The Importance of Being Dive-Bombed

One of the issues that is cropping up in researching Operation CRUSADER through contemporary documents is the question of whether or not air attack was successful in causing damage on the ground. There is no doubt that the respective air forces thought it was, and claimed so in their own documents and/or post-war histories (see e.g. the entry on air power in North Africa and my comment on the RAF history on the Thoughts on Military History blog). Nevertheless, it is questionable whether these rather biased judges were right.

The only way me and Michele, whom I am collaborating with on the air aspect, can see to get at this is to try to link ground attack missions to entries in war diaries or first person accounts (where the former are not available) on their effect. This is painstaking work, and I am not sure we’ll get it done. Based on an initial review of the issue, and some early looks into the data, it appears that the research hypothesis would be ‘ground attack missions on mobile targets were rarely successful during Operation CRUSADER’, with success being defined as the mission causing significant damage levels or disorganisation in proportion to the air effort expended. So you would normally expect an attack by 35 Ju 87 Stukas to lead to more damage than a strafing raid by two Fiat CR.42.

It’ll be interesting for us to see what we can come with in terms of data, and I am sure there’ll be some animated debate around it too, since it will challenge some widely held preconceptions.

The information below is from Intel Summary No. 1 distributed to 15 Light Anti-Aircraft (LAA) Regiment R.A. in January 1942. It was based on the experience of 1st LAA Rgt. R.A. gained in support of 7 Support Group of 7 Armoured Division during Operation CRUSADER.[1]

[…]

  1. Dive bombing (Stukas) on an average does practically no damage. Every effort should be made to educate gun detachments to this fact. They soon realize it after experience in action, but are apt to overestimate the potential of dive bombing before they have gained experience. Bombing of any sort can, in no way, be compared with shell fire from Field Guns and Tanks. Even concentrated fire of this nature causes remarkably small amount of damage, and this fact too should be given to gun detachments. Gun detachments which have experienced this nature of fire are completely derisive of bombing attacks.[2]

  […]

The text below is from the same intelligence summary, but based on the experience of 57 LAA Rgt. R.A., which served under 4 Indian Division during CRUSADER.

[…]

During the whole of this period [3] the Regt. was actively engaged in its more natural pursuit of aerial targets and had duels with no less than 780 aircraft in 187 engagements.

The heaviest raids were during the eight days 7 to 14 December when successive Stuka attacks were delivered on all divisional areas.[4] The attacks were delivered mainly on MT[5] concentrations and Divisional HQ was a particular objective of the Ju 87.

One of the most notable features of these duels was the extreme respect with which the bomber treated “flak”, his approach being at greater heights and his dive shallower on each successive occasion. There can be no doubt that the Lt.AA completely spoilt his aim and helped to maintain the morale of the ground troops. The majority of this fire was outside normal Bofors range but it served its purpose.

Eighteen enemy aircraft were destroyed by the Regt. during the period but unfortunately no Me 109F was placed in the bag as these fleet “birds” gave little opportunity for practice.[6]

[…]

British troops inspect a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka which made an emergency landing in the desert, December 1941. Courtesy of the IWM Photo Collection. [7]

,

[1] The report was very kindly looked up and made available by Drew, who also provides this service to others interested in National Archives files, for what I think is a very reasonable fee. You can find out more about this and contact Drew at this link.

[2] While somewhat confusingly written, it appears clear to me that on the hierarchy of threats the dive bomber ranks last, while the others (field artillery and tanks) are also to be discounted. The loss figures, when looking into particular engagements also contained in the report, seem to bear that out.

[3] 4 to 27 December 1941

[4] During this period the Axis air forces still occupied airfields at Tmimi, Martuba, and Gazala, just 50 or so miles or less from the frontline, enabling them to send rapid raids multiple times a day to keep the advancing Commonwealth forces in check, to help cover the retreat of the Axis ground forces from the siege of Tobruk. For example, on 8 December Fliegerfuehrer Afrika managed to get 144 missions into the air, not counting Italian missions.

[5] Motor Transport

[6] A ratio of 2.3% of planes ‘duelled’, or roughly one plane shot down in 10 engagements.

[7] This appears to be T6+AN of 5./StG2. You can see a colour drawing of the plane at this link.

A day in the life of the Luftwaffe – Operations report by Fliegerfuehrer Afrika 23 Nov. 41

Introduction

This operations report was sent on 23 Nov. 41 at 1730 hrs from Fliegerfuehrer Afrika Ic (intelligence officer) to Fliegerkorps X in Greece, and ITALUFT, the German Luftwaffe staff in Italy.

The report was intercepted by the British decoding teams and decrypted at Bletchley Park. It can now be found in the National Archives in Kew, London. I have left the report in the original text, annotated it, and provided a glossary below. I also re-ordered it according to time.

Fliegerfuehrer Afrika Operations Report 23 November 1941

0401 hours

1 Ju.88 of the AFRIKA Kette carried out recce of the tracks BIR EL GUBI – GIARABUB as far as SIDI OMAR. No enemy M/T observed. N.E. of BIR EL GUBI a concentration of about 100 M/T.

0540 hours

2 Bf. 110 of Stab Stuka 3 on recce S. of DERNA as far as 30 degrees N. 1 Bf. 110 brought confirmation of the 2 field aerodromes. 1 Bf. 110 missing. (1)

0550 hours

15 Ju.87 of II/StG2 carried out attack on tanks and M/T concentration E. of BIR EL GUBI, with 5.5 tons of H.E. bombs accurately placed in the target area. Very strong fighter defence: 3 Ju.87 missing, 1 Ju.87 made forced landing. 1 Ju.87 crashed on aerodrome, crew escaped by parachute.(4)

0555 hours

18 Ju.87 of I/StG1 attack on field fortifications and a battery position E. of BIR EL GUBI with 6.05 tons of H.E. bombs: bombs on target: effect not observed on account of strong fighter defence: 2 Ju.87 missing. 1 Ju.87 made forced landing, crew wounded but rescued. (2) (3)

0601 hours

1 Bf.110 of AFRIKA Kette in BIR HACHEIM to BIR EL GUBI and BAB ES [??} E. of BIR EL GUBI concentration of ?40 M/T. Otherwise nothing observed. At 0622 hrs [?] Bf.110 of III/ZG26 broke off attack on concentration near BIR EL GUBI as fighter protection was not assured.

0735 hours and again at 0802 hours

1 Ju.88 of the AFRIKA Kette on photographic recce of roads, railways and aerodromes SIDI BARRANI to EL DABA: heavy railway traffic at railhead: aerodromes only partly covered on account of heavy cloud.

0945 hours

11 Bf.110 of III/ZG26 broke off low-level attacks S. and E. of BIR HACHEIM on account of contact with 30-40 Curtiss fighters. (5)

1140 hours

In square 6231 3 destroyers and 1 small merchant ship, course west.

[No time]

I/ and II/JG27 shot down 10 enemy a/c on freelance patrols and while escorting Stukas. 1 Bf.109 missing, 2 Bf.109 made forced landing.

 

Notes

  1. There was only one field aerodrome in the area, Landing Ground 125, occupied by Hurricanes of No.33 Squadron and Blenheims of No. 75 Squadron
  2. This was likely on 1 South African Brigade which was in the area, ‘masking’ Bir el Gubi and the Ariete division position there. From memory I believe that these attacks were not very effective, even though they were unpleasant.
  3. A loss rate of 20% per sortie must have been extremely worrying.
  4. 33% loss rate.
  5. This, together with the two preceding notes, shows that while the Desert Air Force may not have had the number of kills of its adversary, it did achieve its operational objective on this day, which was to inflict losses on the enemy strike force and keep them away from their target, or at least reduce their efficiency.

Glossary

Afrika Kette – a small unit (Kette – Chain) equipped with long-range reconnaissance Junkers 88 and Messerschmidt 110, stationed in Greece but under control of the Fliegerfuehrer Afrika.

Bf. 109 – Messerschmidt 109, single-engined fighter

Bf.110 – Messerschmidt 110 twin-engine multi-role plane (heavy fighter, recce, ground attack)

Curtiss – Curtiss Tomahawk single-engined fighter

Fliegerfuehrer Afrika – commander flying units Africa.

Fliegerkorps X – Air Corps X in Greece, with head-quarters in Athens Tatoi airport.

H.E. – High Explosive

Ju.87 – Junkers 87 single-engine dive bomber

Ju.88 – Junkers 88 twin-engined multi-role aircraft used as reconnaissance, medium bomber (level and dive), night fighter.

M/T – motor transport

Recce – reconnaissance

Stab – Staff squadron. For dive bomber wing 3 this was well equipped with recce and transport planes.

StGSturzkampfgeschwader – dive bomber wing

Stuka – Sturzkampfbomber – Dive bomber.

ZGZerstoerergeschwader (destroyer wing), equipped with Messerschmidt 110 planes.

I./StG 3 in North Africa

During the CRUSADER offensive the German and Italian air force (the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica) were reinforced heavily from Italy and Greece.  One unit which was transferred across was the first Gruppe (Air Group) of Sturzkampfgeschwader 3 (I./StG3), a dive bomber unit equipped with about 31 Junkers 87 single-engined dive-bombers, a type generally known as Stuka to English-speakers.  While these planes had sown terror during the early war, they were withdrawn quickly from the Battle of Britain in 1940, and were well past their prime in 1941. Nevertheless, they still soldiered on until the end of the war in Africa and on the Eastern Front, despite increasingly heavy losses.

Elements of I./StG3 (staff and 3rd Squadron) was originally meant to be transferred across to North Africa for a 4-day stint only, to assist in the capture of Tobruk (this order also applied to the 9th Staffel of ZG26, a twin-engined fighter unit equipped with Bf110s).  At the time of the start of CRUSADER is was probably based on Crete, in Maleme, and it constituted the only Air Group of StG3, the other two were formed in January and February 1942 in North Africa. When the Commonwealth forces struck, it quickly became apparent that the forces present in North Africa would not suffice, and additional air units were scraped together for a rapid transfer into the theatre.  It must have been helpful at this point that I./StG3 was already earmarked for just such a transfer, and was persumably ready to go at short notice, with 26 out of 31 planes serviceable and 33 out of 36 crews ready for action on 17 November, a rate of 84% for planes and 92% for crews, according to a strength return of X. Fliegerkorps, then its parent formation, a high number.  So on 16 November it was duly ordered to report how many Ju52 transport planes would be needed to transport the ground crews to Africa.  The plan was for the Gruppe to take over Tmimi airfield, which was already occupied by two of  the Ju 87 Staffeln of II./StG2.  With the order came a reminder to calculate the numbers of men and transport planes required ‘economically’.

What happened next however was that instead of the Division z.b.V. Afrika triumphantly riding into Tobruk, all hell broke lose outside the town in the form of the Commonwealth attack.  And so on the 19 November the information came that I./StG3 would move from Crete to Derna in North Africa on the 20th, but it was not for operations lasting only 4 days.  Instead, I./StG3  would stay in Africa until withdrawn to Germany in December 1942, after the defeat at El Alamein.

A useful site for the placements of this unit is this one.

See also this prior post regarding Luftwaffe air strength during the battle.

Please also see this other post for further detail and information on the matter of the transfer of I./StG3 to North Africa, and in particular what the British knew about it, and when.