The American Joint Chiefs, who were interested in husbanding their resources for decisive air and amphibious actions in western Europe in 1943, were thus presented with a dilemma. To lose the Middle East meant to lose the southern supply routes to the U.S.S.R. and the main air ferry route to India. India itself would be rendered difficult, if not impossible, to defend, and the life line to China would be correspondingly endangered. Loss of the oil wells in Iraq and Iran would be a most severe blow, tantamount to cessation of Allied air and naval activity in the Indian Ocean. The economic gain to the Axis, although admittedly substantial, would not be so great as the economic and strategic loss to the Allies. And the key to the Middle East was Egypt: the best hostile avenue to the Persian Gulf, the Allied base most convenient for reinforcing any threatened part of the Middle Eastern area.
Despite the vigor of the Prime Minister’s demands, the Americans succeeded in the end in restricting their troop commitments to Air Corps units, although for a short time it was planned to send an armored division under Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., and generous amounts of materiel continued to flow to the Middle East. Especially useful for the desert war were the new Sherman tanks for, as an English observer put it, at that date in the war the British had still not produced a tank capable of taking on the Panzers on even approximately equal terms.
The Air Corps’ commitments were set forth in the Arnold-Portal-Towers agreement, signed on 21 June and approved by the U.S. Joint Chiefs on the 25th. As agreed in London in May, nine combat groups were to go to the Middle East; but the dates for their commitment were advanced, and in contrast with other earlier paper commitments the Combined Chiefs bent every effort to get the units in motion. A group of heavies was to be at full strength in the theater by October 1942, one group of mediums operational in the theater by September and another by the end of the year. Six groups of pursuits were to be sent on the following schedule: one by 2 September 1942, one by 1 October, two by 1 January 1943, and two more by 1 April. On 27 June, The Adjutant General gave Maxwell somewhat more detailed information on the tentative build-up of the air force for his theater. Besides the groups listed above, there were “on order” headquarters units for an air force, a fighter command, and an air service command.
The air service command would comprise two air depot groups, sailing in September 1942 and March 1943, and five service groups, one each moving in July and October 1942, two in December, and the last in March 1943. These USAAF units were understood to be in lieu of RAF units which otherwise would have gone to the Middle East.
As always, the chief difficulty in deploying these units consisted in finding shipping for them without deranging other approved military movements, such as the BOLERO concentration of US. forces in the United Kingdom which at this time took precedence over the various global commitments. By 25 June some progress had been made: Admiral King had approved the use of the aircraft carrier Ranger to ferry P-40s to Takoradi, whence they could be flown by their pilots over the established route across central Africa and by way of Khartoum to Cairo; the British had agreed to the use of the S.S. Pastew, a fast 22-knot personnel ship, to bring 4,000 Air Corps troops into Egypt. Since the initial AAF combat groups were to go minus maintenance units, the Air Ministry had already advised Tedder that British maintenance personnel would have to be provided.
For more immediate aid to the hard pressed British, the War Department turned to India. Fellers had previously recommended that the CBI furnish heavy bombers for the Middle East. In his opinion, if the Middle East went, so went India; the converse, which he alleged to be the British strategic emphasis, he regarded as untrue. The War Department may have shared his views, or reasoned that the imminent monsoon season would ground the CBI bombers. At any rate, on 23 June a message went out to Brereton, ordering him to Egypt on temporary duty to assist Auchinleck. Brereton was to take with him such heavy bombers as he could muster. On arrival he was to make use of Maxwell’s headquarters for liaison and coordination with the British; and eventually, when the emergency had passed, he would return to India. General Stilwell was so advised. Brereton interrupted a staff meeting at New Delhi to read the cable ordering him to Egypt. He combed from his by no means redoubtable air force nine B-17s of the 9th Bombardment Squadron; “near cripples,’’ they were described. Two days later he left India. Altogether 225 men flew in his party, in bombers and transports, prominent among them Adler and Col. Victor H. Strahm.
On 28 June, upon Brereton’s arrival at Cairo, Maxwell’s headquarters issued orders placing him in command of the U.S. Army Middle East Air Force, comprising the Halverson Detachment, the Brereton Detachment, and the air section of the North African mission. Brereton then activated the USAMEAF in his first general order. Subordination to Maxwell came as an unexpected shock to Brereton, whose instructions were merely to use Maxwell’s headquarters for liaison arid coordination with the British. Brereton’s initial reaction to USAFIME was that it was an extra and unnecessary link in the chain of command, likely to cumber relations with the British and, consequently, his combat operations-a link, moreover, presided over by a ground officer junior to him. Whatever initial coolness this situation caused between the generals soon gave way to cordial relations which endured throughout Maxwell’s tenure as theater commander, a tenure which from the outset was understood to be temporary. Also activated on 28 June was the Air Service Command, USAMEAF, of which Adler assumed command. Adler’s chief immediate duties were to see that requests for supplies and equipment went to appropriate RAF elements, for no service units or Air Corps supply existed in his command.
Brereton’s initial force was small, but in the former air section of the North African mission he gained the services of a number of men quite familiar with the tactical and logistical problems of the Middle East. The help earlier extended to the British was paying dividends. At Gura was a depot for the repair of American aircraft. Moreover, the North African mission had turned to account its observations of the Mediterranean war by laying plans for the advent of an American air force, a development its members had considered only a matter of time. Furthermore, in its formative days USAMEAF could lean on the RAF, Middle East, a fine fighting force destined to pass on to Brereton’s command, and eventually to the whole Army Air Forces, lessons it had learned in the stern school of experience. Except for its hopeless struggle in the Greek and Cretan campaigns, the RAF, ME had consistently maintained an ascendancy over its Italian and German opponents. In June 1942, at the moment when USAAF reinforcements were being rushed to the defense of the Delta, the RAF was carrying out a furious offensive against the Axis columns rolling into Egypt. When the military observers had the leisure to study the campaign, they concluded that the RAF’s unprecedented offensive protecting the retreat of the Eighth Army had prevented that retreat from becoming a rout. The army might not have stopped at El Alamein.
While Brereton had been stripping India of bombers preparatory to departure for the Middle East, the Halverson Detachment, as the only AAF combat unit in Egypt, was adding what weight it could to the efforts to stop the drive on Suez. As ordered by Washington, it worked under the operational direction of the RAF (No. 205 Group), and it struck at the harbors serving Rommel. Halverson had hoped to go on to China, but the War Department, after consideration of the situation in Burma, ordered him to stay on in the Middle East, once again “temporarily.” On the night of 21/22 June, nine of the B-24s raided Bengasi harbor after British Wellingtons had lit the target with flares and incendiaries. Three nights later the mission was repeated; after this raid Bengasi passed out of range of the Wellingtons as the progress of the Axis armies forced the RAF successively closer to the Delta fields. Tobruk was added to the list of the detachment’s targets on the 26th when a diversion was flown by the B-24s for an Albacore attack on two merchant vessels.
Brereton had already on 30 June sent his B-17s to Lydda in Palestine, but the Halverson Detachment stayed on at Fayid until 16 July. Both units operated directly against Rommel’s supplies, which were becoming increasingly inadequate owing to the normal difficulties of administration under conditions of mobile warfare and to the considerable distance separating Tobruk, the nearest major port, from the battle line at Alamein. Between 26 June and 5 July, nine missions were flown, all but one against Tobruk. The B-17s of the 9th Squadron participated in two attacks, one by night, and the B-24s, sometimes in company with the RAF’s Liberator squadron, also operated both by day and by night. All missions were, by later standards, on an extremely small scale, no more than ten American bombers setting out on any single occasion; moreover, available records do not give any detailed estimate of the damage inflicted. Generally speaking, the opposition, either by AA or intercepting fighters, was not very effective. One B-24 failed to return from a mission on the night of 29/30 June, during which an enemy night fighter appeared, but no connection was established between these events and the crewmen were simply put down as missing. The only attack not directed against Tobruk was carried out after dark against an enemy convoy and succeeded in firing a tanker.