Rants

What the Allied Air Forces Did in Sicily

It was a hot and dry summer afternoon in Sicily. Most of the locals had already gone home to take in their early afternoon siesta. It was 2013, and I was part of a Canadian-American battlefield study tour. That day we were exploring the beautiful mountaintop commune of Enna, where Canadian and American troops met during the Second World War clash that brought destruction to the island 70 years before. We visited the Castello di Lombardia, an ancient fortress that dominates the terrain north and east of Enna. From atop the castle’s ramparts, we had an impressive view of the battle sites that marked the middle point of the Sicilian campaign. We could see Leonforte and Assoro, famous Canadian battlegrounds, and into the American sector near Nicosia. As we started back towards the touring vans, one of the Canadian army officers with the group asked me, “So, Alex, where’s the air force in all of this?”

Castello-di-Lombardia-11-Fine-Art-Produzioni
Castello di Lombardia from the northeast.

He knew that I was working on my master’s thesis, a history of the Allied air forces during the Battle of Sicily. At the time, I had completed my literature review but had yet to dive deeply into the primary sources I had so carefully photographed in a visit to England on my way to Sicily. I consulted documents at the National Archives at Kew, the Air Historical Branch at RAF Northolt, and at the University of East Anglia Archives in Norwich. But these documents remained unread files on my camera, laptop, and at least one external hard drive at the time. The best I could do was assure him that the air force was there, despite what some of the literature on the subject would have you believe.  

© IWM (CNA 1029)
Supermarine Spitfire Mark Vs of No. 243 Squadron RAF undergo maintenance at Comiso, Sicily. Photographed over the tail section of an abandoned Messerschmitt Bf 109G of 6/JG53. © IWM (CNA 1029)

In a nutshell, that’s why I wrote Eagles over Husky. Although the Allied air forces played a critical role in the success of Operation HUSKY – the invasion of Sicily in 1943 – much of the literature disparages or downplays their efforts. Most campaign histories, like Carlo D’Este’s Bitter Victory or Mitcham and von Stauffenberg’s The Battle of Sicily, focus primarily on the army’s fight. These authors occasionally fly airplanes through their narratives and see the air force’s contribution through the army and navy’s fault-finding perspectives. I wanted to write a detailed account of the battle from the air force’s perspective. What I found was an overlooked air war that was just as critical to strategic success in Sicily as the boots on the ground.

Why were the Allies in Sicily? There’s an interesting story behind that, and you’ll find it in my book. The short version is that the Allies had a large military force in the Mediterranean at the end of 1942. They thought they could best employ it by defeating the Italians and opening the Mediterranean to Allied shipping in 1943. Doing so would entice Nazi Germany to dispatch forces to defend its southern flank, including an already overstretched Luftwaffe. As it turns out, the Allies accomplished these objectives with Operation HUSKY. In July 1943, the Luftwaffe wrote off more aircraft in the Mediterranean than in any other theatre of war.

© IWM (C 3772)
A Martin Baltimore of the Tactical Bomber Force of the North West African Air Forces, flying over its target by a road in Sicily, while bombing retreating German forces heading for Messina, August 1943. © IWM (C 3772)

For Operation HUSKY, the Allied air forces secured air superiority against a resurgent Luftwaffe and an Italian Air Force defending its homeland. Allied bombers struck the Italian homeland relentlessly and with effect, destroying ports and marshalling yards. The Italian capitulation in North Africa, coupled with direct threats to the homeland by land, sea, and especially the air, convinced the Italian government that Fascism in Italy had run its course. As the Germans and their remaining Italian allies made a final stand in Sicily, the Allies brought tactical air power to bear. Air power could not stop the Axis evacuation, but it could help the Anglo-American armies make the enemy pay for every stand they made. The result was another bitter Axis defeat following on the heels of Stalingrad, Tunisia, and Kursk. That’s what the Allied air forces did in Sicily.       

This post originally appeared on the Helion & Company blog in March 2018.

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