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.

An expensive visit to Castelvetrano

On the night 4/5 January 1942 the RAF bombers (Blenheims and Wellingtons) from Malta paid a visit to Castelvetrano (I have also seen Castel Vetrano and Castelveltrano as spelling) airfield on Sicily.  At the time, the airfield was stuffed with Axis transport planes which gathered in the Med, either to resupply Africa, or to transport in units and supplies belonging to the Luftwaffe’s 2nd Air Fleet which had just started its camapign against Malta.

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

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

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

The after action report (AAR) of the Wellington attack makes interesting reading.  11 Wellington sorties were flown that night, with four a/c making the trip twice.  One of the Wellingtons carried a 4,000 lb (1,800kg) “blockbuster” bomb, and appears to have managed to drop it right into the parked planes.

From the individual plane narratives:

Plane M […]He saw that most aircraft had been parked near the runway directly on the east of the aerodrome and that they looked like JU 52’s. […]

Plane Z dropped his 4,000lb [Blockbuster] bomb from 8,000 feet which landed just east of runway about two thirds of the way down from North-South.  A terrific explosion resulted throwing up debris and dust.  The target was visible when aircraft crossed the coast and showed up well.

Plane P No fires were burning when the aircraft arrived on the target at 0357 hours (Approximately 4.5 hours later than aircraft Z).

The attack went in in two waves, first four aircraft  between 2041 and 2200.   Then a single aircraft with the blockbuster bomb. A second wave from 0357 to 0525. Total bombs dropped were:

21 x 250lb GP

28 x 500lb GP

1 x 4,000lb GP

3,360lb incendiaries.

One aircraft failed to return, with the crew of Sgts. Lewthwaite, Pick, Chalmers, Bryan, and James. The Axis air forces lost six S.82s (one of which was used by the Germans), four Z1007bis, a CR42 and a Ju52, all of which were destroyed; in addition 42 more aircraft were damaged to various degrees: 22 S.82s, 15 Z1007bis, 2 FN305s, 2 CR42s and a MC200 (Thanks to Jon G. on AHF for the info). The S.82 were the biggest transport planes available in the Med at this stage, and losing 28 of them even if some were only out of service temporarily must have been a very big drain on overall Axis air transport capacity at a critical juncture.

(see also this prior post)

The Major Air Commands and Commanders

Here is some information on the major air commands and commanders on both sides during the Crusader period

Axis

Italian

  • Superaereo (Rome) – General Pricoli (from end of November General Fougier) – High command of Italian air force
  • Air Command Sicily – Attacks on Malta, shipping protection
  • Air Command Aegean- Shipping protection, shipping attacks, reconnaissance
  • 5th Air Squadron (Castel Benito outside Tripoli) – High command of Italian air force in North Africa
  • Sector West (Castel Benito) – Convoy protection, air defense
  • Sector Centre (Bengasi) – Convoy protection, air defense
  • Sector East (Derna) – Close support of ground operations

German

  • X. Fliegerkorps (Athens) – Escort of convoys, reconnaissance, attack of enemy shipping, air offensive against Egypt
  • Fliegerführer Afrika (Derna) – Colonel Fröhlich – Close support of ground operations in Africa, escort of convoys, reconnaissance
  • From December 41: Luftflotte 2 (Frascati?) – Field Marshal Kesselring – High Command for the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean
  • II. Fliegerkorps (Sicily) – Suppression of Malta

Commonwealth

  • RAF Middle East Command (Cairo) – Air Marshal Arthur Tedder – High command of RAF in eastern Mediterranean
  • No. 204 Group (from 21 Oct. Desert Air Force) – Air Marshal Arthur Coningham – Ground support, air superiority battle in North Africa
  • RAF Mediterranean (La Valletta, Malta – from 26 December AHQ Malta) – Air Vice-Marshal Hugh Loyd – Reconnaissance, shipping attacks, shipping protection

A Look on the Waterlogged Landing Grounds

One reason generally given for the failure by the Axis air forces to engage, or even just recognise the start of the attack on 18 November is the weather. Violent rain storms lashed the North African coast on the days before the attack started, but they fell harder on the Axis landing grounds in the west, making operations there impossible, and in some cases drowning personnel and destroying equipment, where Wadis had been used as camp or storage sites.

While the runways got back into operation relatively quickly (they could be used on 18 November, provided care was taken), the more important impact was probably on communications, which had been completely destroyed by the floods.

The IWM photo collection has an interesting picture I came across today, showing a Blenheim IV on Gambut airfield, maybe in December or January. It shows quite well the extent of water on the field, this time of course coming from later winter storms:

http://www.iwmcollections.org.uk/media/images/Photographs/Image/CM_001927.jpg

The second picture shows RAF personnel dealing with the rain – myguess is that it belongs to the same time-frame:

http://www.iwmcollections.org.uk/media/images/Photographs/Image/CM_001931.jpg

At the start of operation CRUSADER Gambut was a major Axis landing ground, but that changed relatively quickly, and it would be June 42 before the Axis forces would conquer it again.