Effect on Air Transport Operations in Russia in 41

Effect on Air Transport Operations in Russia in 41

Operation Crusader did have an impact that was felt far beyond Libya, and for the first time allowed the German high command to peak into the abyss of resources not adequate to a two-front war.

 

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Mediterranean – Junkers 52 in Flight. Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv.

On 27 November, during the last German push towards Moscow, the chief of staff of VIII Fliegerkorps, the close-support specialists under von Richthofen, had to issue the following instruction, which in effect centralised air supply for ground forces, something which had become increasingly important during the supply crisis of Operation Taifun, the attack on Moscow.

CX/MSS/473/T15

As a result of transfer of transport gruppen (wings) to other theatres of war (=Mediterranean) supply by air can from now on take place only to a limited extent.

Liason officers (with ground forces) are to point out that only in the most urgent cases can supplies be carried by air. 

Applications for air transport to be made to Fliegerkorps VIII.

The information appears to also have gone to Berlin for information.

The Admirals Views are Wild

Well, at least that is what I can make out of C’s handwriting. His full comment is ‘I incline to the view that the admirals views are wild’, but I am not 100% certain about the last word. It is his comment on a piece of intel submitted to him, titled ‘Italian appreciation on the situation in LIBYA 27th November’. This itself is a misnomer, and I think C got it, since it is not an official appreciation, but the view of one, albeit high-ranking naval officer on the ground campaign. Still, the Italian admiral was not far off the established opinion. Only five days later Panzergruppe HQ declared victory – read at this link!

Here is the full text:

STARTS

CX/MSS/ZTPI/2600 (474/1)

Mediterranean Military Operations

At Cyrene during the evening of 27/11 source saw the following naval document, signed by Admiral Mateucci giving the Italian impressions of the situation:-

Axis front Sidi Amar (sic!) – Bardia is consolidated and quiet at present. Three British divisions, which were heavily engaged there, would appear to have retired to the eastward, for refitting (?). Concentrating the major part of their available forces, the British have opened a narrow breach through our forces disposed for the siege of Tobruk, joining up at Belhamedi. However, from this morning, 3 Axis armoured divisions from the Bardia area are advancing fighting, towards the westward. The British have had, as their dominating objective, the union with the forces besieged at Tobruk while the general shape of the battle has been characterised by the broad maneuvre. First towards the east, and now towards the west of the Axis armoured division.

ENDS

Let’s go through this with the benefit of hindsight.  At this point, out of three divisions and three independent brigades, only 7th Armoured had pulled back (what was left of it), but not to the east, mostly to the south, as had the South African 1st Brigade, while 5th had ceased to exist.  4th Indian Division was still besieging the frontier, and the New Zealand Division was busy attacking westward. Of course, it was the failure by the Axis commanders to realise this which helped to win the battle for the Commonwealth.

If anyone knows which position the good Admiral held, I would be very interested.

According to Rich, “C” was Lieutenant Colonel Sir Stewart Menzies, and the position of “C” was the model for Ian Fleming’s “M”.

C's covering note to the PM

An expensive visit to Castelvetrano

An expensive visit to Castelvetrano

Background

Around the turn of the year 1941/42, Castelveltrano airfield in Sicily (I have also seen Castel Vetrano and Castelveltrano as spelling) was stuffed with Axis transport planes which had been gathered in the Med, either to resupply Africa, or to transport in units and supplies belonging to the Luftwaffe’s 2nd Air Fleet which had just started its camapign against Malta. Previous supply to North Africa from Athens and Crete had ceased when the Axis forces retreated past Benghazi, due to the increased distance involved.

The Royal Air Force aerial reconnaissance picture below shows the airfield and the Axis planes parked on it on the day before the successful attack, and it was probably the reason for the attack.

The picture was almost certainly taken on 3 January, on a reconnaissance by No. 69 Squadron RAF out of Luqa air field on Malta, by pilot F/Off Warburton (who was later to command No. 69 Squadron) and LAG Shirley in Beaufighter T.4705, which lasted from 1300 to 1500 hours, and noted 75 bombers and 13 fighters on Castel Vetrano. It also covered Trapani, Bopizzo, Marsala seaplane base, Palermo port, Trapani port, and attempted Comiso where no pictures could be taken due to cloud. Based on the results of the reconnaissance it was clear that Castel Vetrano was a very tempting target.

Vertical aerial reconnaissance view of Castelvetrano airfield, Sicily, the day before a successful attack was made on it by Malta-based Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons RAF. A number of Junkers Ju 52 and Savoia Marchetti SM 82 transport aircraft, many of which were destroyed during the raid, can be seen parked around the airfield perimeter. © IWM (C 4183)

Vertical aerial reconnaissance view of Castelvetrano airfield, Sicily, the day before a successful attack was made on it by Malta-based Bristol Blenheims of Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons RAF. A number of Junkers Ju 52 and Savoia Marchetti SM 82 transport aircraft, many of which were destroyed during the raid, can be seen parked around the airfield perimeter. © IWM (C 4183)

Warburton 
Wing Commander Adrian
Warburton (centre), Commanding Officer of No. 69 Squadron RAF, standing with some of his aircrew at Luqa, Malta. (IWM CM4672)

 

Attacks from Malta

At the time, strike forces on Malta were still active, and two operations were launched. A day attack on 4 January by Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons with their Blenheims, and then on the night 4/5 January 1942 the RAF bombers (Blenheims and Wellingtons) from Malta paid a repeat visit to Castelvetrano airfield.

Reports

The official report by the RAF for 4 January mentions both attacks.

12. MALTA: Bomber operations. The following report has been received of the attack on 4 January by 10 Blenheims on CASTELVETRANO aerodrome. Bombs were dropped from 25-100 feet on 75 transport aircraft which were closely parked on the aerodrome. At least 30 of them were destroyed by fire and many others seriously damaged. Troops on the aerodrome were also machine gunned and many casualties caused.

13. On the night 4th/5th January 9 Wellingtons renewed the attack on CASTELVETRANO aerodrome. Over 13 tons of bombs were dropped (including 1 4,000lb.) during a period of nearly 9 hours. Fires were started all over the aerodrome and 14 aircraft were seen to be burning. A petrol dump exploded starting an extensive fire on the edge of the aerodrome.  A.A. positions were machine gunned. One Wellington (and crew) is missing.  

The ORB entry from No. 107 Squadron also provides a lot of detail.

Luqa, Malta. 4th Jan.

Four Blenheims of 107 Squadron captained by P/O. Williamson, Sgt. Noseda, Sgt. Fuller, Sgt. Sykens accompanied by Six Blenheims of 18 Squadron were despatched to attack aircraft on the ground at Castel Vetrano.

A very successful raid was carried out amongst the large number of aircraft. Many of the JU.52’s and Br 20’s on the ground were either blown up or set on fire by bomb and m/gun fire. A very considerable proportion of the remaining aircraft were probably rendered unserviceable. Bombs fell in all part of the aerodrome and terrific blast effect was observed. One portion of the southern end of the runway was blown up. Two columns of black smoke could be seen from 40 miles, rising to almost 1,000’. Troops in blue uniform were also m/gunned in the South West corner of the aerodrome. The raid was carried out by three formations in quick succession from between 25-100’. 

All aircraft returned safely. All aircraft bombed in one stick.

40squadron

Vickers Wellington Mark IC, X9889 ‘BL-D’ of No. 40 Squadron RAF, under guard at Gibraltar while en route to the unit’s new base at Luqa, Malta. X9889 was one of three of the squadron’s Wellingtons destroyed during a German air raid on Luqa on 29 December 1941. (IWM GM263)

The after action report (AAR) of the Wellington attack makes interesting reading.  Nine Wellington sorties were flown that night, with three a/c making the trip twice.  One of the Wellingtons carried a 4,000 lb (1,800kg) “blockbuster” bomb, and appears to have managed to drop it right into the parked planes. The attack went in in two waves, first four aircraft  between 2041 and 2200, including a single aircraft with the blockbuster bomb. A second wave from 0357 to 0525. 

An extensive report has survived in The National Archives at Kew. There are a number of errors and typos in there, which I reproduce here. 

 

WELLINGTON OPERATION 

NIGHT 4/5 DECEMBER (sic!) 1942

Nine Mk I C Wellingtons of 40 Squadron were despatched to attack CASTEL VETRANO aerodrome. The aircraft were (M) S/LDR CRAIGH (P) SGT. ASHPITAD (S) SGT ROBINS (W) SGT ARMSTRONG (Z) SGT. FOSTER (S) SGT. LEWTHWAITE.

Total bombs dropped

21 x 250lb G.P.

28 x 500lb G.P.

1 x 4,000lb G.P.

 

3,360lb incendiaries

84 x 40 lb G.P.

Total Hours flown: 25 hours 41 minutes

Time over target 2041 to 0525 hours. 6 flares dropped.

SUMMARY No fires were visible from the day attack. The first wave consisting of four Wellingtons attacked between 2041-2200 hours and started fires amongst aircraft on the Eastern side of aerodrome which developed. A Petrol dump was also hit causing explosions visible 40 miles away. This was on the Eastern side of aerodrome. Enemy aircraft could be seen burning and were identified as JU 52’s. Explosions and fires were also seen from the North East and South West corners of the aerodrome. One Wellington then attacked with a 4000 lb bomb which landed about tow thirds from North-South along the runway falling just East of it. When the second wave arrived at 0357 hours the fires had gone out, but the first aircraft of the second wave dropped sticks East of the runway and started 6 red fires which followed large explosions and also started a white fire in buildings on the road east of the runway. The next aircraft straddled the runway and saw fires which had increased to 8, spreading amongst enemy aircraft. The last aircraft started another fire North of aerodrome and caused 6 explosions followed by fires which were visible 20 miles away. Aircraft (S) failed to return.

From the individual plane narratives:

(P) was first over the target and made runs from East to West and North East to South West and dropped 3 sticks from 7500 feet and 7000 feet. The first stick fell across the North East corner of the aerodrome and started fires which burned well. The second stick fell across the East of the aerodrome with no results observed apart from the Bomb flashes.

(W) saw the fires developing especially the Northern most, this leaked as though Petrol was burning as explosions were visible 40 miles away appeared from time to time, aircraft made runs from South to North and West to East and dropped 4 sticks from 6-7000 feet. The first stick fell in the South West corner causing explosions, the second fell in the Centre of the aerodrome (just missing the runway second and third fell in the North East corner near the fire. The fourth straddled the aerodrome from West to East crossing the centre and starting a red fire.

(M) Dropped three sticks from 3-2000 feet running in from West to South East. Two sticks fell in the North East corner and a third in the South East corner. No results seen. He saw that most aircraft had been parked near the runway directly on the east of the aerodrome and that they looked like JU 52’s. He saw one JU 52 well on fire. He also machine gunned 2 light A.A. positions which opened up from a bend in the road just West of MENFI near the coast.

(S) dropped the sticks from 7000 feet. The first of which fell parallel to the runway in the centre of the aerodrome from East to West. No results seen.

(Z) dropped his 4,000lb [Blockbuster] bomb from 8000 feet which landed just east of runway about two thirds of the way down from North-South.  A terrific explosion resulted throwing up debris and dust.  The target was visible when aircraft crossed the coast and showed up well.

(P) No fires were burning when the aircraft arrived on the target at 0357 hours (Approximately 4 1/2 hours later than aircraft Z) but after five sticks dropped from South to North and East to West from 8500 feet 6 red fires East of runway were started preceded by 6 red explosions. A large white fire was started in one building on the road East of the aerodrome perimeter.

(W) dropped 5 sticks from between 6500 and 8000 feet which fell north of the aerodrome starting a red fire west of the aerodrome and across the centre of runway from North West to South East. Saw the fires spreading amongst aircraft on the ground and counted at least 8 fires on leaving.

(M) dropped 4 sticks from 7000 feet. The first consisting of 4x 500 lbs fell on the runway and one 500 lb fell in the red fire East of runway the second fell along the East perimeter of the aerodrome the third started a fire North of the aerodrome and the fourth fell South of the aerodrome causing 6 explosions. Followed by fires visible 20 miles away.

OPPOSITION Consisted of light tracker which was fired at flares and medium and heavy FLAK coming from positions N.E. and S.W. of aerodrome.

WEATHER Clear over target.

(unreadable) DUTY AIR INTELLIGENCE OFFICER

 

Aftermath

One aircraft (’S’) failed to return. It carried a multinational crew of Sgts. James F. Lewthwaite (RNZAF – Pilot), William R. Pick (RCAF – Air Gunner/Obs), William W. Chalmers (RAF Volunteer Reserve – W/Op), Maurice M. Bryan (W/Op in training, Air Gunner), and Stanley H. James (Air Gunner), all of whom were killed and now rest in Catania War Cemetery.

On 8 January F/Off Warburton went back to Sicily for a reconnaissance in the same Beaufighter, this time with AG1 Hadden, from 1045-1300. On what the ORB mistakenly labels ‘Castel Benito’ (that’s the main airfield at Tripolis), but which I think should be Castel Vetrano, he takes pictures from 5,000 feet, noting 29 bombers and 26 fighters, as well as 11 burnt out bombers and 1 fighter being visible.

The Axis air forces lost six S.82s (one of which was used by the Germans), four Z1007bis, a CR42 and a Ju52, all of which were destroyed; in addition 42 more aircraft were damaged to various degrees: 22 S.82s, 15 Z1007bis, 2 FN305s, 2 CR42s and a MC200 (Thanks to Jon G. on AHF for the info).

The S.82 were the biggest transport planes available in the Med at this stage, and losing 28 of them even if some were only out of service temporarily must have been a very big drain on overall Axis air transport capacity at a critical juncture.

See also this prior post

Sources

  • RAF Wellington Raid Summaries, Malta
  • AIR27/843/1 No 107 ORB
  • RAF Daily Summaries January 1942
  • No. 69 Squadron Appendices