New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 8 — Italy
THE Sicilian campaign had brought Italy to the verge of collapse. Mussolini was now deposed and Marshal Badoglio had formed a government with the object of seeking peace. But Italian hopes of negotiating a surrender independently of the Germans were slender because Mussolini had permitted, or had been forced to accept, the infiltration of many Germans, all of whom were ready to pounce at the first sign of defection and take over the country.
In spite of German watchfulness, however, the Italian Government did succeed in making contact with the Allies, whereupon, as General Eisenhower records, there began a series of negotiations, secret communications, clandestine journeys by secret agents and frequent meetings in hidden places that, if encountered in the fictional world, would have been scorned as incredible melodrama. Plots of various kinds were hatched, only to be abandoned because of changing circumstances. For instance, there was a plan to land a large airborne force in the vicinity of Rome but, at the last moment, the movement of German reserves forced cancellation of the project. Negotiations dragged on throughout August. They were very intricate since they involved the still strong Italian Fleet, the remnants of Italian air forces and the Italian troops throughout the peninsula and in the Balkans. Marshal Badoglio was also much concerned about the difficulty of making a surrender effective, unless sufficient Allied forces could arrive to support his Government. It was finally agreed to announce an armistice on the eve of the Allied invasion, but by that time the Germans had discovered what was happening; they closed in on Rome and quickly overawed and disarmed the Italian divisions throughout the country. Badoglio and the King had to flee from Rome but the Allies did gain possession of the Italian Fleet; it sailed from its bases at Genoa, Spezia, and Taranto to surrender at Malta.
It was thus in an atmosphere of considerable uncertainty that General Eisenhower laid his plans for invading the Italian mainland. He had to take special account of the German dispositions; for at the time they had sixteen divisions in Italy—eight in the north under Rommel, two near Rome and six farther south under Kesselring—and these powerful forces might well be reinforced from Germany. The British and Americans on the other hand had command of the air and of the sea, which might enable them to avoid a long and difficult campaign in southern Italy. In the circumstances, Eisenhower decided to begin the assault with an attack across the Messina Straits by Montgomery's Eighth Army. This would be quickly followed by the landing page 188 of British and American units of the Fifth Army under Lieutenant- General Mark Clark in the Gulf of Salerno—the farthest point up the west coast of Italy which could be covered by our fighters now based in Sicily. It was hoped to gain the ports of Naples and Taranto quickly since their combined facilities would be needed to supply the forces it was intended to use. The early capture of airfields was also a prime aim, especially the important group at Foggia,1 from which our heavy bombers would be able to attack targets in eastern Germany and in Rumania.
As soon as the Sicilian campaign ended the Allied forces began preparations for carrying out this plan. Units of the Eighth Army concentrated in the east of Sicily and those of the Fifth Army in the west, while other forces assembled in the North African ports. Simultaneously the air assault on the Italian mainland was intensified. Here the main targets were railways and airfields, the intention being to isolate the Germans in southern Italy and to drive what remained of the Luftwaffe from its landing grounds. During the last fortnight of August, 736 heavy bomber, 1696 medium, 88 light and 1009 fighter-bomber sorties were flown with this object. Most effective attacks on the Foggia marshalling yards were delivered on 19 and 25 August; they undid all the work of repair which had been laboriously completed after the heavy raids of the previous month. The weight of the air attacks increased during the last week of August when the marshalling yards at Salerno, Bagnoli, Taranto, Aversa, Battipaglia and the airfields at Foggia, Capua and Grazzanise were all heavily bombed. Altogether some 3000 tons of explosives fell on railway targets as far north as Pisa.
1 Two miles outside the town lay the large Gino Lisa airfield and on the surrounding plain the Germans had laid out an extensive satellite system of twelve more landing grounds with runways of from 200 to 1700 yards. These could handle hundreds of aircraft, and through them Allied Tactical Air Forces would be able to reinforce the Italian front on a large scale before handing the bases over to the strategic bombers.
The fighter squadrons, among them No. 322 Wing led by Wing Commander Colin Gray, continued to fly offensive sweeps and to escort light bombers to their targets. For the most part they met little opposition from the Luftwaffe, but there were occasional air fights. On one day towards the end of August Spitfires of No. 81 Squadron were escorting Bostons to bomb a railway junction in south-west Italy when Messerschmitts attacked. Flight Sergeant W. J. Robinson went after one of them and kept up a stream of fire which ripped off large pieces; the German pilot baled out and his aircraft broke in half as it spiralled into the sea. Simultaneously Pilot Officer A. M. Peart engaged and shot down another Messerschmitt. Then Robinson saw one of the German fighters dive to sea level and turn inland. He set off in pursuit, firing bursts every now and then as the two fighters twisted and weaved their way inland among the hills; then suddenly, as hits began to register, the Messerschmitt pilot tried to turn steeply in a narrow valley; one wing tip touched the side of a hill and a second later the German fighter crashed in a cloud of smoke and flame.
Another New Zealander who saw action at this time was Flight Sergeant Simms;1 he was radio observer in a Beaufighter which shot down a Dornier 217 bomber over the straits. This was one of the few successes scored by the night-fighter pilots who maintained regular patrols over the assemblage of British troops and landing craft at Messina.
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At Salerno, where the landings began at dawn on 9 September, events took a very different course. Here the region to be assaulted was very strong, since the narrow coastal plain which borders the Gulf of Salerno is dominated by the hills and mountains which surround it on all sides but one. Moreover, strong and determined forces were available to dispute our landings. For Kesselring, despite the confusion caused by the Italian armistice, was determined to defend Rome and he had reacted to the threat of invasion in this area with speed and resolution; German troops had already taken over the coastal defences, and as the approach of the Allied armada became known, reinforcements began moving towards Salerno.
During the previous week the Allied air forces had done their utmost to make things as difficult as possible for the enemy. As well as attacking enemy-occupied airfields, they had bombed roads and railways leading to what was to be the battlefield—to the north at Aversa, Villa Literno, Grosseto, Cancello and Salerno itself; to the east of Battipaglia and Potenza, and to the south at Cosenza, Lauria and Sapri. At first these attacks met with some opposition from the Luftwaffe, as many as fifty fighters at a time seeking to intercept the daylight raids, but by the first week of September the enemy effort had lessened considerably; the bombing of his fighter fields had had its effect. Meanwhile our Tactical and Coastal squadrons, operating from bases in North Africa, Malta and Sicily, were covering the approach of the assault forces. The Coastal squadrons, had already, since the beginning of July, protected some 140 convoys, of which those moving to Salerno were the latest; and on patrol pilots and crews had sighted and attacked twenty-one enemy submarines.
From the moment the first troops set foot ashore at Salerno, British and American fighters, including some from aircraft carriers, were on patrol overhead. The Lightnings, Mustangs and Spitfires, which came from airfields in Sicily, had to fly between 175 to 220 miles to the scene of action. They were enabled to do so by the use of long-range petrol tanks which could be jettisoned when empty; but even with this addition to their petrol supply, the RAF Spitfires could spend barely half an hour above the beaches, so that squadrons had to succeed each other throughout the day. Yet despite this great disadvantage our page 191 fighter pilots did, for the most part, keep the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs away from the landing areas. German bombers, however, managed to score a number of successes against our shipping off the coast, the most notable being the severe damage inflicted on HMS Warspite by two radio-controlled glider bombs.1 She was forced to withdraw from the scene and remained out of action for six months. Meanwhile our own light and fighter-bombers were active against enemy strongpoints by day while Beaufighters continued with patrols and attacks each night. And all the time our heavy and medium bombers continued to strike at roads, railway junctions and bridges in the area of Naples and in the neighbourhood of the Volturno River in order to restrict enemy movement towards the battle area. The most successful of these operations was that directed against the two bridges at Capua which were almost completely destroyed.
Thus supported by their comrades in the air, our ground forces quickly won a foothold at Salerno despite sharp opposition; and during the first few days they made good progress towards establishing a substantial bridgehead. But on the fourth day the Germans launched a fierce counter-attack, during which the numerically inferior Allied divisions came under heavy fire from well-sited long-range guns; within the next forty-eight hours the whole situation deteriorated seriously, the Germans driving forward at one point on the American front to within sight of the beaches. ‘The outlook began to be somewhat gloomy,’ writes General Eisenhower, ‘for it now seemed probable that the invasion forces might be divided and overwhelmed.’ But at this critical moment Air Chief Marshal Tedder concentrated the full available strength of the Allied air forces, including both the medium and heavy bombers, against the oncoming enemy. In the next twenty-four hours, with nearly every crew flying double sorties, more than 1400 tons of bombs fell on German positions in the battle area and on targets in its immediate neighbourhood. Fighters and fighter-bombers swept over the whole region from dawn to dusk, attacking enemy columns and transport upon the roads. These efforts continued unabated throughout the next two days and on the 14th, which witnessed the crisis of the battle, our fighters and fighter-bombers flew a total of over 700 sorties.
1 These novel and ingenious weapons were of two kinds—one was a modified type of armour-piercing bomb with stabilising fins forward and a box tail aft, while the other, the better known Hs293, was a jet-propelled missile, in the shape and form of a miniature monoplane. Both weapons were launched from Dornier 217s which carried them beneath their wings.
The fierce fighting at Salerno had drawn off enemy forces in front of Montgomery's Eighth Army, enabling it to advance more rapidly from the south; and on 16 September its forward units made contact with General Clark's Fifth Army to the south of Salerno Bay. Meanwhile 1 British Airborne Division, which had been landed from warships at Taranto, had moved forward to link up with Montgomery's right. Pressing on, the Eighth Army captured the Foggia airfields on 27 September and four days later Allied forces moving forward from Salerno entered the port of Naples. And with this consolidation of our position in southern Italy the Germans quickly evacuated the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, both of which were in our hands by the beginning of October.
In support of these various movements the Allied air forces continued to operate in strength. Fighters maintained regular patrols over Salerno and made offensive sweeps ahead of our troops, while fighter-bombers kept up their attacks on enemy strongpoints and lines of communication in or near the battle areas. Medium and heavy bombers ranged farther afield, attacking road junctions, bridges, railways and air bases, especially those to the north and east of Naples. Towards the end of September, photo-reconnaissance showed that Formia, Caserta and Benevento had been badly hit; road bridges were seen to be down at Lagonegro, Avellino, and to the north of Capua, while railway bridges were impassable at Formia and Pescara; other bridges were seen to be blocked by craters at their approaches. A good deal of damage was also observed at enemy airfields in the Rome and Viterbo regions.
1 Major-General J. F. C. Fuller in The Second World War—A Strategical and Tactical History, p. 269.
The Luftwaffe was unable to prevent either this advance of our air units or the consolidation of our ground forces in Italy. The constant bombing of its airfields and their subsequent capture had forced the Luftwaffe farther and farther back and its relatively few fighters, operating at extreme range, were unable to provide appreciable support for Kesselring's troops. German bombers and fighters did make an all-out effort at Salerno but, as in Sicily, they were soon outnumbered and overwhelmed and could do little to check the determination of Tedder's combined air forces to help their hard-pressed comrades upon the ground. Thereupon, realising its impotence, the Luftwaffe had operated almost entirely at night, concentrating such strength as it still possessed against the beaches and the shipping lying off them; German army units were left to make their counter-attacks without any protection except that which anti-aircraft weapons could provide. These tactics on the part of the Luftwaffe gave our night fighters an opportunity to show their mettle and they took it in no uncertain manner.
But although harassed and driven back in Italy, the Luftwaffe did achieve a notable success in the Aegean. Here, simultaneously with the invasion of Italy, small Allied detachments had seized a number of islands, including Kos and Leros, preparatory to a possible seizure of Rhodes and an invasion of Greece. But neither sufficient ground troops and equipment nor the strong air forces necessary to support them were made available to hold these gains. By the end of September the Luftwaffe had built up a force of over 350 fighters and bombers in the Aegean area and these formed the vanguard of the German counter-attack which, in a few short weeks, recaptured all the islands that the Allies, in their over-confidence, had previously taken. Here is an account of what happened at Leros:
A superior force of the Luftwaffe based on airfields in Rhodes, Crete and Greece, all most conveniently close at hand, bombed the island almost at their pleasure. No fighter cover could be given to its small garrison, for the nearest Allied airfields were some 390 miles away. The invasion began on 12th October and by the 16th all was over. As at Kos, it was carried out partly by seaborne troops and partly by airborne, whose standard of training and marksmanship was high. On more than one occasion the magazines of the Bren guns in the hands of the defenders were shot away as soon as they were inseted. The Germans also showed that the link between the Luftwaffe page 194 above and the troops below was strong and effective, the first instantly responding to all demands made on them by the second.1
The Aegean episode—a daring, if rash, venture—cost us the lives of some hundreds of troops and airmen, a large quantity of valuable stores and equipment, a number of naval vessels and 115 aircraft. It reflected the unfortunate differences of opinion which developed at this period of the war regarding Allied Mediterranean strategy. Winston Churchill had been strongly in favour of the expedition but American opinion was generally less enthusiastic, and when things became difficult in Italy it was found impossible to divert forces to the Aegean in time to save the situation. ‘The Prime Minister was anxious to provide support for the islands and my staff and I studied the problem with the greatest possible sympathy,’ writes General Eisenhower. ‘We came to the conclusion that aside from some temporary air support there was nothing we could give. To detach too much of our air force and particularly to dispatch land forces … would be definitely detrimental— possibly fatal—to the battle in which we were then engaged …. Those islands, in my judgment, while of considerable strategic importance, did not compare in military value to success in the Italian battle.’2
With the capture of Naples and the Foggia airfields, a pause was enforced upon our armies in Italy. North of Naples the Fifth Army met strong resistance along the Volturno River, which needed time and supplies to overcome. The Eighth Army, after its rapid advance up the toe of Italy, had almost reached the end of its tether, and its base had to be moved up from Reggio to Taranto and Bari. Similar problems of supply and reinforcements beset the Allied air forces. For the tactical squadrons were now taking positions as far forward as possible, and the transfer of the strategic bomber force from North Africa to the airfields around Foggia had begun. Apart from the movement of men and machines, a vast amount of supplies and equipment, including large quantities of steel matting for landing strips, was urgently needed. Repair shops and stores had to be established and pipelines and pumping stations, largely recovered from North Africa, had to be installed to permit the necessary flow of aviation fuel to the airfields. It was also necessary to provide a complicated system of communications for both army and air forces, along with all the administrative and ancillary services which form part of the modern military machine.
Thus, in the autumn of 1943, the whole situation in Italy changed greatly to our disadvantage and the possibility of a rapid advance to the north became very remote. Henceforward our troops, in reduced strength, were to be faced by a determined and resourceful enemy, skilfully led and fighting a series of stubborn delaying actions in which the utmost use was made of the natural features of the country, its steep mountains and swift-flowing rivers.
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The early capture of Rome was now our immediate objective but its attainment proved anything but easy. Grimly the Eighth Army forced its way over the Trigno and then across the more formidable barrier of the Sangro. By the end of the year, after some of the bloodiest fighting of the campaign, British, Canadian, New Zealand and Indian troops had fought their way forward in terrible weather to the line Ortona-Orsogna, but then they were bogged down. Meanwhile, with great exertions, the Fifth Army had forced the difficult passage of the Volturno and pushed forward only to come up against the even more difficult Garigliano. These rivers and those which lay ahead were at all seasons serious obstacles, since the gorges in which they ran were immense by comparison with the flow of water; but when swollen by rain or snow they became much more difficult, especially as the approaches became similarly waterlogged. In the bed itself, the water would rise many feet in a few hours, often thus dislocating pontoon bridges and exposing troops who had secured a footing on the far bank to acute peril. With railroads wrecked, bridges destroyed and many sections of the roads blown out, any advance was thus difficult enough even without opposition from the enemy. Moreover, wretched weather soon overtook our troops amid the Italian mountains and as they struggled forward there were frequent references, in terms of sarcastic disgust, to ‘Sunny Italy’.page 196
During these months of hard effort on the ground, our fighters and fighter-bombers ranged the sky above the battlefield. They were specially active during the crossing of the Volturno and Trigno rivers in the middle of October and of the Sangro a month later. The actual operations, however, tended to become repetitive; only the place-names changed. Sometimes it would be the turn of the Bostons and Baltimores, sometimes of the Kittyhawks and Spitfires. And their targets, the San Salvo batteries, the bridges across the Sangro, the road convoys by night, were almost invariably those requested by the Army.
Encounters with enemy fighters were rare but early in December Flight Sergeant Ross,1 who flew a Spitfire with No. 601 Squadron, had an eventful sortie. On patrol over the Pescara area his squadron sighted six Messerschmitts, which at once turned back north. During the pursuit, Ross was able to catch up with one of them and shoot it down, but while he was returning his long-range petrol tank was hit by flak. It burst into flames which soon enveloped the Spitfire. Ross baled out and landed safely, only to find himself behind the enemy lines. Undaunted, however, he set off across country and, after a long and difficult trek, reached his squadron.
As the weather grew colder new technical problems arose. In the Western Desert carburettor de-icing and oil dilution had not been necessary, but now, in Italy, the air filter on intakes tended to ice up rapidly, particularly at night. But these and other problems were quickly overcome in order that squadrons might continue to operate at full pressure. On 2 December 1943, as the first flakes of snow drifted down over the landing grounds on the Foggia plain, Coningham's Tactical Air Force established a record by flying 1200 sorties, more than had been flown in any one day since the start of the campaign. Of that total RAF Spitfires, Kittyhawks and Warhawks contributed 340 in the Eighth Army area and a further 70 over Yugoslavia. Mitchell light bombers flew another 160 sorties in four missions against bridges over the Pescara River—this was to hinder the enemy from reinforcing the sector north of the Sangro, now threatened by the Eighth Army.
A notable advance in the system of co-operation with the ground forces was initiated by the RAF during this first winter in Italy. Previously targets on the battlefield had been described and their attack requested by army officers stationed at Wing and Group Headquarters, whereupon, after due consultation, the appropriate squadrons were detailed and pilots briefed for the attack. But now mobile observation posts were established with the forward troops at Brigade Headquarters and in direct communication by radio-telephone with a squadron or squadrons of aircraft already airborne. The pilots carried a photographic map with a grid superimposed upon it and, using the same map, controllers gave them their targets. The area of operations would be settled on the evening preceding each day of battle at a conference attended by representatives of the Army and the Air Force.page 198
In operation the plan was simple and direct. A squadron of fighters or fighter-bombers would patrol overhead, usually in line astern; on receiving a request from the Army for attack on a specific target the Controller would call up his pilots and give them its position, along with a short description of its nature. A few seconds later one or more aircraft from the formation, or ‘cabrank’ as it was soon known, would dive upon it and drop bombs or open fire with cannon. The scheme proved an instant success for targets fixed or moving could now be bombed or subjected to cannon or machine-gun fire very swiftly, often within a matter of minutes after they had been chosen. At first operations were controlled from armoured cars fitted with very high frequency transmitters, but soon the equipment included a lorry, a jeep and a trailer manned by an army and an RAF officer with a mechanic. Various modifications of the system were tried as the war went on but its essential principle remained unchanged.
The ‘cabrank’ system could not, however, have been instituted had the Luftwaffe been able to dispute the presence of Allied aircraft over the battlefield. Fortunately our air forces were now possessed of very great resources in men and machines, and having beaten down enemy opposition in the air, they were able to maintain the necessary effort day after day. There could be no doubt, as Army Commanders have warmly testified, that it proved of great value.
New Zealand fighter pilots were well represented among the squadrons operating in close support of the advance towards Rome. Wing Commander R. E. Bary's Kittyhawk wing was particularly prominent over the Eighth Army front. One day early in October pilots flew 186 sorties against enemy concentrations, claiming hits on over 100 vehicles, including several tanks and armoured cars. ‘Largely by your efforts,’ signalled the Army next day, ‘the counter-attack which the enemy was mounting has been halted and it is now postponed, if not abandoned.’ Flight Lieutenant B. H. Thomas and Flight Sergeants S. J. Fourneau, T. A. Gillard, W. G. McConnochie and R. H. Twiname were among the pilots of this wing. Thomas, who had been with his squadron since the days of Alamein, was to continue his fine record of service in Italy. On one sortie against enemy transport his Spitfire was hit while diving to attack; he had to crash-land at speed among some trees, and although his aircraft broke up about him he escaped injury.
Five New Zealanders were now leading fighter squadrons in Italy. They were Squadron Leaders E. D. Mackie, M. R. B. Ingram, E. L. Joyce, R. Webb and D. F. Westenra. All achieved a good record of service. Mackie, for example, was credited with the destruction of no fewer than sixteen enemy machines when he completed his second tour page 199 of operations in February 1944. Ingram, a veteran of the Western Desert, now brought his score up to nine enemy aircraft—one of them a Focke-Wulf 190 which he shot down while his squadron was protecting shipping to Italy. He was shortly to take his squadron to South-east Asia. Joyce was to lead the famous No. 73 Squadron for four months before he returned to England to take command of a squadron of Mustangs during the Normandy invasion. Westenra, another veteran of the Desert Air Force, continued his successful command of Spitfires until February 1944, when he also returned to the United Kingdom to lead a squadron in the invasion of France.
Other fighter pilots who now distinguished themselves in patrol and attack over Italy were Flying Officer S. F. Browne, flying with No. 93 Spitfire Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Gould,1 who flew Hurricanes of No. 241 Squadron, and Flight Lieutenant Livingstone2 of No. 111 Spitfire Squadron.
New Zealanders were also well represented among the crews of the Wellingtons, Halifaxes and Liberators of the RAF bomber force. Wing Commander D. R. Bagnall, who had done such good work in North Africa, continued in charge of No. 40 Wellington Squadron which operated intensively during the early stages of the Italian campaign. Two veteran pilots, Squadron Leader H. H. Beale, who flew Wellingtons, and Squadron Leader W. R. Kofoed, a Halifax captain, were outstanding for their work on operations and as flight commanders in their units.
In the early bombing raids over Italy Flight Lieutenant R. J. Taaffe of No. 37 Squadron, Flying Officer L. R. W. Howell and Flight Serg eant R. E. Stowers of No. 70 Squadron were all prominent as captains of Wellington bombers, while Warrant Officer Laloli3 of No. 38 Squadron did good work as a wireless operator. The work of Flying Officer C. H. Masters, bombing leader in No. 70 Squadron, also deserves mention; in one raid on Viterbo when he flew in the leading aircraft, ‘the whole airfield was brilliantly lit up as a result of his accurate laying of flares and in the subsequent attack few bombs failed to find their mark.’
For the moment, however, the main effort of the Allied bombers was directed against the enemy supply routes in support of our armies. During October the RAF Wellingtons struck at railway marshalling yards northward along the coast from Rome. American bombers attacked the railway yards at Pisa and oil storage plants, railway yards and warehouses at Bologna. They also bombed the important ballbearing plant at Turin, and the adjacent Fiat motor-works and the railway yards. On 21 October the combined air forces attacked railways and bridges connecting northern Italy with Rome and, in the following weeks, the marshalling yards at Genoa, Pisa, Bologna and Mestre, along with important road and railway bridges in the vicinity, all felt the weight of our bomber assault. Eventually the attacks spread farther north to include railway communications leading from France to Italy, where numerous viaducts, bridges and tunnels made bomb damage more difficult to restore than in level country.
The Luftwaffe continued to be conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, after the stabilisation of the battlefront north of Naples, the German air effort over Italy was almost negligible. Fighter and fighter-bomber sorties in the actual area of battle did not exceed a daily average of thirty to thirty-five during November and December. Even more remarkable was the low scale of the enemy bomber effort, considering the obvious desirability of hampering the movement of Allied supplies. Between mid-October and mid-December, German long-range bombers in Italy operated on only eight occasions, six of them against the port of Naples; moreover, a large proportion of the four hundred sorties flown were abortive. Their only real success was a raid on Bari early in December, when a chance hit on an ammunition ship caused major damage and serious casualties in the port. The truth was that the Luftwaffe, after its severe losses in Sicily and with the demand of other fronts, especially the need to defend Germany itself, was not eager to launch intensive operations over Italy. Nor was this felt to be really necessary now that the Allied advance had brought their armies into difficult country. By conserving its strength the German Air Force might be able to react promptly to any major strategic threat— as it had already done in the Aegean.
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The line held by the Germans at the beginning of 1944 was one of the strongest in Italy. But it was imperative for the Allies to make every effort to continue their advance and retain the initiative while more momentous operations were being prepared in North-west Europe. Accordingly, it was decided to pin down the enemy with a frontal attack along the Garigliano, then turn his position by a landing behind it in the Anzio area, some thirty miles south of Rome. A forceful advance inland from Anzio would cut Kesselring's communications and force him to retire and surrender Rome. In support of this plan, the tasks of the Allied air forces were first and foremost to prevent any interference from the 350 operational aircraft which at that time composed the remaining strength of the Luftwaffe in Italy. Next came the disruption of the enemy's supply lines, then protection for the assault convoys, and lastly direct support for our land forces by attacking suitable targets on the battlefield and its immediate neighbourhood.
The Fifth Army launched its assault across the Garigliano in mid- January with full support from both fighter and light bombers. The fighting was bitter and after some initial success our troops were held in their further attempts to advance northwards. In these rocky mountains the Germans had now created, with lavish use of concrete and steel, a great fortified system, and from observation posts on the heights they could direct their guns on all movement in the valley below. Kesselring was clearly determined to prevent us from breaking into the Gustav Line which, with Cassino as its central feature, was the rearmost position of their deep defensive zone. Nevertheless, our continuing attack had the desired effect. It distracted the enemy's attention from the approaching threat to his vulnerable seaward flank and caused him to bring up three divisions from reserve to restore the situation.
Our invasion fleet of some 250 ships reached Anzio on the night of 21 January and the landings began in the early hours of the following morning. Spitfire pilots who had taken off in the pallid glow of a waning moon were on patrol over the beaches before dawn and at first light they saw our troops already disembarking—a British infantry division, with supporting artillery and tanks, on the left and an Ameri can corps, consisting of infantry, rangers, artillery, tanks and other units, on the right, near Nettuno. By nightfall the ports of Anzio and Nettuno were in our hands, whilst inland from the beaches our troops, meeting little enemy opposition, were rapidly extending the bridgehead. The whole operation, in fact, achieved complete surprise—thanks largely to the action of the Allied air forces. During the previous few days they had been striking hard at all the central Italian airfields and so effective were these blows that the Luftwaffe was unable to put a single reconnaissance aircraft into the air. In consequence the large concourse of shipping carrying the assaulting troops had been able to reach the page 202 Anzio beaches unobserved. Once more, thanks to our command of the air, fifty thousand American and British troops had arrived undetected in full battle array many miles behind the enemy front. Not until six hours after the first troops set foot ashore did a Messerschmitt fighter succeed in penetrating the air screen and in taking back to Kesselring reliable news that the Allies were behind his right flank.
During the next few days the German Air Force did what it could to molest the invaders, but it was never able to fly more than one hundred sorties a day. Fog on the airfields and its own depleted numbers made a stouter effort impossible. Its chief success was the sinking of several ships, including the British cruiser Spartan, which was hit by a glider bomb. In contrast, the Allied air effort was highly effective. Royal Air Force and American fighters on patrol above the bridgehead were numerous and alert. Farther afield, in the area between Rome and Anzio, the bombs dropped by our medium bombers on road junctions and bridges hindered the approach of enemy reinforcements, and at tacks on the Italian railways farther north, notably at Pisa, Empoli and Pontedera, added to their difficulties. It was, in fact, nearly three weeks before the enemy was able to muster sufficient troops and supplies for effective counter-attack.
Unfortunately our forces ashore at Anzio failed, or were not able, to exploit their opportunity. Their commander, instead of ordering a swift dash inland, chose to continue with the painstaking consolidation of his bridgehead, an operation which, owing to the steeply sloping beaches and the limited capacity of the little port of Anzio, was admittedly difficult. None the less a great chance was missed and the Germans were given time in which to seal off our bridgehead.1 In mid-February, after further reinforcements had reached the area, the Germans counter-attacked and very nearly succeeded in driving our troops back into the sea. Only after some hard and, at times, desperate fighting was the situation restored. But by then the road to Rome was effectively barred by the enemy.
1 The comments of Kesselring's Chief of Staff are interesting: ‘At the moment of the landing south of Rome, apart from certain coastal batteries standing by, there were only two battalions …. There was nothing else in the neighbourhood which could be thrown against the enemy on that same day. The road to Rome was open. No one could have stopped a bold advance-guard entering the Holy City. The breath-taking situation continued for the first two days after the landing. It was only then that German counter-measures were effective. What was their nature? In December 1943 the (German) Army Group had issued a comprehensive plan of emergency for the whole of Italy. In it was laid down what troops and columns should move against the possible landing-points, on what roads and at what times, and what tasks they should undertake. It was only necessary to issue the code-word “Case Richard” to put into effect these prearranged plans. In fact, most of the troops, in spite of icy roads over the Apennines, arrived before schedule. The German High Command helped by sending troops from France, Yugoslavia, and the homeland …. The enemy kept surprisingly quiet. They were apparently engaged in building up a bridgehead. It was thus possible to build up a new front opposite them.’ Quoted in Churchill, Second World War, Vol. V, pp. 426–7.
During this critical period at Anzio, the Allied air forces continued to do their utmost in support of our troops, but there were times when bad weather prevented them from exerting their full effort. They were, however, able to protect our men from air attack, and frequent sorties by bombers and fighter-bombers against enemy strongpoints and communications did much to ease the situation on the ground. During the main German counter-attack in mid-February their intervention, along with naval bombardment, probably saved the Anzio venture from disaster. At the height of that battle, on the 17th, fighter and medium bombers, including RAF Wellingtons, flew 782 sorties and dropped nearly one thousand tons of bombs in close support of our troops; a few days later more than ten thousand fragmentation bombs were cast down upon enemy concentrations near Carroceto on the road to Anzio. Spitfires and Warhawks also dealt effectively with the enemy fighter-bombers, some thirty of which, operating from nearby airfields, flew one hundred and fifty sorties on the first day; our pilots shot down nine of them and damaged another seven, for the loss of only one Warhawk. The Germans were, however, prevented from making an all-out effort in the air owing to the need to retain a large proportion of their fighters for defensive operations in northern Italy, where their communications were suffering serious dislocation from our incessant bombing. Our strategic bombers also added to the enemy's difficulties by their attacks on his airfields, one attack by American Fortresses and Liberators on the Udine Group in the north of Italy at the end of January doing considerable execution among the German fighters assembled there.
After the enemy counter-attack at Anzio was defeated, Allied bombers maintained their assault on enemy positions and against roads and railways leading to the area. Ceprano and Pontecorvo were attacked several times and the headquarters of the German forces were bombed. Marshalling yards as far distant as Forno were also attacked, the object being to cut the railway through the Brenner Pass, along which enemy reinforcements must be carried. But these efforts to clear a path for an advance by our ground forces were unavailing. Nor were the tactical squadrons, which continued to bomb road junctions immediately beyond the beach-head, more successful.
The Allied landings at Anzio thus failed to achieve their object, which was to develop an immediate and serious threat to the enemy's rear. In the meantime Fifth Army's attack from the south had run into difficulties at Cassino, where the natural obstacles were particularly formidable. The town itself, with its stone buildings, had been turned by the Germans into a veritable stronghold; above it towered the famous hill of Montecassino, its steep sides heavily fortified and crowned by an ancient Benedictine monastery which, although not page 204 garrisoned by the Germans, had all the appearance of a grim and forbidding fortress. Montecassino dominated the road to Rome and close by, at the crucial point, flowed the River Rapido, like ‘a moat before the castle gate.’ The whole position had for years been regarded by the Italian military staffs as a virtually impregnable site, as indeed it was.
The first Allied assault, launched at the end of January 1944, had been beaten back after 34 American Division had come within sight of success. Thereupon the monastery surmounting Montecassino, which, says General Alexander, ‘had hitherto been deliberately spared, to our great disadvantage’, came under suspicion as an enemy observation post. Opinion varied as to whether it was actually occupied by the Germans or not but after some deliberation the army commanders concerned decided to ask for it to be bombed before another attack was launched. Accordingly, on 15 February, after leaflet warning had been given, 229 bombers flew over and hurled down some 450 tons of high explosive on the abbey. It was utterly destroyed and between one and three hundred refugees within its walls are believed to have perished.1 The Germans at once moved in and set up observation posts and strongpoints amid the ruins. Our subsequent ground assault on both the hill and town at Cassino came to naught.
The destruction of the monastery at Montecassino was probably the most melancholy episode of the whole Italian campaign and it has aroused acute controversy. At the time there was no real evidence that the monastery was occupied by the Germans and we now know that it was not. It is therefore said that its destruction was not only an act of vandalism but also, because the ruins provided excellent defence posts, one of sheer tactical stupidity. On the other hand, it is contended that no troops could have been expected to attack so strong a position as Montecassino so long as the buildings which crowned it stood intact. Its destruction was considered a military necessity. This, in fact, was the view taken by the army commanders on the spot, and they had previously been warned by General Eisenhower in a special directive against confusing ‘military necessity’ with ‘military convenience’ in the matter of historical buildings and monuments. It is also worth noting that their action was subsequently endorsed by the Allied Chiefs of Staff. Whatever may be thought in these later years, two things are certain. The decision to destroy the monastery was not lightly taken. The result was anything but good.2
1 .These figures are given in General Mark Clark's Calculated Risk (p. 323) but the truth, which will never be accurately known, may be nearer the higher than the lower figure. ‘The official German figure seems to have been 300. In July 1944 the Bishop of Cara di Tirreni estimated that some 200 dead were still beneath the ruins. Denis Richards and Hilary St. G. Saunders (Royal Air Force 1939–1945, Vol. II, p. 360) say “between 300 and 400 women and children”; but there were certainly men among the refugees, and it cannot be supposed that the bombs spared all of them.’—Phillips, Italy, Vol. I, p. 211, note 1.
Yet another frontal attack was launched at Cassino in mid-March 1944. This time the main thrust was directed against the town itself and once again the bombers were called in to prepare the way. Eleven groups of heavies and five groups of mediums were employed and throughout the morning of the 15th wave after wave swept over Cassino where, by midday, they had dropped 1100 tons of bombs. The town was completely destroyed. Simultaneously fighter-bombers attacked enemy gun posts and positions to the south-west of the town and to the north of Aquino. Then, to cover the advance of the New Zealand infantry, American Lightnings and RAF Spitfires patrolled the battlefield, where they found few enemy aircraft to engage. Mustang and Spitfire pilots observed for the guns and took photographs.
But despite this support from the air the ground attack achieved little. One difficulty was that the bombing had been, if anything, too effective; huge craters in the streets and the masses of fallen brick, rubble and masonry proved formidable obstacles to our troops. The German garrison, consisting of the redoubtable 1 Parachute Division which had dived into dugouts and shelters, came out as soon as the bombing was over, manned the ruins and maintained a stubborn and successful resistance.1 A battle on the Stalingrad model developed and after a week of hard fighting, during which casualties mounted and progress was measured in yards, General Alexander decided to call off the attack. Nearly two months were to pass before it was resumed.
During these months of hard fighting towards Cassino and at Anzio, New Zealanders continued to patrol and attack with their squadrons. In the early stages relatively few fighter pilots had combats owing to the enemy's inactivity, but Flying Officer S. F. Browne of No. 93 Squadron and Flight Sergeant Newman2 of No. 145 Squadron were among the exceptions. Browne shot down a Messerschmitt in the Volturno area and Newman sent another Me109 down near Chieti. Some particularly rewarding sorties against ground targets were made by Pilot Officers O. P. Cross and R. A. Caldwell and Flight Sergeant G. S. Nordstrand, each of whom flew Kittyhawk fighter-bombers.
1 ‘This was an extraordinary feat,’ writes General Alexander in his despatch after personally witnessing the bombardment. ‘It seemed to me inconceivable that any troops should be alive after eight hours of such terrific hammering let alone should be able to man their defences. I doubt if any other division in the German Army could have done it.’
Livingstone shot down two Focke-Wulf 190s and a Messerschmitt 109, while Mackie, Cooper and Young each accounted for at least one Messerschmitt. Herbert was less fortunate. During one air battle over Anzio his engine failed and he had to crash-land, suffering injuries which later proved fatal. He was on his second tour of operations and had twice survived similar hazards during the North African campaign; on one patrol he had been shot down by our own anti-aircraft fire and on another by the enemy; he was taken prisoner and then released by our advancing forces.
Four more fighter pilots who did good work during these months were Flight Lieutenants Chrystall7 and L. J. Montgomerie and Flight Sergeants Brigham8 and D. J. Towgood. With their Spitfire squadrons they frequently escorted Marauder bombers against enemy airfields and railways and it was during one such mission that Montgomerie shot down two Me109s which attempted a surprise attack on the bombers; a few days later he destroyed another Messerschmitt over Viterbo. Flight Sergeant E. S. Doherty had similar success with No. 242 Squadron; he shot down an FW190 during a sweep over Viterbo and later, while covering the landings on Elba, destroyed two Me109s; these victories brought his score to at least seven enemy machines.
Good hunting over enemy airfields and against rail targets was enjoyed by Flying Officers Badley1 and Crozier2 and Flight Sergeant Cotter,3 who flew Mosquito night fighters with No. 23 Squadron. Whilst intruding over enemy airfields, Cotter shot down a Heinkel bomber and Badley destroyed one Dornier 217 and damaged two more.
Flying Officer Henry4 and Flight Sergeant Parkin5 both captained Boston light bombers which were now operating by night as well as by day. Warrant Officer H. S. McCullum, navigator, and Flying Officer Church,6 Warrant Officer Finlow,7 Warrant Officer May,8 Flight Sergeants Frizzell9 and Kinzett10—all wireless operator-air gunners— were among others who did good work with Baltimore or Boston squadrons. Frizzell had an unenviable experience one night when he and his crew were making an armed reconnaissance in the Rome area. On the return flight one engine failed and then when the Boston was only five miles from base the second engine gave out. Frizzell and two other members of the crew were able to bale out but in so doing he caught his leg in his parachute harness. He landed head first in a ploughed field and was lucky enough to escape serious injury. The Boston crashed and exploded nearby.
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Operation STRANGLE began towards the end of March 1944 and during the next six weeks the attack mounted relentlessly. An occasional spell of bad weather did enable the Germans to make repairs to their battered railways, but our reconnaissance aircraft noted such activities and soon the cycle of attacks was resumed. By the beginning of April an average of twenty-five cuts were being made daily in rail and road communications and by mid-May this had risen to seventy-five and even more. Soon few trains were getting farther south than fifty miles above Rome and traffic was usually stopped farther north. At first the Germans used motor trucks to haul supplies around the broken bridges from one train to another, but our fighter patrols prevented this work from being done except at night. Then, as the damage to the railways increased, they applied motor transport to long-distance haulage, using up valuable petrol in the process. But even so, delivery of supplies to the front was substantially reduced.
Greatly handicapped by Operation STRANGLE, the Germans were unable to withstand our ground offensive which, with close support from both fighters and bombers, opened on 11 May. This offensive, on a front of between thirty and forty miles, was a truly international one. The Americans attacked along the west coast, French forces struck into the Aurunci Mountains, British troops attacked the Cassino zone and Polish soldiers stormed the Abbey heights. Short of ammunition and supplies and no longer supported by their ally, bad weather, Kesselring's armies were compelled to withdraw. On the 18th, Cassino, turned from the rear, passed completely into British hands and on the same day Monastery Hill was occupied by the Poles. On the 23rd, with the enemy in full retreat from the Gustav Line, American and British page 209 troops struck out from the Anzio beach-head to link up with their comrades advancing from the south. A fortnight later, on 4 June, the Fifth Army entered and occupied Rome.
Throughout this advance the enemy was subjected to continuous assault from the skies, which took heavy toll of his troops and vehicles and made his withdrawal a protracted nightmare. For the greater part of the time Tactical Air Force achieved a daily average of well over 1200 sorties, and on one occasion it set up a new record for the Italian campaign with 1933 sorties in a single day. Little was seen of the Luftwaffe except on 25 May, when Focke-Wulf and Messerschmitt fighters appeared in some strength only to suffer severely at the hands of our Spitfires and Warhawks. With Allied air supremacy now assured, our troops enjoyed complete freedom of movement behind their lines. The hazards of congested roads could be ignored and camps and headquarters moved forward with our advancing troops, unhindered by enemy air action.
The Germans made no attempt to defend Rome. Leaving twenty thousand men behind as prisoners, they continued their retreat northward using whatever transport was available to get back to their next line of defence. It was virtually impossible for them to move by rail for the fighter-bombers maintained the cuts and created fresh ones. And in their haste to retreat the enemy had no time to make the repairs that were possible when the battlefront was stationary. So they took to the roads, only to become a target for further attack from the air. Their convoys moving through difficult and mountainous country were forced to keep to the highways, where our fighter and medium bombers swept down on them and caused great destruction. The usual method of attack was to smash the head and tail vehicles in a convoy and then deal with the centre at leisure. ‘The roads along which their flight had gone presented an amazing sight,’ General Alexander wrote afterwards. ‘Mile after mile they were littered with the wrecks of armour and other vehicles, destroyed either by our air force or by our armoured pursuit or abandoned and wrecked by their drivers when fuel ran out.’
Through the hot dusty June days, the Fifth and Eighth Armies continued their advance north of Rome. But within a few weeks they met steadily increasing resistance. For Kesselring, displaying his usual brilliant leadership, soon rallied his armies to fight a series of stubborn rearguard actions, thus gaining time for the completion of strong defence positions, known as the Gothic Line, in the last barrier of mountains before the country opened out into the wide plains of the Po valley. It was indeed only after some hard fighting through difficult territory that British troops finally entered Florence and the Americans took Pisa early in August.page 210
In support of the armies pilots and crews of the Tactical Air Force worked hard keeping up an average of one thousand sorties a day. And it was heartening when, for example, the New Zealand Division, after being held up for a time by particularly determined resistance south of Florence, signalled back: ‘Many thanks for accurate bombing. Counter-attacks prevented and decisive results brought nearer.’ But the air activity was not confined to the immediate area of battle. Its general pattern included attacks by medium bombers on railways and road bridges well to the rear; fighter-bombers operated over the roads leading northwards and against less distant rail targets; light bombers attacked supply dumps; fighters were out in their hundreds on armed reconnaissance patrols and on tactical and artillery reconnaissances; and there was much light-bomber and defensive fighter activity by night.
Yet, despite these efforts of our soldiers and airmen, the possibility of a rapid advance to the north of Italy steadily diminished with the passing weeks. Apart from the severe opposition now encountered along the whole front, our land and air forces had again been seriously weakened by the withdrawal of a considerable part of their strength for Operation DRAGOON—the invasion of southern France. Whether this landing in the Riviera and the subsequent march, almost unopposed, to join with the Allied advance from Normandy was an operation of greater worth than the smashing of the Gothic Line is open to question. Certainly it postponed the final breakthrough on the Italian front for many months and prevented exploitation of the unhappy situation in which the enemy found himself in southern Europe during the summer of 1944.
The Allied build-up of forces and supplies for invading southern France had begun during May at ports and airfields of southern Italy and in Corsica and Sardinia. The assault itself, originally planned to take place at the same time as the landings in Normandy, was delayed until mid-August owing to shortage of landing craft. Meanwhile Allied fighters and bombers were busy preparing the way. American squadrons did most of the bombing raids and by D Day they had flown some 10,000 sorties, about half of them in a final intensive five-day effort. Royal Air Force Spitfires, based in Corsica, flew offensive sweeps to draw off enemy fighters and they also strafed ground targets. Long-range Mosquitos and Beaufighters attacked enemy airfields, ports and railways while Wellingtons of the Coastal Air Force patrolled the narrow seas.
The bombing of radar stations and certain deceptive measures, including the simulation of a convoy by Wellingtons dropping ‘window’, enabled the landings to achieve a large measure of surprise. Thereafter, with strong air support and meeting only slight opposition, page 211 our assault forces made rapid progress up the Rhone valley. Fighters and bombers covered their advance and attacked pockets of resistance. The enemy air effort was almost negligible—only three Messerschmitt 109s were shot down on the first day—but our fighter-bombers had more success in their attacks on retreating enemy motor transport and troop trains. The whole operation was completed in a matter of weeks, whereupon most of the squadrons which had moved into the south of France were able to return to Italy.
Back in Italy, where General Alexander's armies had begun their assault on the Gothic Line, the Tactical Air Force operating in support now consisted largely of RAF and Dominion squadrons, including a substantial contingent from the South African Air Force. Both before and during the ground offensive, fighters and bombers were active over and beyond the enemy's lines. On the opening day of the Eighth Army's attack they flew over 650 sorties, mainly against gun positions, strongpoints, enemy troops and transport in the path of our advance. The attack was continued during the night when Wellingtons and Liberators, aided by Halifax flare-droppers, cast down 230 tons of bombs on troop concentrations at Pesaro while Baltimores and Bostons sought targets on the roads and railways behind the enemy's line. Beaufighters meanwhile kept a somewhat uneventful lookout for any enemy bombers. And this was the general pattern of air activity during the following weeks as our troops, in some of the hardest fighting of the year, gradually forced their way into the main defences of the Gothic Line.
The deepest advances were made on the Adriatic coast through Rimini towards Ravenna, and in the centre towards Bologna. But the enemy front was not broken. Kesselring, reinforced by fresh divisions, had been ordered by Hitler to hold on south of Bologna. And hold on he did. Then came torrential rains which bogged down the Allied armies and transformed our airfields into lakes. And as autumn faded into the bleak north Italian winter with its valley fogs, rains and snow, the prospect of any further substantial progress before the spring be came more and more remote. Nevertheless the enemy was given little respite either on the ground or from the air. Small advances were made and consolidated by our armies and counter-attacks repulsed. The air assault on roads, railways and bridges was sustained as far as the weather permitted and German traffic on the main highways was liable, without warning, to become the target of Allied fighters and bombers slipping through the scudding clouds. Kesselring himself discovered this to his cost when, early in October, his car was attacked and, because of the injuries he suffered, he had to hand over command for some weeks.
Despite appalling weather and bad conditions on the ground the Tactical Air Forces achieved a weekly average of about 3000 sorties page 212 during the last three months of 1944. The coastal and strategic squadrons rendered their own specialised help, and such advances as were made by our own ground forces were aided and in certain cases actually rendered possible by the accurate close-support missions flown by fighters and bombers. And while their offensive against the enemy's lines of communication did not succeed in drying up his stream of supplies entirely, it at least ensured that Kesselring lacked the means to initiate any major attack. Meanwhile Allied preparations went ahead for the spring offensive that was to bring about the complete collapse of enemy resistance in Italy.
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From Cassino to Rome, over southern France, and throughout the advance to northern Italy, New Zealanders had continued to play their part. Fighter and fighter-bomber pilots together with light-bomber crews flew consistently in support of the Army, attacking ground targets and patrolling the forward areas to intercept enemy aircraft.
Among the fighter pilots who successfully engaged German machines were Flight Lieutenants D. F. Livingstone and L. J. Montgomerie, Flying Officer R. B. Hendry and Flight Sergeant E. S. Doherty, all of whom flew Spitfires. Livingstone shot down two Me109s over Cassino and an FW190 near Lake Bracciano into which, incidentally, the German pilot fell when he baled out. Montgomerie destroyed at least four enemy fighters before he was himself fatally injured in a crash landing. Flying Officer Hendry shot down two enemy fighters and Warrant Officer Aspinall1 accounted for another during a dogfight over the Rome area when Spitfires of No. 72 Squadron intercepted some fifteen Messerschmitts. By October 1944, Hendry was credited with three German aircraft destroyed, another shared and one probable.
Lawrence, Newton and Thomas were among the twenty-five New Zealand fighter pilots who flew from Corsica in support of the invasion of southern France. Others who took part in patrol and attack during the landings and the subsequent advance up the Rhone valley were Flight Lieutenant Barber1 and Pilot Officer Frewer2 with No. 232 Spitfire Squadron, Flight Lieutenant K. P. F. Neill of No. 225 Squadron, Pilot Officer H. H. S. Moore with No. 242 Squadron, and Pilot Officer Doyle3 of No. 154 Squadron. Frewer accounted for one of the few enemy fighters that were shot down during the invasion period.
During the second phase of the Italian campaign, Flying Officer A. J. Faulkner of No. 93 Squadron and Flying Officers C. D. Young and Condon4 of No. 92 Squadron achieved a good record of service as Spitfire pilots. Flying Officers G. M. Buchanan, Osborne,5 Palliser,6 and T. D. Stewart were prominent with No. 185 Squadron, which did specially good work in armed reconnaissance and in bombing road and rail targets behind the enemy front; Buchanan and Osborne frequently led fighters on ‘cabrank’ patrols.