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Bardia to Enfidaville

Air Power

page 11

Air Power

THE victory at El Alamein had been made possible by the close co-operation between ground and air forces and owed much to the unceasing air attacks on every kind of enemy activity, on sea, on land, or in the air. This invaluable co-operation continued throughout the campaign; but except when direct support for the advancing troops was specifically requested, or when aircraft were visibly attacking the enemy near the foremost troops, the air offensive took place out of sight of the army. Formations of aircraft passing steadily overhead, an occasional dogfight, a column of smoke far behind the enemy lines, or especially at night, the heartening sound of bombs falling on an enemy port—these were all that the land-bound soldier saw or heard of the Air Force, but it was enough to comfort him and to maintain morale.

The decisive air battle had already been won: our air forces had clear superiority throughout. On any day or night they were operating somewhere, attacking enemy transport aircraft or vessels at sea—especially tankers—bombing airfields, dumps and transport concentrations, shooting down enemy fighters and bombers, and making low-level attacks on tank laagers and other targets. The air offensive was unceasing, and forms as it were a perpetual bass accompaniment to the more intermittent fighting on land.

The force directly supporting Eighth Army, known as the Desert Air Force, was commanded by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham,1 a New Zealander serving in the RAF. It included RAF, USAAF, and South African Air Force squadrons, flying fighters, fighter-bombers, tank-busters, light and medium bombers, close reconnaissance aircraft, and day and night interceptors.

The Desert Air Force was aggressive throughout the campaign.

1 Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, KCB, KBE, DSO, MC, DFC, AFC, Legion of Honour (Fr), Distinguished Service Medal (US), Order of Leopold (Bel), Croix de Guerre with Palm (Bel); born Brisbane, 19 Jan 1895; 1 NZEF 1914–16; entered RFC 1916; permanent commission RAF 1919; AOC Western Desert, 1941–43; AOC 1st TAF, Nth Africa, Sicily, Italy, 1943–44; AOC-in-C, 2nd TAF, invasion of NW Europe and Germany, 1944–45; killed when air liner crashed during Atlantic crossing, Jan 1948.

page 12 To gain the utmost advantage it required to operate from advanced landing grounds as early as possible, especially during a pursuit. The speedy capture of the enemy's airfields, and the clearance of all the obstructions and mines sure to have been left there, were the best ways in which the army could co-operate with the air force.1 The provision of advanced landing grounds was a primary objective in almost all the army's operations; and 2 NZ Division was frequently given this task.

1 Early in 1943, as the result of the need for integration, the Allied air forces in Algeria and Tunisia and those supporting Eighth Army were grouped together in the Northwest African Air Forces (under the command of Lieutenant-General C. W. Spaatz), which formed part of the Mediterranean Air Command (Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder). General Spaatz's command included the North-west African Strategic Air Force (Major-General J. H. Doolittle), which was responsible for long-range bombing, the North-west African Tactical Air Force (Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham), which gave close co-operation with the ground forces and included the Western Desert Air Force in support of Eighth Army, and the North-west African Coastal Air Force (Air Vice-Marshal H P. Lloyd), as well as the North-west African Air Service Command, the North-west African Training Command, and the North-west African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing.