Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Bombing the wrong targets: The Luftwaffe in Africa

Some readers may know that on Wednesday 9th May I've volunteered to do a talk to the Imperial War Museum History department about the Luftwaffe in North Africa and the campaign against Malta. To be fair I was at a leaving party last year, I'd had a couple of beers and got talking to one of the others about my Dissertation and said in usual Becks fuelled bravado.
You know what Bryn... I could talk about that. Next year? Yeah plenty of time.

Well now I need to present and the research is taking up a lot of my spare time and taking over my writing time. As I am trying to commit my presentation to text I thought I'd post it here on this blog for anyone that is interested....


There are several generalisations and disbelief about the German Military that have developed through time since the War and I'm hoping to dispel them through the course of this presentation.

Germany's War aims were driven, not through ideology, though that did help, but by resources and OKW (OberKommandderWehrmacht) was painfully aware of the short falls of fuel, precious metals and rubber that faced the fledgling Wehrmacht.

The notion of Blitzkrieg grew out of tactics first used by German Stormtroopers and during British counter attacks in 1918. Heinz Guderian, in his seminal work Achtung Panzer! described the conditions for the ideal tank attacks to punch through an enemy front line and into the rear areas quickly.

Its all about Schwerpunkt.

OKW and OKH (OberKommand der Heer) would select a point of attack along the enemies front line that was the weakest or most preferable for attack. Behind German lines tanks and motorised Infantry would be massed and on X-day they would advance under artillery fire through the line and then sweep towards stores and rear areas sewing confusion and panic into civilians and military staff alike with the aim of bringing the war to a swift end.

This type of war appealed to the German strategists who knew that Germany could not afford another protracted war of attrition like the First World War. If Germany was to go to war she had to take out her enemies quickly and efficiently and this is where a problem arose.

Artillery is slow and cumbersome, it cannot be dragged along at the same speed as a Panzer column and takes time to deploy and fire. Also with the advent of aircraft any large mass of artillery being deployed behind the lines and the lengthy barrage before the attack would attract a lot of attention and the enemy would be able to guess where the attack would come. So what is the solution?

Cue the Luftwaffe.

The German high command had not been ignorant of technical developments and had pursued an active, though supposedly secretive, creation and evaluation program for aircraft development including the infamous "Dive bomber order" from Udet's office.

I'm not going to delve into the age old, and dare I say it tired debate, about whether the Luftwaffe was a Tactical or Strategic air force. For the purpose of Blitzkrieg it was purely tactical as the OKW heads were not interested in long term aerial strategy they only needed temporary aerial supremacy above the Schwerpunkt and advances. The point of the invasion was to knock the enemy out quickly.
I shall never start a war without the certainty that a demoralised enemy will succumb to the first stroke of a single gigantic attack  - Adolf Hitler

The Luftwaffe was thus seen only as flying artillery. The beauty of it, as seen by the Army commanders and their master planners in Berlin, was that they could attack without prior warning. On X-day the medium bombers would strike the enemies air instillations around the target areas whilst 109's would perform a freijagd over the advancing columns and areas shooting at anything that moved and engaging enemy aircraft. As the Panzer columns moved forward Ju 87 Stukas would be called in to strike hard points in the defencive network and enemy counter attacks.

This was all controlled by the column commanders who had a Luftwaffe officer attached to update the local Fliegerkorps commander of situations and to report their units current position to cut down the chance of friendly fire. This way the Army group commanders and Luftflotten commanders knew where their men were- In theory.

One of the big problems came with the attacks on England and Malta. The Luftwaffe was suddenly thrown into a strategic role without Panzer support. Africa and Russia threw into sharp relief the amount that the Luftwaffe was being used as an artillery piece. Field commanders were more than happy to call in wave after wave of Stuka dive bombers on one target forgetting the wear and tear on aircraft and their crews but I'll come to that later.

One of the great myths about the Third Reich is the size of its armed forces including the Luftwaffe. What is often forgotten is that during the invasion of Poland there was only 1 bomber fleet on the Western front and only a handful of fighters. The same was true during Sealion, the Germans fielded some 2400 aircraft and that was the total strike force available. When the Germans built up a bomber fleet for Malta or assigned the meagre forces to North Africa they were reassigning aircraft from more vital areas and were generally the only aircraft available.

By the beginning of 1941 the Wehrmacht was undefeated on the Continent of Europe and had swept away all opposition. OKW were doing their utmost to force Britain and her Empire to surrender. In fact the Fuhrer HQ couldn't understand why the British continued to fight considering the defeats the Army had faced. With Britain's capitol under air attack, the island under Naval blockade it became necessary to start looking at British colonies.

This was further added to the Italian's absolute failure in Libya. General O'conner's advances in 1940 with its superior Matilda tank nucleus pushed the Italian army all the way back to Bengazhi obliterating 10 whole Divisions. There was concern that the loss of North Africa would leave the British open to a springboard back into Southern Europe through Greece or even Italy. Intervention would be needed and a small German force was sent to assist the beleaguered Italians.
The man chosen to lead the German forces was Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, a former Infantry officer from the Great War who had written the military handbook "Infantrie Angriff" and had led a Panzer division during the successful campaigns in Poland and France. 

Rommel was a gambler and risk taker, loved by his men for his habit of leading from amidst his men and the enemy. He regularly toured the front and suffered the same privations as his men and ate at their field kitchens rather than well behind the lines in a Chateau and safe from enemy fire. 

Hitler was in awe of his young Panzer commander as he turned seeming defeat into victory turning the tide in Libya, capturing General O'Connor and pushing the British back and besieging Torbruk with only a small force. 

Despite watching German tactics in action in Europe and Russia the British commanders were unable to counter Rommel and Frohlich's small force of Ju 87s covered by BF 109 E's and even BF 110's were able to provide temporary air superiority over Rommel's spearheads striking a Schwerpunkt into the British wide front. The RAF, although numerically superior and more experienced with the peculiarities of desert aircraft maintenance were using inferior aircraft, mostly American surplus like Kittyhawks and Aircobras and only the Hurricane really provided anything similar to the 109s but even still they fell far short.

However, Rommel's strength was also his greatest weakness. He was somewhat arrogant over confident in his own abilities and refused to believe that his plan would not fail. He planned the taking of Torbruk refusing to believe Intelligence reports and Luftwaffe reconnaissance pictures that showed a build up of British armour and infantry preparing Operation Crusader. He was so confident that he was right that he went on leave to Rome to see his wife.

The British struck hard and the Germans under Cruwell fought back but soon found that the weight of British armour and the counter attack by the Torbruk garrison was enough to push them from their prepared positions. Rommel was furious on his hurried return and began to mobilise the counter attack. His consolidated tank groups quickly cut of one British advance and then under Rommel's direction charged 60 miles due East to the Egyptian border before sending von Ravenstein over the border into Egypt.

This was a striking move that threw the British forces into chaos and General Cunningham was forced to make a speedy withdrawal from his command HQ in a Blenheim bomber as the Panzers rolled forward. The question on everybody's lips was;

Where is Rommel?

Unfortunately some of those lips belonged to Cruwell and Westphal Rommel's adjutant back at the Torbruk front. The British army had reformed after the shock and had retaken the vital airfield Sidi Rezegh as well as making further in roads into the Axis lines. Frohlich's meagre forces were unable to do more than try and keep the Allies at bey and could do nothing to find Rommel who lay deep in British territory with no radio contact. After three days Westphal sent out a general withdrawal notice and a very angry Rommel returned with a handful of his original tanks that were left after British attacks. The aerial superiority of Hurricane IID fighters had mauled the lines or tanks and their supply trucks. On his return Rommel looked at the overall strategic map of the situation and ordered the full withdrawal towards Bengazi.

During the withdrawal the Luftwaffe harassed the Allied advance and Rommel, ever the hunter led surprise counter attacks on the slow approaching Allies and kept them on their toes - no one, not even his superiors or Air support, knew where Rommel would strike next. His move on the captured Benghazi caught everyone out and the British lost their forward stores to a jubilant Rommel and OKW. There was enough munitions and petrol for Rommel to launch a counter attack forcing the British back to Torbruk again.

Supplies were vitally important to all efforts in Africa, be it Italian or German. Britain had its own problems too but had a back door. As Axis aerial superiority grew in the Mediterranean and with the fall of Crete bringing routes from Malta to Alexandria Britain was forced to divert its vulnerable troop ships the long way around. This was very fortunate for Private Peter Sams of the 3rd East Kent Regiment who saw Cape town and the cloud tablecloth flowing from Table mountain and arrived late to the battle of El Alamein rather than sailing under the guns of the Luftwaffe and Italian Navy (it would be another year before he saw the devastating aerial bombardment of a Stuka dive bomber). It also meant that as the British withdrew they were getting closer to their supplies and depots and the Germans further away from theirs.

There was no back door for the Germans however, all supplies had to come via ship from Italy to Libya and later from Crete to Torbruk.

The supply route (marked in red)

On arriving in Italy as the new C-in-C South Generalfeldmarschall Albrecht Kesselring looked at the overall strategic situation and found the major sticking point that would be the key to the whole African Campaign.

Supplies and the convoy system.
On his arrival, Kesselring began working with the Chief of staff Count Cavallero was willing to take suggestions and they formed a daily conference to discuss Convoys and supply transfer to Libya and specialists were gathered by the Italian Naval high command, Supermarina, and a permanent Supply board.

Before the war the Italians had set up supply depots on both sides of the sea but they'd never been able to fill them to capacity and air raids had taken a heavy toll. Added to this was the nature of the Italian Colony. There was no Railway from the ports to the front and all supplies had to be driven up by trucks which drank a lot of the petrol delivered and provided a great target from the air!
There was also the problem of equipment. Where as the Allies used the same kit the German and Italian equipment varied wildly and they could not share or pass around surpluses. All German equipment must come from Germany first.

There was also the problem of the shipping. Italian production was still in peace time mode and spare parts were spread around wharves across the whole country as were the ships and merchant fleets. The Italian Navy failed to take control of the merchant marine which left Italian captains thinking of "Their" ships and "Their" crews rather than the Nation's and were thus hesitant to put themselves in any danger. Tankers particularly drew a lot of fire from enemy air and sea units especially when the enigma codes had announced that tankers were sailing. Indeed by November 1942 it was acknowledged that with the losses that had already been incurred, any further resupply by sea would ultimately fail.

The supply situation would get so bad in Africa that the Panzer units would steal Aviation fuel to power their tanks leaving their airmen stranded on the ground.

For victory to be attained in North Africa the Allied island of Malta would have to fall to take the pressure off the shipping supply line.

The crux of the whole campaign is Malta. All supplies from Italy to Tripoli or Benghazi have to pass within range of the island. Even the supplies from Crete that came by ship would encounter the Submarines and long range aircraft that would fly round trips between Alexandria and Malta.

Royal Opera House Valletta after an air raid 
Kesselring knew this on arrival, Admiral Raeder knew this post Sealion, the Italian high command were aware of it but were less than enthused by the prospect of a landing. However the Regio aeronautica did commence air raids on the small island catching the small British garrison and defence force off balance. Most of the defences had yet to be finished and the amount of aircraft available had been severely neglected, mainly because the RAF fighter production in 1940 had been purely for fighter command. Faith, Hope and Charity were considered to be the only three aircraft on the island, three Gloucester Sea Gladiators which were more than obsolete compared to the RAF and Luftwaffe standards but compared to the Fiat Falco bi-planes and the Italian twin bombers they were on a rough par. However in truth there were 56 aircraft (20 fighters) on the island at the beginning of 1941 which was when Geisler's units arrived in Sicilly with II/KG 26, 2./KG 4 with the escorting Me 110 fighter units 4 and III/ZG 26 and he also managed to borrow Von Richtohofen's Stabe StG 3 and Lehrgruppe 1 each with two Gruppen

Success was quick as Stuka dive bombers struck convoy MS.6 and between the Stukas and a He 111 pathfinder they sank HMS Southampton and severely damaged the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious who was pursued by Geisler's men who flew 200 sorties (losing 8) to try and sink her but she managed to get to Alexandria.
The first raids against Malta were carried out by Junker 88 bombers flying in small formations over the island with 110 escorts and then came Heinkel He 111 night bombers. The 110s were still inadequate as escorts and their charges were often damaged or shot down as their 110s ungainly struggled in the skies and the Italian fighters just didn't cope well at all. The situation was further exasperated when one of the Zestorergruppe was transferred to North Africa.

General der Flieger Geisler
Then Oberstleutnant Joachim Muncheberg arrived with 12 Messerschmitt 109 Es. They immediately began cutting through the Hurricanes and Muncheberg shot down two of four hurricanes in one go, on 26th February he shot down Flying officer Taylor Malta's resident ace. Aerial supremacy was gained and the surviving Wellington bombers were forced to withdraw and the fighter force was cut down to 24 fighters.
Stukas were used night and day, the 109s supplemented by a gruppe from JG 27 were used for free sweeps and Jabo raids but Geisler lacked the firepower to completely subjugate the whole island and after a total of 2741 sorties between January-May they only lost 44 aircraft, 62 enemy planes shot down (42 by Munchenberg's squadron and 19 by the Oberstleutnant). The threat to Greece and the Balkan situation led to the Luftwaffe force being withdrawn and the Italian airforce being put back in charge of subduing Malta and escorting convoys.

OKW agreed to Il Duce that Italy should rule their own airspace and Geisler was moved to Crete to carry out operations against the British fleet and bomb Alexandria from there. However without the quality German aircraft the RAF were quick to rearm their forces with 50 Hurricanes arriving in Mid May and a fleet of Swordfish.
Geisler's forces did not damage the royal navy but they did contain them to port and in a daring raid 100 RAF aircraft were destroyed in Abu Sueir depot on 10/11 July. However Geisler's forces were not really meant or trained for anti shipping attacks and it wasn't until  Kommando Petersen the anti shipping experts from the Atlantic and North sea were called in as were a small group of Focke Wulf Condors.

However it soon became apparent that the Italians had lost the initiative over Malta as RAF sorties grew more and more bold and voices in OKW and ObDl were vying to have Geisler and his forces returned but to do so would have been a blot on Italian honour so in the end Geisler was moved with a reduced force of 20 aircraft to police the Naples to Tripoli sea lanes. This was not ideal though and soon he was forced to use Stukas against Submarines - something they were truly unsuited for.

With the arrival of Kesselring and a lot of his Luftflotte 2 formations from Russia to set up C-in-C south at the end of 1942 a second phase in the attacks on Malta restarted. This time there was a plan for invasion. Whilst a sustained aerial bombardment by the larger formations Italian paratroop and Von Ramcke's German paratrooper force were training for an assualt codenamed Herkules. Student, the officer behind the victory on Crete had planned it with Ramcke. According to Kesselring's memoirs the draft plan was three fold.

1. Airbourne troops would take the southern heights before assualting and capturing the airfields south of Valetta after the Luftwaffe carried out a strike on the airfields.

2. Using sycronised bombing raids and in conjunction with the paratroops, Naval landings would take place south of Valetta and take the strong points and costal batteries before moving on to strike the harbour.

3. Diversionary attacks on the bay of Marsa Scirocco would draw the Allied garrison away from Valetta.

Kesselring's forces were to strike the airfields, AA batteries and naval yards in preparation for the invasion. For the second time his forces would be used in a strategic context but the difference in the attacks on Malta was that the island was a lot smaller than England and the 109s could operate with much more fuel.
German crews would often fly three sorties a day over the island (one of which against airfields). Fighters would precede the bombers with a strafing or jabo run then the bombs would fall decimating the airfields. Aerial superiority was quickly gained with Hurricane figures dropping to 20 serviceable out of 80 and 97% of all raids were taking part in daylight.
USS Wasp landed 46 Spitfires but they were quickly bounced and their airfields bombed leaving ony 27 by the next day.
The German forces were not immune however and Junker 88s suffered from heavy losses at first as they were diving individually on targets giving gunners time to take them one at a time. Soon formations would move to striking as a Squadron.

Despite these heavy raids and the reduction of Takali airfield to that of a World War One battlefield the battle was called off. Between March and April the Luftwaffe flew 11819 sorties and dropped 6557 tonnes of bombs (3150 on Valletta).

The Luftwaffe was called off. Malta was beaten and supplies were reaching Rommel in Africa in larger numbers. The Italian high command knew their troops would not be ready until August to take the island and OKW still smarting from the massacres on Crete were unwilling to throw their troops into another blood bath. The choice between Herkules and Thesius had to be made.
Rommel with his usual flair and promises of victory against the disorganised British army, who were in full retreat to their defencive line at an unknown railway halt called El Alamein. Rommel had taken vast swathes of supplies from the British at Torbruk and against all the advice from Kesselring and von Waldau he pressed for the attack. Believing that the British would soon be defeated, concern to avoid a similar blood bath on Malta as he had seen in Crete and believing fully in his Paladin Hitler shelved Herkules. Thesius went forward with results far from the German plan but I shall come to this shortly. 

As for Malta... With Herkules postponed indefinitely and Rommel charging deeper into Egypt the plan was forgotten. Loerzer, the fleigerkorps commander in Sicily had his forces scattered to the winds and reassigned. Some of them were reassigned to a blockade of Malta operating from Crete but it proved fruitless as Allied air power grew.

The Luftwaffe did manage to inflict damage upon the British ships. LG 1 interceted three convoys and sank four ships coming to 28970 GRT and three out of the four Destroyer escorts. The British response was to launch operations Harpoon and Vigorous to relieve the island and Commando raids on the bombers based at Heraklion. Though with Stuka assistance they managed to sink another two ships (12915 grt) and two more destroyers.
When the British decided to try another tacck by bringing a convoy (operation pedestal 11th August) from Gibraltar rather than Alexandria the Germans moved LG 1 to Sicily to engage it. Once a radar equipped Ju 88 found it 75 German aircraft attacked over 4 days costing the Luftwaffe 16 aircraft. They did however sink five ships totalling 52416 grt but laden with food and fuel the convoy still arrived.

One final throw of the dice was made in October 1942 and lasted all of three days. Kesselring could only manage 150 aircraft with a 50% serviceability rate and the RAF had grown in number and had a new commander, his old nemesis Keith Park formerly of 11 Group! The Germans suffered a 7.5% loss rate over the three days and even the much overrated 109Gs failed to help the situation and the RAF began using Operation Window to confuse the Freya radars on Sicily stopping the proper fighter response.
The Luftwaffe lost a total of 357 planes in two years, the Italians 175 and the island remained untaken, its operations unhindered much to the detriment of Rommel's campaign.

One of Rommel's complaints was that the Luftwaffe weren't doing enough and historians are keen to point out the lack of German aircraft over the advance towards El Alamien and even over the fortified front.
So what were the Luftwaffe doing in North Africa?

In a prophetic message to the advancing British soldiers in 1941 a fighter pilot of Jagdgeschwader 53 wrote on the blackboard of their airbase:

"We Come back... Happy Christmas!"
Two months later they had riding forward with the Panzer armies. As the successes of Rommel's push became apparent aircraft were taken from Kesselring's Malta operations and his refusal to accept Herkules and his own thirst for glory meant that the Luftwaffe were dragged along with him on his ill advised thrust into Egypt.
Von Waldau FlFu Afrika

Rommel was notoriously difficult to work with and Frohlich, the Fifu Afrika took to avoiding meetings and was eventually relieved of command and Von Waldau was placed in charge. Waldau had much more of a backbone, he wasn't willing to take Rommel's outbursts and spoke plainly. Of course Rommel's style of leadership left a bewildered Waldau guessing what was going on. During Operation Crusader Waldau held his craft back unknowing what the over all situation was and where Rommel and his tanks were. The same happened as Rommel pushed forward in Operation Thesius and for the first two days the Luftwaffe was absent from the skies. On the third day, in desperation Waldau sent his Stukas up and when they found a group of tanks heading West towards the German lines they attacked. Unfortunately they were Rommel's tanks that had got turned around in the swirling desert combat - luckily no one was killed. Better communication from the field would have averted this and given Waldau's forces more potency.

There were sevre logistical demands on the small air force in North Africa as they were caught in the same supply problems that held Rommel's forces in a vice. At any one time he had no more than a months supply of petrol until November 42 when it dropped by 90%!!! On top of that the desert proved problematic to the running of aircraft with sand clogging aircraft and engines becoming warn out from over use in operations like the air bombardment on Bin Harcheim, but I will come to that in Part V.
Larger parts like wings and undercarriages could not be brought in by airlift or shipping so a lot of damaged aircraft had to be cannibalised just to keep the few in the air and without a recovery service the number of aircraft just dwindled. This was not helped further by Rommel's rapid retreat from the line at Alamien and Luftwaffe crews were forced to abandon the lame ducks and get out with what they could.
Permanent air superiority could never be obtained in the true style of Blitzkrieg. Waldau had too few aircraft. The North African Luftwaffe never really surpassed 300 machines as the Ostfront in Russia had priority for new machines especially with the massing of aircraft for the push towards the Caucuses in mid 1942. Von Waldau also had the problem that he had no medium bomber force. The Luftwaffe needed two engine-bombers for longer term aims such as knocking out enemy airfields behind the lines, harassing communications and roads to help cause confusion and chaos. The desert was not suitable for such aircraft and none could be spared from the operations over Malta or the Mediterranean so Von Waldau had to had to work with Stukas and Jabo (Fighter bombers) which suited Rommel's needs as he really only wanted a flying artillery to give his tanks more mobility and speed.
Geisler sent raids from Crete to strike the Allies behind the lines and hit the RAF depot at Alexandra but they began to suffer from enemy fighters pushing them to night attacks. They were further hampered by the Allies stripping down Spitfires to be able to reach high altitude and intercept the Junkers 86 recon aircraft thus leaving them blind of potential targets and assess damage. Frohlich had also sent a solitary bomber to strike the French held fort Lamy on Lake Chad on a round trip of 2500km but that was about it for the Medium bombers role. The consideration that a medium bomber raid on British targets in Egypt would have led to their destruction at the hands of the larger RAF force in Egypt and the greater discipline of the RAF pilots to target bombers over fighters, unlike the Jagdflieger. 

 The Fighter pilots were a breed unto themselves. Hans-Joachim Marseille, the star of Africa shot down 17 fighters on the same day and had a top score of 158 and rivalled a fellow pilot Horst Reuter's feat of shooting down 6 Hurricanes in a single day TWICE. The famous Bomber pilot Werner Baumbach claimed that fighter pilots lacked the discipline and stoic attitude of the Kampfflieger and in Africa he is proven correct as the fighter pilots became caught up in scoring as many kills as possible to try and get bigger and bigger scores but they saw more challenge in taking down fighters which although important was not what was needed as many Afrikakorps soldiers found to their discomfort as the defence lines and Rommel's devil's gardens were bombed to oblivion. These aces began to suffer losses as the RAF improved the quality of its fighters and the 109 Fs were suddenly facing Spitfire Mark Vs and P-40s instead of the rugged and dependable Hurricanes. Though despite their losses Unteroffizier Bernd Schneider shot down a Bristol Bombay transport carrying the 8th Armies new C-in-C Lt Gen W. H. E. Gott and he was killed on impact meaning that another C-in-C a little known General called Montgomery was called up.

The third limb was the Stukageschwadern who worked so hard to help Rommel advance. They were expertly handled by Waldau who, with Kesselring's intervention, managed to tame Rommel into letting him know what was going on in advance rather which paid massive dividends in the taking of Torbruk which earned Waldau the Knights Cross and Rommel his baton. However the bombs were near useless in the desert. Unless there was a direct hit on a tank or building they were next to useless. Half of all bomb damage and casualties are caused by flying shrapnel and glass but in the desert the explosions only throw up sand which doesn't do any damage when it hits other vehicles or even soldiers.

Waldau's 300 aircraft were beset by enemy bombing attacks, SAS strikes, bad weather that turned the dust strips into swamps, supply issues that plagued the whole African adventure, huge lines of communication and with the massive advances by Rommel a head on the lines that would outrace all the important logistical sections like Fuel, signals, repair miles in the rear with no time to catch up. The situation was so dire that a glider formation was brought in to fly these necessary logistical organisations up to the front without wasting fuel.

Kesselring promised Rommel an airlift of supplies and the Feldmarschall provided. It took a bit of time as the Luftwaffe didn't have the number of transports available in the Mediterranean theatre and they had to be disengaged from the Eastern front which obviously takes time. Oberst Robert Starke with some six Gruppen of aircraft and gliders from LLG 1 were the first to arrive and begin operations. The airlift flew a total of 4425 sorties across Mittlemeer from Greece and Crete to Bengazhi flying in pulks of 25. There were extreme shortages of crews due to sickness and aircraft even though Starke took ambulances and signal aircraft and even a modified refrigeration plane to plug the gaps. These shortages meant that crews would often have to fly the trip twice a day!

The trip was perilous for the formations of Junkers 52 transports and their Messerschmitt 110 escorts. Not only were their take off times similarly heralded with an Ultra message, which of course were duly read by the RAF, they also could only fly on good weather. On the 12th May 1942 15 Ju52s were intercepted by Kittyhawks and Beaufighters, by the end of the battle 8 transports were lost and a further one damaged - 175 soldiers went down with them but only 39 were rescued.
That day one of those true acts of heroism that War brings out occurred when father of six Hauptman Kroseberg of the Search and rescue flew over the survivors and dropped his own life jacket to the men in the sea - only to go MIA before he could return.

However the crews managed to deliver 28,200 men and 4400 tonnes of supplies as well as taking back the wounded, which numbered over 10,000 for June 42, mail, Von Waldau's burnt out aero engines so that they could be repaired and retuned later. In the early stages of Thesius they carried 1000 men, 25 tonnes of material and 300 tonnes of aviation fuel- Daily!
The air fleet transferred to Brindisi in Italy at the end of a railway hub operating to Torbruk but the number of aircraft dropped to 161 aircraft by August, 50% were operational. Allied fighters were increasing in number and pressurising the transports and their escorting ME 110s from 7 and 9/ ZG 26 and 70 52s were lost in a six week period! These craft would be vitally missed that winter with the airlift to Stalingrad! Further aircraft were drafted in including Wiking flying boats and Messerschmitt gigant 323 and 321 transports and even the transport schools were mobilised to assist coming up to half the Luftwaffe's transport fleet even Bomber groups were conscripted. The sad fact was as Rommel fell back the Crete based aircaft under Wild's Lufttransportfuhrer I could no longer reach the German front lines and after Torbruk fell only the line from Italy to Bengazi remained and that was under constant pressure from a resurgent Malta. Even sadder still, and infuriating for Kesselring, Rommel blew up all the ammunition and fuel he had demanded that Kesselring's men had fought so hard to get to him as he withdrew from El Alamein.

By November '42 they had flown the Herculean feat of flying 42,000 men, 15,000 tonnes of supplies pulled 9000 wounded and sick out of the front.

It can not be said that the airmen and machines of FlFu Afrika and of Luftflotte 2 operating in the Mediterranean had not tried their utmost or not fought valiantly. Ultimately they were undone by overall strategy and logistics though.

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