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.  

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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.

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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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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)

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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))