Following the retreat from the Gazala position the Desert Air Force quickly moved west in pursuit, and within days had operations going at Gazala and Mechili landing grounds which were used as staging and concentration posts from which to hit the Axis forces, in particular their air force, in the enemy rear areas.
German Situation Map, 29 December 1941, by which time Magrun had been occupied by Empire forces for almost a week. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.
The role of ULTRA
A major effort was made on 22 December to disrupt operations and destroy planes and ground assets on Magrun airfield.
ULTRA intercepts during the previous days had shown that the landing ground had become a major concentration area for the Axis air forces, and had also placed the battle HQ of Panzergruppe at Magrun, and noted that Luftwaffe supplies going into Magrun were considered inadequate, on 21 December. This was the short period during which Bletchley Park was reading the Panzergruppe communications almost in real time.
In consequence, 13 Corps and the Desert Air Force command laid on two operations on the ground and in the air, to interrupt the Axis on the landing ground. This consisted of 13 Corps directing 22 Guards Brigade onto Magrun late on 21 December, and 204 Group setting up multiple raids for 22 December. These operations on 22 December were therefore what would be called ‘intelligence-led’ today, in reaction to this information, and showed how quickly ULTRA intercepts could be turned into operational action.
Order to 205 Group to put in maximum effort night 21/22 December. AIR23/6489, TNA, Kew.
In particular, a message from Fliegerfuehrer to his Chief of Staff had been intercepted, asking when additional fuel would arrive for the aircraft that were arriving at Magrun, and informing that i) the delivery on the Regia Marina submarine Micca to Benghazi had only been Italian fuel, and that 16,000 ltrs. of fuel that had arrived at Maraua, the previous HQ, had been entirely used up. It was therefore reasonable to presume that at any given moment the next day substantial numbers of Luftwaffe aircraft would be on the ground at Magrun, either delivering fuel, or arriving to be refueled, and constituting a major target.
ULTRA message to Prime Minister, 21 Dec. 1941. UK National Archives, HW1 Series. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.
On 22 December, the following attacks went in:
1. Night 21/22 December, night raid by Wellingtons. Results inconclusive.
2. Morning fighter sweep (see below)
3. Morning attack by Bostons, claiming four planes destroyed on the ground.
4. Afternoon attack by 270 Wing Blenheims, claiming 2 Ju 52 destroyed, 2 probably destroyed, and 2 more damaged, all on the ground.
5. Afternoon attack by Marylands (2 and 3 of Nos. 12 and 21 Squadron S.A.A.F. respectively), which fail to bomb due to the target being insufficiently covered by patchy cloud at 5-6,000 ft, exposing the unescorted Marylands to too high risk in a low attack.
Bombs from Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 270 Wing RAF explode among Junkers Ju 52s parked on the landing ground at El Magrun, Libya, in the afternoon of 22 December 1941. Blenheims, from Nos, 14 and 84 Squadrons RAF and the Lorraine Squadron of the Free French Air Force, made a series of attacks on El Magrun on 21-22 December, which was being used extensively by the Luftwaffe to provide air support for their retiring ground forces during operation CRUSADER (Courtesy IWM CM2017)
Raids on Magrun Airfield 22 December
Magrun airfield was located 71km south of Benghazi, and was abandoned on 22 December. Prior to leaving there was still heavy activity on it, with crews and stores being removed. It had been used by the Regia Aeronautica, and the first mention of a German plane on the landing ground was not until 20 December, when the Luftwaffe started to occupy it during the retreat. It became the target of a major effort on 22 December. The landing ground had no facilities, but was closely located to the road, and protected by a fort to the north-east.
First went the fighters, a combination of Tomahawks from Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons, out of Mechili landing ground, went to the air field for a ground strafing attack at 0940 hours. The famous No. 112 Squadron (with its Sharkmouth insignia) undertook one of the last operations with Tomahawks.
A flight of 6 Tommies led by Flight Lieutenant WESTENRA took MAGRUN aerodrome by surprise coming out of the sun. F/Lt. WESTENRA damaged a Ju 87 and with Pilot Officer BARTLE destroyed a Ju 87. P/o Duke destroyed a Ju 52 while he probably destroyed a Ju 87 with Sgt. CARSON. A further sweep in the afternoon produced nothing of interest and no enemy aircraft were seen.
7 a/c in conjunction with 112, 2 & 4 Squdns. made fighter wing sweep to Magrun aerodrome and ground staffed it. Sgt. Dunlow shot down a JU. 87 which was coming in to land – Sgt. [unreadable] damaged one in like circumstances. At least 4 fires were left burning on the aerodrome. A number of JU 52’s being destroyed.
The No. 2 Squadron S.A.A.F. report notes a successful strafing action, with 2x Ju 52 destroyed, 2x Ju 87 damaged, as well as 1x Ju 88 and curiously 1x Do.215 damaged.
Pilots of No. 112 Squadron RAF grouped round the nose of one of their Curtiss Tomahawks at LG 122, Egypt. Those identified are, (left to right): Sergeant R F Leu, Pilot Officer N F Duke, Flying Officers J F Soden (on wing) and P H Humphreys, Squadron Leader F V Morello (Commanding Officer), Flight Lieutenant C F Ambrose, Flying Officer E Dickenson (killed in action 28 May 1942), Sergeant H G Burney (killed in action 30 May 1942), Flying Officers D F Westenra, J J P Sabourin (killed in action 6 October 1942, while flying with No. 145 Squadron RAF), N Bowker and J P Bartle, and Sergeant K F Carson. (IWM CM1820)
While the time isn’t clear, it is likely that the Douglas Bostons of No. 24 Squadrons S.A.A.F. went later in the morning, unescorted. It was the last mission of the year for the squadron.
22-12-41 Nine Bostons bombed aircraft on Sid-amud-el-Magrun aerodrome 60-70 aircraft (including 30 JU52’s) dispersed on NW side of aerodrome. 8x 500 HE bombs fell in and slightly short of dispersal area and 24x 250 HE among aircraft and one was seen to be burning on aerodrome on approaching target. 4x 250 bombs hung up slightly and overshot, falling edge of dispersal area. 7/10 cloud over target. Total bombs 8×500 and 28x 250. Total flying time 22.5 hours.
The second light bomber daylight raid on Magnum on 22 December was fairly typical of the period. It was meant to be a major effort by 276 Wing, putting into the air a large number of Blenheims from all its squadrons for two consecutive raids. The operation order is crisp and clear.
.- Os.C. No’s. 14, 45, 84, and Lorraine  Squadrons
From: .- No. 270 Wing
A.659 22/12/41 SECRET Operation Order No. 61
6 aircraft of Lorraine Squadron are to land at GAZALA t 0815 on 22/12/41. Aircraft are to link up with 8 aircraft of 84 Squadron already there. 84 Squadron are to lead formation of 12 aircraft after briefing and fighter escort arranged.
6 aircraft of 14 Squadron are to land at GAZALA at 0830 hours 22/12/41 and join up with 7 aircraft of 45 Squadron already there.
14 Squadron will lead 45 Squadron on second sorry. Standard bomb load will be carried by all aircraft.
? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
Group Captain, Commanding,
No. 270 Wing, R.A.F.
Fighter escort was provided by Nos. 2 and 4 S.A.A.F. Squadrons and Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons RAF. The raid encountered two Me. 109F, but no engagement ensued. The fighters reported strong and accurate light AA fire.
All six operational Blenheims from 14 Squadron accordingly left Gambut at 0515, and arrived at Gazala at 0605. The detailed record explains that due to problems with communication and cloud cover over the airfield only 3 aircraft arrived, the others returning. I suspect the issue was that the aircraft went to Mechili rather than Gazala landing grounds.
Therefore, 14 Squadron ultimately only put up three Blenheims for Magrun, ships 9656 J, 5950 V, and 5947 M, crewed by Wing Cdr. Buchanan, Sgts. Chaplin and Ball; Sgts. Willis, Young, and New; and Pilot Officers Wilbon, McKenny, and Sgt. Webster, respectively.
Following the raid, the three planes returned to Gazala, from where they left at 1100 to return to base at 1445.
Proceeding to EL MECHILI where fighter escort was provided these 3 aircraft formed part of a wing formation. On the aerodrome at Magrun six Ju. 52’s and six 109’s were seen, and our aircraft at 1320 hours G.M.T. from 5,000 feet dropped 4x 250 lbs bombs each. Two Ju. 88’s and one M.T. were seen to be hit, all the bombs fell in target area. Heavy slight A.A. was experienced, two of our aircraft were hit, but all however returned to base.
German records (kindly provided by Andrew from airwarpublications.com) show that the Allied cliaims on the while were reasonably accurate. They are given below as received. Total losses amounted to one Ju 88 reconnaissance, 3x Me109F, 2 x Ju 52 and 2x Ju 87 on this day.
- 22.12.1941: 2.(F)/123 Ju 88 destroyed by strafing at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
- 22.12.1941: I./J.G. 27 Bf 109 destroyed by own troops at Magrun [loss list]
- 22.12.1941: II./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crash-landing at Magrun, 40 per cent damage [loss list]
- 22.12.1941: III./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crashed due to Motorschaden, 100 per cent loss [loss list]
- 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 300 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
- 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 400 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
- 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 1 Ju 87 R-4 damaged by bombs at El Magrus [sic], 60 per cent damage [loss list]
- 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 2 Ju 87 R-3 force landing due to damage from enemy fighter, 100 per cent loss [loss list]
No. 14 Squadron Daily Report Sheet, 22 December 1941. AIR27/199 TNA, Kew.
A Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, ‘U’ (serial number unclear) of No. 45 Squadron RAF, undergoes an engine overhaul at waterlogged Gambut, Libya, after violent rainstorms in November and December 1941 rendered many of the forward airfields unusable during Operation CRUSADER.
Three notable pilots of No. 112 Squadron RAF, photographed on reaching the end of their tour of operations with the Squadron in North Africa, (left to right): Flight Lieutenant D F “Jerry” Westenra, Flying Officer N F Duke and Flight Lieutenant P H “Hunk” Humphreys. Each of them wears the top button of his dress tunic undone as the (unofficial) mark of the fighter pilot at the time. (IWM CM2504)
Westenra was a New Zealander from Christchurch, who joined 112 Squadron early in 1941, flying with them in Greece, Crete, and in the Western Desert where he was made a flight commander. He is reputed to have urged the adoption of the ‘Sharkmouth’ insignia by the Squadron in September 1941. At the conclusion of his tour in March 1942, he received the DFC for shooting down five enemy aircraft. In 1943 Westenra flew with No. 601 Squadron RAF in North Africa, and commanded No. 93 Squadron RAF in Italy. In March 1944 he was appointed to commandNo. 65 Squadron RAF during the Normandy Invasion, returning to New Zealand in September 1944.
Duke was posted to 112 Squadron in February 1941 after serving with No. 92 Squadron RAF in the United Kingdom. Despite being shot down twice, he achieved an impressive tally of eight confirmed victories in the Western Desert before leaving the Squadron in April 1942. He was then posted to El Ballah as an instructor at the Fighter School before rejoining 92 Squadron in the Western Desert in November 1942 and a adding further 14 victories to his total. In June 1943 he became Chief Flying Instructor at No.73 Operational Training Unit at Abu Sueir, but returned to operations as Commanding Officer of No. 145 Squadron RAF in Italy in March 1944. He returned to the United Kingdom in January 1945 with 28 victories to become a test pilot with Hawkers.
Humphreys joined 112 Squadron as a flight commander in November 1941 after serving with Nos 152 and 92 Squadrons RAF. Like Duke, he left theSquadron in April 1942 to instruct at the Fighter School at El Ballah before returning to operations with No. 92 Squadron RAF in early 1943. He later took command of this Squadron and led it to Malta, Sicily and Italy before another rest from operations in November 1943. In April 1944 Humphreys returned to Italy to command No. 111 Squadron RAF, and left for the United Kingdom in November 1944 on his appointment as Station Commander at RAF Castle Bromwich. He was killed in a flying accident in 1947.
Incorrectly, since Panzergruppe HQ was in Agedabia at this time.
Tomahawk P-40 fighters
Only five in the ORB, ships AN303 F/Lt. Westenra, AN289 Sgt. Carson W., AN 274 P/O Bartle, AK531 Sgt. Carson K., and AK354, P/O Duke.
This sweep was probably the escort mission for the Blenheim raid.
The type wasn’t present in the desert, although it could have been an older Do 17Z operating as a second line aircraft with the staff of Fliegerfuehrer.
No. 342 Squadron R.A.F.
Should probably be Ju 52s.