An expensive visit to Castelvetrano

An expensive visit to Castelvetrano

Background

Around the turn of the year 1941/42, Castelveltrano airfield in Sicily (I have also seen Castel Vetrano and Castelveltrano as spelling) was stuffed with Axis transport planes which had been 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. Previous supply to North Africa from Athens and Crete had ceased when the Axis forces retreated past Benghazi, due to the increased distance involved.

The Royal Air Force 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 picture was almost certainly taken on 3 January, on a reconnaissance by No. 69 Squadron RAF out of Luqa air field on Malta, by pilot F/Off Warburton (who was later to command No. 69 Squadron) and LAG Shirley in Beaufighter T.4705, which lasted from 1300 to 1500 hours, and noted 75 bombers and 13 fighters on Castel Vetrano. It also covered Trapani, Bopizzo, Marsala seaplane base, Palermo port, Trapani port, and attempted Comiso where no pictures could be taken due to cloud. Based on the results of the reconnaissance it was clear that Castel Vetrano was a very tempting target.

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)

Warburton 
Wing Commander Adrian
Warburton (centre), Commanding Officer of No. 69 Squadron RAF, standing with some of his aircrew at Luqa, Malta. (IWM CM4672)

 

Attacks from Malta

At the time, strike forces on Malta were still active, and two operations were launched. A day attack on 4 January by Nos. 18 and 107 Squadrons with their Blenheims, and then on the night 4/5 January 1942 the RAF bombers (Blenheims and Wellingtons) from Malta paid a repeat visit to Castelvetrano airfield.

Reports

The official report by the RAF for 4 January mentions both attacks.

12. MALTA: Bomber operations. The following report has been received of the attack on 4 January by 10 Blenheims on CASTELVETRANO aerodrome. Bombs were dropped from 25-100 feet on 75 transport aircraft which were closely parked on the aerodrome. At least 30 of them were destroyed by fire and many others seriously damaged. Troops on the aerodrome were also machine gunned and many casualties caused.

13. On the night 4th/5th January 9 Wellingtons renewed the attack on CASTELVETRANO aerodrome. Over 13 tons of bombs were dropped (including 1 4,000lb.) during a period of nearly 9 hours. Fires were started all over the aerodrome and 14 aircraft were seen to be burning. A petrol dump exploded starting an extensive fire on the edge of the aerodrome.  A.A. positions were machine gunned. One Wellington (and crew) is missing.  

The ORB entry from No. 107 Squadron also provides a lot of detail.

Luqa, Malta. 4th Jan.

Four Blenheims of 107 Squadron captained by P/O. Williamson, Sgt. Noseda, Sgt. Fuller, Sgt. Sykens accompanied by Six Blenheims of 18 Squadron were despatched to attack aircraft on the ground at Castel Vetrano.

A very successful raid was carried out amongst the large number of aircraft. Many of the JU.52’s and Br 20’s on the ground were either blown up or set on fire by bomb and m/gun fire. A very considerable proportion of the remaining aircraft were probably rendered unserviceable. Bombs fell in all part of the aerodrome and terrific blast effect was observed. One portion of the southern end of the runway was blown up. Two columns of black smoke could be seen from 40 miles, rising to almost 1,000’. Troops in blue uniform were also m/gunned in the South West corner of the aerodrome. The raid was carried out by three formations in quick succession from between 25-100’. 

All aircraft returned safely. All aircraft bombed in one stick.

40squadron

Vickers Wellington Mark IC, X9889 ‘BL-D’ of No. 40 Squadron RAF, under guard at Gibraltar while en route to the unit’s new base at Luqa, Malta. X9889 was one of three of the squadron’s Wellingtons destroyed during a German air raid on Luqa on 29 December 1941. (IWM GM263)

The after action report (AAR) of the Wellington attack makes interesting reading.  Nine Wellington sorties were flown that night, with three 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. The attack went in in two waves, first four aircraft  between 2041 and 2200, including a single aircraft with the blockbuster bomb. A second wave from 0357 to 0525. 

An extensive report has survived in The National Archives at Kew. There are a number of errors and typos in there, which I reproduce here. 

 

WELLINGTON OPERATION 

NIGHT 4/5 DECEMBER (sic!) 1942

Nine Mk I C Wellingtons of 40 Squadron were despatched to attack CASTEL VETRANO aerodrome. The aircraft were (M) S/LDR CRAIGH (P) SGT. ASHPITAD (S) SGT ROBINS (W) SGT ARMSTRONG (Z) SGT. FOSTER (S) SGT. LEWTHWAITE.

Total bombs dropped

21 x 250lb G.P.

28 x 500lb G.P.

1 x 4,000lb G.P.

 

3,360lb incendiaries

84 x 40 lb G.P.

Total Hours flown: 25 hours 41 minutes

Time over target 2041 to 0525 hours. 6 flares dropped.

SUMMARY No fires were visible from the day attack. The first wave consisting of four Wellingtons attacked between 2041-2200 hours and started fires amongst aircraft on the Eastern side of aerodrome which developed. A Petrol dump was also hit causing explosions visible 40 miles away. This was on the Eastern side of aerodrome. Enemy aircraft could be seen burning and were identified as JU 52’s. Explosions and fires were also seen from the North East and South West corners of the aerodrome. One Wellington then attacked with a 4000 lb bomb which landed about tow thirds from North-South along the runway falling just East of it. When the second wave arrived at 0357 hours the fires had gone out, but the first aircraft of the second wave dropped sticks East of the runway and started 6 red fires which followed large explosions and also started a white fire in buildings on the road east of the runway. The next aircraft straddled the runway and saw fires which had increased to 8, spreading amongst enemy aircraft. The last aircraft started another fire North of aerodrome and caused 6 explosions followed by fires which were visible 20 miles away. Aircraft (S) failed to return.

From the individual plane narratives:

(P) was first over the target and made runs from East to West and North East to South West and dropped 3 sticks from 7500 feet and 7000 feet. The first stick fell across the North East corner of the aerodrome and started fires which burned well. The second stick fell across the East of the aerodrome with no results observed apart from the Bomb flashes.

(W) saw the fires developing especially the Northern most, this leaked as though Petrol was burning as explosions were visible 40 miles away appeared from time to time, aircraft made runs from South to North and West to East and dropped 4 sticks from 6-7000 feet. The first stick fell in the South West corner causing explosions, the second fell in the Centre of the aerodrome (just missing the runway second and third fell in the North East corner near the fire. The fourth straddled the aerodrome from West to East crossing the centre and starting a red fire.

(M) Dropped three sticks from 3-2000 feet running in from West to South East. Two sticks fell in the North East corner and a third in the South East corner. No results seen. 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. He saw one JU 52 well on fire. He also machine gunned 2 light A.A. positions which opened up from a bend in the road just West of MENFI near the coast.

(S) dropped the sticks from 7000 feet. The first of which fell parallel to the runway in the centre of the aerodrome from East to West. No results seen.

(Z) dropped his 4,000lb [Blockbuster] bomb from 8000 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.

(P) No fires were burning when the aircraft arrived on the target at 0357 hours (Approximately 4 1/2 hours later than aircraft Z) but after five sticks dropped from South to North and East to West from 8500 feet 6 red fires East of runway were started preceded by 6 red explosions. A large white fire was started in one building on the road East of the aerodrome perimeter.

(W) dropped 5 sticks from between 6500 and 8000 feet which fell north of the aerodrome starting a red fire west of the aerodrome and across the centre of runway from North West to South East. Saw the fires spreading amongst aircraft on the ground and counted at least 8 fires on leaving.

(M) dropped 4 sticks from 7000 feet. The first consisting of 4x 500 lbs fell on the runway and one 500 lb fell in the red fire East of runway the second fell along the East perimeter of the aerodrome the third started a fire North of the aerodrome and the fourth fell South of the aerodrome causing 6 explosions. Followed by fires visible 20 miles away.

OPPOSITION Consisted of light tracker which was fired at flares and medium and heavy FLAK coming from positions N.E. and S.W. of aerodrome.

WEATHER Clear over target.

(unreadable) DUTY AIR INTELLIGENCE OFFICER

 

Aftermath

One aircraft (’S’) failed to return. It carried a multinational crew of Sgts. James F. Lewthwaite (RNZAF – Pilot), William R. Pick (RCAF – Air Gunner/Obs), William W. Chalmers (RAF Volunteer Reserve – W/Op), Maurice M. Bryan (W/Op in training, Air Gunner), and Stanley H. James (Air Gunner), all of whom were killed and now rest in Catania War Cemetery.

On 8 January F/Off Warburton went back to Sicily for a reconnaissance in the same Beaufighter, this time with AG1 Hadden, from 1045-1300. On what the ORB mistakenly labels ‘Castel Benito’ (that’s the main airfield at Tripolis), but which I think should be Castel Vetrano, he takes pictures from 5,000 feet, noting 29 bombers and 26 fighters, as well as 11 burnt out bombers and 1 fighter being visible.

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

Sources

  • RAF Wellington Raid Summaries, Malta
  • AIR27/843/1 No 107 ORB
  • RAF Daily Summaries January 1942
  • No. 69 Squadron Appendices
The Role of Crete in the North African War

The Role of Crete in the North African War

Background

While Crete is best known for Operation Merkur, the German airborne assault that took the island from the Commonwealth forces defending it at the end of May 1941, it also played a considerable role in the war in the Mediterranean, and became of great importance to the Axis effort in North Africa.

  • Suda Bay, on the north-western tip of Crete, became an Italian naval and submarine base. Submarines and destroyers were based here, and would be used to bring supplies to North Africa from Suda (see also the Italian reports I posted here).
  • Airfields around Crete were used as bases or to stage both combat and supply missions towards North Africa. Missions against Commonwealth supply shipping in the Suez Canal zone were flown from here. I believe support missions for Iraq and Syria also originated from here, but it is also possible that these came out of the Doedecanese islands then occupied by Italy.
  • During the siege of Bardia/Halfaya from December 41 to January 42, some supply and combat missions were flown from Crete, but impeded by bad weather in Crete.
  • Air cover and aerial reconnaissance were provided from Crete to protect convoys running on the eastern leg from Greece to North Africa. Not always successful as the loss of the tankers Maritza and Procida showed (again, see the report by escort commander Mimbelli here).
  • During the build-up for the battle of El Alamein, Crete became a source for reinforcements to Panzerarmee Afrika. 164. Leichte Infanteriedivision was previously an occupation force in Crete, called Festungs-Division Kreta.

CM880Bombs exploding on Maleme airfield, Crete, during a daylight raid by Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 14 Squadron RAF, flying from LG 21/Qotafiya III, Egypt. The aircraft are Junkers Ju 52/3ms, most of them in a wrecked condition as a result of the landing of airborne troops on the airfield on 21 May 1941, during the German invasion of the island. IWM CM880.

The Risk to Air Crew and Civilians

Throughout this time, Crete also was a target of R.A.F. operations, which also posed a risk to the local populace, as the document below shows.

This incident relates to a plane lost on a raid by Wellington medium bombers of No. 148 Squadron, targeting shipping off the north-western coast off Crete, off Candia. 

A total of fifteen Wellingtons operated, both ‘A’ and ‘B’ flights of No. 148 Squadron. They operated from Kabrit to L.G.104, and then from there to Crete, which they covered during the late evening hours. A correspondent of the Sunday Times accompanied the raid, and wrote a piece about it, which notes that his plane freelanced for a raid on Bardia when no targets were found off the coast of Crete (the report can be downloaded here: Sunday Times Report). This being a night raid, it appears ground bombing was not permitted in order not to endanger the civilian population.

Two planes were lost that night, ships ’S‘ and ‘W’, both of ‘B’ flight. ’S’ is noted as ‘failed to return’ and all crew are missing believed killed. This was a multinational crew composed off Sgt. Taranto, R.A.A.F., Pilot Officer Elliott, R.C.A.F., and R.A.F. Sergeants Warner, Bramwell, Ray, and Conley. ‘W’ crashed on land, with an R.A.F. crew of Flying Officer Canton, and Sgts. Townsend, Black, Bailes, Brown, and Rutland. One of the pilots was on his 60th mission.

Contrary to what the letter says however, it appears that five of the six members of the crew died in the crash, and only the plane’s commander F/O Canton was ultimately taken prisoner by the Germans.

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Notes

AIR994/15, 16 ORB of No. 148 Squadron

AIR998, No 148 Squadron Appendices

Gunby and Temple, Royal Air Force Bomber Losses