The British had been pressing for the dispatch of an American air force to the Middle East, and a number of tentative plans had been drawn in Washington. In response to a January request by Sir Charles Portal, British Chief of Air Staff, Task Force CAIRO was set up, on paper: two groups of pursuit for June 1942 commitment. A little later the AAF opposed augmenting the proposed task force by one heavy bombardment group on the ground that any heavy groups would have to come out of commitments to the United Kingdom. But by mid-March-Portal having made another plea-the problem of air reinforcements for Egypt was being approached from a different angle. It was thought that from the American production allotted them the British might furnish American aircraft types at Cairo; the AAF would furnish personnel. Under this plan the AAF hoped that two medium, one light, and two pursuit groups could be provided at an indefinite future date.
The decisive step was taken in conversations which General Arnold and Rear Adm. John H. Towers opened on 26 May with the RAF in London, conversations which resulted in recommendations as to the allocation of aircraft among the several United Nations. Middle East allocations proved a thorny question in these discussions. The AAF was faced with alternatives, neither of which it relished. Either it could acquiesce in the Middle East’s swallowing up large quantities of aircraft and stores to maintain an RAF which had built up its force to a considerable extent with American equipment or it could send its own combat units, replacing altogether an equivalent RAF strength and utilizing aircraft previously allotted to the British. With the growing output of the AAF’s training establishment, the latter course was finally chosen, in deference to the principle that if powerful U.S. air forces were to be developed every appropriate American aircraft should be manned and fought by a US. crew. By 30 May, nine groups had been tentatively agreed upon for the Middle East: one heavy group complete by 1 October 1942; two medium groups complete by 1 March 1943; six pursuit groups, two available in the theater by September 1942, two by December 1942, and two by April 1943.
Developments since Pearl Harbor had furnished fresh evidence of the importance of air power in the Middle East. In Libya, where the Axis armies were almost totally dependent on sea transportation for their sustenance, secure sea communications were a primary requisite for success. The ably led British Mediterranean Fleet had almost cut off Graziani’s supplies at one point in 1940, but of late its surface operations had been greatly circumscribed by the Luftwaffe. However, British submarine and air forces working from Malta and Egypt had been able to redress the balance, so much so that when Rommel began his comeback from El Agheila in January 1942 he started with three days’ rations and subsisted mainly on British stores in his drive to the Egyptian frontier. Before supplies could be accumulated for another effort in the desert, the Axis found it necessary to neutralize Malta’s air and naval bases and mounted a scale of air attack on the island which cost dearly in Axis aircraft but paid off in cargoes for Rommel. The enemy was also meditating an amphibious assault permanently to remove the island’s threat. As Malta inevitably lost some of its effectiveness, Egypt-based planes and submarines were forced to greater efforts. Not only was additional air strength badly needed by the British in the spring of 1942 but because of the long flights necessary to interrupt the Axis sea communications, heavy bombers were particularly prized. Brett had thought B-24s especially suitable for the theater; Col. Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military attaché at Cairo, believed that the big planes could control the shipping in the Mediterranean; 15 that the British appreciated their value can be seen from the repeated attempts they made to persuade the United States to send a heavy group to the Middle East.
As it turned out, the debut of U.S. heavy bombers in the Middle East was prompted by other circumstances: a combination of Japanese success in Burma and the American desire to render all possible aid to the U.S.S.R. The bombers were B-24s of the Halverson Detachment, a prize example of a unit pulled hither and yon by the alarms and crises of early 1942.t The unit was originally set up under the code name HALPRO and trained in the greatest secrecy for the bombing of Tokyo out of Chinese bases, with the proviso that its employment would depend on the global strategic situation which would obtain when the unit was ready for commitment. When that time arrived, in mid-May, the deteriorating situation in Burma rendered unlikely the prospect that the B-24s could be logistically supported in China. General Marshall then secured the President’s approval to divert the aircraft to Egypt for a surprise raid on the Ploesti oil refineries, an enterprise designed to put a spoke in the wheel of the summer drive the Germans were preparing against the U.S.S.R. Negotiations were set in motion to obtain the use of landing grounds in the Caucasus (the Soviet approval came too late to be of any use) and two AAF officers were rushed to Cairo for liaison between Col. Harry A. Halverson and headquarters of RAF, Middle East. The detachment was instructed to proceed to Khartoum and await orders. When the orders came, they directed Halverson to the Delta for the Ploesti mission, and, because of the full-blown emergency which quickly developed in the Middle East, his bombers were fated to remain there.
The RAF made available a plan, on which it had been working for two years, which involved flying via the Aegean, rendezvousing near the target at daybreak for a formation attack, and returning to Egypt over the same route. Halverson, however, whose command constituted an independent task force, finally decided to return to Habbaniyeh in Iraq despite the hazard of violating Turkish neutrality. Late in the evening of 11 June, then, thirteen B-24Ds took off singly from Fayid, an RAF field near the Canal; twelve proceeded individually to the target, which they reached and bombed at dawn through and below an overcast at about 10,000 feet. Only four of the returning aircraft made Habbaniyeh; three others got down at other Iraq fields, and two put in at Aleppo. Four B-24s were interned in Turkey, and the heavy loss-another B-24 had crash-landed-contrasted with the negligible damage sustained by the oil installations. Probably the most favorable aspect of the raid was the impression the big bombers produced on the intensely interested citizens of Ankara.
Despite its modest results, this strike of 12 June was as significant in its way as any the AAF had flown in the six months since Pearl Harbor. It was the first American mission in World War II to be leveled against a strategic target, if the Tokyo raid be excepted. It struck at an objective which later would become a favored target for American bombers. It was the first blow at a target system whose dislocation contributed mightily to the final German collapse. It was the first mission by what later came to be known as the Ninth Air Force.