Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Background

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. 


002 Lage NA 29 Dec 1941 Part 2

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[1], 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 Margin 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. 

Magrun order

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. 

Magrun

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.

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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.

112 Squadron

A flight of 6 Tommies[2][3] 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.[4]

250 Squadron

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[5].

112 Squadron LG122Pilots 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 [5] 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[6] 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]  

Screen Shot 2019 12 22 at 11 04 20 AM

No. 14 Squadron Daily Report Sheet, 22 December 1941. AIR27/199 TNA, Kew. 

Waterlogged1

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.

112 Squadron Pilots 

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.

Notes

[1]Incorrectly, since Panzergruppe HQ was in Agedabia at this time.
[2]Tomahawk P-40 fighters
[3]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.
[4]This sweep was probably the escort mission for the Blenheim raid.
[5]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.
[6]No. 342 Squadron R.A.F.
[7]Should probably be Ju 52s.

New Book on Desert Air Force in 2017 by Ken Delve

Disclaimer: I have no commercial motive in posting this.

Looks interesting:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Desert-Air-Force-World-War/dp/1844158179/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

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Image from Amazon

You can preorder now through the US Amazon site.

https://www.amazon.com/Desert-Air-Force-World-War/dp/1844158179/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

This is a comprehensive reference to the structure, operation, aircraft and men of the 1st Tactical Air Force, or Desert Air Force as it became known. It was formed in North Africa to support the 8th Army and included squadrons from the RAF, SAAF, RAAF and eventually the USAAF.

The book includes descriptions of many notable defensive and offensive campaigns, the many types of aircraft used, weapons and the airfields that played host to these events. The five main sections of the book include a general historical introduction and overview, operations, operational groups, aircrew training and technical details of each aircraft type. Lengthy annexes cover personnel, the squadrons in World War II, accuracy of attacks, orders of battle for each wartime year, maps of airfield locations and numbers of enemy aircraft downed.

It’ll be interesting to see what Mr. Delve used as sources for accuracy of attacks, and numbers of enemy aircraft downed. I’m hoping for a positive surprise!

4 Battle Sorties

Having purchased some of the RAF Squadron ORBs, I thought it might be interesting to type up what life at the sharp end was like for members of RAF Aircrew. The quotes below are from the ‘Record of Events for:

  • No. 80 Squadron (Hurribombers, Nov.41);
  • No. 107 Squadron which operated over Libya, Italy, and against Axis shipping from Malta (Blenheim Light Bombers, Dec. 41);
  • No. 108 Squadron (Medium/Heavy Bombers, Jan. 42); and
  • No. 208 Squadron (Tactical Recce Hurricanes, Jan.42);

They refer to typical missions. I hope this is of interest.

Fighter Bomber

No. 80 Squadron – this unit was equipped with Hurricanes converted to carry 8x40lb bombs under the wings. They had only converted to ground attack in November 41, and this was the first instance that an RAF Squadron in the desert had been issued this kind of plane. No.402 Squadron at Manston had been converted to the bomber role in October 1941, but carried 250lb bombs, instead of the much lighter bombs carried on the Hurricane Is of No. 80 Squadron. The aim was to be able to have two ‘gos’ at the enemy, first to bomb, and then to ground strafe.

128 L.G. 21.11.41 Weather:- Sun and cloud intermittently, wind cold.

First operation in the morning was acting as close escort to formation of Blenheims which were bombing M.T. and dumps near Bir Hacheim. From 80 Squadrons’ point of view the trip was uneventful, no enemy aircraft being seen. The squadron set off on a bombing and strafing sortie against a semi-permanent camp on the coastal road N.W. of Gambut. The bombing was much more accurate and all bombs fell in the target area. Huts were seen to be wrecked. Pilots then strafed this camp and other tents in this area. The success of the sortie was completely marred by the fact that the Commanding Officer, S/Ldr. T.M. Horger, D.F.C., failed to return. His machine was hit by A/A fire; he was seen to belly land and then walk away from his machine. Hopes were held for his safety as British troops were supposed to be in the area where he crashed. Several other machines were damaged by light A/A fire of which much was encountered. Again it must be repeated that ground strafing will be an expensive business. F/Sgt. Wintersdorff and Sgt. Swire landed in the late afternoon. They had force-landed 30 miles S. of Maddalena; pilots were unhurt and machines undamaged. 6 aircraft of No. 73 Squadron, stationed at Barrani, arrived to operate with 80 Squadron. Nobody seemed to know why or by whom they had been sent.

Comments:

M.T. = motor transport; A/A = anti-aircraft. D.F.C. = Distinguished Flying Cross; Ranks: F/Sgt. = Flight Sergeant; S/Ldr = Squadron Leader.

This was the second bombing sortie, and the first one was not seen as a success in terms of accuracy, and disillusionment about the life expectancy at ground strafing sorties had already set in at the first sortie. It appears to me that the target, a semi-permanent installation (in fact, probably a pretty permanent workshop or supply installation of Panzergruppe) was a proper target more for the light bombers, or even the mediums, rather than the fighter bombers.


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. (From IWM Collection)

Light Bombers

No. 12 Squadron S.A.A.F. – Please see this link for an older post.

No. 107 Squadron – this squadron was equipped with Blenheim light bombers and was based at Luqa on Malta, whence it undertook a range of missions over Italy, Libya, Greece, and the Mediaterranean. These included ground attack against Axis truck columns and railways, shipping attacks, level bombing, and reconnaissance.

Luqa, Malta, 24 Dec. 41

Three Blenheims captained by Sgt. Fuller, P/O. Mockridge and Sgt. Crossley were dispatched to attack a m/v in ZUARA HARBOUR.

The three aircraft flying in formation made their landfall exactly off ZUARA so that the defences were warned and opened fire before the Blenheims had crossed the coast. Sgt. Crossley leading the formation passed East of ZUARA, making a tight turn over land and then attacking a large schooner moored against the Western Mole. Altogether there were two schooners, a Hospital Ship and two smaller vessels in harbour.

Sgt. Crossley was seen to hit a stay of the smaller schooner with his wing tip. The aircraft turned over on it’s back and presumably crashed. His bombs fell so close to the schooner that they probably pierced it under the water-line. Sgt. Fuller machinegunned the schooners but his bombs fell short. His aircraft had bullet holes in the fuselage and wings, but was not seriously damaged.

P/O/ Mockridge dropped out of position in the steep turn and attacked the same target from dead astern of the other aircraft. The observer, P/O. Paul was killed by a cannon shell, another went through his tail. The aircraft bombed the larger of the two schooners, results were not observed, but bombs thought to undershoot.

Comments: As No. 80 Squadron had found out, and as can be seen here, low-level attacks were an expensive business for the RAF to engage in. In the seven days from 17-24 December, the squadron lost three planes, piloted by P/O. Keen (17 Dec, attack on transport between SORMAN and ZUARA, unknown cause); Sgt. Hanley (22 Dec, attack on transport 50 miles west of SIRTE, crashed into sea, presumed hit by return fire from an armoured car), and Sgt. Crossley (see above). On the 22 Dec Sgt. Crossley also attacked transport west of SIRTE and carried away some telegraph wire, which indicates how low the Blenheims went in. These raids on minor harbours and on transport on the Via Balbia at random places along the coast must have placed a very heavy load on the Axis defences, necessitating placing AA guns along the harbours, and providing escorts to truck columns far in the rear areas.

While the picture below does not show No. 107 Squadron, it illustrates the nature of the low-level raids very well.


Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 18 Squadron RAF head back for Luqa, Malta, at low level after bombing a target in the port of Locri, Italy. Photograph taken from the mid-upper turret of the leading aircraft. (From IWM Collection)

Medium Bombers

No. 108 Squadron – this squadron was equipped with Wellington medium bombers and saw a lot of action on the run to Tripoli. In December it began conversion to heavy bombers, Consolidated B-24 Liberators, but this project was never completed.

Fayid 4/1/42.

Seven aircraft proceeded to A.L.G. El Adem to operate against the enemy. Five operated, the other two returning to base. Captain’s were (“G”) P/O Waddington, (“D”) P/O R.J. Alexander, (“F”) P/O Smith, (“L”) P/O Hill, and (“H”) P/O Duplex. The primary target was a convoy in the Mediterranean, but owing to 10/10th cloud alternative targets were attacked. Aircraft “D”, “G” and “H” bombed Buerat El Haun dropping 12 500lb. tail fused H.E., two 250lb. nose fused H.E., and one 250lb. extension red – only burst were seen. After bombing “D” and “G” came down low and machine gunned tents and M.T. between target and Sirte. Aircraft “F”, owing to 10/10th cloud down to 1,000ft. returned to base with bombs. The cloud was also too thick for aircraft “L” to locate primary target, and so attacked Ras el Ali M.T. dropping four 500lb. tail-fused H.E. and one 250lb. extension red at foot of jetty – bursts were seen 50 yards off M.T. “L” then came down to 2,000ft. and machine-gunned a barge alongside the jetty – this seemed to be hit and returned fire with two machine guns. Quite a lot of A.A. from Sollum was encountered by this aircraft – this was flown over as the Captain thought it was in our hands. All aircraft returned safely to base.

Comment:

A.L.G. = advanced landing ground; Ranks: P/O = Pilot Officer

The failed attack on the convoy was a major failure, in that it presented the last chance to do some damage at least to the very important M.43 convoy that brought the reinforcements and supplies enabling the Axis counter offensive later in January. It is of interest to note the bombs of choice for shipping attack, tail-fused, heavy H.E. bombs. I don’t know what extension red means. I think it is very impressive (and brave) to take a large aircraft such as a Wellington down to ground-strafing levels. Sollum was not actually in Commonwealth hands, the pilot probably misread the capture of Bardia to mean that the whole of the border had been cleared out.


Vickers Wellington B Mark ICs, formerly of No. 15 Operational Training Unit, parked at North Front, Gibraltar, while staging through the Mediterranean to join operational units in Egypt. BB459 ‘K’ (right) went to No. 108 Squadron RAF at Fayid, while Z8960 ‘P’ (left) joined 70 Squadron RAF at LG 104/Qotafiyah II. (From IWM Collection)

Photo Recce

No. 208 Squadron – this squadron was equipped with tactical reconnaissance Hurricanes with a fixed camera installation. In a pinch it functioned as a fighter squadron too. It was broken up in a number of smaller flights stationed at various airfields.

Detached Flight. Antelat. 17/1.

“RECONAISSANCE” (Contd.) Despite heavy showers throughout the date a medium Tactical Reconnaissance of the MARADA Oasis and the track north to (X) B. 2218 was carried out. The Pilot reported a small garrison and confirmed previous reports of enemy positions and movement on the track running North. The aircraft encountered severe small arms fire over MARADA, a shell bursting in his outer starboard tank, fortunately this tank was already empty and no loss of fuel or fire resulted and the Pilot was able to continue with his reconnaissance.

Comment: Marada was the southern end of the Axis position, running north to the Med at Mersa el Brega. 13 Corps was concerned that the Axis might have troops there to turn the Commonwealth position in front of the Axis line. The garrison was a small German detachment with Italian armoured car support at this time which had only arrived in Africa a few weeks before, and obviously was quite willing to ‘have a go’.

Click this link to see a No.208 Squadron PR Hurricane. (From IWM Collection)

Luftwaffe Appreciation of RAF Strength in North Africa, 20 November 1941

The item below is from the UK National Archives. It is an ULTRA/Enigma intercept, and I am comparing it with the actual RAF strength (another National Archive file kindly provided by Michele Palermo) for the same week. There are some assumptions in there which I’d happily correct, if someone knows better.

  1. Operational Units
    1. Single-engine fighters: 19 fighter squadrons with 450 – 500 Tomahawks and Hurricanes, of which at the moment 390 are in the front area, according to air photography. [actual: 17.5 squadrons and one flight of Fleet Air Arm Martlets, with another 4 more forming, 280 operational with another 394 operational in 14 days – so this is a serious over-estimate by German intelligence]
    2. Heavy fighters: 3 squadrons with 60 Beaufighters, at least 1 squadron of these in the front area. [actual: 1 squadron with 16 aircraft, with another 3 forming, and 8 more aircraft becoming operational in 14 days – another serious overestimate]
    3. Day bombers: 12 squadrons with 200-250 Maylands and Blenheims, of which at the moment about 170 are in the front area according to photography. 1 squadron, equipped with Boeing Fortress I aircraft, probably being formed in the Delta area. The greater fighting value of the Maryland as opposed to the Blenheim permits its employment as an auxiliary heavy fighter: low-level attacks and, above all, attacks on transport aircraft have frequently been successfully carried out (armament: 4 fixed MG’s firing forwards, 2 firing backwards, and in addition one moveable twin MG firing upwards and one firing backwards: this has been established from captured aircraft.) [actual: 9 squadrons of light bombers with 2 squadrons and 1 flight of Maryland/Blenheim reconnaissance, with a total of 144 bombers and 36 reconnaissance operational; none forming, and another 193 light bombers becoming operational in 14 days. 3 Fortresses only, which were on special assignment. Also half a squadron of Boston III active with 8 planes, with the half forming, and 15 Boston III to become active in 14 days – this is a reasonably accurate estimate; regarding the use of the Maryland as a heavy fighter, it rather appears to me that (with one exception I am aware of), Blenheims served in this role]
    4. Night bombers: 5 squadrons with 125 Wellingtons, night attacks on Cyrenaica are carried out every night, aircraft starting from Suez Canal area, with advanced landing grounds in the Western Desert (gliding attacks and flare-dropping carried out). [actual 5 squadrons with 100 planes operational and another 22 to become operational in 14 days no squadrons forming – this is an almost perfect estimate flare dropping however was carried out by Fleet Air Arm Albacores, which are not included in this strength report]
    5. Transport aircraft: 2 transport squadrons with 25 Bombays and/or Valentias and 20 Lockheeds. 6 Bombays were employed on night 16-17/11 to drop parachute sabotage detachment in Cyrenaica (this is confirmed by the shooting down of one aircraft and the papers recovered from it). [actual 2 squadrons with 24 Bombays/Valentias operational and another 4 to become operational in 14 days, no squadrons forming; 1 squadron with no Lockheed/Douglas active, and another one forming, with 16 planes to become operational in 14 days – again a very reasonable estimate)
    6. The shortage of personnel existing after the units have been brought up to strength as regards material seem to have been overcome. It must be assumed that there exist strong reserves in aircraft parks for fighter and bomber units, since there has been a constant flow of supplies by air to Africa (U.S.A. material) and via Mediterranean (English material) (cf. air photograph of aerodrome 25 km west of Hedouan. [this is a correct interpretation of the situation]
  2. Scale of Effort

    Night bomber units since 1/9/41, regularly at about 15 per cent daily. It is probable that with the increased scale of effort since early November the maximum possibilities of these units have been reached. On the other hand fighter and day bomber units have been carefully withheld up to the beginning of the month. Their present increased scale of effort is normal, having regard to the situation (scale of effort since … at the moment reaches at the most 25 per cent of the actual strength). It thus appears that scale of effort in present form is possible for some time ahead, and may even rise for a while.

Actual scale of effort:

  • Assuming 2 sorties per day for single-engine fighters, the capacity usage was 10% in this week, although that is a big if, since 521 of the 673 (plus 18 Hurricane recce and 16 Hurribomber sorties) sorties of all fighters are unspecified and could include Beaufighters and Blenheims. For the Beaufighters (assumed 1 sortie), usage was 26% of capacity, 29 sorties.
  • Assuming 2 sorties per day for Blenheims and Marylands, the effort was about 9%, 185 sorties (plus 5 Blenheim fighter sorties) with 144 operational planes, but there are also 64 unspecified bomber sorties, some of which will be Fortresses, some others Wellingtons and light bombers.
  • For the reconnaissance Blenheims and Marylands, usage was only 7%, assuming one sortie per day as capacity. A total of 18 sorties was made. But there are another 23 unspecified sorties.
  • Assuming (based on nothing but my own thoughts, if someone knows Luftwaffe capacity assumptions, please let me know) total capacity is 1 sortie per day for the Wellingtons, the effort in this week was about 21%, at 148 sorties compared to 100 operational planes.
  • For the transport fleet, utilization was also low, at 9% (assuming 1 sortie per day), 15 sorties of Bombays are recorded]

The numbers appear to show a very strong focus on the initial gaining of air superiority. For example, in the following week, the Blenheims and Marylands had 265 sorties with unchanged operational numbers, a rate of 13%. Wellington sorties remained practically unchanged, while fighter sorties increased to 777 on unchanged numbers, or a rate of 20%. Unspecified bomber sorties tripled however, so the actual utilization was higher.

Compared to the Luftwaffe expectation, the Desert Air Force was operating at a low capacity rate, if the assumptions are correct. This is partially explained by the longer distance planes had to fly to get to their area of operations, I guess. But there are also questions raised e.g. by Australian Wing Cdr. Geddes in a special report, about the efficiency of the ground crews.

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)

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 www.aviolibri.it, or by emailing IBN@aviolibri.it. The cost is €18, plus P&P. It is worth it, in my view.
The Fleet Air Arm

The Fleet Air Arm

The Fleet Air Arm in CRUSADER
Fleet Air Arm squadrons were quite involved in the Mediterranean battles during Operation Crusader. While no carrier was active in the Med following the sinking of HMS Ark Royal on 13/14 November 1941, FAA squadrons such as No. 828 Squadron FAA (see also Thomas Barker’s diary) operated from Malta against Italian shipping, and several squadrons operated from the western desert in support of ground operations.

In the western desert, the following FAA squadrons were active in supporting naval operations, according to the official history:

Nos. 803, 805, 806 Squadron FAA formed the Western Desert RN Fighter squadron, consisting of 24 Hurricanes in 803 and 806 Squadrons  (taken over from the RAF, presumably Hurricane I) and 12 Grumman Martlets (Wildcats for Americans) in 805 Squadron for 36 fighters in total. This was operating from August 41 from Mersa Matruh for shipping protection between Alexandria and Benghazi (once captured).  They moved to Fort Maddalena on the frontier on 22 November and to Tobruk on 11 December. A short section in the official wartime account of the Fleet Air Arm published by the Ministry of Information in 1943 deals with the desert squadrons of the FAA  (see also here). The Squadron operated under RAF Wings 264, 269 and 234 until disbanded in February 1942.

No. 815 Squadron FAA with 6 Fairey Albacores and 6 A.S.V. Fairey Swordfish (according to the official history A.S.V. was fitted in early December – this was an early form of air-ground radar used to detect ships).  The squadron operated from Sidi Barrani on A/S (anti-submarine) patrols and A/S escort duties for convoys.

Albacore

Formation of Fleet Air Arm Fairey Albacores over Malta, GC. (IWM A16151)
 

No. 826 Squadron FAA with 12 Albacores which could carry out anti-shipping strikes when released from army cooperation duties.  On army cooperation these carried out flare dropping and night bombing of vehicle and tank concentrations. To illuminate targets for night bombardment was a specialty function carried out by the Albacores, which were very well suited for this task, it appears. They also carried out spotting duties for naval bombardments such as occurred at Bardia and Derna during CRUSADER.

805, 806 and 815 Squadrons were disembarked from HMS Illustrious, while 803 and 826 Squadrons were disembarked from HMS Formidable after she was damaged during the evacuation of Crete.

RAF torpedo squadrons did not become active until very late in the battle. As I understand it, No.39 Squadron, operating Bristol Beauforts out of Malta and Cyrenaica, contributed to the sinking of MS Vittoria of the T.18 convoy on 23 January 1942 (she was finished off by Albacores from No.826 Squadron FAA operating out of Berka in Cyrenaica).

Corrections and additions on this would be very welcome.