#BookReview – Eagles Over Husky: The Allied Air Forces in the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943

#BookReview – Eagles Over Husky: The Allied Air Forces in the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943

By Dr Brian Laslie

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, Eagles Over Husky: The Allied Air Forces in the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943. Solihull: Helion & Company, 2018. Images. Maps. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 192 pp.

Eagles

The Allied invasion of Sicily, Operation HUSKY, is often viewed as a logical progression from the North Africa campaign (TORCH) through Sicily and on into Italy. It is one of the ‘Big Four’ operations in the European and Mediterranean theatres of operations, which culminated in the invasion of Normandy. Sicily has often been either overlooked entirely or seen through a more ground-centric lens (think of the movie Patton). That being said, there has been some excellent historical work in recent years on the invasion and even some very good historical-fiction by, for example, Jeff Sharra. Perhaps overlooked is too strong a word. Overshadowed is perhaps apter and nowhere is the invasion of Sicily more overshadowed than in the realm of air power. True, there is Robert S. Ehlers excellent work The Mediterranean Air War (2015), which covers the entirety of the theatre, but a singular focus on the air war exclusively over Sicily has been missing.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black seeks not only to bring HUSKY back into focus but seeks to delve into the often-overlooked role of air power in the Mediterranean theatre, particularly over the skies of Sicily and does so by linking the tactical to the strategic. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxii) states that:

This work reconnects the role of the Allied air forces in the Battle for Sicily to the wider narrative of the air war and to the crucial Allied strategy for engaging Axis forces in the Mediterranean Theater during the Summer of 1943.

Air power itself has been viewed through various lenses, but the most notable narrative through HUSKY was that Allied air power did not live up to the promises it made – Fitzgerald-Black singles out Carlo D’Este for holding this interpretation. The author seeks to turn this traditional narrative on its head, and Fitzgerald-Black argues persuasively that some authors have focused too myopically on the tactical missteps and therefore, missed the greater strategic narrative. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxiii) argues that ‘Allied strategic success in Sicily and the Mediterranean in mid-1943 mattered far more than the failure to prevent German forces on the island from escaping.’ Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe to pay a heavy toll for defending not an only island but the theatre writ large. Also, attacks against the Italian mainland helped drive Italy from the war entirely.

CNA 1352
Wrecked and damaged Italian fighters outside bomb-shattered hangars at Catania, Sicily, under the scrutiny of an airman, shortly after the occupation of the airfield by the RAF. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1352))

In the buildup to the landings, German and Italian air power was systematically, but not entirely, destroyed. Some authors have pointed this out as a failure of air power showing their preference for a Clausewitzian decisive battle that rarely appears. The Luftwaffe, under the direction Wolfram von Richthofen removed their bombers to the Italian mainland, believing Sicily to be untenable. Attacks on German and Italian bases gained enough air superiority that the invasion took place without prohibitive interference from the Luftwaffe or Regia Aeronautica. The simple fact was that Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica to react in ways it did not want to. Some might say Allied leaders had got inside their enemy’s OODA loop (p. 54, 63).

Again, there exist critiques of Allied air power on the day of the landings, but as Fitzgerald-Black demonstrates, the Germans and the Italians seemed to be to some degree husbanding their resources. Even in doing so, it was difficult for the Luftwaffe to contest control of the skies seriously. Where engagements did occur, the author shows that ‘[E]ffectiveness cannot only be measured by casualties inflicted upon Axis aircraft.’ There were occasions (p. 83) where ‘USAAF and RAF fighters broke up enemy formations and/or forced the bombers to jettison their payloads prematurely […].’ Fitzgerald-Black does an excellent job of interweaving his analysis and engaging prose with numerous first-person accounts from both sides of the conflict. His use of Johannes Steinhoff’s remembrances adds a level of balance to the work, wherein the points and actions of both sides are brought forth. Looking at the battle in retrospect, ‘The success of the German tactical withdrawal pales in comparison to the strategic victory the Allies won in Sicily during the Summer of 1943.’ Italy was knocked out of the war and Germany was now forced to defend Europe on two fronts that soon turned into three with the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 (p. 159).

CM 5290
A line of Martin Baltimore Mark IVs of No. 223 Squadron RAF at Luqa, Malta, being refuelled and loaded with bombs for a raid on enemy positions around Catania, Sicily. (Source: © IWM (CM 5290))

One final point worth mentioning, and this is more a press decision than a note on the author’s work, but the use footnotes versus endnotes is a welcome change making it significantly easier to check the author’s sources at a quick glance. In the end, Fitzgerald-Black has done an outstanding job of refocusing attention on the air war over Sicily and has contributed to the study of air power history. His work resides alongside Chris Rein and Robert Ehlers in broadening our understanding of the Mediterranean theatre during the Second World War. His expert linking of tactical, operational, and strategic in a clear narrative allows all readers to understand that while one area of a campaign might be deemed a tactical misstep, the overarching importance of the strategic victory cannot be taken for granted.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: The first RAF Supermarine Spitfire lands at an airfield in Sicily during the drive on Messina. The airfield was converted from a wheat field and is watched by Sicilian farmers who are working on the harvested wheat. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1098))

Smashing the Axis: How the Allied Air Forces Supported the Purpose behind Operation HUSKY

Smashing the Axis: How the Allied Air Forces Supported the Purpose behind Operation HUSKY

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

In June 1943 a staff officer with 1st Canadian Infantry Division examined planning documents for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. The operation to begin the Allied assault on Festung Europa’s soft underbelly was just weeks away. During his preparations, the officer came across an air staff memorandum. It read:

Owing to the small size of Malta which limits the number of fighter squadrons which can be based there, and the distance from the beaches, it will not be possible to maintain standing patrols over the assault areas except for the first few hours after the battle starts.

The large number of Air Forces taking part in the operation […] will be employed in bombing and “sweeping” enemy airfields and communications in order to gain air supremacy and prevent Axis aircraft from interfering with our assault forces. It is probable, therefore, that few friendly aircraft will be seen by our forces on the beaches after the first few hours and the reason for this should be carefully explained to assaulting troops […] it should be made clear that, although few Allied aircraft are visible immediately over their heads, considerable air forces are, in fact, operating continually in support of them.[1]

The Canadian division was entering combat for the first time. However, it was to fight as part of British Eighth Army, famous for its victory at El Alamein under Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. Years of fighting the Germans and Italians in the desert had allowed the Royal Air Force (RAF) to hone its support for land campaigns. Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw and Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham put into practice an air support doctrine that privileged concentration of force.[2] The priority for an air force supporting the army (or navy) was to secure air superiority. The second was to disrupt the enemy movement of reinforcements and supplies behind the lines. Close air support of ground troops in combat with the enemy was third, much to many army commanders’ dismay.

3 - Italy roads and airfields (rails) FINAL
Italy’s Aerodromes and Railways (Source: Dr Mike Bechthold)

Many (but not all) British Army commanders felt that this order was incorrect. Instead, they desired control of their own air force in support of ground operations and an air umbrella that would protect their advancing forces. The British Army had tried this approach and failed in the Western Desert. During the attempt to relieve Tobruk in Operation BATTLEAXE the British Army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Under Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, the RAF caved to the British Army’s requests, even though they believed this to be a highly inefficient use of resources. This decision ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.[3]

From then on, the RAF in the Mediterranean guarded against the tendency of army commanders to request for what senior airmen called ‘penny packets,’ smaller groups of aircraft assigned to a ground commander. They also endeavoured to convince their army counterparts that the RAF’s optimal use in support of ground forces was as long-range artillery. This explains why the Air Staff memorandum included in planning documents issued to the assault forces. Aircraft should be concentrated against Axis airfields, ports, transportation networks, or shipping beyond the reach of land or sea forces to stop or limit the enemy’s ability to interfere with the land operation. During Operation HUSKY, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commander of all Allied air forces, used his air forces effectively according to the priorities set out above.

20 Naples 1
This photograph provides an excellent visualisation of concentrated targets in Naples, Italy. Numbers 1 to 5, 7, and 8 indicate wrecked or damaged vessels at the docks, while numbers 6 and 9 indicate a grain elevator and airframe works respectively. The railway yard is immediately above the airframe works (Source: US Air Force photo 27493 AC)

I have discussed the air superiority and close air support functions in previous posts. The remainder of this article will focus on the role of interdiction strikes in support of the army and its purpose in Sicily.

Why were the Allies landing in Sicily? At the Casablanca Conference in early 1943 superior British staff work and arguments led to the decision to invade Sicily once the Allies secured North Africa. General George C. Marshall, America’s top soldier, argued for Operation ROUNDUP, a cross-Channel invasion from the United Kingdom in spring 1943. He felt that this was the best way to ease pressure on the Soviets in the east. Marshall’s British counterpart, General Sir Alan Brooke, had a different assessment. There were 42 German divisions in France, more than enough to contain whatever force the Anglo-Americans could get across the Channel in 1943.[4] The Eastern Front would benefit little from Marshall’s plan. However, what if the Allies knocked Italy out of the war in 1943? The Italians had some 54 divisions, 2,000 aircraft, and the still-formidable Italian navy.[5] If Italy surrendered, it was logical to expect that the Germans would replace these losses with their forces. Nazi Germany had already shown a willingness to send forces to the Mediterranean in a crisis. They had done it in the Balkans and the Western Desert in 1941 and Tunisia in late 1942. Forces defending southern Europe could not support operations on the Eastern Front. Nor could they stand watch on or behind the Atlantic Wall waiting for the inevitable cross-Channel invasion. This was the plan the Allied air forces supported.

As news filtered in about the success of Allied landings in Sicily (under temporary air umbrellas established by fighters based in Malta, Gozo, Pantelleria, and even Tunisia), Tedder was already looking ahead to future operations in support of the Allied strategy. He wrote to his superiors in London:

Should the next week’s operations go well, I have been considering possibility of staging really heavy blows at, say, three vital centres in Italy. The whole of the Liberator force on Naples before it has to stand off to train for Tidalwave, the whole B.17 force on Rome, and if possible Harris’s Lanchester force on another shuttle service attack on suitable targets in N. Italy. All attacks simultaneous. Feel moral effect of such operations might be vital, especially if attack by shuttle service included [sic].[6]

With the landing force firmly ensconced in Sicily, Tedder unleashed his strategic bombers in another round of attacks. He hoped that Italy – tired of three years of war, having suffered massive casualties at Stalingrad and Tunis, and with Allied forces on their doorstep – was ripe for capitulation. Allied bombers in North Africa targeted Naples and Rome in particular. Both were significant as transport hubs, but Rome had the added prestige of being an Axis capital.

The Allied air forces had already paralysed the Sicilian railway system; now their focus shifted to the mainland. Naples was southern Italy’s most important railway junction. From 15 to 18 July 1943 the city suffered bombardments from United States Army Air Force B-17s, B-25s, and B-26s by day and RAF Wellingtons by night. Some RAF Boston light bombers even acted as pathfinders for a force of American B-25s, operating at night. The raids targeted the city’s marshalling yards, war industries, and nearby aerodromes.[7] According to a report by Solly Zuckerman’s Bombing Survey Unit using evidence assembled after the Allies took the city in October, ‘Naples was wiped out as a railway centre after the July attacks.’[8]

On 19 July the skies darkened over Rome as a combined force of nearly 600 medium and heavy bombers struck railway yards, war industry, and aerodromes within or near the city. Realizing the enormous political ramifications of this raid, the American aircrews were thoroughly briefed. They were to avoid targeting the Vatican, and the raid was preceded by dropping leaflets to warn the local population of the pending attack. Despite these and other efforts to prevent civilian casualties the bombers still killed between 1,700 and 2,000 people.[9] The raids effected a 200-mile gap in the railway system from Rome to Naples for 48 hours and contributed to the wider campaign of paralysing the Italian railway system by destroying rolling stock, locomotives, and their repair facilities. The trains were no longer running on time in Italy.[10]

24. Littorio 2
Wrecked rolling stock at the Littorio Rail Yards near Rome, Italy (Source: US Air Force photo B-62176 AC)

More importantly, the raid on Rome helped to drive the Italians out of the war. At the time of the raid, Benito Mussolini was meeting Adolf Hitler at Feltre in northern Italy. Mussolini’s task for this meeting was to secure his country’s removal from the war. He failed as an irate Hitler shouted him down, complaining about the failure of the Italians to provide adequate bases for the Luftwaffe and the resulting heavy losses the Germans had suffered defending Sicily.[11] Mussolini returned to Rome when he heard about the raid and less than a week later King Victor Emmanuel III replaced him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The new government set about contacting the Allies to sign a separate armistice, which they did on 3 September 1943.

Popular accounts feature Hitler’s response in the form of the operation to rescue Mussolini. What is more critical is Operation Achse. This was a plan for German forces to disarm Italian forces in Italy, the Balkans, and southern France in the event of an Italian defection or surrender. In addition to the four German divisions fighting in Sicily, a further ten were already on their way to Italy or had just arrived.[12] The German force in Italy would grow to nearly 25 divisions at the time of the invasion of Normandy.[13] Even without counting the German forces arrayed in southern France and against Tito’s Partisans in the Balkans, the Allied strategy set out at Casablanca had worked.

The Allied aims for Operation HUSKY were to open the central Mediterranean to Allied shipping, topple Italian fascism, force the Nazi high command to defend southern Europe on its own, and secure bases from which to continue the war in Italy. The American, British, and Canadian armies fighting in Sicily played their role in this mission with the support of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force, capturing the island by 17 August 1943. However, so too did the Strategic Air Force. Their raids on mainland Italian railway transport made Axis resupply efforts difficult and forced the enemy to use other less efficient methods to move their forces and supplies. This approach would later become the basis for the Transport Plan in support of Operation OVERLORD in 1944.[14] These same raids brought pressure on the Italian state to shed Fascism and change sides in the war. In this way, the strategic mission of the Allied soldiers and the Allied airmen (even those flying missions hundreds of miles away from the front) were one in the same.

Author’s note: As an aside, while the Allied air forces managed to paralyse the Sicilian and southern Italian railway systems in mid-1943, they were also unable to stop the Axis evacuation of Sicily in August. Should air commanders be held to account for failing to prevent the successful Axis evacuations across the Strait? I will save this topic for a future post, but you can always read Eagles over Husky to examine my answer.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and is a Master of Arts in Public History candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s first book, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943, was published in early 2018. His research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He operates a blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: Armourers are fuzing a 4,000-lb HC ‘Cookie’ bomb at Kairouan West, Tunisia, before loading it into a Vickers Wellington MkX of No. 205 Group RAF, during preparations for a night bombing raid on Salerno, Italy, before Operation AVALANCHE in September 1943. Another airman carries winches aft of the bomb-bay to manoeuvre the bomb underneath the aircraft. (Source: © IWM (CNA 4071))

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[1] Library and Archives Canada, R112-104-3 Kardex System, Vol. 10868, War Diaries Canadian Planning Staff Files, March to June 1943, Air Staff Memorandum.

[2] For a new interpretation that gives Collishaw proper credit for these developments, see: Mike Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), p. 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mike Peters, Glider Pilots in Sicily (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2012), p. 3.

[5] Douglas Porch, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (New York, NY: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 2004), p. 417.

[6] The National Archives (TNA), Kew, UK, AIR 20/3372, Cypher telegram from Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder to Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, 10 July 1943. There had been earlier shuttle runs using Avro Manchester and Lancaster bomber aircraft. These runs were deemed logistically unsound and Bomber Command settled for attacking the industrial cities of northern Italy from bases in the United Kingdom.

[7] TNA, AIR 23/6325, Northwest African Air Force operation ‘Husky’ report, Part A: The Invasion and Conquest of Sicily, pp. 9-10.

[8] The Solly Zuckerman Archive, University of East Anglia, Bombing Survey Unit/6/7, Air Attacks on Raid and Road Communications, Appendix II, Part 3.1: Naples pp.98-99.

[9] Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 524.

[10] Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2018) pp. 112-6.

[11] Albert N. Garland & Howard McGraw Smyth, The United States Army in World War II: The Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1965) p. 243.

[12] List compiled from Ibid., P. 248 and 293, and Helmut Heiber & David M. Glantz (eds.), Hitler and His Generals: Military Conferences 1942-1945 (New York, NY: Enigma Books, 2004).

[13] Porch, The Path to Victory, p.656.

[14] Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), p. 152.

#BookReview – Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II

#BookReview – Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II

By Dr Brian Laslie

S.P. MacKenzie, Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. viii + 256 pp.

9780700624690

I do not consider myself superstitious. Being a Historian is not a career field where one feels the need to be ‘lucky.’ That being said, I will admit to having more than a few sports shirts and hats that I consider lucky. I also admit to wearing a ‘rally cap’ from time to time, you know when I need the baseball gods to allow a game-winning hit. These instances, in reality, do not matter. I do not (nor should I) consider them life and death issues. However, I can think of instances where being superstitious seems completely warranted. S.P. MacKenzie’s new work Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II is a concise and laser-focused study that delves into the steps taken by allied aircrews (British and American) to ensure their survival using methods that MacKenzie calls ‘magical thinking,’ what is recognised universally as superstition.

MacKenzie breaks his examination of aircrew superstition into asking for miracles (religion), Talismans and Mascots, Incantations and rituals, Jinxes and Jonahs, and Numbers and symbols. MacKenzie’s work goes a step further than many other works that look at the motivations of soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines. It is often said, aircrews and soldiers on the ground fought for each other, but what motivated them as individuals? What made them capable of climbing into their aircraft despite the overwhelming sense of fear or dread and the knowledge that the chance of death was weighted heavily against their survival? MacKenzie points to the belief that a ritual, charm, or item protected them from harm.

MacKenzie shows that between training accidents, accidents in theatre, and actual combat the chances for survival among allied aircrews was low.

In practice this meant tours in which statistically speaking, the chances of being killed, wounded, or taken prisoner usually exceeded those of emerging unscathed. (p. 6)

Over the course of hours flown or combat missions completed, ‘only 25 percent of heavy-bomber crewmen were emerging unscathed from their twenty-five mission combat tours.’ (p. 7) Though the number of tours increased throughout the war and with death so nearby, it was no wonder these men turned towards a power beyond their control. The logical fallacy of Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) often played into the beginnings or creation of superstitious aspects of flying during the war. Perhaps a coin or photograph discovered in a pocket after a particularly harrowing mission or a gift of a lucky rabbit’s foot by a friend. It seems almost anything could take on special meaning to a flyer.

FRE_002761
Major J.A. Goodson, the so-called ‘King of the Strafers,’ never flew without a signet ring talisman. (Source: © IWM FRE 2761)

On the importance of religion, MacKenzie demonstrates that American crew members were more likely to attend either a service or speak with a religious figure than their British colleagues. Church attendance declined in England in the first half of the century (perhaps because of the impact of First World War) while it increased in America, but religious aspect aside both nation’s aircrews put plenty of stock in other aspects of ritual and talisman to ensure their safety. If not religion, then aircrews turned to items or rituals, anything they believed gave them against the death that was surely coming for them. Magical thinking was not limited to junior officers or line pilots. Towards the end of his work, MacKenzie also lists several very senior air commanders who each held their own superstitions. It seems rank or position provided no hindrance to the necessity of using magical thinking to protect one’s place on the Earth during the Second World War.

While MacKenzie adds that this magical thinking was not universal, it did play a role in many of the aircrew’s lives throughout the war. In the closing pages of Flying Against Fate, Mackenzie states:

The place of magical thinking in other professions where skill cannot fully substitute for luck – notably sports – continues to be subject to academic research and interpretation’ (p. 103).

Indeed, if there is a critique of this work, it is that the link between superstition and high-performance activities, war and sports should have been made earlier and with more emphasis. MacKenzie’s study partners well with Mark Wells’ Courage and Air Warfare.[1] MacKenzie also admits to looking only at British and American aircrews and a study that the role of magical thinking and superstition played in the Axis powers, or other allied nations would undoubtedly bring further clarity to the roles and actions of airmen during the Second World War writ large.

Although a relatively short work, MacKenzie has created an indispensable book for those interested in the motivations of allied aircrews who looked for any means necessary to ensure their survival. The author mastered telling his story in a concise and yet heavily researched material that prevents both sources and a heavy dose of first-person accounts. This appeals not only to those interested in aviation history or air power in the Second World War but those interested in the mechanisms used to cope through Total War. As such historians and those interested in the psychology of the military and professionalism in the force will find much to consider.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: Squadron Leader T. Sweeney, the Roman Catholic chaplain of an RAF wing operating in Central Burma, conducting Mass in a wooden pagoda which has been made into a chapel. (Source: © IWM (CF 394))

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[1] Mark K. Wells, Courage and Air Warfare: The Allied Aircrew Experience in the Second World War (London: Frank Cass, 1995).

#BookReview – Bailout Over Normandy: A Flyboy’s Adventures with the French Resistance and Other Escapades in Occupied France

#BookReview – Bailout Over Normandy: A Flyboy’s Adventures with the French Resistance and Other Escapades in Occupied France

By Luke Truxal

Ted Fahrenwald, Bailout Over Normandy: A Flyboy’s Adventures with the French Resistance and Other Escapades in Occupied France. Philadelphia, PA: Casemate, 2012. Pbk. Editor’s Note. 288 pp.

Fahrenweld

The Second World War is littered with stories of downed airmen and their experiences behind enemy lines. Throughout the European air war, thousands of Americans found themselves on the run in German-occupied territory. Each of their experiences provides an opportunity to analyse these cross-cultural interactions. Ted Fahrenwald’s account as a downed American fighter pilot in occupied France gives historians an insight into many of the experiences of an American airman on the run. Fahrenwald, who was shot down and later rescued by the French resistance, or the Maquis. Later, German soldiers captured Fahrenwald as he tried to make his way back to the American lines. Before being sent to a prison camp, the downed fighter pilot escaped and once again found himself on the run. Eventually, American troops of the US Third Army found Fahrenwald after he had taken up residence in the home of a French family.

Readers are introduced to Fahrenwald as a fighter pilot. He jumps right into the action and describes the daily grind of flying missions as a part of the US Eighth Air Force. Each of his daily briefings takes place long before sunrise. Fahrenwald is frank in his descriptions of his combat experience shortly before he was shot down. The author describes himself as a pilot who had been exhausted by the greater demands of supporting the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944.  Before one take off, his ‘fingers had developed a tremor.’ (p. 13) The wear and tear of his previous ninety-nine missions are prevalent throughout the first pages of the book.

FRE_000333
Pilots of the 486th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group, in front of a P-47 Thunderbolt named “Sweetie” at Bodney air base in March 1944. Left to right, top row: Lieutenant Woodrow W. Anderson, Lieutenant Stanley G. Miles, Lieutenant Frank A. Cutler, Lieutenant Martin E. Corcoran, Lieutenant Donald Y. Whinnem. Left to right, middle row: Lieutenant-Colonel Luther H. Richmond, Captain Stephen W. Andrew, Lieutenant Thomas W. Colby, Lieutenant Henry J. Miklajyck, Captain Edward J. Gignac, Lieutenant Alfred L. Marshall, Lieutenant Alton J. Wallace, Lieutenant Robert C. Frascotti, Lieutenant Donald H. Higgins, Major Willie O. Jackson. Left to right, front row: Lieutenant Lloyd A. Rauk, Lieutenant Warren H. Brashear, Captain Franklyn N. Green, Lieutenant Donald W. McKibben, Lieutenant Theodore P. Fahrenwald, Lieutenant Robert C. MacKean, Lieutenant Edwin L. Heller, Lieutenant Joseph L. Gerst. (Source: (c) IWM (FRE 333))

Throughout the text, we see Fahrenwald rapidly adapt to his surroundings. Fahrenwald’s relationship with the Maquis evolves from that of a foreigner to a full-fledged member of the group. After he bailed out a family took Fahrenwald in and gave him clothes. He admits during this time that he spoke little French and had difficulty understanding those who were helping him (p. 25). After he was sent to the Maquis, he began to assimilate. Weeks later when American soldiers discovered Fahrenwald at the home of another family, the soldiers mistook him for a French citizen. Fahrenwald spoke, dressed, and acted French. After several minutes he informed the American soldiers who he was in English. Still not convinced, he was interrogated by a ‘Captain Ford’ of the 90th Infantry Division. After successfully answering several questions to prove he was not a spy, Ford sent Fahrenwald back to the American camp (p.258-60). In a matter of weeks, Fahrenwald had successfully adapted to his new environment.

Fahrenwald also noted the distrust of outsiders amongst the Maquis. Despite aiding him, there are several points at which his loyalties are questioned. In one instance Fahrenwald stated that one Frenchman, Canoe, believed Fahrenwald to be a German in disguise. He said that Fahrenwald ‘was too thin and too blond’ to be an American (p. 35). Over time members of the Maquis began to trust Fahrenwald. Once other downed pilots joined his group, the relationship soured. He wrote, ‘[N]ow, instead of being one of them as of old, I was one of a tight little clique of English-speaking fliers’ (p. 73). After his escape from a German prisoner camp, he hid with a family that had ties to the Maquis. One of the members, Robert, yelled at Fahrenwald about a failed supply drop that cost him most of the members of his group (p. 229). While willing to help, French fighters preferred to keep their distance from Fahrenwald and other outsiders.

media-14325
P-51 Mustangs of the 486th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group, come to Debden to fly with the 4th fighter Group the following day on the first 8th Air Force ‘Frantic’ mission – England to Russia, and return via Italy. 20 June 1944. (Source: (c) IWM (UPL 14325))

While Fahrenwald provided a detailed account of his time in France, these memoirs are incomplete. The author writes very little about his missions before when he was shot down. This book begins with Fahrenwald’s final missions as a fighter pilot. He left out his training and months of flying as a fighter escort prior. Readers and historians alike miss out on valuable information such as the learning curve from training into combat. Readers are also left to speculate as to Fahrenwald’s interactions with civilians in the United Kingdom. As a fighter pilot based in the United Kingdom, he spent more time interacting with British civilians than time with the French. This likely had some effect on his experiences while he was on the run in France. By jumping right into the action, the author left out elements that detract from the book and leave the reader wondering.

Historians will find this text useful as a primary source. Fahrenwald examined his time with the Maquis as a foreigner. Those writing about the Maquis during Operation OVERLORD should examine this book. The author records both the actions and the thoughts of the Maquis well during this period. Fahrenwald’s account also adds to the history of the air war. He provides an excellent first-hand account of his time escaping and invading capture.  Historians will find Fahrenwald’s account useful as a primary source.

Luke Truxal is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas. He is currently writing his dissertation ‘Command Unity and the Air War Against Germany.’ Truxal completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas titled ‘The Failed Bomber Offensive: A Reexamination of the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943’ in 2011. His current research focuses on the command relationships between the British and Americans during the air war in Europe from 1942 to 1944. Truxal is currently teaching at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, TN. He can be reached on Twitter at @Luke_Truxal.

Header Image: Ground crew stand beside a P-47 Thunderbolt named “Sneezy”. This aircraft was flown by Lieutenant Donald McKibben of the 486th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group. Source: (c) IWM (FRE 327))

#BookReview – Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force

#BookReview – Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

Brian D. Laslie, Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 21 b/w Photos. Hbk. 236 pp.

Architect of Air Power Cover

With Architect of Air Power Brian D. Laslie, Deputy Command Historian at NORAD and US Northern Command and an Adjunct Professor at the US Air Force Academy had two mutually supporting goals. The first is to offer readers a biography of General Laurence S. Kuter, one of the select few US Air Force (USAF) officers to serve the majority of his 35-year career as a general officer (the others were Generals Curtis LeMay, Lauris Norstad, and Hoyt Vandenberg). The second is to acknowledge that Kuter’s

[c]areer dovetailed with the rise of an adolescent air power and ended with a fully grown and mature air force capable of global monitoring and response. (p. xi)

In other words, Kuter was an architect of the USAF. Many of the modern USAF’s principles and methods owe their origins to his work.

The biography is organised chronologically, beginning with Kuter’s adolescence and time at West Point and ending with his service as a four-star general commanding the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), retirement, and passing. Laslie has assembled an impressive array of sources to discuss Kuter’s life and career. He draws on Kuter’s incomplete autobiography, collections at the USAF Academy library (including Kuter’s papers and those of several his contemporaries), oral histories, diaries, and letters. One highlight of the book is how Laslie captures Kuter’s relationship with his high school sweetheart and wife, Ethel Kuter (née Lyddon). Ethel’s diary was slowly overtaken by references to Kuter beginning in 1922, and the pair wrote over 1,000 letters to each other during his time at West Point.

Laslie takes his readers on a mission to understand why so little has been written about Kuter. One reason is that Kuter did not make a name for himself with flying exploits or by leading air formations into battle. Kuter did not join the US Army Air Corps because of romantic visions of flight. Instead, he joined to be a better artillery officer. Only later did he become fully immersed in exploring a new kind of warfare – mainly at the operational rather than tactical level. In August 1941, Kuter became one of the authors of AWPD-1, the first comprehensive plan for winning the war against Germany through aerial bombardment. In the early months of America’s Second World War, Brigadier General Kuter (one of the youngest general officers in the US Army) was a go-between for General George C. Marshall and Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold. He also had a significant hand in setting up the latter’s Air Staff as the US Army Air Forces achieved autonomy. Kuter made a name for himself with his organisational skills rather than his combat command ability.

Recognising this, Arnold sent Kuter to Europe in late 1942 to gather command experience. Kuter commanded the Eighth Air Force’s 1st Bombardment Wing under Brigadier General Ira Eaker. One of Eaker’s assistants, James Parton, later claimed that Eaker had fired Kuter for declining to fly on combat missions. Laslie has proven these accusations to be unquestionably false. In fact, while Eaker gave Kuter the worst performance reviews of his career, he also tried to retain Kuter’s services. Laslie believes Eaker did this to provide Kuter with more time to prove himself; he had served under Eaker for only five weeks.

© IWM (CNA 408)
Senior Allied Air Commanders gathered at the Headquarters of the North African Tactical Air Force, Ain Beida, Algeria. Left to right: Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Mary” Coningham, Air Office Commanding, NATAF, Major General C A Spaatz, Commanding General, North-west African Air Forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Mediterranean Air Command, and Brigadier General L S Kuter, Deputy Commander, NATAF. (Source: © IWM (CNA 408))

This is another of the reasons for the lack of attention afforded Kuter. He never stayed in one place long enough to make a name for himself. Kuter’s next stop was North Africa. He would serve as the deputy to Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force. He served in this position for only four months, but he still made immense contributions to the war effort and the future of the US air power. Kuter’s brainchild was FLAX, a well-planned and executed operation to destroy the Axis air bridge between Sicily and Tunisia. He also learned how to implement a proper ground support system in the field. When he returned to Washington to work under Arnold his experiences in North Africa were codified in Field Manual 100-20. This document is considered both the air force’s ‘declaration of independence’ and the basis for the USAF’s tactical air power concepts to this day.

Kuter’s next command opportunity overseas was in the Pacific. Now a Major General, Kuter was quickly replaced in a reshuffling of officers following the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. He then moved to Air Transport Command, where he supported General Douglas MacArthur’s buildup in Japan following the island nation’s surrender. After less than a month, Kuter once again returned to Washington. As Laslie notes, ‘as soon as [Kuter] established and organized the flow of men and material, he was pulled from the theater.’ (p. 122)

Another reason Laslie offers us for Kuter’s relative obscurity is the man’s level-headedness. People want to write about innovators and controversial figures, not respectable architects. Laslie makes this observation early in the book: ‘If the famous early aviators – men like Curtis LeMay and Jimmy Doolittle – were cowboys, then Kuter represented the first-generation lawman who came to town to impose order.’ (p. 18) One of the arduous tasks Kuter had to handle while working under Arnold in 1942 were the requests from various theatre commanders for more and better aircraft and properly trained crews. At the time, there just were not enough aircraft to train crews in the United States and supply US Army Air Forces in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. President Roosevelt had also promised the Royal Air Force a share of American aircraft production. This added strain was worth it since many British Commonwealth pilots already had combat experience. Although the theatre commanders could be quite forceful in their requests, Kuter never let it get the better of him, and his level-headedness set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Perhaps, therefore, when Arnold could not attend the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Kuter attended in his place. In doing so, Kuter jumped the queue in front of three-star generals.

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Continental defense warning systems of the North America. (Source: Wikimedia)

Kuter’s Cold War career is equally fascinating. He never held or coveted the positions of Chief of Staff or Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF (perhaps another factor in his relative obscurity). His work establishing the USAF Academy and achieving accreditation for the Air University were architectural moves that produce new generations of air force officers that continue to mould the modern USAF. As a four-star general, Kuter commanded America’s aviation in the Pacific theatre, consolidating these forces under one command: PACAF. He also oversaw NORAD as it dealt with growing Soviet missile offensive capability in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In his preface, Laslie notes the difficulty associated with writing biography suggesting that:

Historians must tread the perilous course of being objective while at the same time proclaiming why subject needs individual attention in the first place. (p. xi)

Laslie has played this balancing act marvellously. He pulls no punches, willingly calling out Kuter when his ideas or actions were wrong, especially his belief in strategic air bombardment as a war-winning approach. Laslie carefully provides the reader with enough context so that he or she may understand why Kuter made these errors. In fact, it is these very moments, so well captured by Laslie, that make Kuter and the history of the USAF such a fascinating subject.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and is a Master of Arts in Public History candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s first book, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943, will be published in early 2018. His research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He operates his blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: Republic of Korea Air Force Lieutenant General Cho Won Kun flies with the 35th Fighter Squadron out of Kunsan Air Base, c. 2009. The 35th Fighter Squadron forms part of the 8th Operations Group of the 8th Fighter Wing. The 8th Fighter Wing is assigned to the Seventh Air Force, which reports to PACAF. (Source: Wikimedia)

#ResearchNote – A Different Kind of Shooting: A Photo-Recon Pilot’s Life in 1944

#ResearchNote – A Different Kind of Shooting: A Photo-Recon Pilot’s Life in 1944

By Mike Hankins

One of the lesser known large contributors to Allied victory in World War II was the role of aerial photographic reconnaissance. The allies relied on up-to-date photographs from the air. Flying these photo ‘recce’ missions could be every bit as harrowing as combat sorties. Recce planes flew over enemy territory with their guns removed and replaced with cameras. If they were attacked, pilots had no choice but to try and escape using only speed and manoeuvring, hoping to hide inside cloud cover or just to outrun the enemy. Up until the D-Day invasion, many of these missions were flown at extremely high speed and low altitude, as low as five to fifteen feet over the beaches of Normandy. Pilots likened these missions to throwing dice across a gambling table and called them ‘dicing’ missions. To get an in-the-cockpit view of what flying recce missions could be like, I am going to outline a brief period in the career of First Lieutenant George Adams, Jr., who joined the 30th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (PRS) in Toussus le Noble, France at the end of July 1944.

Adams flew the F-5, which was a Lockheed P-38 Lightning modified to take photos. The P-38 was not an uncontroversial plane, drawing mixed reviews from those that flew it. Ace fighter pilot Captain Jack Ilffey called it ‘a beautiful monster.’[1] Famed pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds, later noted for his contributions to air combat in the Vietnam War, first earned ace status in a P-38 in World War II. As he recalled,

I loved the P-38 but I got those kills in spite of the airplane, not because of it. […] The P-38 Lightning was too much airplane for a new kid and a full-time job for even a mature and experienced fighter pilot. Our enemies had difficulty defeating the P-38 but, as much as we gloried in it, we were defeating ourselves with this airplane.[2]

Although, from an air combat perspective, the P-38 was not nearly as effective as other fighter types, such as the North American P-51 Mustang, the Lightning’s high speed, long range, and sheer toughness allowed it to excel in the role of photo reconnaissance. Allied forces had learned early on that a group of F-5s together was easily spotted, so to reduce the likelihood of being seen, photo reconnaissance missions were often flown by single planes, unescorted and completely alone, usually deep over enemy territory.

2-Adams after landing in Mussidan, France
Adams after landing in Mussidan, France. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

Adams happened to arrive at a time when the 30th PRS was busier than it ever had been. The official unit history referred to August of 1944 as the ‘month of months.’ Ten August 1944 saw more missions take to the air than on D-Day itself. [3] For Adams, however, that month witnessed one of the defining moments of his career and very nearly cost him his life.

3-Adams welcomed in Mussidan
Adams welcomed in Mussidan. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

On 3 September, Adams was flying a reconnaissance mission over Belgium, when the weather took a turn for the worse. Due to extremely limited visibility, Adams flew far off course. With his fuel tanks almost empty, he had no choice but to land in the town of Mussidan in southwestern France. Luckily, just over one week previously on 25 August, the town had been liberated by the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). The townspeople welcomed him as a hero and gave him a place to stay at a nearby hotel for three days. The French resistance was able to purchase some German gasoline, and at the first sign of clear weather, on 6 September, Adams took off. After signalling his thanks by flying a few victory laps around the town, he headed back to Toussus le Noble.[4]

Adams’ ordeal was not over. The weather, which the 30th PRS unit historian called, ‘the airman’s most relentless foe,’ again proved troublesome for Adams on his flight back to base. After becoming lost in rough weather and losing all radio contact with his commanding officer, Major William Mitchell (not to be confused with the other Billy Mitchell, author of Winged Defense), Adams attempted to land in a field near Morannes and slammed his P-38 into a grove of trees. Adams himself was unharmed, but the aircraft was disabled. There was a military group at Morannes, and Adams stayed with them before travelling to an airstrip at Le Mans, about thirty miles away. Cooperating with intelligence services at Le Mans and the FFI, Adams tried to contact Major Mitchell but was unable to do so. The officials at Le Mans eventually brought Adams to Versailles on 8 September, where he was able to reconnect with the 30th PRS, and he returned to flying duty the next day.[5]

4-The wreckage of Adams' P-38 near Morannes
The wreckage of Adams’ P-38 near Morannes. (Source: Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3)

Typically, the weather of the winter months limits photo recce missions. However, that was the least of the allies’ problems in December of 1944 as eight panzer divisions tore their way through the Ardennes forest, beginning what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 30th PRS joined the battle, providing valuable photographs to aid ground units. However, the weather again reared its head. Only five days before the end of the year were suitable for taking photos. The 30th managed to squeeze out 96 missions in those five days. Adams and his fellow pilots flew as much as possible, including flying multiple missions on Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and New Year’s Eve. The squadron set a record for a number of photographs processed: nine miles of film, consisting of 44,306 negatives that produced 153,579 prints.[6]

On New Year’s Day, 1945, ground forces requested an urgent, secretive mission to be flown over a particularly well-defended area of the German lines during the Battle of the Bulge. The nature of the photographs needed required a low-altitude approach of 2,000 feet, rendering the reconnaissance planes especially vulnerable to ground defences. Adams and six other pilots volunteered for the job. Four of them, including Adams, flew out twice. Despite the heavy risk and the intrusion of adverse weather conditions, the mission was a success, providing valuable intelligence to the front lines. The secretive nature of the mission prevented much discussion of it at the time, however, several months later, on 21 July 1945, Adams was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying his ‘unarmed photographic aircraft under circumstances entailing utmost courage and skill.’[7]

In the popular memory of World War II, we often tend to celebrate or romanticise the fighter pilots or bomber crews that engaged in seemingly heroic combat actions. However, Adams and his fellow recon pilots should not be forgotten. They took serious risks and made key contributions to the Allied victory in World War II.

Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: Ground personnel of the 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group fit cameras into a Lockheed F-5 Lightning before a long-range mission. Image by Staff Sergeant Robert Astrella, 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group. (Source: ©IWM (FRE 5390))

[1]    Robert F. Dorr, ‘Why the P-38 Flunked in Europe,’ Aviation History 24 (May 2014), 22.

[2]    Ibid.

[3]    US Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell AFB, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of August, 1944; Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Personal Papers of George Adams, Box 3, George Adams Pilot Information File, August 1944. Hereafter, the Adams Papers.

[4]    AFHRA, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of September, 1944; Testimony of Labattu de Montpon, as related in email from Mayor Stephane Triquart to Bruce Adams, 21 January 2016.

[5]    AFHRA, 30th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Unit History for the Month of September, 1944.

[6]    Ibid.

[7]    AFHRA, Recflash, Vol. 2 No. 1, Highlight Missions, 2, attached to Historical Records and History of Headquarters 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Month of January 1945; Morse Special Collections, Kansas State University, Adams Papers, Box 3, Quote from Distinguished Flying Cross award citation, General Orders 116, 27 June 1945.

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

By Dr Alan Stephens

This week marks the 74th anniversary of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, arguably the most significant action fought by Australians during World War II.

Between December 1941 and April 1942, Imperial Japanese forces shocked Australians with their victories over the United States at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines; and over the British Commonwealth in Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Rabaul. When enemy forces occupied northern New Guinea, an invasion of Australia, with its unthinkable consequences, seemed possible. However, supported by their American and British allies, Australia’s servicemen and women regrouped and fought back.

From mid-1942 onwards, Australian victories with American support at Milne Bay and Kokoda, and the triumph of American naval air power at Coral Sea and Midway weakened Japan’s hold on New Guinea. Further Allied successes on New Guinea’s northeast coast at Buna, Gona and Sanananda between November 1942 and January 1943 left the Japanese position substantially weakened.

Then, intercepted radio messages revealed that an enemy convoy would sail from Rabaul with reinforcements for the vital Japanese garrison at Lae on the northeast coast of New Guinea in late-February. This was likely to be Japan’s last throw of the dice in New Guinea. If the convoy were stopped, then so too would be the likelihood of an invasion of Australia

Allied Air Forces under the command of the American General George Kenney immediately began preparing for an all-out assault against the convoy. A critical factor was the brilliant plan largely conceived by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Group Captain William “Bull” Garing. Garing had already fought in Europe for two years with the RAAF’s No. 10 Squadron, and his experience of maritime warfare was to prove decisive.

nwa0471
Group Captain Garing RAAF (standing, right) hands over information to his successor Group Captain McLachlan, seated at the office desk, c. 1943. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

It was Garing who convinced General Kenney of the need for a massive, coordinated attack. Garing envisaged large numbers of aircraft striking the convoy from different directions and altitudes, with precise timing.

Initially, the allies would rely on reconnaissance aircraft to detect the convoy, which would then be attacked by long-range United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombers. Once the convoy was within range of the allies’ potent anti-shipping aircraft – RAAF Beaufighters, Bostons and Beauforts, and American Mitchells and Bostons – a coordinated attack would be mounted from medium, low, and very low altitudes.

During the waiting period, crews practised their navigation and honed their formation flying, bombing, and gunnery skills.

Six thousand four hundred Japanese troops embarked at Rabaul between 23 and 27 February 1943, and the convoy of eight merchant ships and eight destroyers sailed just before midnight on the 28th, planning to arrive at Lae on 3 March. Air cover was provided by about 100 fighters flying out of bases in New Ireland, New Britain and New Guinea.

The enemy convoy initially was favoured by poor weather, which hampered Allied reconnaissance. It was not until mid-morning on 2 March that USAAF B-24 Liberators sighted the ships. General Kenney immediately launched eight B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, followed shortly afterwards by another 20. The B-17s attacked from an altitude of 2000 metres with 450-kilogram demolition bombs. Later in the day, another strike was made by 11 B-17s whose crews reported that vessels were ‘burning and exploding […] smoking and burning amidships’ and ‘left sinking’.

By nightfall, the enemy was only hours from Lae, which meant that in the morning it would be within range of the entire allied strike force. If the coordinated attack were to succeed, the precise location of the convoy had to be known at daybreak; consequently, throughout the night, it was tracked by an RAAF Catalina from No. 11 Squadron, which occasionally dropped bombs and flares to keep the Japanese soldiers in a state of anxiety. Also during the night, eight RAAF Beaufort torpedo bombers from No. 100 Squadron took-off from Milne Bay to try to use the darkness to their advantage. The heavy frontal weather made navigation hazardous, and only two aircraft found the convoy. Neither scored a hit.

The moment the Allied Air Forces had been waiting for came on the morning of 3 March 1943, when the Japanese convoy rounded the Huon Peninsula. For much of the time the adverse weather had helped the enemy avoid detection, but now clear conditions favoured the allies. Over 90 aircraft took-off from Port Moresby and set heading for their rendezvous point. While the strike force was en route, RAAF Bostons from No. 22 Squadron bombed the enemy airfield at Lae.

550px-battle_of_the_bismark_sea

By 9:30 a.m. the AAF formations had assembled, and by 10:00 a.m. the Battle of the Bismarck Sea had begun.

The allies attacked in three waves and from three levels, only seconds apart. First, 13 USAAF B-17s bombed from medium altitude. In addition to the obvious objective of sinking ships, those attacks were intended to disperse the convoy by forcing vessels to break station to avoid being hit.

Second, 13 RAAF Beaufighters from No. 30 Squadron hit the enemy from very low level, lining up on their targets as the bombs from the B-17s were exploding. With four cannons in its nose and six machine guns in its wings, the Beaufighter was the most heavily armed fighter in the world. The Australians’ job was twofold: to suppress anti-aircraft fire, and to kill ships’ captains and officers on their bridges.

The Beaufighters initially approached at 150 metres above the sea in line astern formation. The pilots then descended even lower, to mast-level height, set full power on their engines, changed into line abreast formation, and approached their targets at 420 kilometres an hour.

It seems that some of the Japanese captains thought the Beaufighters were going to make a torpedo attack because they altered course to meet the Australians head-on, to present a smaller profile. Instead, they made themselves better targets for strafing. With a slight alteration of heading the Beaufighters were now in an ideal position to rake the ships from bow to stern, which they did, subjecting the enemy to a withering storm of cannon and machine gun fire.

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A Japanese transport on fire during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

According to the official RAAF release:

[e]nemy crews were slain beside their guns, deck cargo burst into flame, superstructures toppled and burned.

With the convoy now dispersed and in disarray, the third wave of attackers was able to concentrate on sinking ships. Thirteen American B-25 Mitchells made a medium level bombing strike while, simultaneously, a mast-level attack was made by 12 specially modified Mitchells, known as ‘commerce destroyers’ because of their heavy armament. The commerce destroyers were devastating, claiming seventeen direct hits. Close behind the Mitchells, USAAF Bostons added more firepower.

Following the coordinated onslaught, Beaufighters, Mitchells and Bostons intermingled as they swept back and forth over the convoy, strafing and bombing. Within minutes of the opening shots, the battle had turned into a rout. At the end of the action:

[s]hips were listing and sinking, their superstructure smashed and blazing, and great clouds of dense black smoke [rose] into a sky where aircraft circled and dived over the confusion they had wrought among what, less than an hour earlier, had been an impressively orderly convoy.

Overhead the surface battle, 28 USAAF P-38 Lightning fighters provided air defence for the strike force. In their combat with the Zeros which were attempting to protect the convoy, three of the Lightnings were shot down, but in turn, the American pilots claimed 20 kills. Apart from those three P-38s, the only other allied aircraft lost was a single B-17, shot down by a Zero.

With their armament expended the allied aircraft returned to Port Moresby. However, there was to be no respite for the enemy. Throughout the afternoon the attacks continued. Again, B-17s struck from medium level, this time in cooperation with Mitchells and RAAF Bostons flying at very low level. (Incidentally, the Bostons were led by Squadron Leader Charles Learmonth, after whom the RAAF’s present-day base in north-west Australia is named.) At least 20 direct hits were claimed against the by-now devastated convoy.

That was the last of the coordinated attacks. The victory had been won. For the loss of a handful of aircraft, the Allied Air Forces had sunk twelve ships – all eight of the troop transports and four of the eight destroyers – and had killed more than 3,000 enemy soldiers.

The brilliantly conceived and executed operation had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea and had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded. In the words of the supreme command of the Southwest Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was ‘the decisive aerial engagement’ of the war in the Southwest Pacific.

However, there was still a terrible yet essential finale to come. For several days after the battle, Allied aircrews patrolled the Huon Gulf, searching for and strafing barges and rafts crowded with survivors. It was grim and bloody work, but as one RAAF Beaufighter pilot said, every enemy soldier they prevented from getting ashore was one less for their Army colleagues to face. Moreover, after fifteen months of Japanese brutality, the great immorality, it seemed to them, would have been to have ignored the rights of their soldiers.

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A Japanese destroyer steaming astern while under attack by USAAF bombers during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Japanese media never mentioned the battle, but in a macabre footnote, two weeks later, Tokyo announced that in future all Japanese soldiers were to be taught to swim.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a master-class in air power. The RAAF and the USAAF had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea; they had forced the enemy into a defensive posture from which ultimate victory was unlikely, and they had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded.

This was arguably Australia’s most important victory in World War II.

This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

Dr Alan Stephens is a Fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. He has been a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra; a visiting fellow at ANU; a visiting fellow at UNSW Canberra; the RAAF historian; an advisor in federal parliament on foreign affairs and defence; and a pilot in the RAAF, where his experience included the command of an operational squadron and a tour in Vietnam. He has lectured internationally, and his publications have been translated into some twenty languages. He is a graduate of the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University, and the University of New England. Dr Stephens was awarded an OAM in 2008 for his contribution to Australian military history.

Header Image: During the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in which the Japanese suffered heavy losses while attempting to reinforce their garrison at Lae, a RAAF Beaufighter attacks a camouflaged Japanese transport. A burst is poured into the burning vessel. (Source: Australian War Memorial)