The impact of air operations

The impact of air operations


A discussion on the AHF (linked here) allows us to track individual unit strength of Luftwaffe (GAF) units during the campaign.  This is based on three snapshots, on 11 October (before Coningham’s air campaign in support of Crusader started), on 27 November (from an ULTRA intercept, after more than a week of operations), and on 27 December, after the retreat from Tobruk and the fall of Benghazi.


German Ju 87 Stukas being readied for an operation, date, location, and unit unknown. Probably early 1941. Collection.


There are some important observations to be made.  First of all, despite a major effort by the Allies, neither availability nor serviciability of the major types dropped significantly (with the exception of the Ju 88).  This is likely because of a major effort in reinforcement, bringing in additional flights and squadrons, especially of dive bombers and destroyers. For the Italian air force, I have some data, which will be posted in a separate post.

On 27 December the longer range strike planes had disappeared – this is a reflection of the fuel situation and the retreat, which made it pointless to keep planes based in North Africa that could operate towards key targets such as Tobruk from Greece and Crete. It also reflected the difficulty of keeping the strike force operational in a remote theatre.

It is very interesting to see the effect of reinforcement on the destroyer availability.  This is likely because these planes were used to protect convoys against air- and/or seaborne attack (with mixed results, one might add). 


Overall these numbers tell an interesting story, but it may not be the one usually told. What they miss are the temporary reinforcements that came and went in the period. While the initial reaction by the Luftwaffe was to immediately reinforce North Africa with large numbers of all types of planes, within two weeks it had become clear that the fuel and overall supply situation did not allow this reinforced contingent to be maintained, and many of the planes were withdrawn again to Italy or Greece. Ju 88 could more easily strike targets operating from their base in Tatoi, Athens, with Heraklion on Crete as a jumping off point for refueling, while fighters were needed to escort the strike forces attacking Malta from Sicily.

Unit Overview

The list is by unit, with the first number indicating planes present with the unit, and the second serviceable.

Tactical Reconnaissance

2. (H) 14 (specialised short-range reconnaissance)

  • 11 Oct 21/6 Bf 110C-4 and Hs 126
  • 27 Nov (data not available due to communications breakdown)
  • 27 December 20/12 Bf 110C-4 and Hs 126

Single-Engine Fighters

I./JG 27 (single-engined fighters)

  • 11 Oct 31/17 Bf 109E-7 Trop (about to be phased out)
  • 27 Nov unchanged from day before (which is not available)
  • 27 December 24/10 Bf 109F-4 (these were a substantial upgrade in terms of capability)

II./JG 27 (single-engined fighters) minus 6./JG27

  • 11 Oct 28/13 Bf 109F-4 Trop
  • 27 Nov 19/12 Bf 109 F-4 Trop
  • 27 December 24/10 Bf 109F-4 Trop

Heavy Fighters

Staff ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct (unit was not in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 2/2 Bf 110C
  • 27 December (unit was not in theatre)

7./ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct (unit was not in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 9/8 Bf 110C
  • 27 December (unit was not in theatre)

8./ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct 12/8 Bf 110D-3
  • 27 Nov 7/5 Bf 110C
  • 27 December (not available, unit may have been withdrawn at this point)

9./ZG 26 (twin-engined destroyers)

  • 11 Oct (not available – unit may not have been in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 5/4 Bf 110 C
  • 27 December (unit was not in theatre)

Medium Bombers

III./LG 1 (twin-engined medium bombers )

  • 11 Oct 31/15 Ju 88 A-4 Trop
  • 27 Nov 27/2 Ju 88 (with 3 more aircraft in Derna after diverting)
  • 27 December (not available – unit withdrawn from theatre)

Dive Bombers

I./StG 1 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct 39/26 Ju 87 B-1
  • 27 Nov 27/18 Ju 87 + 1 Cant. 445
  • 27 December 32/17 Ju 87 B-1

II./StG 1 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct 31/26 Ju 87 B-1
  • 27 Nov 26/17 Ju 87 R-2/4
  • 27 December  (not available – unit may not have been in theatre)

Staff StG 3 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct 7/2 Ju 87 B-1 and He 111 (twin-engined medium bomber acting as courier plane)
  • 27 Nov 3/? Ju 87 R2/4 + 3/? Bf 110C + 4/? He 111 H5/6 + 1/? Bf 108 (liaison)
  • 27 December  9/5 Ju 87 B-1 and He 111 

I./StG 3 (single-engined Stukas)

  • 11 Oct (not available – unit was not in theatre)
  • 27 Nov 26/23 Ju 87 R2/4
  • 27 December 30/18 Ju 87


Additional information for 27 November:


10 KG zbV 1 (Transport)

  • Ju 52 12/0 with 4 aircraft on operations

Liaison Flight JG27(?)

  • No information

Staff flight Fliegerführer

  • Me 110C 1/0


  • Ju 52 1/0
  • C 445 9/0
  • FH 104 1/0
  • Me 108 1/0
  • Fi 156 1/0

Desert Rescue Squadron

  • Fi 156 8/4 of which 1 in Benina, 3 in Derna

Tabular Overview

The table below is based on the numbers above, but is not 100% accurate.  I calculated this myself. Note that the 27 November number for the Bf 109 type is understating the issue, since the data was missing from the ULTRA intercept. Also note that qualitatively the Bf 109 underwent an improvement during the battle, with the I./JG27 reporting 31 ‘Emils’, an earlier type of the Bf109, while by 27 December they reported 24 BF 109F, a much improved type, which was superior to anything the Commonwealth forces fielded in the North African theatre at the time. This of course depends on the 11 October type info being correct, something which I am having serious doubts about (it is apparently from RIng & Shore “Fighters over the Desert”.


Availability chart for major types in Africa during Crusader

Availability chart for major types in Africa during Crusader.

German Strategy in the Mediterranean in late 1941

Hitler issued only two directives concerning the Mediterranean theatre from June 1941, Directive No. 32 and Directive No. 38. Directive 32 of 11 June 1941, little more than a week before the attack on the Soviet Union, contained the broad plans for the Mediterranean after the fall of the Soviet Union, starting with the capture of Egypt. It was an optimistic document, giving orders for the reshaping of the former Soviet space, and outlining how the British position in the Middle East would be attacked through Turkey and from Libya. It imagined a situation in which Germany would be able to control the whole Middle East, up to maybe Iran.

Directive 38 was a wholly different matter. When it was issued, Axis forces in North Africa were staring into the abyss of defeat, and the situation in the Soviet Union was about to turn violently against the Wehrmacht. The directive exposed for the first time the loss of initiative that had taken place, and the need to scrape around for resources, which would be commonplace in later years in the war.

I will, given time, make the text of Directive No. 32 available here as well, both in the original and in translation.

Directive No. 38

On 2 December 41 Hitler issued Directive 38, appointing Kesselring to the new post of CiC South. I tried to find it online, but to no avail, so here it is, in German, as a public service. An English translation is provided below.

This is an OCR of a copy reprinted in Germany, emphasis as in the copy, and I presume the original.

Der Führer and Oberste Befehlshaber F. H. Qu., den 2. 12. 1941 der Wehrmacht

OKW/WFSt/Abt. L (I Op)

441980/41 g. Kdos. Chefs.

Geheime Kommandosache

Chefsache! 17 Ausfertigungen

Nur durch Offizier ! 2. Ausfertigung

Weisung Nr. 38

1) Als Grundlage für die Sicherung und Erweiterung der eigenen Mittelmeerstellung und zur Bildung eines Kraftzentrums der Achsenmächte im mittleren Mittemeer befehle ich nach Einvernehmen mit dem Duce, dass Teile der im Osten frei gewordenen Verbände der deutschen Luftwaffe in Stärke etwa eines Fliegerkorps und der erforderlichen Luftverteidigungskräfte in den süditalienischen und nordafrikanischen Raum zu überführen sind.

Neben der unmittelbaren Auswirkung auf die Kriegführung im Mittelmeer und Nordafrika soll dadurch eine wesentliche Einflussnahme auf die gesamte weitere Entwicklung im Mittelmeerraum angestrebt werden.

2) Mit der Führung der für diese Aufgabe einzusetzenden Gesamtkräfte beauftrage ich den Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring unter gleichzeitiger Ernennung zum Oberbefehlshaber Süd (Ob. Bfh. Süd).

Seine Aufgaben sind:

Erzwingen der Luft- und Seeherrschaft im Raum zwischen Süditalien und Nordafrika zur Herstellung gesicherter Verbindungswege nach Libyen und der Cyrenaika, hierzu insbesondere Niederhaltung Maltas,

Zusammenwirken mit den in Nordafrika eingesetzten deutschen und verbündeten Kräften,
Unterbindung des feindlichen Verkehrs durch das Mittelmeer sowie der englischen Versorgung von Tobruk und Malta in enger Zusammenarbeit mit den dafür verfügbaren deutschen und italienischen Seestreitkräften.

3) Der Ob. Bfh. Süd untersteht dem Duce and erhält über das Comando Supremo dessen Richtlinien für die Aufgaben im grossen. In allen luftwaffeneigenen Angelegenheiten verkehrt der Ob. d. L. mit dem Ob. Bfh. Süd unmittelbar, in wesentlichen Fragen unter gleichzeitiger Unterrichtung des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht.

4) Dem Ob. Bfh. sind unterstellt:

sämtliche im Mittelmeerraum und Nordafrika eingesetzten Kräfte der deutschen Luftwaffe, die seitens der italienischen Wehrmacht zur Durchführung seiner Aufgaben zur Verfügung gestellten Flieger- and Flak-Verbände.

5) Die im mittleren Mittelmeergebiet eingesetzten deutschen Seestreitkräfte bleiben dem Ob. d. M. unterstellt.

Der Ob. Bfh. Süd ist befugt, für die Durchführung der ihm zugewiesenen Aufgaben dem Deutschen Admiral beim Oberkommando der italienischen Kriegsmarine, gegebenenfalls auch der Marine-Gruppe Süd (für das östliche Mittelmeer) Weisungen zu erteilen. Den Einsatz befehlen die Marinedienststellen im Einvernehmen mit dem Ob. Bfh. Süd.

Die Wünsche des Ob. Bfh. Süd zur Abstimmung des gemeinsamen Einsatzes der verbündeten Seestreitkräfte sind ausschliesslich an den Deutschen Admiral beim Oberkommando der italienischen Kriegsmarine zu richten.

6) Die Aufgaben des W. B. Südost und des Deutschen Generals beim Hauptquartier der italienischen Wehrmacht bleiben unverändert.

(gez.) Adolf Hitler

English Translation

The Führer and Commander in Chief. Führer HQ, 2nd Dec. 1941, to the Wehrmacht

OKW/WFSt/Abt. L (I Op)

441980/41/ Secret Command Affair

Chiefs Only! 17 Copies

Only by Officer! 2nd Copy

Directive No. 38

1) As basis for securing and broadening our position in the Mediterranean and to create a power centre of Axis forces in the central Mediterranean I hereby order, in agreement with the Duce, that elements of the German air force formations which have been freed up in the east, in strength of about one air corps, and the required air defense forces, are to be transferred into the Southern Italian and North African area. Apart from the immediate effect on the conduct of war in the Mediterranean and North Africa, a major influence on the whole development in the Mediterranean area will be pursued.

2) I charge Field Marshal Kesselring with the command of the totality of forces employed for this task, and appoint him as CIC South at the same time.
His tasks are:
Force command of the air and sea in the area between South Italy and North Africa to establish secure connections to Libya and the Cyrenaica, and in this context especially to suppress Malta, Co-operation with the German and allied forces employed in North Africa, Stopping of enemy traffic through the Mediterranean, as well as the English supply of Tobruk and Malta in close co-operation with the German and Italian naval forces available for this task.

3) The CIC South is subordinated to the Duce and receives his general guidance for the tasks at large through the Comando Supremo. In all internal German air force affairs he deals with the CIC German Air Force directly, in important matters while informing the High Command of the Wehrmacht at the same time.

4) Subordinated to the CIC South are:
All the forces of the German Air Force employed in the Mediterranean and North Africa, the flying and air defense forces made available by the Italian armed forces for the carrying out of his tasks.

5) The German naval forces employed in the central Mediterranean remain under the command of the CIC Navy.
The CIC South is allowed, to carry out the tasks given to him, to issue directives to the German Admiral at the High Command of the Italian Navy, and where necessary to the Naval Group South (for the eastern Mediterranean). The tactical employment is ordered by the naval offices in agreement with the CIC South.
Wishes of the CIC South to co-ordinate the joint employment of the allied naval forces are solely to be directed to the German Admiral at the High Command of the Italian Navy.

6) The tasks of the Armed Forces Commander South East and of the German General at the HQ of the Italian Armed Forces remain unchanged.

(signed) Adolf Hitler

The Impact of War in the Far East

Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, forces destined for or already present in North Africa were diverted to the Far East to deal with the new threat. This stretched Commonwealth forces critically thin at a time when they were ready to exploit the victory won in Cyrenaica.

This post on the AHF discusses the question:

I have found the following list of units and formations transferred:


  • 7th Armoured Brigade with two regiments.
  • I Australian Corps HQ with: 6th and 7th Australian Division
  • Transferred while in transit around the Cape: 18th (British) Infantry Division


I have not been able to find similarly detailed info yet. Those I have found:

Gundelach, the German historian of the air war in the Med estimates that 300 planes were withdrawn from the theatre from December 41 to February 42. This is not including planes that were sent directly from the UK or the US to the Far East, instead of North Africa, so it understates the actual effect.  To put this in context, the RAF started Crusader with about 750 planes.

Royal Navy

(same proviso as RAF, but more likely complete at least for transfers up to 1 Jan 42)

  • HMS Abdiel (fast minelayer – she had laid the mines that sank 2. Panzerdivision in May 41)
  • HMAS Hobart (cruiser)
  • HMAS Yarra (sloop)
  • HMAS Nestor, Napier, Nizam (all destroyers)
  • HMS Truant (submarine)
  • HMS Trusty (submarine)
  • HrMs Isaac Sweers (Dutch destroyer), first to Netherlands East Indies, then to Eastern Fleet.
  • Already transferred in November to accompany Prince of Wales and Repulse:
  • HMS Encounter, Jupiter (destroyers)

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.


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.

The Major Air Commands and Commanders

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

Personal Pictures by an Italian Soldier

Cédric found this site, which is well worth going through. These are pictures taken by a soldier of the 1st Engineer Regiment of the Italian army, first on the French border, and later in North Africa. Some very interesting pictures of the retreat in December 1941.

Italian captions only, but maybe automatic translation helps…