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
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Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Martin Baltimore

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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)

Weights: empty 7253kg (15,991lb); loaded 10,900kg (23,185lb)

Wingspan: 18.7m (61ft 4in)

Length: 14.8m (48ft 6in)

Height: 4.32m (14ft 2in)

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)  


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The following Mediterranean Air Command units flew the Martin Baltimore during Operation HUSKY:

Northwest African Coastal Air Force

  • No. 52 Squadron RAF

Northwest African Tactical Air Force

  • No. 21 Squadron SAAF
  • No. 55 Squadron RAF
  • No. 223 Squadron RAF

Air Headquarters Malta

  • No. 69 Squadron RAF
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: Supermarine Walrus

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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: Vickers Wellington

“The question is not ‘will we win’ but when will the Italians give in?” reads the 5 August diary entry of Canadian Flying Officer Reginald C. F. Duffy. Duffy flew Wellington night bombers with No. 40 Squadron RAF. As part of the Strategic Air Force, he recognised that his crew’s targets were serving a dual purpose of damaging enemy supply lines and convincing Italy to surrender.

– Excerpt from Eagles over Husky

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The Vickers Wellington, affectionately known as the ‘Wimpy’, formed the core of the Allied night bomber force in the Mediterranean. Some Wellington squadrons served in the anti-shipping role with the Coastal Air Force. These aircraft struck Axis convoys, warships, and submarines. The bulk of the Wellington force served in Major-General James H. Doolittle’s Strategic Air Force. These squadrons—joined by the aircraft of No. 331 Wing RCAF in spring 1943—supplemented the large American daylight bombardment force in Tunisia. They bombed Axis airfields, marshalling yards, and ports in support of Operation Husky.


Specifications (Mk X)

Type: six-seat medium bomber

Powerplant: two 1249kW (1675hp) Bristol Hercules XI or XVI 14-cylinder two-row radial engines

Performance: maximum speed 410km/h (255 mph); climb to 4570m (15,000ft) in 27 minutes 42 seconds; service ceiling 6705m (22,000ft); range 3033.5km (1885 miles) with a 680kg (1500lb) bomb load

Weights: empty 10,194kg (22,474lb); maximum take-off 16,556kg (36,500lb)

Wingspan: 26.26m (86ft 2in)

Length: 19.68m (64ft 7in)

Height: 5.31m (17ft 5in)

Armament: two 7.7mm (0.303in) trainable forward-firing machine guns in the nose turret, four 7.7mm (0.303in) trainable rearward-firing machine guns in tail turret and one 7.7mm (0.303in) trainable lateral-firing machine gun in each beam position, plus an internal bomb or torpedo load of 2041kg (4500lb)


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The following units in Mediterranean Air Command flew Wellingtons:

Northwest African Coastal Air Force

  • No. 36 Squadron RAF
  • No. 211 Squadron RAF
  • No. 485 Squadron RAAF

Northwest African Strategic Air Force

  • No. 231 Wing RAF
    • No. 37 Squadron RAF
    • No. 70 Squadron RAF
  • No. 236 Wing RAF
    • No. 40 Squadron RAF
    • No. 104 Squadron RAF
  • No. 330 Wing RAF
    • No. 142 Squadron RAF
    • No. 150 Squadron RAF
  • No. 331 Wing RCAF
    • No. 420 Squadron RCAF
    • No. 424 Squadron RCAF
    • No. 425 Squadron RCAF

Air Headquarters Malta

  • No. 221 Squadron RAF
Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Hawker Hurricane

The Hawker Hurricane, famous for its service in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, was obsolescent by 1943. Another famous use of this aircraft was as a fighter-bomber with the Desert Air Force in 1941-1942. The Hurricane IIC had a four 20mm cannons, but this was not enough firepower to destroy enemy tanks. The Hurricane IID swapped its 20mm cannons for a pair of 40mm cannons. This new “Hurribomber” quickly earned a reputation as a tank buster; the first IID-equipped squadron became known as the “Flying Can Openers”.  

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The Vintage Wings of Canada Donald “Bunny” McLarty Hawker Hurricane Mk IV in the colours of No. 6 Squadron RAF (Photo: Eric Dumigan)

For Operation HUSKY, the Hawker Hurricane saw very limited action. Most Hurricane squadrons would eventually swap these aircraft for Supermarine Spitfires. One notable use of the Hurricane in support of the Sicilian invasion was in the intruder role. A detachment of Hurricanes at Malta flew around the coast of Sicily at night shooting out Axis searchlights in support of Allied night bombers and the airborne landings. Some Hurricanes also remained in service as fast courier aircraft.


Specifications (Hawker Hurricane IID)

Type: single-seat tank buster

Powerplant: one 1088.5kW (1460hp) Rolls-Royce Merlin XX 12-cylinder Vee engine

Performance: maximum speed 518km/h (322mph); climb to 6095m (20,000ft) in 12 minutes 24 seconds; service ceiling of 9785m (32,100ft); range 1448km (900 miles)

Weights: empty 2586kg (5700lb); normal take-off 3493kg (7700lb); maximum take-off 3674kg (8100lb)

Wingspan: 12.19m (40ft)

Length: 9.81m (32ft 3in)

Height: 3.98m (13ft 1in)

Armament: two 40mm (1.57in) fixed forward-firing cannon under the wing, and two 7.7mm (0.303in) fixed forward-firing machine guns in the leading edges of the wing typically armed with tracer ammunition


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The following Mediterranean Air Command units flew the Hawker Hurricane:

Northwest African Coastal Air Force

  • No. 253 Squadron RAF
  • No. 32 Squadron RAF
  • No. 87 Squadron RAF

Northwest African Tactical Air Force

  • No. 6 Squadron RAF
  • No. 241 Squadron RAF

Air Headquarters Malta

  • No. 73 Squadron RAF
Anniversaries, The Commanders

The Best Air Force in the World

The room was thick with pipe smoke as the men sat around the dinner table at a villa in Algiers. Lieutenant General Carl A. Spaatz was hosting the commanders of the Allied air forces in the Mediterranean as they put the final touches on a new command structure for the theatre. As staff removed empty dishes and refilled glasses, the senior officer present and the overall commander of Mediterranean Air Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, addressed his officers:

You know, we British are intensely proud of our Air Force. We think it is the very best in the world, and that it saved England and the world–all of us. We have our own ways of doing things and I suppose we feel we are justified in keeping these ways. But we also know that you Americans are equally proud of your splendid Air Force, of your magnificent aeroplanes and as well you are. However, it will be the fusion of us, the British, with you, the Americans, that is going to make the very best Air Force in the world. (Arthur Tedder, With Prejudice, 398)

The Mediterranean Air Command was the combined result of Operation TORCH and the westward advance of the Desert Air Force after the Second Battle of El Alamein in autumn 1942. The United States Army Twelfth Air Force supported the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa and established bases in Morocco and Algeria. Commanders needed to coordinate the operations of these two air forces. Spaatz’s Northwest African Air Force combined three major combat commands: the Coastal Air Force, the Strategic Air Force, and the Tactical Air Force. The Northwest African Air Force (NAAF) also included an Air Service Command (NAASC), a Training Command (NATC), a Troop Carrier Command (NATCC), and a Photographic Reconnaissance Wing (NAPRW).

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Air Vice Marshal Sir Hugh Lloyd (National Portrait Gallery)

The Northwest African Coastal Air Force (NACAF) included a mix of day fighters, night fighters, antisubmarine warfare bombers, and maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft. Air Vice Marshal Sir Hugh Lloyd, former Air Officer Commanding in Malta between 1941 and 1942, led NACAF.

The Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF) included the fighters and fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force and US XII Air Support Command. It also included a Tactical Bomber Force combining American and British light and medium bombers. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, the former commander of the Desert Air Force, led NATAF. He later went on to command the RAF Second Tactical Air Force for the victory campaign in Northwest Europe. His deputy (at least until the end of the Tunisian Campaign) was Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter, whose career made him one of the key architects of American air power in its formative years.

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Major General James H. Doolittle (Biography.com)

The Northwest African Strategic Air Force (NASAF) included American medium and heavy day bombers in addition to British medium night bombers. The force also contained P-38s, the only long-range Allied escort fighter in the theatre. Major General James H. Doolittle, of Tokyo raid fame, led NASAF. He later went on to command the US Army Eighth Air Force out of the United Kingdom in 1944 and 1945.

Each of these formations reported to Spaatz, who later commanded the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe in 1944 and 1945. In turn, Spaatz reported to Tedder at Mediterranean Air Command, streamlining communications. Tedder commanded all Allied air forces resources in the Mediterranean. This included the remaining commands in the region (Air Headquarters Malta, Middle East Command, and RAF Gibraltar). The idea was to have one command to coordinate all Allied air power in the Mediterranean. Tedder reported to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander. The pair later went on to become Deputy Supreme Allied Commander and Supreme Allied Commander respectively for the victory campaign in Northwest Europe.

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The Mediterranean Air Command stood up on 18 February 1943. These command relationships served the Allies for the remainder of the Tunisian Campaign, Operation HUSKY in Sicily, Operation BAYTOWN in Calabria, Operation AVALANCHE at Salerno, and Operation SLAPSTICK at Taranto. Although Mediterranean Air Command was renamed the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces in December 1943, the functional tri-force model of tactical, strategic, and coastal commands remained.

Tedder, Spaatz, and their senior airmen fleshed out all these details. It would not be a perfect marriage. There would be stumbles along the way. Sometime later, in an effort to formalize the organization, Tedder ruffled Spaatz’s feathers. Drawing up a detailed structure led to questions about ranks, seniority, and a return to national prejudices. Tedder told Spaatz bluntly:

If you want a divorce, you can have one here and now, repeat now! (Tedder, 399)

The pair agreed to cancel all attempts to formalize the organization and the marriage remained healthy.

Back in Spaatz’s villa, Tedder completed his speech:

And now, gentlemen, this is the last time I shall ever speak of “us”, the British, and “you”, the Americans. From now on it is “we” together who will function as Allies, even better than either of us alone. (Tedder, 398)

© IWM (CNA 408)
Senior Allied Air Commanders at Ain Beida, Algeria. Left to right: Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Mary’ Coningham, Air Officer Commanding, NATAF, Major General Carl A. Spaatz, Commanding General, North-west African Air Forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Mediterranean Air Command, and Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter, Deputy Commander, NATAF. (© IWM (CNA 408))