that flew in from Gibraltar to operate in defence of bases and ports and subsequently in support of General Anderson's First Army. Carlson and his pilots had already done good work with Fighter Command in the United Kingdom and they set about their new duties with zeal and confidence; in their first fortnight's operations they claimed nineteen enemy bombers destroyed, three more probably destroyed and six damaged. It was during this period that Flying Officer ‘Paddy’ Chambers,2 who flew with Carlson, performed one of the outstanding individual feats of the campaign by shooting down four enemy bombers in a single sortie. This was on 28 November when he was patrolling over a convoy off Algiers. Five Italian Savoia 79s approached to bomb the ships, but Chambers came in from above and behind and attacked four of them in turn before his aircraft was damaged and ammunition exhausted; the fifth Italian bomber was last seen scurrying out to sea.
Two other Spitfire pilots prominent in the early weeks of the campaign were Flight Lieutenant Henry3 and Flying Officer Porteous4 with No. 93 Squadron; Henry served as flight commander. The work of Flight Lieutenant Buchanan5 who flew a photographic Spitfire also deserves mention. His highly successful flights over North Africa won him the United States Air Medal, the first such award made to a British pilot in this theatre.
5 Wing Commander R. C. Buchanan, DFC, Air Medal (US); born Mataura, 15 May 1921; civil engineering cadet; joined RNZAF Apr 1941; commanded No. 682 (PR) Sqdn 1944–45; Wing Leader No. 336 PR Wing, 1945.
6 Wing Commander J. H. Player, DSO, DFC; born Auckland, 13 Jul 1914; joined RAF 1937; commanded No. 255 Sqdn 1942–43; Personal Staff Officer, AOC–in–C, AEAF, 1944–45; staff duties, DG of P, Air Ministry, 1945; died of injuries received in flying accident, 8 Aug 1947.
Among the fighter pilots who flew tactical reconnaissance in support of the First Army's advance into Tunisia were Flying Officers Neill1 and Short2 of No. 225 Hurricane Squadron. Apart from the difficulties of operating from bases far to the rear, the pilots had to face sharp enemy opposition in the air. Their Hurricanes were not only heavily outnumbered but were also outmatched in performance by most of the fighters the enemy was operating. Early in December Short was shot down in an encounter with six Messerschmitts, but although wounded managed to get back to his base, seventy miles away, the same day. Two months later he was again shot down, this time well behind the enemy lines, where he was promptly captured and sent to a prisoner– of–war camp at Modena in Italy. But there his stay was brief. Early in September 1943 he escaped in company with two other New Zealanders, Lieutenant D. W. Hodge, 2 NZEF,3 and Flying Officer Duncan.4 Italian civilians gave them clothes and bicycles on which they got away to the hills. Here they spent the winter in precarious circumstances— some partisans with whom they made contact were ambushed by the Germans and lost half their number—but eventually, in the spring of 1944 when travelling conditions improved, Short and Duncan were able to move north and, after a hazardous crossing of the Alps, reached Switzerland and freedom. Hodge was recaptured.
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4 Flight Lieutenant W.R. Duncan; born Stirling, 19 Nov 1917; clerk; joined RNZAF 19 Jan 1941; prisoner of war 13 Sep 1942; safe in neutral territory 5 Apr 1944. Duncan had been captured just before the Battle of El Alamein. Returning from a bombing raid, engine failure had compelled his aircraft to force–land some sixty miles south of Mersa Matruh. He had walked for six days with very little food and water before he was captured.
As the campaign in Tunisia progressed, fighter pilots were kept busy in patrol and attack against enemy formations and in support of our ground forces. Flying Officer Hardy1 had a particularly successful career with No. 72 Spitfire Squadron, winning both the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar. He not only destroyed several enemy aircraft but also took part in many attacks on ground targets, particularly during the battles at Tebourba and Djedeida.
Flight Lieutenants Mackie2 and J. K. Porteous were frequently in action with No. 243 Spitfire Squadron. On patrol over the First Army front near Medjez el Bab early in April, the squadron intercepted fifteen Junkers 87 dive–bombers escorted by Messerschmitt fighters; the bombers jettisoned their bombs and fled for cloud cover, but the Spitfires closed in and shot down at least five of them and attacked most of the others. That day Mackie destroyed two Ju87s. Three days later he blew up a Messerschmitt in mid–air and it exploded so close to his Spitfire that oil sprayed the windscreen. The following week Porteous and Mackie were both leading flights when the squadron met a formation of Messerschmitt fighter–bombers; a running air battle followed in which Mackie shot down one enemy fighter while Porteous destroyed a second and damaged two more. Another New Zealander with the squadron, Sergeant Towgood,3 accounted for a Ju88 fighter during an attack on an enemy road convoy retreating towards Tunis.
The exploits of Squadron Leader Colin Gray4 during the campaign are of particular interest. Veteran of the Battle of Britain and early fighter operations over France, Gray came to Tunis in January 1943 to command No. 81 Spitfire Squadron. A few days after his arrival, he was leading a flight on patrol off Cap Rosa when four Me109s were sighted and in the ensuing battle Gray and his pilots shot down three of the enemy without loss. A few weeks later Gray shot down a Macchi 202, then towards the end of March he brought down the German ace, von Muller, who was credited with over one hundred victories. This action took place during a dogfight west of Beja, Gray surprising Muller while he was intent on attacking another Spitfire. Coming in from above and behind, Gray saw his cannon shells strike the port wing–root of Muller's Messerschmitt; one leg of the undercarriage dropped and then the tell–tale glycol began to spurt. As his Messerschmitt started to go down Muller baled out and was captured.
2 Wing Commander E. D. Mackie, DSO, DFC and bar, DFC (US); born Waihi, 31 Oct 1917; electrician; joined RNZAF 19 Jan 1941; commanded No. 92 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943–44; commanded No. 80 Sqdn and Wing Leader, No. 122 Wing, 1945.
4 Wing Commander C. F. Gray, DSO, DFC and 2 bars; RAF; born Christchurch, 9 Nov 1914; joined RAF Jan 1939; commanded Nos. 403, 616, 64 and 81 Sqdns, 1941–43; Wing Leader, Malta, Sicily, Europe, 1943–45; commanded RAF Station, Skeabrae, 1945; Directorate of Air Foreign Liaison, 1947–49; British Joint Services Mission, Washington, 1949–52.
Gray shot down four more enemy aircraft over Tunisia. One of these victories came after an eventful flight. He had just taken off to lead the squadron on a sweep when he noticed that his engine was running rather roughly; he was about to call up and report the situation before landing to check the trouble when he saw bombs bursting on the airfield he had just left. Gray immediately forgot all about the engine trouble in his determination to attack the eight FW190s which had dropped the bombs and he set off after them. But the Germans were above the Spitfires and their greater height enabled them to draw away by diving in the direction of their base at Bizerta. Returning from the hopeless pursuit, Gray suddenly sighted two Messerschmitt 109s flying low over the hills. He turned towards them and was soon engaged in a fight with one. Several minutes of crazy flying followed with both pilots skimming low over the hills, each seeking a favourable position from which to fire at the other. Several times Gray opened fire and saw his cannon shells hitting the hilltops and kicking up spurts of dust. Eventually a burst found its mark and a trail of white smoke indicated that the Messerschmitt was leaking glycol. Thereupon the German pilot manoeuvred to gain height and, at about 1500 feet, he baled out. Gray then landed back at base and had his engine inspected.
During April, Gray frequently led his squadron as cover to American Warhawks engaged on intercepting the German transport aircraft that flew over from Sicily in great aerial trains. The biggest day was on 18 April when about 100 Ju52s, heavily escorted by both single and twin–engined fighters, were intercepted and over fifty of them are reported to have been shot down. Pilot Officer Montgomerie,1 Flight Sergeant Peart,2 and Sergeants Plummer3 and Robinson4 all flew with Gray's No. 81 Squadron during the Tunisian campaign.
Five more Spitfire pilots who saw a good deal of action in the later stages were Flight Lieutenants D. J. V. Henry and Pilot Officer S. F. Browne5 of No. 93 Squadron, Flying Officers Fowler6 and Hogan7 of No. 111 Squadron, and Pilot Officer Shaw8 of No. 72 Squadron.
Between them they destroyed at least six enemy machines in the air and also did good work in attacks on grounded aircraft and enemy transport. One April sortie in which Fowler and Hogan took part had an unusual sequel. Flying a long–range sweep off the coast in search of enemy shipping, the Spitfires saw a formation of Ju52 air transports below them escorted, so it appeared, by only a few fighters; but as the squadron swooped to the attack about twenty German and Italian fighters came down on them from above and a sharp engagement followed. Hogan managed to shoot down one Macchi 202 and hit three others; Fowler dived on another fighter and shot it down into the sea but was promptly shot down himself from behind. Although slightly injured and dazed by the shock, he managed to crash–land his Spitfire on the beach, but when he scrambled out he found an Arab covering him with a gun. Shortly afterwards a German officer appeared and Fowler soon found himself in hospital at Tunis, where his head was stitched and his legs bandaged. A few days later when he was able to sit up he discovered that nearly all the other wounded were German, but warned by a French nurse, he feigned delirium and so avoided being sent to Italy. Fifteen days later when the British entered Tunis he was able to slip away and return to his squadron. There, as often happened, he found that he had been given up for lost, his belongings packed and sent away and letters of condolence written to his people; but the squadron made amends with a good party.
Among the bomber crews, Flying Officer Dumont1 and Flight Sergeant McCullum2 both distinguished themselves in operations with the Bisley squadrons that supported the First Army in northern Tunisia. The Bisley, a development of the Blenheim night bomber, had neither the speed nor the armament for daylight sorties, but as the episode of Wing Commander Malcolm already related makes clear, the crews showed great gallantry in their attacks. During Rommel's thrust north through the Kasserine Pass Dumont made an exceptionally good attack against enemy transport in the actual pass. With heavy clouds covering both sides of the valley and the mountains above, he had to approach his target almost at ground level, but he succeeded in dropping his bombs among vehicles on the road and returned safely. Flight Sergeant McCullum was invariably chosen for all special sorties involving bombing near friendly troops and for night intruder work, since ‘his accurate navigation had made his crew the most outstanding in the squadron.’
Two squadrons of Wellington bombers had joined Eastern Air Command in December 1942 to operate against enemy ports and airfields both in Tunisia and Italy; at periods of heavy land fighting they also gave close support to General Anderson's First Army. Squadron Leader Holmes,1 Flight Lieutenant Hanlon2 and Sergeant P. G. F. Smith3 of No. 150 Squadron, and Flying Officer Allen4 of No. 142 Squadron, each captained Wellingtons on many such missions. In one April raid on El Aouina airfield at Tunis, the weather was particularly foul and Sergeant Smith was the only pilot to locate the target; his incendiaries enabled seventeen other crews to find and bomb this important air base on which was parked the main strength of the enemy air forces remaining in Tunisia.
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New Zealanders also continued to operate with the squadrons that supported Montgomery's Eighth Army as it advanced into Tunisia. Squadron Leader L. J. Joel, for example, was with No. 232 Wing, flying Baltimore light bombers. During the battle of the Mareth Line, these versatile machines made nine attacks on a single afternoon. Flying Officer P. N. McGregor and Pilot Officer J. B. Paton flew Hurricane tank–busters which operated with outstanding success during the same battle and, indeed, throughout the campaign.
I was leading Kittyhawk dive bombers against the German positions at El Hamma in Tunisia. We had been instructed to dive bomb the 88 mm gun flashes and then strafe anything moving. I strafed a moving truck which, unfortunately for me, blew up and damaged the engine of my aircraft. Flames started to appear, so I throttled back and carried on for some time before belly landing among small sand dunes. The impact badly damaged the aircraft and also broke the safety straps, causing me to knock myself out on the gun sight. The next thing I recall was having two menacing Arabs standing over me with an old–fashioned gun. I was taken to their camp nearby and in a few minutes a German truck arrived and an officer immediately applied first aid, and I was treated with the utmost consideration.
A few days later I was placed in a cattle truck at Sfax with forty others, and during the night I produced a small saw from my shoe, and taking turns we managed to saw the door down. Grouping ourselves in fours we jumped off the moving train and proceeded westwards towards the First Army.
After walking all night and all the next day, we finally came to a main road carrying fairly heavy enemy transport. We waited for a gap in the traffic and then dashed across, but unfortunately we were sighted by Arabs working in the fields. About thirty or forty of them joined in the chase, armed with hoes and other implements, and we were finally surrounded and knocked down. A German truck stopped very shortly afterwards and four German soldiers bashed six of the Arabs with their rifle butts, and we were once again in captivity on the way to Tunis, where no other occasion presented itself for escape.
Three New Zealand pilots, Wing Commanders J. J. McKay, J. E. S. Morton and D. R. Bagnall, were each in control of heavy bombers during the final campaign in North Africa. McKay commanded the only RAF squadron yet equipped with American Liberator aircraft and his fine leadership of this unit won him admission to the Distinguished Service Order. He had taken over at a time when the Liberators were operating from a desert base where maintenance and servicing facilities were anything but adequate; replacement crews and aircraft spares were also scarce, ‘but despite these difficulties,’ says the record, ‘by determined effort he built up the squadron and obtained the maximum operational flying, at one period undertaking several consecutive sorties himself.’ Morton and Bagnall did similar good work in command of No. 40 Squadron, which flew Wellington bombers. Morton, who had already completed a tour of operations over Germany, joined as flight commander in August 1942. He operated over the Western Desert and then, for a time, from Malta, where he led attacks on Bizerta, Tunis and targets in Italy. He was promoted to command the squadron when it moved to North Africa and by the end of March 1943 he had flown over sixty bombing missions. Bagnall then took over and led the squadron for the remainder of the campaign. He soon proved himself a highly efficient commander and during April his crews made no fewer than 195 sorties—a remarkable effort since the squadron was still equipped with an obsolescent type of Wellington that was difficult to keep flying and was also inferior in performance to the types flown by other units.
With the Coastal Air Force, Wing Commander R. M. Mackenzie led a squadron of Beaufighters which had notable success in attacks on supply ships. Squadron Leader R. E. Bary was in command of Hurricanes which operated from a Western Desert base in the less spectacular but very important role of protecting convoys sailing between Egypt and Malta.
Transport crews also continued to play their part, bringing forward supplies and evacuating casualties. As the advance into Tunisia reached its climax, over 200 casualties a day were being flown back to the newly established hospitals in North Africa and in the Delta area. The work of the pilots in landing all types of transport aircraft on improvised airfields, often under extremely difficult conditions, was most praiseworthy; and by substituting swift air travel for long journeys over desert tracks they undoubtedly saved many lives and spared the wounded a great deal of suffering.
Thus, in their various roles, did pilots and aircrews play their part during the final months of the North African campaign. And now as their squadrons moved northwards through Tunisia, through the soft and green countryside, with its olive plantations that were such a pleasure to the eye, they found themselves members of a large and purposeful Allied organisation, bent on carrying the war across the narrow seas to the enemy. Just what lay ahead the squadrons did not know. But there were great things obviously, for Prime Minister Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt had already met at Casablanca and their plans must now be taking shape in the higher command.
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Fortunately, however, while the airfields in the Western Desert changed hands many times, there was one air base which the British never lost, one which had an enormous influence upon the whole course of the Mediterranean campaign on land and sea. This was the island of Malta.