Masters of the Skies

Units and Organization of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces in January 1944.

By the beginning of May, the US General Ira Eaker, commander of the Mediterranean Allied Air Force, (MAAF), could call on no fewer than 3,960 operational aircraft in Italy alone, a formidable air force. In sharp contrast, his counterpart, Feldmarschall Wolfram von Richtofen, had just a little over three hundred. How the tables had turned. In the first two years of the war in the Mediterranean, the Luftwaffe, along with their Italian partners, the Regia Aeronautica, had all too often ruled the skies. Their fighter planes, especially, had frequently overwhelmed the tired and battered Hurricanes and Kittyhawks of the RAF. Since then, however, better aircraft, increased production, and the arrival of the Americans in the theatre had coincided with lessening German production and shortages of fuel. All aspects of the German war machine were now being hugely stretched and the Luftwaffe were among the hardest hit. Those aircraft destroyed in the air or on the ground by the Allied air forces were no longer being replaced in kind.

So it was that every time Leutnant Willi Holtfreter took to the skies, he invariably found himself surrounded by hordes of Allied fighters. Rather as the beleaguered RAF pilots had discovered two years before over Malta, Willi found that instead of actually shooting down any enemy planes, he was doing well just to get back to base safely.

Just turned twenty-one, Willi was from the village of Abtshagen, near Stralsund on the Baltic coast. Before the war, the village had been dominated by the timber works, renowned for its manufacture of parquet flooring, and Willi’s father was a foreman there. The third child of a family of two boys and two girls, he had a sheltered but happy upbringing. Like most children, he left school at fourteen and immediately went to work at the timber factory as an apprentice. But while he was quite content with this line of work, he developed a passion for aircraft. Not far from his home was an airfield and he and his friends would often watch planes there. Then, with the Hitler Youth, he learned to fly gliders. ‘It was incredible that you could do this for free,’ he says. ‘To have that opportunity was very exciting.’

At the outbreak of war he was studying woodwork technology in Dresden, but returned home to register for the Luftwaffe before he was due to be conscripted into the army. ‘You had to volunteer to fly,’ he explains. ‘And I was happy to do so. Like most people, I wanted to do my bit for the Fatherland.’ On registering he stated his desire to become a fighter pilot, but as with the RAF or US Army Air Force, whether a potential pilot ended up flying single- or multiple-engine aircraft tended to be decided on as flying training progressed. As it turned out, however, he was indeed singled out to fly fighters, and after more than a year of ‘pretty thorough’ training, he was posted to the Fighter Reserve in France in November 1943, before being sent to join the celebrated fighter group, JG 53, in Italy at the end of March.

Jagdgeschwader 53 was one of the oldest Luftwaffe fighter groups. Known as the ‘Pik As’ – the Ace of Spades – the group had become one of the top-scoring fighter units, having served in France, over Britain, in Russia, North Africa and over Malta. Like all German fighter groups, it was divided into gruppen – or wings, and was, by the spring of 1944, split up, with just III Gruppe left in southern Italy. By the beginning of May they had just over thirty single-engine Messerschmitt 109s left.

One of these had been lost by Willi on 1 May. Flying over the Cassino front, he and his three other colleagues had soon been pounced on by hordes of Spitfires. Badly hit, he had been forced to bail out for the second time in eight days. He was not alone. Since the beginning of March, III/JG 53 had lost no less than thirty-eight aircraft, destroyed either in the air or on the ground.

But with such a dearth of resources, all the Luftwaffe in Italy could do was send up men like Willi Holtfreter on a fool’s errand in the vain hope that they might achieve something, however slight.

This was not the case for the Allies, however, who spent much time and soul-searching trying to master the opportunities offered by air power. Mediterranean Allied Air Forces was now a vast behemoth of an organisation, with British and Commonwealth units operating hand-in-hand with American. By May 1944, it was the biggest air force the world had ever seen, with more than 12,500 aircraft throughout the Mediterranean theatre. To ease potential clashes of nationality, the system of commander and deputy commander that had been implemented by the Allies in all theatres extended to the air forces too. Thus the American, General Eaker, was commander of MAAF, with Air Marshal Sir John Slessor, British, as his deputy. Defining these roles, however, was no easy matter, because in the case of Slessor, his responsibilities extended beyond those of MAAF, since he was also Commander-in-Chief, Royal Air Force Mediterranean and Middle East, and therefore in charge of subordinate commands in Egypt, East Africa, the Levant, Iraq and Persia, which meant that west of Greece he was responsible, through Eaker, to the Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean, and east of Greece to the British Chiefs of Staff only.

It was an odd and potentially fraught set-up but happily for the Allies it caused few difficulties. ‘It worked all right,’ wrote Slessor, ‘because I had in Ira Eaker an Allied Commander-in-Chief who was not only an old friend but a great airman and a splendid chap who stood on no dignities, trusted me to serve him loyally in the sphere where he was responsible and left me to get on with it – and gave me all the help he could – where he was not permitted by his directive from Washington to have a direct interest.’ Eaker was every bit as warm in his praise of Slessor. ‘Nothing could have pleased me more,’ he told Charles Portal, the British Chief of the Air Staff on hearing of Slessor’s appointment in January. ‘I also wish to assure you that without question he and I will work together in perfect harmony.’

That these two men were able to operate so well together was enormously fortunate because both were experienced and highly able commanders, whose close partnership was much needed in Italy – a theatre where air power was able to give the Allies an essential and decisive edge. Although both had started their careers as fighter pilots – Slessor had made the first ever aerial attack on a Zeppelin during the First World War – more recently their backgrounds had been with bombers. Eaker had commanded the US Eighth Air Force in Britain, overseeing the daylight strategic bombing of Germany, until getting the top job in the Mediterranean. Slessor, on the other hand, had commanded 5 Group, RAF Bomber Command, in England, and had then taken charge of Coastal Command where he had played no small part in the destruction of the U-boat threat in the Atlantic.

Although both men had been hoping to play major parts in the upcoming invasion of France, they recognised that a considerable challenge faced them in Italy. With such an enormous force, spread over such a wide area, theirs was a massive responsibility. The two biggest components were the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force – MASAF – and the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force – or MATAF. The former consisted of one group of RAF heavy four-engine bombers and the US Fifteenth Air Force, predominantly made up of heavy long-range bombers but also a fighter component largely used for escorting the bombers. Their task was to continue the strategic bombing campaign both within and outside Italy. In contrast, MATAF’s role was more directly to support the ground forces. This consisted of the US 57th Bombardment Wing of twin-engine bombers; of the US 12th Tactical Air Command; and of the Desert Air Force, the battle-hardened force that had fought throughout the North African campaign, and which was a polyglot mixture of RAF, South African Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, and Polish bomber and fighter wings. In addition were the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force, the Mediterranean Allied Photographic Reconnaissance Wing, and the US 51st Troop Carrier Wing. The guiding principle was to have joint operational staffs but separate administrative staffs. In other words, at MAAF headquarters, in matters of operations, signals and intelligence, the staffs were mixed, but otherwise American and British forces were left to get on with their tasks on their own. For example, the 12th Tactical Air Command was a purely US Army Air Force show, while the Desert Air Force remained entirely in the hands of the RAF.

In 1944, air power was in many ways still in its infancy and, despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, the Allies were still feeling their way with regard to its use, both in terms of its potential as a means of long-range strategic bombing, and in the way it could support troops on the ground.

Fortunately, however, there were not only extremely experienced and capable men at the top, but also a wealth of young, dynamic, and operationally seasoned men at both squadron and wing levels of command. This was especially true of the Desert Air Force, whose headquarters and flying units were liberally sprinkled with men who had been combat flying almost since the beginning of the war.

One of these men was Wing Commander Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas who, despite being only twenty-three, had seen action over Dunkirk back in May 1940, and then had subsequently flown throughout the Battle of Britain. So, too, had his adored older brother, John, a young man who had seemed destined for great things. He had been killed in October 1940, having shot down and killed the great German ace, Helmut Wick. It had thus been left to Cocky to fly the family colours, and it seemed the gods had decided to shine on him. By the age of twenty, he was commanding 56 Squadron at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, before being given the task of forming the first Typhoon fighter-bomber wing. He had then been posted to Tunisia in January 1943 to lead 324 Wing, which included five squadrons of Spitfire; and when still aged only twenty-two, had led the wing to Sicily, and then to the Salerno beachhead, before finally, in January 1944, joining the Desert Air Force Staff.

Standing well over six foot, with a mass of blond hair and a somewhat goofy expression, he cut an unlikely and gangly picture as a fighter pilot, yet he had repeatedly risen to every challenge. Working directly for Air Vice-Marshal William Dickson, the CO of the Desert Air Force, Cocky acted as his eyes and ears in all the fighter and fighter-bomber wings. Young, experienced men like Cocky were also there to help bring new ideas and innovations into the operations of the Desert Air Force (DAF) and to create an atmosphere where opportunities for improvement were always encouraged.

Great steps had already been made in recent times, especially in the North African campaign with the development of army – air co-operation. This meant positioning air force and army headquarters next to each other, respective commanders working closely together, and using an entire air force – known as a tactical air force – in direct support of the army.

However, with almost no aerial opposition whatsoever over Italy, this level of co-operation had recently been taken a step further with the development of what was known as the ‘Cab-Rank’ and ‘Rover David’ systems, enabling the air forces to reduce the time it took to respond to a request by the army for air support. These had been the brainchild of another young fighter commander, a South African, Group Captain David Heysham. The systems were simple. On the ground, an RAF officer would act as the controller, directing aircraft on to a target using a VHF radio transmitter. Assisting him with a clear picture of the situation on the ground and helping to establish the target would be an officer of the Army Air Staff. These ‘Rover Davids’ would drive around a given area of the front in an armoured car, or truck and jeep, in what was termed a Mobile Observation Room Unit. Meanwhile, up above would be six or more bomb-laden fighter aircraft circling the same pre-arranged area, gridded maps and aerial photographs stuffed down their flying boots, waiting to be directed onto a target by the Rover David. This was the Cab Rank, and it enabled pilots to bomb and strafe with machine-gun and cannon fire moving or static targets in a matter of minutes after being detected. ‘This “Rover” technique was tremendously successful,‘noted Cocky Dundas. ‘It not only achieved very much more effective tangible results than the old system, when all targets had to be selected before the aircraft left the ground; it was also a wonderful thing for the morale of the soldiers fighting on the ground.’

On the broader, more strategic view of how air power should be employed, there remained, however, notable differences of opinion, especially with regard to the campaign in Italy. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, previously C-in-C Mediterranean Air Command before it evolved into MAAF, had been a proponent of his scientific adviser, Professor Solly Zuckerman, who believed that the best way to stop enemy rail movement was by destroying marshalling yards and the rolling stock based at big railway centres. But a new theory had more recently developed, known as ‘interdiction’ – which meant blowing up bridges, blocking tunnels and cutting tracks, and keeping them cut.

On the face of it, Slessor was a supporter of Zuckerman’s views because he had written as much in a book on the subject of air power that had been published in 1936. However, it also occurred to him that it wasn’t really a question of favouring one view over the other, or following a rigid operational doctrine. Following on from further discussions with Eaker, Slessor drew up a new bombing directive, in which the heavy bombers of MASAF would concentrate on bombing marshalling yards, while the medium bombers and fighter-bombers would make every effort to fulfil the interdiction policy. Where Slessor now took exception was to the idea of using air power to bombard the enemy’s defensive positions. ‘It was perhaps memories of the old Western Front many years before,’ he wrote, ‘where bombardments really were bombardments, going on for days and weeks on end and blasting almost every identifiable feature of the landscape out of recognition that led me to doubt whether a concentrated air bombardment, however heavy, would prove to be the key to unlock a strongly prepared position in the face of resolute and skilful resistance.’

The bombing of Monte Cassino and Cassino town underlined this belief. The two attacks, on the monastery in February and on the town in March, had certainly pulverised the targets but had hardly helped the Allied troops on the ground. Rather, the Germans had found defending amongst the rubble easier than when the buildings had still been standing. The failure of these attacks did, however, enable Eaker and Slessor instead to launch Operation STRANGLE on 19 March. This was a direct preparation for the DIADEM offensive, but rather than trying to obliterate the Gustav Line, its object was to destroy German supply lines and thus throttle them where they stood.

While the medium bombers and fighter-bombers concentrated on this ‘simultaneous interdiction’ policy, the heavy bombers of MASAF pounded marshalling yards in northern Italy, but also, throughout April, attacked targets in the Balkans with particular ferocity, the aim being to continue their strategic bombing work, interrupting the flow of oil and other materiel into all parts of the Reich. By taking the strategic bombing campaign into Romania and other areas of Eastern Europe as well as enemy-controlled ports around the Eastern Mediterranean, the Allies hoped to debilitate the German war effort in general, which included that in Italy.

Amongst those taking part in Operation STRANGLE were the pilots of the single-engine aircraft of the US 27th Fighter-Bomber Group. Operating from airfields around Caserta, the men of the 27th FBG were now highly experienced in the art of dropping bombs on specific targets, having been one of the first US outfits to be designated specifically in the role of fighter-bombers.

Lieutenant Charles Dills flew his forty-sixth combat mission the day Operation STRANGLE was launched, and in the weeks that followed was flying almost daily – sometimes twice daily – hitting German columns of vehicles, enemy supply dumps, railway lines, railway viaducts and bridges. He and his colleagues might not have had to worry too much about the likes of Willi Holtfreter, but low-level combat flying was extremely hazardous. There was always plenty of small-arms fire and flakj to contend with. And at such low heights there was little chance of bailing out. If a plane came down, then more often than not, the pilot came down too, and very few survived.

It had taken a while for Charles to realise this. ‘To begin with it was all kind of a lark and I didn’t really think of the dangers,’ he admits. But back in early February, Charles had been flying as wingman to his flight leader. They were flying at around 300 mph, just 200 feet above the ground looking for anything to strafe. Charles had been looking around – behind him and either side, and then suddenly had turned back and seen his flight leader in a steep dive. A second later he had exploded on the ground. ‘It was a shock,’ admits Charles. ‘I just couldn’t believe it.’ In a state of numbed confusion, he had circled over several times, calling for him on his radio, but then there had been flak all around him and he had managed to pull himself together and head home. Later, it had been concluded that the flight leader had been hit in the head by a freak rifle shot. ‘That’s when you realise this is a pretty serious business,’ says Charles, ‘and you start getting a bit mad and you realise you’re only going to survive if there’s nothing else alive to shoot at you.’

From La Moure, in north Dakota, Charles had had, like many of those growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, a tough childhood. He was the third of four children, two girls and two boys, although his younger brother had tragically died at birth. Despite this, the 1920s were his family’s ‘happy time’, with father and uncle running a successful drugstore business and the family living comfortably. The tide would soon change, however. In 1930, his father died of cancer; the business had to be sold and Charles and his mother and sisters moved to Fargo. For the next few years, with America in the throes of the Depression, she did her best to keep the family by running a small lingerie business, but then she also contracted cancer and died. An orphan at fourteen, Charles was sent to live with his uncle, who looked after him and ensured he went to good schools. It paid off because after leaving high school, he went to North Dakota Agricultural College.

Charles had, however, always had a passion for aircraft, and in his second year at college, in 1941, he was given the chance to learn to fly. This was thanks to Roosevelt’s Civilian Training Program, a scheme designed to speed up the rate at which pilots could be prepared for war, and Charles enrolled even though he was against America joining the war. By January 1942, he had his civil pilot’s licence; six months later he had joined the US Army Air Force. A little over a year later, he was on his way to Italy.

Charles had joined the 27th Fighter-Bomber Group the previous November and since then had become one of the most experienced pilots in his squadron, although he was yet to lead a mission himself. ‘I was relatively small,’ he says, ‘and I looked like I was perhaps nineteen. I always looked younger than my real age. The senior guys in the squadron always used to think of me as a bit of a kid brother.’

His part in Operation STRANGLE came to an end on 24 April. Loaded with fuel and armed with six 20lb fragmentation bombs and a 500-pounder strapped underneath, he taxied his P-40 Kittyhawk over to the runway as normal. But there was a strong crosswind and as he sped down the runway a heavy gust blew him sideways towards the left of the runway where a trench had been dug. Giving the engine some emergency boost he felt the undercarriage lift off the ground, but unfortunately his tail wheel had snagged into the ditch as the front of his plane lifted into the air – and this took away just enough speed to prevent him from climbing further. In a trice, his Kittyhawk began roll to the left. ‘It’s amazing how quickly you think in an emergency like this,’ says Charles. ‘I remember thinking, if my left wing-tip clears the ground, I’ll land on my back. If it doesn’t, I’ll cartwheel. Either of these seemed a sure death. So I pulled back the mixture control and killed the engine. The plane straightened up and slammed to the ground, wiping out the landing gear.’

It was nonetheless a heart-stopping moment, especially with seven live bombs strapped underneath. The aircraft tilted to the right, tearing off much of the wing as it dug into the ground. As the plane slewed heavily, the bombs fortunately rolled away from underneath him, but the pierced-steel plating runway bowed upwards with the force of the crash and slammed against the rear of his fuselage, knocking the tail ninety degrees from the cockpit. Incredibly, Charles walked away with nothing more than a scratched thumb, but his commanding officer felt the time had come to give him a break. The next day he was sent to the American rest camp on Capri for a week.

By that time, however, Eaker and Slessor had realised that Operation STRANGLE had not fulfilled its objective of making it impossible for the Germans to remain south of Rome. On paper the interdiction policy was sound, because the railway system in Italy was highly vulnerable to aerial attack, with its multitude of tunnels, bridges, viaducts and embankments. The limiting Italian terrain also meant the Germans were predominantly using only three main rail routes – the western, central and eastern – all running roughly north – south down the leg of the country.

Early results had been promising. By 4 April, Kesselring’s Army Group was receiving just 1,357 tons of supplies per day, rather than their minimum daily requirement of 2,261 tons. From 22 March, the eastern route was almost entirely impassable, while large parts of the central and western routes were also almost continuously blocked. By the end of April, the central route was cut in sixty-nine places, and by the end of the first week of May, 155 more had been added. When STRANGLE officially ended on the eve of the battle on 11 May, 22,500 tons of bombs had been dropped – more than during the entire London Blitz.

Yet despite this the Germans had not withdrawn. With the kind of efficiency and improvisation that prompted awe from the Allies, the Germans managed to repair large parts of track and numerous bridges, while also making good use of lesser roundabout routes and moving goods between trains across damaged parts of track. Overseeing this work was a ‘General with Special Responsibility for the Maintenance of Rail Communications in Italy’ newly appointed by Kesselring. German engineers provided the skills; the Organisation Todt, the German military labour force made up of mostly press-ganged Italians, provided the workers. It also helped that Kesselring had ensured that considerable stocks had been built up at the front during the winter, and that, with a stagnant front, he was using up little of his stocks of fuel and ammunition. As Slessor recognised, German troops seemed to be hardier than many of the Allies. ‘He doesn’t worry about ENSA shows or V cigarettes,’ he noted, ‘Coca-Cola or chewing gum, the masses of motor vehicles, or all the luxuries without which it is assumed that the modern British and American soldier cannot wage war.’ Germans, it appeared, could survive four or five days on the same tonnage the Allies consumed in a day. Furthermore, they had managed by moving greater volumes of traffic by road and by sea, using coast-hugging lighters at night, and taking what they could from the land. ‘The fact is,’ noted Slessor in a report written on 16 April 1944, ‘if you don’t care a damn about the civilian population and are prepared to use all the transportation resources to hand (and, incidentally, forced civilian labour) for purely military purposes,’ then only a small proportion of a transport potential needed to be used to achieve a minimum requirement.

These were important lessons and were duly noted – both in Italy and by those preparing for D-Day. Air power alone could not destroy the enemy in the field. Alexander, on the other hand, was delighted by the efforts of the air forces in the weeks before his offensive had been launched. ‘I never felt,’ he said, ‘that these air attacks would force the Germans to withdraw.’ Rather, he had hoped they would be able seriously to hamper German supply and reinforcement. In this aim, STRANGLE had been an unquestionable success.

Air power had played an integral part in the Allies’ success in both North Africa and Sicily. It would continue to do so in Italy – but it could never do the job of the men on the ground.

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