New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 7 — Sicily
LESS than two months after the Allied triumph in Tunisia came the first full-scale assault against European soil with the invasion of Sicily. This great enterprise was the culmination of preparations which had gone ahead since the Casablanca Conference of January 1943. Confident of an early conclusion to the North African campaign, the Combined Chiefs of Staff had then agreed that Sicily, the stepping-stone between Tunisia and Italy, should be invaded during ‘the favourable period of the July moon.’ There was little chance that the Allies would be ready to invade the Continent from the United Kingdom before 1944 and operations against Sicily offered an opportunity of using the forces concentrated in North Africa to the best advantage. The main prize to be won was the complete reopening of the Mediterranean sea routes to Allied shipping. In addition, new air bases would be secured from which to attack the southern flank of Europe, the threat to Italy would be increased and a proportion of enemy strength drawn away from the Russian front.
In planning the invasion of Sicily, the Combined Allied Staff at Algiers had to consider matters of geography before deciding on the strength of the attack, its timing and its exact location. The island itself has been compared to a ‘jagged arrow-head with the broken point to the West.’ Its terrain is favourable to defence. There are many peaks of over 3000 feet which dominate a series of plains, of which the largest, to the south and west of Catania, is overlooked by the volcano of Etna. Around the coast, except for a short strip in the north, there runs a narrow belt of low country through which passes a highway which encircles the island. There are four main ports, Messina in the north-east, Palermo in the north-west, Catania and Syracuse in the east. Early in 1943 there were nineteen airfields on the island; by July this number had risen to thirty. They were in three main groups: the eastern group between Catania and Gerbini, the south-east group at Comiso-Biscari-Ponte Olivo, and the western group at and about Castelvetrano. The best-equipped was that at Catania-Gerbini, where most of the Luftwaffe was located. Occupation of this group would allow Allied aircraft to cover the Messina Straits and would prevent the enemy air forces from maintaining themselves on the island. They would then be driven back to the nearest large airfields in Italy, at Naples and Brindisi.page 161
How to achieve the early capture of ports and at the same time secure some of the main airfields was the question upon which all else depended. Messina, the largest port, was quickly ruled out for it was beyond the range of fighters stationed in Malta and Tunisia, was difficult to approach from the sea and, moreover, was heavily defended. Catania was at extreme fighter range, but its early capture would provide the key to the eastern group of airfields. However, its unloading facilities were only sufficient to maintain a maximum of six divisions, so it was considered necessary to secure Palermo as well. Montgomery disliked the dispersion this involved and urged that the assault should fall entirely on the east coast of Sicily. But this suggestion conflicted with the need to secure as many airfields as possible at an early stage. Eventually General Alexander, who regarded the air situation as of first importance, decided that the Eighth Army under General Montgomery and the Seventh Army under General Patton should assault side by side in the south-east of the island along a front of one hundred miles between Syracuse and Licata. The important airfield centre at Ponte Olivo would thus soon be captured, and once the ports of Syracuse and Augusta were taken they could be used to maintain the Eighth Army; the Americans, however, would be dependent on what could be brought in over open beaches, except for the limited capacity of the small port of Licata. Two things in favour of the Allies in this undertaking were the expectation of good weather for beach maintenance and the possession of an amphibious vehicle, the DUKW, better known as ‘The Duck’. The great faith placed in this new invention was quickly justified for it was to revolutionise the problems of beach maintenance.
The final plan for Operation HUSKY, as the invasion was known, was approved by the Combined Chiefs of Staff on 13 May, the day which brought the end of hostilities in Tunisia. The operation was to be divided into five phases. First of all there would be the preparatory measures to gain air supremacy and counter enemy naval effort. Then would follow the seaborne assault, assisted by airborne landings to seize adjacent airfields and the ports of Syracuse and Licata. The third phase would be the establishing of a firm base from which to launch ground attacks against Augusta, Catania and the Gerbini group of airfields. The fourth phase was the capture of these objectives and the last the complete reduction of the island. The whole operation would be under the control of General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander; General Alexander was to command the ground forces engaged, Air Chief Marshal Tedder would command the combined air forces and Admiral Cunningham the naval forces.
In Tedder's air command, Major-General Carl Spaatz was in charge of the North-west African Air Force, taking a direct part in the in- page 162 vasion, and Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park was in command at Malta. The North-west African Tactical Air Force was led by Sir Arthur Coningham, with a United States major-general as his deputy. Coningham's command comprised the Desert Air Force, Twelfth Support Command and the newly constituted Tactical Bombing Force. Thus he had under his control all those Allied air forces destined to appear over the Sicilian battlefields in immediate or close support of the armies. The North-west African Strategic Air Force, under General Doolittle, was made up of two United States bombardment wings and the Wellingtons of No. 205 Group, Royal Air Force. Allied sea communications were protected by the North-west African Coastal Air Force under Air Vice-Marshal Sir Hugh P. Lloyd. Finally there were the Dakotas of United States Troop Carrier Command and a photo-reconnaissance wing. Altogether a total of 267 squadrons were available to take part in the invasion, of which 146 were American and 121 British. The Americans had the preponderance of heavy and medium bombers and transport aircraft while the RAF was stronger in fighters and fighter bombers.
Malta was the base for a formidable part of this concentration of Allied air power. No longer a beleaguered fortress but an offensive base packed with aircraft, the island was now capable of sustained fighter operations in preparation for the invasion, and subsequently in protection of the assault convoys and the landing beaches. Work had proceeded apace in improving the island's existing air facilities. Great quantities of stores had been brought in; a fighter operations room to handle thirty squadrons had been tunnelled underground, a new filter room built and an up-to-date radar system installed. This transformation at Malta was largely due to the energy and drive of Park, and by the time of the invasion he controlled over 600 aircraft, mostly fighters, based at Malta, Gozo and Pantellaria.
Opposing the total Allied strength of almost 5000 serviceable aircraft there was a mixed German and Italian force of some 1800 machines, of which approximately 1000 were serviceable at the beginning of July. They were based in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and the south of France. The Germans had now reinforced their southern front in Europe by 440 aircraft, despite persistent demands for additional machines for the Russian front—and the fact that well over half the reinforcement aircraft were single-engined fighters reveals the importance that was attached to the new Allied threat. There were also important changes in the Luftwaffe organisation and leadership. The southern theatre, hitherto centralised under Kesselring, was now divided into two commands, Central Mediterranean and the Balkans, each of Luftflotte status; Kesselring even managed to obtain a number of very experienced officers from the Russian front. General Field-Marshal von page 163 Richthoven, the acknowledged German expert on ground attack, was transferred to command Luftflotte 2 in the Central Mediterranean. The bomber units were commanded by General-Major Peltz, a rising young officer who, in the following year, was to command the German forces which launched the ‘Baby Blitz’ against London. Nevertheless the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean was still unequal to the task which now confronted it. There had been heavy losses of aircraft, spares and experienced air and ground crews during the North African campaign. And there was an increasing lack of co-operation on the part of the Italians.
The British and American air forces had begun to prepare for the Sicily invasion even before the fighting in Tunisia was over. Medium and fighter-bombers struck at airfields and lines of communication in Sicily, Sardinia and southern Italy while the strategic bombers raided ports, submarine bases and targets at Naples and Bari. Fighters from Malta flew offensive sweeps by day and intruder missions by night against Sicilian airfields; they escorted bombers and protected convoys; they also paid particular attention to shipping running into Sicily and, together with coastal aircraft, maintained an aerial blockade of the island. Reconnaissance aircraft were busy taking photographs and by the time of the invasion had covered the entire island. To all this activity must be added the contribution of Royal Air Force Bomber Command which, from its bases in the United Kingdom, sent aircraft to make six attacks on targets in the north of Italy. Of particular strategic importance were the train ferries which plied across the Messina Straits and which could move 40,000 men or 7500 men and 750 vehicles in twenty-four hours. By the beginning of June, it was reported that only one of the five ferries was still running, and installations at the terminals were so badly damaged that the enemy was compelled to resort to the use of lighters and any other small craft he could find.
An essential part of the Allied plan for the preparatory period was the capture of the islands of Pantellaria and Lampedusa in the Sicilian Narrows. By virtue of their position the garrisons on these islands could give advance warning of the movement of the assault convoys, but once in Allied hands the airfield on Pantellaria would be a convenient base for fighter aircraft covering the more distant landing areas and would serve to relieve some of the congestion on the overcrowded airfields at Malta. The minor airfield and radar facilities at Lampedusa would also be of considerable value.
Pantellaria, a barren place of thirty-one square miles, described as the ‘Italian Heligoland’, had been strongly fortified since the late twenties and bristled with anti-aircraft guns, while Lampedusa, a smaller island of fourteen square miles, also possessed formidable defences. page 164 It was proposed to take Pantellaria by seaborne assault, but in the event it was reduced by an air bombardment unprecedented in the Mediterranean. From 9 May, the island was bombed by aircraft and shelled by warships with increasing frequency and then, between 7 and 11 June, it was subjected to continuous day and night attack by heavy, medium, light and fighter-bombers. Altogether some 5600 sorties were flown against the island and more than 6500 tons of bombs were dropped. The determination of the garrison wilted under this concentrated assault and the island capitulated shortly after infantry landed on the morning of 12 June. As a result, over 11,000 Italian troops and a number of German technicians were captured.1
Lampedusa, which had already been bombed towards the end of May, now felt the weight of a combined air and sea attack. On the morning of 12 June, after a night of naval bombardment, bombers dropped 268 tons of explosives while more shells poured in from the sea. The same afternoon an air-sea rescue Swordfish, with its compass out of order and almost without fuel, was forced to land on the island. Its pilot, an RAF sergeant, accepted an offer of surrender from the Italian commander, refuelled with enemy petrol and took off again for Sousse. In the evening the captain of a British destroyer completed the formalities. The smaller islands of Linosa and Lampione offered no resistance and their surrender followed within a matter of hours.
By 1 July the first phase of air operations had been completed and the North-west African Air Force thereupon concentrated its effort on the invasion area in Sicily. The Luftwaffe, although it enjoyed the advantage of operating at short range and was under severe provocation with the threat to its bases, did not offer the intense opposition that had been expected. However, there was one notable exception on 5 July, when about a hundred enemy fighters attempted to intercept a formation of American Fortress bombers. In the action which ensued thirty-five enemy fighters were claimed destroyed for the loss of only two bombers. Throughout all the weeks of preparation the Germans struggled to keep their airfields in operation with but scant success. By D-day seven of the Gerbini satellites were out of action, as were the important airfields at Comiso, Castelvetrano and Bocco di Falco, while the efficiency of many others was seriously impaired. Indeed, the airfield situation in Sicily had become so desperate that the Luftwaffe was almost paralysed and in no condition to offer serious resistance to the landings.
1 The onslaught, which Coningham described as a ‘test tube experiment on the effect of intense and prolonged bombing’, had completely destroyed the town and harbour. However, the numerous galleries and tunnels constructed under the rocky surface of the island had provided a ready refuge and casualties among the inhabitants and members of the garrison were light.
In all these preparatory operations New Zealanders played their part. As Royal Air Force formations were reinforced for the Sicilian venture, there had been a corresponding influx of men from the Dominion, so that by the beginning of July 1943 over 530 were serving in Mediterranean Air Command. More than two-thirds were aircrew, many of them flying under their fellow countrymen, Coningham and Park; others faithfully performed the less spectacular but essential duties of servicing and repair which kept the aircraft in action. In addition a small group held responsible staff appointments or did good work in such posts as engineering, equipment, signal and medical officers.
With Headquarters, Mediterranean Air Command, Group Captain H. D. McGregor and Wing Commander M. W. B. Knight, both experts on fighter operations, were concerned in the planning of Operation HUSKY. On the eve of the assault, McGregor was appointed Deputy Chief of Air Staff, Mediterranean Air Command, and Knight joined the operations staff of North-west African Air Forces. Both men were subsequently to be closely associated with the planning and execution of air operations in Italy. Wing Commander A. E. Arnott as senior equipment officer, Headquarters North-west African Coastal Air Force, was responsible for the allocation and distribution of equipment throughout the area covered by this force. He was to remain in this post for over two years and during this time made an important contribution to the planning and organisation of coastal operations for the landings in Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and Italy. The diversity of his duties is illustrated by the fact that he was responsible for the supply and replacement of aircraft, vehicles, armament, photographic equipment and clothing for a force of some 25,000 men.
Flight Lieutenant E. L. Joyce continued as flight commander with the famous No. 73 Hurricane Squadron. A few days after the invasion began, he was appointed to command. Joyce had first joined No. 73 as a sergeant pilot in mid-1941 and had subsequently won distinction for his part in low-level attacks and his prowess as a night-fighter in defence of desert airfields. Flying with No. 23 Mosquito Squadron on night intruder operations, Flight Lieutenant Rabone6 was prominent in attacks on supply trains and railway stations in eastern Sicily and southern Italy. In a varied career, Rabone had flown Battle bombers in France, fought with a Hurricane squadron during the Battle of Britain and, flying Hurricanes and then Defiants, had taken part in the defeat of German night raiders in 1941. Subsequently he was one of the original flight commanders of No. 488 (NZ) Squadron, then equipped with Beaufighters.
New Zealand Spitfire pilots were frequently over Sicily during the six weeks before the invasion. Several successful combats were reported. On 4 July Mackie led his squadron to cover Fortresses attacking Catania, and just as the bombers had left the target six Messerschmitt 109s appeared. A ‘free for all’ soon developed during which, although his guns were not working properly, Mackie succeeded in setting one Messerschmitt on fire. He was then chased by other enemy aircraft but eluded them by diving out to sea. On the way back to Malta his cannon began working perfectly and he seized the opportunity to attack a two-masted schooner which he sighted ten miles south-east of Augusta. Although fired on by shore batteries he returned unscathed. The following day, while escorting Fortresses to bomb Gerbini airfield, the Spitfires were again in action and Mackie sent another Me109 down to crash-land north of Palazzolo. This same day Flight Sergeant De Tourret of No. 229 Squadron destroyed one Focke- Wulf 190 and damaged another, but his own aircraft sustained such severe damage that he was forced to crash-land on Hal Far. On another occasion De Tourret damaged a Macchi 402.
Flying Officer White's No. 126 Squadron was kept busy on sweeps over the airfields in eastern Sicily. Within the first five days of July, White was to claim the destruction of two Messerschmitt 109s and a Macchi 202, together with one Macchi 202 and Messerschmitt 109 damaged—an outstanding achievement at this time. His most exciting combat occurred in the vicinity of Biscari airfield. Seeing several Messerschmitt 109s take off, he dived to take up a position behind one of them but was unable to overhaul the enemy machine. He then began chasing his Messerschmitt through valleys and up over hills, firing short bursts at every opportunity without any visible results. Just as his cannon ammunition ran out the enemy began to slacken speed, and rapidly overtaking his quarry, White got in several machine-gun bursts from short range. Immediately the hood flew off and the German machine began to climb steeply; the pilot baled out at the top of the climb and his aircraft went straight down to explode in a sheet of smoke and flame. White had earlier been prominent in attacks on enemy shipping.
With the RAF coastal squadrons based in North Africa, New Zealanders took part in convoy escort duties, sea reconnaissance, shipping strikes and air-sea rescue searches. In one week alone seventeen separate convoys were given air protection. So effective were the patrols flown by Allied aircraft that, in the four weeks ending on 16 June, not one ship sailing in convoy in the central Mediterranean was lost or damaged by enemy air or submarine action. Pilot Officers Hunter1 and Finn2 of No. 39 Squadron and Flying Officer Hunt3 and Flight Sergeant Kemp4 of No. 47 Squadron were among those who flew on convoy patrol at this time. Later, as their obsolete Beauforts were replaced by torpedo-carrying Beaufighters, they were to turn from the defensive role to ‘search-and-attack’ missions. On 21 June Kemp flew one of the squadron's first Beaufighter sorties. He sighted an enemy cargo vessel and made a good attack, but during the run-in his aircraft was hit by flak from an escorting destroyer; one propeller was shot off and the oil lines burst, but Kemp flew his Beaufighter safely back to base at Misurata.
To protect shipping in Tunisian and Algerian ports from enemy air attack, British and American fighter squadrons of the Coastal Force flew more than four thousand sorties between 16 May and 30 June. By night RAF Beaufighters were particularly successful, claiming the destruction of twenty-six enemy machines. One of the squadrons— No. 255—was commanded by Wing Commander J. H. Player, who had led Beaufighters during the Tunisian campaign and organised intruder missions over Sardinia with conspicuous success. Now, as the shipping concentrations in North African ports increased, Player and his pilots flew defensive patrols which were to add to their squadron's already impressive list of victories. One night in June, when on patrol near Bizerta, Player was vectored on to an unidentified aircraft. After a ten-minute chase the machine was sighted and identified as a tri-engined Cant Z1007. Player closed in and, after only a short burst with all guns, he and his navigator had the satisfaction of seeing the starboard engine explode. A second burst set the port engine ablaze and immediately the Cant began to disintegrate. It then spun down, a flaming mass, to continue burning on the sea. Player had taken over No. 255 Squadron early in March; in the next few months, squadron pilots claimed fifteen enemy aircraft destroyed, two probably destroyed and twelve damaged. For his own part in operations and his fine leadership, Player was admitted to the Distinguished Service Order.
The fine offensive spirit displayed by the bomber crews is well illustrated by the action of the young Wellington pilot, Flight Sergeant Pilet, during one sortie to Milo airfield in Sardinia. On this night the weather was atrocious but Pilet flew on to find and bomb his target. On the way back to Tunisia, conditions became even worse but he succeeded in landing at base while most squadron crews were compelled to find other airfields where the weather was better. Flying Officer Read displayed ‘exceptional zeal and energy’ in the performance of his duties as gunnery leader of No. 37 Squadron. On one occasion he flew in a Wellington captained by Squadron Leader Beale detailed to attack Gerbini airfield. On leaving the target the Wellington was singled out for attack by a Ju88. Read first sighted the enemy aircraft as it closed in from the port side, whereupon he raised the alarm and gave Beale directions for evasive action. As a result the enemy machine passed to the starboard quarter, its fire causing no damage to the Wellington. Read withheld his own fire until the Junkers was at point-blank range. He then opened up and scored hits on the enemy bomber; it rolled over on its back and fell away, apparently out of control.
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The aircraft and gliders battling through the high wind towards Sicily carried 1200 men of 1 Air Landing Brigade of 1 British Airborne Division. Most of the gliders were of the light Hadrian, or Waco, type for which the maximum load was 14 men and a small cart; but there were ten larger Horsas, capable of carrying 30 men or a jeep and an anti-aircraft gun. To tow these gliders the Americans had provided 109 Dakotas and the Royal Air Force 7 Halifaxes and 21 Albemarles. Towing the Horsa gliders from England to Sale airfield near Casablanca, and thence via Froha to Kairouan in Tunisia, had been a hazardous operation. Flying by night with a glider in tow over such great distances was considered too dangerous, so the slow and cumbersome combinations had flown by day, risking interception by German fighters as they crossed the Bay of Biscay. Through the skill and determination of aircraft and glider pilots 27 out of 30 Horsas had reached North Africa by 7 July. There was little time for training. British glider pilots were out of practice and found the Hadrian more difficult to fly than their training gliders, while the Dakota pilots did not have sufficient time to become accustomed to their tows. Furthermore, facilities in North Africa did not permit of suitable exercises to simulate the conditions of actual operations. All concerned did their best but the result was far from satisfactory.
The landing zone for the Air Landing Brigade was near Syracuse and its objective, the Ponte Grande, an important bridge south of the town. On the flight to Sicily things soon went wrong. In the high wind many machines were blown off course, navigators were unable to identify the first turning point at Malta and the timing of the operation was upset. Although the weather improved slightly as the force approached the island, the release of gliders in uncertain light brought many errors. Of the 137 gliders which set out, no fewer than 69 were released too soon and fell into the sea; a further 56 were scattered over a wide area along the south-eastern coast. Only twelve gliders, all towed by RAF aircraft, reached the landing zone, one Horsa descending within 300 yards of the Ponte Grande. By dawn eight officers and sixty-five other ranks were holding the bridge. Determined assaults page 171 by the enemy during the morning and early afternoon were of no avail until half past three, when the fifteen survivors of this gallant band were overrun. Fortunately by that time advanced troops of the Eighth Army were approaching and they were able to drive the enemy off before they could destroy the bridge. Aggressive action by the remainder of the British airborne force caused widespread alarm and confusion, particularly among the Italians. Meanwhile paratroops of the United States 82 Airborne Division had been dropped over an area of fifty square miles around Gela and Licata. Here, again, a small proportion of the force succeeded in gaining the road junction and high ground which was their objective, while the sudden appearance of the remainder in other localities further increased the fear and despondency in the enemy ranks. But the margin between success and failure of the airborne operations had been slight.
In contrast, all went well for the seaborne forces from the beginning. The landings began at 4 a.m. and, covered by naval bombardment, were everywhere successful. There was negligible opposition from the Italians manning the coastal defences, beach-heads were quickly established and supplies and reinforcements poured in. Advanced troops pushed inland and by nightfall the whole of the Pachino peninsula was occupied, Syracuse had fallen and the Americans had captured Licata and were moving on to Vittoria.
Throughout the daylight hours of 10 July, Allied fighters operating from Malta, Gozo, Pantellaria and North Africa were on patrol over the beaches and the mass of shipping lying off shore. Attempts at interference by the Luftwaffe were far less than had been anticipated. In the first twenty-four hours only twelve ships were successfully attacked from the air whereas the invasion plans had anticipated heavier losses. As a result of the day's fighting over the beaches and their approaches, 13 enemy aircraft were claimed destroyed, with 14 more probably destroyed or damaged; our losses were 11 Spitfires shot down and missing.
The Luftwaffe was no more successful in its attempts to prevent Allied bombers and fighter-bombers attacking inland targets. During the day airfields, defensive positions and communications were attacked almost at will. Of the enemy fighters which tried to intercept, seventeen were shot down for the loss of only five Allied aircraft, which almost certainly fell victim to the intense flak. Night protection of the beaches was shared by RAF Beaufighters and Mosquitos based on Malta. Beaufighters destroyed two Ju88s and one Cant Z1007 and probably destroyed a Ju88 in the Augusta and Syracuse areas, while a Mosquito probably destroyed a Ju88 south-east of Castelvetrano.page 172
Within the next three days the Allied air offensive reduced the Luftwaffe in Sicily to a state of impotence, and thereafter no effective opposition was met in the skies over the island. Malta-based Spitfires and American Warhawks scored heavily during their patrols over the beaches and harbours. On 13 July, the last day on which the Luftwaffe appeared in strength, they shot down twenty-four enemy machines and probably destroyed three more for the loss of only one Spitfire. Royal Air Force Beaufighters and Mosquitos, now guided by a Ground Control Interception Station and a rapidly expanding warning system, also took a nightly toll of enemy bombers. Operating in clear moonlight on 12 July, they had an exellent night's hunting, claiming the destruction of nine German and two Italian aircraft without loss to themselves. By day and night RAF and American bombers and fighter-bombers were busy attacking communications, airfields, troop concentrations and ground positions; they also bombed marshalling yards and airfields in Italy. The trickle of supplies reaching the enemy forces was further reduced by the successful shipping strikes of coastal aircraft; in all, ten vessels were sunk or damaged in the first week of the invasion.
Meanwhile, with the aid of this air superiority, the land campaign continued to prosper. On 12 July Ponte Olivo landing ground was captured and elements of the Seventh and Eighth Armies made contact in the Ragusa area. The advance westwards from Syracuse went on and Augusta was occupied in the early hours of the 13th, with its port installations almost intact. British and American engineers followed close on the heels of the ground forces and quickly made captured airfields serviceable again. By 13 July Pachino, which had been ploughed up by the Germans, was ready for use and the first Spitfire squadrons of Desert Air Force flew in from Malta and began operations. During the next three days, more RAF Spitfire squadrons were installed on Comiso and United States Kittyhawk squadrons moved in to Licata and Ponte Olivo. Thereafter the transfer to Sicily of squadrons from Malta and North Africa continued at regular intervals without any interruption in the all-out support accorded to the land forces.
The airmen arriving in Sicily lived more or less as they had done in the desert but the countryside, with its olive and fruit trees, was very different. The ground was too rocky for digging slit trenches so tents were pitched and surrounded by a blast wall of earth; aircraft were dispersed among the almond groves. To those who had spent years in the desert the abundance of water for drinking and washing was a most pleasant change. Although the orange crop had largely been gathered, there was the luxury of ample supplies of almonds, grapes, melons, tomatoes and wine. The local population, who pro- page 173 tested their detachment from the politics of the Italian mainland, with few exceptions made a great show of friendliness. But as the days went by the weather became more sultry and then malaria and dysentery took hold of many airmen. It is recorded that at one time no fewer than a quarter of the officers at the headquarters of the Tactical Air Force were suffering from either one or the other of these diseases.
To speed the Eighth Army's advance towards Catania and the Gerbini airfields, another airborne operation was launched over Sicily on the night of 13 July.1 Its objective was the bridge at Primo Sole which carried the main Catania road over the River Simeto. The operation was primarily a paratroop one. Three battalions of 1 British Parachute Brigade were carried in 107 US Dakotas and 11 RAF Albemarles and were supported by anti-tank units and Royal Engineers in seventeen gliders towed by Albemarles and Halifaxes. The force flew from North Africa by way of Malta. As they approached their objective many aircraft were off course and they were fired on by Allied naval vessels which failed to identify them. Overland, intense enemy anti-aircraft fire further disorganised the force. Altogether 27 Dakotas lost their way, 19 returned to base without dropping their passengers and 14 aircraft were shot down. In the event, less than half the aircraft succeeded in dropping their parachutists or releasing their gliders so that they landed on or near the selected area. When dawn came, some 200 paratroops and five anti-tank guns were installed on the bridge, approximately one-fifth of the force which had set out from Kairouan. Demolition charges were removed and thrown into the river and troops resisted heavy German attacks until the evening, when they were forced back. They then covered the bridge from high ground to the south. Early on the 15th, infantry and tanks of the Eighth Army arrived and the bridge was finally retaken the next morning. The airborne operations had proved costly, largely because of the inexperience of the men and a shortage of suitable equipment; but they were of considerable assistance to both armies, whose commanders reported that the speed of the invasion and the initial advances had been materially increased. There was now general recognition of the importance of airborne assault and the experience gained and lessons learnt in Sicily were to be invaluable in subsequent operations in north-west Europe.
1 Previously on the night of 11 July troops of 82 US Airborne Division had been dropped in front of forward units in the Gela area. Unfortunately, out of the 144 Dakotas despatched, 23 failed to return. The unarmed transport aircraft encountered intense flak and were attacked by enemy aircraft. In addition, many ran foul of anti-aircraft fire from Allied naval vessels which, at this time, were being bombed by enemy aircraft.
With the invasion a week old the position on land began to crystallise. It became obvious that the Germans were abandoning the western part of the island to concentrate their strength in the north-east to deny the Allies possession of the island's greatest prize—the airfields of the Catanian plain—and to keep open the escape route through Messina. While the United States Seventh Army advanced freely to take Palermo on 22 July, the Eighth Army encountered fierce resistance. Montgomery was forced to divert his forces from the east coast and move inland to come up behind the enemy between Mount Etna and the northern coast. The task of Coningham's Tactical Air Force was now the isolation of Catania by repeated attacks on rail targets and the ring of roads around the area, particularly the important road junction of Randazzo.
Meanwhile, United States Fortresses and Liberators by day and RAF Wellingtons by night made a series of attacks on Naples, Salerno and Foggia to block the roads and railways on both sides of the Apennines. But these raids were not enough to restrict the flow of supplies and, after full consideration of the military, political and religious implications involved, it was decided to bomb Rome. Accordingly, 270 American Fortresses and Liberator bombers attacked the Lorenzo and Littorio marshalling yards on the morning of 19 July; the same afternoon 320 Mitchells and Marauders, escorted by fighters, page 175 bombed Ciampino, the city's largest airfield. The Lorenzo railway yards, engine houses and locomotive sheds were devastated and there was considerable damage to freight sheds, tracks and rolling stock; industrial plants and public services were also hard hit. At Littorio many hits were scored in the yards and sidings, including some fifty direct hits on rolling stock and tracks, while the locomotive depot and workshops were damaged. Ciampino airfield was the scene of widespread damage. Administrative buildings, hangars, barracks and ammunition dumps suffered heavily and approximately forty Italian aircraft were burnt out or damaged. These results were achieved at a cost of only two bombers.
Before the attacks, crews were carefully briefed for definite military targets to avoid destruction in the city unique for its religious and historical associations, and its population was warned that air attack was imminent. Inevitably, however, some bombs fell outside the target areas, and among the buildings damaged was the ancient basilica of Saint Lorenzo-without-the-Walls, with its twelfth century frescoes. Although these raids were made exclusively by American aircraft, they belonged to the combined Mediterranean Air Command. The British Government accepted equal responsibility and stood firm against the storm of controversy which broke out when it became known that ‘the Eternal City’ had been attacked. In addition to the material damage to enemy communications and air strength, the raids were a further blow to the sinking morale of the Italian people. Within a week Mussolini was deposed and the Fascist regime he controlled for twenty years was dissolved and replaced by a new government, with Marshal Badoglio at its head.
Meanwhile the battle for Catania went on, and in the July heat the Eighth Army advanced but slowly over what, after the desert, was strange and difficult terrain. The German commanders, under General Hube, had ruthlessly restored order among the panic-stricken Italians retreating towards Messina and managed to keep open the vital reinforcement and supply routes to the front. In an attempt to increase the flow of traffic to and from Sicily, Hube tried to make greater use of the port of Milazzo, but was frustrated by the frequent medium, light and fighter-bomber attacks during the last seven days of July. Among other targets repeatedly attacked at this time were the marshalling yards and rail bridge at Centuripe, the town which barred the way to Adrano, ‘the key to the Etna positions.’ Nevertheless the German divisions, deprived of a large proportion of their supplies, without air support and themselves under pitiless air attack, continued to fight stubbornly for they were determined to make an orderly and protracted retreat to the Italian mainland.page 176
Incapable of protecting its ground forces, the Luftwaffe did what it could to help them by flying in reinforcements, fuel, ammunition and equipment. But the enemy air transports did not escape the vigilance of the Allied fighter pilots and there was a repetition of the slaughter which had taken place in Tunisia. Then it had been largely the work of American Warhawks but now it was the turn of RAF Spitfires. The Junkers 52 supply trains were known to be landing on the beaches near Milazzo and on a day towards the end of July thirty-three Spitfires of No. 322 Wing took off from their airfield at Lentini on a sweep of this area. Led by Wing Commander Colin Gray, the Spitfires flew northward, skimming low over the hills and descending to sea level as they approached Milazzo. Near the port they came upon a ‘gaggle’ of Ju52s circling to land on an improvised strip. Gray led his pilots into attack before the escorting Messerschmitts realised what was happening and within a few minutes twelve transports were shot down. Loaded with petrol, they exploded in spectacular fashion and many of our Spitfires were hit by fragments. The German fighters diving in a belated effort to intercept were met and routed by the British pilots. The slaughter then continued until twenty-one transports had crashed to burn on the sea or along the beaches, together with four of the escort machines. Gray himself destroyed two Ju52s, while Flight Sergeant Doherty1 was credited with the highest individual score of three aircraft destroyed.
The decisive days of the Sicilian campaign came early in August. On the 3rd of the month the Eighth Army took Centuripe, and Catania fell two days later. Meanwhile the Seventh Army, with Palermo as its supply base, had closed in along the north coastal road and the parallel highway farther inland to Troina. This town fell to the Americans on the 6th, and with the entry of Montgomery's troops into Adrano the same evening, the north-east defence line was broken. With their divisions now in full retreat, the Germans began their evacuation across the Messina Straits in real earnest. The end in Sicily was in sight.
After the fall of Randazzo, the Germans held but one road to Messina. This they grimly defended to enable the evacuation to continue for as long as possible, but on 16 August Allied troops finally fought their way into Messina and by the following day the entire island was in our hands. The campaign had thus been completed in the short space of thirty-eight days.
Before the end came, however, the Germans had succeeded in getting a large number of men and a considerable mass of equipment back across the Messina Straits to Italy. The Allied air forces seriously hampered this withdrawal but it was never disorganised. For one thing the Messina Straits are less than three miles wide; they were heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns, ‘probably the most concentrated anti-aircraft protection yet encountered’; and the Germans made good use of the short hours of darkness to make the few minutes' journey across the narrow strip of water. In the last ten days of the campaign 1170 sorties were flown, mainly by Kittyhawk and Warhawk fighter-bombers, against the ferries, barges and other craft making the crossing; the effort was particularly heavy in the last three days when over half the total number of sorties were flown. The fighter-bombers were forced to fly high to avoid the intense barrage but they claimed many successes. The enemy lost a good deal of equipment and approximately 194,000 men were left behind in Sicily, 32,000 of whom were either killed or wounded and 162,000 taken prisoner, the majority being Italians. These casualties were about five times the Allied losses on the island.
The wreckage of more than a thousand German and Italian aircraft that was found strewn over the island's airfields bore eloquent testimony to the part played by the Allied air forces. Their achievements had indeed been notable. They had driven the Luftwaffe from Sicily in the first ten days and by their assault on the bases in Italy had prevented it from making any serious intervention in the land fighting. Altogether during the campaign they had destroyed or captured 1850 machines for the loss of fewer than 400 aircraft. The bomber raids on communications and ports had upset the movement of supplies; the coastal squadrons, along with the Navy, had protected the assault shipping, assured the safe delivery of Allied reinforcements and equipment and at the same time reduced German and Italian seaborne rein- page 178 forcements. In close support of the armies the British and American fighter-bombers had done much good work, though their efforts did not always meet with the success to which they had become accustomed in North Africa. In the difficult Sicilian countryside, ground targets were hard to locate and there were no means by which the troops on the ground could summon quick assistance from the aircraft patrolling overhead. The need for some system whereby air support could be provided to forward troops in a matter of minutes was obvious and the solution to this problem, which came within the next few months, was to have far-reaching effects on the success of future air support. Much that was new had been attempted during the Sicilian campaign and many lessons of invasion were learned. In particular there had been further development of that combined land-sea-air technique that was to be the keynote of all future operations for the Second World War. Meanwhile, the occupation of Sicily had cleared the way for landings on the Italian mainland which were soon to follow.
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The ubiquity of New Zealand airmen was well demonstrated during the Sicilian campaign. Among the RAF formations of Mediterranean Air Command there was now hardly a squadron without at least one or two men from the Dominion on its strength. The majority of those who had taken part in preparatory operations continued to serve with their units, while newcomers included a sprinkling of veterans from the United Kingdom and a number of men fresh from the training bases. Whether in attack or defence or in such duties as air transport or air-sea rescue, they acquitted themselves well during the short campaign.
Fighter pilots did not get as many opportunities for combat over Sicily as they had expected and after the fourth day of the invasion only occasional encounters with the enemy were reported. For example, on 19 July a squadron diary records: ‘One more day without any sign of enemy air activity. We carried out the usual patrol over the Catania area where our ground forces were meeting stiff opposition and later in the day gave top cover to three squadrons of Kittyhawks on armed reconnaissance, north of Catania. It is truly amazing the way in which the air battle has died down.’ A fortnight later the diarist was plaintively inquiring: ‘What has happened to the Luftwaffe?’ During the early stages, however, there was considerable activity on the part of the Luftwaffe and Squadron Leader E. D. Mackie, Flying Officer S. F. Browne, Flight Sergeant Harrison1 and Flying Officer G. G. White were among those engaged in combat.
Squadron Leader Mackie, who led a Spitfire squadron on patrol over the beaches and shipping, continued a remarkable run of success. Within a matter of weeks he claimed five enemy aircraft destroyed, one probably destroyed and two damaged. On one morning when his squadron destroyed seven Ju87 dive-bombers, his own score was three. Flying Officer Browne of No. 93 Squadron shot down two Ju88 bombers within forty-eight hours. On the second occasion his squadron intercepted a force of these aircraft, escorted by Messerschmitts, attacking ships waiting to off-load and after the action Browne was himself forced down; he thus became one of the first pilots to land in Sicily, although not quite in the manner he had expected. However, he was soon back on operations and two days later he sent down a Messerschmitt 109 near Augusta.
Flying Officer White was again prominent in the fighting which came the way of his No. 126 Squadron. In one evening patrol, four Macchi 202s were seen diving out of the sun to attack a group of supply ships. The Spitfires turned in behind and quickly drove them off. No sooner had the British pilots re-formed than they saw more than twenty Messerschmitts 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s approaching to make a similar attack. The Spitfires at once swept in to cut the enemy raiders off from the shipping and then closed in to break up their formation. For fifteen minutes there was a fierce and confused battle in which White took on no fewer then eight different enemy machines before running out of ammunition. Afterwards No. 126 Squadron was credited with three aircraft destroyed or probably destroyed and six damaged, White's score being one Macchi 202 probably destroyed and two Messerschmitt 109s damaged. The next day when No. 126 Squadron intercepted enemy fighters attacking British motor transport to the west of Syracuse, White destroyed one Messerschmitt 109 and badly damaged another.
Other Spitfire pilots successful in combat were Flight Sergeant G. M. Buchanan of No. 185 Squadron who, on the eve of the invasion, shot down an FW190 and Flying Officer E. J. Shaw, No. 72 Squadron, who destroyed a Macchi 202 three days later.
1 Group Captain R. Webb, DSO, DFC, m.i.d.; born London, 10 Mar 1912; bank clerk; joined RNZAF 17 Dec 1939; commanded No. 1435 Sqdn 1943–44; Wing Leader, No. 323 Wing, 1944; killed in aircraft accident, 27 May 1953.
New Zealand pilots were prominent with the fighter-bomber squadrons which did invaluable work in strafing and bombing German front-line positions, railways, roads and ports, and finally the evacuation traffic across the Messina Straits. No. 239 Kittyhawk Wing—long the most active fighter-bomber wing of the Desert Air Force—was now led by Wing Commander R. E. Bary. After leading his squadrons in free-lance attacks on communication targets from Malta, Bary set up his Wing Headquarters at Pachino in Sicily on 17 July. Two days later the wing flew its first operation from Sicilian soil when he led an armed reconnaissance of the Paterno area. Among the pilots who flew under Bary's leadership were Flight Lieutenant B. H. Thomas, Flight Sergeants Batten,1 Cross,2 S. J. Fourneau, Gillard,3 Hamilton,4 Lory,5 W. G. McConnochie, Nordstrand,6 Rogers,7 Turner8 and Twiname.9 During an armed reconnaissance of the Catania area, No. 450 Australian Squadron's last operation from Malta while en route for Sicily, Flight Sergeant Fourneau was forced to ‘ditch’ in the sea when his Kittyhawk developed engine trouble. After spending two hours in the water he was fortunate to be picked up by an air-sea rescue launch and taken to Malta. He went to Sicily the next day by transport aircraft and reported to his squadron, none the worse for his experience.
The Kittyhawk wing soon made its presence felt in Sicily. On one occasion, after Bary had led his pilots against enemy positions south-west of Catania, the wing received signals from the Army reading: ‘Much gratitude. Fields in front our troops alight’ and ‘Commanders signal Thanks very much. Twice a great success.’ Top fighter cover for the operation had been provided by Spitfires of No. 243 Squadron led by Squadron Leader Mackie.
From the second week of August No. 239 Wing made an all-out effort against the Messina Straits. During one attack by twelve Kittyhawks of No. 450 Squadron, the section of four aircraft in which Flight Sergeant Gillard and Flight Sergeant McConnochie flew scored hits on a Siebel ferry and several near misses on a string of barges; then on the way back to base they sighted and strafed enemy road transport. As the evacuation reached its peak, No. 239 alternated between raids on shipping in the straits and on motor transport steadily converging on the Messina beaches. In one raid, led by Bary, the Kittyhawks destroyed a complete convoy of twelve trucks running into Messina. In another mission a large barge and a launch that were singled out for attack disappeared under a cloud of spray. The hazard ous nature of these fighter-bomber attacks is illustrated by the fact that, of the seven New Zealanders who served with No. 260 Squadron during 1943, up to this time five had been killed, and only Flight Lieutenant Thomas and Flight Sergeant Twiname survived by the end of the fighting in Sicily.
Among the New Zealanders who flew light bombers was Wing Commander L. J. Joel, in command of No. 55 Baltimore Squadron. Now on his third tour of operations, Joel displayed ‘outstanding qualities of leadership and determination’ during the Sicilian campaign. In the first phase of the Sicilian invasion his squadron flew a novel type of operation for light bombers. Flying singly by night, the Baltimores ranged over western Sicily on armed reconnaissance of ports, railways and roads. Then in the third week of July the squadron moved by air to Malta, where it reverted to the daylight role with attacks on enemy strongpoints, on gun positions, the harbour at Milazzo and the towns of Paterno, Centuripe and Randazzo. Finally Joel took his squadron to Sicily, where during the peak period of the German evacuation the Baltimores attacked the embarkation points.
With No. 236 Boston Wing on night operations, Squadron Leader N. Dumont, who won commendation for his work in Tunisia, now commanded a flight of No. 18 Squadron. Other experienced New Zealand airmen with this unit were Flying Officer Edwards,1 pilot, Warrant Officer Petrie,2 wireless operator, and Flight Sergeant H. S. McCullum, navigator.
New Zealand airmen also rendered excellent service with the coastal squadrons that were constantly on patrol to protect Allied convoys and to search for and attack enemy naval units and merchant vessels. During the North African campaign Wellington and Beaufort torpedo-bombers had borne the brunt of the assault against the enemy sea lanes, but now daylight strikes by the fast and manoeuvreable Beaufighters proved a most effective counter to the stream of supply vessels which hugged the coasts of southern Italy, Corsica and Sardinia, before running across to Sicilian ports. Flying Officer S. M. Hunt and Flight Sergeant A. E. Kemp of No. 47 Squadron and Pilot Officer D. M. Hunter of No. 39 Squadron distinguished themselves in a series of gallant and determined attacks off the Corsican coast before they were eventually shot down and taken prisoner. With No. 52 Squadron which carried out many of the reconnaissance flights for these strikes, Flying Officer W. J. Hoy, Warrant Officer W. C. Jorgensen and Flight Sergeant W. H. J. Bowsher continued to do good work until early in August, when their Baltimore failed to return from a reconnaissance of the Naples area. No. 14 Marauder Squadron also flew reconnaissance sorties, Warrant Officer D. S. McGregor, Flight Sergeants N. D. Freeman and F. M. Spedding making many sightings. On one occasion Freeman was sent out to search for a dinghy. He was jumped by two Messerschmitt 109s and a Regione 2000 which came at him out of the sun. Although thus heavily assailed, he shot down one Messerschmitt 109 and the other two aircraft were damaged and driven off.
On convoy escort duties with No. 253 Hurricane Squadron, which was the first British squadron to be based on Lampedusa, there were nine New Zealand pilots. From its island base the squadron was responsible for protecting all convoys within a fifty-mile radius. Although pilots were not to see action during their stay on the former Italian stronghold, they were constantly out on patrol and had the satisfaction of ensuring the safety of many convoys which passed through their sector. For instance, on the eve of the invasion the Hurricanes covered a huge convoy which stretched for over forty miles. This lack of action was in direct contrast to the pilots' experiences in North Africa, where they had been engaged on similar duties. They scored many successes. New Zealanders who did well in combat at this time were Pilot Officer Prentice,1 Flight Sergeants Shorthouse,2 Jackson3 and Cammock,4 who later was to be one of No. 486 Tempest Squadron's top-scoring pilots against the flying bomb, and Flight Sergeant C. P. Ashworth—brother of the veteran bomber pilot and pathfinder pioneer, Squadron Leader A. Ashworth. On one occasion Jackson and Cammock were among five squadron pilots who destroyed four Italian torpedo-bombers which they found about to attack a convoy. Shorthouse shared in the destruction of two Junkers 88 and Ashworth's score was three enemy aircraft destroyed.
Wing Commander J. J. McKay continued in command of No. 178 Liberator Squadron, which in spite of a shortage of aircraft and crews he had now built into an extremely efficient unit. New Zealanders operating with this squadron included Flight Sergeant Cooke,4 as pilot, Flight Sergeant Orr,5 navigator, and Flight Sergeant Kainamu,6 air gunner, while Squadron Leader C. R. Heazlewood was the squadron's engineer officer. With No. 462 Australian Squadron, Squadron Leader W. R. Kofoed, Pilot Officer G. S. Halley and Flight Sergeant Browne7 flew as captains of Halifax aircraft. Kofoed was now approaching the end of a long period of duty as flight commander with this squadron and in recognition of his services he was shortly to be awarded the Distinguished Service Order. On one mission to Palermo a photo-flash exploded in his aircraft. The fuselage was badly buckled but Kofoed managed to fly the crippled Halifax back to basc.
5 Pilot Officer B. C. Jeffares; born Stratford, 27 Oct 1922; clerk; joined RNZAF Nov 1941; killed on air operations, 21 Oct 1944.