Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur William Tedder, KCB, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Royal Air Force, Middle East is a 52-year-old Scotsman. A graduate of Magdalene College, Cambridge, he entered the Dorset Regiment in 1913, transferred to the RFC in 1916 and served in France and the Middle East. He commanded No 207 Squadron at Constantinople, 1922-23. He was on the directing staff of the RAF Staff College from 1929-3, was Director of Training, 1934-36 and Director-General of Research and Development from 1938-40. From 1940 to 1941 he was Deputy AOC-in-C, Middle East, after which he took over the command.
Where is this territory, the apparent counterpart of that great American belt the Middle West, which has become so well-known and yet is not to be found on any ordinary map?
Before the war much of the Middle East was covered by a Royal Air Force Command with headquarters at Cairo and units stationed in Egypt, Sudan and Palestine. Adjacent to it were the sister Commands of Iraq, Aden and Malta.
On the outbreak of war the Middle East Command was extended to embrace those adjoining Commands. Later it had to operate in Abyssinia, Libya, in Greece, Albania and Crete, in Iraq and in Iran, and finally in Syria.
The area in which the Command now operates may roughly be likened to a number of broad spokes of a wheel the centre of which is Cairo, the spokes radiating to the four points of the compass. The eastern area embraces the Western Desert and Libya; to the south, control is exercised over the whole of Egypt and the Sudan, Abyssinia, British Somaliland and Kenya, an area extending to the centre of Africa; on the east and northeast the control ranges through Iraq and Iran to the borders of India, while to the north there is the shorter spoke embracing Palestine and Syria and including Malta and Cyprus. To the northeast the Command adjoins Soviet territory, and in Syria it marches with Turkey.Ed
The War in the Middle East has been a series of battles for aerodromes. As the armies moved back and forth across Cyrenaica it was landing grounds for which they fought, for landing grounds spell air superiority with all that this means. So it was in the Western Desert, so in East Africa, Syria, Iraq and Persia, and particularly so in Greece and Crete. The significance of Malta has always been that its aerodromes command Sicily, Italy, Tripoli and the enemy supply routes across the Mediterranean.
A war for aerodromes. Hold them and you advance. Lose them and you retreat, whether on land or on the sea.
The squadrons of the RAF which were stationed in the Middle East were there in the first place for one clear reason to protect Egypt and our lines of supply through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. This was scarcely a problem unless Italy entered the war, nor was it an urgent problem so long as there were a Western Front in Europe, French armies in Tunisia, Syria and Somaliland, and reasonably safe communications through the Mediterranean. Consequently, as there was pressing need for aircraft in other theaters of war, the air strength in the Middle East was then numerically puny and the aircraft largely obsolescent or obsolete.
When war came eastwards, however, it was in circumstances unpredictably disastrous. As Italy declared war the Western Front collapsed, and with it not only the menace to Italy from Tunisia and East Africa but our Syrian bulwark as well.
The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Middle East, could balance his forces against those of his opponents in this manner:
For the defence of Egypt, even if he brought his aircraft in from Palestine, he had approximately 40 Gladiator fighters, 70 Blenheim bombers, 24 other bombers, 24 Army cooperating Lysanders, and 10 Sunderland flying boats. All except the Blenheims and the specialized Lysanders and Sunderlands could fairly be called obsolescent.
For the attack on Egypt from Libya the Italians had at least 200 modern bombers and 200 modern fighters. Looking south the situation was no better. The Italians held in East Africa a total of 110 bombers, and 60 fighters. All we could muster against that were about 85 Wellesleys (single-engined bombers) and Blenheims, with a few Gladiators, Battles and Junkers Ju-86s.
Besides this the Italian Air Force in Libya could be reinforced easily from Italy not only with its own aircraft and crews but with those of the Luftwaffe, while long range bombers as reinforcement could be flown by night from Libya across the Sudan to East Africa. The position worsened in August, 1940, when the loss of British Somaliland gave to the Italians the aerodromes at Berbera and released their aircraft for use against Sudan and Kenya.
Faced with great numerical inferiority on every front, the RAF took the only possible course the offensive. British aircraft in the Middle East have held to that ever since. There have been occasions when the land forces have been compelled to stand on the defensive, but even during those periods the Air Force has kept to the attack.
This began in the first few months both in the Western Desert and in East Africa. Bombers based on Sudan and Aden repeatedly raided the Eritrean ports and the Italian petrol and supply dumps. One impressive sortie was a long distance raid on Addis Ababa by obsolescent Wellesleys from Aden. Although the weather was bad and the country mountainous the bombers hit four Italian hangars, destroyed five of their aircraft, started a large petrol fire, and in consequence drew off forces of Italian fighters from all fronts to protect the capital.
In the Western Desert the RAF force available three squadrons of Blenheims, one of Gladiators, and one of Lysanders was established near Mersa Matruh, and it struck with such power as it possessed at the Italian aerodromes in Libya within a few hours of Italy's declaration of war. Although they were the aggressors, the Italians were taken completely by surprise and had not even properly dispersed their aircraft and petrol supplies.
Our blow was not heavy, but it was swift and it told. We had the initiative, and we kept it. Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, and the big enemy encampments were repeatedly attacked even when the Italian ground forces, after three months preparation, moved forward to Sidi Barrani and hailed as a major victory the occupation of ground from which General Wavell had purposely withdrawn.
The enemy moved forward, but the RAF continually ground strafed his lines of communication and his aerodromes, not only destroying large quantities of his supplies, transport and aircraft on the ground, but also forcing him to put up constant patrols of his own fighters over the roads and the landing grounds, in this way countering his numerical superiority in the air.
By that time, of course, we had been somewhat reinforced. By October the position looked much more promising. Then Italy declared war on Greece, and the decision was rightly taken to send aircraft to the help of our new Allies.
This meant depleting the forces in the Western Desert, though the time was approaching when we should launch an offensive of our own in that theatre. Reinforcement of aircraft was started again, and by the time of the offensive we had in the Western Desert the first two squadrons of Hurricanes, four of Lysanders, two of Gladiators, and five of Blenheims. Two squadrons of Wellingtons and a few Bombays were available for night bombing, and the risk was taken of moving forward the fighter defence squadrons from Alexandria and the Sudan. Even so, the Italian fighter force still outnumbered our own by four to one.
In the early days of December, 1940, the RAF and the Navy prepared the way for the Army assault. The Navy bombarded Sidi Barrani and Maktilla; the RAF delivered heavy attacks on the Italian camps and on Benina aerodrome near Benghazi. All the time, both before and during the Army advance, the ground strafing and bombing of enemy aircraft on the landing grounds, of their transport on the roads and of their ships in the harbors continued.
When we had advanced sufficiently we counted some 1100 enemy aircraft out of action at the various landing grounds. The roads were littered with broken and crippled transport, and 35 ships were found sunk in the harbors at Barin, Tobruk, Gazala, Derna and Benghazi, all accounted for by bombing. The success of the first British Libyan campaign is already history. The advance began on December 9, with a very limited objective. We intended to advance as far as Buq Buq. In fact the campaign proceeded rapidly to a destruction of the whole Italian army in 62 days, the capture of 133,295 prisoners, 1,300 guns, and vast amounts of war material, and a British occupation of the whole of Cyrenaica.
The work of the Air Force in this campaign was diverse. Before each Army assault the bombers attacked in turn Sidi Barrani, Bardia the "Bastion of Fascism" Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi; but these bombing raids would scarcely have been possible had not our fighters pinned down the Italian fighter force and kept it continually on the defensive. The strafing of the aerodromes and the roads did that, and on their homeward journeys our fighters often encountered the unescorted Italian bombers which were trying to give support to their troops. We shot down 74 enemy aircraft during the first week of the advance alone.
Until the Army advanced beyond Bardia our air superiority over the enemy had been secured and maintained by air action alone. To the westward of Bardia and Sollum there runs for over 100 miles a vast flat plain, admirable for aerodromes. Beyond that, to the west of Derna, there stretches some 150 miles of hilly country. Between Derna and Benghazi were only two aerodromes fit for modern aircraft.
Between Derna and Sollum were based the great majority of the Italian air forces, with their main base at El Adem. As our mobile land forces swept round over the great plateau the Italians had to evacuate one after another of their easterly aerodromes, only to be attacked by our fighters and bombers again and again on the ground at their westerly aerodromes at Gazala, Timimi and Derna. Part of our squadrons moved up quickly behind our advanced land forces. For this battle the Italian air force was virtually "out," and our fighters were free to harry the retreating Italian columns into the disorder and rout which culminated in General O'Connor's brilliant thrust across 150 miles of desert and his victory at Beda Fomm, south of Benghazi.
Could we then have advanced on Tripoli? At the time this became a world debating point. Even if there had been no other fronts to consider, the supply problems had become acute in an advance aimed at Buq Buq which had reached El Agheila. The German Air Force had now come into action and was doing its best to make Benghazi untenable as a supply point. The motor transport available, over some of the worst desert tracks imaginable, had already been subjected to stringent wear.
At this point it is necessary to step back a little. Italy declared war on Greece on October 28th, 1941, before the British offensive in Libya. The British Government decided that whatever possible RAF support could be given to the Greeks must be given. Accordingly, two squadrons of Blenheim bombers, one of Blenheim fighters and one of Gladiators were dispatched to that country, dangerously weakening the Western Desert force even before our campaign began. Some Wellington bombers were also sent over from Egypt to operate against the enemy's disembarkation ports during moonlight nights.
The position then was that the Italians had made some small advances from Albania on to Greek territory but were being held. The small valiant Greek Air Force, sadly equipped, had flown itself almost to a standstill in giving close support to the Army. The RAF force of bombers concentrated on hitting the enemy's lines of communication, with the result that by the end of November the Greeks were able to start a counter offensive. At first the chief difficulty in Greece was that of aerodromes suitable for modern aircraft. There were not even any good sites for them. On the Larissa plain the rains had already started, and the ground was flooded.
So the bombers had to be placed on aerodromes near Athens and the fighters made shift with whatever they could find near the front lines. By the end of the year, in spite of these difficulties, Valona and Durazzo, the two Albanian ports, were being thoroughly bombed; the fighters had established partial air superiority against great numerical odds; and the Greek Army had not only thrown the Italians out of Greece but had started to invade Albania. Then with the new year came the snow. It did not ground the RAF squadrons but it forced them to fly over mountainous country in conditions of extreme difficulty and danger. The Italians had concentrated large forces of antiaircraft guns at the main targets and every raid that the Blenheims undertook meant first a long difficult flight to the target, then a barrage through which few went unscathed, and at last an even more difficult flight home.
The ground situation was largely stabilized by the weather, but the Germans were gradually massing in Roumania. By February, the Libyan campaign was nearly over and Cyrenaica was clearly ours. We were committed to Greece; so it was decided, in spite of the obvious risk, to start transferring more squadrons from the Western Desert to that country. The Greek Army had already taken Tepelene but the weather prevented them from throwing the Italians into the Adriatic before the German attack. This was in spite of the fact that the RAF changed its policy in Albania in order to give much closer support to the ground forces.
The prestige of the RAF never stood higher in the minds of the Greeks than at that time. The first Hurricanes from the Western Desert appeared over Athens in February. On February 20, they made their first sortie over the lines and shot down four enemy aircraft. Eight days later, in full View of the Greek forces in Albania, they fought out the greatest air battle on that front. Ten Hurricanes and 18 Gloster Gladiators met a large force of enemy aircraft over the Greek lines. They shot down 27 of them with no loss to themselves. The Greeks were ecstatic.
March was an indeterminate month. During that time the Italians counter-attacked without much success. The Greeks accepted at last the offer of a British Expeditionary Force which, with further RAF reinforcements, was drawn from the Western Desert thus enabling the German Army then in Tripolitania to throw over our skeleton holding forces out of Cyrenaica.
The Italian Naval force which met the Mediterranean Fleet was smashed at Cape Matapan. Six Fairey Swordfish Naval aircraft arrived in Greece and wrought heavy damage to Italian shipping in Valona and Durazzo harbors. The Germans had subjugated Roumania and crossed in force into Bulgaria. Yugoslavia, whose Government had been preparing to capitulate, revolted and prepared to fight.
On April 6, Germany declared war against Greece and Yugoslavia. The RAF had been reinforced but to what did it amount, and what opposition had it to face? Supporting the Greeks in Albania there were one squadron of bombers and one of Gladiator fighters. On the landing grounds of the Larissa Plain, still soft after the winter rains, there were two bomber squadrons and one squadron of Hurricanes. Their task was to support the Anglo-Greek forces which were facing the German advance. Stationed near to Athens were another bomber squadron, and a fighter squadron rearing with Hurricanes. In all Greece the RAF had a total of about 80 serviceable aircraft.
From Bulgaria and Roumania the German armies were advancing with the support of some 800 aircraft. The Italians had 160 based in Albania; and a further 150 based in Italy but operating over Albania and Greece. The odds against us, in numbers alone, were well over 10 to one.
Our aerodromes were only just drying out from the rains, and were far from fully serviceable. Communications between them were of the sketchiest kind. On April 6, the Germans started to come west through the Struma Valley to attack Mount Beles and the Rupel Pass. Twelve Hurricanes flew out to meet them. They met 20 Messerschmitt Me-109s, and shot down five of them without loss to themselves. The first round was ours.
That night the Blenheims, with some Wellingtons, bombed successfully behind the German lines; and the following day, in spite of terrible weather, some of our bombers got through to the bottleneck at Strumitsa and did fierce damage to the German transport which was pinned there by the mountains and the marshes. It was impossible to give air support to the Greek forces cut off in the Salonika area. Within a few days our squadrons were fighting a delaying action. The strength against us was overwhelming, and all we could hope to do was to hold up the German advance.
At first the German Air Force had mainly been occupied with giving close support to the ground troops, and our Hurricanes, patrolling over those areas, had shot down many enemy aircraft. Too many, it appeared, for the Germans to suffer; for on April 15, they switched their air power against our few forward aerodromes.
They ground strafed the Hurricanes' aerodromes at Larissa just as three of our fighters were taking off. Two of the Hurricanes were shot down; the third shot down a Messerschmitt Me-109. In the meantime, in the north the Yugoslavs had collapsed, and some of our bombers were engaged in trying to stem the German land forces there. In the east the Anglo-Greek forces were withdrawing, and April 15 saw the complete evacuation of the Larissa Plain, together with all our aerodromes and landing grounds on it, which were by then just beginning to recover from the winter weather.
The squadrons moved to the only remaining aerodromes, which were those round Athens and two farther south at Argos. In Albania, after the collapse of the Yugoslavs, the German forces compelled the Greeks, who had fought so hard and so well, to surrender. The two RAF squadrons were successfully withdrawn, but very soon it was clear that the Greek campaign was lost. It could never have been otherwise, against such odds. The RAF were left,with the task of doing their best to cover the evacuation, for the whole weight of the Luftwaffe was turned on the Athens area.
All our bombing targets were chosen at points just behind the German lines where they had great concentrations of transport, and uncounted damage was done. To give only one instance, the Wellingtons broke the bridge at Varda, the very hinge of the German lines of advance.
On April 19 our fighters sang a gallant swansong. There were 15 Hurricanes left. The Germans directed a force of about 100 dive bombers and fighters on to Athens and its surroundings. The 15 Hurricanes, piloted by men who had seen five months of continuous fighting against heavy odds, went up to engage them. They shot down 22 enemy aircraft confirmed and a further 8 probables. Five of the Hurricanes were lost. It was a magnificent demonstration of the comparative abilities of the German airmen and our own. But the loss of 33% crippled the Hurricanes. The remaining 10 were sent to Argos to cover the final evacuation of the British troops, but most of them were destroyed on the ground and the remainder were evacuated to Crete.
The RAF still had an epilogue to write to this story. The few remaining Blenheims, acting as fighters, patrolled over the crowded ships on their way to Crete and chased German bombers off before they could attack. The Sunderlands and transport flying boats carried out splendid work ferrying parties of airmen and soldiers from Greece to Crete and from Crete to the mainland. One Sunderland put up a remarkable record by carrying 84 people in a hull built to hold few more than 10. We had been thrown from the mainland. Now we held an island. For the moment we stood at Crete.
The battle for Crete illustrates, perhaps more vividly than any other operation, how the struggle for aerodromes may be the key to land, sea and air operations. Even before the capture of Greece was complete the enemy were preparing further aerodromes in the south of the Peloponnese and in islands in the Southern Aegean. By the time the attack on Crete was launched, there was a semicircle of aerodromes on the islands and in southern Greece from which fighters and dive bombers could operate. Behind that were the main aerodromes in Greece, which were now hard and firm and from which bombers and transport aircraft could operate in large numbers.
On Crete itself, owing to the mountainous nature of the island. the possibilities of aerodrome construction were very limited. For some time beforehand the construction of landing grounds had been pushed ahead and three landing grounds had been prepared, but Middle East resources had been skinned to supply the force in Greece and the scale of defence available for these new airfields was meager. Further landing grounds had been begun, but since means for defending them were not available, in so far as it was possible they were made useless by obstructions.
The most serious threat to Crete was obviously that of airborne attack. We were therefore faced by the paradox that landing grounds on Crete were both a necessity for defence and a menace in event of invasion. The Battle for Crete was literally a battle for the three landing grounds of Maleme, Retimo and Heraclion.
For the defenders of Crete it was a battle against overwhelming odds. The depleted air forces in the Western Desert were already near the low water mark and the mere replacement of the heavy wastage in Crete was a severe strain.
The 350 miles of sea between Maleme and our nearest bases in the Western Desert made it impossible for Hurricane squadrons in Africa to operate over Crete from their African base, whereas the enemy short range fighters from their new bases in Southern Greece and the islands could operate with ease over Crete, escorting bombers and carrying out low-level attacks. This was the fundamental handicap from which the defence of Crete suffered. It was decided that it was useless to attempt to operate aircraft from the aerodromes on the island.
During the three weeks before that decision was made that small fighter force, composed largely of the remnants of squadrons from Greece who had been fighting hard for months and were short of many items of vital equipment, put up a gallant defence against impossible odds.
In the meantime, Wellingtons operating from bases in Africa made a series of heavy night attacks on the Greek aerodromes where the enemy was massing his air invasion, and Beaufighters carried out a devastating low-flying attack on the massed Junkers Ju-52s at dawn. The bombing forces available were quite inadequate to stop the invasion, but there is no doubt that they were effective in slowing down the enemy's preparations and delaying the actual attack.
The airborne invasion began on May 20, the enemy selecting Maleme as his principal objective. Heavy bombing and machine-gunning raids were carried out early in the morning, especially against our AA positions, and from then onwards parachutists were dropped at numerous points. A number of Ju-52s crash-landed on the beach adjoining the aerodrome and added to the strength of the assault. Further parachutists were dropped to the west of the aerodrome late in the afternoon.
Carea Town was heavily bombed, and the landing of parachutists was continued at Heraclion and Retimo. At all points enemy losses were considerable, but at Maleme the Germans gained a footing and drove our forces to positions two miles east of the aerodrome. On the first day of the invasion it was estimated that over 7,000 parachutists were landed.
On May 21 and 22 the enemy made two attempts to send in reinforcements by sea. The first convoy was destroyed and the second scattered by our Naval forces. No seaborne attackers reached Crete. Our ships were, however, operating inside the ring of enemy air bases, literally within sight of Melos. Fighter cover over Crete was negligible, but it was even less possible for the fleet, well north of the island. Thus, as a result of heavy and repeated dive bombing attacks throughout the day, our naval losses were severe. Day after day, however, a steady stream of German air transport poured troops into Western Crete, while continuous bombing and low-flying attacks battered the defence. The fortunes of the fighting swayed to and fro until May 26, when it became clear that the situation was deteriorating fast. On the following day plans were made for evacuation which commenced on May 29, and was largely concluded by June 1.
Analyzing the second phase of the operations that is, from the time of the actual invasion to the evacuation it was evident that for a successful airborne attack the enemy had to secure a high measure of local air superiority. Only thus could the massed dropping of parachutists be achieved and the supply of materials and reinforcements maintained.
Crete established beyond all doubt that the capture of an aerodrome is the prerequisite for the success of an airborne invasion.
For the RAF the Crete campaign can be likened to operations against the southern apex of a triangle the whole area of which was in enemy hands. In the face of great odds, pilots, ground crews and other personnel fought with outstanding courage.
Even while we were fighting desperately in Greece, the enemy had attempted to cause diversion by fifth column activity. Rashid Ali, a notorious pro-German intriguer, raised a revolt in Iraq, and invested the RAF camp at Habbaniya. The defence of this flying training school by the instructors and pupils with their training aircraft is an epic in itself that deserves to rank high in the RAF's achievements in the Middle East.
Habbaniya was surrounded by the Iraqis during April 30 and May 1, their force consisting of roughly 4,000 to 5,000 troops with 30 field guns, some pom-poms and about 150 machine guns, and supported by armored cars and light tanks. Their air strength was put at 70 aircraft, 50 of which were superior in performance to anything possessed by the training school. The latter, in fact, had 65 aircraft that could be used for operations. There were only about 35 pilots available, of whom the majority were either instructors with little or no operational experience or pupils with none at all. T
he land force comprised 1,000 Iraq levies and about 150 King's Own Royal Regiment. There were 18 RAF armored cars. A small number of trench mortars mounted in concrete block houses completed the defence. There were no field guns at all. Improvised bomb racks were fitted to the training aircraft and the flying training school went forth to fight.
During five days 647 sorties were made. Over 3,000 bombs were dropped on the enemy, and 116,000 rounds of ammunition were fired. Meanwhile a strong force of Wellingtons from Egypt was moved up to attack the Iraq bases and petrol supplies, while continuous patrols over the enemy positions did much to stem the rebel activity. The arrival of German aircraft to bolster up the rebels was a nuisance, but it was marked by the shooting down of the first two Messerschmitt Me-110s by Gladiators; and it did not unduly delay the issue, for by that time some experienced squadrons from Egypt had arrived on the scene. Sedate Vickers Valentias brought in arms, ammunition, and troops. The situation, which at the outset had looked serious, was well in hand. In fact, the revolt collapsed with the same suddenness that had characterized its outbreak. Great credit was due to the RAF armored cars which bore the brunt of the early attack and which were in at the kill.
The campaign in Syria was brief, but was noteworthy for the effective manner in which the hostile French air force was knocked out, partly in combat, despite the arrival from Vichy, France, of a considerable number of specially selected and experienced fighter pilots. The low-flying fighter attack once again proved its efficiency.
The campaign in Iran was even shorter and the part played by the RAF consisted of fighter support against possible enemy attack; tactical reconnaissance in support of our ground forces; air trans- port of troops and leaflet dropping.
During the Greek and Cretan campaigns there was still a threat in the Western Desert. The handful of aircraft and the skeleton force, which was all that had been left there after the reinforcement of Greece, had been unable to withstand the advance of the Afrika Korps and had retreated right back to the Egyptian frontier. An important exception, however, was the Tobruk garrison, now reinforced from the sea.
Rommel was now in the same dilemma as that in which General Wavell had found himself at El Agheila. Why did we not proceed to Tripoli? Why did he not advance on Alexandria and Cairo?
Rommel could not do so immediately because he had first to accumulate a large stock of war materials on the Egyptian frontier. During that pause the few RAF fighters and bombers still operating against him concentrated on his lines of communication, and at night the heavy bombers struck at Benghazi, filling the harbour with wrecks and crumbling moles. Great care had to be taken to conserve what aircraft we possessed, but despite this disadvantage much dislocation was caused on the enemy lines of communication along the roads from El Agheila to Sollum. It is not too much to say that the interruption of these supplies by our fighters, aided by medium bombers in the day and at night by the Wellingtons, halted Rommel in his projected invasion of Egypt just long enough to enable the British forces to grow stronger again.
Again it was a question of usable aerodromes. The enemy once more held the Cyrenaican plain. His air bases, which ringed Tobruk, forced us to withdraw aircraft from that garrison, leaving the air free for German bombers.
But in spite of that, the RAF continued to hammer at enemy communications so that the bulk of the Italian fighter force was dispersed in defending the rear areas. Though in theory outclassed and outpositioned, the RAF stayed on the offensive, forcing the enemy to the passive role of defence. In an effort to stop the daily toll of their transport, the Germans put an armored vehicle every five miles along the roads.
Now there was a lull in the north, a period of gathering strength in the desert. But all this while a smaller but highly successful campaign had been in progress in East Africa, and now was moving to a decisive stage. The Italians were greatly superior in numbers in that theatre, both on the ground and in the air, but the only real use which they made of their strength was to capture British Somaliland in the autumn of 1940, and to make some small advances into Kenya south of Moyale.
In the air we had three small forces with which to oppose the enemy and with which, during the spring and summer of 1941, to vanquish him. In the south of Kenya were a few South, African squadrons flying such antiquated aircraft as Battles, Gladiators, Furies, Hartebeestes, Junkers Ju-86 [Prior to the outbreak of the war, the British South African Airways purchased a number of Junkers Ju-86 transports. These were converted to warplanes.ED] and Ansons but with a leavening of HHurricanes. To the north in the Sudan there were five squadrons equipped with Hurricanes, Gladiators, Wellesleys, Blenheims and Harts; while in Aden there were some Blenheims, Wellesleys and Gladiators. The country over which these aircraft had to fly was a nightmare of mountain, jungle and swamp where a faulty engine probably meant death. Yet, in support of the ground forces, these squadrons helped to drive Italians right out of East Africa and Abyssinia and to restore the Lion of Judah, the first victim of world aggression to be reinstated.
This is how it was done. The Aden air force kept the Red Sea and bombed the Italian supply ports. The South Africans drove up from Kenya with the ground forces as far as Addis Ababa, which was captured on April 6, the day that the Germans struck at Greece. The air force from the Sudan in the north, composed of four RAF squadrons and one South African squadron, struck at Keren. This stronghold having fallen on March 26, Massawa and Gondar could make no effective resistance. The final advance took some little time, but Gondar surrendered in November.
This was not a campaign on the grand scale, but a single glance at the map shows that it was a brilliant achievement. Farther north there were more important things preparing. The heat of the summer was waning from the Western Desert. No longer did a man's hand blister when he laid it on the outside of a tank or on the fuselage of an aircraft. It was campaigning weather again.
At first light on November 18, the Air Forces in the Western Desert moved into action with the Imperial Armies for the assault on the Axis forces in Cyrenaica. Their aim was to gain air superiority, to afford protection for the armies against enemy air interference, and if possible to destroy the Axis air forces. Throughout the summer considerable reinforcements of aircraft and personnel as well as equipment of all kinds had reached our bases from Great Britain and the United States, and much reorganization and intensive training had been carried out, particularly among the fighter squadrons, in preparation for the campaign.
The objects of the second great offensive were the removal of the threat of invasion to Egypt and the Suez Canal; the establishment of air bases suitable for raiding Italy, Sicily, Greece and Crete; to gain greater freedom of movement for our shipping in the Mediterranean; and to compel the enemy to reinforce from the other fronts particularly from Russia, where the Soviet armies, now for four months our Allies, had their backs to the wall.
In the first week of the battle some 30 bombing sorties were made against enemy ports and bases, while nearly 360 were directed against enemy positions and lines of communication. Fighter action was particularly intense, and in the same week over 1,000 sorties were made. This latter figure gives a clear indication of the close support given by the fighter squadrons to the ground forces.
Air operations, which had already been considerable, reached maximum pitch on November 18. Fighters ranged deep into enemy territory, shooting up aerodromes and attacking motor transport, personnel and encampments wherever they were found. By midnight on November 23, 118 enemy aircraft had definitely been destroyed.
The battle of the triangle in the area bounded by Fort Capuzzo, Gabr Saleh and Sidi Resegh began on November 20, the main enemy armored strength being encountered.
The week from November 25 to December 2 showed an extremely confused situation. The main battle developed to the west, east and south of Sidi Resegh. An enemy column, with great daring, had pushed through the advancing British troops to the Egyptian frontier, and had then turned north and west. Our eventual success in thwarting this maneuver behind the main area of battle can be partially attributed to the air superiority we had obtained. After reverses at Sidi Resegh and Bir El Hamid, our land forces reformed and the offensive was resumed. In the Bir El Gobi zone the enemy were pushed back and first withdrew towards El Adem; but on the night of December 8 they abandoned this important aerodrome and moved still further to the west.
The Axis retreat gradually increased in momentum until on December 16, the enemy was holding the line from El Cheima to Gazala. But, owing to the failure of his counter-attacks, the losses he had incurred and the outflanking tactics employed on his right wing, his situation was rapidly deteriorating. Bad weather hindered air operations, but the fighters still flew almost continuously above the battle.
From this point onwards, the enemy retreat became perilously rapid.
Nevertheless the advance was proceeding at such a pace that it became more and more difficult to correlate the forward movement of the fighter squadrons with the maintenance of their full operational strength. Sacrificing great quantities of equipment the Axis armies continued their flight and took up new positions in the Antalat, Soluch and Jedabaya zone, where at first they were assisted by aircraft operating from Sidi Amed El Magrum. Twenty-four Wellingtons attacked this aerodrome on the night of December 21, the raid being followed by a low-level attack in the morning, two bombing attacks at mid-day and a heavily escorted bombing raid in the evening. At least 16 enemy aircraft were confirmed as destroyed.
Our forward elements entered Benghazi on December 24 and reported that the harbour had been devastated by bombers. The North Mole was wrecked at several points and the central Mole blocked with sunken ships. Eventually the enemy was compelled to withdraw to Jedabaya and beyond. Our air forces, however, had been left with the task of overcoming Axis strongholds far to our rear, the isolated garrisons of Bardia, Halfaya and Sollum.
In the forward area, where our air forces had been reinforced by American Kittyhawk fighters, the enemy withdrew to the Agheila "Bend." The weather continued to be bad. Heavy rains and difficult communications, as well as the necessity of reforming the land armies for a further attack, brought our advance to a halt. A lull set in, broken only by fighter and bomber operations.
Then Rommel suddenly pushed forward his remaining tank and armored strength to test our holding forces. He captured Jedabaya, found the opposition much weaker than he expected, and pushed on. Antelat and M'sus were re- captured by the enemy, together with considerable supplies of all kinds. The counter-offensive proceeded north and northwest in two columns, one towards Mechili and the other in the direction of Benghazi.
Compelled to withdraw, the Air Force put up a magnificent display, perhaps the finest of the whole campaign. In fearful weather, in conditions under which a few weeks before the German air effort had been practically nil, our aircraft attacked the advancing enemy continuously. Hundreds of his motor vehicles were destroyed and losses among his troops were very heavy. Enemy air opposition was negligible, Rommel having decided that, his fuel being limited, it was more important to supply his tanks and armored vehicles than his aircraft. The enemy columns advanced without air protection, proving that it can be done if the ground forces are prepared to suffer heavy losses.
Though our great thrust ended in considerable withdrawal, many of its aims were achieved and, if the captured territory was abandoned, the dislocation of enemy forces and the complete shattering of his plans remained valuable gains. Suez was farther off; the Rommel legend had been roughly handled.
After several months of quiet during which time Marshal Rommel brought in large reinforcements battle flared up again on May 26th, 1942. Then began days of fiercest fighting which Allied Air Forces had ever experienced in Western Desert. For 36 days our pilots and ground crews were fighting in support of stout efforts of the 8th Army which was suffering severe punishment until the main British Forces came to halt at the back of the El Alamein line. Allied fighter pilots were flying Kittyhawks, Tomahawks, Hurricanes, Beaufighters and a few Spitfires. During the day we were using Bostons and Baltimores for bombing and at night time our Wellingtons with Liberators of the United States Army Air Forces carried on good work. Throughout fateful days Allies never lost their air superiority. This was entirely due to fighting spirit of air crews and unselfish work of groundcrews.
The battle moved on. Bir Hachein held by Free French fell. The battle milled round Knightsbridge and then further east towards El Adem. Air tactics changed. It was of paramount importance that close support should be given to ground forces. Bostons and Kittybombers mercilessly attacked Axis panzer and supply columns. So well did our fighters protect Bostons that it was not until July 7 that one was shot down by enemy fighters. Four separate enemy attacks in three days in El Adem area were brought to standstill by air attack alone. But the land battle continued to move eastwards and our troops withdrew from the Gazala area.
As the battle continued to move eastwards our bombers and fighters put on an amazing spurt. Pilots and aircrews many unshaved and unwashed climbed in and out aircraft many times a day taking off, bombing and fighting, landing to refuel and taking off again on another sortie. During this phase of the battle our aircraft operated nearer to mobile front line than aircraft had ever done before. Fighter pilots and ground crews were among last to cross the Libyan frontier into Egypt. The withdrawal from aerodrome to aerodrome was a remarkable piece of work. In November when Germans and Italians retreated from Egyptian frontier to Aghaila in Tripoli they left behind more than 400 damaged aircraft. When Allied forces withdrew from Libya on June 17 only five damaged aircraft were left behind, all having been destroyed by our crews. No equipment was left. It was a triumph for ground personnel of RAF and particularly for salvage units. While the 8th Army was consolidating positions in the El Alamein area Allied Air Forces continued night and day to pound the enemy. They carried out more than 500 sorties during each 24 hours. This relentless hammering helped materially to prevent battle weary German and Italian troops from continuing advance. That was still the situation at the middle of July.
There remains a tremendous epilogue Malta. But since it is an epic in itself a separate chapter is devoted to the story, which another hand must tell in full.
This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "Special Royal Air Force Issue" of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 79-85, 262, 264, 266, 268, 270.
The original article includes a thumbnail photo of the author, 18 photos and a map.
Photos are not specifically credited, but seem to be from the British Air Ministry.