Foggia — Airpower Symbol

By Charles Corddry, Jr

Carefully timed waves of Allied planes neutralized the great Italian base from which our airpower now covers southern Europe.

The armchair student of Festung Europa might well skip both Dieppe and Pantelleria and examine the more instructive lessons in the preparation of Italy for invasion, particularly in the employment of air power to knock out Foggia prior to capture of that vital nest of air fields by the Eighth Army.

Dieppe was a reconnaissance in force; it mainly demonstrated to the world that Hitler had ringed his Lebensraum with high-caliber steel. Pantelleria, deviled by our air power and battered from the sea, was a pushover; we dominated the skies and the water, and there were only 32 square miles of resistance to overcome

But Foggia was something else. It stands as a symbol of the way airpower opens doors to armies. It represents a pattern for precise strategy and activation of plans which made it an easy mark for Gen Sir Bernard L Montgomery's troops

Something of the importance of Foggia may be gathered from its size. Far from being a cross-roads Italian village, it is a city of 85,000 — about the size of Sioux City, IA, and larger than Mobile, AL, or Pasadena, CA. From a military viewpoint, it was one of four communication points linking northeastern and southern Italy. It was an important Nazi administration center, rail junction for troops and supplies and concentration point for German air might. It consisted of the huge air base at Foggia proper plus a ring of 12 satellite airdromes.

President Roosevelt hinted at this during the southern Italy campaign when he said it was no secret that the German general staff had drawn circles around several strategic spots in Europe with Foggia as the center.

Imperative as it was to blot out the city as a Nazi bastion, Foggia was still more important to our offensive strategy as a base from which Allied bombers might range over Europe in a greatly widened circle To continue the advance from the toe of Italy it was necessary to nail Foggia down. To get on with winning the war, it was important that we possess it. A Foggia victory would be not only a tactical triumph but a strategic success of immeasurable import. Foggia is in close striking range of the Balkans and southern Germany, 465 miles from Vienna, 500 miles from Munich, 580 miles from the Ploesti oil fields.

And to airmen, the most significant fact of all may be that when General Montgomery and his US Allies finished their conferences and mounted an offensive to take Foggia, they built the entire program around a lightning air attack. Far from supplementing or working in coordination with ground troops, planes were to lead the advance.

Montgomery has words for it:

"If you examine the conduct of my campaigns, you'll find we never fought a land battle until the air battle was won …. It is the first great principle of modern warfare." Thus he paraphrases the US War Department dictum that "the gaining of air superiority is the first requirement for the success of any major land operation."

From the June, 1940, campaign against the Italians in Libya, and from the desert campaign in 1941-42 against the Luftwaffe, the efficacy of co-equality between air and land power was established in contrast with the enemy's use of air power simply as support for, and responsible to, the land forces.

In Tunisia, this principle was further worked out. Brig Gen Laurence S Kuter, then American deputy commander under Air Marshal Coningham, reported in May, 1943, that "it is intended that the lessons learned and the successful methods developed in air-ground cooperation shall be translated into broad American air effort as quickly as possible. It is the pattern of the future, the way in which air power in collaboration with the armies in the field will beat the enemy and win the war."

The import of these words became clear by the end of July. Lieut Gen Carl A Spaatz, joined by the US 9th Air Force in the Middle East under Maj Gen Lewis Brereton, cleared the Sicilian skies of enemy planes, blotted out enemy airfields and destroyed communication lines. The Northwest African Air Force initiated the invasion of Sicily, July 9.

War Department records show that the Allies maintained such marked air superiority in the first four days of the invasion that grounded planes were destroyed, the air was free of enemy fighters, airdromes were pulverized and the enemy was forced to move 170 fighters and bombers to the Italian mainland.

In the first four weeks of July, US planes flew 12,583 sorties, dropped 12,460 tons of bombs, destroyed 342 enemy planes and probably destroyed 54 others, probably sank three enemy ships and damaged 10 more, with a loss of 190 US planes.

By the end of the third week in July, the Allies held complete and overwhelming air superiority not only over Sicily, but also over central and southern Italy.

And then — August 25 — and Foggia.

It wasn't the first time that the Italian city had been hit. Two weeks before the invasion of Italy it took a pasting in one of the heaviest bombing raids of the Mediterranean war. But that raid was only part of the invasion timetable; the attack of August 25 was for keeps.

Hours before, the Lightning pilots along with Flying Fortress and Liberator crews had assembled in briefing rooms at scattered airdromes of the Northwest African and 9th Air Forces. The orders had come in by teletype:

"Target for today — Foggia airdromes and marshaling yards.”

If the mission itself was a masterpiece of precision timing, the planning was super-precision — on a hair-trigger schedule. After Foggia had been selected, it might seem logical that weeks of preparation would follow. But the decision to strike came only at the last minute. Things began to happen. Planes, already fueled and bombed up and previously alerted for an undesignated target, stood ready for action.

Divisional commands immediately began to work out painfully intricate details — amount of fighter support, routes, times, aiming points, number of bombers. Complete information from the intelligence files concerning enemy installations and disposition of strength was studied.

The airmen were briefed, took their posts. Takeoff times had been coordinated to the second among the airfields. Exactly at the predetermined moment the planes held their rendezvous, swung into formation and headed for Foggia.

The great base was struck in a triple attack. First, 133 specially-equipped Lightning fighters, marking their first flight of that distance at such a low level, hedgehopped across Italy and sped in to strafe the airports, virtually knocking out the enemy's air strength before he knew what was up. The enemy was so surprised and the planes flew so low that the Germans first resorted to heaving rocks and firing pistols.

The toll was 140 enemy planes: 60 destroyed on the ground, 80 damaged. They were mostly Ju-88s, but at least one Ju-52 transport was destroyed as it was attempting to take off. Six Lightnings were downed and six more reported missing.

The Lightnings had prepared the way for the Fortresses by rendering the enemy air strength impotent. As quickly as they came they sped away, missing by seconds the first bombs from the Forts.

The big four-engined bombers, 138 strong, escorted by 36 more Lightnings, attacked the airdromes from high altitude, dropping 242 tons of high-explosive and fragmentation bombs. Of the 60 to 100 enemy aircraft which had managed to get aloft, 34 were destroyed, 19 probably destroyed and 13 damaged by Fortresses and two by Lightnings.

The way then was clear for 28 Liberators to race in for an attack on the marshaling yards with 64 tons of bombs. That the Lightnings and Fortresses had done their job well was attested by the fact that the Liberators encountered only 25 enemy planes, of which three were destroyed and three more probably destroyed.

A rain of blockbusters from unmolested British Wellingtons finished off the attack — and Foggia.

It never recovered. A few weeks later, on the afternoon of September 27, Montgomery's troops were able to enter the city almost without opposition. His armored columns raced the last 25 miles through Marshal Albert Kesselring's defenses to take over the Foggia base and all 12 satellite airdromes. Kesselring's rear guard was barely ousted before engineering units arrived to patch the runways and to get the shops and hangars into shape. Large stocks of bombs, airplane parts and locomotives were captured plus some rolling stock. Air power had not only prepared the way for Monty's advance, but covered it all the way.

Thus the pattern which the Allies had developed in a small way in the western desert and had pounded into sound principles in Tunisia and Sicily and in the invasion of Italy, was coaxed toward perfection at Foggia.

Foggia made history, and history has been known to repeat itself in this war on a progressively enlarged scale.

This article was originally published in the July, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 35, no 1, pp 31, 118, 122.
The PDF of this article includes a map showing the range from Foggia to various potential targets in German-controlled Europe, and an inset showing the neighborhood of Foggia.
Map by Hal Morris.