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.
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
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)
Here is some information on the major air commands and commanders on both sides during the Crusader period
- 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
- 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
- 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
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:
The second picture shows RAF personnel dealing with the rain – myguess is that it belongs to the same time-frame:
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.