Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Haddocks and the bombing of Northern Italy

   As German forces cut their swathe through northern France a large question mark began to hang over what Italy might do. Italy was neutral at the outset of the War but the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini held similar expansionist ambitions having taken Abyssinia and throughout the 1930s had been drifting into Germany's sphere. It was a consideration that the Allies had planned even before the German attack on the West with it being discussed in conference at Aden, Jerusalem and London. the French proposed a grand scheme that involved the RAF protecting Northern France and releasing the Armee de l'air to bases in the South and Tunisia which would cover Malta and attack Italian targets in Libya and Italy itself. Britain was lukewarm to the plan not wanting to commit the RAF to France on such a scale but promised to reassess should "the most need in war" require Tunisia to be reinforced. On the 3 May 1940 the Director of Plans laid out a strategy involving night attacks or with plenty of cloud cover if a day raid was attempted. Targets in Venice, Genoa, Milan and Turin were selected as the cities would be easily identifiable by the night crews and easier to find. The targets were mostly aviation industry factories such as Fiat in Turin, propeller, engine and frame work component factories around Genoa, Milanese airframe facilities and the main port at Venice which would hamper operations to shore up their positions in Albania. After these targets a list of secondary aeroplane factories was available as well as oil refineries and tank factories. Delayed action bombs were also to be used as the delayed explosions would cause a "powerful moral effect against the Italians, whose psychology was "ill-adapted to war."

   The first seeds of a forward British position in the South of France were laid out by the end of May with the aim of stationing four Wellington squadrons there. RAF strategists were keen to cut the range of their bombers and the range from the French frontier to Genoa, Turin and Milan is only around 150 miles which could equate to about an hour's flight rather than the ten or twelve the bombers based in England would face. Not everyone greeted it with enthusiasm with many in French circles fearing repercussions on French cities like Marseille for British actions. Barratt was also not enthused by the scheme as by 29 May his force had been practically wiped out and what was left was being stretched between defending a new line near Paris and trying to answer the desperate calls for support from the army. He wrote that;

   I recognise the value and possibilities of the plan, but am doubtful as to the weight of the attack that could be maintained against Italy on the slender administrative basis proposed, while I am certain that the introduction of a new force in France at this juncture must add materially to the risks of the present situation 1

Vickers Wellingtons would make up the Salon based Haddocks 
Wheels were in motion though and the Supreme war council agreed the plan on the 31 May and with the aim of attacking as soon as possible a further meeting of the French and British Air and Naval staffs was convened on the 3 June in Paris. Despite the previous discussions the French were now wavering towards a naval bombardment of Genoa and there was  concern that the simple fact of four squadrons of bombers at the end of a line of communication, a line which could be broken at any time by the Germans in the North leaving them stranded 600 miles from home were hardly going to shatter Italy alone despite the RAF Air staff' s optimistic view that an attack, however small and brief might cause "effects of outstanding importance.” Barratt was given only administrative control over the new force and responsibility for establishing their bases and logistics but not given operational responsibilities.

   Group Captain Field of 71 wing was placed in command of the newly dubbed "Haddock force" and he moved from Nantes, where he had been based following his units withdrawal on 17 May, to the French airfields of Salon and Le Vallon which sat 30 miles away from Marseille and about 250 miles from Turin. Field organised the incoming fuel and ammunition trains and a week later on the 10 June he reported all was ready. Barratt had even been able to donate some of the AASF'S Bofors guns and a battery of thirteen 3 inch guns which had been at Nantes and whose defences were due to be reinforced by more units from Britain though they had not arrived by the 10 June.

     There had of course been a chance of plan as the situation in Northern France deteriorated and the AASF and Air component withdrawing to Nantes, Rennes, and ... whilst the BEF were withdrawing from Dunkirk. The Air staff, presumably not wishing to risk personnel and invaluable aircraft had instead decided to a squadron down for two nights then replace it with another one with operations being escalated if the situation improved. There was also a shortage of fighter aircraft to act as an escort or for protection of the airfields as the three French squadrons who had been in the area on the 3 June were no longer there, three more could be sent if the British sent twenty squadrons to assist in the Northern sector - something Dowding was resisting as he felt that every available fighter would be needed for a German attack on Britain, and Barratt had none available from his command. It wouldn't mean much as RAF tacticians had appraised the weather over Italy as cloudy enough to provide cover for the day bombers and that in any event the Italian fighter force would not be adequate to intercept them.

   At 4:30 p.m. (Rome time) on the 10 June a declaration of war was handed to the French ambassador and to the British at 4:45 and Mussolini announced to a crowd from a balcony at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome that he had taken the country to war. The following day twelve Wellingtons were sent to Salon to refuel and arm for a night raid on Turin and would be reinforced by thirty six Whitleys who would fly to the Channel Islands to refuel before setting off. The Wellingtons duly arrived in Salon at 3:30 p.m. and the crews began to recover and rest after the seven hour flight and prepare for the evening's assault. Not more than thirty minutes later a staff officer for General Gama of the 11th French Bombardment group telephoned a message from the General to say the mission was not to be carried out. Field called his superiors for more information and was told that the operation was indeed on and the Whitleys were already on their way. Further French authorities contacted Field to tell him that the operation must be cancelled and even Barratt was contacted by General Vuillemin requesting it were stopped. Barratt telephoned the Air Ministry and was redirected to speak to Churchill who was at that time in France at Weygand's headquarters and was given the go ahead. When Barratt passed the message to Field he was told that the Deputé de la Marine and General in charge of the region telling him the French Government had forbidden any raid to launch from French soil. Barratt called Ismay and Churchill again and was told that the Whitleys could not be stopped and that the French Government had agreed to the strategy beforehand and now it was too late and at 10:15 p.m. Barratt relayed all of this to Field. The situation was not resolved by this though and for the next two hours the telephone in Field's office continued to ring with protestations from the French including the Naval authority in Toulon and even the Commanding officer of the 3rd Army, General Houdermon, telephoned personally three times but by twenty-seven minutes past midnight the first Wellington began to rumble along the runway but came to an abrupt stop as French military lorries spilled out of the darkness and dispersed to block the runways. The local air commander had been given orders to stop the raid at all costs. Field could do nothing but use force to deal with the invaders but decided with deteriorating weather and advanced hour that it was best to cancel the operation and let his superiors sort out a solution and his crews retired to bed.

Yorkshire based Whitleys flew through the Alps to the target area
   Meanwhile the Whitleys had reached the Alps and encountered major difficulties with the weather conditions. The bombers of 10, 51, 58, 77 and 102 Squadrons had left their bases in Norfolk in the early afternoon and arrived at Guernsey at 5:00 p.m. After three hours they took off for the Alps but severe icing conditions with many engines failing or extractor controls freezing up leaving the pilot unable to vary the pitch of the engines and gain altitude. There was also a chronic problem with fluid freezing up in the extractors piping and leak out of pin prick holes which veteran crews would refill the tubes with any fluid they had to hand which was normally coffee or urine. S/L Hanafin’s Whitley, having soldiered through the cold and cloud and dodged a barrage of from French flak, plunged headlong into a thunderstorm and was promptly struck by lightning which burnt the navigator, Sgt Green’s hand and causing Sgt Oldridge, who was leaning on his guns in the tail, to be blown into the fuselage and knocked unconscious. Hanafin also saw both engines stop and the aircraft begin to dive under the sheer weight of all of the ice on the airframe. At the last minute Hanafin managed to recover the craft and judging that he didn’t have enough fuel to cross the Alps was forced to retire with twenty three others for Guernsey.
   Those that were able to press on were struck by a combination of the beauty of the Alps below and above them as well as the relentless numbing cold for which there was little protection. The Whilety’s Oxygen system was also inadequate for long distance at high altitude which provided another source of discomfort combined with fatigue for the pilots and navigators who had been furiously concentrating since launching with only a few hours rest and they were only halfway.
   Once through the Alps they faced the new challenge of finding either the primary target of Turin or the clutch of secondary targets including Milan, Genoa, Savona or Maggiore. The target area at Turin was masked by thick cloud banks from 5-2000 feet despite the lack of a blackout. The Italian authorities had not expected any Allied bombing force attacking Italian soil and were caught out by the Whitley’s approach and quickly enforced a blackout in Turin but failed to do so in Genoa. Flak was “indiscriminate” but heavy without support from search lights.

   W/Cmdr Staton of 10 Squadron identified the target at Turin and spent sixty-five minutes over it marking it with flares to confirm his suspicions and to light it up for following bombers before commencing his attack at 1:30 a.m. with all of his bombs striking the southern end of the target building and starting green fires.

   Just ten minutes before F/Sgt Deacon of 51 Squadron attacked at 15,000 feet dripping his “2 500lb bombs and 5 250lb bombs… in one stick” causing explosions “right across the target.” He was followed at 1.44 a.m. by P/O Oettle who hit the north west of the works. F/L Budden spotted a “Self-Illuminated target, thought to be a blast furnace” and dropped a 500lb and three 250lb from 8000 feet before dropping the remainder on the Railway marshalling yards which is where Sgt Denny’s Whitley dropped all of its’ bombload. The only 58 Squadron Whitley to arrive flown by F/O McInnes claimed hitting the Aero engine shed, the railway tracks (“Causing green sparks”) and a building 300 yards away. Two Whitleys of 102 Squadron hit targets causing “Violent explosions” and fires.
   The remaining aircraft to make it as far as the target area dropped their bombs on Genoa where the city lights stayed on and like the raid over Turin put up persistent but accurate light flak which was unaided by search lights. Indeed Italy was ill prepared for an air offensive on its’ cities despite passing laws on preparation for aerial assault some
   In the coming weeks the French, who had been anxious not to provoke Italy into retaliatory strikes or an aggressive war on the ground found to their discomfort that the Italians were intent on crossing the border even if they were not aggressively bombing cities. Grudgingly they accepted Haddock force and no more attempts were made to stop them. On the 15 June, twelve more Wellingtons arrived at Salon and attacked Genoa's Piaggio and Ansaldo factories but their night navigation, which was hit and miss at the best of times, was interfered with by thunderstorms and only one claimed to have hit the target Ansaldo works whilst the rest brought their ordinance home.
   On the 16 June, the day the AASF's Fairey Battles were withdrawn from France and bad conditions kept the British based bombers on the ground, nine intrepid Haddock Wellingtons took to the sky to target Milan. Once over the border four made it through the pitch black and low cloud to hit targets in Milan including the Caproni factory and the Scato San Giovanni, one crew was certain that their bombs on the Caproni works but saw no results. In reality the explosions and fire reported did little damage and one person was killed. One of the other raiders bombed Genoa and the remainder found nothing at all and returned home to the news that Haddock was over and the whole force was to be evacuated and raids on Italy would be carried out exclusively by Britain based bombers.

   Haddock could be seen as a failure as it failed to cause any major damage or alter Italian public perception but the military situation in France dictated the amount of aircraft that could be deployed and even if they took off at all! Sadly the small number of aircraft operating in far from ideal conditions Field's command could not have done more.
   The operations of Haddock force were not the last to target Italy in 1940 with several long distance raids being carried out by Whitleys through the Alps in the Summer with it their bases in England being perversely closer to the industrial targets of northern Italy than if they were based at Malta. The journey was long and arduous with crews suffering even more from the cold and bad weather through the mountains than they had operating over Germany on Nickel missions and it was not uncommon for missions to Turin to be scrubbed at short notice due to the bad weather. It was not until late in 1940 that a squadron of Wellingtons operating from Malta, began to harass Italian ports around the Naples basin and occasionally fly further up to attack the northern industrial powerhouses but their attacks were no more than a nuisance and were soon kept in check by the combined aerial attack on the island and also by the arrival of German anti-aircraft batteries who made it harder for the RAF. A prolonged campaign against Italy would have to wait for better conditions and the availability of more aircraft.

1.         RAF official history France and the Low countries P. 410

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