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: Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant

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A Führer conference in May discussed the heavy air attacks and noted the loss of a pair of Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant transports near Alghero, Sardinia.

– Excerpt from Eagles over 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)

Wingspan: 55.2m (181ft 0in)

Length: 28.2m (92ft 4in)

Height: 10.5m (33ft 3.5in)

Armament: multiple 7.92mm (0.30in) MG 15, MG 81, or 13mm (0.51in) MG 131 machine guns


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The following Luftflotte 2 units flew the Me 323 Gigant during Operation HUSKY:

  • Transportgeschwader (TG) 1
    • III/TG 1
  • TG 2
    • III/TG 2
  • TG 3
    • IV/TG 3
  • TG 5
    • I/TG 5
  • II Fliegerkorps Transportstaffel
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
Book News

Book Signing at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum

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Hello, friends.

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ll be signing copies of Eagles over Husky at one of my favourite places in the world: The Royal Canadian Regiment Museum in London, Ontario!

I’m only a small part of what is sure to be a wonderful event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in the Second World War. The Royal Canadian Regiment landed in Pachino, Sicily on 10 July 1943 as part of the spearhead of the liberation of Europe.

Guests will hear from dignitaries, including:

  • Major-General (Ret.) Ivan Fenton, Colonel of the Royal Canadian Regiment
  • Flight Lieutenant (Ret.) Tom Hennessy, RAF veteran of Operation Husky
  • Captain (Ret.) Sheridan Atkinson, RCR veteran of Operation Husky
  • Gordon Joice (son of veteran Lieutenant J.E. Joice, who served in the RCR during Operation Husky)

All are invited for the book signing and to preview the museum’s Second World War section of the permanent gallery. The museum is hard at work revamping this gallery, and guests at this event will get a sneak peak of what is in store.

Date: Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Time: 11am to 12:30pm

Place: The RCR Museum, 701 Oxford St E, London, ON

Dress: Regimental/Air Force Association blazer (or summer dress as the temperatures may be), no medals, or civilian equivalent.

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