Close Air Support for 8 Army in CRUSADER

Close Air Support for 8 Army in CRUSADER


Operation CRUSADER marked a noticeable step in the development of the Close Air Support doctrine and mechanics in the Royal Air Force. (1) The system is very well described in AIR2/5420, a report by Wing Commander Geddes RAAF, who represented the Army Co-Operation Command, and served as RAF Liason Officer at the Corps HQ of 13 Corps, and then at 8 Army HQ. The report was a bit of an embarrassment to higher commands, who tried very hard to suppress it, because the points made in it on standards of training and discipline were not too comfortable.

The RAF army co-operation system established for CRUSADER, while it was to undergo heavy modification and refinement, was the foundation upon which the very successful air support system that was in action in Normandy was to be built. The development of the system was based on the very close working relationship between the commanders of the ground and air forces at the highest levels of command. What many people do not realize is that this system was at the time far superior to that of the German forces in North Africa in terms of integrating air force liason sections with low-level commands (down to Brigade level). This superiority was partially driven by superior numbers of planes being available, and partially by a real desire to improve co-operation between the arms of combat. In the Panzerarmee, this level of co-operation would not happen until 1942, and during CRUSADER the German arms of service operated on a looser co-operation basis at the frontline.

Like in the Wehrmacht in general, the system developed by the Western Desert Air Force rested on increased availability of wireless sets, the close integration of air force and army at the tip of the advance, and the assignment of specific squadrons to air support missions.


Key elements of the system were:

  • The creation of Air Support Controls to be attached to the Corps HQs. No. 1 (Australian) being assigned to 13 Corps, and ‘T’ to 30 Corps. The other active units by the time of the battle was 2 New Zealand, but I do not know where this was assigned to.(2)
  • The Air Support Controls were in charge of RAF sections (tentacles) attached to low-level (Brigade/Division) staffs of the ground force, and in radio contact with higher level RAF commands with the aim of passing on reconnaissance results. Tentacles were allotted to lower-level commands by the Controls, depending on need.
  • Selection of targets only by air tactical reconnaissance, since it was felt that there was insufficient ground observation. In reality however, this seems to have been about equal between tactical reconnaissance and the ground tentacles.
  • Fully centralized control of strikes – all requests were passed to A.O.C. (Air Vice Marshal Coningham) at RAF Western Desert HQ for consideration. Corps HQs would not sift targets but would only pass on information to A.O.C., and provide army co-operation squadrons with advance warning that they might be called on to attack.

The figure below describes the system.

The RAF/Commonwealth Ground Force Liason System for CRUSADER

(Appendix to Report by Wing Cdr Geddes, TNA AIR2/5420)

Forces and weapons

Forces allocated to army co-operation were No. 270 Wing (RAF, equipped with Bristol Blenheim light bombers) to 13 Corps, and No. 3 Wing (SAAF, equipped with Martin Marylands) to 30 Corps. It must be recognized however that these units were not exclusively tasked with army co-operation, but would be required to support the primary mission (gain and maintain air superiority) if deemed necessary, by e.g. attacking airfields in the rear, or indeed to attack other targets of opportunity not directly involved in the ground battle. This seems to have been in particular the case with No. 12 Squadron SAAF, which spent some time in late November at rear area interdiction. In the case of both the South African Maryland squadrons, they also famously engaged in chasing Ju 52 transport planes for a few days in December. The war diaries of No. 12 and No. 21 Squadron SAAF are available online and make interesting reading.

Martin Maryland, ‘O’, of No. 21 Squadron SAAF flies over the target as bombs explode among poorly dispersed enemy vehicles of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions east of Sidi Rezegh, where they had assembled with the intention of breaking through the British positions at Bir el Gubi.

(Picture from Imperial War Museum – IWM CM 1561)

In addition to these light bombers, each Corps and the 8 Army HQ had a squadron of Hurricane I photo reconnaissance planes permanently attached to it (No. 451 Squadron RAAF to 13 Corps and No. 208 Squadron RAF to 30 Corps. No. 237 (Rhodesian) Squadron was in ‘reserve’ at 8 Army HQ. These squadrons flew unarmed Hawker Hurricane I fighters, which had additional fuel tanks instead of guns in the wings. They would normally be accompanied by fighters for their protection, but the Squadron providing this, No. 33 RAF, had been withdrawn and assigned to operate in the Axis rear from a new Landing Ground behind enemy lines, just before the battle.

Photographers of an army co-operation squadron use a portable darkroom to develop aerial reconnaissance film at a landing ground in the Western Desert, while a pilot of a tactical reconnaissance Hawker Hurricane, seen in the background, waits to see the results (right).

(Picture from Imperial War Museum – IWM CM 1648)

At the time of CRUSADER, weapons for ground support were not well advanced. The main weapon used by the Western Desert Air Force for direct air support was the 250lb general purpose bomb, and machine guns and cannon were also heavily used. The 250lb bomb relied on being relatively close to its target to have much of an impact. Against a well-dispersed ground target such as a transport column, and especially against armour, it was unlikely to be a successful weapon.

Armourers preparing to load a Martin Maryland of No. 39 Squadron RAF with its full complement of eight 250-lb GP bombs, at a landing ground in the Western Desert.

Picture from Imperial War Museum – IWM CM 1100)

The Hurricanes used for ground support were only equipped with British .303 MGs and some probably with 20mm Oerlikon cannons, both of which were weapons too weak to make any impression against even lightly armoured or dug-in targets. Only one squadron of ‘Hurribombers’ was available, No. 80 Squadron RAF. The need for a proper ‘tank-busting’ fighter aircraft was recognized immediately after the operation, and led to the development of the 40mm cannon-armed Hurricane Mk. IID, which entered service in the desert in summer 1942.

Pilots of No. 80 Squadron RAF gather in front of one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at a landing ground in the Western Desert, during Operation CRUSADER. In the middle of the group, wearing a white flying overall and smoking a pipe, is Squadron Leader M M Stephens, who commanded the Squadron from November until 9 December 1941 when he was shot down and wounded. During CRUSADER, 80 Squadron acted in close support of the Army, their Hurricane fighters being fitted with bomb racks to carry four 40 lb GP bombs, as seen here. Their first effective sorties as fighter-bombers were conducted against enemy vehicles south of Bir el Baheira on 20 November.

Picture from Imperial War Museum – IWM CM 1725)

By comparison, on the German side only Panzergruppe HQ had a permanent unit attached to it, 2(H)14, which consisted of a mix of figher and reconnaissance planes. On the other hand, the Germans and Italians had considerable strike forces in the form of Ju 87 dive bombers, and converted Fiat CR 42 biplane fighter-bombers which were available to support their ground forces.


It is unlikely that the battle was very much affected by direct (i.e. during the battle) air support on either side. Ordnance delivered was too weak to affect the outcome, and insufficient in volume and accuracy. Reasons for this are varied:

  • The fundamental reason was a lack of aircraft to achieve the different missions. With the clear recognition that air superiority was more critical than anything else, army co-operation came second, followed by army protection last.
  • The delay between ordering up and receiving a strike was too long, with 2.5 hours apparently being the normal time. Delays were driven by
    • the centralized nature of the system, by the distance of strike forces from the battlefield;
    • the need for dispersal of aircraft at the landing grounds which added to take-off times;
    • the nature of the air fields which often made simultaneous take-offs impossible, requiring forming up in the air; and
    • the need to protect bombers with fighter escorts in an air space that was not fully controlled leading to a delay in order to enable the rendez-vous; and
    • finally by the lack of training of both air and ground crew, which led to delays in bombing up and relatively lower standards of training than in the UK, including the experience of the air crews in flying impromptu, rather than deliberate missions (3).
  • Finding the target, in a landscape bereft of landmarks.
  • When the strike then came, it had to struggle to correctly identify the target, which was difficult already because of visibility conditions, but made more so by the heavy reliance of the Axis forces on captured Commonwealth transport. Identification from the air was a major issue for both sides, and ‘friendly’ fire incidents occurred with what must have been irritating regularity.
  • Finally, even if the strike found its target and identified it correctly, the weapons available were hardly suitable.
  • It is of note that while provision was already made for artillery spotting from the air by the army co-operation squadrons, this method was not employed much due to the fluid nature of the battle. But when it was used it was deemed successful.

During the last exercises in November, the following time delays were given by Geddes as average examples which were not much improved upon during operations: 2hrs 32mins, 2hrs 15mins, and 2hrs 40mins.

Looking through the war diary of No. 21 Squadron SAAF (Marylands), they seem to have managed a normal rate of only one sortie per day during the height of the battle. Considering the short daylight hours, the transmission and decision time, and the duration of a sortie (even excluding briefing and bombing up), this is not surprising. But it essentially restricted a squadron to being able to deliver just 18,000lbs of bombs per day. Hardly enough to make much of an impact. When two squadron sorties were made, such as by No. 21 Squadron on 26 November, it is of interest to see that the time elapsed between the first sortie returned and the second being in the air was 2 hours. The time line therefore was:

0825 Departure Sortie 1

0950 Over target

1045 Returned to base

1255 Departure Sortie 2

1420 Over target

1535 Returned to base

Based on this one would presume that this target was ground-identified (since the aerial recce plane would presumably not operate during the night), and/or may have come in the night before. The numbers also indicate that the delay from take-off to target was 1.5 hours, to which needs to be added the delay in getting the orders and briefing sorted out.


In the final analysis, it is arguable that the RAF system used in CRUSADER was not responsive enough to give the Commonwealth forces too much of an advantage, especially when all the other challenges of air support in the desert are considered.

While there are some examples of air support arriving in time to make a difference, e.g. during the battle for the Tobruk salient and during the march of the Afrika Korps to the east during the ‘dash for the wire’, most of the impact is likely to have been caused by:

  • Interdiction of supply by attacking truck columns on the Via Balbia
  • The successful battle for strategic air superiority which prevented the Axis air forces from major interference in the ground battle
  • Finally, by the provision of strategic and tactical reconnaissance by air.

Nevertheless, the system showed up many issues that would have to be addressed to move forward towards the implementation of a workable and effective ground support arm within the Royal Air Force. The planners in Cairo had done a reasonable job in making sure that their objective was appropriate to their means, which were not rich during the period, both in numbers or capability. Furthermore, the desert in winter had its own challenges, including the weather, and the lack of daylight.

Even today, air forces overclaim the impact that their support has on the battlefield, so plus ca change, ca change jamais… So it would be an interesting question to see whether it might not have been better to focus the resources purely on non-battlefield missions, such as interdiction of supplies. One thing is certain, if the light bomber squadrons had been tasked for deliberate missions, instead of sitting around at their airfields waiting for the machinery to crank into action, they could almost certainly have more than doubled their sortie rate. It is easy to see three missions a day being arranged like that.

1st thing in the morning – briefing for the day

Early AM – 1st mission to Via Balbia west of Tobruk for attack on supply columns/dumps

Late AM – 2nd mission to Axis by-pass road, positions on Tobruk perimeter, dumps

Afternoon – 3rd mission to Bardia/Halfaya positions

Such an arrangement would not have precluded throwing in impromptu missions on return from the earlier missions.

What worked:

A petrol tanker and trailer on fire on the road between Homs and Misurata, Libya, after an attack by Bristol Blenheims interdicting enemy fuel supplies in support of Operation CRUSADER.

(Picture from Imperial War Museum – IWM CM 1500)


(1) As the official history by Denis and Saunders states: “All the same, the months from July to November 1941 saw Tedder and his staff, acting partly in the light of principles already enunciated by Army Co-operation Command but still more in the light of their own experience, hammer out a system of thoroughly effective air support. It was to serve the Army well not only in the deserts of Africa but also, with later refinements and additions, among the swift rivers and frowning mountains of Italy, the green hills and woods of Normandy, and the sombre plains and broken cities of the Reich itself.”

(2) These are described in the official history as follows: “These were mobile units whose duty was to consider, sift and relay requests for air support. They were manned by the Royal Air Force, with a small Army staff attached, and located at the headquarters of each corps. From them four main channels of communication branched out–to the forward infantry brigades in the field (an Army responsibility), to aircraft in the air, to the landing grounds, and to advanced Air Headquarters, Western Desert.”

(3) The official history comments in that marvelously English way as follows on this matter: “By the end of 1941 the general standard of operational efficiency was steadily improving.”


AIR2/5420 – Report by Wing Commander Geddes on Libyan Offensive, March 1942

AIR54/51 and 63 – ORBs of No. 12 and No. 21 Squadrons SAAF

Australian War Memorial – Operational Histories WW2 – Air Vol. 3 Chapter 9 ‘Second Libyan Campaign’ (note that the diagram and description of the system in operation on page 194f does not appear to be correct, since it states that the Air Support Controls could decide about strikes)

Denis, R. and Saunders, A. Royal Air Force 1939 to 1945 Vol. II ‘Fight Avails’

Hyperlinks to other sources provided in the text.

Some more on the B-17 Bombers with No.90 Squadron

I had previously mentioned these oddball planes (3 of them, with No. 90 Squadron, detached from No. 220 Squadron of RAF Coastal Command), and asked for information on their use. I now have a bit more information, and a nice picture of one of them.

Boeing B-17 of No. 90 Squadron Detachment in RAF Colours, Egypt 1941
The three planes were trialled in North Africa, after the initial failure in Europe. As far as I can see they carried out day-light raids on Benghazi and Tripoli harbours, and at least one, maybe two of them were lost during the operation. Their use was the subject of an exchange of telegrams between Whitehall and Tedder in Cairo, in which the former pointed out the benefits of the planes, but emphasised the shortcomings, and the significant need of technical support to keep them going. Tedder however insisted on the trial, since it would give him the ability to conduct daylight raids to harass the Axis harbours during unloading, and it was agreed that four planes would be sent. By 11 December however, Tedder had agreed to despatch these to Malta, probably for return home, to be overhauled.
Some raids that I have found which were carried out went to Derna Town on 19 November, which was hit at 1055 hrs GMT through full cloud cover, results not observed. The total airtime was ten hours on this one. Another raid was carried out on the Gazala landing grounds which were bombed with 500 lbs bombs throughout the day on 21 November.

Royal Air Force Strength in November 1941

The question of Commonwealth air strength at the start of Operation CRUSADER has been the subject of some debate, with figures ranging from 600 to 1,000 planes being available to Air Marshal Tedder in Cairo. As the table below, which is based on an RAF document in the National Archives in Kew, shows quite clearly however, the total number of modern planes available to RAF Middle East was only around 800 including transport planes.  While it is safe to presume that the vast majority of these would have been available for operations in the western desert, the low end of the 600 to 1,000 range seems more plausible, while the upper range is not even reached if all unserviceable and obsolete types are taken into account (the total comes to 950). The low end is especially reasonable to assume since this calculation has to take into account planes allocated to training or conversion units etc. In some cases, types were also used for other purposes than designed, e.g. 9 Wellingtons were used as what would now be called electronic warfare planes, and the 13 Douglas Bostons of No.24 SAAF Squadron were apparently used as reconnaissance instead of bombers.
Looking deeper into the numbers, what is interesting is the very small number of dedicated transport planes, just 21 for a theatre that spanned from the western border of Egypt and Malta to Somalia and then on to the Hindukush and the Turkish border.  Although, as this post points out in reply to my request for information, a detachment of Douglas D.C.2 of No. 31 Squadron RAF operated in the western desert over the winter of 41/42. This squadron was at the time based in India, after supporting operations in Iraq and Syria earlier in the year, according to this squadron history. It can’t have been many planes though, since apparently the RAF only received 25 of the type. Some D.C.2 were lost on operations during CRUSADER. While no D.C.2 appear on the list for RAF Middle East, this may of course be because the parent squadron was not attached to this HQ – which in turn raises the question of how complete the list is. Furthermore, this explanation does not hold in the case of No. 117 Squadron RAF, which received D.C.2 transport planes in October 1941 and was active in  While I thought that it might be the case that some other orphaned detachments are not counted, I am now more inclined to consider that the list is only counting combat aircraft, and that it ignores transport and communications planes or trainers. This in turn invalidates my original thought that there were few transport planes for the theatre. I am indepted to this excellent Dutch site on the history of all D.C.2 for making me research this more closely. The Bombays and Valentias seem to have been operated by No. 216 Squadron RAF, which apparently also flew Lockheed Hudsons and four-engined DH86a for medical evacuation.
Also of interest are the 3 B-17 Flying Fortress I, which belonged to No. 90 Squadron RAF, and which had been found unsuitable for operations over Europe according to this squadron history, with more detail at this link. It appears only 12 of the original 20 Fortress I were left after the daylight bombing experiments. Most of these then seem to have gone to No.220 Squadron RAF Coastal Command, which converted onto the type from either December 41 or January 42 to April 42. It is odd that a detachment of three were left with No. 90 Squadron and were sent to the desert. If anyone has information on their operational use in the desert, please let me know.
Another interesting factoid is the relationship between medium and light bombers, which at about 1:2 is much higher than I expected. One hears relatively little about the work done by Wellington crews in the Med, while Blenheims and Marylands feature quite a lot in the accounts.
The other important thing to note is of course on the fighters. By this point in the war the Hurricane II had been outclassed, and struggled to compete with the most modern German (Bf 109F) and Italian (Mc 202) designs. Unfortunately for the Hurricane pilots, both of these Axis types appeared in numbers in the desert during Operation CRUSADER. The considerably smaller number of Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks also could not compete with these Axis planes. See also this older entry on Italian fighter planes.
At a later stage I will expand on this by adding the information on the development of air strength over the time of the battle, and by providing information on RAF losses.
I have kept as close as possible to the original formatting, only introducing the sub-totals and the serviceability rate (U/S = unserviceable).  What is interesting is that there were still a number of Hawker Audax in squadron service – first flight in 1931… Or Vickers Vincent, based on the Wildebeest, designed in 1926… And of course the Vickers Wellesley, flown by No.47 Squadron in East Africa until December 1941.

Commonwealth Middle East Air Strength Nov.41 (Combat planes only)

Some more on I./StG3 in North Africa

Some more on I./StG3 in North Africa

Substantially updated and fixed ULTRA picture links 3-Aug-2019

In a prior post (at this link) I have discussed the move of I./StG3 to North Africa.  From a discussion on the AHF (at this link), it appears there is a substantial lack of clarity regarding this post, partially induced by it:

a) showing that Hooton (presumably in his “Eagle in Flames”) made an error, and

b) it not being in line with information given to the White House by the UK Foreign Office in one of the daily updates, sent on 28 Nov 41, on the military situation which were sent across the Atlantic. (This information can be read at this link)

Well, before going into the detail of this, three upfront statements:

a) The original post contains an error, which may have a bearing on ‘b)’ above, and which I have now corrected. The error was that I overlooked the fact that not all of I./StG3 was slated to go to North Africa for the assault on Tobruk, but only the staff of the Gruppe (not the Geschwader), which was already in North Africa on 17 November, and the 3rd Squadron. Now together that should be about 15 planes at most (see e.g. this link for an explanation of Luftwaffe organisation).

b) Hooton is wrong if he is indeed “[…] quite definite that the order to transfer came four days after the 19th (because of the state of the airfields in-theatre after the bad weather).” My guess is he  either made a mistake in noting down the information, or he did not check the files I did in Kew. That happens. It is also possible that the confusion originated from the expected duration of the operation of four days, as indicated in the comment on an intercept of a message requiring Tmimi being readied for ‘landing and unloading’ on 19 November.

c) The information sent to the White House is also wrong, but this could just be a typo, or a clerical error, confusing German and Italian dive bomber reinforcements., or it could be base on using older intel, instead of newer. That also happens.

StG3-1 ULTRA intercept of order to StG3 to prepare for move to North Africa, issued 16 November 1941


DSC_0174 Indication that move is going ahead, morning of 19 November 1941.


A couple of points regarding the discussion on the AHF:

a) Stab StG3 and 1./StG3

These were two different units. It is a bit confusing, because StG3 had only the staff and one operational group plus a training squadron in Salonika-Sedes airport, so one wonders what they needed a staff for.  And indeed they did not, which is why the staff unit was sent to Africa in August 41 to provide a staff for the two groups of StG1 and StG2 which were already in North Africa, with a rear detachment remaining in Greece.  On 15 Nov 41 (the report was made on 17 Nov but clearly refers to 15 Nov as the date it reports about – it was decoded at 0425 hours on 18 Nov 41) the staff of StG3 consisted of the following planes, all of them in North Africa, and with the functions indicated:

3x Me 110 destroyer/recce/liaison (2 serviceable)

4x He 111 bomber/transport/liaison (3 serviceable)

3x Ju 87 dive bomber (1 serviceable)

The staff had 13 crews, of which 6 were ready, and 7 conditionally ready.

On the same day, I./StG3 in Crete reported a strength of 31 Ju 87. Additionally, there was a reserve training squadron at Salonika-Sedes, with 7 serviceable Ju 87 (0 OOB strength, which British intel believed to be a typo), 22 crews, of which 4 were ready (presumably the instructors, and 3 conditionally ready).

b) Serviceability of aerodromes in North Africa

In a prior post (at this link) I have talked a bit about the water-logged landing grounds, and much has been made of them in various histories.  While the situation was probably not a good one for a number of plane types, it appears that the landing grounds were not completely out.  On 19 Nov 41, 0030 hours, Derna and Benina were reported serviceable for Ju52 transport planes. Also on 19 Nov 41, III./LG1 reported normal operations out of Benina, but Derna was reported closed by the recce unit Afrika Kette equipped with the same planes.

On 20 Nov 41 the Ju 87 dive bombers stationed in Benina moved to Tmimi, while the planes of I./StG1 had moved to Gazala on 19 Nov 41, indicating the serviceability of these three airfields for the Ju 87 by those dates, despite the flooding.  It appears that fighters could operate throughout. So while the flooding certainly had a significant impact on the Luftwaffe in Africa, it did not keep it from joining battle for more than a day or two, and actually not for more than a few hours after the Axis actually realised they had a real battle on their hands!  The impact on signals and organisation was probably much heavier than that on being able to fly the planes in and out.

c) Timing of the order for I./StG3 to move and arrival of unit in North Africa:

On 16 November, as outlined before, staff and one squadron of I./StG3 was ordered to prepare for the move to North Africa in support of the assault on Tobruk. Judging from the wording of this order, the original order for the transfer had gone out before. How long, I don’t know.

At 1420 hours 19 Nov 41, an unsigned and unaddressed request was intercepted by ULTRA, stating that a powerful attack was underway from the direction of Giarabub to Tobruk (this was not exactly correct), and that I./StG3 should be sent to Derna at once.

DSC_0177Confirmation of impending move of I./StG3 to North Africa, 19 Nov 41 – request by unknown source for immediate despatch of I./StG3. Also note the rapidity of the interception and decoding. Sent 1420 hours on 19 November, decoded version printed 1734 hours 19 November.

It is likely that this came from Fliegerführer Afrika, in my view. The timing of the request is consistent with the timing of the re-appraisal of the situation at Panzergruppe HQ (see e.g. von Taysen Tobruk). But then during the night 19/20 Nov 41 Fliegerkorps X reported that it could not operate due to weather, and this may have delayed the transfer. In any case, at 2040 hours 19 Nov, a message was sent stating that I./StG3 and 9./ZG26 would leave AM the next day (20 Nov 41)  for Derna.

DSC_0202 Final movement order for I./StG3, 19 Nov 1941 for move on 20 Nov 1941.

This is likely to have taken place, since on 21 Nov 41, a detached force had been created at Benina, including 23 serviceable Ju 87 of I./StG3, which had conducted an armed reconnaissance on the same day.  I./StG3 is not featuring in the activity report for 20 Nov 41, which would make sense if that was the day they arrived. They are mentioned again on 22 Nov 41 undertaking the same activity, with 21 planes serviceable.

On 22 Nov 41, a strength return was intercepted which did not break strength down by unit, but only by type. According to it, strength of total Ju 87 in North Africa had increased from 69 on 15 November to 91 on 22 November (serviceable had increased from 55 to 56). Considering that some Ju 87 had already been lost during operations in the intervening days, this 22 plane net increase in total Ju 87 in theatre can only have come from the transfer of I./StG3. For example, on 20 Nov 3 German aircraft were shot down near or over the battlefield on 20 Nov, one of which was a Ju 87, and during a Beaufighter raid on 20 Nov 4 Ju 87 were slightly damaged (and it is impossible to say by how much – the Luftwaffe also counted aircraft that were to 90% destroyed as ‘damaged’, but presumably that would not be ‘slightly’).

DSC_0322 Confirmation of presence of I./StG3 in North africa, 21 Nov 41 – note the typo in the type designation (Ju 88 instead of Ju 87 – but it is really a typo)

d) The optel sent to the White House

In an assessment sent to Washington the Foreign Office states that 15 German dive bombers and 25 Italian have arrived. I’ll have a look at my Italian sources, but this seems odd to me. The other way round would make more sense, since the Italian units had about 15 or so planes per unit, while the German Gruppe based on the available intelligence had brought over at least 25 planes.

I do not know if an additional Italian Stuka unit was sent, but I must say that I have not seen any info on this in the files I am using, and this prior post of mine, containing the average frontline strength of the Italian air units, does not seem to indicate any additional units (although this is not conclusive – they may just have lost them very quickly). This was a bit of a mystery to me until I rechecked my files, and while at first it seemed to be a clerical error, or maybe a simple typo, it now appears that maybe the Optel is using the old intel from 16 November, which only talks of the Group staff and the 3rd Squadron being sent, which would come to at most 15 planes, and ignores the later info that at least 23 planes had been sent.

So, to sum up regarding the moves of I./StG3:

16 Nov – request to I./StG3 to report on transport aircraft requirement for the planned move to North Africa of staff of Group and 3rd Squadron in connection with an operation lasting 4 days (assault on Tobruk)

19 Nov – request for immediate despatch of group to North Africa.

19 Nov – info that group will leave for North Africa on 20 Nov

21 Nov – group is active in North Africa

Arrival date therefore almost certainly 20 Nov 41.

I hope this clarifies the matter of I./StG3’s arrival in North Africa somewhat.


The Good Source

The Good Source


The Good Source was how the German intelligence who handled his information called the US military attache at the US embassy in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Fellers.  You can read a lot of background about what he transmitted and how the Axis got a hold of it at this link.

At a visit to NARA today, and without looking for it, I came across the report Bonner Fellers sent on 19 January 1942, after the air offensive against Malta started, and just two days before Panzergruppe Afrika would begin its offensive that would take it to the Gazala line.


Bonner Fellers Having Canned Corned Beef Meal in Libyan Desert Nov 11 1941. The Bonner Fellers family

At this time, the security of diplomatic cipher systems was a matter of concern at least to the British.  On 22 January 1942, just three days after the memo reproduced here was sent, ‘C’, the head of the SIS at the time, sent the draft of a telegram to Churchill, suggesting that he might “care to send this to the President” (Roosevelt). In it, ‘C’ outlines the concerns the British had about the security, or rather lack of it, of US military and diplomatic cipher systems, and suggest bringing together the specialists to make the system more secure.

The German General at the Headquarters of the Italian Armed Forces
(Military Attache Rome)
Ic Nr. 206/42 Secret Command Affair


1) Commander in Chief South
2) German Navy Command Italy

(Report was passed on to Supreme Command of the German Armed Forces and Supreme Command of the German Army)

Regarding: German air attacks on Malta.

Comando Supremo has sent over the following, intercepted telegram for information:

19 January 1942. From Cairo to the War Ministry in Washington – Secret –
1.) The week ending with 17 January brought a slight increase – but not on a large scale – of the operations of Axis air forces in Libya.  No new air units were noted, however the existing German units in Africa were brought up to full strength. 25 – 30% of the aerial activity in the desert falls on the Italian air force, while the operations against Malta are exclusively and affair of the German air force.
The information service of the RAF has not reported anything of the increase of air units of the Axis during this week and gave an evasive answer when questioned, by saying that there were no signs of changes.  It is believed that the German air force is now stronger than I reported it in my Report No. 545. The flyers of the RAF have reported that they, as can be seen in the report of the information service of the RAF, have counted 36 planes in all of Sicily. The information service of the RAF expects a gradual increase of the German air force until 1 April, so that the total strength in spring, as it is increased in the east and in Greece, will probably reach 1,000 combat planes here. The number of German fighters in Libya and Sicily at the moment exceeds 200 planes, all of them Me 109.  The German combat and fighter planes have a longer range of action than the similar planes of the RAF.
The main target of the German reconnaissance and bomber planes whose bases are on the Peloponnes, is the sea traffic from Alexandria to Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi. The English want to bring 1,200 tons daily to Tobruk, 200 tons to Derna, and 6-800 tons to Benghazi.  This goal of 2,000 tons per day has not been reached yet, and the RAF fears that the sea route will become too costly for its own fighters and the navy.
2) The heavy attacks on Malta continue.  All bombers have been withdrawn, only the Hurricanes remaine there.  On 26 December some Ju. 88 attacked the airfield of Luka, destroyed six planes on the ground and damaged others. An explosive bomb hit a fuel dump: 25 Wellington 8, which stood within a radius of about half a mile were rendered unserviceable; amongst the ground crews there were significant losses.  Despite the strong air defence (see my report No. 130) – and the strong fighter force on Malta, it is obviously the intent of the Germans to destroy the fighter force, to subdue the garrison of the island by air attacks with bombs and machine guns, and to interrupt the British supply traffic, to ensure the unimpeded sea traffic of the Axis and to control the western Mediterranean as a final goal. Without a doubt this goal also includes the occupation of the island. It is expected that at least three weeks are required to eliminate the usefulness of Malta. Following from the action against Malta it has to be expected that the next goal is to block the eastern exit of the mediterranean by mine barriers and devalue the naval base of Alexandria for the English by attacks from the air and by submarines.
The Italians have about 70 and the Germans about 25 submarines, while the British submarine forces only reach 25% of this number. While the British fleet will by necessity be further reduced, the Italian fleet will be at liberty to protect the convoys against surface units.  We expect that a reduction of the British fleet by 1 April will be the consequence, a point in time when the strength of the German air force in the Mediterranean will have reached its peak.
The RAF relocates planes to the Far East.  Officially 250 planes are currently foreseen for relocation.  The fighter force in this theatre considerably threatens the position of the British air force in the Middle East, and that at a point in time when it would be criminal neglicence to suppose that an air offensive of the Axis is not likely.

The document is signed by General von Rintelen, the German military attache and liaison officer  at Comando Supremo, in person.


Mediterrenean theatre, North Africa. Jagdgeschwader 53, Italian air force personnel posing before planes Messerschmidt Me 109. Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv.[1]


Regarding the information contained in the memo, I would think that the (albeit) rough assessment of RN sub strength active in the Mediterranean, as well as the results of the  air attacks onMalta (in particular the withdrawal of the Wellingtons) would have been of interest. Furthermore, the absence of a reference to any expected axis ground attack in Africa (which started two days later) and the reference to the supply problems the British had forward of Tobruk must have been valuable information, confirming the correct assessment of the situation by the Axis intelligence at the time. Finally I think the info on RAF withdrawals to the Far East is good information to have too. So I think there is a lot in what the meo says and does not say which would have been of great interest to an Axis intelligence officer.

Nevertheless, I would like to have a look at the actual plan of the Axis to reinforce the air strength in the Med. Also, I don’t think it is right that the Italians did not participate in Malta, and the number of 200 Me 109 active in Africa and Sicily in mid-January appears overstated to me.

There are clearly inaccuracies about the situation in the report, and it is indeed very pessimistic.  But what is astonishing is the amount of detail provided about the British situation in the Mediterranean.  I can not be certain of course, but I believe that this is the first time that a report by Colonel Bonner Fellers has appeared in full on the Internet.  This has been re-translated from German by me.  I think, given the phrasing, that the Germans were probably given the English original, not an Italian translation.

What is also astonishing is the wide circulation given to the report with the heading that it was an intercepted message and from whom it orginated.  Compare this to the treatment that was developed  to protect ULTRA on the Allied side. It is no wonder that the Good Source only lasted for little more than half a year to nine months, in my view.

[1]The planes are in fact one Me 109F and an Italian Macchi 202, and the picture shows very nice the similar form of the engine compartment of both planes. JG53 was a reinforcement unit sent in December 1941 to relieve the pressure on the Axis air forces in the Mediterrenean theatre.


Book Review: Ali D’Africa

Ali D’Africa
Michele Palermo & Ludovico Slongo
Four Stars out of Five
Ali D’Africa is a very good book that I can only fully recommend to anyone interested in the air war over the desert in 1941 and 1942.  It is a day-by-day account of the actions of 1o Stormo (1st Fighter Wing) of the Regia Aeronautica during the period December 41 to July 42, in other words the critical period of the fighting in North Africa.
The book is essentially a day-by-day account of air combat, with the attempt to reconstruct what actually happened by going through the unit records on the British and Italian side. The authors must be congratulated for their perseverance in doing this, and for their honesty, because they do not jump to conclusions, and make it clear where they are speculating.  This is interspersed with personal accounts, e.g. by the nephew of an Italian pilot, or quotes from Commonwealth pilots and unit histories, where these can shed light on the often confusing events.  The detailed description of the actions provides a good insight into the roles taken by the various fighter planes present with the Regia Aeronautica in North Africa.
Very helpfully, the book also discusses the technical aspects of the MC.202 compared to the Commonwealth fighter planes and the German Bf109F-4, which at the period of CRUSADER was the mainstay of the Luftwaffe fighter force in North Africa.  The outcome of the discussion was quite interesting to me, in that it showed that while the flight characteristics of the Macchi were superior to those of its opponents, and it presented a real shift in the performance of the Italian fighter arm, the plane was badly let down by its armament, with a consequent compromising of its effectiveness as a weapon that went beyond what I would have expected.  The discussion on the quality (or lack thereof) of the radio equipment in the Italian planes is also quite informative. In my view the book does a good job in showing that the pilots of the Regia Aeronautica fighter arm were not lacking in determination, as has often been supposed, but suffered from a lack of capable communications equipment, which put them at a disadvantage compared to their adversaries and indeed their allies. One example of this in the book is a combat where a single Macchi out of a group engages a number of Commonwealth planes, while the others (who missed the wiggling of the wings by the plane engaging, which was the indication that enemy planes had been sighted) carry on their way, unaware that enemy planes are close.
Ali D’Africa contains a large number of photographs, not just of the planes of 1o Stormo but also of British and German planes used in the desert. These add well to the text. At the end there is a table with all the combats fought by the unit in North Africa, including claims and losses, as well as a list of pilots. A literature list finishes the book.
The book is bilingual, and my review is based on reading the English text.  This is also where I have to mention my major criticism, which did lead to the book not getting a perfect score for me. The English is not bad at all, but it is clear the text was written by a non-native speaker, and did not benefit from a thorough editing job. In some (very very few) cases I had to go back to the Italian to understand what was meant in the text.  Also, the typeset (Arial, I think) and spacing used for the English text is tiring to read, much more uncomfortable than the Italian typeset, and I would encourage the authors to choose a different font, layout, and English editor for their next bi-lingual book.
Ali D’Africa is nevertheless a very very valuable addition to the existing body of knowledge on the air war in North Africa, and builds on and adds to the pioneering work by Shore and Rings, which was undertaken almost 40 years ago now, and in which the Italians were given quite short shrift.  There is still a need for a comprehensive operational study of the Italian air war in North Africa, but this book does not claim to provide it, and it would therefore be unfair to fault it on this account.
In closing, I can only highly recommend this work to anyone interested in the air war in North Africa.
As an addendum, I would like to add that Aviolibri, a very small (I think family-owned) enterprise in Rome should be congratulated for their efforts in putting out what is not only a highly interesting but also a very polished product (Disclaimer, I have no relation with them, and do not benefit from any purchases made, in any way). Purchasing from them through the internet is very easy, and ensures they will continue in business and be able to supply more interesting books. When you are in Rome, also make sure to visit their store in the Via dei Marsi, behind the Termini train station.  There are some interesting Roman ruins nearby too, and you won’t regret your visit. The book can be ordered from their website on, or by emailing The cost is €18, plus P&P. It is worth it, in my view.
Regia Aeronautica fighter planes during CRUSADER

Regia Aeronautica fighter planes during CRUSADER


I have previously posted about the Italian air force’s frontline strength during CRUSADER, in this post. Today I would like to add a bit about the types of fighter planes used by the Italian air force, how they compared to the Commonwealth planes they were fighting, and how they were used.

Italian fighters were all built for high maneuvrability at the expense of speed, but the pre-war designs all suffered from having weak engines, and lacked sufficient armament. Although in fairness, by early war standards the armament was probably considered sufficient, and the destructive power of the two 12.7mm MGs fitted should compare favourably with that of British fighter armament of the time.  By the time of CRUSADER one modern type had been fielded, the Macchi Mc. 202, which used a modern German engine, and therefore could stand up in performance to anything the Commonwealth could fly against it. But it was still undergunned. It entered the theatre as part of emergency reinforcements in November 1941.

By 1 January 1942, following substantial reinforcements arriving from Italy and the Balkans, as well as losses suffered in battle, the operational fighter strength of the Regia Aeronautica in North Africa stood at 97 planes, broken down as follows:

Fiat CR.42: 34

Fiat G.50: 14

Macchi Mc.200: 24

Macchi Mc.202: 35

Fiat CR.42 Falco (Falcon)

A bi-plane fighter designed as successor to the Cr.32 in the late 1930s and first taking to air in 1938.  While the epitome of bi-plane fighter design (and an aerobatic gem in the view of a British test-pilot who flew the captured one pictured below), by the start of World War 2 it was considered obsolete, yet soldiered on until the end of the war.  It was used for close escort of bombers (where I presume its maneuverability would make up at least somewhat for its lack of speed), near-shore escort of shipping, and ground attack. During CRUSADER it was found operating from rear air fields such as Agedabia, Castel Benito, or Gialo.

Because it continued serving for so long in an air war for which it was clearly not built, it has attracted a good amount of attention from airplane enthusiasts, and here is another article about it. The picture below shows the Fiat Cr.42 that made a forced landing at the beach of Orfordness during the Battle of Britain.  A wartime picture showing the same plane with RAF markings can be seen at this link.

From Hakan’s blog entry here, it also appears that a Cr.42 pilot, of a machine flying in German colours, fielded what must be the final claim of an air kill by a biplane, on 8 February 1945, with the claim being a USAAF P-38 Lightning. I am usually very skeptical about claims, but this one could well have some validity to it.

Fiat Cr. 42 at RAF Museum Hendon - from Wikimedia Commons

Single-Engine Fighters

There were three more modern single-engine fighters in the Regia Aeronautica arsenal in late 1941. Two of them were of pre-war vintage, the Fiat G.50 and the Macchi C.200. Neither of them could compete in terms of modern aerial combat with the Curtiss P-40, and the Hurricane II. Nevertheless, the Italian pilots worked their machines hard and had good flying skills which, combined with the aeronautical quality of their machines made them dangerous in a dog fight. 

The usual tactical arrangement was thus for the older Italian fighters to accompany Stuka groups as close escort, including the dive on target, while the modern Me109F and Mc.202 stayed above acting as distant escorts, and undertaking high-energy attacks on any Empire fighters going after the Stukas. This however was a complex arrangement that could easily go wrong, if e.g. a rendez-vous was missed.

Fiat G.50 Freccia (Arrow)

The first monoplane retractable wheels fighter to enter service with the Regia Aeronautica in 1938.  It was, as all Italian fighters of the period, underpowered and undergunned.  By the time of CRUSADER an improved version had been fielded which became the main production version. The G.50 was probably used a lot in the ground attack role during CRUSADER, and with the Cr.42 it formed the mainstay of the Regia Aeronautica’s fighter force in North Africa during the battle.

Fiat G.50 Freccia captured by Commonwealth forces in North Africa

An Italian Fiat G.50 captured by the British at Sidi Rezegh airfield in North Africa. Note the RAF Hawker Hurricane landing, and another just visible above the rear deck of the G.50. A second G.50 can be seen just behind the tail of the one in the foreground. British Air Ministry CM1825

 A Fiat G.50 in flight, 1941, accompanying a Bf 110, probably of ZG26 – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Bundesarchiv project

Macchi Mc. 200 Saetta (Lightning)

Similar in looks to the G.50, this plane was designed around the same time, but entered service about 2 years later in 1940, due to necessary re-designs relating to aeronautic instability. It utilised the same engine and followed the same armament philosophy, with predictable consequences. It was produced in considerable numbers, but only few were in North Africa during the CRUSADER period.


Picture from Wikimedia Commons, taken by the observer of a SM.79

Picture from Wikimedia Commons, taken by the observer of a SM.79, maybe during a mission to Malta or Tobruk

Mc 202 folgore sized

An early Macchi C.202 (note lack of radio mast) of 81ª Squadriglia, 6° Gruppo, 1° Stormo CT; this photo appears to have been taken in Libya. Wikipedia. What appears to be a Mc.200 in the rear.

Macchi Mc. 202 Folgore (also Lightning, indicating the close relationship of the two, maybe?)

This was the first truly modern fighter to be built in Italy for a number of years, and it was built by a simple solution, marrying the high-performance German DB601A aeroengine with the aeronautically well-developed frame of the Mc.200.  The result was a good-looking, fast, and highly maneuverable plane that was at least the equal, but probably superior to anything the Commonwealth was flying in North Africa at the time of CRUSADER. It entered service in summer 1941, and arrived in North Africa in November when 1o Stormo was sent as reinforcement during the CRUSADER battle. Commonwealth pilots seem to often have mistaken the Mc.202 for German Bf109, since they were used to Italian fighters with radial engines. It was also the first Italian fighter with a fully enclosed cockpit, marking a departure in design philosophy.

From Wikimedia - Mc.202, one of two left in the world

From Wikimedia – Mc.202, one of two left in the world, in the Smithsonian Collection, Washington Dulles Airport.