Breakthroughs at Cassino and Anzio – but the Luftwaffe fights back I

112 Squadron Kittyhawk

Despite the bombing and total destruction of Cassino town by the Strategic Air Forces, on the evening of 19 March the Allies were forced to called off their third attempt to break through the Gustav Line. In five days the New Zealand and Indian Divisions had lost nearly 5,000 men. All immediate offensive plans were shelved. What was achieved in return for a heavy loss of life and casualties? Three incursions made in the Gustav Line seemed a paltry reward. A small bridgehead across the downstream Garigliano had been established, about half of Cassino town and Castle Hill captured, and in the east the Americans and French at great cost had taken more mountains.

While the end of the third battle for Cassino seemed to have little meaning, in the air the DAF [Desert Air Force] continued its incessant fight to keep the Luftwaffe subjugated and to provide close support to Eighth Army. Towards the end of March 1944, DAF’s AOC-in-C, AVM Broadhurst, who had led them from the deserts of North Africa to Italy’s Apennine mountains, departed to be replaced by AVM Dickson. Exactly one year before, at El Hamma in Tunisia, Broadhurst had pioneered DAF’s innovative use of fighter-bombers in close support of a decisive breakthrough on the ground. He also had ensured that, despite the massive growth of Allied air forces in diverse roles, DAF retained its powerful and unique identity.

At the time of DAF’s operation at El Hamma in Tunisia, Dickson had been making an inspection visit of DAF with Air Marshal Leigh-Mallory, AOC-in-C Fighter Command. They returned to the UK armed with lessons learned from DAF’s organization and tactics, which were put to good use in the air support planning for the Normandy invasion. Not least of these were the DAF operations using fighter-bombers. Modification of fighters for the fighter-bomber role had first been developed in the Western Desert in March 1942 when the Luftwaffe had some ascendancy over DAF.

In his Tunisian visit Dickson must have been impressed with what he saw and learned of DAF’s close support tactics for Eighth Army, for on taking up his new command of DAF in late March 1944, Dickson ordered more and more conversions of fighters to this role. Into April and May in support of ground forces at Anzio and Cassino, Kittyhawks carried a 1,000lb bomb under the aircraft’s belly, and two 500lb bombs under the wings. Mustangs and Thunderbolts also carried 1,000-pounders, and even Spitfires a 500-pounder in ‘Spitbomber’ mode.

The Rover David Cab-rank system was intensified to bring even closer support on the battlefield. As well as the Mobile Operations Room Unit (MORU) named David, in recognition of its introduction by Group Captain David Haysom, five more MORU Rovers were established, Paddy, Jack, Joe, Tom and Frank. Each MORU would normally have an RAF officer in command, and preferably one who had some army experience. Around eighteen Eighth Army men in a MORU would include two officers, a sergeant, a radio operator, a cipher clerk, technicians, drivers, mechanics, a cook and guard troops. Their vehicles and equipment, typically comprising an armoured car and trailer, a light truck, and three jeeps with trailers, gave them a high degree of self-sufficiency.

Some fighter-bombers ranged farther afield in modified air interdiction operations. Rather than targeting infrastructure concentration points, strikes were re-focused against bridges and the movement of the enemy’s road and rail traffic. To raid rail routes and traffic deep behind and to the north of the Germans’ right flank at Anzio, on 31 March the 57th Fighter Group USAAF relocated its fighter squadrons of P-47 Thunderbolts to Alto near the port of Bastia on Corsica’s east coast. Flying across the Tyrrhenian Sea, their priority targets would be railway locomotives, rolling stock and road traffic in northern Italy. The squadrons were set a target of forty-eight sorties a day, and within two weeks were averaging eighty a day.

While at Alto they began to be armed with eight- to eleven-second fuses for 500lb and 1,000lb high-explosive bombs. The delayed fuses led them to begin dropping their bombs from below 500 feet so as to achieve more direct hits on the railway tracks. This prompted their Major Dick Hunziker to form a flight of ‘Tunnel Busters’, led by Captain Lyle H. Duba. The tactic was to skip-bomb the railway tunnels, where it was thought trains used to hide out in daylight. Duba believed that he and three other pilots of the ‘Tunnel Busters’ Flight caught several locomotives and trains hiding out in the tunnels:

We flew at least 20 of these hair-raising missions on the deck, strafing the target, dropping a single bomb and then immediately going into a high-G pull out to avoid the ridge the tunnel went through. On several occasions the bomb exited the other end of the tunnel before exploding, but most of the time it detonated inside.

Hunziker was of the view that, even if there was no train in the tunnel, the underground track and tunnel structure would have been severely damaged.

In anticipation of the Allies’ build-up for spring offensives at Anzio and Cassino, the Luftwaffe garnered its remaining numbers to try and blunt Allied air attacks. However, air superiority and many more fighter squadrons gave DAF a lethal tactical advantage. Rather than being drawn into individual dog-fights, they were able to shift to an emphasis on formation group work.

While the resourcing of air forces in UK to support the Normandy landings attracted the latest types of aircraft, DAF was left to persist with many outdated models such as Baltimores, Bostons and Kittyhawks. This was only viable because of the Allied air forces’ superiority over the Luftwaffe’s meagre strength in Italy. Bari may have had far-reaching consequences for the Italian campaign but, day in day out, Allied air power still continued to dominate the skies.

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To achieve a decisive advantage on the ground, General Alexander planned a build-up with a number of deceptions. The vast bulk of Eighth Army was gradually moved at night time from the Adriatic coast to the Cassino front. False information on planning for another seaborne landing north-west of Rome at its port of Civitavecchia was leaked to the Germans. It must have had an effect, for Kesselring kept strong reserves north of Rome until a few days after the start of Eighth Army’s Operation HONKER, the next attack on Cassino and the Gustav Line.

The Canadian Corps of two divisions was brought into Eighth Army reserve without announcement. At the same time fictitious information was issued which indicated that the Canadians were relocating to Naples to embark for the fake amphibious operation to land at Civitavecchia.

The Allies’ overwhelming air superiority reduced reconnaissance by the Luftwaffe to a minimum, strengthening the cloak of secrecy. The concealment of forces was not just to give the benefit of surprise, it would hide the reserve capability to exploit the capture of Cassino and Monte Cassino, so as to surge forward up the Liri Valley in Operation DIADEM, to combine with an Anzio breakout – codenamed Operation BUFFALO.

However, with the weather improving, and recognizing the inevitability that the Allies must be rebuilding for a new offensive, the Germans began to throw their remaining air power into some large air battles.

Despite the priorities of the war in north-west Europe, some newer model aircraft did keep feeding through to DAF. In mid-March Squadron Leader Neville Duke, the leading Spitfire ace in the Mediterranean, returned from his sojourn as a training instructor, and took over as commander of No. 145 Squadron RAF. Soon after his arrival he was delighted to take possession of a new Spitfire Mk VIII. In this new Spitfire, on 24 March, Duke led two patrol operations of 145 Squadron. On one patrol they engaged in a battle with more than thirty Luftwaffe fighters. The result was five more victories to take 145 Squadron’s overall score above 200.

Duke had brought with him to 145 Squadron Australian Flight Lieutenant Rod McKenzie, who for a period had been a fellow training instructor in Egypt. On one of those training days Duke had asked McKenzie to fly with him. He accepted only on condition that he could fly a Spitfire, and if Duke promised to get him a transfer to a Spitfire squadron.6 In a fateful decision Duke found a way to fulfil his promise

Ensuring that experienced pilots spent time away from operations on training instruction duties, was a further strength of the Allied air forces. The Luftwaffe’s loss rates were too high for them to effectively allocate sufficient experienced pilots to training. The result was that new pilots in Luftwaffe squadrons were thrown into combat without experienced pilots to pass on their knowledge and guide them. It seriously shortened their survival rates, but on both sides a victory could be quickly followed by a defeat and death.

On 27 March Canadian Bill Downer of No. 93 Squadron RAF shot down two Fw190s to become an ace. A couple of weeks later, in a patrol off Anzio, Downer misjudged his height, crashed into the sea and was killed. His fellow pilot, Australian Warrant Officer Bobby Bunting, who had shot down two Fw190s on 29 February over Cisterna for his first victories, had a lucky escape. Outnumbered in a dogfight over Cassino, his Spitfire was hit. Wounded in the right leg, Bunting somehow got away to return safely to base.

Another Australian, Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes of No. 3 Squadron RAAF, one of Australia’s most distinguished fighter aces and leaders, spoke of his innermost feelings in air fighting:

In that one minute the air is full of twisting, turning, frantic aeroplanes, and the next minute not a single enemy machine can be seen. The enemy has completely disappeared. You then collect the remnants of your squadron, count them hastily, then the fires burning below. The feeling is a strange one. Some of those fires down below contain the mutilated bodies of your friends. But as you look down, you have no real feeling other than, I hate to confess, probably terrific relief that it is them and not you.

It must be the animal in us really I suppose, and the strong spirit of self-survival which has become uppermost. Man becomes animal when he thinks he is about to die. As you fly back to your base, now safe at last, a feeling of light-hearted exuberance comes over you. It is wonderful to be still alive and it is, I think, merely the after-effect of violent, terrible fear. I am not afraid to confess to being frightened. I was almost always terrified.

On landing back, you look for your squadron aeroplanes at the dispersal sites, and if your friends’ aeroplanes are there, your heart fills with gladness for you have become a caring human being again.

He thought it often seemed to be an interminable wait for other missing aircraft. Then when the elapsed time appeared to be too long, an aircraft approached and touched down, ‘You look eagerly for its identifying letters, hoping against hope that it is one of the missing, returning’.

Engagements were often very brief, and always violent, but could be interspersed with interludes of uneventful operations. The dogfights and victories were statistics which belied the massive number of sorties flown. Many operations were completed without any engagement with enemy aircraft, or only a fleeting contact, with no claimed kills. On 29 March, over Anzio, Pilot Officer Doyle of No. 417 Squadron RAF claimed his first victory, a Bf109. Despite then being attacked, wounded and his Spitfire catching fire, he probably also downed an Fw190. Doyle managed amazingly to crash-land in the Nettuno beachhead and survive. His first victory had come on his 185th sortie.

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In early March Group Captain Hugh Dundas was awarded the DSO, and informed by AVM Broadhurst in confidence that, if he wanted to get back into operations, he was to be appointed commander of the renowned No. 239 Wing RAF. At the same time as feeling very flattered, Dundas was very apprehensive. The battle-hardened 239 Wing included the formidable Nos 3 and 450 Squadrons RAAF. It was the largest wing in the Mediterranean theatre, and was looked upon by nearly everyone as the best formation operating in the fighter-bomber role. Dundas himself, just twenty-three years old, thought it a staggering promotion, and also daunting:

It was the question which I had been both dreading and hoping for. The old struggle was raging within me – the struggle between the knowledge that I should fight on and the desire to call it a day and stay alive.

Furthermore, Dundas knew really nothing about the skills of flying fighter-bomber roles and dropping bombs. He knew he would have to learn new flying techniques, and regularly lead the wing on operations. Whereas in fighter dog-fights you pitted your plane and ability in one-on-one contests, as a fighter-bomber you had to dive into heavy flak, and a random but increased risk of being shot down. Dundas told Broadhurst that he would take the job.

It was soon after this meeting that Broadhurst was transferred back to the UK, to command the air forces for the D Day invasion, before Dundas’ promotion was approved. The new AVM Dickson chose the Australian Brian Eaton, commander of No. 3 Squadron RAAF, to be commander of 239 Wing. Dundas had great respect for Eaton and, despite missing out on promotion, still found himself wanting to get back into operations. At the beginning of May he persuaded Dickson to let him join No. 244 Wing RAF as a wing leader of their Spitfires, under his old friend Wing Commander Brian Kingcombe. While Dundas waited for the paperwork to be processed for his promotion and transfer, the overall build-up to a spring offensive increased.

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In late March and early April 1943 the weather improved. The intensity of air attacks forced most German road traffic to move only at night. The Boston bombers of No. 3 Wing SAAF, in their night-intruder role became the most favoured strike aircraft to try to plug the night-time gap in interdiction operations. The Bostons, nick-named the ‘Pippos’, short for ‘Pipistrello’, the Italian word for a bat, exemplified how DAF had resisted becoming composed solely of fighter squadrons. Once again DAF had demonstrated that its retention of bombers made it unique in its make-up, and highly adaptable to ever-changing circumstances.

During April the command of the Tactical Air Force (TAF) raised the tempo of the air war, with the instigation of Operation STRANGLE. The objectives were the interdiction of Rome, the battlefields at Anzio, Cassino, and the enemy’s communication routes leading to the Gustav and Adolf Hitler Lines. Just as it had at El Alamein and for the invasion of Sicily, the massive air superiority of the Allies also created a No Fly Zone. This allowed Eighth Army to move west with impunity over the Apennines to join Fifth Army for the major offensives at Cassino.

The air interdiction strategy of Operation STRANGLE was the idea of General John K., ‘Uncle Joe’, Cannon, commander of MATAF, to break the stalemates at Cassino and Anzio. It aimed to do what its name suggests, to cut off all rail, road and river routes across Italy, and prevent supplies reaching the German armies. An unforeseen and beneficial outcome was the near paralysis of any tactical mobility of the enemy forces.

DAF Kittyhawks, Mustangs, Baltimores and Spitbombers struck at rail-tracks, overpasses, tunnels and bridges, in central and eastern areas along the Teni-Perugia and Terni-Sulmona-Pescara lines. Trains were being hit or halted as far as 120 miles from Rome. Of course, Operation STRANGLE was not without its consequences. To counter the growing air-to-ground onslaught, which clearly preceded another major offensive by Allied armies, the Germans took their ground-to-air defences to another level. More intensive anti-aircraft fire of various types imposed greater losses on Allied air forces, particularly the fighter-bombers in their low level dive-bombing runs.

Although low level attack was the essence of fighter-bomber operations, tactics varied in different ways, according to the type of aircraft, and from squadron to squadron. In a typical Kittyhawk air-to-ground attack for instance, the pilot would dive at around a sixty-degree incline, and at up to about 400mph. Groups of four 88mm shells could be the first anti-aircraft fire encountered. Set to explode at a specified height, bursts of orange balls of fire, intermingled with puffs of black smoke, would usually seek out the fighter-bombers before they were close enough to begin a descent. The 88mm fire would then follow the Kittyhawk’s dive down to around 4,000 feet.

A near miss from an 88mm shell could seriously damage an aircraft, while a direct hit would destroy it. Below 4,000 feet a mass of small puffs of brown smoke from 40mm cannon shell explosions could be expected. This was a rapid-fire barrage which would bring down many an aircraft. At 2,000 feet 20mm cannon fire would commence, very probably in heavy concentrations. A direct hit at this altitude was perhaps the most lethal as, even if the aircraft was still flying, the pilot had no time to try and regain height.

As the pilot dived closer to the ground, to release his bombs within 1,500 feet of the target, he would be met with small-arms fire from the enemy troops. As the pilot pulled out of the dive, the G-force tightened and distorted his face into a grotesque mask. And in a desperate climb away to safety, pilots were still being hunted by the anti-aircraft fire. All they could depend upon to successfully complete the mission was their own ability to fly the aircraft with skill, speed, and manoeuvrability – and of course some luck.

Although from late March, because of the massive disruption caused by Operation STRANGLE, no major through traffic was reaching the Italian capital, air interdiction could not cut off all the enemy’s transport lifelines. It could not entirely prevent the flow of some supplies, and the movement of some reinforcements. What it did do was to severely weaken German defences, and undermine their capability for sustaining indefinite resistance. And at the same time Allied air superiority prevented the Luftwaffe from having any material impact on Allied ground forces. This meant that some Allied anti-aircraft units, with little or nothing to do, were converted to supplement the army’s artillery. Allied air power also ensured that the German army stayed on the defensive. As Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Slessor said, ‘if there had been no air force on either side, the German Army could have made the invasion of Italy impossible …’

From the beginning of April in the lead-up to Operation DIADEM, No. 40 Squadron SAAF flew every day from first light to nightfall in low-level reconnaissance. They photographed every German gun position and, as spotters, they were in radio contact with the HQ of 6th Army Group Royal Artillery (6 AGRA), for updating artillery target information. Using large-scale maps and aerial photographs with numbered grids from prior reconnaissance, pilots had direct communication with HQ 6 AGRA while they were in the air, to pass on coordinates of enemy guns which they had spotted.

They also communicated with 239 Wing via the Rover David Cab-rank, to send fighter-bombers against identified targets. Observation posts on Monte Trocchio, staffed in a mix of RAF and Eighth Army Air Control officers, directed Kittyhawks and Mustangs, such as on 15 May against communications centres, and then on the next day to hit German mortar positions at Cassino.

In the days before the fourth battle to break through the Gustav Line at Cassino and, a little farther north, its fallback, the Adolf Hitler Line, the stalemate appeared to be entrenched. A new observer of the Liri Valley from the distance of the surrounding mountains would have been misled. The occasional gunfire, bomb-blast or shell-burst would have seemed desultory, almost languid in the late Italian spring.

Flowers caressing the roadside half hid the coils of telephone wire; the song of innumerable birds, which had grown used to the fighting, only served to emphasise the fevered stillness of anticipation. The peeling pink plaster of a roofless house, the twisted balcony rails, shimmered like an artificial eighteenth century ruin in the liquid sun.

In reality the Allies’ tactical air forces were at work around the clock, bombing raids hitting the German front lines and blocking all rail lines to the north.

On 7 May DAF struck a most remarkable blow against the Luftwaffe’s attempts to make some kind of threat against the coming offensive. Squadron Leader ‘Duke’ Arthur was leading a Spitfire patrol of No. 72 Squadron RAF over Lake Bracciano when they intercepted a formation of eighteen Bf109s of I./JG 4. Arthur shot down one, and his fellow pilots claimed another eight victories as they racked up a total of nine kills of the eighteen Bf109s.

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