Sunday, 22 January 2017

Desert offensive, Libya 1940

Blenheim Mk Is in Iraq © IWM (CM 106)
War in North Africa was not a surprise and had been planned for since July 1937 with the Committee of Imperial defence reversing the Cabinet’s decision to exclude any government expenditure for defence against Italian aggression especially in North Africa where ports and the Suez Canal in need of protection and the Desert air-force was in need of modernisation. The Air Ministry further analysed the Italian threat in 1938 concluding that Italy would cross the border with a significant air-force and two motorised divisions. The Italian Airforce was appraised as already having 174 aircraft in Libya and be able to direct a total of 730 aircraft against the RAF within two months whereas the British could muster around 200 aircraft from across the Middle East with squadrons based in Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Aden with very little hope of significant reinforcements coming from Britain and arriving piecemeal.
   A joint planning committee was set up after General Wavell’s appointment as GOC-in-C of the Middle East in August 1939 with the newly created Air Officer commanding in Chief Longmore with the aim of working with the Egyptian Government and local commanders in the Middle East to coordinate against the Italian aggression.
   The main aim of the defence policy in the Air Ministry’s mind was to centralise their control of their forces but maintain a flexible approach but bringing in support from artillery and fighter forces but the Committee assigned the limited fighter forces to the Defence commander removing the flexible approach. The Air Council also believed that the key to victory was to destroy as many Italian Bombers before they reached their targets but the tactic that the Fortress Commander was likely to employ meant that the three fighter squadrons available would be scattered to the desired defence points and perform standing patrols. Not only did this blunt the offensive power of the fighters but would also mean they were unavailable for escort missions for the Blenheim squadrons based in Egypt who were ideally placed to carry out pre-emptive strikes on the Regia Aeronautica or their bases. Although fighter organisation was modified by the Air Ministry its primary role was for defence against the Italians with a secondary role for ground attack whist at the same time ongoing talks were attempting to expand the Bomber forces with two wings deployed to the Nile Delta and two squadrons for Army co-operation to be put at the disposal of Wavell in the Western Desert with communications passing from GOC HQ to the Squadrons rapidly with targets to be hit.
   The Director of operations at the Air Ministry was keen to affect a German style approach and strike the opposition as quickly as possible with potential targets being the Italian depots and supply system and the Italian Airforce on the ground well aware that there was no repair facility in Libya which could cope with major maintenance projects meaning even moderate damage to an aircraft would result in it being a write off or being shipped back to Italy. As the RAF carried out Douhet’s vision the Royal Navy and French could disrupt resupply across the Mediterranean cutting their supply line to Italian East Africa as well as Libya.
   The relatively small British force was assigned to carry out army cooperation, assault the supply
Regia Aeronautica SM 79 escorted by Fiats
system and Regia Aeronautica whilst providing support to the Royal Navy. A very ambitious target considering that by the 10 June 1940 AHQ in Egypt had five squadrons of Blenheim Mk Is and one squadron each of Bristol Bombay and Valentia transports that could be converted to carry a 2000 lb and 2200 lb bomb loads respectively on underwing racks. A reinforcement plan had been implemented which saw the obsolete aircraft in the theatre gradual replaced with the Blenheim with 211 Squadron being the first in April 1939, 45 squadron in June and 113 squadron by September as were 30 and 55 squadrons who were transferred from Iraq giving a total strength of 132 Blenheims and the possibility of another squadron to follow. There was also a plan for up to twelve heavy bomber squadrons to come from Britain with the Bombays and Valentias filling the gap until they arrived but it was a gap that widened as events overtook the theatre with the Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens being held through 1940 for operations against the more pressing enemy, Germany.
   Another crisis facing the RAF in the Middle East was a distinct shortage of spare parts with Blenheim spares unable to support a war condition “for more than a short period” and the official history gave the example of only two spare petrol tanks being available to each squadron which would meant one of the most common areas to be hit would cause a large number of aircraft to be lost to attrition. Sir William Mitchell managed, with the approval of the committee of Imperial Defence, to “borrow” from British based squadrons to increase supply stocks across the summer of 1939 knowing that there would be no more than a trickle if war broke out on the continent. The arrival of the extra squadrons and their conversions to twin engine Blenhims had further put strain on the repair facility at Alexandria and steps were taken to free up space and to get tradesmen from Britain to alleviate the strain whilst the older, more obsolete aircraft were being packed away for dispatch to Afghanistan.
   A further facility was established at Abu Sueir to supply the operational squadrons with an aircraft storage section to provide spares, equipment and stores whilst a pilot training school was moved to the safety of Iraq. A motorised transport infrastructure was also increased as it was not adequate enough to get the supplies and squadrons to their forward bases. By December these facilities were far from perfect with them still geared to repairing single engine aircraft which would cause problems for the Blenheims who required engine replacement after 225 flying hours, the equivalent of two months of flying meaning that sixty engines would need replacing a month but the facilities could only cope with ten aircraft a month.
   Blenheim bombers were having a difficult time acclimatising to the sand with their intakes being close to the ground and very rapidly filling with sand which meant regular cleaning but there was a shortage of cleaning equipment as well as spare parts for the Lewis guns and the Blenheims Vickers K and 250 lb bombs with projections showing that after fourteen days of maximum effort the bomber force would be useless. Dust and sand would permeate into dials and interfered with the airscrews whilst the heat would make the cockpit’s Perspex crack or pop out of its fittings which put further strains on the maintenance crews, a strain not exerted by the older obsolete aircraft who had their own faults in the fact that once their spares ran out there would be no more. The sand thrown up by the aircraft taking off was so thick that pilots visibility would be next to nothing so the bombers would take off in a line abreast formation.
   The airfields available in September 1939 included five permanent stations in Egypt at Aboukir, Ismalia, Abu Sueir, Heliopolis and Helwas with further desert landing strips stretching to Mersa Matruh south of Luxor with some emergency landing grounds around the Suez Canal and Red sea. The desert landing grounds were very basic and in 1938 it was decided to build camp facilities and amass stocks of petrol and ammunition so that they could be used operationally at a moment’s notice with twelve of them operational by the outbreak of war however they varied in quality and surface including lose sand which was far from ideal. Facilities for the crews were also very basic including tented accommodation with prefabricated operations rooms and cook houses as well as Bessoneau hangers. However by the time war started some were still just patches of desert with the most basic of facilities with the deployment of the squadrons being so rushed that for the first raids armourers had trouble trying to find equipment and ammunition to get the bombers ready to take off. These emergency landing grounds were rendered unusable during the rainy seasons between November and April.  A further six airfields were immediately put into construction with their completion date due to be 1941. 

   The forces and organisation available were deemed adequate for the defence of Egypt from the Italians but should Germany become involved then the Desert Air Force would find themselves very stretched. It was also a concern to the Air ministry that the amassing of the force had been at the expense of the RAF’s bomber forces ear marked for war against Germany. If the RAF in the Middle East was to get reinforcements they had to look to factories in Egypt, India and South Africa especially as the theatre was still considered a backwater compared to France and Singapore as Germany and Japan were by far aggressively expansionistic than Italy.  

The Prime Minister in 1937 had expressed the view that Italy, although unlikely to be aggressive without assurances of German support, could no longer be regarded as a reliable friend. Limited expenditure to guard against a hostile Italy had therefore been authorised. From then onwards periodic reviews of our position in relation to Italy had been made.1 

   Italy was in a perfect position to cut the British supply lines across the Mediterranean with bombers operating across the Sicilian narrows and Libya as well as threaten the Red Sea and Suez Canal with air and naval forces in Italian East Africa. This would be their primary objective so that they could protect this colony. Any advance towards Alexandria from Tripoli would have to cross 1,100 miles of open desert which would be vulnerable to air attack however Italy had numerical superiority over Britain in the air and on the land. Italy’s air-force would need to be split between offensive duties and defensive actions to secure their maritime supply lines. The aircraft they had available according to the British European Appreciation 0n 1 April 1939 was 96 bombers, 81 Army co-operation and 90 fighters in Libya with the support of 444 bombers and a similar number of fighters based in Italy which could be available for transfer to the front to help cover the 250,000 troops.
The Italians had in reality carried out an exercise to test deployment of their bomber forces with amazing efficiency but leaving mostly light bombers behind. The main bomber in their arsenal was the Saviola Marchetti SM 79, a three-engine medium bomber nicknamed “Sparviero” (Sparrowhawk) which was also known as the Gobbo Maledetto – damned hunchback by its crews but it was considered to be “a fine and robust bomber that unfailingly operated in the most difficult conditions with great reliability.” The SM 79 had a top speed of 270 mph and a bomb load of 2645 lbs, heavier than a Blenheim. The SM 79 had a reputation from its brutally efficient operations in Spain which saw only four lost in combat through the war and killing 2800 civilians wounding a further 7000 in air raids however the lustre was waning as the world’s best bomber with the appearance of Germany’s modern Ju 88 and its reputation for invincibility being tarnished on 22 June when F/Lt Burgess shot down Tenente Solimene’s MM 22068 on a reconnaissance of Malta in a Gloucester Gladiator. A further
Gloucester Gladiators over Sollum © IWM (CM 354)
complication was that the SM 79 had no dust filters on their engines and this led to many not being serviceable. The levels of serviceability were compounded by severe shortages of spares and stocks leaving many easily repaired aircraft laying around useless on airfields. The British planners were concerned by the bomber force available to the Italians and their projections for an all out attack on Alexandria by forty eight SM 81 aircraft, each carrying 4000 lb bombloads could drop eighty-six tonnes of bombs in a day on the city and each carrying six gun emplacements making them difficult to shoot down by the RAFs Gladiators.  The Italian fighter force was made up of the robust CR 32 and CR 42 “Falco” biplanes which were on par with the Gladiator and were favoured by their pilots for their aeronautical agility. The Intelligence officers played down their capability in briefings claiming that their level of endurance was only some twenty five minutes and that the Blenheim could outpace them and belayed worry about damage by claiming that;
“If a stern attack developed the metal skin of the Blenheim will deflect the (50 calibre) shot” In September A/Sgt Blair found out the folly of this as the Blenheim he was in was attacked by an Italian fighter whose last 50 calibre bullet passed through the fuselage with a loud bang, through the pilot’s chair, through P/O Reynolds and out of the Perspex leaving Blair pulling the dead pilot off the control column and nursing the aircraft home.

   With Italy’s entry into the war the Mediterranean effectively closed to the British and Malta immediately came under siege. A few days later France’s surrender robbed Air Vice Marshal Longmore of 375 allied aircraft. However all was not bleak as the preparations for war had built up a ninety day surplus of fuel and explosives as well as a stockpile of spare aircraft but beyond that was a seventy day journey from Britain via Cape Town and the Red Sea through an ever growing gauntlet of U-Boats and light cruisers. Steps were taken to shorten this with an air bridge implemented by Group Captain Thorold in Takoradi with various stops along the 3697 mile journey to Abu Sueir but despite the length of the journey it only took six days! The first wave flew from Takoradi on 20 September. Although very useful it did put an awful strain on the incoming aircraft with a 10% wastage and already tired engines were thrust into the front line. Longmore would often complain to London of the shortages of aircraft much to Portal’s annoyance as his command suffered heavy losses but to make matters worse his protestations were supported by Wavell and Admiral Cunningham, both of whom were constantly making demands on Longmore’s command and found they were left wanting but it was something Churchill could not get to grips with and he readily criticised Longmore for holding a thousand pilots and aircraft as well as 16,000 personnel in the Middle East and suggesting he should return some to England to pass on their experiences to training units.
  As war became more and more likely Longmore believed that a Douet syle assault on Alexandria with SM 79s out pacing the Gladiators to devastating and so preparations were made whilst Air Commodore Collishaw believed that his group of three Blenheim squadrons should get in first. On the 10 June he ordered his squadrons to prepare for action and at nine minutes past midnight received the order from Longmore that his forces should:

Should carry out reconnaissance as arranged. Bombing formation as available should accompany reconnaissance in Northern area favourable targets observed especially concentrations of aircraft 2

   The Blenheims of 45 squadron took off at first light and made their approach towards El Adem air
80 Squadron's Blenheim Mk Is over the Iraqi desert © IWM (CM 109)
field by the safety of the sea. A signal from a 211 Squadron Blenheim reported the airfield was covered in parked aircraft with none of them dispersed. The force of eight Blenheims broke into sections and began their low level attacks dropping high explosives and incendiaries whilst excited gunners fired at anything that moved and at the flak batteries that began their belated accurate fire. The squadron began to gain height and reform off the coast near Torbruk when Sgt Bower’s Blenheim peeled away in flames and crashed into the sea. On the return flight F/O Finch had to make a force landing with a damaged engine and Sgt Thompson brought his damaged craft down at Sidi Barrain where it immediately burst into flames consuming the crew killing them all. A follow up raid by eighteen Blenheims of 55 and 113 squadron that afternoon suffered no losses and reported more heavy damage to the airfield and the aircraft still on the field and only the final raid’s B flight was chased by CR 32s who attacked from 12,000 feet diving down onto the Blenheims who were flying in a lose formation. Despite accurate fire they were easily outrun with the limited endurance possessed by the fighters showing through rather than the skill of the gunners. A/Sgt Ian Blair of 113 squadron had taken drums of a hundred rounds of ammunition rather than the usual sixty so that he would be able to fire longer and was found himself firing wildly at one aggressive CR 32 who pressed his attacks home.

This guy must have been twenty or thirty yards a CR 32 he was lethal from where he was. His deflection couldn’t have been very good but he was firing and I was going to have a blast at him but just as I was about to fire he broke off. 3

The standing patrols of Gloucester Gladiators reported a similar lack of Italian air activity along the border and not one bombing raid had been carried out. So where were they? The Italian High Command had indeed declared war on the Allies but had forgotten to inform their Imperial territories so aircraft were not dispersed, no raids were planned and no fighters on standby. A complication that arose over the coming months was concern about British fighter superiority as Longmore had made every opportunity to publicise the movements of his solitary Hurricane around his command making it look like several squadrons. Italian planners were hesitant to fling their bombers into action against superior forces which would leave them decimated.
   The first raid on Italian forces was hailed as a success by Collishaw and his men with many aircraft destroyed (actually eighteen) for the ttal loss of two aircraft and crews. The losses, although acceptable by Bomber Command standards in France they were concerning for Longmore who was well aware of the shortfalls of reinforcement and sent a message to Collishaw to be careful with his numbers.
   The following day the Blenheims were pressed into supporting a Naval sweep into the waters off Torbruk with twenty four Blenheims of 45, 113 and 211 squadrons were ordered to take off at dawn to target the port and airfields but low cloud meant six of 45 squadron returned to base whilst two of 211s bombers crashed on take-off and a third into a parked Bombay. The remaining six made it to the target but were intercepted by CR 32s who were easily outpaced with two of the Italians claimed by C flight. The only damage sustained came from the accurate Flak barrages thrown up by the ships in the harbour including the old First World War cruiser the San Giorgio with one of the bombers losing a propeller but managing to limp back to the British lines. The crews of 55 squadron were just as unlucky with Sgt Lulan, one of the observers, being struck by a propeller, a second Blenheim wouldn’t start whilst a third had to return due to mechanical issues. The remaining two powered on but found the target area swarming with some fifty fighters and decided that withdrawal was a better option. The only squadron to have any real luck was 113 squadron whose aircraft all got through. By the end of the day reconnaissance reported the San Giorgio was on fire and beached and a naval jetty was on fire.
   The 14 June was the Army’s turn to request assistance after a day’s rest. Fort Ridotta Capuzzo on the border was considered to be weakly held and of old Turkish brick construction so easily destructible. That morning eight of 211 squadron came in at low level dropping eleven second delayed fuses on the castle but the fuses were defective and exploded on contact showering the bombers with shrapnel. They turned for home leaving the fort still standing but damaged and an ammo dump on fire whilst that afternoon an army formation took the fort and 208 Italian prisoners. Elsewhere tow of 45 Squadron’s bombers hit Sidi Azoiz airfield and three Fort Maddalene leaving it damaged which was similarly captured by the army. A final aircraft was dispatched to bomb Giarabob and failed to return, its burnt out airframe was spotted near the target on a reconnaissance photograph near the target confirming its fate as the only confirmed loss of the day. In retaliation the Italians began bombing the British border positions.
   Torbruk offered up the most tempting target with tis naval oil reserves, army and air-force headquarters, ships of all manner in the harbour and an airfield with thirty-four aircraft operating from it. The heavy defence had precluded attack during the day but had been steadily assaulted by singular Bombays despite the first mission being scrubbed for fear of striking non-military targets. There were encouraging results with several small vessels being struck and a naval vessel sunk. Anti- aircraft fire was intensive and included “flaming onions” and searchlights which were not always effective but none of the raiders were lost. Combined raids were also carried out with eighteen Blenheims of 113 and 55 Squadron following up a successful night raid on the 15/16 June with a dawn strike but the fifteen that arrived were turned back by fighters having not done much damage. On other occasions a singular Blenheim of 113 squadron would act as a rudimentary pathfinder by bombing the port facilities at Torbruk and illuminating the target and anti-aircraft batteries for the Bombay as it approached with quite some success.
   Longmore had evaluated the Italians as being put on the defensive by Collishaw’s activities.”It obviously took the Italians by surprises and, in the case of the aerodromes, before they had effected adequate dispersal of aircraft and supplies”
   Despite this the Italians were stepping up to deal with the constant beestings and despite not attacking in the large knockout blow Douhet would have been proud of, their dawn and dusk raids on Sidi Baranni, Matruk and positions at Sollum with a dozen bombers caused problems for the RAF.
   The constant headache of reinforcement was also started to effect operations with Longmore conscious that every aircraft lost could not be readily replaced and his repeated requests for aid by fast destroyer were not being met with success. Portal simply had no spare aircraft to send and with France’s surrender and imminent German invasion looking likely his priorities were elsewhere. On top of this the Air staff gave a fresh estimation of Italian strength giving them four hundred bombers against Longmore’s two hundred across the theatre. Orders affectionately known as “Muzzling orders” were issued to Collishaw stating that “whilst fully appreciating the initiative and spirit shown by the squadrons operating under your command in the Western Desert, I must draw your attention to the urgent necessity of conserving resources”

 Longmore also took the precaution to remove 45 squadron from the desert and redeploy them in the Sudan. Air Commodore Drummond reported to Longmore that the time may come to face the Luftwaffe sooner than they had hoped.

It is clear that it would be a long while before we get any substantial wastage replacements for our forces which we shall ultimately need most desperately to ensure our holding of this country (Egypt). I therefore feel that we must consider very carefully every air operation we embark on. 4

   Operations were duly cut back to only those that provided the Army or Navy with a strategic advantage rather than short term tactical gain. Other raids were rewstricted to night operations or single aircraft. These cutbacks only emboldened the Italians who began bombing the RAFs airfields casing a retaliatory strike by four Blenheims on El Adem in conjunction with a singular on Torbruk and a withdrawal of forces from forward strips.
Arthur Longmore inspecting no.2 Armored Car Company © IWM (CM 150) 
   A sweeping assault in conjunction with the navy was planned for the 21 June with the Navy intent on shelling Badria which after original misgivings, it was agreed that the RAF should participate with 33 Squadron flying cover for the fleet as well as bombing Torbruk harbour and airfield to keep away the enemy whilst 55 Squadron had nine aircraft detailed to attack warships in the harbour. The mission was deemed so important that reserve aircraft were attached to the formation to replace any that suffered from mechanical failure. Blenheims of 55 squadron took off to attack the harbour and despite fighter interception which chased B flight away without dropping their bombs others attacked successfully leaving a large ship in the harbour on fire all for no lose but claiming two probable CR 42s who chased A flight and were kept at bay by concentrated fire. The attack by five aircraft of 211 squadron on the airfields at Torbruk and El Adem was also a success whilst the cruiser force of HMS Orion, HMS Neptune, HMAS Sydney and French battleship Lorraine all struck enemy positions and ammunition dumps encountering no problems.
   That very afternoon the GOC urgently requested attacks on a build-up of Italian forces at Bir El Gobi. A British advance managed to take Sidi Azeiz airfield following 113 squadron’s eleven strong attack and discovered dummy aircraft on the runways, a tactic claimed to be common place according to one POW throwing doubt on the RAFs claims in previous bombing missions. Another raid on 24 June on a force of 10,000 partially mobilised troops was carried out by eight of 55 squadron all reporting to drop bombs in the target area but failed to stop the formation advancing on the 29 June retaking Sidi Azeiz and Fort Capuzzo.
   Other operations were more successful including preparing to meet a rumoured Italian division at Solum and more single aircraft night raids including on the night of the 22/3 June when a lone Blenheim was guided into the target by the Italians who believed it was a friendly aircraft coming in to land and received a stick of bombs.
   The most successful attack was carried out on 27 June following information that the Italians were massing their aircraft at El Adem to El Gutti providing a temporary target. Twelve aircraft of 55 and 211 squadron attacked at dusk and caught around a hundred Italian aircraft on the runway and oil tanks in Torbruk four miles north west from the airfield. Despite heavy flak the Blenheims reported no fighters or serious damage. The follow up attack by 114 squadron at dawn the next morning did hit the airfield but encountered fighter opposition which engaged losing two of their number in the ensuing battle but claiming two of the British machines as well with a further one damaged. Another British aircraft was claimed to have been shot down over the sea with the San Giorgio beginning the barrage and joined by the airfield’s defensive guns. The wreckage that was recovered though was that of the SM 79 which was bringing Marshal Italo Balbo, Governor of Libya and military Commander in chief to the city with his remains recovered and buried on the 4 July. Further reports from POWs and reconnaissance showed that the airfield was soon abandoned and used as a transportation park.
   Although the number of sorties were scaled back at the end of June and into July the Blenheims were still called upon for further raids of strategic importance such as the rail head at Bir el Gobi on 4 July with intelligence estimating the Italians had gathered a significant level of supplies. Seven of 55 Squadron attacked but caused no significant damage to the gathered rolling stock. Between the 11-16 June Collishaw’s men had flown 106 sorties for the total loss of one Blenheim but between the 17 June and 5 July they had flown 100 sorties losing five but were starting to lose the initiative with the Regia Aeronatica becoming bolder with attacks on the Nile Delta and Desert outposts despite the Gladiator Squadrons claiming thirty four of their number in the same fortnight. On the night of 22 June Alexandria was attacked for the first time by bombers coming from the west in a clear light sky dropping bombs on the quayside and AME station. Longmore had to remain rigid though; Defensive operations but local offensive if opportune. 

  One such attack saw Collishaw working closely with his naval colleagues and dispatched nine bombers with six Gladiator escorts to attack the Bomba seaplane base whose aircraft had been harassing the Royal Navy. In a swift low-level attack saw the fifteen seaplanes on the base and their slipways bombed whilst the fighters strafed the area and set fire to a massive fuel depot whose flames also demolished a tool shed and caused two of the Italian aircraft to explode with a further ten being confirmed destroyed. A further raid on Bomba was carried out on the 20/21 August to test the defences, look for torpedo netting and evidence of Submarine activity. On the 22 August following a night raid by a Bombay three Swordfish assigned to Collishaw attacked the two submarines and their tender in the gulf of Bomba sinking one submarine and the Monte Gargane. The Blenheims of 202 group were also called to provide an aerial umbrella for naval reinforcements entering the area on 31 August and to attack all of the airfields in Cyrenaica by small formations of two or three Blenheims which were then carried out again as the Mediterranean fleet swept back to Malta with a total of eighty nine sorties being flown and successfully keeping the Italian air-force away from the British ships.

  The first phase of war in the desert was very successful with the RAF opening the hostilities with amazing effect before attrition and numerical superiority started to take its toll and the ever cautious Longmore was forced to “muzzle” his men. However his prediction that strong moral over numerical strength shone through as the four Blenheim squadrons of 202 group shone through with excellent performances for comparatively small loss.

1.         War in the Middle East Vol I p.17
2.         War in the Middle East Vol I p. 31
3.         IWM sound archive cat no. 27804 Ian Blair
4.         War in the Middle East vol I p.37


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