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?”

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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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Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

“[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.”

– Technical Sergeant Robert S. Lash, quoted in Eagles over Husky

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The Collings Foundation B-17G “Nine-O-Nine”

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.


Specifications (B-17F)

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)


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The following Northwest African Air Force units flew the Boeing B-17 during Operation Husky:

Northwest African Strategic Air Force

  • US 340th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 341st Bombardment Squadron
  • US 342nd Bombardment Squadron
  • US 414th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 20th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 49th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 96th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 429th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 346th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 347th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 348th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 416th Bombardment Squadron
  • US 32nd Bombardment Squadron
  • US 352nd Bombardment Squadron
  • US 353rd Bombardment Squadron
  • US 419th Bombardment Squadron

Northwest African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing

  • US 15th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron
Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Junkers Ju 87 Stuka

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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)


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The following Regia Aeronautica units flew the Junkers Ju 87 during Operation HUSKY:

  • 121 Gruppo Tuffatori
    • 237 Squadriglia
Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Douglas C-47 Skytrain / Dakota

As the lead C-47 transport began to unload its charges, red anti-aircraft tracer fire lit up the night sky. By the time the firing stopped nearly two dozen aircraft had been shot down with an estimated 410 paratrooper casualties.

– Excerpt from Eagles over Husky

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C-47 Skytrain, Sicily by Roy Cross

General Dwight Eisenhower, who was commander-in-chief for the Sicily operation and later went on to command all Allied forces in Europe, called the C-47 one of his tools of victory. The Americans designated the C-47 as the Skytrain, while the British referred to it as the Dakota. These aircraft played crucial roles in troop transport, equipment and supply airlift, and casualty evacuation.

The airborne insertions tied to Operation Husky were undoubtedly the worst failures of Allied inter-service cooperation in Sicily. Poor weather, routing, inexperience among aircrews, and itchy trigger fingers among anti-aircraft gunners caused the loss of dozens of aircraft and hundreds of airborne troops. It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that friendly fire cost the Allies more transport aircraft during Operation Husky than the enemy did.

The airborne troops who did survive their drops or glider tugs from C-47s and other transport aircraft made a difference on the ground. Just like on D-Day a year later, the airborne troops confused the German and Italian defenders. They also helped to hold up crucial Axis counter attacks, especially in the sector of American landings near Gela. In the British sector, airborne troops helped capture intact a pair of bridges that facilitated Montgomery’s advance towards Catania.


Specifications (C-47)

Type: two/three-seat transport with accommodation for 28 troops, or 14 litters plus three attendants or 10,000lb (4536kg) of freight

Powerplant: two 895kW (1200hp) Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 14-cylinder two-row radial engines

Performance: maximum speed 370km/h (230mph); climb to 3050m (10,000ft) in 9 minutes 36 seconds; service ceiling 7315m (24,000ft); range 2575km (1600 miles)

Weights: empty 8103kg (17,865lb); maximum take-off 14,061kg (31,000lb)

Wingspan: 28.90m (95ft)

Length: 19.63m (64ft 5.5in)

Height: 5.20m (16ft 11in)

Armament: none


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The following Northwest African Troop Carrier Command units flew the Douglas C-47 Skytrain in the invasion of Sicily:

US 51st Troop Carrier Wing

  • 60th Troop Carrier Group
    • 10th Squadron
    • 11th Squadron
    • 12th Squadron
    • 28th Squadron
  • 62nd Troop Carrier Group
    • 4th Squadron
    • 7th Squadron
    • 8th Squadron
    • 51st Squadron
  • 64th Troop Carrier Group
    • 16th Squadron
    • 17th Squadron
    • 18th Squadron
    • 35th Squadron
  • 316th Troop Carrier Group
    • 36th Squadron
    • 44th Squadron
    • 45th Squadron

US 52nd Troop Carrier Wing

  • 61st Troop Carrier Group
    • 14th Squadron
    • 15th Squadron
    • 53rd Squadron
    • 59th Squadron
  • 313th Troop Carrier Group
    • 29th Squadron
    • 47th Squadron
    • 48th Squadron
    • 49th Squadron
  • 314th Troop Carrier Group
    • 32nd Squadron
    • 50th Squadron
    • 61st Squadron
    • 62nd Squadron
Book News

YouTuber Features ‘Eagles over Husky’

Eagles over Husky is on YouTube! 

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.

Check the video out below!

Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Supermarine Walrus

Beyond Courage (Book Cover, Grub St)
The rescue of W/C W. G. G. Duncan Smith DSO DFC by a Walrus of 284 Squadron, 2 September 1943, off the Italian coast, whilst being attacked by Me109s of JG 52 (Barry Weekly)

The Supermarine Walrus owes its existence to R.J. Mitchell, the same aeronautical engineer who designed the Spitfire in its early stages.

In the early days of the Second World War in the Mediterranean, the Royal Air Force’s air-sea rescue (ASR) capabilities were small. The air fighting above Malta was serviced by motor launches, while most of the air fighting in the Western Desert occurred over land. That all changed with Operation Torch and Operation Husky.

In February 1943, No. 283 Squadron became the first RAF ASR squadron in the western Mediterranean. In anticipation of the invasion of Sicily, No. 284 Squadron formed in the United Kingdom and transited to Malta just in time for the assault. Both units flew the Walrus. With Allied aircraft flying to targets in Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy from North Africa, Malta, and Pantelleria, these ASR crews would be busy during the campaign.

In fact, according to Beyond Courage, aviation historian Norman Franks’s book on Walrus squadrons in the Mediterranean, these squadrons made 36 rescues (of Allied and Axis aircrews) between the end of fighting in North African and the end of fighting in Sicily. It must have given Allied aircrews some confidence to know that if they went down over water there was a chance of rescue.


Specifications

Type: 3-4 seat amphibious reconnaissance aircraft

Powerplant: one 510kW (680hp) Bristol Pegasus VI radial engine

Performance: maximum speed 215km/h (135mph) at 1450m (4750ft); range 965km (600 miles); service ceiling 5650m (18,500ft); rate of climb 318 meters per minute (1050ft per minute)

Weights: empty 2220kg (4900lb); maximum take-off 3650kg (8050lb)

Wingspan: 14m (45ft 10in)

Length: 11.45m (36ft 7in)

Height: 4.6m (15ft 3in)

Armament: two or three 7.7mm (0.303in) Vickers K machine guns, plus 600lbs of wing-mounted equipment.


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The following Northwest African Coastal Air Force units used the Supermarine Walrus in the invasion of Sicily:

  • No. 283 Squadron RAF
  • No. 284 Squadron RAF

 

Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Reggiane Re.2002 Ram

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The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt had yet to deploy to the Mediterranean in mid-1943, but its Italian doppelganger had. First flown in October 1940, and introduced to combat squadrons in March 1942, the Re.2002’s Piaggio engine proved unreliable. Consequently, the Regia Aeronautica employed the Reggiane Re.2002 as a fighter-bomber during the defence of Sicily. Re.2002 attack squadrons suffered heavy losses to RAF Spitfires while attempting to attack Allied shipping off the invasion beaches, losing 14 in four days. They were also heavily bombed on their aerodromes in southern Italy.


Specifications (Re.2002)

Type: single-seat fighter-bomber

Powerplant: one 877kW (1,175hp) Piaggio P.XIX RC 45 Turbine radial engine

Performance: maximum speed 530km/h (329mph); range 1100km (680 miles); service ceiling 10,500m (34,450ft)

Weights: empty 2400kg (5280lb); maximum take-off 3240kg (7128lb)

Wingspan: 11m (36ft 1in)

Length: 8.16m (26ft 9in)

Height: 3.15m (10ft 4in)

Armament: Two 12.7 mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns and two 7.7 mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns with an external bomb load of 650kg (1430lb) on three hardpoints


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The following Regia Aeronautica units flew Re.2002s in defence of Sicily:

  • 101 Gruppo Tuffatori
  • 102 Gruppo Tuffatori