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?”
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.
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.
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.
“[F]ighters were raising hell. On several occasions I would be safe in saying that every plane [B-17] was sending bullets at fighters – most vivid 4th of July I’ve ever seen, with tracers all over the sky, a formation of bombers, fighters darting in and out and black puffs all around. The fighters followed for 40 minutes, then it ended rather abruptly.”
The Luftwaffe inspector of fighters, General Adolf Galland, singled out American four-engine bombers for the defence of Sicily. These efforts were unsuccessful. Unlike the situation over the Reich in 1943, long-range fighter escorts were available to the Allies. P-38 Lightnings would fly with the bombers from bases in North Africa, while Spitfires based in Malta often escorted the bombers in the vicinity of Sicily.
The B-17 Flying Fortress was one of two heavy bombers serving with the Allied air forces during Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 (the other was the B-24 Liberator; the RAF had Halifaxes in theater, but they were used as transports). These aircraft focused their efforts on Axis aerodromes, lines of communication, and industry in Sicily, Sardinia, and mainland Italy. Nearly all B-17s in the Mediterranean were under the command of Major-General James H. Doolittle and the Northwest African Strategic Air Force.
The lone exceptions were the B-17s of the US 15th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. These specialist crews were under the command of Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, one of the US president’s sons. As part of the Northwest African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing, these modified bombers (F-9s) had their bombarding equipment replaced by photographic equipment and flew with a reduced defensive armament. They flew crucial missions, gathering intelligence for future strikes, damage assessments, cartographers, and army and navy planners.
Type: 10-seat heavy bomber
Powerplant: four 895kW (1200hp) Wright R-1820-97 nine-cylinder single-row radial engines
Performance: maximum speed 523km/h (325mph); climb to 6095m (20,000ft) in 25 minutes 42 seconds; ceiling 11,430m (37,500ft); range 7113km (4420 miles)
Weights: empty 16,206kg (35,728lb); maximum take-off 32,659kg (72,000lb)
Wingspan: 31.63m (103ft 9in)
Length: 22.78m (74ft 9in)
Height: 5.85m (19ft 3in)
Armament: two 7.92mm (0.3in) trainable forward-firing machine guns in cheek positions, three 12.7mm (0.5in) trainable machine guns in dorsal positions, two 12.7mm (0.5in) trainable machine guns in the ventral position and one 12.7mm (0.5in) trainable lateral-firing machine gun in each of the two waist positions, plus an internal bomb load of 4761kg (10,496lb)
The following Northwest African Air Force units flew the Boeing B-17 during Operation Husky:
A development of the Messerschmitt Me 321 heavy glider, the Me 323 Gigant (Giant) was the largest transport aircraft of the war. They were first deployed in the Mediterranean, where they helped establish German and Italian forces in Tunisia in the wake of Allied victories in Operation TORCH and at El Alamein. These aircraft took on even greater importance as the Italian merchant fleet dwindled in the face of Allied naval superiority in the central Mediterranean.
Months later, when the Allied navies sealed the Sicilian Strait, these same transport aircraft attempted to maintain an air bridge between Europe and Tunis. They paid a dear price for their efforts. On 22 April 1943, a formation of 27 fully-loaded Me 323s was nearly wiped out when its Bf 109 escort was overwhelmed by seven squadrons of Spitfires and P-40s. Twenty-one of the transports were lost at a cost of just three P-40s.
The German transport fleet (Ju 52s and Me 323s) played an important role during Operation Husky. They airlanded the 1st Parachute Division in Sicily just in time to thwart General Montgomery’s push to Catania and Messina. The transport crews took another thrashing for their efforts and the Germans withdrew them after losing 10 percent of the force to RAF Spitfires on 25 July 1943. By the end of 1943, the Allies had decimated the German transport force and air mobility ceased to be a meaningful Luftwaffe capability.
Specifications (Me 323 D-6)
Type: five-seat heavy transport with accommodation for 130 troops or 10 to 12 tonnes of equipment
Powerplant: six 868kW (1180hp) Gnome-Rhône 14N-48/49 14-cylinder two-row radial engines
Performance: maximum speed 285km/h (177mph); ceiling 4,000m (13,123ft); range 800km (500 miles)
Weights: empty 27,330kg (60,260lb); maximum take-off 43,000kg (94,815lb)
The Martin Baltimore was an American design ordered by the French in May 1940, just as the Battle of France took shape. The French armistice with Nazi Germany forced the Glen L. Martin Company to look for another buyer. They found a willing customer in the Royal Air Force.
The RAF only used these aircraft operationally in North Africa and the Mediterranean. They were used as light attack bombers with the Desert Air Force, which later became part of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force for campaigns in Tunisia and Sicily. By this time, the Tactical Air Force included more advanced bombers like the Douglas Boston. Nevertheless, three squadrons (one of which was South African) continued to operate the Baltimore. These units were a common sight above the British 8th Army, attacking Axis lines of communication, artillery, and troop concentrations.
The Baltimore also served as a maritime reconnaissance, search and rescue, and anti-submarine aircraft. Two squadrons, one with the Northwest African Coastal Air Force and another with Air Headquarters Malta, served in maritime aviation roles during Operation Husky.
Specifications (Baltimore V)
Type: four-seat light bomber
Powerplant: two 1268kW (1700hp) Wright GR-2600-A5B geared radial engines
Performance: maximum speed 488km/h (305mph); range 1577km (980 miles)
Armament: four wing-mounted 7.62mm (0.30in) fixed, forward-firing machine guns in the leading edges of the wing, two to four 7.7mm (0.303in) trainable rearward-firing machine guns in the dorsal turret, two 7.7mm (0.303in) machine guns in the ventral positions, plus an internal bomb load of 910kg (2000lb)
The following Mediterranean Air Command units flew the Martin Baltimore during Operation HUSKY:
Made famous by its part in the Blitzkrieg that led to early German victories in 1939 and 1940, the Junkers Ju 87 was designed as airborne artillery for the army. Even during its early successes in the war, the Stuka was highly vulnerable to enemy fighters. By mid-1943, modern Allied fighters like the Spitfire V, VIII, and IX made the Ju 87’s mission hazardous without air superiority.
Stukas — short for the German translation of dive bomber — adorned with black crosses were a common sight above Malta and in the Western Desert in 1941-1942. The Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) also flew various models of the Ju 87 during these campaigns. During its defence of Sicily, at least one Italian dive bomber unit flew the aircraft. These obsolete warplanes were part of the Axis force tasked with the impossible mission of stopping the Allied invasion.
Specifications (Junkers Ju 87D-1)
Type: two-seat dive-bomber and close support warplane
Powerplant: one 1044kW (1400hp) Junkers Jumo 211J-1 12-cylinder inverted-Vee engine
Performance: maximum speed 410km/h (255mph); climb to 5000m (16,405ft) in 19 minutes 48 seconds; service ceiling 7300mm (23950ft); range 1535km (954 miles)
Weights: empty 3900kg (8598lb); maximum take-off 6600kg (14,550lb)
Wingspan: 13.8m (45ft 3in)
Length: 11.50m (37ft 9in)
Height: 3.88m (12ft 9in)
Armament: two 7.92mm (0.31in) fixed forward-firing machine guns in the leading edges of the wing and one 7.92mm (0.31in) trainable two-barrel rearward-firing machine gun in the rear of the cockpit, plus an external bomb load of 1800kg (3968lb)
The following Regia Aeronautica units flew the Junkers Ju 87 during Operation HUSKY:
The Military Aviation History channel features the book in its latest video. It’s a great script, including accounts from Johannes Steinhoff, a Luftwaffe ace who experienced the Allied onslaught first-hand. For Steinhoff, Operation Husky was the moment he realized that the tide had turned, and Nazi Germany was on an inevitable road to defeat.
One of the great things about Remembrance Day is that it gives veterans an opportunity to share their stories with an interested public. Back in December, I came across an article in theLondon Free Press published just before Remembrance Day. It detailed the life of Tom Hennessy, a 95-year-old Spitfire pilot from the Second World War. As I read his story, I came across the section where Mr. Hennessy described his experience during Operation HUSKY, the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.
Having spent parts of the last five years completing Eagles over Husky, my book on this very subject, you might guess my reaction. I was blown away! I’d read memoirs written by those who had taken part in the air battle, and I’d even met a Canadian army veteran of the campaign, but I’d never gotten the chance to speak with an airman. I had to make this happen.
I began by reaching out to the journalist, Norman De Bono, who graciously provided me with Joyce Hetherington’s email. Joyce is Tom Hennessy’s wife. In turn, she connected me with Tom via email. I didn’t hear back immediately, but Joyce urged me to be patient. I gave her my phone number, and a week or so later I got a call from Tom. Once I realized who I was talking to, a grin creased my face for the remainder of the day!
Last Saturday we managed to meet up for an interview. Tom and I spent nearly two-and-a-half hours talking about his experiences during the war. He also had a lot of questions for me. As a sergeant pilot in Malta, he didn’t have much time for the bigger picture. His job was to fly his Spitfire and bring it – and himself! – home in one piece. Now he’s interested in learning more about the broader context of his wartime service. As Tom said,
It’s only when you, or when I come back or something and we talk like this that you think of other things. You just do your job and what you’re supposed to be doing. I was supposed to fly a Spitfire and do what I was told. That’s what you did. You didn’t get into who’s running it or who’s telling you to do these things. You go ahead and do them.
When the interview started he poured into his first wartime experiences – joining the Royal Air Force in Belfast, Northern Ireland, wearing a civilian suit to train in pre-Pearl Harbor Oklahoma, USA, his first solo in Spitfires over England, and his first operational sorties over Northern France. These sorties were called Rhubarbs. Using low cloud, RAF fighters and fighter-bombers would cross the English Channel and then drop below the cloud layer to hit anything that moved – railway locomotives and rolling stock, enemy troops and vehicles on roads, or aircraft at Luftwaffe airfields. As it turns out, low flying is one of the themes of Tom’s story.
In autumn 1942, Tom found himself headed overseas once again. Instead of a civilian suit, he was given khakis and a pith helmet, indicating he was headed somewhere warm. A transport ship took Tom from Greenock to Gibraltar, where he waited as part of a reinforcement pool. Eventually, he was selected to join the RAF garrison on Malta and joined No. 249 (Gold Coast) Squadron at Krendi aerodrome. At that time, he remembers that only three Spitfire squadrons were defending the island.
Some months into his time on Malta indications were that something big was afoot. As Tom recalls, “and then the business started. There was going to be an invasion sometime, somewhere in Europe, southern Europe. It could have been any place; we hadn’t a clue.”
Tom and his mates knew something was up because of the massive buildup of aircraft on the island. In June 1943, Spitfire strength on Malta increased from five to 23 squadrons as the Desert Air Force joined the island’s fighter garrison. “They used to say if they bring any more squadrons into Malta it’s going to sink,” Tom remembers.
He says, after returning home on the eve of the invasion on patrol between Malta and Sicily, “I remember coming home from that night [and] there wasn’t a thing. The Mediterranean was like a lake, and there wasn’t a boat to be seen anywhere.” He also remembers how the routine changed for Operation HUSKY. Typically, the squadron operated with two flights in shifts. Each flight would be on duty for 24 hours at a time, meaning nearly 24 hours off. For HUSKY it was different. Tom recalls being woken up at 3 AM on 10 July 1943 for a briefing withSquadron Leader Eric Norman ‘Timber’ Woods. Only then did Tom and his mates learn for certain that the target was Sicily and that a massive invasion fleet had assembled off the coast of Malta overnight. They were to be ready at pre-dawn in case 249 Squadron was called on to support the invasion. The next weeks saw Tom and his mates flying offensive sweeps near the invasion areas and escorting fighter-bombers, bombers, and shipping around Sicily.
Tom recalls one mission vividly. Sometime after the fall of Palermo (22 July 1943), he and three other members of his squadron were ordered to fly from Malta to a beach near the city. The Americans had built a temporary landing strip on the beach using perforated steel planking (PSP), more commonly known as the Marston Mat. This was some great technology, but it took pilots some getting used to. Tom remembers that “when you landed on them you’d think the aircraft was falling to pieces. The noise was incredible – BANG!”
As ground crew refuelled their Spitfires, the four British fighter pilots were treated to some welcome American hospitality. “We always liked to land on American stations”, Tom recalls, “because they were well looked after. On the beach here in Sicily we had grapefruit, eggs, and bacon – oh, geez – and we sat on the beach!” They finished breakfast and climbed back into their Spitfires, each full of petrol and with bombs slung underneath the wings.
From there they took off and set a course for Capri, a small island off the Italian coast near Sorrento and Naples. Their target was a German radar station that was picking up Major General James H. Doolittle’s Strategic Air Force bombers as they approached Italy from bases in North Africa. To avoid being picked up by radar, the four-Spitfire flight flew their course down at wave-top level. They bombed and strafed their target successfully and returned home.
Tom wasn’t exactly sure when this attack took place. As he said in our conversation about when he arrived in Malta, “You know the years better than I do. You’re the historian; I just drove the things.” Naturally, placing this mission in its proper context is one of my next research tasks.
There’s a whole lot more that Tom has to offer. His story takes him to mainland Italy serving with the Balkan Air Force over Yugoslavia in support of Tito’s partisans. It also takes him to Egypt, where he helped train fighter pilots before they joined operational squadrons. After the war in Europe ended he even made it to India and began training to fly off carriers and survive in the jungle. Thankfully, the war in the Pacific ended before Tom got back on operations.
Perhaps more important is his message:
The only message that I leave with [young people] is that there’s nothing good about war. It’s so easy to glamourize it, but there’s nothing good about it. Nothing good … I travelled the world… I travelled from Oklahoma to India and all that kind of thing, but at what price?
I’m so honoured that Tom has chosen to share his story with me. He’s so engaged and wants to learn about my research. He is open to using my skills to help fill some of the gaps in his memory and his perspective. I left some of No. 249’s operations record books (ORBs) with Tom. He was excited to read the names of his mates alongside his own on various missions flown from Malta. As Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine says to Captain Louis Renault in the final scene of Casablanca (1942), “Tom, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”