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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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!

Rants

Lazy History: Operation Husky in Call of Duty: WWII

Ragusa, Sicily
12 July 1943

Artillery thundered in the distance as the Sicilian town of Ragusa awoke. A salvo of shells screamed overhead and began crashing to earth around the town’s major intersections. Operation Husky – the Allied invasion of Sicily – had started mere days before. The shells were from a battery of the Royal Devon Yeomanry, a British artillery regiment supporting the advance of Captain Dick Dillon’s Bren Gun Carriers from the Royal Canadian Regiment’s support company. In hopes of securing the quick surrender of a suspected Italian garrison, the Canadians entered the town under the protection of a white flag. They were surprised to find a company from the 45th US Infantry Division emerging from the protection of improvised shelters. The town had already fallen. There was no ‘Battle of Ragusa’ in 1943. [1]

Now, 75 years later, the developers behind Call of Duty: WWII, a first-person shooter video game, have devised their own Battle of Ragusa. It’s part of the game’s second expansion pack, The War Machine. The pack includes a new War Mode map called Operation Husky (see the video below to watch the gameplay). In War Mode opposing teams – one on offence and one on defence – vie for control over various objectives in a linear narrative:

As an Allied participant in Operation Husky in Call of Duty: WWII, you’re a soldier in the town of Ragusa, Sicily. Your mission is to retrieve key intel to initiate a bombing of enemy forces.

Or you might find yourself on the flipside of that equation as an Axis soldier, trying to stop the Allied advance, as they try to complete their mission. [2]

There is a series of objectives for the Allied forces to complete. They must first retrieve the intel at one location, transmit it at another, and then take to the skies to defend a fleet of B-17 Flying Fortresses as they make for objectives in Palermo and Naples.

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There’s a problem, though. The aircraft the game has players fly in this latter phase are not accurate to Operation Husky. Allied pilots find themselves in the radial-engine P-47 Thunderbolt complete with Normandy invasion stripes. In the summer of 1943, the Allied air forces in the Mediterranean had yet to operate the P-47. More likely escorts for American heavy bombers would be Spitfires, P-40 Warhawks, or P-38 Lightnings.

The markings on these aircraft are also wrong. The Allies did not use the white and black invasion stripes closely associated with D-Day in Normandy during the invasion of Sicily. Rather, lessons learned in Sicily and in subsequent amphibious landings led to the adoption of these recognition stripes. Furthermore, the US Army Air Forces roundel on the P-47s in the game is not the same roundel used by American aircraft in mid-1943. For Operation Husky, US aircraft roundels consisted of a white star with a blue background all within a yellow circle.

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The Axis fighter force consists of historically accurate Messerschmitt Bf 109s, albeit in camouflage that looks more at home in northern Europe. The problem is that the game developers got lazy. Call of Duty: WWII’s single-player campaign focused on the war in Europe from D-Day onward. They’ve simply ported these skins over rather than make a reasonable effort to reflect historical accuracy.

Does any of this matter? Or is Call of Duty: WWII just software coated in a historically-themed coat of paint?

I think it matters. It matters because the developers made a commitment to honour the past. They did so in this promotional video (which I’ve embedded below) that talks up the developers’ focus on authenticity. I’ve taken the liberty to pull a few quotes:

“There is this respect and honour you have to pay to – not only the people – but to the places.”

“This isn’t a fictional war, so it’s really important that we communicate to the player to have a strong understanding of what happened and what the time was like.”

“Recreating that for the player so that they have some understanding of the sacrifices that were made.”

“We’re delivering an experience that’s as powerful as it can be, but it’s also respectful of the sacrifice that real people made in saving the world.”

If this is the commitment they’ve made, why are players flying P-47s in Operation Husky?

The answer is lazy history. It isn’t hard to get things right. Call of Duty: WWII isn’t a film project in which there may be a limited budget to hire one of the few P-38s or P-40s that still fly. Game developers can create whatever they want. This is especially true when the game they are working on brought in over $1 billion in revenue last year.

If game developers and their publishers are just applying a historically-themed coat of paint, they could at least use the right colours.

Rant over.


Notes

[1] Mark Zuehlke, Operation Husky: The Canadian Invasion of Sicily, July 10-August 7, 1943 (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008), p.165.

[2] Kevin Kelly (ed.), “New Intel on Operation Husky, Call of Duty: WWII’s New War Mode Map,” Playstation.Blog, April 3, 2018, https://blog.us.playstation.com/2018/04/03/new-intel-on-operation-husky-call-of-duty-wwiis-new-war-mode-map/.

Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Lockheed P-38 Lightning

I was closing quickly on a single Fw 190 that was climbing, and again came up close behind and inside him. Behind me was another P-38 with a Focke-Wulf on his tail, and a P-38 on the Fw 190’s tail. We were all playing follow-the-leader. I was very close to the Fw 190 in front of me and hit him with three quick bursts. He went over on one wing and then fell into a spin, before crashing in Sicily.

– Flight Officer Frank D. Hurlbut, quoted in Eagles over Husky

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USAAF 82nd Fighter Group ace Col. Ernest “Hawk” Osher rises over the skies of Sicily in his regular mount “Sad Sack”. Osher is thought to have claimed all of his aerial victories in this particular P-38 Lightning throughout mid-1943. “Sad Sack” was considered to be the most decorated of its type, with 11 victories, 86 missions and 280 combat hours amassed by the various pilots who flew it. (Image: “Best of the Breed” by Mark Donoghue @Hangar7Art)

The P-38 Lightning was the only American fighter in mass production from Pearl Harbor to the end of the war. It was particularly popular as a long-range fighter. Its two engines improved the chances that a pilot would make it home in a damaged plane. For Operation Husky, the Lightning provided long-range escort to American medium and heavy bombers targeting Axis airfields and lines of communication in Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy. The Allies also used them in the fighter-bomber role, trolling behind enemy lines in search of Axis motor transport. Finally, the Americans flew a photo-reconnaissance version, the F-5, with the Northwest African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing.


Specifications (P-38L)

Type: single-seat long-range fighter and fighter-bomber

Powerplant: two 1193kW (1600hp) Allison V-1710-111/113 (F30) 12-cylinder Vee engines

Performance: maximum speed 666km/h (414mph); climb to 6095m (20,000ft) in 7 minutes; service ceiling 13,410m (44,000ft); range 4184km (2600 miles)

Weights: empty 5806kg (12,800lb); maximum take-off 9798kg (21,600lb)

Wingspan: 15.85m (52ft)

Length: 11.53m (37ft 10in)

Height: 3.91m (12ft 10in)

Armament: one 20mm (0.79in) fixed forward-firing cannon and four 12.7in (0.5in) fixed forward-firing machine guns in the nose, plus an external bomb load of 1814kg (4000lb)


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The following units in the Northwest African Air Forces flew the P-38 Lightning during Operation Husky:

Northwest African Strategic Air Force

  • US 1st Fighter Group
    • 27th Fighter Squadron
    • 71st Fighter Squadron
    • 94th Fighter Squadron
  • US 14th Fighter Group
    • 37th Fighter Squadron
    • 48th Fighter Squadron
    • 49th Fighter Squadron
  • US 82nd Fighter Group
    • 95th Fighter Squadron
    • 96th Fighter Squadron
    • 97th Fighter Squadron

Northwest African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing

  • US 3rd Photo Reconnaissance Group (F-5 Lightning)
    • 5th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron
    • 12th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron
Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: Douglas A-20 Havoc / Boston

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In an interesting combined operation, RAF Boston light bombers acted as pathfinders on the night of 17/18 July for a US B-25 Mitchell attack [against Naples] because the USAAF was a day bombing force.

– Excerpt from Eagles over Husky

The Douglas A-20 Havoc (or Boston for Commonwealth aircrews) was a light bomber that served with the Northwest African Tactical Air Force’s tactical bomber force. Targets for these aircraft included Axis gun positions, lines of communication, and troop concentrations. In particular, these tactical bombers. On rare occasions, Boston crews with night flying training and experience served as pathfinders for USAAF medium bomber crews who had limited experience operating at night.  


Specifications (A-20B Havoc/DB-7B Boston III)

Type: four-seat light attack bomber

Powerplant: two 1193kW (1600hp) Wright GR-2600-A5B Double Cyclone radial engines

Performance: maximum speed 515km/h (320mph); initial climb rate 609m (2000ft) per minute; service ceiling 7470m (24,500ft); range 1996km (1240 miles) with reduced bomb load

Weights: empty 5534kg (12,200lb); normal take-off 8959kg (19,750lb); maximum take-off 9789kg (21,580lb)

Wingspan: 18.69m (61 ft 4in)

Length: 14.48m (47ft 6in)

Height: 6.36m (17ft 7in)

Armament: four 7.7mm (0.303in) fixed forward-firing machine guns on the sides of the forward fuselage, two 7.7mm (0.303in) trainable machine guns in the dorsal position and one 7.7mm (0.303in) trainable machine guns in the ventral position, plus an internal bomb load of 907kg (2000lb)


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The following Mediterranean Air Command units flew the Havoc/Boston light bomber. Notice the South African Air Force (SAAF) squadrons:

Northwest African Tactical Air Force

  • No. 12 Squadron SAAF (Boston III)
  • No. 24 Squadron SAAF (Boston III)
  • No. 18 Squadron RAF (Boston III)
  • No. 114 Squadron RAF (Boston III)
  • US 84th Bombardment Squadron (A-20B)
  • US 85th Bombardment Squadron (A-20B)
  • US 86th Bombardment Squadron (A-20B)
  • US 97th Bombardment Squadron (A-20B)
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))
Warplane Wednesday

Warplane Wednesday: North American A-36 Apache

One squadron of 27th Group A-36s was sent in to attack four guns that had been holding up the advance that day. The pilots were given a pin point position and briefed on local terrain features. When the dozen aircraft arrived at the location no guns could be seen. Nevertheless, the pilots dropped their ordnance on the coordinates and later received a message from the US 1st Infantry Division noting that the battery had been destroyed.

– Excerpt from Eagles over Husky

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The Collins Foundation’s A-36 “Baby Carmen” with dive brakes extended

Readers will be familiar with the P-51 Mustang, a fighter that came as close to being a war-winning weapon as any other. In the skies above Germany in early 1944 the long-range escort fighter helped win the Western Allies air superiority for D-Day. In the skies above Sicily in 1943 the A-36, a variant of the P-51, was a dive bomber and ground-attack plane. Its targets were Axis gun positions, vehicle convoys, trains, and grounded aircraft. Equipped with dive brakes, it was one of the few pure dive bombers in the Anglo-American arsenal.


Specifications

Type: single-seat ground-attack/dive bomber

Powerplant: one 988kW (1325hp) Allison V-1710-87 liquid-cooled piston 12-cylinder engine

Performance: maximum speed 590km/h (365mph); range 885km (550 miles); service ceiling 7650m (25100ft)

Weights: loaded 4535kg (10000lb)

Wingspan: 11.28m (37ft 0.25in)

Length: 9.83m (32ft 3in)

Height: 3.71m (12ft 2in)

Armament: six 12.7mm (0.5in) machine guns and up to 454kg (1000lb) of bombs


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These rare aircraft (only 500 were built) served exclusively in the Mediterranean and China-Burma theatres. The following units flew A-36s during Operation Husky:

Northwest African Tactical Air Force

  • US 27th Fighter-Bomber Group
    • 522nd Fighter-Bomber Squadron
    • 523rd Fighter-Bomber Squadron
    • 524th Fighter-Bomber Squadron
  • US 86th Fighter-Bomber Group
    • 525th Fighter-Bomber Squadron
    • 526th Fighter-Bomber Squadron
    • 527th Fighter-Bomber Squadron