(Mission Accomplished, another in a series of first hand reports on U. S. Air Forces by Phillip Andrews, Editor of Air News, was written on the spot during the last four weeks of war in Europe. Now the full story of America's least publicized air forces the forgotten 12th and 15th whose tactical and strategic bombing made victory possible, can be told in detail,. Mr. Andrews, who was attached to the Strategic Eighth Air Force in 1943 and accompanied the 84th Fighter Wing of the Tactical Ninth into France in June, 1944, returned recently from an extended overseas tour with the Air Transport Command, Twelfth [tactical] and Fifteenth [strategic] Air Forces, American components of the Mediterranean. Allied Air Forces.)
Cascade Camp Caserta, Italy (Bomber Packet) This was to have been the "soft under belly" of Hitler's Europe. It wasn't. In the number of troops allotted to the Italian theater, and in the amount of materiel, it is apparent that the German armies were half-expected to withdraw to a firm line in the north if subjected to moderate pressure. They didn't. Instead, they fought determinedly for every kilometer of highway, every hill, every acre of open ground. The Germans gave nothing of Italy. They sold it, piece by piece, and the price was high.
Literally, no stone was left unturned in their efforts to impede the advance of American Fifth and British Eighth Armies. Much of the devastation that seems at first to have been the result of artillery and aerial bombardment is, in fact, the demolition work of an army that learned early and well the exact science, the fine military art of retreat.
Because so many of the Italian cities were spared intensive bombing, because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the ruins of this war from those of earlier campaigns and the deterioration induced by time and weather, the part that air power played in the battle of Italy is not readily apparent. For this, one must look to the pock-marked plains, to the scissored rail lines, to blasted bridges, and farther north to the industrial heart of the Reich, to the oil fields of Ploesti, to the harbors of the Adriatic, to the Partisan-held hills of Yugoslavia. What one sees is the. unmistakable work of some 300,000 officers and men (slightly more than half of whom were American) and 14,000 aircraft of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. This thoroughly integrated organization, known as MAAF, had its beginning in 1942 with the British Desert Air Force at El Alamein and the 551 planes and handful of personnel that comprised the embryonic US Twelfth Air Force at Casablanca. The Desert Air Force, under Air Marshal Coningham, was largely tactical in function; the Twelfth, which had arrived with the landings in Algeria and Morocco, was organized on the conventional American pattern with Bomber, Fighter, Air Service and Air Support Commands.
Early in 1943, the Northwest African Air Force, incorporating both British and American elements under General Spaatz, joined forces with the predominantly British Mediterranean Air Command and under Air Chief Marshal Tedder fought through Sicily, Southern Italy, and finally to Cassino. In December, 1943, according to principles established at the Casablanca conference, they were formally united as the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. In the month following, General Ira Eaker, head of the Eighth Air Force in England, arrived in Italy to take charge. Function rather than nationality determined the table of organization, the wisdom of which decision was soon eloquently demonstrated by the results achieved. Scattered squadrons, inextricably bound to particular ground or naval units, now became part of a powerful air armada embracing the USAAF, RAF, and eventually French, Yugoslav, Italian, and Brazilian units.
MAAF was so organized as to provide a major command for the performance of each of four primary tasks.
The Strategic Air Force (MASAF), composed of the U. S. Fifteenth and the British 205 Group, was charged with the responsibility of maintaining constant pressure on Axis industry and internal lines of communication.
The Tactical Air Force (MATAF), composed of the U. S. Twelfth and the British Desert Air Forces, was to support the British Eighth and the American Fifth Armies.
A third component, the Coastal Air Force, was organized to locate and destroy enemy sea traffic and to defend Allied harbors and rear echelon supply installations.
A fourth unit, the Balkan Air Force, was to coordinate its activities with Marshal Tito's Partisans.
Elements which were later to comprise the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces had established unchallenged air superiority in North Africa. They had interdicted supply lines to Tunisia by demolishing ports, sinking ships and destroying the Luftwaffe's emergency air convoys. Short of supplies and lacking air cover, German forces were compelled to retreat if they could, or surrender. So ended the Battle of North Africa. Nearly 12,000 tons of bombs had been dropped, 76 Axis ships were sunk, and more than 1,000 planes were shot down.
In carrying the war to Europe, advanced fighter bases were required at Pantelleria. To this end, better than a ton of bombs was dropped on each of 5,000 sorties. After twelve days the hapless island surrendered, history's first territorial conquest by air power.
Then Sicily. Three thousand sorties directed against enemy airfields destroyed several hundred planes on the ground and gave Allied landing forces virtual immunity to attack from the air.
Then Italy. Two hundred Ju-88s were destroyed at Foggia and landings were made at nearby Salerno with only token opposition from the Luftwaffe. An enemy counter attack was met by 2,000 sorties in two days, no uncommon occurrence as the war grew older but a remarkable effort for September, 1943.
Landings in Sicily had been supported by 25,000 sorties, those at Salerno by 29,000. Later (January 20, 1944) at Anzio, amphibious forces were covered by 54,000 individual flights against the enemy.
Pressure on the Anzio beachhead was heavy and bad weather facilitated a series of counter attacks which did not begin, however, until the middle of February, nearly a month after the Allied landings, a delay induced by continuous air effort against enemy lines of communication, gun positions and troop concentrations.
Stalemated at Anzio, the most tremendous one-day tactical air campaign of all time was launched at Cassino. On March 15th, more than 1,000 aircraft from the tactical and strategic commands of MAAF combined in an effort to force a breakthrough, The attack was opened by more than a hundred B-25s, followed by large numbers of heavies, and these by another hundred or more B-26s. Meanwhile, several hundred fighter-bombers attacked targets in the immediate vicinity while a like number of fighters was held in reserve against enemy air reaction which, however, failed to materialize. The town of Cassino was leveled but, due to a time lag in following through with the ground assault or because the land forces did not possess sufficient superiority to overwhelm stubborn enemy resistance, the projected advance was halted.
In an effort to weaken the opposing force by strangling its source of supply, attention was directed to German lines of communication and, in the period between March 15 and May 11 when another major ground assault was begun, 65,000 MAAF sorties with an average bomb load of better than a thousand pounds pummeled the enemy's rear.
Although never before employed on so large a scale, these tactics were not new to the Mediterranean. Air Marshal Coningham had used his meager air force in North Africa to snipe at Rommel's slender, overextended line of supply all the way from Alamein to Tunis. Now the problem was different, in some ways simpler, in others more complex. Lines of communication were more numerous, more complicated, more heavily defended by flak. But there was an advantage in that Coningham had pitted picayune air power against a still strong and effective Luftwaffe, whereas enemy air resources in Italy had been decimated and air resistance was relatively weak.
A plan of interdiction, carried out in the main by MAAF heavies and concentrated on marshaling yards in the north, hampered the Row of German supplies to some extent but exerted far greater hardship on the Italian civil population for it was determined that not more than 5 per cent of these facilities were required to keep the German armies at battle strength. This essential fraction seeped through by means of divisional trains to unit rail heads situated near highways where cargo was transferred to motor transport. It became imperative to cut the line itself, quickly, simultaneously, and in many places. Accordingly, attention was directed from marshaling yards to viaducts, bridges, and tunnels, a plan requiring far greater bombing accuracy than many observers believed practicable.
Mediums, followed by fighter-bombers, concentrated on rail lines running south from the Pisa-Florence-Rimini area. The critical Florence-Rome line was damaged at many points and the two main coastal railways were blocked in the west at Cecina and in the east at Foligno. With his three principal north-south rail routes neutralized, the enemy came to depend more and more on coastwise shipping and motor transport.
San Benedetto on the east coast was attacked and the important west coast ports of Leghorn, Piombino, San Steffano were extensively bombed during the month of April while a French B-26 Squadron in its initial effort raided Porto Ferraio on the Island of Elba.
Motor transports were strafed and bombed by fighter-bombers in daytime and harassed by Douglas Bostons at night. During the month of March, 300 vehicles were destroyed and a like number damaged. In April, the number rose to nearly 500 destroyed, nearly 600 damaged. Supply concentrations along the Florence-Rome line were subjected to attack, the Monte Libretti dump, largest in the forward area, was wiped out, and fighter-bombers attacked supply depots and gun positions in the Anzio and Cassino areas.
For four days following the ground attack which began on the night of May 11, every available MATAF plane was directed against targets in the immediate battle area. Bridges and defiles, command posts and gun positions were all brought under concerted attack. As fighter-bombers continued in close support, mediums widened their field of operations to include rail bridge targets in Central Italy. On May 20, the German army broke its seven-month stand at Cassino and five days later the Fifth Army established contact with the Anzio beachhead.
When the enemy attempted to draw up a new line between Frascati and Tivoli south of Rome, the 86th Fighter Group was assigned to impede the maneuver. What transpired is best described in this excerpt from a unit citation.
"Taking off at 0650 hours on 25 May, the first flight began a grueling battle with enemy transports, diving through intense accurate anti-aircraft fire to bomb traffic, effect road blocks and create confusion, repeatedly returning at minimum altitude to strafe the streams of enemy reconnaissance cars, personnel carriers, trucks, tanks and horse-drawn artillery moving to the rear. When the final four-ship flight landed that night at 2020 hours the 86th Fighter Group had, in 12 missions and 86 sorties, destroyed 217 and damaged 245 enemy vehicles, inflicted an unknown number of casualties on hostile personnel, silenced several gun positions, and interdicted the highways into the towns of Frosinone, Cori, and Cescano . This dawn-to-dusk aerial hammering, coordinated with the terrific assaults made upon adjoining areas by other units of the Tactical Air Force, so crippled the enemy's transport system and disorganized and decimated his ranks that he was forced to abandon his projected defense of Rome and hastily retreat northward to escape complete annihilation."
With one notable exception, Allied troops and installations were comparatively free from enemy air attack. In a nocturnal raid on two airfields in Corsica on May 12, fourteen Spitfires, eight B-25s, one B-24 were destroyed and a large number of aircraft damaged.
As the Fifth Army entered Rome on the 4th of June medium bombers concentrated on targets north of the city ranging to the Po Valley. The Pisa-Rimini line was established as a point of demarcation between tactical and strategic operations. Because the enemy's lines to the south had been cut, supplies were beginning to accumulate in crowded rail centers to the north which now offered lucrative targets for heavy bombers. Coastal Air Force was assigned the task of attacking sea convoys and the German armies in Central Italy were soon entirely dependent on motor transport for reinforcements, which as they moved down the peninsula were subjected to constant low level attack. Many units arrived at the front decimated and disorganized. Still the German armies fought on with food requisitioned from civilian sources, with still substantial stores of ammunition which had arrived in the months before, and aided by a thin flow of troops and materiel under cover of darkness.
Air attacks were made, not according to any new plan but with increased severity and on minute targets. B-25s and A-20s were sent after major bridges, repair stations and marshaling yards; P-38s and P-47s were assigned to track sections, trains en route, secondary bridges and major bridges under repair.
Roads, because they were more readily repaired than rail lines, presented a special problem. By scheduling late afternoon and early evening raids, motor transports were forced to use secondary roads, made poor time, often found themselves stranded in the open countryside at dawn, sitting duck targets for early morning patrols.
During the month of May, 2,700 enemy vehicles were destroyed. Air Force claims seemed incredible but on the road near Forli a count of 117 was more than substantiated by a ground force tabulation of 122. On the day that the Fifth Army entered Rome, 657 enemy vehicles were demolished. All told, in the 102-day period from March 15 to June 22, close to 138,000 sorties were flown, nearly 85,000 tons of bombs were dropped.
Meanwhile the invasion of Normandy had begun and advanced theories of tactical air power, originated and developed in the Mediterranean theater, were successfully applied to the main event. Designed to disrupt the enemy's supply lines to the rear and harass his retreat, the air campaign in France, as in Italy and North Africa, was closely coordinated with the ground forces which pursued the enemy at close range, forcing him to expend his resources of men, machines and ammunition.
As in Normandy, the German High Command anticipated an invasion of Southern France, but it did not know where, when, or how that campaign would begin. Because the Cherbourg peninsula had not been extensively bombed except as apparently secondary targets (although all lines of communication leading to this area from the north and east had been methodically attacked) the assault was expected elsewhere. Operations in Northern Italy and Southern France were likewise so planned that it was impossible for the enemy to determine which of four areas was to be the point of invasion. Until the 10th of August, airfields in the Po Valley and rail bridges in the Rhone Valley were attacked, and then attention suddenly shifted to the Marseilles, Toulon and Genoa areas. This program was followed by concentrated attacks on defense batteries and radar installations along the coast while the strategic air force hammered at the Sete (westerly) area.
In the early morning hours of D-day nearly 1,000 planes took to the air, dropping close to 500 tons of bombs on coastal and beach defenses. Meanwhile twenty-four squadrons of C-47s imported from England joined MATAF's eight squadrons and, as a Provisional Troop Carrier Air Division, dropped 9,000 parachutists and fully equipped glider troops in landing and drop zones near Le Muy, La Motte, and Trans-en-Provence, without a single loss due to enemy action.
In the weeks that followed, MATAF continued in support of the invading army with attacks on rail and road targets behind the lines. So occupied was the enemy in keeping open his escape route along the Rhone Valley that resistance was slight.
At year's end, strategic and tactical operations had begun to converge. The destruction of bridges across the Po river had failed to halt the enemy flow of supplies as he resorted to pipe line, barges and portable bridges. Strategic heavies as well as tactical mediums and fighter bombers were employed in the critical campaign of lacing up the Italian boot. While several north and south railways on the peninsula were given high bombardment priority, the principal artery between industrial Germany and its armies at the front, the 125-mile-long double-tracked railway stretching through the Brenner pass from Innsbruck in Austria to Verona in the Po Valley was designated as target number one.
Paralleled by an efficient military highway, the line gained added significance with the liberation of France and Partisan interference with transportation in Northwestern Italy. By July of 1944, when intensive aerial attacks were begun, the line carried a daily traffic of approximately forty trains in each direction. Most vulnerable points were the Avison viaduct, the Ora, Mezzocorona, Bolzano and Albes bridges. Other important targets were the rail yards at Verona, Trento, Bolzano, Bronzolo and Bressanone. The route was exceptionally well defended and when MATAF mediums and fighter bombers joined MASAF heavies in November they were met by fire from some 600 flak guns. "Milk runs" of the preceding summer had become sanguinary assignments.
Intelligence experts were required to devise new angles of attack as parallel approaches became prohibitive. Flak positions were carefully charted and bypassed while mediums equipped with special defenses attacked the batteries with fragmentation bombs. To hinder visual tracking, phosphorus bombs were dropped and fluttering acres of chaff disrupted the enemy's radar operations. Despite the employment of approximately 25 per cent of Germany's heavy and 12 per cent of its light anti-aircraft guns in the Brenner, losses of heavy bombers were rare.
Where intense and accurate flak had failed to keep open the line of supply through the Brenner, the ingenuity of German engineers in some measure succeeded. At Avisio, near Trento, skilled construction crews and bridge-building equipment were rushed to the scene of attack and, within forty-eight hours, large bridges which had been left sagging in the river were repaired and in service. Some of the more important bridges were prefabricated in duplicate, shipped in sections to be held in reserve and breaks which had previously required two or three weeks to mend were soon being repaired in as many days.
When supplies continued to flow over some bridges although reconnaissance photographs indicated that they had been effectively bombed, it developed that the resourceful German engineers had put sections of the structure on rollers. These were removed at dawn and camouflaged, wheeled back into place at dusk to accommodate nocturnal traffic. A variation on this same device was, for a time, effectively employed in rail yards. Tracks had been bombed and aerial observation did not indicate that the craters had been filled. Subsequently it was discovered that the craters were filled at night, sections of rail installed and supplies moved on. By morning the rails were removed and reconnaissance photos indicated creditable craters surrounded by a mass of twisted wreckage.
At other bridge gaps, trains shifted their cargo to truck convoys which, under cover of darkness, circumvented the bombed-out span, re-loaded on another waiting supply train.
Such defensive measures substantially reduced the effect of bridge-busting, rail- splitting tactics and with the advent of poor flying weather in November attention was turned to power stations and transformers along the line. As a result of these operations all electrically powered transport was decommissioned and the enemy restricted to the use of steam engines, soft targets for MATAF fighter-bombers.
Through a fortress of flak and inclement weather, MASAF heavy bombers during the seven-month period beginning July, 1944 made 64 major assaults on key points of the Brenner line, dropped an average of better than 100 tons of bombs on each mission. Meanwhile, MATAF mediums and fighter-bombers flew a total of more than 3,500 sorties, dropped 4,800 tons of bombs. In all, 25 bridges and 250 rail cars were destroyed or badly damaged, tracks were cut at 300 places along the line.
From the beginning of the war, Italy, in no position to lend industrial support to Germany, was in fact scarcely capable of fulfilling her own military needs. Denied the coal which previously had been obtained from England, she was forced to depend on what relatively small quantities Germany cared to relinquish. This, along with a limited amount of iron and steel, was shipped by rail through the Brenner.
Pursuant to the Italian Armistice, northern Italy declined rapidly in industrial importance. To replace bombed out equipment and to establish necessary new industries in the homeland, large quantities of machinery were moved to Germany for immediate use.
Only when weather prohibited strategic bombing of the Reich was attention turned to what little remained of Italian industry. Although production of most Italian multi-engine types was suspended when Germany assumed complete control, facilities which were not removed or converted to the production of components for German aircraft continued to manufacture the Reggiane, the Macchi, and the G-55, Italy's three best single-engine fighters. With a production level of not more than l00 a month, this was at first a small factor but as the shortage of German aircraft became acute it attained some relative importance.
Accordingly, the Caproni plant at Reggio Emilia, engaged in production of the Reggiane, was attacked by RAF Wellingtons on the night of January 7, 1944, and the following morning by B-17s of the Fifteenth Air Force. In April, two Macchi fighter plants were bombed, and in May the Fiat G-55 factory was destroyed. From that time until the end of the war a year later aircraft production in Italy was confined to limited numbers of transports and trainer types and small components for German models.
Effective though costly Eighth Air Force raids on Schweinfurt in August and October, 1943 had greatly reduced the Axis production of highly strategic ball bearings, but sizable quantities from 6 to 8 per cent of the total were still being manufactured in two factories at Turin. One of these was attacked by MASAF bombers and undamaged equipment was subsequently moved to the remaining plant. This, too, despite elaborate anti-aircraft protection, was successfully bombed. The shortage of bearings thereafter became so acute that a plan for the production of German aircraft engines in northern Italy had to be abandoned.
Italy was also poor in oil but, when the Strategic Air Forces began their program of attrition on the German fuel supply, refineries in northern Italy, operating with crude oil reserves, compensated to some extent for those destroyed at Ploesti. In May, 1943, a large refinery at Leghorn was bombed and badly damaged. Another, at Fiume, was attacked early in 1944, remained inactive for many months, and when it again began to show signs of resuming production, was bombed again. In concurrence with the Ploesti raids, large refining and storage installations at Porto Marghera and two refineries at Trieste were subjected to a series of attacks. This bombardment, along with disruption of Italian transport facilities, denied Germany any relief which would have been moderate at best.
Apart from two motor transport and aircraft engine plants at. Turin, a Fiat tank factory converted to repair work for German vehicles, and the Isotta Fraschini, Alfa Romeo and Breda works, also at Turin, Italian armament facilities were not subjected to attack due to their low production rate and in order to avoid unnecessary casualties among the Italian civil population.
The infrequent appearance of enemy aircraft as the war progressed was ordained as early as 1942 when Hitler ordered acceleration of arms production as a countermeasure to America's entry into the war. Special emphasis was placed on aircraft and production of all types was to have been increased from 1250 to 3000 per month by the end of 1944. Fighters were to have received special attention and the 1942 monthly rate of production, 450, increased to 1700. In order to accomplish this goal it was necessary to establish mass production lines which, although they might have survived RAF night bombing, proved good targets for daylight precision attacks by British-based Eighth Air Force bombers.
In relation to the revised plan this was the High Command's first bad guess; the second was in its selection of sites in southern and eastern Europe, specifically Wiener Neustadt and Regensburg, which discounted the eventuality of Allied bomber bases in the Mediterranean.
In the six days beginning February 20, over 6,000 tons were dropped on 17 aircraft and ball-bearing plants accounting for more than 60 per cent of single engine fighters, 90 per cent of twin-engine fighters, better than 30 per cent of bomber production and 60 per cent of Germany's ball bearing supply.
Reduction of the enemy's fighter strength by striking at the source of supply spared Allied ground forces all except sporadic air opposition, made other war industries more vulnerable to air assault, and reduced the number of bomber losses due to enemy aircraft. The effect was more relative than real, however, for after production of single-engine fighters had fallen to a low of 500 in 1944 it climbed to a new high of between 1400 and 1500 early in 1945. This was due largely to the rapidity with which bomb damage was repaired and to the existence of large reserve stocks. German front line fighter strength rose from a low of 1750 to approximately 2400, but the GAF failed to function in accordance with its apparent potential due to a high wastage rate in combat, a shortage of fuel and a dearth of pilots.
The ability of the German aircraft industry to recuperate and, in fact, by dispersal and other means to increase production in the face of continued attack indicates that the Luftwaffe was kept out of the air by some factor other than a dearth of aircraft. It is now conclusive that what restricted enemy air activity more than any other consideration was an acute shortage of fuel.
Beginning in mid-1944, sources of the Reich's oil supply were the primary objective of strategic bombers operating from bases in the Mediterranean theater. The importance of each target was measured not only in terms of its essentiality to employment of aircraft, armored vehicles, tanks and motor transport but in view of its vulnerability to attack, the immediate effects of any substantial shortage and the difficulty of reconstructing bombed-out oil-producing facilities.
The importance of attacking Germany's oil supply was apparent early in the war but systematic assault was not begun until late spring, 1944. There were several good reasons for this delay. Bases had to be secured within reasonable range of the targets, including the vital Ploesti area, and it was not until late in 1943 that the 15th Air Force began operating from Foggia. Further, it was necessary to build a striking force large enough to keep 84 different targets under concerted attack. Finally, it was imperative to attain complete air supremacy.
Half of Germany's oil supply was derived from 59 major refineries ranging from Hamburg in the north to Ploesti in the southeast. Twenty-five synthetic oil plants in and near Germany accounted for 40 per cent of total oil production, 60 per cent of gasoline. Five of these plants and 46 refineries were assigned as targets to MAAF bombers. Eleven Ploesti refineries alone accounted for nearly a third of Axis oil. As early as August, 1943, Ninth Air Force bombers then based in North Africa had launched a courageous low level attack on Ploesti but all except two of the installations had been restored.
The enemy, well aware of Ploesti's importance and the probability of attack, had assembled 150 first line fighters and 250 flak cannon for its protection. Smudge pots covering the area at times blotted the entire target from view.
The first MAAF attack on the Ploesti refineries, April 5, 1944, was made in conjunction with an effort to disrupt German lines of communication in support of Russian Armies in their advance across the Ukraine and Bessarabia. Subsequent attacks were concentrated on the refineries and by August 19th MASAF bombers in more than 5,000 sorties dropped nearly 13,000 tons. For a time results were not too satisfactory but when Romania surrendered on August 23, the refineries had been reduced to 10 per cent of their normal capacity.
One of the war's most critical strategic victories, it was not won at small cost. Ten dive bombers, 39 escorts and 237 heavy bombers were lost. More than 2200 American airmen were listed as killed or missing but nearly half of this number were later evacuated in B-17s from Bucharest. [See Operation Reunion for details. JLM]
When Axis armies overran the Balkans in 1941, their advance was so rapid that they failed to mop up guerrilla forces who took full advantage of the rugged terrain to wage a war of harassment on the occupying forces. As their activities were limited only by the amount of available equipment, it was obviously in Allied interest to furnish necessary supplies. As German armies controlled the coastline, these supplies had to be sent by air.
Early in 1944, with Italy out of the war and the establishment of a stable front north of Naples, several experimental missions were carried out and by April a large-scale program of supply had been inaugurated. A Troop Carrier Group, and eventually an entire wing, was placed on detached service with the Balkan Air Force (another major component of MAAF) and during the ensuing summer and fall completed more than 70 per cent of better than 4,500 attempted sorties. By the end of the year more than 16,000,000 pounds of supplies had been dropped or landed behind enemy lines, over 850,000 pounds of "nickels" (propaganda leaflets) had been scattered over the countryside and nearly a thousand personnel were evacuated to the Italian mainland.
Except for occasional daylight emergency missions, the transports flew without fighter escort. But in more than 5,000 sorties over enemy territory in 1944, only 11 planes were lost and only a few of these to enemy action.
Representative accomplishments of three major elements of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces have so far been described in this article. Like MASAF, MATAF, the Balkan Air Force (represented here by activities of the 51st Troop Carrier Wing) the Coastal Air Force continued operations to the final day of the war in Europe and for some time following the surrender in Italy. Formal hostilities had ceased but the danger of floating mines in the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Tyrrhenian continued.
Organized in March, 1943 as the Northwest African Coastal Force, this truly Allied entity of American, French, Australian, South African, British, Brazilian and Italian squadrons became the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force on January 1. 1944. Starting with eighteen squadrons, it eventually controlled fifty-six. Probably no other air organization of its size possessed such a variety of equipment. There were Spitfires, Lightnings, Airacobras and Mustangs, Hurricanes, Thunderbolts, Warhawks and Beaufighters, Black Widows, Mosquitoes, Wellingtons and Walruses, Baltimores, Hudsons, Warwicks and Venturas, Liberators, Fortresses, Marauders and Catalinas, Italian Cants and Macchis, Albacores, Swordfish, Seafires, Bisleys, Halifaxes and Mitchells, French Latecoeres and Sunderlands. And the duties of MACAF were almost as varied.
Responsible for the protection of Allied ports, MACAF planes escorted convoys, bombed and strafed enemy submarines and shipping. Participating in six invasions, it became a valuable air auxiliary in tactical operations, meanwhile attending to its routine work of air-sea rescue.
When air attacks were made, usually with glider bombs and torpedoes, they were frequently so disorganized by MACAF interceptor aircraft that the missiles went wild and the enemy suffered prohibitive losses.
On six Mediterranean "D" days: Pantelleria, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, Elba and Southern France, Coastal Air Force accompanied the invasion forces, beat off attacks by enemy aircraft and kept enemy submarines submerged.
U-boats were hounded, held under water until finally forced to surface for lack of air, whereupon they were attacked by bombs, rockets or depth charges.
Biggest prize for the Coastal Air Force came in September, 1944, when eight Beaufighters of the 272nd Squadron, armed with 25-pound rockets and escorted by P-51 Mustangs, attacked the 51,000-ton Italian liner Rex. Scoring 59 direct hits, most of them in vital sections 10 to 20 feet below the waterline, the Rex caught fire and capsized.
Unquestionably one of Coastal Air Force's most valuable functions was its rescue of thousands of Allied airmen and sailors. In August, 1943, seven Flying Fortresses were forced down in the sea following a raid on the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg. (A shuttle mission, the Forts had taken off from England, were on their way to land in North Africa.) Walruses, Catalinas, Beaufighters and various other aircraft combed the sea for three days and nights, finally spotted and rescued 42 crew members.
The close coordination of Coastal Air Force with other branches of the service, land, sea and air, British, American or Balkan, typifies the entire Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. It is unique in the annals of military aviation. It is a pattern for future development. It is positive proof that parity of the Air Forces with those of the Army and Navy makes each one stronger.
This article was originally published in the November, 1945, issue of Air News with Air Tech magazine, vol 9, no 5, pp 22-27.
The PDF of this article is extensively illustrated with photos.
The original was printed on 9½ by 12¾ inch paper. Images in the PDF have been reduced to fit on A-size paper.
Photos credited to USAAF.